Prayer is fundamentally not about changing God’s mind, but about changing ours. It’s not as if we can change God’s mind, because talking about God having a “mind” is a rather anthropomorphic projection of how we think God works. Granted, there are lots of stories about Moses and prophets talking with God and persuading them not to take certain courses of action, and Jesus encourages us to persist in prayer – but I think that all of this discourse is simply talking because otherwise we could say nothing at all. In the face of the mystery of God someone like the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein might counsel us to say nothing, but we are wordy people, and so we use metaphors, analogies, similes, and stories to talk about our experience of the divine, always knowing that in the end these words are limited and must be negated.
So it is with prayer. When we pray aloud or silently – we use our brains-topped bodies and our minds (which I rather non-dualistically consider to be much the same things). If a person prays often and regularly, something may happen to that person. I find that I cease being so interested in controlling things and find myself more concerned with what little is actually within my scope of control. When I pray about what is beyond my scope of control, this says more about my level of concern about such things than my ability to change it – although God often then provides me with opportunities to influence situations, opportunities that I had not looked for or hoped for.
I have struggled with prayer over my life. I struggled to have a daily discipline, to be focused on the words and not drift even while reading or saying things. I have trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time, but I can easily think of two or three or even four things at once. People don’t have a stream of consciousness, they have multiple rivers flowing uncontrollably hither and thither, meandering here and carving out new channels. Prayer is a means of exercising some discipline over this.
My prayer is fairly simple. I meditate once a day for about twenty minutes using the Jesus Prayer, a practice hallowed by centuries in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. To time myself I use Insight Timer as an app on my phone, which is very useful at keeping track of one’s practice. Insight Timer has hundreds of guided meditation which I do not use so much, and for very reasonable fees it offers courses in meditation. It is an inter-faith online community that is very friendly. I usually meditate first thing in the morning, after feeding the dog and letting him out and boiling the water for the coffee (and letting the dog back in).
After breakfast I will say Morning Prayer, and sometime in the evening I will say Evening Prayer, sometimes adapted as Prayer at Late Night. When I was in Canada I used the forms in the Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada, but now that I am a priest of the Church of England I use Common Worship for Daily Prayer. Both the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada have similar Anglican principles, rooted in ancient monastic practices – psalms, readings from scripture, canticles, prayer on a number of subjects, finishing with the collect (a special prayer for the day or the week) and the Lord’s Prayer. It is all in books, but it, too is available as an app.
While it has taken me awhile to have this discipline, it does not make me particular holy. I still say stupid and offensive things, and there are many ways in which I fall short. However, I do think prayer has made me better – I am prompt to admit my mistakes, to acknowledge my character defects, and to try and do something about it. It has made me more sensitive to others. If I miss some part of this practice I do notice it. I think it helps to relax me and get me out of my own bubble. As I spend time on Twitter and Facebook and read a lot of news online, it also helps to re-centre me in the things that are the most important – scripture, tradition, silence, and ways to be open to the divine.
While I tend to have this daily practice on my own, I do have this sense of praying with the saints distant in time and space. It brings to a spiritual reality of the lines, “with saints and angels praising you . . .”.