The Life of Prayer

To pray without ceasing is to cultivate feeling by the power of the Holy Ghost – the feeling of holy love at all times, in all places, and under every circumstance.

1 Sam 1:9-17 So after they had finished eating and drinking in Shiloh, Hannah stood up. Now Eli the priest was sitting on a chair by the doorpost of the temple of the LORD. 

In her bitter distress, Hannah prayed to the LORD and wept with many tears. And she made a vow, pleading, “O LORD of Hosts, if only You will look upon the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, not forgetting Your maidservant but giving her a son, then I will dedicate him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall ever come over his head.” 

As Hannah kept on praying before the LORD, Eli watched her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and though her lips were moving, her voice could not be heard. 

Today I would like to talk about something about which I am no expert. Today I would like to talk about Prayer. 

Why should you listen to me talk about something in which I’m no expert? Because when it comes to prayer, there are no experts. Not really. If you were to pour over the volumes and volumes written about Christian prayer, you’d find just as much as you’d find in all the books written by experts of Buddhist meditation and Hindu yoga – if not more. There’s a lot of books on Christian prayer because it’s a universal experience that anyone can have with faith. It’s not like those other books, that are written by people claiming to be experts. 

Prayer is not like those other practices. For all the books written about Christian prayer, there’s really nothing to learn that God didn’t already give you the innate ability to do on your own. It doesn’t require skill. It doesn’t require elaborate initiations to learn or to teach. It does not cost money to learn, in fact, it’s not really teachable.  

There are the great books of Common Prayer in the Protestant Churches. There’s the Liturgy of the Hours. There are the great litanies of prayers in the ancient churches of the east and west. But you don’t need to be able to read these prayers in order to pray, do you? 

There’s not only books filled with prayers, but books about how to pray. There’s the popular works of Meister Eckhart, the old German mystic; the Imitation of Christ, by the Dutch hermit Thomas a Kempis; there’s the writings of St. Juan de La Cruz and St. Teresa de Avila. And then there’s the volumes of the Philokalia, filled with the writings of many of the eastern saints, all about the life of prayer. 

What is the life of prayer? It’s a life lived in communion with Christ. In fact, it’s life in the Kingdom of God. So it’s very important we understand prayer. But as I’ve said, it’s not really teachable. It’s just simple.  

The Disciples asked the Lord how to pray. His answer was simple.  He said, “Pray like this: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Amen.”  

This prayer touches all the bases. It’s the prayer to end all prayers! We acknowledge and invoke our Father in heaven; we hallow his name. We pray that his Kingdom be present, that His will be done on earth as it is mightily in heaven. We ask for our earthly needs; we acknowledge our sinfulness, asking for forgiveness, and pledging to forgive those who sin against us, as Christ commanded us. And because Christ taught us not to resist evil, instead, we pray to be protected from temptation and trial, and delivered from evil by God Himself. 

It’s the perfect prayer, the prayer to end all prayers, from our King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Now did Jesus mean, this is the only prayer we are ever to pray? When we pray, we should repeat these words over and over, every single time? Of course not.  

In fact, the Bible shows us that the life of prayer is often silent. You don’t always speak the words of your prayer out loud. Jesus even condemns certain religious people who make overly long, wordy prayers in public out of pretense, to show off their fake holiness. Don’t be like them! Instead, go into your closet and pray in secret. 

There was once a woman in the Bible named Hannah. She went to the Temple and prayed for a son, and vowed that he would be a Nazirite. Eli the priest was nearby watching her – her lips weren’t moving, so Eli thought she was drunk. But the Bible said, she was praying in her heart. God heard her prayer and gave her a son, and he grew up to be the Prophet Samuel. 

There is more to the life of prayer than meets the eye – and the ears. When we gather to pray, words are necessary – for us. It helps us to organize our thoughts as we put our petitions before the Lord. It helps our unity. 

But prayer isn’t words. Prayer is a feeling in your heart. And it’s not always clear how to put that prayer feeling into words. St. Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” 

There is a very unique tradition out of the Christian East that is called noetic prayer. The saints of that tradition swear by it. They teach that if you pray the words, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” over and over again out loud, eventually, you can train your mind to repeat it without your mouth.  Like a broken record, over and over again, nonstop. And they say if you pray like this, with your heart full of feeling, eventually, the prayer will move from running always in the background of your mind, even deeper into the depths of your heart. It’s called the prayer of the heart, or self-activating prayer. 

Franny in the J.D. Salinger book “Franny and Zooey” is trying to train herself to pray this way. She heard about this technique from a classic Russian book called the Way of a Pilgrim, which is a true story. In that book, the pilgrim is trying to learn how to obey the teaching of 1 Thess. 5:17 – “pray without ceasing” — and all of the spiritual teachers he meets in Christian Russia tell him about this “prayer of the heart”, or noetic prayer. They call this type of prayer “noetic” from the word “nous”, which means the eye of the soul – they teach that the eye of the soul is the heart.  

I confess I’ve tried this over the years. I think I lack the focus. It’s not hard to do while driving, but a bit harder to do while putting together my daughter’s elaborate play kitchen with some assembly required, or while learning a complicated new piece of music.  

But I’ll tell you what does work. Feeling grateful to God that I have a daughter to build an elaborate play kitchen for; that all of the frustration, as I realize I’m halfway through and I accidentally bolted a bunch of foundational beams upside down and inside out, is because it’s a gift I’m going to give to my little gift from God; or the sublime feelings I have while I’m playing my guitar, enjoying this gift of beautiful music that God has given the world. He didn’t have to add music to mix, folks – but he did, and it sure makes us feel good. 

I’m talking about feelings. More than that – feeling itself. As they say, “Once more, but with feeling!” That’s the kind of feeling I’m talking about – what in music we call “soul”. Think about that next time you pray or sing, “Bless the Lord O my soul” — praying with feeling, praying with soul — that’s what noetic prayer is all about – that’s what prayer truly is. Feeling. 

In Jacob Needleman’s book Lost Christianity, a minister named Anthony gives the author some shocking prayer advice: “Destroy emotion. Cultivate feeling.” What he means is, emotion is a reaction while feeling is an action. Don’t let your prayer life get disrupted and caught up in the ups and downs of your own emotions – instead, live your life of prayer with feeling. God didn’t call you to cling to him in panic while the storms of your mind are tossing you about like a ragdoll – he calls you to imitate Christ and calm the storm with a word of faith. Jesus always says, “Take heart” — yes, it’s all in your heart, the eye of the soul, your deepest inner place. Don’t let the outside affect the inside – let the inside work its way outward from your heart. 

But you’ll ask me – what is it exactly that you’re saying works its way outside from my heart? What is the feeling? Love. The language of the heart is love. The message of the gospel is love. The meaning of the cross is love. God is love. When his Holy Spirit dwells in your heart, Love is making a nice little nest in your heart. Let love lay some eggs and hatch some chicks in your heart. That’s the feeling that we’re talking about. That’s what the life of prayer is all about. 

So whether you are sitting or standing, speaking or silent, active or at rest, it is perfectly possible to pray without ceasing. And this is your calling in Christ Jesus, the life of prayer. So the next time you are moved to pray out loud – and that is a very good and blessed thing – don’t forget, once your mouth is closed and your lips at rest, to remember the words — “Once more, but with feeling.” To pray without ceasing is to cultivate feeling by the power of the Holy Ghost – the feeling of holy love at all times, in all places, and under every circumstance. Amen. 

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