Can't Anyone Teach Me To Pray?1
WHEN FLANNERY O’CONNOR, THE FAMOUS SOUTHERN WRITER, WAS TWENTY-ONE YEARS OLD AND STUDYING WRITING IN IOWA, SHE SOUGHT TO DEEPEN HER PRAYER LIFE. SHE HAD TO.
In 1946 she began keeping a handwritten prayer journal. In it she describes her struggles to be a great writer. “I want very much to succeed in the world with what I want to do. . . . I am so discouraged about my work. . . . Mediocrity is a hard word to apply to oneself . . . yet it is impossible not to throw it at myself. . . . I have nothing to be proud of yet myself. I am stupid, quite as stupid as the people I ridicule.” These kinds of declarations can be found in the journal of any aspiring artist, but O’Connor did something different with these feelings. She prayed them. Here she followed a very ancient path, as did the psalmists in the Old Testament, who did not merely identify, express, and vent their feelings but also processed them with brutal honesty in God’s presence. O’Connor wrote of:
“. . . effort at artistry in this rather than thinking of You and feeling inspired with the love I wish I had. Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon . . . what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing. I do not know You God because I am in the way.”
Here O’Connor recognizes what Augustine saw clearly in his own prayer journal, the Confessions—that living well depended on the reordering of our loves. To love our success more than God and our neighbor hardens the heart, making us less able to feel and to sense. That, ironically, makes us poorer artists. Therefore, because O’Connor was a writer of extraordinary gifts who could have become haughty and self-absorbed, her only hope was in the constant soul reorientation of prayer. “Oh God please make my mind clear. Please make it clean . . . Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.”
She reflected on the discipline of writing out her prayers in the journal. She recognized the problem of the form. “I have decided this is not much as a direct medium of prayer. Prayer is not even as premeditated as this—it is of the moment and this is too slow for the moment.” Then there was the danger that what she was writing down wasn’t really prayer but ventilation. “I . . . want this to be . . . something in praise of God. It is probably more liable to being therapeutical . . . with the element of self underlying its thoughts.”
Yet with the journal she believed, “I have started on a new phase of my spiritual life . . . the throwing off of certain adolescent habits and habits of mind. It does not take much to make us realize what fools we are, but the little it takes is long in coming. I see my ridiculous self by degrees.” O’Connor learned that prayer is not simply the solitary exploration of your own subjectivity. You are with Another, and he is unique. God is the only person from whom you can hide nothing. Before him you will unavoidably come to see yourself in a new, unique light. Prayer therefore leads to a self-knowledge that is impossible to achieve any other way.
Cutting through everything else in O’Connor’s journal was a simple longing to learn truly how to pray. She knew intuitively that prayer was the key to everything else she needed to do and to be in life. She wasn’t content with the perfunctory religious observances of her past. “I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always fugitive. This way I have it every instant. I can feel a warmth of love beating me when I think and write this to You. Please do not let the explanations of the psychologists about this make it turn suddenly cold. . . .”
At the end of one entry, she simply called out, “Can’t anyone teach me how to pray?” Millions of people today are asking the same question. There is a sense of the necessity of prayer—we have to pray. But how?
Learning to Pray
In the summer after I was treated successfully for thyroid cancer, I made four practical changes to my life of private devotion. First, I took several months to go through the Psalms, summarizing each one. That enabled me to begin praying through the Psalms regularly, getting through all of them several times a year. The second thing I did was always to put in a time of meditation as a transitional discipline between my Bible reading and my time of prayer. Third, I did all I could to pray morning and evening rather than only in the morning. Fourth, I began praying with greater expectation.
The changes took some time to bear fruit, but after sustaining these practices for about two years, I began to have some breakthroughs. Despite ups and downs since then, I have found new sweetness in Christ and new bitterness too, because I could now see my heart more clearly in the new light of vital prayer. In other words, there were more restful experiences of love as well as more wrestling to see God triumph over evil, both in my own heart and in the world. These two experiences of prayer grew together like twin trees. I now believe that is how it should be. One stimulates the other. The result was a spiritual liveliness and strength that this Christian minister, for all my preaching, had not had before.
Prayer is nonetheless an exceedingly difficult subject to write about. That is not primarily because it is so indefinable but because, before it, we feel so small and helpless. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said that he had never written on prayer because of a sense of personal inadequacy in this area. I doubt, however, that any of the best authors on prayer in history felt more adequate than Lloyd-Jones did. The early-twentieth- century British writer P.T. Forsyth expressed my own feeling and aspiration better than I can.
“It is a difficult and even formidable thing to write on prayer, and one fears to touch the Ark. . . . But perhaps also the effort...may be graciously regarded by Him who ever liveth to make intercession as itself a prayer to know better how to pray.”
Prayer is the only entry way into genuine self-knowledge. It is also the main way we experience deep change—the reordering of our loves. Prayer is how God gives us so many of the unimaginable things he has for us. Indeed, prayer makes it safe for God to give us many of the things we most desire. It is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life.
We must learn to pray. We have to.
Excerpt from PRAYER by Timothy Keller. Reprinted by arrangement with DUTTON, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2014 by Timothy Keller