WHY do we struggle to pray, and keep our mind focused?
We are so limited. God, the One with whom we try to relate in prayer, is so unlimited. That is why humility is a great place to start when praying.
In our limitedness, we prefer speaking to that which will respond. Other people can communicate with us in the simplest ways. We say words, they say words. We are even able to communicate with pets to some extent. Funny, we receive more of the response we desire when we speak in a huge empty room, and hear our own voice come echoing back at us. But what we desire (a verbal response to our praying) is not what we receive when we practice prayer.
Speaking to God can feel like speaking into a vacuum. And with the lack of audible feedback, it is tempting to move on to something else that we can do. We take different approaches to our short-lived prayers: At best, we assume prayer is only one way--me talking to God--and so we often practice one way communication. At worst, we fear we have failed in what others seem to accomplish with ease. And failure is a poor motivator for continued effort, so we despair and cease trying.
New paths to prayer
And so this is where the tools come in. In this post, I'll introduce the practice of repeating a simple centering prayer.
Let me deal first with your fears. The idea of repeating a prayer raises red flags with some of you. It sounds like a disobediance of Jesus' warning not to us vain repititions. And you should indeed hear and heed that warning. He is not interested in your mindless, empty repititions. However, remember we begin praying in humility. And a humble heart does not hope to manipulate God with some stream of meaningless words. I repeat prayers every day of my life. There are some I pray each morning and evening--for instance the "Lord's Prayer," (called the "Our Father" by some). And even though I pray it several times a day, each time I seek to draw my heart's sincere attention to praying His words.
Many of you will agree with all I've said, but not like the word "centering" at all! I don't like it much either, but I don't have a better one right now. Maybe you can offer one?
This kind of prayer is a memorized, short and repeated prayer used to focus your heart and attention on God. The Lord's Prayer can be employed in this way.
I'd like to ask you to practice using this tool. If you know the Lord's Prayer or the Jesus Prayer, try spending five or even ten minutes repeating one of them. Here is a version of the first if you do not have it memorized.
Our Father in Heaven, Holy is your name. May your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For yours is the Kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
And the second is one used by many needy people who approached Jesus: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." (Some add the words "a sinner" to the end of this prayer.) As I pray this prayer, in order to keep it "real," I will occasionally drop and add some words, as I go along. After you have quieted your mind into this prayer, you can also begin changing the "me" to the name of a person or situation or church...or whatever you are praying for. Just keep yourself humble in the process.
Keep these things in mind!
-This is not a race to try and say the words quickly. Your goal is to desire the prayer to be true.
-Your mind will wonder, if so, gently bring your attention back to the text and begin again. The more you practice, the easier this will become.
-Don't be dismayed if you struggle at first. With practice you will come near to God, and sense the ability to remain in him.
Paul tells us to "pray without ceasing." Do you? This tool will help you move in this direction--in God's direction.
Next time: a tool used by millions, distrusted or hated by many, but helpful to me.