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Learning to pray

By Sam Keyes

Teaching, like preaching, is hollow if it doesn’t affect you in some way. This spring I used the Alpha Youth films with some of my students. Alpha has been great for us, because even the students who come from “churched” situations often possess only the most cursory experience of the Christian life. Alpha has been good for me, too, because it has reconnected me with the evangelical experience that led me to Jesus in the first place as a kid.

If I’m honest with myself, some of my development as a more “Catholic” Christian has meant becoming more detached from the practice of personal prayer and study that seemed so essential in my evangelical youth. This isn’t how it should work, of course, and it’s not how I’ve ever intended it to work. Still, what started off several years ago as a release from the burden of individualistic piety has moved too far for me to a reliance on the Tradition at the expense of relationship.

I hate writing that — just as I’ve hated having to mention it a lot recently in the confessional. I’ve often relished sharing the latest essays (and rants) criticizing the whole “relationship, not a religion” mantra that so many of us heard in the youth groups of the Nineties and beyond (e.g., this recent one). But, partly because I’m in the business of trying to share the gospel with young people, I find that no level of sacramental theology and historical-intellectual coherence can substitute for the very personal encounter that we have with Jesus. The fact that we do and must encounter Jesus in and through the Church doesn’t change that.

So here’s an example. In episode 5 (“Why and How Do I Pray?”), the hosts present a variety of stories, some of which aren’t all that compelling. But what was compelling, for me at least, was the simplicity with which the hosts call us to prayer. Try it, they challenge. Try it and see. It comes across a bit like a spiritual Green Eggs and Ham, but I found myself deeply convicted about the ways that I make excuses about prayer. I’m so focused on intellectual questions about the meaning of prayer, and the proper kinds of public prayer, that it’s hard to remember that I am always in the presence of a God who delights in fellowship with us.


Beyond my spiritual health, other things are at stake. In the last couple of months I have invested a lot of time in helping two students from fully secular backgrounds investigate the claims of Christianity. One seems to be edging closer and closer to baptism; another seems less certain. And amid my attempts to strategize — trying to understand what it is that holds them back and whether there is anything I can do to draw them in — I confess it has only very rarely occurred to me to pray for them.

I don’t want to trivialize the power of prayer by treating it like a magic formula for fixing things we can’t otherwise fix. On the other hand, there’s a cynical suspicion that resists a little too forcefully the gnostic spiritualism of much American Christianity. What am I afraid of? I think in the end I’m just afraid to discover that prayer might actually be essential for something, that Jesus really means it when he suggests that our prayers might have a place in the accomplishment of God’s will, that the way, as Pusey reminds us, to follow the apostle’s teaching of “prayer without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) isn’t some mystical theological principle, but just to “set about doing it.”


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