I learned how to pray when I was an Evangelical Christian. Back then, prayer was just one small part of a bigger, intertwined web of beliefs and practices that made up my conservative Christian faith.
Since leaving Evangelicalism, I’ve found a different way to be a Christian – one that works for both my head and my heart. But how am I supposed to pray now that I don’t buy into the entire Evangelical belief system? I still want to pray, but how? This is an intensely personal question, because I miss the warm, consistent experiences of prayer that permeated my life before my doubts drove me out of Evangelicalism.
The short answer: I haven’t quite mastered post-Evangelical prayer yet, but I’ve found a few approaches that will probably work for me if I keep practicing.
The longer answer goes something like this:
A few years ago, I read Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird, and it introduced me to centering prayer. I’m no expert on centering prayer, so if you want to know how it really works, please read the book for yourself. It’s short, practical, and easy to read.
Centering prayer is perfect for someone with new or changing beliefs, because it doesn’t require you to believe or think much of anything at all. In fact, quieting your mind is kind of the point (if there is a point) of centering prayer.
This is how I do centering prayer: I sit up in a chair so I don’t fall asleep. I set a timer on my phone for 15 minutes, then set it aside. I close my eyes and focus in on my breath as it slows and deepens. As I breathe in, I think the words “Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and as I breathe out, I think “have mercy on me, a sinner.”
That’s called the “Jesus prayer,” and in this context, it really just functions as a bunch of words to focus on; the point is not to dwell on whatever the words might mean. I repeat this prayer simply to give my mind something to do; trying to genuinely think of nothing at all for any length of time is near impossible for me. When distracting thoughts come, as they inevitably do, I simply acknowledge them and then return my attention to noticing the rhythm of my breath and repeating the Jesus prayer.
That’s it! There is no chit chat, no thoughtful reflection on the meaning of a verse or concept. Just being.
Centering prayer is very difficult. My mind wanders continuously, and sometimes it goes off for several minutes before I realize I’ve been distracted. Even when I do focus consistently on my breath and reciting the prayer, I don’t receive great insights from God. Even if I did, I would identify them, let them go, and return my attention to my prayer and breath, because that’s how centering prayer works! But sometimes I sense God as a kind of background hum, and when I practice centering prayer consistently, that hum seems to follow me throughout my day.
My Evangelical heart wants to hear specific words and direction from God, to jump into chit-chat mode, so centering prayer never quite satisfies me. But mystics throughout the centuries insist that it is the most profound communion with God once you get the hang of it, so I keep practicing. Maybe one day it’ll click.
If centering prayer is about letting go of words and images and stilling the ever-wandering imagination, Ignation spirituality boldly attempts the exact opposite. In her awesome book When God Talks Back, anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann points out that today’s American Evangelical piety is essentially a modern, Protestant version of 16th Century Catholic spirituality.
In her book, Luhrmann also shares the results of a study she conducted. This study compared the effects of centering prayer, academic Bible study, and Ignatian-style spirituality. Of the three approaches, people who practiced Ignatian-style spirituality for 30 minutes a day over one month reported the biggest changes in their experiences of God. They said that God became more personal, closer to them, more present.
So what is Ignatian spirituality, and what’s the draw for people with shifting beliefs?
Ignatian spirituality, loosely defined, is a way of relating to God through imagination. Try reading a story from one of the Gospels. Once you have the basic plot down, set your Bible aside and close your eyes. Play the scene out in your mind. The more detail the better – imagine what you smell, the movement of the breeze, the way that Jesus moves his hands when he speaks, the expressions on the faces of the bystanders. Cast yourself as a character in the story. Maybe you are the sick person who Jesus heals. Maybe you are in the back of the crowd, trying to make sense of what you are seeing. Maybe you’re one of the disciples. Ask a question to the person beside you, and see how he or she responds. Catch Jesus after the crowd parts, and tell him what’s on your heart. What does he say?
The goal is not to create an accurate historical reconstruction of an event, but to imagine yourself into the stories of the Bible. Whether or not the story happened in history makes no difference at all; what matters is that it happens in your imagination. Few, if any, theological commitments are required for this to work for you.
The more I read Luhrmann’s book about Evangelical practice, the more I miss the rich prayer life that I grew up with, and the more I am struck by the similarities of Ignatian and Evangelical spirituality. Perhaps, with more research and (more importantly) more practice, Ignatian spirituality can teach me to enjoy frequent dialogues with God once more, minus the conservative theological baggage.