Deacons and Prayer
Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary


Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary
Praying the Beatitudes
Living the Beatitudes
The Ascent of Psalm 119
Morning Prayer
Camino de Santiago
Praying to the Living God
Praying for and with Others
Handbook of Prayers
Your Own Prayer of Dedication

                Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary


By Gary T. Johnson


An exploration of Christian prayer for those who want to enrich their spiritual lives.


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Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary

© 2001-2003, by Gary T. Johnson

All rights reserved.

This series first appeared in the newsletter of Northminster Presbyterian Church, Evanston, Illinois, in 2001-2002.  Each meditation is very brief, in keeping with the original format.  There are notes at the end, including the full copyright notice. 


Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary                                                 1

Join with me in a spiritual journey.  We may pray in church, and we may pray alone, but we may sense that there is more to the life of prayer than we have experienced.  That certainly has been true in my life.  Let's see if we can learn from Christian spiritual masters.  Let's see what contemporary writers can tell us.  Let's expand our prayer vocabulary together.

2              Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary

If you ever have wondered about whether prayer matters, consider this.  Prayer is what religions have in common.  The words may differ, but various religions call upon a higher authority or an inner voice.  Prayer is a form of communication that rests on belief, not provable fact.  Who can deny that prayer is a fundamental part of human existence, when believers from contrasting cultures, from every time and place, have sought to connect with the spirit, have sought to open up these lines of communication?


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One key to expanding our prayer vocabulary is to lose our modesty about what to pray for.  Maybe we are too polite to ask that our concerns be met, but if you don't share your needs with God, then you have not shared them with the one who can offer real help.   "Ask, and it will be given to you," said Jesus, "search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you."  (Matt. 7:7)  We are created in God's image.  We have a part in creating the world God is bringing about.  God wants to hear from us what is needed for this world and in each of our lives.  Promise me that you will lose your modesty and ask God to help you meet needs that you have never asked God's help with before.


4              Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary

I recently spent a weekend in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  For over 1,000 years, pilgrims have trekked across Europe to the sepulcher said to hold the body of St. James the Apostle, the brother of St. John.  I found praying there to be a very moving experience, so moving that I became hungry for prayer.  That weekend, I returned to the cathedral a dozen times, praying for a wish list that kept growing: for members of my family, for my local church, for a colleague's sick mother-in-law, for the safety of friends in El Salvador, for a just resolution to political matters.  I asked for things I never had dared to ask for before, and I am sure that I was surrounded by pilgrims who were doing the same.  When you take it to God in prayer, you awaken to a world of need and to our part in helping to bring about God's plan.

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Let's get down to brass tacks.  Can our prayers make a difference or are they simply lofty gestures that make us feel good?  Prayer is active two-way communication in which you are the moving party, the one who invokes God.  Once God is involved, can we doubt that something will happen?  Call upon God in prayer and look for the response.

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A friend of mine, Byron Kinney, who was a World War II pilot, told me that he and many other members of the armed forces carried this poem with them by Eliza Hickok on their missions:

I know not by what methods rare,

But this I know, God answers prayers.

I know that He has given His Word,

Which tells me prayer is always heard,

And will be answered, soon or late,

And so I pray and calmly wait.


I know not if the blessing sought

Will come in just the way I thought;

But leave my prayers with Him alone,

Whose will is wiser than my own,

Assured that He will grant my quest,

Or send some answer far more blest.


Never forget the importance of prayer to what Tom Brokaw has called "the greatest generation" and to the generations that came before.   Consider what it could mean to your own generation.

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We think of prayers as our own words, but that is not the whole story.  Prayer is like any other form of communication: you will get more out of it if you are a good listener.  For listening to occur, you first must welcome silence.  Clear your mind of the white noise and the clutter.  At first, put your own requests aside.  Breathe slowly and deeply and release both your fears and your hopes.  Then listen for the Spirit moving inside of you, coming upon you.  I can guarantee that you will hear answers, both to questions you knew about and questions you have never considered.

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Commenting on books about him, Pope John Paul II said, "They try to understand me from the outside.  But I can only be understood from the inside."  Think about it.  Isn't that as true for you as it is for him?  Is there anyone, even a close family member, who comes close to understanding you without knowing what is going on inside?  That's another reason for prayer:  entering into communication with the only one who knows you inside and out.  The one who knows that you meant X when you did Y.  The one who never needs an explanation of the context, or a defensive justification.  Why doesn't anyone understand me?  Somebody does.  Get in touch with the one who knows you best.

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What is the second most famous prayer of Jesus?  Maybe the prayer from the cross: "My God, my God,  why have you forsaken me?"  (Matt. 27:46, quoting Ps. 22:1)  A prayer, yes, but there is suffering and human emotion in those words.  Prayer is honest communication.  If you are desperate, let God know.  Share your bewilderment, your impatience.  If you don't have the courage to ask the tough questions, how will you find the answers?  And remember this:  when you share these emotions in prayer, you are in communion with Jesus.  Your prayers are joined with his.


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What imagery would you use to describe prayer?  Two sixteenth-century Spanish saints with penetrating spiritual insights put it this way.  For St. Teresa of Ávila, prayer was a journey inward in a castle, a walled garden, or a room.  Her follower, St. John of the Cross, spoke of a way, a climb, a movement in a direction or a pilgrimage upward.  When you pray, do you find God within, or does prayer take you away?  How would you describe your prayer life?

