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?

Renovaré Book Club: Next Book Begins Soon

The next book in the Renovaré Book Club, Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, runs February 3-March 21. Join others online or in-person, or take a guided journey through the book on your own.

Learn More >