I met icon-makers during my youth in the country. I remember that an icon-maker before starting to paint, or a maker of wooden crosses before starting to carve, would fast for a few weeks in a row. They prayed continually that their icons and crosses would be beautiful.
Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” Brancusi observed something that should be true of all good Christian work: everything begins with prayer.
This practice of continuous prayer in the presence of God involves developing the habit of carrying on the mental life at two levels. At one level we are immersed in the world of time, of daily affairs. At the same time, but at a deeper level of our minds, we are in active relation with the Eternal Life. I do not think this is a psychological impossibility, or an abnormal thing. One sees a mild analogy in the very human experience of being in love. The newly accepted lover has an internal life of joy, of bounding heart, of outgoing aspiration toward his beloved. Yet he goes to work, earns his living, eats his meals, pays his bills. But all the time deep within, there is a level of awareness of an object very dear to him. This awareness is private; he shows it to no one; yet it spills across and changes his outer life, colors his behavior, and gives new zest and glory to the daily round. Oh yes, we know what a mooning calf he may be at first, what a lovable fool about outward affairs. But when the lover get things in focus again, and husband and wife settle down to the long pull of the years, the deep love-relation underlies all the raveling frictions of home life, and recreates them in the light of the deeper currents of love. The two levels are there, the surface and the deeper, in fruitful interplay with the creative values coming from the deeper into the daily affairs of life.
So it is sometimes when one becomes a lover of God.
Kelly adds, “How do you begin this double mental life, this life at two levels? You begin now, wherever you are. Listen to these words outwardly. But, within, deep within you, continue in steady prayer, offering yourself and all that you are to Him in simple, joyful, serene, unstrained dedication.”
One of the best ways to pray is to take a vigorous walk, talking to God in rhythm with the steps, thus:
“Lord, use my prayer–to help these people I am passing–to look up to Thee–to be hungry for Thy voice–to long to do Thy will–to hear Thee speak–to obey Thy voice–to do Thy will.”
There is no more exhilarating way of taking exercise than a walking prayer. When your brain is weary, go out into a crowd and waft prayers in all directions; let them trial you like a bridal veil, after people as they pass you. You will get the sense that something delicately gauzy, like soft morning light, floats after those for whom you pray. If your experience duplicates mine, you will feel a strange power developing like some long unused muscle.
Frank Laubach, Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World, pgs. 85-86. Published 1946.
Frank Laubach (1884-1970) was an American Christian missionary and champion for global literacy. One of his most famous teachings was to encourage Christians to purposefully turn their thoughts toward God for at least one second of every minute of every day, thus keeping God front-and-center in all of life’s activity.
He was also a strong advocate for global peace, and for prayer. His book Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World, contains numerous “experiments in prayer,” or ways of praying during the course of an ordinary day. He encourages his readers to keep a notebook handy, to observe results, to record answers. His instruction is often as simple as to pray the name of Jesus in each encounter. Laubach had a firm conviction that prayer activated the power of God in the world, that our prayers, somehow and someway, were woven into the unfolding of God’s purposes for the world.
“Let there always be quiet, dark churches in which men can take refuge. Places where they can kneel in silence. Houses of God, filled with His silent presence. There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least they can be still and breathe easily. Let there be a place somewhere in which you can breathe naturally, quietly, and not have to take your breath in continuous short gasps. A place where your mind can be idle, and forget its concerns, descend into silence, and worship the Father in secret.”
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
I’ve been in many a silent church, a place of worship, ground designated for meeting with God. Most of these spaces have been found in cities. Those spaces are a gift. During my youth ministry years I traveled to Philadelphia, Chicago, Omaha, Minneapolis, and Houston to serve in urban contexts. If I’m in a downtown and I come upon a church, I pull the door. If it is open, I go inside.
A church building is, on the one hand, just a building like any other building. On the other hand, whether it be a simple A-frame building located in the countryside or an elaborate cathedral, there is something special about those spaces. There is a spirit to them, a character. There is a sense of history. Even if the singing in that space has long since ceased, and the prayers offered on those grounds have long echoed into silence, there is a resonance. It invites me to sit awhile, and wonder, think, pray.
