Editor's note:

I am helped by George Buttrick’s words on prayer. It isn’t so much that he is giv­ing me new insights into prayer — in one form or anoth­er I have heard it all before. It is that when I read him, I want to pray. Many authors help me under­stand prayer; few help me prac­tice it.

I’m glad for this fea­ture in But­trick for I am in need of con­stant encour­age­ment to keep in the expe­ri­ence of prayer. It is so easy for me to fall back into analy­sis and debate and avoid the prac­tice of the Pres­ence.” Maybe you expe­ri­ence the same dif­fi­cul­ty. Cer­tain­ly we can all be grate­ful for Buttrick’s hints” on prayer, which nudge us onward in the Way. 

—Richard J. Foster
Renovaré Founder

Excerpt from Devotional Classics

1. A Sim­ple Reg­i­men of Pri­vate Prayer

We now attempt to give some clear and detailed guid­ance in pri­vate prayer. There can be no rules, cer­tain­ly no bind­ing rules, but only hints. Yet no one need trav­el an unmarked path. The saints are our teach­ers; and oth­er peo­ple, versed in prayer, who would be aghast to be called saints. Jesus him­self is the Teacher.

Prayer is friend­ship with God. Friend­ship is not for­mal, but it is not form­less: it has its cul­ti­va­tion, its behav­ior, its oblig­a­tions, even its dis­ci­plines; and the casu­al mind kills it. So we offer here, as a guide-map not as a chain, a sim­ple reg­i­men of pri­vate prayer.

2. An Order­ly Quietness

Prayer begins, not in ask­ing, but in a silent self-prepa­ra­tion. We should not rush into the Pres­ence; the church of pri­vate devo­tion should be entered through the vestibule in an order­ly quiet­ness. This comes best as a by-prod­uct of a mind focused on God. We say to our­selves, His light fills the world. It fills this room.” Thus we meditate.

The next step is an act of faith, on which Jesus laid the con­stant stress: All things, what­so­ev­er ye ask in prayer, believ­ing, ye shall receive.” In this ini­tial silence of prayer we say to our­selves that what­ev­er we ask in the nature of Christ” is ours, grant­ed only our earnest­ness in prayer and life. Always prayer is pref­aced by an act of faith. We take coun­sel with our cer­ti­tudes, not with our doubts and fears.

3. The Wide­spread Mercy

In prayer itself there is no fixed order, but both a pri­ma­ry impulse and the expe­ri­ence of pray­ing peo­ple show that the first stage may be thanks­giv­ing.

A lec­tur­er to a group of busi­ness­men dis­played a sheet of white paper on which was one blot. He asked what they saw. All answered, A blot.” The test was unfair: it invit­ed the wrong answer. Nev­er­the­less, there is an ingrat­i­tude in human nature by which we notice the black dis­fig­ure­ment and for­get the wide­spread mercy.

We need delib­er­ate­ly to call to mind the joys of our jour­ney. Per­haps we should try to write down the bless­ings of one day. We might begin: we could nev­er end: there are not pens or paper enough in all the world. The attempt would remind us of our vast trea­sure of content.”

4. Root­ed in Life Beyond Life

There­fore the prayer of thanks­giv­ing should be quite spe­cif­ic: I thank thee for this friend­ship, this threat over­passed, this sig­nal grace.” For all thy mer­cies” is a prop­er phrase for a gen­er­al col­lect, but not a pri­vate grat­i­tude. If we are thank­ful for every­thing,” we may end by being thank­ful for nothing.

The thanks­giv­ing should also probe deep, ask­ing, What are life’s abid­ing mer­cies?” Thus grat­i­tude would be saved from earth­li­ness and cir­cum­stance, and root­ed in Life beyond life. Count your many bless­ings,” says the old hymn, and it will sur­prise you what the Lord hath done.” This prayer should end in glad and solemn resolve: Lord, seal this grat­i­tude upon my face, my words, my gen­er­ous con­cern for my neigh­bors, my every out­ward thought and act.”

5. Set­ting Hooks into the Facts

Prayer may next become con­fes­sion. A rebound of nature hints that this is a wise order: God has been exceed­ing­ly kind, and I have giv­en him self­ish­ness for love.” True con­fes­sion is nei­ther self-exco­ri­a­tion — To be mer­ci­less with any­one, even our­selves, is no virtue” — nor casu­al eva­sion. Over­con­sci­en­tious­ness becomes mor­bid: under­con­sci­en­tious­ness becomes indif­fer­ence and decay.

Con­fes­sion to those we have wronged is some­times, not always, wise: there are cir­cum­stances in which such con­fes­sion would spread and aggra­vate the hurt. But con­fes­sion to God, whom we have more deeply wronged, is always wise: he has under­stand­ing and love.

Our sin is against the Liv­ing Order, and we have nei­ther inward peace nor inward pow­er until we have offered prayers of pen­i­tence. Con­fes­sion, like thanks­giv­ing, should be spe­cif­ic. It should not be ruth­less, but it should not excuse: it should set hooks into the facts. I con­fess this sharp judg­ment, this jeal­ousy, this cow­ardice, this bondage of dark habit, this part in the world’s evil.”

6. New Free­dom in His Grace

Con­tri­tion is not easy work: it is surgery. But, like surgery, it is not an end in itself: the wise prayer of con­fes­sion always leads to an accep­tance of God’s par­don … God does not wish us to remem­ber, except as a reminder of our depen­dence, for he is will­ing to for­get anything.

