"When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you."
- Matthew 6:5-6For reflection...
It always strikes me as ironic that the passage from Matthew above is read as we begin the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday. We're warned not to be exhibitionists in prayer even as we all gather, sometimes in the company of the local news crew, and depart with big black smudges of ash on our foreheads, declaring to the unsuspecting world, "I was just praying." Have we already received our reward? And what sort of reward or repayment for praying might we expect anyway?
We're better off, says Matthew's Jesus, praying in secret, in our inner room. I wonder what that could mean in a culture where people lived in houses with a single room where everyone ate and slept. Good luck finding a secret, inner room.
There are contemplative teachers who believe that the "inner room" of which Jesus speaks is the inner room of the pray-er's heart. That might be true. I don't know. What I do know is that Jesus is trying to tell us that what we receive when we pray is somehow hidden, mysterious to the pray-er herself.
We reflected on secrecy yesterday, the secret, hidden from our own awareness, of how God uses us in our brokenness to bless others. I wonder if prayer isn't a way that this same hiddenness blesses us.
We need to take a step back and consider, What is prayer anyway? Talking about prayer can immediately conjure a sense of confusion. How am I supposed to pray? The prayers of childhood might seem pointless, the heaping up of empty phrases of Matthew 6:7. Articles, books, classes, and blog posts abound, all claiming to lead us in how to pray. There are methods and types of prayer -- contemplation, meditation, devotional reading, lectio divina, intercession, and praise, to name but a few.
Then there is the guilt. I ought to pray. Or, I ought to pray more, more often, with more attention, more regularly.
Here's the truth: No one knows how you ought to pray. And the only time to pray is now.
I think we make prayer too complicated. Not that there isn't room enough for guidance; there are indeed ways to deepen or expand our experience of prayer, especially if we need motivation or encouragement in dry times. But at its most fundamental level, prayer is nothing more or less than noticing that God is present, here, now.
When I've prayed with my young children and have heard them hurrying into some rote words, I've asked them to pause and notice to whom they are speaking. Do I do that? Do I rattle off some words, whether from my memory, the scriptures, or off the top of my head, without pausing to consider to whom I'm addressing those words?
That is a big question. Who is this God? What do I know about Him or Her? Is this god the God of my childhood? What does this God want or expect of me? I read once about a bishop who was also a college professor, who routinely asked his students who professed belief in God, "Which god is it that you believe in?" It is a fair question for us. If we are going to explore prayer, before we bother with how, we need to wonder about who -- who am I praying to, and who am I, who am praying?
Prayer is the point, the foundation of all that I hope we can explore and experience together this Lent: Prayer as quiet pause in the midst of the bustle of life. Prayer as an awareness of my own heart. Prayer as relationship with Someone. Prayer as the depth of my Self calling out and hearing a deeper Depth answering back and knowing that what I hear is more than the echo of my own voice.
I believe that the gift that is offered to us when we enter into this hidden space where prayer happens -- not so much because of as in spite of us -- is a connection with that Someone who is, in fact, closer to me than I am to myself. In knowing that Someone, I start to know something more about who I am, what I most long for, and where my life is going.
For entering in...
- Find a quiet place to be. Spend a few moments becoming present to yourself. Notice how it feels to be in your body, in this place, at this time.
- Even if you're not sure there's anyone listening, invite God to be present with you.
- It's time to start going deeper. Reflect on these questions:
- Get out your journal or a piece of paper. Yesterday I invited you to reflect on the kind of love you want from God. Today we're going to look more deeply at what you believe -- or don't believe -- about who God is. If you've made it this far, I suspect it's because, even if you're not sure, you're hoping that there is a God who loves you.
- If you believed in a god earlier in your life, as a child or a young adult, what was that god like? What did that god expect or want from you? What did that god offer you?
- Is that still how you see God? How would you describe God as you understand God today?
- Does the God of your understanding work for you? How would you describe a god who would?
- What has been your experience of prayer? How did you pray as a child, if you did? Do you pray now? How and how often? What is the relationship, if any, between your practice of prayer and your day-to-day life? Have you ever felt rewarded in some way as a result of praying?
- Have you tried the suggestion to quiet yourself and become present to the Someone who is always waiting for you? What has that felt like? Can you see that as the beginning of prayer? What do you notice about yourself in these times? What is happening in your heart?
- Are you willing to consider practicing that attention to Presence once or twice (or more often) every day?
- As you look ahead, what do you hope to be able to say about your life of prayer 40 days from now?