Prayer – The Essence of Living
In speaking of prayer I often distinguish between a “life of prayer” and a “prayer life.” It seems much of our life today is compartmentalised depending on what we are doing, where we are, who we are with. So we can speak of our family life, our work life, our personal life. This fragmented attitude leads to a prayer life – just one more compartment – instead of a life of prayer. St. Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing”(1 Thess. 5:17) is, I believe, an exhortation to live a life of prayer.
I recently finished reading "Man’s Quest for God" by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great theologians of the twentieth century. His teaching on prayer transcends the divide between our respective traditions, Judaism and Christianity, and makes prayer the essence of living. Here are some excerpts:
Of all the things we do prayer is the least expedient, the least worldly, the least practical. This is why prayer is an act of self-purification. This is why prayer is an ontological necessity.
To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.
In prayer we shift the centre of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender.
Prayer is no panacea, no substitute for action. It is, rather, like a beam thrown from a flashlight before us into the darkness. It is in this light that we who grope, stumble, and climb, discover where we stand, what surrounds us,and what course we should choose. Prayer makes visible the right and reveals what is hampering and false…. Sometimes prayer is more than a light before us; it is a light within us.
To avoid prayer constantly is to force a gap between man and God which can widen into an abyss.
The purpose of prayer is not the same as the purpose of speech. The purpose of speech is to inform; the purpose of prayer is to partake.
The privilege of praying is man’s greatest distinction.
To live without prayer is to live without God, to live without a soul.
He who has never prayed is not fully human.
The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God.
Apart from food, shelter and clothing the next basic thing every Christian needs is prayer. It is more important that the first three basic needs. The Bible makes us understand that Jesus started and ended his ministry with prayer, and even taught us how to pray before he ascended to heaven. Prayer is foundational to our individual Christian life, and also to the life and ministry of our church. Like a foundation that secures a building, prayer gives you something trustworthy on which to rest.
Prayer gives us intimacy with God whereby we get to know and comprehend his love that surpasses knowledge. (Ephesians 3:17-19). Jeremiah says: “Pray that the Lord your God will tell us where we should go and what we should do.” (Jeremiah 42:3). The truth of the matter is that we don’t know our right from our left; we don’t know what to do. “The way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps.” (Jeremiah 10:23).
Therefore, it is necessary to ask God for direction because: “A man’s steps are of the LORD.” (Proverbs 20:24).
Jesus never prayed a laundry list prayer, like most of us do. He never prayed Father give me this and that. On the contrary, he says: “Your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:8).
Our daily bread is Jesus himself, the bread of life, and not just food that perishes. (John 6:27). When we ask, the primary thing we are to ask for is God himself. When we seek, the only thing we seek is the face and kingdom of God. When we knock, it is in order to enter into the glorious presence of God for: “in his presence is fullness of joy.” (Psalm 16:11). Like praise which God inhabits (Psalm 22:3), prayer attracts God. It brings God so much closer to us: “The Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him.” (Deuteronomy 4:7). “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” (Psalm 145:18).
When we pray, we are saying like Jesus: “Not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42). When we pray, we are inviting God into our situations and circumstances as poor and needy people because it is God who: “performs all things for (us).” (Psalm 57:2).
Reading the Bible is how we hear from God, and prayer is how we speak to Him in return. This process of talking to God, listening for His voice, and reading His Word is how we spend quality time with our heavenly Father.
Prayer is not just about asking for God’s blessings – though we are welcome to do so – but it is about communication with the living God. Without communication, relationships fall apart. So, too, our relationship with God suffers when we do not communicate with Him.
So, when you pray, be a suppliant, be a seeker, and be serious. True prayer demands all three.
The only way to pray is to pray; and the way to pray well is to pray much. If one has no time for this, then one must at least pray regularly. But the less one prays the worse it goes.
– Abbot Chapman of Downside quoted by Michael Casey in Sacred Reading, The Art of Lectio Divina, p. 22
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Michael Casey in Sacred Reading, The Art of Lectio Divina, p. 22