Help me to do the things you want me to do, Know the things you want me to know, Seek the things that you want me to seek, Feel the things that you want me to feel, Think the things that you want me to think, Speak the things you want me to speak.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
For the glory of your coming kingdom, And for the honor of your name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The problem with understanding prayer as conversation is that prayer is so much more than communication. Reducing it to conversation makes it simply mental activity–words and thoughts being a product of the left hemisphere of the brain. Prayer includes the mind, but is not limited to it. God invites engagement with more of our brain and more of our being. The glorious truth is that I can be praying to God without speaking to God, or without even consciously thinking of God. If this wasn’t true, how could we ever hope to realize the ideal of continuous prayer that is encouraged by the Scriptures (1 Thessalonians 5:17; Ephesians 6:18)? Obviously we cannot be thinking about God all the time. Nor can we be talking to God all the time. But prayer can be as foundational to our daily life as breathing. It can become a part of living, not just a religious practice or spiritual discipline.
A better starting point for an adequate understanding of the breadth of prayer is to view it as communion with God. Communion includes conversation but is much broader. Because it involves union, not just closeness and connection, it also entails much more intimacy than mere conversation. We are, as Paul reminds us, in Christ, just as Christ is in us. That language reflects the intermingling that is part of true communion. It does not get much more intimate than this–an intimacy that is based on the reality of a mystical union with Christ, in the present moment, not simply something to be hoped for in the future. Our experiential knowing of this reality may be limited. But the union is real, even now. And the communion that we experience in prayer is also real–so real that, more so than anything else that I know of, this prayer communion has the power to transform us from the inside out.
We tend to make prayer the preparation for our service, yet it is never that in the Bible. Prayer is the practice of drawing on the grace of God. Don’t say, “I will endure this until I can get away and pray.” Pray now — draw on the grace of God in your moment of need. Prayer is the most normal and useful thing; it is not simply a reflex action of your devotion to God. We are very slow to learn to draw on God’s grace through prayer.
“[W]hat can perhaps be most fruitfully taken from his work is not so much a set of doctrinal positions as an example of the integration of theological reflection with the life of faith. The Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst once remarked that theology is, properly understood, ‘engaged contemplation’ (Multiple Echo (London, 1979) 151). Part of the persuasiveness of von Balthasar’s theological writing lies in the fact that it is not primarily critical but contemplative. To describe his work in these terms is not to suggest that it is the fruit of private mystical experience rather than the public self-manifestation of God; nor is it to envisage the theologian’s task as necessitating withdrawal. What is meant is rather that as contemplative theology it is born of a fundamentally receptive attitude of spirit and mind towards God’s self-disclosure. Its origin is not critical inquiry but rapture; its most characteristic attitude is that of being utterly overwhelmed by the splendour of God. It is for these reasons that there is for von Balthasar the closest possible correlation between theological reflection and the life of prayer, and that he has called for more ‘kneeling theologians’ (Verbum Caro (Einsiedeln, 1960) 224). If orthodox theology is not infrequently both unintelligent and unimaginative, it may well be that the fault lies not so much in a defective grasp of the truth as in a defective spirituality.”
I like this idea. But I am among those who believe that the work of theology is first a work of prayer and second a task of service. Theologians do not firstly serve the academy, though they are found there in official capacities, but rather theologians dedicate themselves to a discipline of inquiry that is intended for service to the Lord and, by extension, to the people of God, the church.
As I stumble through this life, help me to create more laughter than tears, dispense more happiness than gloom, spread more cheer than despair. Never let me become so indifferent that I will fail to see the wonder in the eyes of a child or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged. Never let me forget that my total effort is to cheer people, make them happy and forget – at least momentarily – all the unpleasantness in their lives. And, in my final moment, may I hear You whisper: ‘When you made My people smile, you made Me smile.’
The closing words offered in the 2015 documentary “I Am Chris Farley” are “The Clown’s Prayer,” words Mr. Farley carried in his wallet that he would recite before auditions and shows. They are read by Mr. Farley’s friend and fellow actor Pat Finn.
I cannot imagine a more fitting, more perfect ending.
There is a prayer for every vocation, words that might be spoken as one pursues any good endeavor, that God might bless those efforts toward eternally good ends. Even for the comedian. While there has been a great deal of material published in recent years on faith and work and many sermons and talks given besides, I suspect the need to pair these two in the Christian imagination will not soon fade, and that we will need further reminders that the work of God is undertaken by the whole people of God in the fields, offices, workshops and warehouses of our world.