If I’m honest, I’ve followed Jesus most of my life, and sometimes I don’t know how to pray.
If you’ve been part of the Christian spiritual tradition for any length of time, you probably have collected a few ideas of what prayer is and is not, both from teaching and practice. Is prayer just pulling the lever of a cosmic slot machine and hoping everything lines up? Is prayer a non-verbal, mystical experience of the Divine? Is prayer simply reciting the words of other saints from the past? Does God need my prayers or do I need them?
And then there’s the mechanics: do I use a prayer book? Do I look at an icon? Do I look at nothing and scrunch my eyes closed tight? Do I use formal language or do I talk casually to God?
Figuring out the “right” way to commune with God can be a bit paralyzing at times, to the point where sometimes I just give up. Which is why it was comforting to read these words from Justin McRoberts at the beginning of his book with Scott Erickson, Prayer: 40 Days of Practice: “As I have with so much else in my process of faith, I [have] allowed mechanics to trump essence. I thought I needed all the right elements properly executed in order to pray.”
As McRoberts goes on to say, “I think you will agree that the method of delivery, be it glass or plastic or the cupped shape of a human hand, can be very helpful and might even be beautiful, but it is the act of drinking that matters first.”
What McRoberts, as a writer, and Erickson, as an illustrator, have done in Prayer is try to simplify some of those mechanics in a way that leads to connection and communion. Each prayer is formed by a few simple lines of meditation accompanied by an image.
For me in particular, the idea of using images to unlock my inner spiritual life has proven revelatory. Scott explains the purpose of the images in this way:
We’ve all read a book that has pictures in it. Most likely the illustrations creatively visualized the words being communicated in the story. If it was a children’s book, the images did all the heavy lifting in keeping your attention. That’s how most of us experience imagery. But I don’t think that’s what these [prayer] images are for. I think imagery is another language entirely. Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg agrees, writing in his book How God Changes Your Brain, “Drawing is a form of communication that is neurologically distinct from writing and speech….In essence, words and picture are two integrated elements of language, and most words…have in ‘image’ quality associated with them. If the right hemisphere is injured, words and pictures lose their meaning.” He continues, “Words are not enough to describe a spiritual experience.” Prayer is a conversation about everything. Words and images are vital tools that can help us grow in this endless and ongoing conversation, but we must understand that the words and images we use are not the content itself. They are excavation tools that help dig toward and into the real content: the ongoing, ever present conversation between us and the Divine.
I can say for myself that engaging with Prayer has reinvigorated this conversation with God in my own life. If you find this book intriguing, I encourage you to check it out and hope that it will enrich your own prayer life as well.
Chris is an Associate Professor of English at Bristol Community College in Massachusetts, and is also the author of several books of poetry. In 2018 he helped co-found The Poetry Pub, an online community for poets. He enjoys walking in the woods, visiting coffee shops, and poking through used bookstores with his wife Jen.