A few weeks ago someone shared a post from “The Value of Sparrows, Writings of a Christian Mystic.” I was impressed by what I read and have been following the blog to see if it is one I want to add to my list of daily reads. Today I am grateful to Julia Marks, the author of “The Value of Sparrows”, for again getting my juices flowing.
Among others, Marks cites the Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast. I devour anything and everything Brother David writes so I was all-in and not disappointed: “Sooner or later, we discover that prayers are not always prayer,” Steindl-Rast writes. “That is a pity. But the other half of that insight is that prayer often happens without any prayers.” Isn’t that the truth! Sometimes praying very good “prayers” – even the Psalms – can be dry as toast. At other times we are overwhelmed with extemporaneous gratitude, inexplicable wonder, or cries of desperation that rattle the heavens.
So, do we recite “prayers” or do we “pray”? Making such a distinction is only for the purpose of emphasizing, as with most things in life, its a matter of BOTH/AND. Whether reciting prayers or spontaneously praying, we begin to catch on that it eventually becomes less a matter of what we do and more a matter of attentiveness to what God is “praying” in us. Perhaps such an awareness of God’s initiative is the only way we can really understand or begin to approach Scripture’s admonition to “pray continually” (Luke 18:1) or “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
Especially during summer in Minnesota when folks flock “up North” to their cabins we have good reason to ask, “Why do we need to go to church? I pray better outside in nature! That’s where I find God.” I don’t deny God’s grandeur nor the spontaneous gratitude and wonder this calls forth. My purpose here is to ask whether we cheat ourselves if we slip back into EITHER/OR thinking on this topic. My experience teaches that we are at our best when we practice BOTH time in God’s creation AND time in formal prayer.
My expereince resonates with Julia Marks: Time set apart for “prayers” – or, more broadly, prayer practice – does matter, and it nourishes the times of spontaneous prayer, silent communion, or mindfulness-in-the-moment. “As the expression of our prayerfulness,” says Brother David, “prayers make us more prayerful. And that greater prayerfulness needs to express itself again in prayers. We might not have much to begin with, but the spiral expands according to its own inner dynamics, as long as we stay with it.”
My prayer – and “practice” is an apt word to describe what I attempt – is generally no more glamorous than faithfully seating my butt down on the stool in my prayer space and setting the timer on my iPhone for twenty minutes. I can’t explain it, nor will I try. It just works! As expressed so well by Julia Marks and Brother David: “Staying with it” is the key. In other words, pray daily, intentionally, in some form. Get a routine, any routine – one that suits you, not someone else. Then be faithful to it. Faithfulness is crucial here, not performance.
This reminds me of what my brother Jerry so often said of his 12-Step program: “It works if you work it, it doesn’t if you don’t.”
If you care to read Julia Mark’s entire post in The Value of Sparrows” on this topic, click here. You may also wish to follow-up with Brother David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness.