God calls us all to become like Jesus.

God shaped this uni­verse as a place where the love and life of Jesus Christ might flour­ish — and so where we, peo­ple made in the image of God, made to be Christ­like, might flour­ish, too. Jesus says, I have come that they may have life, and have it abun­dant­ly” (John 10:10). And we expe­ri­ence this abun­dance of life — here and now — as our pas­sions, char­ac­ter, under­stand­ing, and rela­tion­ships are increas­ing­ly aligned with those of Christ. As a bro­ken and fall­en peo­ple, we do not always expe­ri­ence this abun­dance of life. But as we open our­selves more and more to the trans­form­ing grace of God, we expe­ri­ence to a greater degree the renew­al of Christ­like­ness with­in us, con­sis­tent with the call to become like him.

At Ren­o­varé, we are con­vinced that the most per­fect mod­el of a life ful­ly open to grace, a life which is as filled with God’s pres­ence and pow­er as pos­si­ble, is the life of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, we see the ide­al of a Christ­like life ful­filled; from Jesus we can learn those easy rhythms, the prac­tices and dis­ci­plines of the spir­i­tu­al life, which immerse us in the trans­form­ing grace of God in the first place. Jesus swam in the great ocean of grace, and invites us to learn to swim along­side him: Come to me, all you who are weary and bur­dened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me” (Matt 11:29).

For many years, Ren­o­varé has encour­aged peo­ple to engage with the great tra­di­tions of the spir­i­tu­al life as they have been expe­ri­enced in the life of the Church through­out the ages: con­tem­pla­tive, holi­ness, charis­mat­ic, social jus­tice, evan­gel­i­cal, incar­na­tion­al. Each of these tra­di­tions finds its place in the life of the Church pre­cise­ly because it express­es an essen­tial aspect of the char­ac­ter of Jesus.

In this arti­cle, we will look at the Con­tem­pla­tive Tra­di­tion, or the Prayer-Filled Life.

The Prayer-Filled Life of Jesus

For Jesus, to live was to pray. His life was shaped by prayer, steeped in prayer to an extra­or­di­nary degree. It is tremen­dous­ly reveal­ing to read through the Gospels and take note of all the times that Jesus drew aside into soli­tude, or joined with oth­ers in prayer and wor­ship, or turned his eyes and heart to heav­en in silent or open prayer. We quick­ly dis­cov­er that at all the most sig­nif­i­cant moments of his life, Jesus sought to dwell in the pres­ence of God his lov­ing Father.

At the very begin­ning of his pub­lic min­istry Jesus was bap­tized in the Jor­dan riv­er by John the Bap­tist; Luke tells us that it was as he was pray­ing [that] heav­en was opened,” so that he could expe­ri­ence a pow­er­ful and affirm­ing rev­e­la­tion of his Father’s love (Luke 3:21). Before appoint­ing the twelve apos­tles who would become his con­stant com­pan­ions for three years, Jesus went out to a moun­tain­side to pray“ (Luke 6:12). These same apos­tles would soon dis­cov­er that accom­pa­ny­ing Jesus meant embrac­ing a life immersed in God’s pres­ence, and would become thirsty to learn more for them­selves. One day Jesus was pray­ing in a cer­tain place,” Luke tells us, when he fin­ished, one of his dis­ci­ples said to him, Lord, teach us to pray …’” (Luke 11:1). In response to this request, Jesus taught them the Lord’s Prayer — words which have shaped and guid­ed the prayer of mil­lions of Chris­tians now for almost twen­ty centuries.

A cru­cial hinge in the nar­ra­tive of the first three Gospels comes when Jesus asks his dis­ci­ples, Who do you say I am?” (Matt 16:13 – 20, Mark 8:27 – 30, Luke 9:18 – 27). It was this ques­tion that led to Peter’s con­fes­sion of faith in Jesus as the Mes­si­ah, and seems to have trig­gered Jesus’ long and dif­fi­cult road to the cross. And Luke care­ful­ly notes that Jesus pre­pared for this moment by draw­ing near­er to his Father: When Jesus was pray­ing in pri­vate and the dis­ci­ples were with him, he asked them … Who do you say I am?” (see Luke 9:18). On anoth­er occa­sion, Jesus took Peter, John, and James with him and went up onto a moun­tain to pray“ (Luke 9:28), and as he prayed he was trans­formed before them, shin­ing with a glo­ri­ous light that broke through from heav­en as Moses and Eli­jah came to encour­age him, and as his Father reaf­firmed the words heard at his baptism.

