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Many Ways to Pray: Prayer Shouldn’t Be Another To-Do List Obligation

By Don Shockley

(UMCom) -- In his recent book, the novelist Pat Conroy describes an imaginary encounter with a younger, fictional version of himself. As the two part company, the younger one asks the author, "Why do you write these books?" Conroy answers as he is walking away, "It’s the form that praying takes in me." How is writing novels a way to pray? Well, why not? Certainly, a function of prayer is to bring us face-to-face with ourselves. Of course, it is more than just that. At heart, prayer is a conversation with God. But honest conversation with God is a way to bring to the surface the deepest longings of our hearts. Isn’t that what a good novel tries to do? If we welcome imagination into our prayers, our spiritual experiences will grow richer, deeper and more personal.

There are many ways to pray. Christians consider praying to be something we are obligated to do. As such, it is sometimes described as part of a spiritual discipline. To be sure, there is value in thinking of prayer as a requirement for spiritual growth. Thinking of it that way helps us remember to ask for God’s help and blessing each day of our lives. But the danger is that we come to think of prayer as one more thing we have to get done, an additional item for our already crowded "to-do list." If we are not careful, prayer may begin to feel like a chore. So we need reminding that there are many ways to pray, some familiar and some not so familiar. We just might try something new.

A unique thing about biblical faith is the central affirmation that God speaks. God spoke, and all of creation was born. Think of all the characters in the Bible, from Moses to Mary to Paul and beyond, who hear the voice of God and are never quite the same again. If prayer is a means of communication with God, it follows that much of our praying ought to involve listening for what God has to say. Indeed, the entire order of Benedictine monks is built on the notion of prayer as listening. The very first word in the Rule of St. Benedict is "listen!"

Brother David Steindl-Rast, himself a Benedictine monk, has written these remarkable words: "By listening deeply to the message of any given moment I shall be able to tap the very Source of Meaning and to realize the unfolding meaning of my life." If we think of listening as a special form of prayer, it can transform our approach to this essential aspect of the spiritual life. Listening prayer is an attitude of the heart that we can take with us into the world of everyday experience. It is an attitude of openness, of readiness to receive. On city streets, in coffee shops, in waiting rooms of dentists and doctors, in airline terminals and any other commonplace environment we may, by listening deeply, hear the voice of God - not above the din but within it. It is praying by paying attention to the world around us.

To go back to the novelist for a moment, Conroy is not the only one who has discovered a form of prayer in the act of writing. Some of us bare our souls before God by writing in personal journals. Others combine these two untraditional ways to pray by writing about what they have seen and heard in a typical day. They begin by writing in an almost stream of consciousness fashion, just letting the words tumble out as they come. We try to remember and describe an overheard conversation or a random encounter with another person, but before we know it, our own words begin to surprise us. Imagination intervenes and we experience a rush of gratitude or wonder or insight that we can understand as God’s word to us in that moment. Such encounters can bring relief when we are taking ourselves too seriously, and restore our sense of perspective. We discover anew that there are many ways to pray.

Traditional forms of prayer, whether corporate or personal, are a treasure we cannot do without. But there are many ways to pray. It has been said that the image of God in us, which no other living things possess, is our capacity for imagination. This unique gift can enliven our conversations with God.

Shockley, a retired clergy member of the North Alabama Annual Conference lives in Brentwood, Tenn., and is the author of Private Prayers in Public Places: The Notebook of An Urban Pilgrim.

This feature story was developed by, the official online ministry of The United Methodist Church.

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