PRAYER: Prayers And Prayerfulness—Genuine Prayer by Brother David Steindl-Rast

An Approach to Life in Fullness

Prayers And Prayerfulness (Part Three) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer

Once we realize how the interplay between prayerfulness and prayers builds the temple of our prayer life, we should be able to ask the right questions to see where we stand in this process and how we need to proceed.  Our prayers have a twofold relationship to our prayerfulness, as we have seen.  Prayers both express and reinforce our prayerfulness.  Hence we need to ask two basic questions: Are my prayers a genuine expression of my prayerfulness?  Do they make me more prayerful?

Since these two questions go to the heart of the matter, we can use them to check both prayers in community and prayers by ourselves.  The context will be so different, however, that we shall here test these two areas one by one.  Let us begin by looking into what are often called private prayers.

“Private prayers” is a misleading phrase.  First of all, true prayers are never private.  If prayers are private, they are not truly prayer.  Whatever is private excludes someone.  A private club has an exclusive membership; if a road is private, all but the owners are deprived of its use.  But genuine prayer comes from the heart, from that realm of my being where I am one with all.  It is never a private affair.  Genuine prayer is all-inclusive.  A great teacher of prayer in the Jewish tradition expressed this well: “When I prepare myself to say my prayers, I unite myself with all who are closer to God than I am, so that, through them, I may reach God.  And I also unite myself with all who may be farther away from God than I am, so that, through me, they may reach God.”  Christian tradition calls this the communion of saints.  Whenever we pray, we pray in community.  This is why some prefer to speak of “personal” rather than “private” prayers.  But that won’t get us far.  What is the alternative to personal prayer?  Impersonal prayer?  Let us hope that there is no such thing.  Still, we do need to distinguish between praying together with others and praying by ourselves.  I will call these two areas prayers together and prayers alone.

It helps to get rid of the term “private” when we speak of prayers.  But retaining the term “prayers,” we are still running the risk of misunderstanding.  Let us make it clear that we do not necessarily mean set prayers out of a prayer book.  Once more, we must distinguish prayer from prayers.  Prayer, as we have seen, should go on without interruption.  Through prayerfulness, every activity can and should become prayer.  What we call prayers, on the other hand, is one activity among others – time out, as it were, for nothing but prayer.  What we put into that time slot may be set prayers, but it may equally well be prayers in a wider sense.  Our time set aside for prayers will be well spent if whatever we do in it gives expression to our prayerfulness and so makes us more prayerful.

There is only one basic rule for prayers alone: Make sure you are left alone.  Once this is assured, it will be quite easy to find your own expression of whatever it is that fills your heart at that time.  But think.  Especially in religious communities, there are sometimes those whose religious observance consists largely in observing others.  When and where and how you say prayers, for how long and in what posture – every detail is apt to come under scrutiny.  It may be a great blessing to be able to discuss all these points with a teacher of prayer who will guide us to find what is most helpful for us personally.  But beyond that, we have a right and a duty to insist: Concerning my prayers alone, leave me alone.

Yes, we have a duty in this respect.  The most frequent interference does not come from the outside, but from within ourselves; it is not restricted to those who live in communities, but all of us have to struggle against it.  There is within each one of us, I suspect, that little voice that will not leave us alone.  It keeps urging us to conformity with some arbitrary model of prayer, or to nonconformity.  In either case we get preoccupied with a model that we imitate or reject, instead of facing the challenge to be creative in our prayers alone.  You are unique.  If your prayer is genuine, it will be the grateful expression of your uniqueness.

This will be so, even if you don’t make up your own prayers, but select from a book what suits you; the process of selecting will be creative and your choice will be unique.  Leave me alone means: Leave me free to choose.  Leave me free, if I do choose, not to use words at all, but silence, or dance, or music, or anything that expresses and nourishes my prayerfulness.  It is as with food.  There are thousands of different diets.  What matters is that you find your own, the one that suits you and keeps you healthy.

This comparison introduces another aspect of prayers: discipline.  Some people stay healthy on a vegetarian diet, others on meat; some eat only once a day, others eat several times.  One discipline may be as healthy as another, but without discipline in food and drink no one can stay healthy for long.  The same is true for discipline in prayer.

Discipline is one thing; however, regimentation is another.  Discipline is the attitude of the disciple, the pupil who looks into the teacher’s eye and is mirrored in the teacher’s pupil.  A drill sergeant couldn’t care less about eye contact with the men in his regiment.  Conformity is all that matters.  But eye contact with the teacher encourages creative discipline and disciplined creativity in the pupils.

Regimentation is rigid and brittle.  Discipline is as strong as it is flexible.  Regimentation is lifeless, discipline alive and life-giving.  When we pray alone, the great challenge is this: to free ourselves from regimentation (by others or by ourselves) and to look with the eyes of our heart at who we are in God’s eyes, so that discipline may make us creative.  There is no limit to creativity when we pray by ourselves.

What then or prayers together?  When we pray with others, the one basic rule is: Do it together!  That is a different thing from praying side-by-side.  Sardines in a box are neatly side-by-side.  But are they really together?  The school of fish I’m watching from the pier moves spontaneously in different directions, but they are truly together as they share in one living space and one life.  The ones in the box are dead.  They know neither spontaneity nor sharing.  When we get ready for prayers together, we might sometimes ask ourselves: Which of the two kinds of sardines do we resemble?  (Remember, the side-by-side ones had to sacrifice their heads to fit so neatly into the box.)