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Since I started writing this feature, friends from my local church have told me how scared they were the first time someone turned to them and said, "Why don't you lead us in prayer?"  There are others who have no trouble formulating the right prayer in public, but avoid praying in private, when there is nobody listening, except God.  In both cases, the only way to lose your shyness is to begin the journey.  Prayer is a walk with Jesus at whatever pace we can handle.  He will be there for the first step and for every step.

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Sometimes we need structure even in free-form prayer.  Without it, we have the equivalent of writer's block.  Here is one suggested by a friend, following the acronym ACTS.  First, Adoration: think in awe of God as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.  What does God mean for you and for our world?  Second, Confession: unburden yourself of your shortcomings. Name your sins.  Ask forgiveness.  Next, Thanks for all the mercies, all the graces God has shown.  Finally, Supplication.   What do you ask of God?  Be specific.  Structure may help you -- give "ACTS" a try.

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When Jesus went out to a lonely place, the disciples found him and said "Everyone is searching for you."  (Mark 1: 37)  Have you noticed how Christ's ministry worked?  He went about the country as a preacher, and people came to him with their needs.  He didn't jump around like some kind of super-hero looking for wrongs to right and correcting them with a wave of his hand.  No, people came to him, among them a gentile woman with a sick daughter. (Matt. 15:21-28)  At first Jesus did not answer, then he explained that he must make himself known to the Jews.  She persisted, and Jesus relented: "O woman, great is your faith!  Be it done for you as you desire," and her daughter was healed.  Search for Christ.  Bring your needs to his attention.  Persistence.  Faith.  This is still the way to approach Jesus in prayer.

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My grandmother came back from Arizona and said, "When you look at the Grand Canyon, you can't be an atheist."  Maybe you have felt that too, but why?  There undoubtedly are places that inspire awe:   the grove at Delphi, Canyon de Chelly, Mount Fuji.  There are certain events that awaken the soul:   baptisms, weddings, graduations.  There is art.  There is music.  When your soul is ignited, keep the flame alive with prayer.  Pray right at that moment.  Pray again when the moment ends, and give thanks.  Remember that moment in prayer that very night, and again the next morning.  Keep the flame alive and let the soul catch fire.

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My great-great-grandfather once wrote that his mother had lived to be almost 100 in order to pray for her children.  There were nine of them, some of whom had left Norway for Chicago.  When I first read this, I said, "No, just good genes!"  Now that I have grown children, I understand what she meant.  As you lose physical and social control over your children, your spiritual involvement, which lay hidden by other responsibilities, can emerge.  Now I know exactly what my Norwegian ancestor must have prayed over a century ago, and I am beginning to understand how it kept her going.   "Watch over our children now, when we cannot.  Guide them, protect them.  Let us know when they need our help.  And take care of them when we are gone."

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Some advice from the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, who decided that he would devote his first waking hour to prayer: "'Lord, I know that I spend a certain amount of that morning prayer daydreaming, problem-solving, and I'm not sure I can cut that out.  I'll try, but the important thing is, I'm not going to give that time to anybody else.  So even though it may not unite me as much with you as it should, nobody else is going to get that time.'  What I have found as time has gone on is that the effect of that first hour doesn't end when the hour is up.  That hour certainly unites me with the Lord in the early part of the day, but it keeps me connected to him throughout the rest of the day as well....  Without prayer, you cannot be connected or you cannot remain united with the Lord.  It's absolutely essential."

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More from Cardinal Bernardin.  While lying in  the hospital with overwhelming physical discomfort from cancer, he recalled, "I remember saying to the friends who visited me, 'Pray while you're well, because if you wait until you're sick you might not be able to do it.'  They looked at me, astonished.  I said, 'I'm in so much discomfort that I can't focus on prayer.'  My faith is still present.  There is nothing wrong with my faith, but in terms of prayer, I'm just too preoccupied with the pain.  I'm going to remember that I must pray when I am well!"  By the time he died, the list of fellow cancer patients he prayed for each day grew to over 700, and all he could do was clutch the list to his heart and pray for them all at once.

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Experts on prayer refer to a condition called dryness:  the desire to pray, but not knowing what to say.  They prescribe a common sense solution: Don't worry.  This may be a good time to listen rather than to speak.  Repeat a familiar prayer; pause and find new meaning in the words.  Praying brings an awareness of something that is true all the time, that God is always with us.  Even if you have nothing to say, you are in God's presence.  How could that time be wasted?

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Christ is waiting for us in other people.  "For I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was thirsty ... Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me."  (Matt. 25:45)  You encounter an old man at the airport who doesn't speak English, desperate to find his flight.  A disoriented woman on downtown streets, who ought to be pointed to a soup kitchen.  A cry from a distant part of the world for help after earthquakes or floods.  A family member whose hunger is spiritual, not physical.  In each case, Christ is staring you in the face.  You will never come closer to him in this life than at that moment.  Pray hard that Christ will appear to you again and again in the form of brothers and sisters in need.  Pray hard that you will know how to respond.

