And there he prayed…

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” (Mark 1:35)

For many, many years I have spent time in prayer in the early morning, before (or as) the sun rises. It’s a good time for me because I am a morning person anyway, the house is quiet, and it is easier to focus my attention on God and God alone before all the cares and occupations of daily life begin to intrude.

The way I pray has evolved over the years. The Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer from the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer has remained the bedrock core of my prayer life since seminary. I like the balance of scripture and prayer. I like following the rhythm of the church year, from Advent to Advent, and being reminded of the communion of saints of which I am a part by baptism as their various feast days pop up.

Years ago, I would follow the Office with a time of “conversational” prayer, simply talking to God as I would a friend or a companion, often following a general outline of Praise, Thanksgiving, Confession, Intercession, and Petition. When that seemed to be getting too repetitive, and too self-centered, I began following the Office with a time of meditation.

For me, that meant journaling. I would sometimes focus on one of the scriptural readings for the day and “re-write” the passage in my own words, as though I were actually present in the action. This is a kind of Ignatian meditation and it served me well for many years. It even formed the core of a little book I wrote entitled John Mark as I worked my way through that earliest Gospel ever written.

At other times, the journal became a kind of “spiritual therapy” in which I would pour out my feelings of sadness or joy, anger or gratitude; sometimes in dialogue with God and other times just getting those feelings out of my head and heart and onto the page. The very act of naming whatever was going on inside was healing, of course, and doing that in the context of prayer seemed especially so in those years.

Later on, I learned that, at least for many of the mystics and saints of various traditions, spiritual maturity is marked by a movement from prayers of many words to prayers of few words…or none. It really isn’t necessary to tell God what God already knows! So, I began exploring the prayer of quiet listening. First, I learned that slowly repeating the words of the ancient, scriptural “Jesus Prayer” could help quiet my busy mind: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

My only problem with that prayer is that it seems repeatedly begging for mercy is not what God really wants of us. God is mercy…and love…and forgiveness. Those things are constantly being poured out upon us by our Creator before we ever ask. All we have to do is receive those those things — fold our pious umbrellas and let ourselves be fairly drenched in the grace of the Holy One!

Then I began using the so-called “Breath Prayer” to which I was introduced many years ago by my friend Ron DelBene. In this method, one opens oneself to an awareness of God’s presence, chooses a familiar name by which one likes to address God, and then follows that by a simple, four or five syllable statement summarizing what one would say to God if you were in that holy presence (which you are!).

So, the Breath Prayer (offered in sync with one’s breathing) could be something like: Lord, give me your peace. Or, Jesus, use me as you will. Or, Spirit, fill me anew. Or, anything else God puts in your mind and heart. My current one is: “Holy God, we are one.” This, being interpreted is: we are one with God, one with each other…if only we would recognize that oneness!

These days, however, I am mostly struggling with the call to move ever deeper into silence, so I follow both Morning and Evening Prayer with 20 minutes of contemplative prayer. The method I am currently using in preparing for contemplative silence is “Centering Prayer” as taught by Thomas Keating. Sit comfortably and breathe slowly “from the diaphragm;” allow a “sacred word” to emerge from your consciousness. It could be almost anything — God, Jesus, Spirit, Creator, Love, Joy, Peace — anything the Spirit gives you. Then, simply sit in silence for 20 minutes or so, returning to the sacred word only when you notice your mind wandering.

The adverb “simply” in the last sentence needs to be in quotes! For, at least for me, sitting in silence even for 20 seconds is not simple, let alone 20 minutes! Yet, it is what we are invited to do. And here, I am comforted by the counsel of a great saint who practiced this method for many years and said, “Contemplative prayer is nothing more, or less, than the battle against distractions.”

And yet “battle” is not quite the word. We should be gentle with ourselves as we find our stray thoughts intruding and have to return, again and again, to the sacred word. Richard Rohr observes that even a “nanosecond” of pure contemplation and awareness of the presence of God is worth it! And I have often thought that, whenever I return to my sacred word — which is often simply “God” — I am living in the Kingdom anew because, at least for that moment, God is supreme and reigns in my heart and mind.

Having said all this about my own journey into the life of prayer, I have come to believe that it really doesn’t matter very much “how” we pray. What matters is “that” we pray. Prayer is not for God, prayer is for us. Again, prayer is not telling God what God already knows. Prayer does not change God. Prayer changes us. And times of prayer are nothing more, or less, than returning our attention to God on a regular basis and opening ourselves to God’s grace.

One more thing: prayer is not an escape from this world, but a discipline strengthening us to engage in this world. I began this reflection by citing Mark 1:35, “In the morning, while it was still dark, (Jesus) got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” That one verse is preceded by five verses describing Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. And, immediately following the line about Jesus’ morning prayers, Peter and his friends find Jesus, informing him that everyone is wondering where the heck he is!

Jesus answers them (I imagine, with a smile!), “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (Mark 1:38) In other words, his prayer was pre-paring him for action! It is no accident that Jesuits like to describe themselves as “contemplatives in action” and that the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr founded something called “The Center for Action and Contemplation” near Albuquerque.

Prayer and action are two sides of the same coin. Christians follow one who was always reaching out to heal, to teach, and to strengthen others. Just read the Gospels! But, before he moved out in mission, Jesus often sought out lonely and deserted places…while it was still dark.

And there he prayed.

So must we.

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