Why I Pray: Part 1, My Story

A couple of posts ago I mentioned prayer and Krister's comment has prompted me to elaborate a bit more on the question of why I pray.

To start, I'd like simply like to share a bit about my journey in this regard.

I grew up in a non-liturgical tradition. So when we prayed it was largely extemporaneous and free form. More like free association. But there was a little bit of structure. You always began your prayer with an opening salutation. As a child mine was "Dear Heavenly Father." And the ending was pretty standard, "...in Jesus's name, amen." Never just "amen." It was "in Jesus's name, amen." Had to be in Jesus's name.

Between those two bookends you learned to master some stock phrases and how to string them together in a way that seemed natural and smooth. Generally, the sentiments were expressions of thanksgiving ("thank you for this day and all the blessings you have given us") and petition (as my boys pray at night "help those who are sick get well").

When I went to college a third component got added: Doxology. I was told that prayer was to be mainly about praise and worship. Which is fine, but in my tradition, where liturgical prayer wasn't used, few of the college students had mastered the language of doxology. Which meant they overused the only doxological word in their vocabulary: "Awesome." It was used over and over again. God was awesome. Jesus was awesome. The Holy Spirit was awesome. And so on. It got pretty annoying.

Right around this time I also started having faith problems. Why talk to God when you think no one is listening? As a result, my prayer life became very episodic and, truth be told, occasion driven. I prayed when it was socially appropriate to pray. But I rarely prayed on my own.

This situation bothered me so I tried to explore the prayer literature. I read Richard Foster's book Prayer and discovered this about myself: I'm not a contemplative. During periods of silence I just get sleepy. Or distracted. I even tried Buddhist meditation to help with this. (Sakyong Mipham and Pema Chodron's book Turning the Mind into an Ally is the best book I've read on the subject.) I would sit and breathe, always bringing my mind back to the breath. In and out. In and out. Sitting like a mountain...

But at the end of the day my real problem was that I didn't understand the point of prayer. God, as best I could tell, never really answered prayer. So I didn't see any point in talking into the air. And the best literature I could find on the subject, from the contemplative tradition, left me cold and frustrated.

So I stopped praying. And years passed.

But, for some reason or another, now I'm praying again. I think I had to let the whole thing stew for a time. I couldn't force it. And, most importantly, I had to find reasons to pray that were appealing and made sense to me. It took me a long time to find those reasons.

I now pray every morning (and occassionaly before I fall asleep). I've jettisoned the free association style. Specifically, I pray the Morning Office (along with the lectionary readings) from The Book of Common Prayer. If I'm under time pressure I use Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours which is based on the BCP but provides you with a shorter Order (it takes me about 20 mintues to get through the BCP Morning Order and about 5 minutes to get through the abbreviated Order in The Divine Hours). Occassionally I'll pray Compline before I close my eyes at night. Mainly because I love these words from the Compline Order:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.
I love those words. I love how they pull me out of myself. How they cause me to think about all these people--happy and sad, sleeping and working--around the world. "Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night."

So the question is, how did I get to this point? How did I go from years of prayerlessness to praying everyday? As I said, I had to find some reasons to pray that made sense to me. I'll share those reasons in the coming posts.

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17 thoughts on “Why I Pray: Part 1, My Story”

  1. Richard,

    I look forward to this series. I cannot, however, find that prayer - the Compline Order - in my BCP or those words under 'Compline Order' on the web. Where did you find them?

  2. In my BCP the Order for Compline starts on page 127. The prayer I cite is listed as an optional prayer on page 134. It's on that page on the BCP link in the post. Hope that helps!

  3. If you can find Jaques Ellul's book Prayer and Modern Man, it's a very good read - for readers. Just keep on doin' it. As Ellul says, there is only one reason for prayer - it is commanded. And that's an invitation - a mandate - not an order.

  4. You probably know this, but the daily devotions for individuals and families is near the daily office in the PCB and is also helpful if you're pressed for time.

