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The noted art historian examines the intensely personal and private nature of prayer as part of one's building a relationship with God, discussing the expectations and practice of prayer and the links between prayer and personal growth.
Sister Wendy Beckett, adored and renowned art historian, has spent years in silence and contemplation in her calling as a nun. Her celebrated television specials and books about art have led her many admirers to ask about her own faith and practices. For the ﬁrst time, in this thoughtful examination of the nature of prayer, she reveals her deeply held beliefs about her religion and her intimate understanding of God.
What should I do during prayer? Can prayer really be as simple as a conversation? How do I let God enter my being? Do I need to belong to a religion in order to pray? Sister Wendy answers these and many other common questions, all the while imparting the importance of prayer in our daily lives. No book by Sister Wendy would be complete without art—accompanying her wisdom are thirteen beautiful reproductions of paintings that Sister Wendy has selected because of the spiritual connection she has with each.
Born in South Africa, SISTER WENDY BECKETT felt a vocation for religious life as a child and became a nun at the age of sixteen. An acclaimed art historian, she received widespread popularity through her television series and bestselling books. She continues to live in seclusion, spending the majority of each day in prayer and silence at a Carmelite monastery in Norfolk, England.
The Practice of Prayer
Do You Want to Pray?
One year--I forget the details--the Lenten sermons at Saint Patrick's in New York were given by a famous Jesuit who took prayer for his theme. He was much admired, but the compliment that stuck in his memory was that of an old priest who seemed to regard the very number and length of his sermons as constituting, per se, a sort of brilliant tour de force. "Because as you know, Father," he said, dropping his voice conspiratorially, "prayer's the simplest thing out." I hope the famous Jesuit did know, because the simplicity of prayer, its sheer, terrifying uncomplicatedness, seems to be the last thing most of us either know or want to know.
It is not difficult to intellectualize about prayer. Like love, beauty and motherhood, it quickly sets our eloquence aflow. It is not difficult, but it is perfectly futile. In fact, those glowing pages on prayer are worse than futile; they can be positively harmful. Writing about prayer, reading about prayer, talking about prayer, thinking about prayer, longing for prayer and wrapping myself more and more in these great cloudy sublimities can make me feel so aware of the spiritual--anything rather than actually praying. What am I doing but erecting a screen behind which I can safely maintain my self-esteem and hide away from God?
Ask yourself: what do I really want when I pray? Do you want to be possessed by God? Or to put the same question more honestly, do you want to want it? Then you have it. The one point Jesus stressed and repeated and brought up again is, "Whatever you ask the Father, He will grant it to you." His insistence on faith and perseverance are surely other ways of saying the same thing: you must really want, it must engross you. Wants that are passing, faint emotional desires that you do not press with burning conviction, these are things you do not ask "in Jesus' name"; how could you? But what you really want, "with all your heart and soul and mind and strength," that Jesus pledges himself to see that you are granted. He is not talking only, probably not even primarily, of prayer of petition, but of prayer. When you set yourself down to pray, what do you want? If you want God to take possession of you, then you are praying. That is all prayer is.
The astonishing thing about prayer is our inability to accept that if we have need of it, as we do, then because of God's goodness, it cannot be something that is difficult. Accept that God is good and that your relationship with Him is prayer, and you must conclude that prayer is an act of the utmost simplicity. Yet so many people seem to feel that there is some mysterious method, some way in that others know, but they do not. "Knock and it shall be opened to you," but they seem to believe that it needs some sort of Masonic knock and their own humble tapping will go unnoticed. What kind of God thinks of tricks, lays down arcane rules, makes things difficult? God wants to love us and to give Himself. He wants to draw us to Himself, strengthen us, and infuse His peace. The humblest, most modest, almost imperceptible rubbing of our fingers on the door, and it flies open.
Prayer is the last thing we should feel discouraged about. It concerns nobody except God--always longing only to give Himself to us in love--and our own decision. And that, too, is God's, "who works in us to will and to effect." In a very true sense, there is nothing more to say about prayer, "the simplest thing out."
