Editor's note:

Pete Greig’s How to Pray was select­ed as the first book for the 2020 Ren­o­varé Book Club. When you read this excerpt we think you’ll under­stand why. 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 watch- ing 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 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.

Originally published October 2019

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