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One May I was lucky enough to be in Klepp, Norway, on confirmation Sunday, the very parish where one of my immigrant ancestors had been confirmed in 1839.  Confirmands still gather at a stone cross, erected almost 1,000 years ago, not long after the Vikings converted to Christianity.  "I am the vine and you are the branches, says the Lord; and he who lives in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit."  (John 15:5)  Think of the long branches that connect you to Christ, branches that reach across oceans.  Give thanks for those who carried the Gospel to your family long ago.  Give thanks for those who carried the vine to America.  Give thanks for those who grafted the branch in your own heart.  Give thanks for all of them, so many of them, all the way back to the women and men around Christ who spread the goods news of the Gospel in every direction, and leading right to you.

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Since September 11, I have found this famous prayer by Saint Teresa of Ávila to be of great comfort.  It was found after this sixteenth-century Spanish saint died, squeezed into the margin of one of her books:

    God Alone Is Enough

Let nothing disturb you,

Nothing discourage you,

Everything passes,

God never changes,

Patience overcomes it all.

To each who belongs to God

Nothing is lacking:

God alone is enough.

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Are we more sophisticated, or have we lost something over 50 years?  You decide.  I have a book about prayer written in 1946.  Its stories at first seem naďve.  For three years, 12 boys in Georgia sought divine guidance for the World War II Allied leaders.  Too young to fight, after the fall of Bataan they vowed to do something to help victory.  They decided to pray.  Gen. Edward King, who made the death march, thanked the boys in person and told them that their prayers must have been a "mighty influence."  President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and other leaders thanked them, as well.  The book's preface quotes Tennyson, a Victorian poet who may seem outdated to some: 

More things are wrought by prayer

Than this world dreams of. 

Wherefore let thy voice

Rise like a fountain for me night and day.

Have all our prayers since September 11 made this book seem less naďve?

Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary                                               23

Have you considered the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta in context the context of September 11 and related events? Our lives draw meaning from what happens later on ... history's perspective, God's perspective.  History will record that during the years leading up to September 11, she left Albania to work in South Asia, a region mainly ignored by the developed world.  As hatreds built up and the region was on the verge of explosions that would convulse even the United States, she offered a simple healing ministry to the poorest of the poor without regard to religious or ethnic considerations.  When she died in 1997, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist joined Christian in mourning as her body was carried through crowded streets.  Knowing what we know now -- what God knew from the start -- Mother Teresa's witness takes on a more profound meaning.  May we all draw inspiration from her life during the challenges to come.  May our own lives offer a witness to Christ in the context of what lies ahead.

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A best-seller advocates the use of the prayer of Jabez (IChron. 4:10) as a path to success: "Oh that thou wouldst bless me and enlarge my border, and that thy hand might be with me, and that thou wouldst keep me from harm so that it might not hurt me!"  While any prayer is better than no prayer, remember that prayer is dialogue, not magic words.  Consider the Lord's Prayer -- our model, not our talisman.  Nothing about riches, just the modesty of our daily bread.  The territory to be enlarged is God's:  "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."  The problem with the prayer of Jabez?  It doesn't ask for enough.  When you pray, seek to identify God's will, and ask that it be done with your help.  Ask for nothing less.

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I have been asked, "Isn't prayer that deals in specifics just like the kid who prays for a new bicycle?"    I have struggled with this question, and my response is this.  We already have the best gift we could ever have, the only gift that matters, salvation through our Lord, Jesus Christ.  Any time we pray, we already are confident in that gift.  For that reason, prayer that sounds like, Give me something else!, is out of line.  Read that treasure house of prayer, the Psalms.  Prayerful requests arise from someone engaged in the struggles of daily life and who looks for the help only God can give, not a free ride: I am in a storm, give me shelter.  You were the guide in my youth, help me in old age.  I know I have enemies, keep me from their snares.  Lead me in the paths of righteousness.  Remember the gift that already is yours, and you will know what to ask for in prayer.  It won't be a short-cut to getting something you could work for yourself.

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My mother has had Alzheimer's Disease for many years.  What do you do when the one who taught you to pray is still alive, but can no longer pray?  Of course, I pray for her, as I pray for other loved ones.  But I also have started praying on her behalf.  If she could, what would she pray?  Certainly the Lord's Prayer.  I also offer other prayers that she taught me, even the simple graces of childhood.  Finally, I try to pray for the family from her perspective, and for the peace and justice issues that concerned her so much.  This has given me a different vantage point to view the family and the world, one that, in effect, she still is teaching me.  Are there people in your life who no longer can pray? Give them some help.

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People tell me they still have trouble finding the right words for prayer.  You are in good company, and there is help.  Consider the counsel of St. Paul in Romans 8:26: "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words."


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Don't be caught in the trap of thinking that elegant words are the only form of prayer.  According to St. Teresa of Ávila, this is a particular mistake of the intelligent among us.  "I advise them not to spend all their time in [using their reasoning powers]; their method of prayer is most meritorious, but, enjoying it as they do, they fail to realize that they ought to have a kind of Sunday ... a period of rest from their labor.... Let them imagine themselves ... in the presence of Christ, and let them remain in conversation with Him, and delighting in Him, without wearying their minds or fatiguing themselves by composing speeches to Him, but laying their needs before Him...."

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The Spirit lives in our hearts, not symbolically, but literally.  Do you believe that?  "But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has commissioned us; he has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee."  (2 Cor. 1: 21-22)   Don't you ever feel the Spirit move within you?  Of course you do.  The Spirit lives there, and you can feel it.  This experience is your starting point, your guarantee. At those times, remember the words of the old spiritual:  "Every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart, I will pray."

