Sunday, September 30, 2018

TTT #26 Prayer is More an Attitude and Action than Words

PRAYER IS A MATTER that I have long been interested in, for both theological and practical reasons. Those in faith traditions other than Christianity have perhaps been more concerned about meditation or other similar religious practices.
This article on prayer is taken from only one part of Chapter 26 in Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now (TTT). (I encourage you to read the other three parts by clicking here).
“Prayer is the Soul’s Breathing”
During a trip back to Japan in 2010, a Japanese friend gave me a little book that she had been reading. It was a book on prayer written by Ichiro Okumura, a Catholic priest. I read more than half of that delightful book before discovering that there is an English translation: Awakening to Prayer (1994).
I was struck by the words at the beginning of Okumura’s third chapter: “prayer is the soul’s breathing.” I had not remembered those words that he attributed to Augustine, but I have said, or thought, something quite similar from time to time. That is part of the reason I maintain that prayer is more an attitude and action than words.
While we generally do not think about breathing, our physical life depends on it. And while we may not always be conscious of praying, a healthy spiritual life is dependent upon being in an attitude of prayer continuously.
In recent years in this country, and from ancient times in Asia, considerable attention has been given by some people as to how they breathe. But most of the time, most of us breathe, of necessity, without giving much thought to it at all. Perhaps that is the way it is, or can be, or maybe even should be, with prayer. 
“Prayer without Ceasing”
There are times, and probably there should be more times, that we pray consciously, deliberately, and intentionally. But even more important is praying “without ceasing.”
Christians have often puzzled over the meaning of the words “pray without ceasing” in the New Testament (1 Thess. 5:17). But if prayer is like breathing, perhaps it is not so hard to understand—or to do.
We humans don’t find it hard to breathe without ceasing. Of course, we can hold our breath for a short time, but apart from those brief moments, to cease breathing is to cease living.
In a similar way, failure to pray without ceasing is detrimental to our spiritual life.
It is quite apparent that we cannot articulate prayers ceaselessly. But what if prayer is more an attitude than spoken words?
What if prayer is primarily a recognition that we are continually in the presence of God, always dependent on God, and that God’s Spirit is always around us and in us?
Prayer as “Being with God”
Mark E. Thibodeaux is a Jesuit priest who wrote Armchair Mystic: Easing Into Contemplative Prayer (2001). In that book, he explains the four stages of prayer: talking at God, talking to God, listening to God, and being with God.
True prayer is primarily what is experienced in Thibodeaux’s fourth stage. And that is what I mean by attitude: prayer is the attitude or sense of being with God and of God being with us.
Thus, whether working or playing, whether conversing or reading, whether eating or relaxing, all we do can be with an attitude of awareness of God’s presence.
Knowing that makes it possible to realize that we can, indeed, pray without ceasing.


  1. It is a bit disappointing not to have more comments about this article on prayer, but I was happy to receive the following comments from a Thinking Friend in Georgia:

    "Just finished teaching Modeling Prayer Session 4 at my church, and have been asked to speak at a Victorious Women Rally in October about prayer. Have been immersed in the study of prayer so your blog is of particular interest to me.

    "'Awakening to Prayer' by Ichiro Okumura seems to be out of print but have found links to it.

    "Especially interested in 'prayer is the soul’s breathing.'”

    1. The used book copies of "Awakening to Prayer" at are ridiculously expensive--but the Kindle version is only $7.15.

  2. Here is the bulk of an email about this article from a local Thinking Friend:

    "I think that this is another one of the key topics which needs to be covered. Glad you did.

    "There are many avenues of prayer which work for various people. For me, the words ARE important when communicating with God. I personally prefer the liturgical prayers (Biblical, Book of Common Prayer, etc.), but you are right, the focus must remain on communicating with God, not just saying the words. My personal favorite is confession (frequently Ps 51, or the Jesus Prayer), and the absolution which follows.

    "I also really like the Prayer Rope, which assists in maintaining prayer during the day. The timing habit is also important, especially Matins and Vespers for me. Some seem to get tied up in their "devotions" rather than their devotion. Keith Green and Peter Lord addressed these quite well, as did Ern Baxter.

    "Interestingly, this is a key area of instruction which Jesus' disciples requested help. Jesus' prayer is still a good model, as well as a good prayer to liturgically pray.

    "My favorite books on prayer is 'Praying for Others' by Tom Elliff (missionary to Zimbabwe)."

