Layout Image

What is Prayer?

By David Finke

I was blessed to be a part of an intergenerational program led by Ken and Katharine Jacobsen during Blue River Quarterly Meeting, of Illinois Yearly Meeting held near Springfield, Illinois, in May. The integration of adult and children’s program provided in this meeting seemed seam­less to me: Never before have I felt the unity and harmony of what Friends of both age groups were led to do and share with each other. Prayer was a common theme, with slightly different exercises, and yet we were all looking at the same phenomena, sharing in a common language.

In his orientation on Saturday, Ken had noted that whereas Quakers usually express their prayer in silence, “our Celtic brothers and sisters are apt to seek God in poetry, song, work, movement, artistic expression.” Ken encouraged participants to consider a variety of ways in which we connect with the divine presence, starting with asking the children (if they wanted to, and as moved) to share from some expression they’d given the day before about what they experienced prayer to be. I regret I didn’t write down any of this, but was impressed how many of the young Friends had things to say and how clearly they expressed it. I commended them in modeling for adults how to be heard: by standing and using a strong voice that could carry their measure of truth to those of us with weaker hearing.

Ken then asked adults to say how they experienced prayer. As I reflected I found when I am truly in prayer I experience several elements. They are:

Listening — So often we may think of prayer as “talk­ing to God,” even telling God what to do… as if we might know better! But Quakers, with worship based in silent waiting, have taught me that my part of the communication is best as I settle down to where I can hear and be guided. I may not be ready to accept the guidance that is given to me, but ultimately it is refreshing and life-giving.

Truth — When I am in prayer, regardless of the setting, I have opportunity to be in touch with reality (Paul Tillich has helpfully given me the phrase for God as “ultimate and intimate reality.”) In this place there is no room for sham, for pretense, for self-importance. It is sobering. But it is a touchstone and plumb-line for measuring what is in my life, searching and chastening my thoughts and desires, pointing to new vistas for engaging with what really matters. Sometimes it is like the “refiner’s fire” of which the prophet writes, driving away that which is lesser, which contaminates, which is not pure. “Search me, O God, and know my ways; try me and know my thoughts…” In this state, prayer can be a radical purging, bringing us out of the mud and mire and to a place of holiness where we can ask that “the words of our mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable” in God’s sight, our Lord and our redeemer.

Opening — When in prayer, there can be new aware­ness, both of my state and of the state of the world, including our Religious Society, near and far. When at this place, there may be a sense of leading, in which God calls us to act.

Wordlessness — Although Friends know I am much given to words, and love language and exploring thoughts with words, when I’m in prayer — and it happens especially when I am outside, in nature, being ministered to by birds and animals — then I find that Truth does not require words, or even our thoughts. Wordless wonder may descend upon me, leading to a great sense of rejoicing, which I often feel impelled to try to share with others.
In this quarterly meeting as other adults shared their sense of prayer, several more words were given which I jotted down, much appreciating their testimony which concurs with mine. There were these themes:

Connection — The heart-to-heart relation with other human beings, and the connectedness with nature that goes far beyond our species.

Gratitude — An abundant sense of thanksgiving, for bounties beyond our deserving or awareness.

Trust — Several spoke of how “faith” is best under­stood not in terms of “belief” in ideas and principles and propositions, but rather in a stance toward God, an attitude toward life in which we are both humbled and empowered.

All of this insight and experience was a preface to settling into our concluding hour of meeting for worship, in which even more was given to us. What a joy to have shared — with fun and enthusiasm — the various dimensions in which we can experience God, and even dare to imagine what Paul meant when he urged that we “pray without ceasing.”

David participates in FUM via his mem­bership in 57th St. Meeting when he can be in Chicago (part of both Western and Illinois Yearly Meetings). He now lives in Columbia, Missouri. His voca­tion as a self-employed printer is now supplemented by a calling to assist and celebrate with four relatives all over 87 years of age.