Jesus fre­quent­ly retired to silent places to seek God, espe­cial­ly when the press of the crowd seemed to threat­en to drown out that still, small voice to which he was ever atten­tive. At the begin­ning of his min­istry, after a night spent heal­ing crowds of peo­ple in Caper­naum, Jesus keen­ly sought the Divine Cen­ter: Very ear­ly in the morn­ing, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a soli­tary place, where he prayed“ (Mark 1:35). That pat­tern was to repeat itself fre­quent­ly over the com­ing years. He went up a moun­tain­side by him­self to pray“ (Matt 14:23). After leav­ing [the crowd], he went up on a moun­tain­side to pray“ (Mark 6:46). One of those days, Jesus went out to a moun­tain­side to pray, and spent the night pray­ing to God“ (Luke 6:12). Seek­ing soli­tude and prayer was not unusu­al for Jesus, not­ed Luke; it was char­ac­ter­is­tic and fre­quent: Jesus often with­drew to lone­ly places and prayed“ (Luke 5:16). But for Jesus, prayer was also some­thing to be shared in com­mu­ni­ty. “[Jesus] went up to Nazareth, where he had been brought up,” writes Luke, describ­ing the ear­li­est days of Jesus’ min­istry, and on the Sab­bath day he went into the syn­a­gogue, as was his cus­tom“ (Luke 4:16). Many of Jesus’ encoun­ters, heal­ings, and con­ver­sa­tions take place in syn­a­gogues, where he so often joined with oth­ers for wor­ship and prayer. The Gospels also show Jesus pray­ing the tra­di­tion­al bless­ings before and dur­ing meals; we find him bless­ing God before break­ing the few small loaves that would feed the great mul­ti­tude (Matt 14:19), and again dur­ing the Passover meal he shared with his dis­ci­ples in the upper room (Matt 26:26). I’m always fas­ci­nat­ed by Luke’s sto­ry about the two dis­ci­ples who encoun­tered Jesus after his res­ur­rec­tion, but failed to rec­og­nize him dur­ing the long walk to Emmaus. As he turned to prayer over the meal, though, they instant­ly knew him (Luke 24:13 – 35). It is strik­ing that Jesus was most rec­og­niz­able when he was pray­ing — how I wish the same could be said of me!

Jesus also par­tic­i­pat­ed in the wor­ship offered in the tem­ple in Jerusalem. His par­ents encour­aged these pil­grim­ages from the begin­ning, as Luke reminds us: When the time of their purifi­ca­tion accord­ing to the Law of Moses had been com­plet­ed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord“ (Luke 2:22). And on this occa­sion, of course, they find them­selves com­fort­ed and chal­lenged by the prophets Sime­on and Anna. The only sto­ry we have of Jesus’ child­hood con­cerns a fam­i­ly vis­it to the tem­ple (Luke 2:41 – 50). So it is hard­ly sur­pris­ing that we lat­er find Jesus in those holy precincts: cel­e­brat­ing Passover (John 2:13), mark­ing the Feast of Taber­na­cles (John 7:1 – 10), and, of course, trav­el­ing to the great city for the cli­mac­tic week lead­ing to the cross and emp­ty tomb. It was dur­ing those tumul­tuous days that Jesus swept through the tem­ple courts, dri­ving out the mer­chants and mon­ey-chang­ers (“My house will be called a house of prayer!” was the cry on his lips; see Matt 21:13), and it was his pas­sion for the puri­ty of this house of prayer which was turned against him dur­ing his tri­al (see Matt 26:59 – 61, and com­pare John 2:19 – 22).

And, of course, Jesus prayed through the dark­ness of death. One of the most mov­ing moments in Scrip­ture comes when Jesus falls to his knees in the Gar­den of Geth­se­mane and wres­tles with his call­ing to suf­fer and die. Father, if you are will­ing, take this cup from me!” It is hard to imag­ine a prayer more poignant or heart­break­ing, and per­haps impos­si­ble to guess at the suf­fer­ing of both Jesus and the Father at this ter­ri­ble time. Yet it is this very prayer which strength­ens Jesus anew to face the hor­ror that lay ahead: Yet not my will, but yours be done“ (Luke 22:42). And on the cross, three of the sev­en last words” are words of prayer. With almost unbear­able grace and love, Jesus prays for his exe­cu­tion­ers as they ham­mer in the nails: Father, for­give them, for they do not know what they are doing“ (Luke 23:34). The dread­ful sense of sep­a­ra­tion Jesus expe­ri­enced as the weight of the world’s sin bore down on him wrench­es out a despair­ing cry: My God, my God, why have you for­sak­en me?” (Mark 15:34). And final­ly, when all is fin­ished, the last words on Jesus’ lips are once again words of prayer: Father, into your hands I com­mit my spir­it“ (Luke 23:46). As he had lived, so Jesus died: in the pres­ence of God.

Learn­ing The Rhythms of Prayer

Those who expe­ri­ence the life in abun­dance which Jesus both lives and offers have borne wit­ness to the impor­tance of a rich and var­ied life of prayer. We, who long to walk more close­ly with our Father and be drawn more deeply into his heart, can learn so much from the broad wealth of Jesus’ prayer described in the Gospels. Per­haps the most impor­tant and foun­da­tion­al les­son about prayer that we can learn from Jesus is that there is a rhythm of prayer which can be woven into the fab­ric of our lives. For Jesus, prayer was habitual.

Almost all indi­vid­u­als (and com­mu­ni­ties) who devel­op a vibrant and engag­ing life of prayer which per­sists and grows over many years suc­ceed in doing so because they devel­op reg­u­lar habits of prayer. What the par­tic­u­lar nature of those habits are — how often we pray, or where, or when, or how — are almost imma­te­r­i­al. But it is cru­cial that we iden­ti­fy a pat­tern of prayer that fits well with our per­son­al­i­ty and cir­cum­stances, and then com­mit our­selves to do every­thing we can to ingrain it into our lives so deeply that it becomes dif­fi­cult to uproot. Prayer can become as nat­ur­al and habit­u­al in our lives as eat­ing or sleep­ing. But it takes a lit­tle work to devel­op the habit.

In order to shape a habit of prayer, though, we will have to resist the siren-song of our cul­ture as it con­stant­ly calls us to embrace spon­tane­ity. Our soci­ety seeks to pro­claim chaos as a virtue. We are free spir­its who can­not be labeled or con­fined. We live in the moment, going with the flow. Pre­dictabil­i­ty is tedi­um, and con­for­mi­ty is the death of the soul. We thirst for the nov­el, the unex­pect­ed, the sur­pris­ing; the best of all lives is sim­ply one plot twist after anoth­er. Every­thing is new, and noth­ing is made to last — and, after all, who would want it to be? No-one wants to be stuck with last year’s mod­el, so it seems …

If we want to grow into prayer, we will need to resist this, to be coun­ter­cul­tur­al. Like Jesus, we will need to devel­op rhythms of prayer. Jesus had the cus­tom of going to the syn­a­gogue to pray. He was known by those around him for his habit of with­draw­ing into soli­tude to seek the Father. It was not unusu­al for him to rise ear­ly in the morn­ing to slip away into the silence. The begin­ning of a meal was always char­ac­ter­ized by prayer. Even the form of his prayers — or, at least, some of his prayers — was pat­terned, rhyth­mic, habit­u­at­ed. We know he was famil­iar with the prayers of the Psalms, as was typ­i­cal for a Jew of his day. And, like his con­tem­po­raries, he almost cer­tain­ly prayed the She­ma (the prayer of Deuteron­o­my 6:4 – 5) every day. His bless­ing prayers at the last sup­per fol­lowed the pat­tern of a tra­di­tion­al seder, or Passover meal.

We can learn from Jesus, our Teacher and Lord. We, too, can devel­op rhythms of prayer. Many today are learn­ing from the ancient monas­tic com­mu­ni­ties, with their steady pat­tern of chant­ed psalms and prayer punc­tu­at­ing the day: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Ter­ce, Sext, Nones, Ves­pers, and Com­pline. Of course, such a rhythm would hard­ly suit a moth­er rais­ing young chil­dren, a busi­ness exec­u­tive, a teacher, or a fac­to­ry line work­er. But our lives have their own pat­terns and rhythms which can become the frame­work for habit­u­al prayer. Is there time to pray when we rise, or before we retire to bed? What about the oth­er nat­ur­al stop­ping points in the day: meal­times, cof­fee breaks, the qui­et lull after the chil­dren are final­ly all in bed? We can also pay atten­tion to how we pray. The young woman who always sits in the same chair, cof­fee in hand; who always picks up the same famil­iar Bible to read a short pas­sage; who always fol­lows the same pat­tern of praise, prayer, and silence … this young woman has learned the great wis­dom of devel­op­ing a famil­iar litur­gy“ of prayer, even if her prayer is so very dif­fer­ent from the ancient and tra­di­tion­al litur­gies. Like Jesus, she has learned to make prayer natural.

