Prayer, we learn gradually, has far more to do with listening than with talking. In emotional stress the thoughts are so obsessive that they leave one no opportunity to listen. So, when we know someone is in trouble, we can and must listen (pray) for them. A Friend who had missed meeting for several weeks told us that she knew we had been praying for her before we said so; she had felt it and been sustained by it. She had thought there was no point in prayer or belief in God, but she had been helped by the knowledge that we still prayed and believed. It seems that one can do no less than this. We are seldom given guarantees that it is effective, just hints along the way; but they are hints we cannot ignore. We cannot prove the effectiveness of prayer, but nor can we cast scorn on examples of the kind I have given.
A friend tells me that when she prays for someone she does not so much pray to God for them as for God for them. This seems to me a vital clue about prayer. It is God that the troubled person needs, not our advice and instructions. As we learn more about worship we learn to listen more deeply so that we can be channels through which God’s love reaches the other person. It is God at work, not we ourselves; we are simply used.
Diana Lampen, 1979 – Quaker Faith & Practice 2.26
It is easy to be simplistic about prayer: either it works because God will do as we ask, subject to certain easily-ascertained conditions; or it doesn’t work because, well, it’s an obviously silly idea, a bit of infantile wish-fulfilment, as all sophisticated people know.
Neither of these equal and opposite over-simplifications actually touches what prayer is. Prayer is, as Diana Lampen points out, not something we do, but more properly something that is done through us. It’s irrelevant, really, what we think of it, and the mystery of prayer is in no way contingent on our own abilities or holiness.
Richard Rohr writes, in Silent Compassion (2014) that “To speak of mysticism in simple terms means we speak of experiential knowledge of God instead of merely mental or cognitive knowledge… mystical encounters come to people who are still weak and sinful, as Jesus makes clear in many of his stories (The Prodigal Son, the woman ‘who was a sinner,’ and the Publican and Pharisee stories, for example).” He says later in this same book that, “The original word for this different mind, this alternative consciousness… was simply prayer. That word has been so misused and trivialised to mean merely petitionary prayer, reading prayers… or reciting prayers… I’m not saying that formulaic prayer is wrong, but that is not what was taught by the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the first three or four hundred years of Christianity.”
Silence, contemplation, stillness, these are what the Desert Mothers and Fathers taught. And the odd thing is that Quakers have known this for ever so long. George Fox wrote,
Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests, against blusterings and storms. That is it which moulds up into patience, into innocency, into soberness, into stillness, into stayedness, into quietness, up to God, with his power.
And Thomas Kelly, during the years of World War II,
How, then, shall we lay hold of that Life and Power, and live the life of prayer without ceasing? By quiet, persistent practice in turning all our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, towards Him who calls in the deeps of our souls. Mental habits of inward orientation must be established. An inner, secret turning to God can be made fairly steady, after weeks and months and years of practice and lapses and failures and returns. It is as simple an art as Brother Lawrence found it, but it may be long before we achieve any steadiness in the process. Begin now, as you read these words, as you sit in your chair, to offer your whole selves, utterly and in joyful abandon, in quiet, glad surrender to Him who is within. In secret ejaculations of praise, turn in humble wonder to the Light, faint though it may be. Keep contact with the outer world of sense and meanings. Here is no discipline in absent-mindedness. Walk and talk and work and laugh with your friends. But behind the scenes keep up the life of simple prayer and inward worship. Keep it up throughout the day. Let inward prayer be your last act before you fall asleep and the first act when you awake. And in time you will find, as did Brother Lawrence, that ‘those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep’.
This kind of prayer is not something set aside for specialists. This was the great insight of the early Quakers, that a direct encounter with God is part of normal life for ordinary people, given half a chance. We need only to remember it!