What do you mean by prayer? For many of us it probably has something to do with being in a mess and wanting a solution to our problem: prayer as a last resort when all else has failed.
Attend a typical church service and you could well come away thinking that prayer is intercession: asking God (albeit on behalf of a congregation, not just one individual) to intervene and do something about some situation or other. Intercessory prayer can sometimes betray an interesting attitude to prayer, especially when you get prayers which begin, ‘Dear Lord, as you may know, there is a terrible drought in Africa.’ It’s as if God really needs to have his attention drawn to what’s going on in the world in case he hasn’t read the papers. It’s prayer, in other words, as me or us doing things to God, making sure he’s got the information he needs. And then, if enough of us join in, it will be like sending an email petition to Downing Street: eventually there’ll have to be a debate and God will have to adopt a policy position and do something.
But actually prayer is the complete reverse of this. We might start off in prayer saying to God, ‘Look, God, this is what I want, and I want it very badly, and here are the reasons why you should give it to me’. But as the process continues, the person who gets changed isn’t God: it’s me. And I may end up praying for a completely different set of things from where I started. One definition of prayer I find helpful is that of a former Archbishop of Milan, who said prayer, “is like being a stained-glass window, and letting God shine through you. Make yourself transparent to the will, and the being and the presence of God, and let him have his way”. Prayer, then, is about letting God be God in our life.
That goes hand-in-hand with several other elements. Prayer is also about clearing a space where we can attend to the presence of God. We don’t have to look for God: he’s already there. The business of clearing a space is akin to the idea of having a Sabbath. We have to clear a space one day in seven in order to be aware of the God who is there all the time.
And prayer is also a place where I can come with all that I am. I don’t have to censor bits of myself, I can come with all the mess, all the longings, all the gratitude and all the regrets, because if God can put up with me, surely I can put up with myself. It’s not only a place where I can find God, it’s also a place where I can ask him to clarify and sort out my memories and desires, and help me to understand something of his will.
Prayer may typically begin with words, or a bible reading, or whatever thoughts happen to be uppermost in our minds, but it’s as words and thoughts gradually give way to silence that a deeper level of prayer can begin. Silence frightens some people: without having something to do or think about they find themselves confronted with the reality of their own lives, and confronting it in the presence of God, when they would much rather keep it behind a door which is locked and marked ‘strictly private’.
Yet many of those who have learned to meditate and pray in silence have discovered that prayer is often just a matter of being there, in silent presence before God, and letting him be God. It is a wanting to spend time in quietness with him, sometimes – perhaps often – in boredom – but waiting on God so that God can be himself in my life, and giving him time to do that. It is a letting-go of our own agenda, and allowing God’s own agenda to make itself known in us. And in doing so, discovering that, far from being remote, God is in fact very near.