Some artists seem to me, whether consciously or not, to use images that speak of the mystery of God. Craigie Aitchison is one. A favorite theme is the holy island of Lindisfarne seen across water, but here we feel the waters are not geographical (figure 1).
This boat sails on no specific sea, but on those mythic waters that have always been our image of the mysterious unknown of living. This is not an earthly sky, any more than this is an earthly sea. The small boat, its sail taut, does not reveal who is within it. Below our curious gaze, the sailor lies hidden. This boat that seemingly sails by itself can be seen to speak of prayer.
When we pray, we are likewise carried, borne along by a power that we do not and cannot direct. It is our prayer, our boat. It is we who have launched it on this sea of faith and we who stay quiet within it. But all the movement comes from God. We await Him, we surrender to Him. Where we want to go is not to the point; it is where God wants to take us. We do not see where that is. There is starlight, yes, but no sun or moon, no clarity of vision. Our world becomes duotone: scarlet sky, purple sea. All that is in our power is choice (as it is in life, which is meant to be prayer extended): do we stay still, hidden, unable to take control, or do we jump up and steer that boat ourselves, refusing God's lordship?
Put like that, it seems so obvious, yet it can be very hard to stay in this state of powerlessness, of blindness, of vulnerability accepted, when all that holds us motionless in the boat is our trust in God. But prayer is impossible without trust. We give our time and attention only and wholly because we believe that it is Jesus who prays within us. It is He who is united to His Father and we who live in Him--and so with that divine Father. We may not feel that, or on the contrary, it may be the overwhelming certainty on which all we are is centered. Feeling or nonfeeling are equally unimportant. What matters is to stay at rest in the boat, down below sight level, while the wind that is the Holy Spirit bears us over the still waters to where the Father waits for us. "For the Son of God . . . was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him" (2 Corinthians 1:19-20). Boat is the closest expression I have seen of making visual that sacred "Yes."
Your Unique Prayer
Prayer does not depend upon your natural capacity. What does depend upon your natural capacity is the kind of prayer, because it will be your prayer. But prayer itself is as simple as conversation between friends. No one would dare write a book on how husband and wife are to talk to each other--what topics are appropriate, what tone should be used--because obviously every marriage is different and goes through different phases. One of the responsibilities of any close relationship is that each person has to take seriously his or her need to talk, share, discuss and love. And this need will continually be changing. In prayer the relationship is between God and ourselves. God is always the same, but each of us is completely different.
The essential act of prayer is to stand unprotected before God. What will God do? He will take possession of us. That He should do this is the whole purpose of life. We know we belong to God; we know too, if we are honest, that almost despite ourselves, we keep a deathly hold on our own autonomy. We are willing, in fact very ready, to pay God lip service (just as we are ready to talk prayer rather than to pray), because waving God as a banner keeps our conscience quiet. But really to belong to God is another matter. It means having nothing left for ourselves, always bound to the will of Another, no sense of interior success to comfort us, living in the painful acknowledgement of being "unprofitable servants."
It is a terrible thing to be a fallen creature, and for most of the time we busily push this truth out of our awareness. But prayer places us helpless before God, and we taste the full bitterness of what we are. "Our God is a consuming fire," and my filth crackles as He seizes hold of me; He "is all light," and my darkness shrivels under His blaze. It is this naked blaze of God that makes prayer so terrible. For most of the time we can convince ourselves that we are good enough, good as the next man or woman--perhaps even better--who knows? Then we come to prayer--real prayer, unprotected prayer--and there is nothing left in us, no ground on which to stand.