Pray­ing in Community

We can also, like Jesus, learn to val­ue prayer in com­mon. Per­haps the great­est sin­gle resource avail­able to those who want to nur­ture a stronger life of prayer is the local church com­mu­ni­ty. Because, as we not­ed above, our cul­ture places such a high pre­mi­um on nov­el­ty, vari­ety, and enter­tain­ment, many of us under­val­ue the con­tri­bu­tion our church­es make to our rela­tion­ship with God. I have often had the priv­i­lege of speak­ing at spe­cial con­fer­ences and events, where peo­ple often reflect on how they arrived dry and tired, and leave feel­ing refreshed, renewed, and invig­o­rat­ed. That, of course, is one of the great ben­e­fits such a spe­cial event can offer. In the end, of course, the feel­ing tends to wear off, but for a time it pro­vides a much need­ed shot in the arm.

It can be hard­er, though, to notice the incred­i­ble strength we draw from the pre­dictable, some­times unvary­ing, often low-key prayer and wor­ship we expe­ri­ence Sun­day after Sun­day. We gath­er togeth­er with peo­ple whom we have come to know well, whose lives we share week by week. Togeth­er we bring before God the needs of our fam­i­lies, friends, com­mu­ni­ty, and world. We return over and again to the same needs, the same dif­fi­cul­ties. It is here that we real­ly learn the most valu­able lessons in prayer. Per­sis­tence, some­times over many years. Hon­esty. Strug­gle. Sim­plic­i­ty of words. The long obe­di­ence in the same direction.

And these are the peo­ple who con­tin­ue our prayer when we our­selves can pray no more. One of the most beau­ti­ful and help­ful ideas I have drawn from the tra­di­tion­al, litur­gi­cal church­es is that prayer belongs to the church. When­ev­er I pray — whether alone or with oth­ers — I am nev­er offer­ing my prayer alone; I am always join­ing the prayer of the Church. When I am unable to pray, because I am too tired, or unwell, or despair­ing, or dry, or sor­row­ful, the prayer does not cease. The Church con­tin­ues to pray, to wrap me in its life of prayer. And when I am able, I resume my part in the life of prayer, per­haps in turn hold­ing up oth­ers who are falling. In the end, I do not pray. We pray.

Abid­ing In Prayer

In the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Frank Laubach, a remark­able mis­sion­ary work­ing in the Philip­pines, wrote a short pam­phlet describ­ing his Game with Min­utes, an attempt to become aware of God as often as pos­si­ble dur­ing the course of an ordi­nary day. A sim­i­lar idea sur­faces in the anony­mous­ly writ­ten Russ­ian clas­sic of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, The Way of a Pil­grim, which describes one man’s attempt to learn to pray the Ortho­dox Jesus Prayer” with­out ceas­ing. Ear­li­er still, in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, friends of a Carmelite monk named Broth­er Lawrence of the Res­ur­rec­tion had pub­lished let­ters and records of con­ver­sa­tions which described his expe­ri­ence of learn­ing The Prac­tice of the Pres­ence of God.

These three very dif­fer­ent men — Protes­tant, Ortho­dox, and Roman Catholic, from three dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents and quite sep­a­rate his­tor­i­cal eras — spoke with a remark­able degree of sim­i­lar­i­ty about devel­op­ing a con­stant aware­ness of the pres­ence of God. But this is hard­ly sur­pris­ing, since the idea was orig­i­nal to none of them. They were sim­ply seek­ing to expe­ri­ence the very heart of the prayer of Jesus.

Take a look with me at Jesus’ con­ver­sa­tion with his dis­ci­ples in the upper room, record­ed in the sec­ond half of John’s Gospel. As they stand in the loom­ing shad­ow of the cross, Jesus seeks to reas­sure his friends:

Do not let your hearts be trou­bled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going to pre­pare a place for you. And if I pre­pare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. (John 14:1 – 3)

In the church­es in which I min­is­tered for many years, we always read this pas­sage at funer­als. These words are so com­fort­ing to those of us left behind when a loved one is gath­ered into the glo­ri­ous pres­ence of God. But, because I always read and heard them in that con­text, I nev­er saw that there was so much more being said here. Lat­er in the Gospel, Jesus echoes these words in his mag­nif­i­cent prayer for the dis­ci­ples: Father, I want those you have giv­en me to be with me where I am” (John 17:24). Is he pray­ing that his dis­ci­ples might die? Noth­ing in the con­text sug­gests this — quite the oppo­site, in fact. The key to these two pas­sages lies right at the begin­ning of the Gospel. In his open­ing pro­logue, John is very care­ful to ensure that we might know exact­ly where Christ dwells — and so might know also where he longs for us to dwell, too. No one has ever seen God,” John writes, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known“ (John 1:18).

