“Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” ~Luke 11:1-4
The request above came from one of the disciples of Jesus. They knew that John the Baptist had taught his followers how to pray and felt left out. They wanted some direction from their leader. Jesus responded by reciting the “Lord’s Prayer”:
“Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”
It’s the only verbal prayer Jesus ever taught. The Lord’s Prayer is repeated in Matthew, but there’s no follow-up, no “let’s try a new prayer today.” As Richard Rohr points out in The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, Jesus’s own style of teaching consisted more of “stories, parables, and enigmatic sayings.” Yet that doesn’t mean Jesus had nothing else to say about prayer. In two passages from the Gospel of Matthew, he offers explicit instructions on how to pray—and how not to:
“You should go to your private room, shut the door, and pray to your father who is in that secret place.” ~Matthew 6:6
“In your prayers, do not babble as the pagans do, thinking that by using many words they will make themselves be heard. Do not be like them!” ~Matthew 6:7
Jesus sees prayer as a solo act, not something to do en masse.
Rohr sees a rationale behind this thinking. For all its good intentions, public prayer does not give people “any inner experience of their own inner aliveness.” It does not help us access the “Indwelling Spirit” nor does it “transform people at any deep level.” In fact, public prayer “often becomes a substitute for any real journey of our own.”
But if Jesus frowned upon public prayer and wanted us to pray in private, how should we proceed? Rohr sees clues contained within the way Jesus lived his life. He surmises that “Jesus himself seemed to prefer a prayer of quiet. That’s why we see frequent references such as ‘in the morning, long before dawn, he got up … and went off to a lonely place to pray.’”
“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
“After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.” ~Matthew 14:23
WWJD: What Was Jesus Doing?
How did Jesus pray? It’s hard to imagine he was repeating Our Father’s over and over, but he left no additional instructions on prayer for his followers, at least not in the Old Testament. So, what exactly was Jesus doing when he went off to pray alone, as he instructed his followers to do? The answer: perhaps nothing—or more accurately, a prayer without words.
The idea of praying silently to God comes up again and again in the writings of the Christian mystics. Yet, what Richard Rohr calls a “prayer of quiet” is something largely ignored today by many Christians. It’s just not part of their spiritual practice. Rohr explains the downside:
Many Christians seem to have little experience of a prayer of quiet … they have not been taught what to do with their overactive minds, and so they are afraid of silence. Without an inner life, our outer prayer will soon become superficial, ego-centered, and even counterproductive on the spiritual path.
Further guidance is provided by James Finley, a colleague of Rohr’s at the Center of Action and Contemplation. In his book Christian Meditation, Finley points to an ancient practice of prayer-like meditation. Think not so much Buddhist or traditional meditation, but a practice more closely aligned with contemplation which Finley defines as a “state of realized oneness with God.”
Finley explains that “when engaged in contemplation, we rest in God resting is us.” He say that the Christian mystics saw contemplation as a way to achieve “a life-transforming realization” that we are one with God. Our mind and God’s mind become one. In Finley’s words:
If you did nothing but simply sit each day, silent and still, attentive to your breathing, with your eyes closed or lowered toward the ground, you would be doing yourself a huge favor. You would already be starting the long journey home into God, who lies deep within your bodily being.
What does Christian meditation look like in practice?
Finley sees Christian meditation as “a way of slowing down so as to descend into the depths of yourself in the present moment, where God lies waiting to grant you a deep experience.” And while Finley says “the methods the mystics suggest for meditation vary from one mystic to the next,” over the pages of Christian Meditation he provides a comprehensive series of steps to follow.
Finley believes this type of meditation/prayer offers a “more interior” way of experiencing God’s presence in your life and a way to “enter into a more intimate relationship with God.” The steps of Christian meditation follow, which I’ve culled from Finley’s book and listed in a greatly abbreviated form.
8 Steps of Christian Meditation
- Sit still and straight. Close your eyes or lower them toward the ground. Place your hands on your lap.
- Breathe in and out slowly and naturally. Settle into your breathing. Listen to each life-sustaining breath.
- Be present, open and awake, in a state of relaxed alertness, neither clinging to nor rejecting anything.
- As a thought arises, simply be present, open and awake. Observe it as it passes away.
- Settle into a felt sense of simply sitting there. Allow your stillness to embody a child-like faith that God is present all about you and within you.
- Each time you realize you have drifted off in thought, simply renew your attention of your breathing to ground yourself in the present moment.
- Abandon yourself to the flow of your own breathing. Surrender yourself to the divinity flowing through the moment. Rest in God.
- Rest with a sense of confidence and learn to abide in it. In time, you will see the Godly nature of yourself, others and everything around you.
Is this how Jesus prayed? We’ll never know. But Finley tells us that when it comes to connecting with the Divine, God has left the door unlocked and slightly ajar. “God is waiting for you to open it and come walking through to experience that oneness with God that is the fullness of life itself.” We will come to discover that “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” Much like Jesus did.