Christian History Home > Blog > 2009 > September > Ways to Pray
Ways to Pray
Diverse figures from church history offer surprisingly similar guidance for this core Christian practice.
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On September 16, The New York Times Magazine ran an exploration of prayer under the title, "Is There a Right Way to Pray?" In search of an answer to the title question, contributor Zev Chafets, a self-identified non-pray-er, visited the Brooklyn Tabernacle, a professional spiritual director in Manhattan, the rabbi half of the "God Squad," a Catholic theologian, and an Assemblies of God church outside Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.
Chafets received guidance as varied as "just sit and ponder," "give Jesus a big hand," "thank who or what seems appropriate," and, at The Brooklyn Tabernacle, complete directions for body and soul: "Let God begin the conversation. Keep your prayers brief and clear. Repeat simple Scripture-based phrases. Pray standing up to fight torpor. And pray directly facing others, eye to eye, in a loud, clear voice." He was most drawn to … well, you should read the article to find out.
Chafets' investigation sent me on a brief jaunt of my own—not to New York and America's first spa (I'm way too behind on grading to be traveling just now), but to the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. I didn't set myself a search agenda, hoping, like the reporter, to end up at least one place I hadn't expected to go.
The varied historical figures who popped up on my keyword search offered advice that overlapped very little with what Chafets heard but, to my surprise, they echoed each other across time and tradition. They asserted that prayer is rather simple, and it really is about asking for stuff.
CCEL first sent me to Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a 19th century British Baptist known as the "Prince of Preachers." In a reflection on Ezekiel 36:37, he wrote, "Prayer is always the preface to blessing. It goes before the blessing as the blessing's shadow. When the sunlight of God's mercies rises upon our necessities, it casts the shadow of prayer far down upon the plain."
The trigonometry of this illustration wasn't entirely clear to me, but I understood Spurgeon's next point: "Prayer is thus connected with the blessing to show us the value of it. If we had the blessings without asking for them, we should think them common things; but prayer makes our mercies more precious than diamonds." The relationship between necessity and mercy, request and blessing, might be mysterious, but it boils down to ask, receive, and give thanks.
For no obvious reason, CCEL next sent me to Justin Martyr, the author of the longest extant work of Christian apologetics from the second century. Justin mentioned prayer, almost in passing, as part of early Christian practice, including the "weekly worship of the Christians" (chapter LXVII).
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen.
Nothing fancy there. And while Justin does not explain how the early Christians prayed, or what for, or what they expected as a result, it is clear from the context of the chapter that needs were central. At these basic, early church services, the wealthy helped the needy, and food and other resources were collected for distribution to widows, orphans, the sick, the poor, the enslaved, and strangers. Surely a community so attentive to needs also understood prayer as an expression of want bearing a promise of relief.
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