Soul-shaping Prayer

“Prayer is the light of the spirit, and the spirit, raised up to heaven by prayer, clings to God with the utmost tenderness. Like a child crying tearfully for its mother, it craves the milk that God provides. Prayer also stands before God as an honored ambassador. it gives joy to the spirit, peace to the heart. I speak of prayer, not words. It is the longing for God, love too deep for words, a gift not given by humans, but by God’s grace.” (John Chrysostom, c.347-407)

I came across this quote from John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, and thought it was worth putting out there for all of the readers of this blog. Over the past three weeks I’ve been working through some pretty intense studies of the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as the beliefs of the “Open Theism” movement, all the while reading a very contemplative book entitled “The Cloud of Unknowing.”

When I saw this quote, something in my spirit felt refreshed as I was brought back to a place of certainty, not about the doctrines of God’s foreknowledge, or our role in petitioning prayer, but about the simplicity and the necessity of making ourselves “available” before God as he shapes his will in us.

I’ve been challenged to pray a prayer these past two weeks called “The Jesus Prayer.” Feel free to look it up online. Its roots are in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but it comes directly from the cries of those who were impacted by Jesus during his time of ministry on earth.

“Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I have personally experienced a deep connection with God as I utter these words from a humble heart. In this particular prayer, I don’t have to think about and rattle off all the details of my current journey and lay them specifically before God as if he doesn’t already know.

Don’t get me wrong – I am well aware that the Bible speaks of us coming to God and presenting our requests with thanksgiving.  I am well aware that we are called to intercessory prayer. I am well aware that God promises to hear and answer us when we cry out to him for mercy, for healing, for divine providence. These are all wonderful reasons to pray.

I wonder, however, if we are being shaped incorrectly when we only come to God with an agenda. Is he incapable of moving, or acting on our behalf, unless we ask? Let’s be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that God needs us more than we need him. And of all that we need “from” him, the most important thing to remember is that we simply need his Presence.

I love what Moses told Yahweh in Exodus 33: 15-16: “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

When we are completely open to God, focused on his worthiness, aware of his presence, and surrendered of all the things we think we need in order to live happy lives in our little kingdoms, we are shaped into the kind of vessel he wants us to become. We become active, joyful participants in the work God is presently doing in his Kingdom among us, a people experiencing the “With-God-Life.”  [Notice I said our contemplation leads us to participation, but it is the right kind of participation, for the right reasons.]

Contemplative prayer, such as the kind John Chrysostom is referring to in this quote, leaves room for us to simply experience God’s love in “The Cloud of Unknowing” – the place where we lose ourselves and rest in the mystery of who he is.

The anonymous author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” said, “…take care that you make the worthiness of God the object of your special contemplation, rather than your own wretchedness. For they who are perfectly humble shall never lack anything, neither corporal nor spiritual. The reason is that they have God, in whom is all abundance; whoever has him, indeed…needs nothing else in this life.” (Chapter XXIII)

In all of this, realize that the prayer of contemplation, although it is not for everyone at all times, is a special invitation for us to experience God – free of expectation and free of despair. This is why John Chrysostom said it gives “joy to the spirit and peace to the heart.” This is good soul care for all God’s children!

May you experience God in new, soul-shaping ways as you ascend the hill of the Lord with clean hands and pure hearts. May you, by grace, pierce the Cloud of Unknowing with “hidden impulses of love.” May you experience anew the joy of simply being a child of a good God who loves you more than you could ever ask, imagine, or deserve. May you, like the famous contemplative, Mary of Bethany, lose yourself in the presence of your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

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