Over coffee one day, a friend, Jennifer Malcolm, said she enjoyed reading about the saints in college. “Which ones?” I asked. Saint Francis of Assisi came to her mind. Then she added, “and that guy who prayed while he was washing dishes in a monastery.” “That would be Brother Lawrence,” I noted. She added, “It was new to me that I could pray while doing other things. My life is so busy I just can’t get the morning time for devotion and prayer that I know I should take.”
In the 17th century, Lawrence was an illiterate brother in a monastery who prayed while he washed dishes. Two monks wrote down his reﬂections in a book known as Practicing the Presence of God. It’s now a classic in spiritual literature.
For many Christians, personal prayer is best done at a certain time set aside for that purpose, usually in the morning. Many read prayers written by others. But the research I did based on 548 responses from traditional Protestants showed that nine out of ten did most or some of their praying while doing other things, such as jogging, driving, waiting for appointments, or doing routine chores.
Call this conversational prayer—talking with God about what is on your mind at that time. Call the alternative formal prayer. Which is better? A case can be made for conversational prayer. Paul challenged the Thessalonians to “be joyful always, pray continually; and give thanks in all circumstances.” This is the kind of life God wants for his people. Who would not want to live joyfully and thankfully this way?
A character in George Barnano’s The Diary of a Country Priest recommends plugging away at formal prayer with this explanation, “If you can’t pray, at least say your prayers! This is not Christian prayer at its best, but true prayer may arise out of it.”
Half of all the respondents in my study reported that in their prayers they regularly experience a deep sense of peace and feel the strong presence of God. Half described their prayers as the most satisfying experience in their lives. I almost overlooked this amazing percentage in all the data. Who would have guessed that half of traditional Christians would describe prayer as the most satisfying experience in their life?
In our day, Bradley Hanson notes that “Prayer is more than reciting speciﬁc prayers—it is communicating with God, the communion with God that enables us to become more nearly our true selves. So prayer is not a technique that can be mastered. Learning to pray involves learning to trust God in all circumstances. It is always the Lord who teaches us to pray. Of course, the Lord uses Scriptures and the lives, words, and experiences of others as pointers and guides, but ultimately the real teacher of prayer is God.”
Only one out of those 548 respondents described prayer as a duty, along with the confession that he was not fulﬁlling it. He was reﬂecting the Lutheran tradition, expressed by a 19th-century theologian who opined in a very Germanic way that “Where there is a willingness to pray it is necessary that the time devoted to that purpose be carefully regulated and the regulations strictly adhered to, or prayer will practically end in omission, as a result of the slothfulness and luke-warmness of our nature.”
Even though a prominent theologian, that man didn’t have a clue about how the Holy Spirit works today. Like Christ standing and knocking at the door in Revelation 3, Christ’s Spirit now frequently knocks on the door of the believer’s heart. When we respond in our thoughts, we are launched into the conversation with God called prayer.
In previous centuries, traditional Protestants lost sight of how the Holy Spirit is active around us today. The story of how that happened is long and best told at another time, but the resulting gap in our heritage leaves us much impoverished today. We simply don’t believe what Jesus and Paul told us about the one whom we now call the Third Person of the Trinity. We have much to learn from those who take the Spirit more seriously today.