What goes on when we pray?

I find myself thinking about this seemingly simple question once again. This time it was prompted not by a student but an adult. Last month, Church Publishing released Common Prayer for Children and Families, a collection of daily liturgies and prayers for all sorts of occasions that Jenifer Gamber and I wrote together. A parent who saw the book congratulated me and then asked if there was an accompanying companion piece or a guide. She suggested that parents and teachers often need both prayers themselves and an additional resource to assist them in theologically explaining to children (and perhaps themselves) what is going on when we pray.

My initially thought was, ‘But prayer teaches itself. The best way to learn about it is to do it.’ While that notion does contain some truth, the more I thought about it the more I came to the conclusion that, if we want to maximize its value, the teaching of prayer should be approached in a manner akin to how we teach Scripture. We don’t merely read the Bible and leave it to speak for itself, we also explore it together—often times with academic rigor, artistic creativity, and physical enactment—to enhance both our understanding of what was read and our capacity to be transformed by God through that reading. What if schools, congregations, and families approached prayer in a similar fashion?

In hope of finding some inspiring ways of thinking about prayer and clarifying what’s happening during pray, I read Ashley Cocksworth’s excellent book Prayer: A Guide for the Perplexed. At the heart of the book is an insight about prayer that struck me as revelation, which I had felt and known at an intuitive level but now, being conscious of this insight, I’ve had something of a transfiguration in my own experience of prayer and how I understand and explain what is going on. 

Expanding on the understanding of prayer as ‘a conversation’ with God, the insight is this: even before we talk to God in prayer, God is already speaking and having a conversation ‘in’ us. This follows the Episcopal tradition’s core belief in the presence of “Christ in all persons.” Whether or not I am aware of it or using a specifically Christian terminology, it is through ‘Christ within me’ (to borrow a phrase from St. Patrick’s prayer) that God is already speaking, already conversing, already praying. On this understanding, prayer does not start with our words but with practicing the presence of God and listening to the conversation already taking place deep within our souls.

Some standard entry points to prayer that help us to practice awareness of God’s presence include silence, music, body posture, breathing, lighting candles, gesturing, bowing, hand-clasping, the closing of eyes, the signing of oneself with a cross, the use of icons, a rosary, or incense to stimulate the bodily senses of sight, touch, or smell. The common factor throughout the practices just listed is that, prior to becoming a spoken conversation, they all underline that prayer is firstly an embodied conversation with God’s presence. This physical dimension of prayer is particularly important to emphasize for children, youth, and others with acute sensory lives.  

Once we become awake to Christ’s presence within us, and once we listen to what God is already saying, the Holy Spirit draws us into the Son’s eternal conversation with the Father. Thus, prayer incorporates us into the life of the Trinity.

Throughout this Lent, I pray that before you begin to speak in prayer, you’ll pause to practice the presence of God and listen for the eternal conversation God is already having within you. If patient enough, you may discover yourself echoing St. Augustine, saying God is “more intimate to me than I am to myself.” But you may also be surprised to already know some of the words to this conversation by heart—the words that Jesus prayed to the Father and taught us also to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, which are the same words Christ prays with us now, and the same words Christ has been praying within each of us since before we knew how to pray.