    For anyone who is interested in the Daily Office but doesn't have a prayer book or finds figuring out what to do when overwhelming (including me sometimes, and I'm a priest) it is available online. If you click on the date, it has everything all lined out for you:


    I LOVE compline. The prayer you describe is perhaps my very favorite.

  5. It's funny Mr. MacDonald mentioned Ellul: half way through this entry I thought, "He's got to get into some Ellul for this thread."

    Here's a teaser.

    "Prayer is not a discourse. It is a form of life, the life with God. That is why it is not confined to the moment of verbal statement. The latter (verbalization) can only be the secondary expression of the relationship with God, an overflow from the encounter between the living God and the living person.

    Prayer is not to be analyzed like a language. It has none of that form or content, for it receives its content, not from what I have to say, but from the One to whom it is spoken. For prayer to be what it is meant to be, it depends on Him and not on me, still less on my ability to speak the adequate language. Of course, I can pronounce a discourse supposedly addressed to God. I can arrange the sentences, but it is neither the harmony of the form, nor the elevation of the content, nor the fullness of the information which turns it into a prayer. Insofar as it remains a discourse, it is in fact subject to the language analysis with which we are familiar, but that is always as discourse, that is to say, as 'nonprayer.'"

    From "Prayer and Modern Man"

  6. Written, liturgical prayers have become a lot more significant to me lately as well. There's something special about entering into agreement with the consensus of historical Christianity when you pray an ancient prayer. Volumes like the BCP are also a treasure when you just don't know what to pray.

    If you're still interested in transcendental-meditation-style prayer, check out Open Mind, Open Hear: the Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel by Thomas Keating. One of my favorite discussions on this kind of prayer.

  7. I don't believe in any divine power, but right now I'm trying to move my child, who is being bullied, from a school where she is unhappy to one where she will be happy. The application process is grueling and luck will play no small part,for good or ill, in what happens next year. I'm toying with the idea of praying every night over this. Not because I think anyone is listening, or that if they were listening they should pay the slightest attention (the problems of the littlest aimai not amounting to a hill of beans in this crazy world) but just because I feel obligated to do all I can to help my child, and I've exhausted all normal avenues of action.


  8. "Blessed are the poor in spirit," aimai, "for they shall see God." Somebody's listening.

  9. aimai,
    That's so sad. I hate bullying and can only imagine how that would feel as a parent.

    For what it is worth, the first reason I'm posting about is using prayer to stand in solidarity with those who pray. To identify myself with all those who are hopeless, who have no other move to make. To, in the language of the bible, "weep with those who weep." Toward that end, one parent to another, I'll be praying along with you.

  10. Richard,
    Having spent 15 years as a CoC deacon, worship leader, and active member, while working as an engineer, I have recently (well, a year ago)found my belief system crashing down around me into a twisted, smoldering ontological heap. While picking through the rubble of my faith to see what is salvageable, I ran across this blog. I find that almost everything you have written here (and I think I've read most of it, including the published journal papers) resonates deeply with me. I see the lack of an 'empirical trace', I identify with the 'sick soul', I see you have gone through much of what I am now experiencing. My trajectory seems to be directed at the exit of religion and faith, but I pause at the door, hoping to learn why you are still in the room.

    But no pressure, man.

  11. Wow, richard, what a sweet thing to say. I'm pretty hard rind'ed at this point but it actually moved me to tears.


  12. Aimai - It moved me to tears, too. I am nothing but a sporadic prayor (help me help me, thank you thank you!)in general, but I am a fellow parent and am trying sort of to return to religious life and I will say the compline prayer tonight and think hard of you and your little girl.

    And Ted - I will be praying the compline for you, too.

    Thanks Dr. Beck, for sharing.

    We will all fumble along together in this journey and we are going to be alright.

  13. Richard- thanks for the reference to the Compline prayer. It is very affecting. I prayed it slowly thinking about those suffering from the earthquake in Haiti, and found myself tearful. A very calming, exquisite and cleansing experience for a pragmatic sceptical engineer like me!

  14. Thank you Richard. I look forward to reading your reasons for praying... and like you I love the words from the Compline Order. The simplicity of these words are very moving.

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