A Better Way to Think About Prayer

David Steindl-Rast

From: Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer. Copyright © 1984, Paulist Press, Inc., New York / Mahwah, NJ. Used with permission of Paulist Press.

May we presume that everyone knows what prayer is? From one point of view, the answer is “yes.” Every human being knows prayer from experience. Have we not all experienced moments in which our thirsting heart found itself with surprise drinking at the fountain of meaning? Much of our life may be a wandering in desert lands, but we do find springs of water. If what is called “God” means, in the language of experience, the ultimate Source of Meaning, then those moments that quench the thirst of the heart are moments of prayer. They are moments when we communicate with God, and that is, after all, the essence of prayer.

But do we recognize these meaningful moments as prayer? Here, the answer is often “no.” And under this aspect we cannot presume that everyone knows what prayer is. It happens that people who are in the habit of saying prayers at certain set times have their moments of genuine prayer precisely at times when they are not saying prayers. In fact, they may not even recognize their most prayerful moments as prayer. Others who never say formal prayers are nourished by deep moments of prayerfulness. Yet, they would be surprised to know that they are praying at all.

Suppose, for example, you are reciting Psalms. If all goes well, this may be a truly prayerful experience. But all doesn’t always go well. While reciting Psalms you may experience nothing but a struggle against distractions. Half an hour later you are watering your African violets. Now, suddenly the prayerfulness that never came during the prayers overwhelms you. You come alive from within. Your heart expands and embraces those velvet leaves, those blossoms looking up at you. The watering and the drinking become a give-and-take so intimate that you cannot separate the pouring of the water from the roots receiving it, the flower’s giving of joy from your drinking it in. And in a rush of gratefulness your heart celebrates this belonging together. As long as this lasts, everything has meaning, everything makes sense. You are communicating with your full self, with all there is, with God. Which was the real prayer, the Psalms or the watering of your violets?

Sooner or later we discover that prayers are not always prayer. This is a pity. But the other half of that insight is that prayer often happens without any prayers. And that should cheer us up. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to distinguish prayer from prayers. At least if we want to do what Scripture tells us and “pray continually” (Luke 18:1), we must distinguish praying from saying prayers. Otherwise, to pray continually would mean saying prayers uninterruptedly day and night. We need hardly attempt this to realize that it would not get us very far. If, on the other hand, prayer is simply communication with God, it can go on continually. In peak moments of awareness this communication will be more intense, of course. At other times it will be low key. But there is no reason why we should not be able to communicate with God in and through everything we do or suffer and so “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).

Where should we start? I can only suggest that we start where we are, that we begin with what comes easiest. Why not start by surveying your typical day? What is it that you tend to tackle with spontaneous mindfulness, so that without effort your whole heart is in it? Maybe it’s that first cup of coffee in the morning, the way it warms you and wakes you, or taking your dog for a walk, or giving a little child a piggyback ride. Your heart is in it and so you find meaning in it – not a meaning you could spell out in words, but meaning in which you can rest. These are moments of intense prayerfulness, though we might never have thought of them as prayer. They show us the close connection between praying and playing. These moments when our heart finds ever so briefly rest in God are samples that give us a taste of what prayer is meant to be. If we could maintain this inner attitude, our whole life would become prayer.

Granted, it is not easy to maintain the mindfulness, gratefulness, prayerfulness we experience in those wholehearted moments. But at least we know what we are aiming to maintain. It is like learning to balance a pencil on the tip of a finger. Talking about it is not much help. But when we for once have managed to do it, we know at least that we can do it, and how it is done. The rest is a matter of practice, of doing it over and over again, till it becomes second nature. Applied to prayer, this might mean eating and drinking every mouthful as mindfully as we drink that first cup of coffee. Soon we discover that eating and drinking can be prayer. Indeed, a meal ought to be a prayer. If we are to “pray without ceasing,” how could we stop praying while we eat and drink?

This approach has yet another advantage. It allows us to speak about prayer without using religious jargon. If we said “prayer,” someone might think we mean an activity to be added to our daily tasks. Right away we’d be back in the confusion between prayer and prayers. But if we call it mindfulness or wholehearted living, it is easier to recognize prayer as an attitude that should characterize all our activities. The more we come alive and awake, the more everything we do becomes prayer. Some people find it easier to eat and drink prayerfully – mindfully – than to say their prayers prayerfully. Should this surprise anyone? Why assume that our prayer life starts with saying prayers? If prayerfulness is our highest degree of aliveness, the starting point might be whenever we spontaneously come alive. Does it seem easier to recite a Psalm with recollection than to eat or drink or walk or hug with that same wonderment and concentration? It may well be the other way around. For some of us, saying prayers wholeheartedly may be the crowning achievement after we have learned to make every other activity prayer.

Excerpted from Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer by Brother David Steindl-Rast. Copyright © 1984 by David Steindl-Rast, Paulist Press, Inc., New York / Mahwah, NJ. Used with permission of Paulist Press. www.paulistpress.com

David Steindl-Rast is a Catholic Benedictine monk, notable for his active participation in interfaith dialogue and his work on the interaction between spirituality and science. For more information about Brother David, see his website: www.gratefulness.org