Introductory 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

Text First Published December 1992

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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