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Think of your favorite pastor.  Pray in thanksgiving and for the welfare of that pastor, in this world and the next.  Try to remember every member of the clergy, every religious,  in your life -- interims, chaplains, youth ministers.  Recall who baptized you, who confirmed you and those who did the same for your children.  Recall pastors who consoled you in times of sorrow.  Who married your parents?  Pray for each one.  Think of Sunday school teachers, the great-aunt who gave you your first Bible, the grandmother who said grace at family meals, your godparents, the family friends who took an interest in your spiritual welfare. Think of the church workers you have come in contact with, missionaries you have met or supported, religious figures who helped to change history in your own time by praying for social justice and putting their lives on the line, chaplains in the armed forces, volunteers in church social programs that affected your life.  Pray for them all.  Who says we don't believe in flocks of angels?  There are so many, you can't name them all!

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Praying like a child.  We all have a sense of what that means -- unforced prayer, natural prayer, trusting prayer.  Prayer based on simple, uncomplicated belief.  Prayer as of a young child to a beloved parent.  When earthquakes convulsed El Salvador, I asked one of our church school teachers if she had helped her class to pray for the children there in our sister congregation.  Her response: "Help?  These kids don't need any help.  They know how to pray.  We are the ones that need help!"   When Jesus said, "Let the children to come unto me, do not hinder them," he was not speaking only of the young.  The rest of the passage is: "for to such belongs the kingdom of God.  Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it."  (Mark 10: 14-15)  Can you put yourself back into the mind of a child and pray, as you did long ago?

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Praying like a grown-up.  Are you one of the grown-ups in your family willing to face the facts, to see things clearly, to make decisions, to take responsibility and to do what does not come easily?  Are you a grown-up or does it seem easier to practice avoidance?  A dear friend of mine suspects that many adults shy away from prayer because they are afraid of what they might hear, they are afraid of making hard decisions, afraid of the cost.  But spiritual life is the same as family life: in the long run, avoidance causes more problems, more anguish and more distress than seeing things clearly.  "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."  (Matt. 11: 28-30)  Don't be afraid to pray like a grown-up.

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Have you ever considered the way that other people had the ability to shape the ministry of Jesus?  First, Mary at Cana: "They have no wine."  And later to the servants: "Do whatever he tells you."    The disciples: "Lord, teach us to pray."  The centurion: "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word and my servant will be healed."  The criminal crucified at his side:  "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."  Each time, the key was faith.  You, too, have the power to shape his ministry.  The key still is faith.  You can play a part in God's plan.  In the words of the hymn, "Take it to the Lord in prayer."

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Have you known people who desired to serve but didn't fit in?  People of good will running for office who were not elected.  Volunteers who wanted to serve on charitable boards, but weren't asked.  Lawyers willing to take a pay cut to serve as judges but weren't chosen. The best of intentions met with nothing but frustration.  The work of the church is very different.  From the first moment that you pray, you already fit in and your service begins.

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St. Teresa of Ávila, who has meant so much to so many in matters of the spirit, said that one who knows God is better able to do his works.  A spiritual life is not a program for withdrawal.  Just the opposite.  The Spirit catches fire, and the fire spreads.  First, you want to tell people what has been happening in your life.  Then, you see what is around you with greater clarity, and you want to do something about it.  It is painful not to become involved, not to make things better.  Saint Teresa herself founded an order of nuns known as the "shoeless," sisters who chose a life of poverty.  The convents she established still survive almost 500 years later.  The spiritual masterpieces we can read today she wrote while sitting on a floor, using a writing table we would regard as a stool.  Restless, energetic and marvelously effective in this world -- that is the portrait of a Christian spiritual master.

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I heard a  religious figure described this way:  "He is not afraid of intimacy.  In religious terms, that means a life of prayer."  Is there a connection between intimacy and prayer?  Of course there is.  Opening yourself up to another person is a risk some are afraid to take, yet sharing love with another person -- sharing all -- is a human experience like none other.  Opening yourself up to God in prayer also involves risks, but God is love.  Why are people afraid of intimacy?  Often through fear of hearing that they must change.  And they are right.  Intimacy always leads to change, profound change, as the needs of another become the desires of your own heart.  Yet intimacy, with another person and with God, is worth the risk.  Be not afraid!

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What holds people back from prayer?  One obstacle is the mistaken belief that you will be doing all the work, but in reality, your work is as nothing compared to God's.  You prepare the ground and plant a mustard seed, then something happens and the seed grows into a plant that towers over other plants.  Who was in charge of that miracle?  You don't need expert knowledge to plant that seed; anyone can do it.  Just open your heart, and God takes over.  More will be asked of you, of course.  You will be asked to take the gifts from that plant, to use the gifts yourself, to share them with others, to prepare new ground and to plant new seeds.  But again and again, what happens to that seed is a miracle, and the miracle is God's.

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Something else holding people back from prayer is thinking that conditions must be ideal, that you need a long period of total silence, even a complete withdrawal.  How many of us can find the time for regular retreats?  You need to find ways to pray throughout your day:  The first moments when you wake up.  While walking and exercising.  During travel.  At bedtime.  In church.  Yes, I said in church, because not everyone finds moments for private prayer in church or finds ways to make the words they read or the prayers they hear their own, which is an active mental process.  Remember the false dichotomy of quality time versus ordinary time with children?  From the child's point of view, it turns out that any time together with you has value.  Any time with God has infinite value, even moments on the run.  Open up your heart during those moments, and the still, small voice of God will speak to you.