In the very heart of God: this is Jesus’ home, and the home to which he calls us. The con­ver­sa­tion in that upper room is rich with talk of this prayer. I am in the Father and the Father is in me“ (John 14:11). If any­one loves me, he will obey my teach­ing. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him“ (14:23). Remain in me, and I will remain in you“ (15:4). I have giv­en them the glo­ry that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one; I in them, and you in me“ (17:22 – 23).

For Jesus, prayer was always more than a form of words express­ing praise, sor­row, needs, or desires. It was more, even, than an atti­tude of the heart ori­ent­ed towards God. Prayer, at its core, was a recog­ni­tion that God was con­stant­ly present at every moment, and there­fore a con­stant atten­tive­ness and open­ness to that Divine Pres­ence. The prayer of Jesus involved talk­ing to God, and more deeply it meant a turn­ing towards God. But deep­est of all, it meant a dwelling in God.

We need to trust, of course, that God tru­ly is with us, always, even though we are not always aware of his pres­ence. There are many times when we will strug­gle to accept even this. We all expe­ri­ence times of dark­ness and tragedy, when our cir­cum­stances seem to sug­gest that God has aban­doned us. We lose a job, or a home, or a loved one. We find our­selves des­per­ate­ly ill, or depressed. Pain and sor­row close in around us like the walls of a prison cell. Sure­ly we can­not think that God is present at these moments? And yet, if we will receive it, Scrip­ture offers us the assur­ance that it is pre­cise­ly at these moments that God draws clos­er than ever; it is the over­whelm­ing strength of our feel­ings which hides him from us. God was with Joseph in his Egypt­ian prison cell. God was present with the Israelites as they endured years of oppres­sion. God was with David as he held his dying child in his arms. God did not aban­don the peo­ple of Jerusalem as their homes and liveli­hoods were destroyed by the Baby­lo­ni­ans. Even Jesus expe­ri­enced this sense of aban­don­ment by God on the cross — and yet still was able to sur­ren­der his spir­it to his Father. God nev­er lets go.

So what exact­ly does it mean to prac­tice the pres­ence of God“? It may sound ter­ri­bly sim­plis­tic, but prac­tic­ing the pres­ence of God real­ly is as straight­for­ward (and as dif­fi­cult) as this: being aware, moment by moment, that God is present. There is no method or tech­nique to be mas­tered, but there is an atti­tude to be cul­ti­vat­ed. It is pos­si­ble for us to devel­op a con­stant, habit­u­al aware­ness that God is present, and to learn to be atten­tive and respon­sive to that pres­ence. We might begin by cre­at­ing reminders for our­selves. I car­ry prayer beads in my pock­et as a reminder, every time I reach for loose change, that God is near. Oth­ers I know have devel­oped a habit of turn­ing their atten­tion back to God every time the phone rings. Some folks attach a pic­ture or Bible verse to their com­put­er mon­i­tor, or to the rearview mir­ror of the car. Some sim­ple object — a can­dle, a pho­to­graph, a cross — placed in a loca­tion we pass often can be help­ful, catch­ing our eye and remind­ing us to pause, to open our­selves to the pres­ence of God who is near.

Frank Laubach played his game with min­utes,” spend­ing a lit­tle time every day try­ing to esti­mate how many min­utes of the day he had spent aware that God was present. Many Chris­tians prac­tice a sim­i­lar exer­cise, known as exa­m­en.” In its most basic form, this involves tak­ing a few min­utes each evening to reflect on the events of the day, per­haps ask­ing these sim­ple ques­tions: What gave life? What denied life? And where was God?” As we become bet­ter at learn­ing to rec­og­nize God’s pres­ence in the good and ill events of our day to day lives, so we will grad­u­al­ly become more adept at rec­og­niz­ing his pres­ence in the moment itself.

Becom­ing Prayer-Filled

God is not hid­ing. Often, though, we are not aware just how near he is. A young woman once offered me a strik­ing descrip­tion of her expe­ri­ence of prayer which I have found help­ful ever since. God’s pres­ence is like the tick­ing of a clock in a room,” she told me. Most of the time, you don’t hear it. But you only have to stop and lis­ten for a moment, and you’ll hear it.” 

In the years since I heard those words, I have sought to learn to be a bet­ter lis­ten­er. If my expe­ri­ence sug­gests any­thing, it is that we can learn to rec­og­nize God with us. We just need to be still enough, atten­tive enough. This is where the prayer-filled life leads us.

Why not stop and lis­ten now?

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Originally published December 2010