Introductory Note:

Pete Greig’s How to Pray was selected for the 2020 Renovaré Book Club. Pete communicates with warmth and generosity, from the overflow of a life of prayer.

Renovaré Team

Excerpt from How to Pray

On Mount Athos, two thousand meters above the Aegean Sea, big-bearded Orthodox monks are praying, as they have done for 1,800 years. About eleven miles north of Lagos, more than a million Nigerian Christians are gathering for a monthly prayer meeting at the vast campus of The Redeemed Christian Church of God. On the banks of the River Ganges at Varanasi, Hindu pilgrims are plunging into the sacred waters seeking cleansing and hope. Somewhere in Manhattan, a group of addicts on a twelve-step program is seeking through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God.” High in the Himalayas, bells are chiming, and strings of colored prayer flags are dancing against sapphire skies. Deep in the forests of giant Redwood and Douglas fir on California’s Lost Coast, Cistercian nuns are keeping vigil beside the Mattole River, where salmon and steelhead swim.

One person in every four prays the Lord’s Prayer each year on Easter Day alone. One person in every six bows toward Mecca up to five times a day. Hasidic Jews stand at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall dressed in black and rocking to and fro like aging goths at a silent disco. In front of them, between the giant stones of Herod’s Temple, thousands of handwritten prayers are wedged like badly rolled cigarettes between the bricks.

It’s worth pausing at the start of a book like this to acknowledge the unending chorus of human longing: a canticle of sighs and cries and chiming bells, mutterings in maternity wards, celestial oratorios, and scribbled graffiti. In the words of Abraham Heschel, Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living.”

Native Language

Our English word prayer derives from the Latin precarius. We pray because life is precarious. We pray because life is marvelous. We pray because we find ourselves at a loss for many things, but not for the simplest words like please,” thank you,” wow,” and help.” I prayed when I held our babies for the first time. I prayed when work overwhelmed me, and I knew I couldn’t cope. I prayed when my wife was wheeled away down the hospital corridor unconscious. I prayed the night I saw the northern lights.

Canadian psychologist David G. Benner describes prayer as the soul’s native language,” observing that our natural posture is attentive openness to the divine.” We see this posture in many great men and women not necessarily known for religious devotion. Abraham Lincoln admitted, I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom … seemed insufficient for that day.”

Conrad Hilton, founder of the eponymous hotel chain, devotes the last section of his autobiography to the matter of prayer. In the circle of successful living,” he explains, prayer is the hub that holds the wheel together.”

In her semiautobiographical novel One True Thing, Anna Quindlen depicts the agony of being nineteen years old and watching her mother receive chemotherapy drop by drop by God-please-let-it-work drop. Oh yes, I prayed in that cubicle and in the hallway outside and in the cafeteria,” she says. But I prayed to myself, without form, only inchoate feelings, one word: please, please, please, please, please.”

Rock star Dave Grohl admits to praying desperately when his drummer, Taylor Hawkins, overdosed at England’s V Festival. I would talk to God out loud as I was walking,” he recalls of the late-night strolls back to Kensington’s Royal Garden Hotel from the hospital where his friend lay in a coma. I’m not a religious person but I was out of my mind, I was so frightened and heartbroken and confused.”

Early in Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, she writes: Hello, God. How are you? I’m Liz. It’s nice to meet you.… I haven’t ever spoken directly to you before.” And then she starts to cry. Can you please help me? I am in desperate need of help. I don’t know what to do.” As her tears subside, she experiences a peace so rare,” she says, that I didn’t want to exhale, for fear of scaring it off. I was seamlessly still. I don’t know when I’d ever felt such stillness. Then I heard a voice. It was not an Old Testament Hollywood Charlton Heston voice, nor was it a voice telling me I must build a baseball field in my backyard. It was merely my own voice. But this was my voice as I had never heard it before.”

My friend Cathy was a militant atheist at the University of Wichita when, late one night in her lodgings, gazing down at her sleeping baby, she was overwhelmed with a desire to give thanks to someone or something for this gift of all gifts. Without a husband or a boyfriend in her life with whom to share her sense of wonder, Cathy whispered a few self-conscious words of gratitude out into the silence. As she did so, the atmosphere seemed to change. Wave upon wave of love, unlike anything she had ever experienced, came flooding into the room. Kneeling there that night beside her sleeping baby, Cathy relinquished her ardent atheism. More than thirty years later, she remains a follower of Jesus.

Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh found himself similarly moved to pray by life’s unfathomable wonder, an impulse he describes in his poem Canal Bank Walk” as the gaping need of my senses”:

O unworn world enrapture me, encapture me in a web 
Of fabulous grass and eternal voices by a beech,
Feed the gaping need of my senses, give me ad lib 
To pray unselfconsciously with overflowing speech,
For this soul needs to be honoured with a new dress woven
From green and blue things and arguments that cannot be proven.

