When I was in elementary school, my family was in church every time the doors were open. That’s a bold statement to make but true none the less. In fact, not only were we there every time the doors were open, we were there even when they were not open – we were the church janitors! Though the church we attended was not particularly liturgical, it did have a structure for the services that included what I came to see as the dreaded “pastoral prayer.” This prayer could extend for ten to twelve minutes as the pastor made his way through the congregational needs and concerns.
As a young boy, I did not have the capacity to sustain long conversations with God. Short prayers before a meal and bedtime were the foundation of my conversations with God. Those early prayers were the first of what Mark Thibodeaux identifies as the four stages of prayer: talking AT God. I suspect that many of us learned to pray in this ritual way: hands folded and head bowed, you recite a memorized prayer taught to you by your parents. My family’s table prayer went like this: “Our Father, thank you for this food, in Jesus’ name, Amen.” The actual words of the prayer were not as important as the ritual expression of thanks for God’s provision. As I’ve grown older, I’ve folded other ritual prayers into my life as a way to unite myself with the millions of Christians over the centuries who have recited the same ritual prayers throughout the day.
As I grew and matured both in age and faith, I became more comfortable finding my own words to speak to God rather than parroting the ones I learned as a young child. In that way, I moved from talking AT God to talking TO God – the second stage in the development of prayer. I would just simply speak to God about whatever was happening in my life and sharing what I needed for Him to do on my behalf. This pattern of prayer – talking AT and TO God – was all I really knew growing up and through my adult life. Then a spiritual mentor led me to see that the mark of a mature person is the ability to really listen. This ability to listen well would also be vital to my spiritual formation and relationship with God. Under his tutelage, I began to understand prayer not as a monologue though which I made God aware of what was happening in my life and where I need Him to intervene, but as a conversation between the two of us. I began to search out ways in which I could create space for me to truly listen to God and thereby have my prayers become a conversation between God and me. That’s the third stage of prayer – listening TO God. I developed the habit of centering prayer and journaling to help me better listen and discern the voice of God.
It wasn’t until a few years ago when I read Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, that I discovered a fourth stage of prayer – being WITH God. Prayer becomes a posture I take before God in which I recognize the sacrament of the present moment and all the possibilities that holds for my relationship with God.
Do I still pray AT God? Absolutely. Do I still pray TO God? Everyday. But without the disciplines of listening to God through dedicated times and simply being with God in a posture of prayer throughout each day, my prayer life would be incomplete.
What about you?