Normally, as we grow older, we become progressively skilled in coping with life. In most departments, we acquire techniques on which we can fall back when interest and attention wilt. It is part of maturity that there is always some reserve we can tap. But this is not so in prayer. It is the only human activity that depends totally and solely on its intrinsic truth. We are there before God, or rather, to the degree that we are there before God, we are exposed to all that He is, and He can neither deceive nor be deceived. It is not that we want to deceive, whether God or anybody else, but with other people we cannot help our human condition of obscurity. We are not wholly there for them, nor they for us. We are simply not able to be so. Nor should we be. No human occasion calls for our total presence, even were it within our power to offer it. But prayer calls for it. Prayer is prayer if we want it to be.
Hunger for God
Saint Teresa of Avila, that great writer on prayer (a doctor of the Church solely because of what she said about prayer), never wearied of contemplating the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman from Saint John's Gospel. It summed up for her what prayer was all about. And I am sorry that she would never have known far away in Spain of this great picture by Duccio, part of his masterwork for the cathedral in Siena (figure 2).
Duccio shows us an image of prayer, of the need and the hunger for God. The apostles have gone into the city to satisfy their hunger. They emerge in a compact bunch, supporting one another, protected from the clear light of His presence by the fortress of the world, their own self-sufficiency.
Their hands are full, they clasp them to themselves, satisfied hands with the food of this world in their grasp. But the woman stands alone and exposed before Jesus. Her emptiness is seen not only in her hands, but in the most noticeable detail about her, which is the large empty pot on her head.
She does not hide her poor human emptiness: she exposes it, but the exposing is to Jesus. She is a living symbol of our need for Him. She stands still, an image of the stillness we choose at prayer. But Jesus does not reach out His hand to fill hers. He does not come to her. Jesus sits by the well and asks her to give to Him: her need is met with demand--again, a moving symbol of prayer. God gives Himself, not obviously, not in terms tangible or visible, but in holy contradiction. It is in giving that we receive: we, us. Our prayer may seem all nothingness, all giving, giving of time, of energy, of struggle to be present.
Jesus may seem to have only asked, not given. But that is how He does give. The woman went away, wholly changed, fed and renewed to her innermost depths. Yet she was given no water, no food. Jesus told her to draw her own water, and He revealed to her the shameful inner truth she carried. Yet this apparently merciless treatment was living water, was life, was communication of God at such intensity that there were no human terms in which the woman could see or judge what had happened to her. But she believed, and the whole city of her personality, her whole self, all she was and could become, believed with her.
When I first came to the camper, as part of the seven hours on my timetable, I got up in the middle of the night to pray for an hour. After a while I realized that this was sheer romanticism, because it really was not a very good time to pray. I was very sleepy in the middle of the night, and I often fell over in that hour of prayer. So I removed it to a less romantic but more fruitful time to pray.
Similarly, people often remark on my getting up early. I have found myself rising earlier and earlier. It used to be three o'clock. Now it is nearer to one in the morning, but this is not an act of self-denial. Going to bed early means I get up early. I have about seven and a half hours' sleep as a norm, which may be more than you, dear reader, have. Depriving oneself of sleep seems to me a kind of penance that does not accept the reality of being flesh and blood. We need sleep. That is the way we are made. Not sybaritic sleep, too much of it, but enough sleep to fit us for the day ahead.
We are told in the Gospels that Jesus got up very early in the morning to pray. This was a practical decision: very early in the morning was the one time when He knew He would not be disturbed. I decided when I came to live alone that I would have the same simple meal every day and wear the same simple habit. My intention was to liberate myself from having to think about cooking or menus or choice of clothes. This simplification has worked very well for me. This is a world away from the austerities of Celtic saints like Saint Cuthbert, immersing themselves in freezing water and staying awake almost for the sake of being awake. It has always seemed to me that austerity should be functional. It is a way of simplifying our lives, setting us free to adhere to God and God alone.
Prayer in Everyday Life
Everybody reading this book has his or her own vocation and his or her own life.
Perhaps you have a baby? Perhaps you have an especially demanding workload? Perhaps you are lonely? Perhaps you are angry? None of this matters. It is who you are that God comes to in prayer, and if it is a tired, fractious, despondent man or woman, He still takes you to Himself with infinite love and makes the best of what you can give Him.
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