It can be difficult to pray when you get into thinking that you have to “perform” prayer at a certain level of quality in order for it to be valid.

Prayer is rather the one place where we are least under obligation to “perform.” In fact, it is performing that kills it, and neutralizes any benefit.

Prayer is where we are free to – even required to – relax all our pretentions, and bring “the whole mess” of our self as it is before God.

Prayer is where we open ourselves before God’s presence when we can’t even discern what’s really there (in that self), or whether it’s a mess at all or maybe in fact a noble work in progress – or both, as is often the case.

Who better than God to open such questions to?

Here’s one of my favorite Christian thinkers, P. T. Forsyth, from about 100 years ago –

to pray without ceasing also means to pray without a breach with your actual life and the whole situation in which you are … If you may not come to God with the occasions of your private life and affairs, then there is some unreality in the relation between you and Him.

Then he gives two possible sources for that “unreality in the relation.”

Either it is not you, in your actual reality, that came to God, but it is you in a pose – you in some role which you are trying with poor success to play before Him.

You are trying to pray as another person than you are – a better person, perhaps, as some great apostle, who should have on his worshipping mind nothing but the grand affairs of the Church and Kingdom, and not be worried by common cares. You are praying in court-dress. You are trying to pray as you imagine one should pray to God, i.e. as another person than you are, and in other circumstances.

That, I think, is very common, and is certainly deadly to true and valuable prayer.

Then he describes another explanation for why we subside into unreality in our praying.

Either that or you are not praying to a God who loves, helps, and delivers you in every pinch of life, but only to one who uses you as a pawn … You are not praying to Christ’s God. You are praying to a God who cares only for the great actors in His kingdom, for the heroic people who cherish nothing but the grand style, or for the calm people who do not deeply feel …

After thinking about it a bit, I decided that those are both ultimately the same error of thought. The reason we try to present ourselves falsely in prayer (or worship, or whatever) is that we have a false God, or are wishing and pretending that God is other than God really is.

The real God sees us as we are anyway, and persists in loving us with a universal and intensely particularized passion. If we will face into that Divine Wind and consciously bare to it our true selves – when we can fairly precisely define that self, and when we cannot – then we will start to discover the real value of a life of prayer.

That, I suspect, is a very high calling, and a calling reaching out to every last one of us.

What genius does in the natural world, prayer does in the spiritual.

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