In the fall of 1999 I taught a Bible study course on the Psalms. It became clear to me that I was barely scratching the surface of what the Bible commanded and promised regarding prayer. Then came the dark weeks in New York after 9-11 when our whole city sank into a kind of corporate clinical depression, even as it rallied. For my family the shadow was intensified as my wife Kathy struggled with the effects of Crohn’s disease and then I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
At one point during all this my wife urged me to do something with her we had never been able to muster the self-discipline to do regularly. She asked me to pray with her every night. No, every night. She used an illustration that crystallized her feelings very well. As we remember it, she said something like this:
“Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget? Would you not get around to it some nights? No it would be so crucial that you wouldn’t forget, you would never miss. Well, if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray, we can’t let it just slip our minds.”
For both of us the penny dropped, we realized the seriousness of the issue, and we admitted that anything that was truly a non-negotiable necessity was something we could do. That was over twelve years ago, and Kathy and I can’t remember missing a single evening, at least by phone, even when we’ve been apart in different hemispheres.
Kathy’s jolting challenge, along with the growing conviction that I just didn’t get prayer, led me into a search. I wanted a far better personal prayer life. I began to read widely and experiment in prayer. As I looked around I quickly came to see that I was not alone.
“Can’t anyone teach me to pray?”
When Flannery O’Connor, the famous Southern writer, was 21 and studying writing in Iowa she sought to deepen her prayer life. She had to.
In 1946 she began keeping a hand-written prayer journal. In it she describes her struggles to be a great writer. “I want very much to succeed in the world with what I want to do I am so discouraged about my work. Mediocrity is a hard word to apply to oneself” These kinds of declarations can be found in the journal of any aspiring artist, but O’Connor did something different with these feelings. She prayed them. Here she followed a very ancient path, as did the Psalmists in the Old Testament, who did not merely identify, express, and vent their feelings but instead processed them with brutal honesty in the reality of God’s presence. Flannery O’Connor wrote in her book A Prayer Journal:
“effort at artistry in this rather than thinking of You and feeling inspired with the love I wish I had. Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moonwhat I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing. I do not know You God because I am in the way.”
Here O’Connor recognizes what Augustine saw clearly in his own prayer journal, The Confessions that living well depended on the re-ordering of our loves. To love our success more than God and our neighbor hardens the heart, making it less able to feel and sense. That, ironically, makes us poorer artists. Therefore, because she was a writer of extraordinary gifts, her only hope was in the constant soul re-orientation of prayer.
Yet she believed that with the journal “I have started on a new phase of my spiritual life the throwing off of certain adolescent habits and habits of mind. It does not take much to make us realize what fools we are, but the little it takes is long in coming. I see my ridiculous self by degrees.” O’Connor learned that prayer is not simply the solitary exploration of your own subjectivity. You are with another, and that Other is unique. God is the only person from whom you can hide nothing. Before Him you come to see yourself in a new, unique light. This is the most intense possible relationship between persons. Prayer therefore leads to a self-knowledge that is impossible to achieve any other way.
Rev. Dr. Timothy J. Keller, D.Min, is an American pastor, theologian and Christian apologist. He is best known as the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, New York, and the author of The New York Times bestselling books The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, The Prodigal God, and Prayer.
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