Lord, Teach Us to Pray


A sermon preached on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost by the Very Reverend Tyler Doherty. Here he reflects on a phrase from the week’s gospel reading: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

I remember when I was in Philadelphia, I had the opportunity to meet with one of my spiritual heroes—Fr. Martin Laird, an Augustinian friar and teacher of prayer. He had just published his beautiful little book Into the Silent Land, which was earning high praise from the likes of then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Desmond Tutu. My rector and I took him to lunch with the idea that we would try to convince him to lead a retreat at our parish, and as we sat on the patio of the Philadelphia Cricket Club waiting for our meal and sipping Sweet Tea, we got to talking about (what else) the desert fathers and mothers.

We were talking about the intimate relationships between some of the shadowy figures in Christian spirituality—like how Evagrius of Pontus was actually John Cassian’s teacher in the way of prayer. I was struck, at the time, by the way that prayer in the early church was something passed on, handed over, traditioned, from teacher to disciple, something that in seems to have been largely lost in contemporary Christianity in the West. The yoga studios and zendos and satsang meetings are full of earnest seekers wanting to learn how to pray, wanting a path, but the Church has little to offer them.

We chatted some more about the Church as a school for love, of parishes being places where people could learn the life of prayer and deepen their relationship with God. We talked about what it might mean for the spiritual journey of each individual Christian to be the focus of our ministry. And then I popped the question that I had been dying to ask Fr. Martin, “Who has been the greatest teacher of prayer in your life?”

Fr. Martin looked at little puzzled. He took a sip of Sweet Tea, placed his glass carefully back on the table and looked at me hard for what seemed an eternity. I felt myself suddenly anxious for my cheeseburger and fries to arrive. Anything to dispel the tension. “Why God, of course!” came Fr. Martin’s reply. That simple answer signaled a seismic shift in my understanding of the life of prayer. Up until that moment, I had mistakenly presumed that prayer was something I did. It was about my actions, the deployment of techniques that correctly applied would somehow unite me with God. Instead, Fr. Martin reminded me that prayer is relationship, that prayer is actually God’s work in us. We don’t learn techniques of prayer, we are slowly made into prayer through deepening relationship with the Source of all beauty, goodness, and truth.

If prayer is God’s always-already present action in us, that changes the entire picture of what it means to pray. Rather than me having to discover the correct “method” that will produce the intended “result,” becoming prayer is the result of me letting go of the controls, of stepping out of the boat of techniques. It slowly dawned on our that troubles and distress in the life of prayer arise from our instinctive assumption that the method is the prayer, and so we gauge the genuineness and success of the prayer by how well the method has worked.

Instead of methods of prayer, Fr. Martin reminded me that prayer is a relationship—a relationship that God has already established with us in the depths of our heart, at the ground of our being. “For the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit” as Paul says in his Letter to the Romans (5:5). Latter on in Paul’s theological masterpiece he writes, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

Not knowing how to pray is a reminder that prayer isn’t about mastering techniques, methods. Prayer is not our attempt to “get to” God, but letting God get at us, a surrender, a release, an openness and receptivity to the Prayer of Jesus to the Father that is the only true prayer. Our job is to slip into the stream of love that flows between Jesus and Father in the Spirit, which is why, ultimately, there aren’t any techniques or methods of prayer. There is only Christ. There is only letting Jesus pray in us. “Lord, teach us to pray,” is a reminder that it is in disposing ourselves to God, opening to Him, that we gradually learn to abide in him, to trust in Him rather than our prepackaged methods and techniques.

So growth in prayer is not about learning to say our prayers, but in becoming more and more the prayer that is Jesus. The Lord’s prayer can be said as set, formal prayer, of course, but it can also be heard as a description of Jesus’ relationship to the Father. Jesus is the one who sees God not as bearded man in the sky, but as Poppa, Daddy, so intimate that he is closer than thinking, closer than breathing, closer than consciousness itself. Jesus is the one who turns away from all self-centeredness, self-will, ideas about how things should be and opens completely, totally to the will of God. Jesus is the one who doesn’t just forgive, but who is boundary-crossing, healing, forgiveness and reconciliation itself.

All very well and good you might say, but that doesn’t do me much good. It’s lovely that Jesus is the one who calls God Abba, who is totally transparent to the will of the Father, who is forgiveness, who trusts that even as his life narrows to the tree on the garbage heap outside the city walls, his daily bread, everything he needs is provided by God. But what about us?

This is where we quickly get hoodwinked into thinking that God in Christ is “out there.” When we complain that if it’s all about Jesus it can’t be about us, we miss the most startling fact of being made in the image and likeness of God. Who we are, at the deepest level, is Christ, is Jesus. The pattern of love, devotion, service, forgiveness and trust outlined in the Lord’s Prayer describes what a truly human human life looks life. And the astounding thing is that this work has actually already been accomplished for us by Christ. It is done. It is finished. Once and for all. The only thing remaining is for us to allow this finished work to find its full expression in our lives, to let ourselves be loved into loving by standing where Jesus standings, breathing the air he breathes, slipping into the stream of love at the ground of our being that is our truest and deepest identity.

As Ruth Burrows OCD writes, “Religious people on the whole think that by generous ascetic and spiritual effort they come eventually to an experience of union with God. This is not so. Only One has attained the Father and we can attain him only insofar as we allow ourselves to be caught up in Jesus, carried along by Jesus.” Doesn’t that shift the whole idea of prayer? Doesn’t being carried along by Jesus, allowing oneself to float on the stream of love that is his relationship to the Father in the Spirit, dispel all notions of prayer as a matter of method or technique with ourselves and our efforts at the center? Doesn’t this shift our whole perspective from “saying our prayers” to “allowing ourselves to be prayed by God?”

In a fast-paced, over-scheduled, busy North American context, a proper understanding of what prayer is is essential. Otherwise, prayer is likely to be seen as something we should do. Another thing to add to the to-do list along with getting in shape, eating better, reading that book on how to be a perfectly attuned parent, and getting our teeth fixed. Prayer is not one more thing “to do,” but something we already are. We simply have to open, receive, become little, and allow the prayer that is always already going on to become the ground from which we live.

If the ultimate prayer is simply being in God, being present to the presence, resting as the awareness of I AM, then once we get habituated to simply being, we start to see where our suffering, our misery, our upset comes from—worrying in the future, dwelling on the past. We identify with our thoughts and quickly make ourselves, and others, miserable. Dwelling in Christ, abiding in Him, allowing his presence to be present in, with, and for us we see the dead-end nature of 90% of what occupies our minds. What’s wrong with right now, the saying goes, unless you think about it?

Letting Christ pray in us, allowing the Lord to teach us to pray, is incredibly good news. You are already prayer! There is no where to go and nothing to do, but to let this prayer pray you until with Paul we utter those astounding words, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Then we go out as Christ to all whom we meet as daily bread, as forgiveness, as messengers of God’s Abba love for all God’s children, as tuning forks resonating on his healing and reconciling frequency.