Prayer is one of the deepest expressions of our love for and soul-connection to the Divine. It is where we have some of our most profound moments of meaning and acceptance from Within. Prayer has produced miracles, changed lives, saved souls, and breathed life into what I will call lost causes. It deepens our faith and brings peace to the restless heart.
There are times when we may lose faith in prayers1.4 because they don’t produce what we consider, from our perspective, to be “results”. The concept of prayer as a vehicle to receive what we ask for doesn’t always work out if our prayers don’t align with God’s Will, and the discernment of God’s Will for one’s life is not always clear and can be a challenge. The concept of prayer as a resting place for a few moments in the Presence of One we hold dear to our hearts… this prayer never fails. This prayer goes a long way.
My grandmother was a religious woman. If she missed a day of her weekly church gatherings, I don’t know when it was. We always knew where she was on Sundays. Her life centered completely around her faith: she was faithful to the bone. I rarely heard her pray though. I saw her bow her head in church and quietly repeat unison prayers, and a blessing was always said before the meals we took together but not by her. She would graciously appoint one of us to say it.
What I frequently heard her do though, was sing hymns quietly to herself. She could be doing anything from her housework to driving her car, and she would be quietly humming and singing her hymns. I’ve grown old with the memory of her humming these beautiful melodies. I like to think that her singing was a form of prayer and one with which she appeared to be most comfortable, most “at home”. In this context, my grandmother has come the closest to anyone I’ve known in my life who mastered the art of “praying without ceasing.” She had a prayerful heart even when she wasn’t engaged in the act of what was certainly considered in her era to be “formal prayer.”
I don’t think my grandmother thought for a minute that she was praying, but she was clearly in a prayerful state when she was singing: she always looked at peace with herself. It was personal, meaning that I never had the impression she was singing for my benefit or anyone else’s. She could turn a simple act of cooking dinner or washing dishes into time with God.
Writing from this perspective of a prayerful heart, it is easy to imagine how we might actually cultivate a continual state of prayer, how we might pray without ceasing. In the following excerpt from Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, the author writes that many times people have “…moments of genuine prayer precisely at times when they are not saying prayer…” suggesting that an attitude of prayerfulness is every bit as meaningful as the time we spend in formal prayer.
From Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer by Brother David Steindl-Rast (39-41)
“May we presume that everyone knows what prayer is? From one point of view the answer is “yes.” Every human being knows prayer from experience. Have we not all experienced moments in which our thirsting heart found itself with surprise drinking at a fountain of meaning? Much of our life may be a wandering in desert lands, but we do find springs of water. If what is called “God” means in the language of experience the ultimate Source of Meaning, then those moments that quench the thirst of the heart are moments of prayer. They are moments when we communicate with God, and that is, after all, the essence of prayer.
But do we recognize these meaningful moments as prayer? Here, the answer is often “no.” And under this aspect we cannot presume that everyone knows what prayer is. It happens that people who are in the habit of saying prayers at certain set times have their moments of genuine prayer precisely at times when they are not saying prayers. In fact, they may not even recognize their most prayerful moments as prayer. Others who never say formal prayers are nourished by moments of deep prayerfulness. Yet, they would be surprised to learn that they are praying at all.
Suppose, for example, you are reciting Psalms. If all goes well, this may be a truly prayerful experience. But all doesn’t always go well. While reciting Psalms, you might experience nothing but a struggle against distractions. Half an hour later you are watering your African violets. Now, suddenly the prayerfulness that never came during the prayers overwhelms you. You come alive from within. Your heart expands and embraces those velvet leaves, those blossoms looking up to you. The watering and drinking become a give-and-take so intimate that you cannot separate your pouring of the water from the roots’ receiving, the flower’s giving of joy from your drinking it in. And in a rush of gratefulness your heart celebrates this belonging together. As long as this lasts, everything has meaning, everything makes sense. You are communicating with your full self, with all there is, with God. Which was the real prayer, the Psalms or the watering of your African violets?
Sooner or later we discover that prayers are not always prayer. That is a pity. But the other half of that insight is that prayer often happens without any prayers. And that should cheer us up. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to distinguish between prayer and prayers. At least if we want to do what Scripture tells us to do and “pray continually” (Lk 18:1) we must distinguish praying from saying prayers. Otherwise, to pray continually would mean saying prayers uninterruptedly day and night. We need hardly attempt this to realize that it would not get us very far. If, on the other hand, prayer is simply communication with God, it can go on continually. In peak moments of awareness this communication will be more intense, of course. At other times it will be low key. But there is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to communicate with God in and through everything we do or suffer and so “pray without ceasing” (1Thess 5:17).