Wednesday, 2 September 2015

True prayer

"When we pray, all our care should be focused on filling our souls with such emotion that when the tongue speaks in prayer, and the ear hears that prayer, and the body prostrates itself, the heart will not be found empty - but will be moved towards God by its emotion.

When such feelings are present, our prayer is prayer. When they are absent, it is not yet prayer."
St. Theophan the recluse: The Path to Prayer


Although the above was written by an Eastern Orthodox priest in the nineteenth century (hence the reference to prostration) his words apply to every one who prays. Because what he is doing is exposing prayer that lacks heart and therefore lacks life. And everybody recognises that type of praying either in others or, God willing, in themselves.

The Gospel reading for last Sunday in the old calendar of the Church in Wales is from Luke 18:9-14. Here Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector. In it the Pharisee, without emotion, reels off a list of the kind of things he has done for God. First he compares himself to others. He is not like them - "extortioners, unjust, adulterers or...tax-collectors". We all come off well when we compare ourselves with the worst. And second, he lists his religious practices which he sees as trophies of his (self)-righteousness: "I fast twice a week (and) give tithes of all that I get." His rather emotionless prayer which recounts his achievements means - as Jesus points out - that he is not really praying at all. In fact Jesus refers to it as praying ..."with himself". 

By contrast we feel the emotion of the tax-collector in the few words he utters as he beats his breast over and over while exclaiming "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" He is praying from the heart and God hears his prayer because it is true and honest. And so he is the one who "went down to his house justified."

Here then is an illustration of what St. Theophan is talking about. True prayer is prayer which touches the deepest part of us - our hearts - and as the Bible tells us, that is the seat of our emotions. So when we truly express who we really are before God, then is it hard not to be emotional in our prayers. Not necessarily with weeping or wailing or stuff like that, but with a real sense of connecting and owning the words we say rather than just saying them because we either think that they are what God wants to hear or what we think we should be saying.

So next time you pray, don't just say the words, but own them. Do they really express who and what you are? Or are they the words that you think God wants to hear. In other words pray as you and not as someone else.

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