To Be Human Is to Pray

From American presidents to Irish poets, from rock stars in London to single mothers in Wichita, prayer has been the argument that cannot be proven,” the gaping need” of every human soul since the very dawn of time. Cave paintings dating back more than thirty-five thousand years at Maros in Indonesia and Chauvet in France functioned, it is thought, as spiritual invocations. In modern Turkey, the hilltop ruins at Göbekli Tepe are reckoned to be the remains of a temple six thousand years older than Stonehenge, which may itself have been a place of prayer some three thousand years before Christ.

And what of the future? Is prayer just the diminishing shadow of some primitive dawn? Survey after survey answers no. Three hundred years after the Enlightenment the world is, if anything, becoming more religious, not less. I am based in England, considered to be one of the more secular nations in Western Europe, but even here, one quarter of those who describe themselves as non-religious” admit that they take part in some spiritual activity each month, typically prayer.”

Eminent surgeon David Nott illustrates this apparent contradiction well. He operates in three British hospitals but chooses to spend his holidays in the world’s most dangerous war zones. I am not religious,” he assured Eddie Mair in an interview:

But every now and again I have to pray and I do pray to God and I ask him to help me because sometimes I am suffering badly. It’s only now and again that I am able to turn to the right frequency to talk to him and there is not a doubt in my mind there is a God. I don’t need him every day. I need him every now and again but when I do need him he is certainly there.

That interview in its entirety had a profound effect on its listeners. In fact, experimental artist Patrick Brill (better known by his strange pseudonym Bob and Roberta Smith”) was so moved by Nott’s testimony that he spent the next four months transcribing every single word, letter by letter, onto a vast canvas which was then hung in the central hall of London’s Royal Academy as the centerpiece of its Summer Exhibition — the most popular annual display of contemporary art in the country and the oldest in the world.

From primitive cave paintings to the whitewashed walls of the Royal Academy, the universal impulse to pray permeates and pulsates through human anthropology and archaeology, sociology and psychology. It is no exaggeration to say that to be human is to pray. The question, therefore, is not so much why we pray, but rather how and to whom. For billions of people today, the answer to such questions is to be found in the revolutionary life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

The Bible and Prayer

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

The greatest person who ever lived was preeminently a man of prayer. Before launching out in public ministry, he fasted for more than a month in the wilderness. Before choosing his twelve disciples, he prayed all night. When he heard the devastating news that his cousin, John, had been executed, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” After feeding five thousand people, he was understandably tired, but his response was to climb a mountain to pray.

When the pressures of fame threatened to crush him, Jesus prayed. When he was facing his own death in the garden of Gethsemane, bleeding with fear and failed by his friends, he prayed. Even during those unimaginable hours of physical and spiritual torment on the cross, Jesus cried out to the one who had apparently forsaken him.

Jesus prayed and he prayed and he prayed.

But it didn’t stop there. After his resurrection, Jesus commanded his disciples to follow his example so that the church was eventually born as they all joined together constantly in prayer.” And then, as it began to grow exponentially, the apostles continued to follow their Lord’s example, resolutely prioritizing prayer above the clamor of pressing leadership responsibilities.

It was when Peter went up on the roof to pray” in the city of Joppa that he received a shocking vision of nonkosher animals presented as food, an epoch-defining epiphany that would catapult the gospel out from its Jewish cradle into the vast harvest-fields of the Gentile world. We observe equal prayerfulness in Peter’s apostolic counterpart Paul, of whom it is said, immediately after his conversion on the road to Damascus, he is praying.” Paul’s epistles bubble and fizz with petition, with spontaneous doxologies and passionate exhortations to pray. We are engaged, he reminds the Ephesians, in active warfare against dark spiritual powers. We are caught up, he tells the Romans, in an intense heavenly prayer meeting. We are edified, he tells the Corinthians, in truths revealed to us only through prayer. It would be easy to continue in this vein, because the priority of prayer is found in one way or another on almost every page of the Bible and in every chapter of church history. It is neither a peripheral theme nor an optional extra for the desperate and the devout. It does not belong to some other time in history, nor to some other type of person more spiritual or disciplined or experienced than you and me.

Prayer is nothing at all unless it is a matter of vast and all-consuming importance for each one of us.

Prayer is more than a lighted candle,” insists the theologian George A. Buttrick. It is the contagion of health. It is the pulse of Life.” A real relationship with God means walking with him daily, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It means talking with him intimately, like Moses, with whom the Lord would speak … face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” And it means listening attentively to his voice because, as Jesus said, My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

Finding Your Places of Prayer

We are told that, prior to giving the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus was praying in a certain place.” That’s significant. There seem to have been certain places in which he preferred to pray. Elsewhere, he advised his disciples, When you pray, go into your room, close the door.” The location clearly mattered. On the day of Pentecost, we are told that the Holy Spirit first filled the whole house where they were sitting” so that the disciples saw what seemed to be tongues of fire” and then, moments later, all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” Isn’t that an interesting progression? The Holy Spirit filled the place before he filled the people.

