The Grace of Solitary Prayer

Christian Spirituality

In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. —Mark 1:35

By Julia Gatta

The regular rhythms of Christian prayer are liturgical: Eucharist and Daily Office. But a sole diet of liturgical prayer runs the risk of becoming rote and, in time, exhausting. Communal forms of prayer start to lose depth if they do not oscillate with a different kind of prayer: solitary personal engagement with God. While prayer with others requires fixed liturgies for “common prayer,” prayer in solitude allows a breadth of freedom and elasticity.

Setting aside certain times and places where we can pray “in secret” involves embracing a measure of solitude and silence. In taking this step, we will encounter considerable resistance both within and outside us. Our culture is afraid of silence. Everywhere we are bombarded with stimuli that, paradoxically, act as an anesthetic dulling our sensibilities and awareness. A bit of quiet solitude, however, often restores our sense of perspective, clears our minds, and cleanses our words.

Yet we avoid it. Blaise Pascal once observed that “most of man’s troubles come from his not being able to sit quietly in his chamber.” Why this restlessness? Is it not because solitude involves confrontation with ourselves and, if we pray “in secret,” with God? Our dreams, if nothing else, tell us there is a riot of passions and memories churning inside us; and our waking consciousness, if we are honest, would confirm the same. Who wants to spend time alone with someone like us? And then, despite our liberal ideas of a deity positively oozing with “unconditional acceptance,” deep down we may dread God, too. Who wants to spend time alone with a God who, knowing us all too well, just might judge and condemn us?

It takes a leap of faith to pray. True prayer is honest prayer: it does not evade who we are or “what we have done or left undone.” To stand under God’s judgment is to enter into God’s truth; it is bracing yet liberating. Judgment, it turns out, is not at all the same thing as condemnation.

Once we have figured out when and where we can pray, and how often we will commit ourselves to it, what next? Thomas Keating has likened personal prayer to having a “date with God,” and this metaphor highlights its intrinsic freedom and versatility. A “date” is a gift of time spent with someone we love or wish to know better. We do not see it as an “obligation.” Prayer is a gift God wants to give us, not one more duty to add to our “to do” list. Just how we might spend the time with God may be as varied as how we spend time on a date: sometimes conversing, sometimes in an exchange of confidences, sometimes listening attentively, sometimes in silent communion.

Prayer should not be complicated. We can pray simply by reciting, slowly and attentively, a well-known prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer or any other previously composed prayer that gives voice to our concerns or longings. We can also talk to God in our own words: a form of prayer called “colloquy,” or conversation. As in any conversation, however, we must remember to listen to the other party! While God does not usually speak to us in words formed in our minds (although this occasionally happens), sometimes a verse or image from Scripture pops up or we sense a nudge in a certain direction. Sometimes after enduring what seems like divine silence, God’s response unfolds over the course of our day. No wonder George Herbert ended up calling prayer “something understood.”

With many cares weighing upon us — for ourselves, for others whom we know, and for our world — petitionary prayer seems natural enough. Jesus encourages us to pray for what is needful: “Ask, seek, and knock!” Yet many of us wonder about the authenticity of such prayer. Doesn’t God already “know our needs before we ask”? It seems foolish to bring some matter to God’s attention or attempt to change God’s mind about something. So intercession becomes a problem for us.

It may be, however, that we are seeing things the wrong way around. When we are prompted to pray for someone or something, perhaps God is trying to bring that circumstance to our attention, and God is doing that through our very natural love for others or ourselves. It is the Holy Spirit, after all, who forms prayer in us, who draws us into the prayer of Jesus, as we cry out “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:6). According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, intercession is the work of the glorified Christ. As our great high priest, Jesus “always lives to make intercession” for us (Heb. 7:25). So intercession joins us to this prayer of Christ, uniting us to his saving love for us and for our world. From all this we can see that Christian prayer is profoundly trinitarian. Indeed, our experience of prayer hardly makes sense apart from the Trinity: for the Spirit, inspiring our prayer, forms in us Christ’s own prayer to the Father, bringing us into communion with the dynamic, loving relations of the Holy Trinity.

The efficacy of intercession also depends upon our membership in the communion of saints. For whenever we pray, even in physical solitude, we remain grounded in the spiritual community of all who belong to Christ. Our prayers affect this corporate body of Christ. Just as our actions make a difference in people’s lives, so do our prayers.

Prayer alters the spiritual force field that connects us one to another with untold reverberations.

But how do we know whether we are praying for the right thing, for what is truly God’s will? We do not always. Of course, true prayer never asks for something that is against God’s revealed will — wishing another ill, for example, or praying for something that panders to our vanity or greed. But even apart from such cases, our prayers are often formed in the dark. We cannot be certain that our prayer accords with Christ’s prayer, but we offer it anyhow, trusting that the Spirit will lead us to a better prayer, if needed. In fact, our prayers of intercession often undergo change across time if we persevere. The crucial thing is transparency, for such vulnerability before God exposes us to the action of grace. If we entrust our true desires to God, we give God access to parts of ourselves that may need to change. Paraphrasing Julian of Norwich, T.S. Eliot speaks toward the end of his great poem Four Quartets of the “purification of our motive in the ground of our beseeching.” If we repeatedly lay before God our heartfelt requests, whatever is unworthy in them will come under divine judgment, be purified, and finally transformed. Whatever is inspired by the Holy Spirit will come to fruition, in this life or the age to come.

The Rev. Julia Gatta is professor of pastoral theology at the University of the South’s School of Theology in Sewanee. This is the fifth in a series of articles.

Image by James Chan/Pixabay, via Wikimedia Commons

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