Why My Path to Prayer Is More of a Long and Winding Road

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is reported to have at least once uttered the words, “I am far too busy to pray for less than two hours a day.” While I am in no position to confirm if this is still the case for the Most Rev. Tutu, I have little hesitation in admitting that this is not the situation that I find my own prayer life in.

It has been an aim of mine to pray at least once a day for many years now. I believe that dedicated daily prayer is an effective way to further your relationship with God, and that it can become a truly empowering force in a hectic life. Having said this, I don’t think that I’ve ever managed more than a few days of daily prayer in a row! It is not that I hate prayer or praying, far from it. And it is not for want of trying. I love collecting prayers for use in my services, volumes of prayers litter my bookshelves and I also love discovering new forms of prayer. I particularly cherish the Ignation Daily Examen which I have tried to do daily before falling asleep since being taught it at a university retreat. I think it appeals to my inner sense of mysticism. I also recently joined the Iona Community as an associate member and I love the daily liturgy that members are given in a prayer book upon joining. The fact that it is structured greatly appeals to me, and I love the way that there is a list of members and associate members to pray for every day of the year. Still, far more often than not, these prayers go unspoken.

The fact of the matter is that each morning is taken up with flapping about, trying to get everything together to get out the door, and after a day of work I’m simply shattered. Maybe you can relate to this! Any little bits of time off I get are usually spent on domestic tasks (or more accurately, trying to avoid them), or trying to catch up on long overdue emails (and sometimes articles). I long for a form of prayer that can also bring some semblance of structure into my life! 

All of this said, my life isn’t bereft of prayer and spirituality. I enjoy a keen sense of the Spirit acting through creation. The sighting of a blade of grass growing through the pavement can bestow upon me a great feeling of joy, which usually causes me to give deep thanks and praise to God. This can definitely be a type of ‘prayer’, or communion with the Divine. The mystic and activist Simone Weil proclaimed that, “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer,” and, as my own inclination towards mysticism continues to grow, this is a sensation that I often experience and a sentiment I would agree with.

Despite my connection to God in this way I still feel a determination to make daily ‘formal’ prayer work. It is as if the weight of the obligation to pray (and even the feeling of guilt when I fail), rather than being a draining force like a millstone around my neck becomes an enabling force. Not only that, but I feel it can be a mistake to become overly reliant on mysticism and ‘feelings’. In The Screwtape Letters C. S. Lewis uses the character of the demon, Screwtape, to take a swipe at the Unitarian (and later Anglican) mystical theologian and Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who, “did not pray ‘with moving lips and bended knees’ but merely ‘composed his spirit to love’ and indulged ‘in a sense of supplication.’” Screwtape, as a demon, contends that, “this is exactly the sort of prayer we want […] clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time.” While I certainly do not take Screwtape’s word (or C. S. Lewis’s for that matter) as “gospel”, I do think there is a good point here. I certainly fit the description of “clever and lazy” and am very ready to acknowledge that discipline in one’s devotions might not be easy but should certainly be a goal.

Still, prayer is a spiritual practice, and I am still practicing as best I can. I have been told that sometimes the best prayer we can pray is to ask God how to pray. Maybe I should try that more often!

Do you value a daily discipline of prayer? Are you successful in praying daily? What kinds of prayers do you find useful in connecting you with God? 

Written by SCM Member Robin Hanford.