The ancient Celtic Christians understood very well that the Holy Spirit can saturate places as well as people; they described such sacred sites evocatively as thin places.” Your thin place might simply be a particular chair in your house, a bench in the park, a hallowed half hour on your daily commute, a regular slot in a 24 – 7 prayer room, or even time in the sanctuary of your bathroom. Spiritual teacher Richard Foster urges us to find a place of focus — a loft, a garden, a spare room, an attic, even a designated chair — somewhere away from the routine of life, out of the path of distractions. Allow this spot to become a sacred tent of meeting.’”

Even when you don’t really want to pray, a place of prayer can often make it easier. Merely by showing up, you make a declaration of intent. You say, in effect, Lord, I don’t want to be here, but I’m here!” This has often been my experience with daily devotions and appointments in 24 – 7 prayer rooms. I may not always want to be there initially — I often drive to the prayer room grumbling, convinced that I can’t spare the time and that 24 – 7 prayer is the worst idea in world history — but these are often the times when God meets me most powerfully. After decades of night-and-day prayer, I have come to believe that 99 percent of it is just showing up: making the effort to become consciously present to the God who is constantly present to us.

Where’s Your Chair?

An advertising executive became a Christian but said that he was too busy to carve out a daily time of prayer. It’s easy for you,” he told his new pastor. You have all the time in the world, but I can’t fit anything else into my life.” Perhaps you feel something similar as you begin this book: It’s easy for Pete, you may be thinking. He’s the 24 – 7 prayer guy. He writes books and talks to squirrels all day. My life is different — it’s manic and stressful!

The pastor pushed back against the advertising executive’s complaint with a gentle challenge: You know,” he said, I’ve always managed to make time for the things I really value.” That new believer went away and bought himself a really nice rocking chair, set it down in front of a window in his house, and began to get up just twenty minutes earlier each day to sit in it, read the Bible, and pray. As he maintained this simple daily rhythm, his wife and colleagues began to notice that he was becoming less scattered, more peaceful, and kinder. That rocking chair was becoming his thin place.

Months turned into years, a daily discipline became a holy habit, and then one morning, as he sat there rocking, the Lord invited him to quit his job, sell the family home, and relocate from Chicago to Colorado, where a church needed his help. It was a life-changing moment that launched his entire family into a new and remarkably fruitful season of life.

Several years later, that successful executive was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of incurable cancer, but he continued to keep his appointments with God each morning in that chair. During his last remaining days, he found strength there in prayer for the hardest transition of them all.

The day of the funeral dawned, and a friend found his grieving wife gazing at that rocking chair. What are you going to do with it now?” he inquired.

Oh, we’re going to pass it down to our children and grandchildren,” she replied without hesitation. I love to think of them sitting in it the way my husband did, unburdening their hearts, listening to the Lord, letting him shape and direct their lives.”

Where’s your chair? For my wife, it’s a daily dog walk and weekly appointments with God in a particular coffee shop. For a teacher in our church, it’s her classroom, where she shows up half an hour early each day to pray quietly over every single desk. For a student who recently came to know Jesus from a strict Sikh background, it’s her car. Driving is my sanctuary,” she told me. I play worship music really loud and my family can’t stop me!” Wherever you find your chair, try to visit it daily. Let it become your thin place, a sacred space that helps you walk and talk with God through the many twists and turns of life.

Lord, Teach Us to Pray

Two thousand years ago, the disciples welcomed Jesus back from his regular time and place of prayer with one of the greatest petitions of all time: Lord,” one of them said, teach us to pray.” His response to that simple, humble request was astonishingly generous. He didn’t make the disciples feel small. He didn’t say, You really ought to know by now.” Instead, he gave them the greatest prayer in world history. These were men who would go on to have extraordinary prayer lives. They would intercede until buildings shook. They would spring Peter from a high-security jail by the power of prayer. Their very shadows and handkerchiefs would sometimes heal the sick. They would receive the kinds of revelations that change cultural paradigms. And most remarkably of all, they would one day find the grace within themselves to pray for their torturers at the very point of death.

The disciples were to become mighty prayer warriors, but it wasn’t automatic. Prayer didn’t get beamed down on them from heaven. It wasn’t a guaranteed perk of the apostolic job. Prayer had to be learned the hard way, and their schooling was to begin on a particular day with this simple, touchingly vulnerable request: Lord, teach us to pray.”

And so, of course, he did.

Excerpted from How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People. © 2019 Pete Greig. Published by NavPress.

Text First Published October 2019 · Last Featured on July 2023