Some people feel threatened when they hear talk about spontaneity in praying together.  They think spontaneity is opposed to structure and so they are afraid to lose the support which structure gives them.  But spontaneity goes with structure.  Without structure there can be no spontaneity.  Suppose you came to a party and the hostess told you, “We have prepared nothing, so as to allow for maximum spontaneity.”  It takes a great deal of preparation to make spontaneity possible.  Of course, when the prepared structures get oppressive, they leave no breathing space of spontaneity.  For prayers together we need enough structure to support spontaneity, but no more.  The trouble is that in a group with great diversity some may feel stifled by structures which others find barely sufficient for support.  This will demand great care in preparing and great patience on the part of all.

Similarly with sharing.  We cannot pray together without sharing.  But sharing has many forms and degrees.  Taking part, taking your part, each one taking his or her own part in praying together, that is certainly basic and it surely is a form of sharing.  In fact, our prayers together could often be improved if we let different people each take their share instead of doing everything in chorus together.  (Invariably, singing in community can be improved by letting only a small group sing the verses, and all come in on the chorus.  Yet, how rarely we avail ourselves of these simple means to improve participation.  After all, participation means taking part, not taking the whole.)  Sharing personal intentions and concerns will be possible only when we know the others well and feel comfortable with them.  Here, too, as with spontaneity, people in one and the same group will find themselves on different levels.  We can only presume the lowest common denominator of intimacy and start moving up from there with great tact and patience.

Most of our problems with praying together come from expecting too much.  It would be unfair to expect from a common kitchen food seasoned to your own particular taste.  We should not expect from praying together what we can only find when we pray alone.  But there are advantages to a common kitchen.  By praying with others, we find a support which most of us need and cannot get from praying alone.  Through prayers by ourselves we express a prayerfulness in which we are alone; in order to celebrate the prayerful life we live in common, we have a pray together.

To light a candle by myself is one of my favorite prayers.  I am not talking about reading prayers by candlelight.  The very act of lighting the candle is prayer.  There is the sound of striking the match, the whiff of smoke after blowing it out, the way the flame flares up and then sinks, almost goes out until a drop of melted wax gives it strength to grow to its proper size and to steady itself.  All this and the darkness beyond my small circle of light is prayer.  I enter into it as one enters a room.  My being alone is essential to this prayer.  The presence of even one other person would completely change it.  Something would be lost.

To light a candle in a candlelight procession is an altogether different experience.  Yet, this too can truly be prayer.  At the Easter Vigil, the lighting of hundreds of candles from the one paschal candle can become a powerful lifting up of heart and mind to God for a whole community, and so a genuine prayer together.  There is no way of repeating this prayer by oneself.  This holds true of all prayers together, although it may not always be as obvious.  Can one ever experience by praying alone what is most distinctive about praying together?

But here, too, we need to ask ourselves, and now as a community, those two basic questions: Are our prayers together a genuine expression of the prayerfulness we share?  Do they make us, as a community, more prayerful?  Sometimes it happens that a community lives and works quite prayerfully together; the only part of their life that is not really prayerful are their prayers.  One rushes, one drags; one sings flat, one sharp; one wants the window open, one wants it shut.  They grind on each other, and when they finish their prayers, they need a few hours to recover their prayerfulness.  In a case like that, let us take courage from the fact that we are united at least in wanting to pray together.  But let us bravely tackle the problem how best to do it.  By airing our two basic questions with patience and mutual trust, we may hope to get at the root of our difficulties and shall certainly find forms for our prayers together that will be genuine and rewarding.

After all, what counts are not our prayers but our prayer, not our prayerfulness but the forms by which we express and sustain it.  How easily we slide into thinking of our prayers as the “real” prayer.  What is the “real” prayer, the grace we say at the table or the meal that follows it?  What could be more “real” than eating and drinking?  And if we pray at all times, as we should, our eating and drinking will be real prayer.  Rightly understood, our prayers at table will be an expression of thankfulness and a reminder to eat every bite of this meal thankfully.  Gratefulness will turn the whole meal into prayer, for after we pray our prayers, we will pray our soup, salad, and dessert, and then pray another set prayer at the end as a reminder to continue to pray even after the meal.

As soon as we get the relationship of prayers to prayer confused, we begin to think that truly prayerful people can be recognized by longer and more frequent prayers.  This would be like thinking that the best car is the one that uses the most fuel.  In fact, a good case could be made for the claim that spiritual athletes get more mileage out of few prayers.  It is not prayers that count, but prayerfulness.

To use a less crude imagery, we might think of prayers as the poetry of our prayer life.  A poem celebrates life and in that celebration becomes itself a high point of life.  We look with the eyes of our heart, are overawed by the wonders we see, and celebrate that vision by a gesture that taps the very source of life.  A poem celebrates life and in that celebration becomes itself a high point of life.  We look with the eyes of our heart, are overawed by the wonders we see, and celebrate that vision by a gesture that taps the very source of life.  But it can be said much more simply: Prayer is grateful living.

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