It might be wise to rise from kneel­ing at this point in the prayer as a token of our accep­tance of God’s par­don, our sure faith in his abso­lu­tion, and our new free­dom in his grace. That stand­ing erect might also sym­bol­ize both our resolve to make wise restora­tion inso­far as we have pow­er to mend our blun­ders, and our sin­cere renun­ci­a­tion of our sins.

Con­fes­sion is incom­plete with­out that resolve. Our will, how­ev­er fee­ble it may be, must descend square­ly on the side of a new life. Oth­er­wise even our pen­i­tence may become a self-deceit and an abuse of God’s good­ness. But true con­fes­sion is a cleans­ing of the soul.

7. Love Sees Faces

Then may fol­low a prayer of inter­ces­sion, with­out which the most earnest prayer might sink into self­ish­ness. The Lord’s Prayer in almost every phrase keeps us mind­ful of our neigh­bors: Our Father” … our dai­ly bread” … our tres­pass­es.”

Pri­vate inter­ces­sion should be spe­cif­ic. We humbly beseech Thee for all sorts and con­di­tions of peo­ple,” is an appro­pri­ate phrase in a col­lect — which, as the very word indi­cates, draws all wor­shipers into one act of devo­tion, and pro­vides a form into which each wor­shiper may pour his secret prayer — but it is out of place in indi­vid­ual petition.

Gen­uine love sees faces, not a mass: the good shep­herd cal­leth his own sheep by name.” Inter­ces­sion is more than spe­cif­ic: it is pon­dered: it requires us to bear on our heart the bur­den of those for whom we pray.

8. Its Heart Entreaty

Whose name should come first? Per­haps the name of our ene­mies. The injunc­tion of Jesus is plain: Pray for them which despite­ful­ly use you.” He told us that wor­ship is vain if we are embit­tered; that we should be wise to leave our gift before the

altar, go to make peace with our neigh­bor, and then wor­ship. Only then can we tru­ly wor­ship. So the first inter­ces­sion is, Bless So-and-so whom I fool­ish­ly regard as an ene­my. Bless So-and-so whom I have wronged. Keep them in Thy favor. Ban­ish my bitterness.”

Inter­ces­sion also names the lead­ers of mankind in state­craft, med­i­cine, learn­ing, art, and reli­gion; the needy of the world; our friends at work or play, and our loved ones. A sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty may prompt us to pre­pare a chart of inter­ces­sion, so that day by day we may enter earnest­ly into the needs of the world, and not for­get nor fail any­one who close­ly depends upon our prayers.

So true inter­ces­sion is spe­cif­ic and pon­dered. It is also dar­ing: it car­ries on its heart-entreaty the cri­sis of the world. Like thanks­giv­ing, it is not com­plete with­out our vow. Sin­cere prayer-in-love is nev­er in vain.

9. Before Eter­nal Eyes

The fourth order in our prayer may be peti­tion. It comes last, not because it is most impor­tant, but because it needs the safe­guard of ear­li­er prayer. We should not fear to lift our earth­ly needs before Eter­nal Eyes, for we are held in Eter­nal Love.

But we should fear the encroach­ment of a self­ish mind. Peti­tion is defend­ed against that threat if first we give thanks, con­fess our sins, and pray for our neigh­bors. Then the peti­tion may have free course.

Some­times, in sor­row, dread, or help­less­ness, it will be a cri­sis cry of crea­ture­hood — a beat­ing on heaven’s door with bruised knuck­les in the dark. Some­times it will be friend­ship-talk with God about the affairs of every­day. Sure­ly both prayers would be approved by Christ: his dis­ci­ples cried in their extrem­i­ty, Lord, save us”; and day by day they spoke with him about their strug­gles, enig­mas, and joys of the journey.

To try to thwart the prayer of peti­tion is to deny human nature. The New Tes­ta­ment has bet­ter wis­dom: Be over­anx­ious for noth­ing; but in every­thing by prayer and sup­pli­ca­tion with thanks­giv­ing let your requests be made known unto God.” Yet peti­tion should grow in grace so as to cov­et earnest­ly the best gifts”; and it should always acknowl­edge that our sight is dim and that our pur­pos­es are mixed in motive. It should always con­clude with, Nev­er­the­less not my will, but thine, be done.”

10. Friend­ship Held in Reverence

The inter­vals of these four prayers should be filled by med­i­ta­tion. After thanks­giv­ing we should con­tem­plate God’s abound­ing good­ness, and await his word con­cern­ing his own gifts. After con­fes­sion we should adore the par­don­ing Love made known in Christ, and lis­ten for his guid­ance. After inter­ces­sion we should pause to try to

see the whole world’s need as Christ saw it from his cross. After peti­tion we should wait again to med­i­tate upon the Will.

Prayer is lis­ten­ing as well as speak­ing, receiv­ing as well as ask­ing; and its deep­est mood is friend­ship held in rev­er­ence. So the dai­ly prayer should end as it begins — in ado­ra­tion. The best con­clu­sion is, In the name of Jesus Christ: Amen.” For in the name or nature of Jesus is our best under­stand­ing of God, and the best cor­rec­tive of our blun­der­ing prayers. The word Amen” is not idle: it means So let it be.” It is our resolve to live faith­ful­ly in the direc­tion of our prayers, and our act of faith in God’s power.

Excerpts tak­en from Devo­tion­al Clas­sics: Select­ed Read­ings for Indi­vid­u­als and Groups (Richard J. Fos­ter & James Bryan Smith, Edi­tors. Harper­Collins, 1993.). Orig­i­nal­ly from The Essen­tials of Mys­ti­cism by Eve­lyn Under­hill, pub­lished 1920.

Pho­to by Marc-Olivi­er Jodoin on Unsplash

Originally published December 1992

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