“Pray as you can, not as you cannot.” -John Chapman, OSB
Good advice if there ever was any. For those of us with evangelical or charismatic backgrounds, it is tempting to think that prayer is successful when it causes the one praying to achieve a certain emotional state. There is, in fact, an important emotional dimension to prayer that most Episcopalians seem largely unaware of. But prayer is not emotional manipulation. Some days, there seems to be no emotion at all, or the emotion is sadness, anger, or fear, or something that just can’t be categorized, but which sucks. Other forms of prayer emphasize the direction of one’s attention while praying. But there are days when you couldn’t concentrate if your life depended on it. Or if you think of prayer in the good old petitionary sense, there are days when you (or at least I) just can’t bring yourself to pray for things you really need or want. All of these are times to heed Br. John’s advice: pray as you can, not as you cannot.
We are not actually the primary agents in prayer. Prayer is God’s gift to us. And if I read the Bible aright (especially Romans 8), it consists primarily in God letting us in on the eternal communication of the three Persons of the Trinity: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:26-28). This communication manifests itself in many different ways. It is different for different people, and for the same people at different times.
Now there are many different specific things said about prayer in both Testaments, and I take them to be promises of things God wants to give us. This includes the boldness to ask for the things on our heart (e.g., John 16:23-24), the gift of reposing before God in silence (Psalm 46:10 or 62:1), the gift of prophecy, tongues, and ecstatic utterances (1 Cor. 14), the gift of praise, and even the gift of lamentation. Eventually, all speech and all thought will be prayer. There will be no distinction between sacred and secular discourse, just as “On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, “Holy to the Lord.” And the cooking pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 14:20-21a). But while all of this is promised to every believer, it does not all come at once. So if, on a given day, the sort of prayer you want to say seems inaccessible to you, don’t worry about it, and don’t beat yourself up over it. That is not the sort of gift God has for you that day. Try something else. Inasmuch as there is any skill to be learned in prayer, it is learning how and when to knock off trying to receive a gift that God isn’t giving you, and when God is trying to give you something. I’ve never been to a spiritual director, but I imagine that sort of discernment is a lot of what they do.
I think the important thing to keep in mind for those of us doing this more or less on our own is that you can’t fail at prayer. There is simply no standard to fall short of. Furthermore, you can’t fail at something if God is the primary agent. Pray as you can, not as you cannot. If you cannot pray in a certain way, God is not yet giving you the gift of praying in that way. What gift is God giving you instead?
This is the first installment of what I am currently envisioning as a three-part series (plans subject to change without notice). If the Lord allows, the next installment will apply what I have said here to corporate prayer and worship. The third post will reveal my ulterior motive for writing about this.