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Don't let doubt keep you from praying.  Doubt and belief seem to have some mysterious connection.  Think of how often great figures of the Bible doubted, not just Thomas, but other believers also doubted along the way.  Sarah laughed when told she would have a baby at an advanced age.  Of course she doubted!  Doubt suggests that you are taking the issue of faith seriously.  Doubt often arises from the reaction of "I can't believe what I see!"  You are trying to fit together experiences that clash.  You cannot believe it all at first.  Take your doubts to God in prayer.  What better way to resolve them?  The enemy of the spiritual life is not doubt, but indifference.  "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you."

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When I first told my pastor about my new experiences with prayer, he said, "That's great.  You are learning to trust the Spirit."  Trust.  According to Webster, "a firm belief in the honesty, integrity, reliability, of a person or thing; faith; reliance."  The implication is that the Spirit was always there, but that my attitude has changed.  The suggestion is that trust can and will grow as experiences build up and the basis for reliance becomes stronger and stronger.  What lies hidden will come to light.  "There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit."  (1 Cor. 12:4)   Pray that you may learn to trust the Spirit.  Pray that your trust may grow.

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Next time you are in church, notice this: as the congregation turns to the Lord's Prayer, something happens.  The eyes close.  There is a hush.  Familiar words come from the heart.  The feeling is deeper, the reverence more profound.  The silence lingers after the "amen."  When you are on your own, something similar happens even in your mind.  Your spirituality slips into another gear when you pray the Lord's Prayer.  No prayer can compare with the Lord's Prayer, of course, but each prayer that you hold in your memory is an old friend, a companion for life.  When you pray, it is effortless.  You are united with all those who have said that prayer since time immemorial - family members, saints, everyone.  You may hold only two or three prayers in your heart, but how many lifelong friends do you have?  Turn to your old friends often, prayers that are companions for life.

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It is never too late to make new friends ... or to learn new prayers.  You may regret that you only hold a few prayers in your memory.  You probably learned them as a child. You turn to them for reassurance.  They give voice to your soul when you can find no other words.  It's not too late to learn new prayers.  Memory work for an adult is real work, but you can do it.  Here is a prayer by John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890).  Commit it to memory, and turn to it as a new companion:


May He support us all the day long till the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the world is hushed and the fever of life is over, and our work is done!  Then in His mercy may He give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.

Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary                                               43

I wasn't quite right when I said that you probably only know a few prayers by heart.  Think of the hymns you know.  Most function beautifully as prayers, even if you only remember a verse or two.  Just play them out in your mind.  "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "How Great Thou Art" are full of wisdom and praise.  "Spirit of God Descend  Upon My Heart" and "Open My Eyes, that I May See" actually are written in the form of a prayer.  Think of all the spirituals you know and how they reflect a wide range of moods and emotions.  "Jacob's Ladder," which you learned as a child, tells the story of spiritual ascent in simple language.  Each prayer you know by heart is a friend for life, and it turns out you have more friends than you thought you did.

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Harry R. Moody and David Carroll's Five Stages of the Soul argues that literature of psychological development omits an element of the human condition that always has been at the heart and soul of every human culture from primordial time -- the spiritual element.  Without this essential component, no theory of human development can be authentic or complete.  The authors sketch a map of human potential including the sacred and the secular, drawing on the experience of ordinary people and of saints from many religions.  After reading this book, you will wonder how any student of human nature could have overlooked our spiritual yearnings as a vital part of the story.

Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary                                               45

One of the marvels of the Internet is that the life of the spirit is a leading topic.  This is not a surprise to you or me; we have seen how the hunger for spirituality is universal.  Surf the net for prayers!  You will find more beautiful prayers out there than any library can hold.  Websites will connect you to the prayer life of religious communities all over the world.  E-mail services will send you Bible verses and prayers every day.  The ether is alive with blessings and praise, giving a new dimension to Psalm 34: "I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth."    And when you find a prayer that you want to treasure, paste it into the memopad of your handheld device.  Find the websites that have the Bible on-line, and paste in your favorite Psalms.  Don't let the nonsense on the Internet put you off!

46                       Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary

"My soul thirsts for you like a parched land" (Psalm 143).   Do you have friends whose spiritual thirst takes them to one tradition after another, ransacking bookstores, sampling meditation techniques and spiritual exercises?  I wish them luck, but I believe that most of us can make progress right where we are, seeking the kingdom of God that is within us and looking for God in the ordinary and not so ordinary events of daily life. Our own tradition has readied a banquet for the spirit.  The words of David:  "You prepare a table before me" (Psalm 23).  Come to the table!  And of Jesus:  "Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25).  Claim your inheritance!  From St. Paul:   "For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life" (Eph. 2).   Following our own tradition allows to say with the psalmist:  "My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast" (Psalm 63).

Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary                                               47

The Oxford Book of Prayer organizes its collection according to themes of the Lord's Prayer:  OUR FATHER - dependence.  WHO ART IN HEAVEN - affirmation.  HALLOWED BE THEY NAME - blessing and thanksgiving.  THY KINGDOM COME - longing; seeking; doing; serving.  THY WILL BE DONE - dedication; obedience.  AS IT IS IN HEAVEN - guidance; acceptance.  GIVE US THIS DAY - daily; graces.  FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES - penitence.  AS WE FORGIVE - relationships.  LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION - right living.  DELIVER US FROM EVIL - protection; suffering; compassion.  FOR THINE IS THE KINGDOM - devotion; contemplation; gifts of the Spirit; sacraments.  FOR EVER AND EVER - death and eternity; the Virgin, martyrs, and saints; blessings.  This is one editor's list.  How would you draw up your own list of themes for prayer?  Could you ever call it complete?

48                       Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary

On vacation in the Virgin Islands one December, I heard a local radio show that made me laugh.  The host said:  "You know, we have a thing or two to learn from the Muslims. Do you know that they pray every day?  More than once!  Now most of us only pray when we have a close call like when you just miss being in a car crash, or when a coconut falls from a tree and misses your head."  A great point!  Do you only pray when you have a close call?  That's not enough.  Don't wait for the falling coconut!  Pray every day!

Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary                                               49

When I told my pastor how far gone my mother was with Alzheimer's Disease, he asked, "Have you tried saying the Lord's Prayer with her?"  In his experience, sometimes an unresponsive patient will join in.  To me, this confirms how deeply seated a prayer that you know by heart can be.  I am not a neurologist, but my guess is that the brain files a beloved prayer away with music, and not with ordinary speech.  Sometimes a patient can sing a song flawlessly but cannot carry on a conversation.  In the case of my mother, it was too late, but if there is someone in your life who suffers a terrible disease and would have known the Lord's Prayer, maybe you can offer some degree of assurance through prayer, if only for a moment.

50                       Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary

Is it enough to pray in church?  Jesus taught otherwise (Matthew 6:6):  "But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who is in secret will reward you."  Do you stop praying if you can't find a quiet refuge?  No.  St. Paul taught (I Thes. 5:17):  "Pray without ceasing."  Is it enough to pray on your own?  No.  After Jesus left to be with his Father, "his followers were constantly devoting themselves in prayer."  (Acts 1:14)  From the Pentecost until this very day, the followers of Christ "have devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."  (Acts 2:42)  Pray alone, and pray together with brothers and sisters in Christ.  No single form of prayer is enough.

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"To keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness."  (2 Cor. 12)  We don't know exactly what St. Paul was referring to, but what he wanted to tell us is clear.  If even this apostle had a weakness, then all of us surely do.  Don't let fear of your own shortcomings hold you back from prayer.  Yes, your weakness will be there waiting for you, but what better way to confront it than in the presence of God?  St. Paul again:  "Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith.  Test yourselves.  Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?"  (2 Cor. 13)  After a frank assessment of your condition, you can seek the help you need, both spiritual help and the services and support we offer each other.

52                       Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary

Do not have the illusion that prayer can ward off the difficulties of the human condition, the suffering that we all endure.  Do not have the illusion that prayer is a substitute for repentance. Despite all of this, because of all of this, prayer offers consolation and spiritual insights.  Amid the sorrow of our lives, being spiritually awake offers joy.  "I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent.  Listen!  I am standing at the door knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me."  (Rev. 3:19-20)  Prayer offers a privileged relationship with Christ himself, but you are the one who must open the door.

Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary                                               53

Quoting psychological literature, The Five Stages of the Soul describes the coping mechanism of "habituation," a screening out of the background and the familiar.  In contrast is "mindfulness," a heightened awareness; being awake, including spiritually.  Habituation:  A week after moving into a high rise, you no longer notice the view.  Hard at work, you only see what is on your computer screen.  Your life is so busy that you never pray.  Mindfulness:  Considering the lilies of the field in all their glory.  Seeing the image of God in other people.  Listening for that still, small voice.  Praying is being mindful, spiritually awake: "Open my eyes, that I may see glimpses of truth Thou hast for me; place in my hands the wonderful key that shall unclasp and set me free.  Silently now, I wait for thee, ready, my God, Thy will to see; open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine!"  The words of a famous theologian?  No, Clara H. Fiske Scott, a music teacher in the Ladies Seminary, Lyons, Iowa, over a century ago.  We all can awaken to God in prayer.

54                       Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary

Prayer and travel?  There is a connection.  In travel, you are literally removed from your everyday life.  Travel breaks your daily routines, opens your eyes to your surroundings and opens your ears to new voices and new ideas. Pilgrimages and retreats draw power from this break from the ordinary.  When traveling for pleasure, you are enchanted when you see things you have wondered about but never have seen.  A street in Paris is moving to a tourist in a way that it is not to the Parisian, who is accustomed to the place.  While traveling for pleasure, take the opportunity to broaden your spiritual horizons through prayer.  Even while traveling on business, take advantage of those unscheduled times of solitude for prayer, self-examination and reflection.  Open up that Gideon's Bible by your bedside.  Read the verses with new vision.  Don't let the moment slip by.

Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary                                               55

Art and prayer?  There is a strong connection, including heightened awareness, imagination, insight.  The artist sees something that is not obvious to the rest of us and the act of creation follows:  the form carved from stone, the truth unlocked by a figure of speech, the emotional resonance created by a musical chord.  Consider an example from one of my favorite poets, the Uruguayan, Juana de Ibarbourou.  In "Running Water" she discerns the presence of the riverbed in the water splashing from her faucet; she feels the woods and the breath of the wind.  Each drop brings a greeting from a faraway place to her home in the city.  Only someone who is spiritually awake could see so much.  The possibilities of art are limitless.  The possibilities of prayer are limitless.  We have barely scratched the surface of either one.

56                       Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary

Does a life of prayer turn you inward, away from other people?  No, just the opposite.  The routines of habituation narrow the focus and harden the heart.  Spiritual mindfulness broadens the view and opens the heart.  An example?  It is hard to see that we are made in God's image as we go about our business and meet people in daily encounters.  With prayer, you look deeper.  You realize that everyone you see meets God in prayer, as you do yourself, or has that potential.  In fact, many are closer to God than you are.  The Beatitudes chart the special blessings given to those who experience deep human needs:  the poor in spirit, those who mourn, or who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Once you look inward in prayer, you can see other people from the inside out, as children of God.  After prayer, you will never look at others the same way again.  The image of God is more than skin deep!  It describes our own spiritual potential, as well.

Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary                                               57

When I was a kid, I wondered why my grandmother cried when she saw floods or other disasters on the TV news.  Did she know these people?  Didn't she understand that there was a disaster somewhere in the world every day?  At the university, I met her polar opposite.  For him, "good news" was important news in terms of politics or economics.  "Bad news" was all the rest that he took little interest in:  human interest stories, acts of heroism, crimes or disasters, unless on such a scale that they impacted world affairs.  If you take an interest in the world's travails through prayer, you will move in the direction of my grandmother.  A definition of praying is opening your heart, and you will find it impossible to be indifferent to the matters you pray about.  The world will become a smaller place.  You will seek concrete ways to help out.


58                       Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary

What happened to St. Thomas Aquinas?  On the feast of St. Nicholas in 1273, this great philosopher laid down his pen.  His life's work, the Summa Theologiae, was incomplete.  He explained to his sister, "All that I have written seems to me nothing but straw ...compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me."  Tragedy?  No.  Breakthrough.  Some profound experience had occurred.  Experience of God changes everything, even for theologians.  It puts all human activity in perspective, even the study of religion.  My hope for you is that as your vocabulary of prayer expands, as your prayer life broadens and deepens, you will feel that it is less necessary to read about prayer or religion.  Trust in the Spirit.  Continue your education, of course, and keep up your curiosity, but dare to cross the threshold.  Do not hold back, wondering about God.  Experience and worship God through prayer.

Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary                                               59

I will offer a reading list if you never let reading about prayer become a substitute for prayer itself!  The Thomas Nelson edition of the New Revised Standard Version has an index to all the prayers in the Bible.  The Roman Catholic Book of Hours has a wonderful Four-Week Psalter.   Nothing surpasses the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in majesty of expression.  The hallmark of the Oxford Book of Prayer is the literary quality of the selections.  For insights on suffering, read The Gift of Peace by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.  Try Interior Castle and Autobiography by Saint Teresa of Ávila.  The Five Stages of the Soul by H.R. Moody and D. Carroll is a psychological view of spirituality.  Jim Marion's Putting on the Mind of Christ is a fascinating study by a modern mystic.  Finally, the eastern orthodox tradition offers the ancient texts of The Philokalia and The Art of Prayer -- tough-going and esoteric, but full of guidance.

60           Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus."  (Phil.2:5) Dimly very, very dimly, I am beginning to understand how prayer can begin to make this happen.  Jesus had a special love for the sick.  When you pray for someone who is sick, it is not an empty gesture.  In some mysterious way, you take  responsibility, you become involved.  The mind of Christ is in you.  As you pray, you see others, you see the world, from a vantage outside your own.  You look beneath the surface.  You make connections.  The mind of Christ is in you.  The more you pray, the more you realize that your mind is the dwelling place of the Spirit.  You want your thoughts to be fitting for a place where you meet God.  You take responsibility for your interior life.  The mind of Christ is in you.  More and more, you feel the Spirit within you.  The Spirit is said to be the love shared between Father and the Son.  That same love is yours.  The mind of Christ is in you.

Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary                                               61

In this series, we have traveled around the world, rummaged through old texts, and shared some very personal experiences, all with the hope of deepening your spiritual life and mine.  How to sum up?  First, with St. Augustine's comment on 1 John 4:7-10:  "even if nothing more were to be said in all the pages of Sacred Scripture, and all we heard from the mouth of the Holy Spirit were that 'God is love,' there would be nothing else we would need to look for."  And second, with my own practical advice:  "Pray every day."


62                       Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary

Let the last words in this series be those of St. Paul in his letter to the church at Ephesus, a congregation just like yours and mine, with members like each of us (Eph. 3:16-19):  "I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."

Notes follow below.






Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary -- Notes                                             

Notes below are indicated by the number of each meditation.

6.  Eliza M. Hickok, "Prayer," Best Loved Poems, ed. James Gilchrist Lawson (New York:  Fleming H. Revell Co., 1933) p. 160.

8.  George Weigel, Witness to Hope:  The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York, Cliff Street Books, 1999) p. 7.

