“Whether or not . . . you have ever dared to pray.” Mary Oliver, “Morning Poem.”
There’s no getting around it; prayer is risky, uncomfortable, scary. In prayer, we hope that we are reaching out in honesty and trust, hope that we are touching the infinite source of all that is good—God. But just as often we are hiding when we pray. The reach of sin—that instinctive desire to cling to control, to hide, to disconnect—touches even our prayers, leaving us feeling disconnected from the Spirit within, leaving our words feeling hollow and empty, not unlike the “vain repetitions” Jesus warned against (Matthew 6:7).
Keep praying anyway. There’s a profound mystery in the way Christ’s Spirit within unites with our own spirit in our desperate, feeble attempts to connect with what is eternal. Henri Nouwen explains, “The paradox of prayer is that we have to learn how to pray while we can only receive it as a gift.” It is somewhere in that dance between us reaching out and the Spirit drawing us near to God that prayer as union with God, as connection with what is lasting and true, happens.
And the foundation of prayer is a grace that far exceeds our ability to reach out. I love a poem by Mary Oliver called “Morning Poem,” because it reminds me that God’s grace reaches our hearts in myriad ways, even if we’re too scared to ever utter the words of a prayer. “Each pond with its blazing lilies / is a prayer heard and answered / lavishly, / every morning, / whether or not / you have ever dared to be happy, / whether or not / you have ever dared to pray.”
Love and grace uphold the universe, and in Christ the wordless prayers of our heart are heard and answered even when we are too afraid to put them into words (Romans 8:26–27).
Still, it is worth the risk to learn to “dare to pray,” to “hope against hope” (Romans 4:18) that through the grace of the Spirit we can find our hearts finally anchored in something beyond ourselves. For it’s in the mystery of prayer—whether prayer in words or a prayer of silent seeking—that we find renewed hope and life in a world surrounded by despair and death. Nouwen writes, “There is probably no image that expresses so well the intimacy with God in prayer as the image of God’s breath. . . . the Spirit has taken away our narrowness . . . and made everything new for us. We receive a new breath, a new freedom, a new life. This new life is the divine life of God himself. Prayer, therefore, is God’s breathing in us, by which we become part of the intimacy of God’s inner life, and by which we are born anew.”
We will still misuse prayer. We will still shape God in our own image in our words and requests. But in the process of praying, we will also encounter the grace that allows us to let go of our illusions and let go of the ways we stifle our hearts. Nouwen puts it powerfully: “When . . . prayer makes us reach out to God, not on our own but on his terms, then prayer pulls us away from self-preoccupations, encourages us to leave familiar ground, and challenges us to enter into a new world which cannot be contained within the narrow boundaries of our mind or heart. Prayer . . . is a great adventure because the God with whom we enter into a new relationship is greater than we are and defies all our calculations and predictions. The movement from illusion to prayer is hard to make since it leads us from false certainties to true uncertainties, from an easy support system to a risky surrender, and from the many “safe” gods to the God whose love has no limits.”
A risky surrender. But though it feels risky, though it is risky if our goal is preserving a sense of control and safety, the greater risk is not trying the “great adventure” of prayer, of living our lives in relationship to God.
One of my favorite prayers to close a day is the timeless prayer of Simeon, still prayed throughout the world as a celebration of the adventure of encountering God, and of surrendering to him in trust. It goes like this, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace / For mine eyes have seen thy salvation / which thou hast prepared for all the world to see / A light to enlighten the Gentiles / and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29–32). In these words we see the foundation of a life of prayer. For each day God’s salvation touches us, a light in our darkness and hope in our despair, and each night it’s that grace that allows us to close our eyes in peace, ready to be held in grace, ready to start the adventure again in the morning light.
Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life.