Talking to God seems like it should be as easy as falling off a log. But often it can feel more like climbing a cliff.
Even the most spiritually gifted can find their prayer dry, as we know from the sometimes despairing accounts of spiritual heroes like Mother Teresa.
But many obstacles to easy prayer have to do with the variety and flux of religious identity in American life. Some of us come from congregations that didn't leave us with a sense of ease about personal prayer. Others grew up being told exactly how to pray, but the old formulas now ring hollow, failing to keep up with our experiences and development. A third group has switched from a tradition that prays one way to a group that prays another and feels stranded in between.
No wonder we're confused.
How to solve these problems of the free religious market? We could try to get everyone to belong to the same tradition of faith and stick with the same form of worship with a lifelong and consistent intensity. Then we'd all know how to pray - although most of us would probably be praying for more freedom of religion.
But there is another possibility. The medieval meditation and prayer disciplines can ease our path to prayer. A modern interest in such practices is now decades old, but has only grown as more groups discover that they are useful and remarkably applicable.
Few of us still live as monks, but their techniques can help us build a spiritual trellis along which prayer can twine and flower even today. Here are four forms:
Labyrinths have existed almost as long as humanity; but it was during the 12th to 14th centuries that they found their Christian place - often built into the floors of great cathedrals like Our Lady of Chartres. In the centuries since, they became prayerful ways to experience a spiritual version of pilgrimage.
Today, thanks to a decades-long revival, labyrinths can be found in many places, from believers' back yards to some megachurches. We have turned them into the most free-form of the medieval practices. They can be used as a contemplative palate cleanser that puts us in the groove for prayer, as the locale for prayer itself or as a landscape for our own inner pilgrimage. Walking a maze can unmoor us from daily concerns just enough to make room for spiritual ones.
2. Fixed-hour prayer
This may appeal to more liturgically minded believers, but it also is becoming popular in other kinds of churches. Derived from the Liturgy of the Hours standardized by Benedictine monks starting in the 6th century on, it schedules specific sets of prayers at specific times of day - with names like lauds, prime, terce, etc. Especially in the "Divine Hours" adaptations by the late Phyllis Tickle, fixed-hour praying can be unexpectedly freeing. As you read the assigned texts, you feel other, more private prayers welling up in you.
3. Lectio Divina (Sacred reading)
Inspired by the Apostle Paul's words, "The word is nigh thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart," Lectio is a slow and meditative reading of a short scripture - not as text, but as an experience of the divine. The monks used it to complement their liturgical reading of Psalms and group prayers. Drawing on biblical texts, Lectio today is both the perfect way to free the mind and heart for solo prayer and can still be used to attain closeness to God.
4. The prayer wheel
As thousands of unstudied medieval manuscripts yield up their secrets, we can expect "new-old" methods of all sorts to be recovered. A forthcoming book I co-wrote explores a beautiful concentric diagram added onto the first page of an 1,100-year-old Gospels book from a German monastery. About 70 wheels like it are still around.
The prayer wheel is made up of four concentric circles surrounding the word "God" at the center. It looks a little like a target. Each band of the target contains a profound prayer (The outermost is the Lord's Prayer, or "Our Father. . ."). The wheel provides an ingenious method to compare and combine these and the fundamental Christian ideas they contain, forming seven additional prayer paths that run like spokes, to the divine bull's eye. It is both orthodox and inventive, as playful as a board game and as serious as "Thy will be done."
Whether these methods work for you may depend on whether you are Catholic or Protestant, high church or low, more comfortable with liturgy, Bible or the works of the Spirit. But each has the potential of making prayer more natural, more accessible and more inviting.
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Story by David Van Biema . Van Biema is the co-author, along with Patton Dodd and Jana Riess, of "The Prayer Wheel: A Daily Guide to Renewing Your Faith With a Rediscovered Spiritual Practice," coming from Convergent in February.