10.  See the various editions of Interior Castle, Autobiography and Way of Perfection by Saint Teresa of Ávila.  See trans. Kiernan Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross (Washington, D.C., ICS Publications, 1991). 

16.  Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, The Gift of Peace:  Personal Reflections (Chicago, Illinois, Loyola Press, 1997) p. 97-98, 100.

17.  Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, The Gift of Peace:  Personal Reflections (Chicago, Illinois, Loyola Press, 1997) p. 67-68.

21.  Translated by the author.  The original:  Saint Teresa of Ávila, "Nada te turbe": 

Nada te turbe,
Nada te espante
todo se pasa
Dios no se muda
La paciencia
todo lo alcanza
quien a Dios tiene
nada le falta
Sólo Dios basta.

22.  Frank C. Laubach, Prayer:  the Mightiest Force in the World (New York, Fleming H. Revell Co., 1946).

23.  This was one of her prayers: 

"Make us worthy, Lord, to serve our fellow-men throughout the world who live and die in poverty or hunger.  Give them, through our hands, this day their daily bread, and by our understanding love, give peace and joy."  Mother Teresa, Calcutta,  included in ed. George Appleton, The Oxford Book of Prayer (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985) pp. 75-76.

24.  Bruce Wilkinson and Howard Hendricks, The Prayer of Jabez:  Breaking through to the Blessed Life (Multomah Publishers, 2000).

28.  Saint Teresa of Ávila (trans. E. Allison Peers), The Life of Teresa of Jesus:  The Autobiography of Teresa of Ávila (New York, Image Books, 1991) ch. xiii, p. 143.

33.  Wedding feast at Cana:  John 2.  The centurion:  Matthew 8:8.  Teach us to pray:  Luke 11:1.  Jesus, remember me:  Luke 23:42.

35.  For a wonderful, old-fashioned biography, see Marcelle Auclair, Saint Teresa of Ávila (Petersham, MA, St. Bede's Publications, 1988).

37.  The mustard seed:  Matthew 13:31-32.

39.  Thomas:  John 20:27.   Sarah:  Genesis 18:12.

42.  John Henry Cardinal Newman, "May he support us all the day long," included in ed. George Appleton, The Oxford Book of Prayer (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985) p. 101.

44.  Harry R. Moody and David Carroll, Five Stages of the Soul (New York, Anchor Books, 1997).

47.  Ed. George Appleton, The Oxford Book of Prayer (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985).

53.  Harry R. Moody and David Carroll, Five Stages of the Soul (New York, Anchor Books, 1997).

55. Juana de Ibarbourou, "El Agua Corriente," included in Obras Escogidas (Editorial Andres Bello, Santiago de Chile, 1998) p. 95.

58.  Quoted by Joseph Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas:  Three Essays (London, St. Augustine Press, Inc.; 1999) (Pieper adds "The last word of St. Thomas is not communication but silence. And it is not death which takes the pen out of his hand. His tongue is stilled by the superabundance of life in the mystery of God. He is silent, not because he has nothing further to say; he is silent because he has been allowed a glimpse into the inexpressible depths of that mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech.  The acts of the canonization process record: On the feast of St. Nicholas, in the year 1273, as Thomas turned back to his work after Holy Mass, he was strangely altered. He remained steadily silent; he did not write; he dictated nothing. He laid aside the Summa Theologica on which he had been working. Abruptly, in the middle of the treatise on the Sacrament of Penance, he stopped writing.")

59.  Holy Bible, The New Revised Standard Version (Tennessee, Thomas Nelson, 1990). 

Trans. International Commission on English in the Liturgy, Christian Prayer:  The Liturgy of the Hours (Boston, MA, Daughters of St. Paul, St. Paul Editions, 1976). 

The Book of Common Prayer and Adminstration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church, Together with The Psalter or Psalms of David, According to the use of The Episcopal Church (New York, Oxford University Press, 1990. 

Ed. George Appleton, The Oxford Book of Prayer (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1985). 

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, The Gift of Peace:  Personal Reflections (Chicago, Illinois, Loyola Press, 1997). 

Saint Teresa of Ávila (trans. Mirabai Starr), Interior Castle (New York, Riverhead Books, 2002).  Saint Teresa of Ávila (trans. E. Allison Peers), The Way of Perfection (New York, Image Books, 1991).  Saint Teresa of Ávila (trans. E. Allison Peers), The Life of Teresa of Jesus:  The Autobiography of Teresa of Ávila (New York, Image Books, 1991). 

Harry R. Moody and David Carroll, Five Stages of the Soul (New York, Anchor Books, 1997). 

Jim Marion, Putting on the Mind of Christ:  The Inner Work of Christian Spirituality  (Charlottesville, Va., Hamton Roads Press Publishing Company, Inc., 2000).   

Compiled by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, The Art of Prayer:  An Orthodox Anthology (London, Faber and Faber, 1997). 

Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, The Philokalia:  The Complete Text (London, Faber and Faber, especially volume I (1979) and volume II (1981))

61.  St. Augustine, "In Epist. Ioann. Ad Parthos," 7, 5.

This book is dedicated to the Prayer Chain of Northminster Presbyterian Church, Evanston, Illinois, whose members have helped to keep the Spirit alive over the years by offering prayers for many.

Gary T. Johnson, Evanston, Ilinois.  June 2002.

Expanding Your Prayer Vocabulary


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