  3. Before 8:00 this morning, Thinking Friend Marilyn Peot sent the following substantial comments, which I much appreciate her sharing:

    "Leroy, you're writing on my favorite subject and practice! Not everyone seems to advert to the idea that prayer is not a project; it is a relationship. Who doesn't want to be in the presence of someone we exchange love with? Awareness of breathing (actually deliberately paying attention to it) is a way of coming quickly into the awareness of the Divine Breather and Whisperer, the One Who is Ultimate Intimacy.

    "Your words are balm for the soul. You are touching on the words and conviction of another Jesuit priest from Japan (Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle) who explains so well that it is through the Breath Prayer that we are moving into the paradigm shift humanity is slowly experiencing. It is the call to move from the head to the spirit...'a new level of consciousness in which the rational mind is transcended and a non-dualistic awareness is achieved.'"

    "This SJ experienced the horrors of the atom bomb--and was instrumental in the Peace Movement and Monument in Japan and oh, so much more! He was an international teacher. His book, LIVING IN THE NEW CONSCIOUSNESS is a compilation of short chapters where he 'sees and points out a place which another generation must make its home. There is a task worthy of our enthusiasm.' The Foreword goes on to say, 'The author's own enthusiasm is contagious.'"

  4. I heard Father Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle's name in Japan many times, but I am sorry to say I have read little to nothing by him. He was from Germany and died there in 1990, but I don't know when he left Japan. He is well-known in Japan as one of the foremost teachers to embrace both Roman Catholic Christianity and Zen Buddhism.

  5. I am still struggling with this concept of attitude. Even with a good attitude or intentions the wrong outcome is very possible. I don't know as I trust attitude. But I do think prayer is important. Especially the liturgical kind which is tried and true, and better expresses what I would hope to say. I am not sure of Zen at all - emptying oneself - it is a very different religion. (Some Zen methods are good for focus and stillness of body and soul just the same, the way the martial arts are.)

  6. In the full version of TTT #26, Leroy looks at Matthew 6 where Jesus not only gives us the Lord's Prayer, but also quite a bit of advice about praying. The theme is clear in verse one, "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven." Then Jesus says to do both our prayers and our alms in secret. Think of the irony in this, most churches do both in worship. We have several prayers, sometimes rather puffy with words, and we pass the offering plate, even though most people now donate through automatic bank deduction (at least at my church). This does not bother me, because we are doing worship, not alms or prayers per se. Whether I am leading in prayer, reading the day's scripture, or taking a turn to run the video recording for those not present, I know I cannot be totally inn the moment and still do a good job. Otherwise my pastor will walk out of the video image while I am concentrating on the sermon. (Yes, it has happened!) We distance ourselves from the immediacy of the worship service so others can worship better. The prayers where I have hope of finding "reward" are the prayers I do alone. These are the prayers that engage my thinking and God's response.

    As to the question of whether we should pray spontaneously, or nonverbally, or with traditional prayers, I believe the answer is "Yes." Just as my reading may be non-fiction, poetry, or a novel, so my mode of prayer may vary with my needs. Indeed, I consider what I do reading, studying, and responding to these blogs a form of prayer. In this, I owe Leroy a thank you for quoting Matthew 6:7 from NRSV. My old reading of "vain repetitions" had me thinking of Tibetan prayer wheels, while "heap up empty phrases" happens often enough at church!

  7. Leroy, your approach resonates with me. So much has been said, and written, about prayer and so much attention has been given to the use of “set prayers”, both liturgical and devotional. Your article prompted me to think of how I had been taught. As a shortcut I went back to see at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican, 1994) had to say about prayer. Well. the entire fourth, and final, section is about prayer: 75 pages, over 300 paragraphs. Prayer in the OT, NT and tradition of the Church, types of prayer, an exegesis of the “Our Father.”
    At its essence, the turning to God, the lifting of the heart and mind to God. Prayer, as you describe, as an orientation, an attitude, a way of life, “contemplation in action,”
    I think many Christians still live in the three-tiered world view, and use prayer as asking favor of an imagined father figure or as a source of power that will intercede and change the unfolding of what is happening in the world. So many devotional prayers are intercessory.
    When we try to orient our limited lives toward the ultimate reality we consider both transcendent and immanent, attitudes and expressions of awe, gratitude, and willingness to be of service, make sense to me—as a way of life and a fit to our breathing.