This article comes from the March issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on “The mystery and power of prayer.” Read more reflections here or subscribe here to receive more original features in your inbox each month.
During the years my younger brother struggled with alcoholism, I also struggled with prayer. How could I pray for him?
I understood God cared for my brother and longed for his healing even more than I did, but it was easy to lose sight of God’s presence in what seemed a hopeless battle. No matter how many second chances, how many stints in rehabilitation centers or how much we tried to love him unconditionally, my brother was not healed.
It would have been easy to stop praying. And sometimes I did. But then my brother would come to mind again or tug at my heart, and I knew I must pray.
What transformed my struggle to pray in the midst of despair was the dawning awareness that prayer is love. At its heart, prayer is an act of love.
When I come to God in prayer, offering praise or confession or petition, I am entering a circle of love. Because God is love (1 John 4:8), our communion with God is enfolded in love. And when we pray for ourselves or others, we are joining a circle dance of divine love, a love more potent than any we can offer.
Experiencing prayer as love has taken different forms for me. As I prayed for my brother, I imagined holding him in the light of God’s love. In that light, I could see him as God sees him, wounded and needy, longing to become whole. I did not have to judge him or even fret about his well-being. With the warmth and welcome of God’s love surrounding him, I could entrust my brother into God’s care. And in that freedom, I could love him with my whole heart and hope in God’s goodness and grace.
That understanding also sustained me during my mother’s last months of illness. Because I lived many miles away from her and could not be present much of the time, I often felt helpless. I also became weary of praying over and over, “Help her, God.” God may not have tired of hearing my petitions, but I was exhausted by them. I longed for a more sustainable and hopeful way to be present to my mother in her distress.
Then I remembered a traditional Celtic prayer called a caim—an encircling prayer. The format of the prayer is so simple that even children can learn it and pray it:
- I begin by naming the person or situation about which I’m concerned—either myself or another. I ask God to encircle them.
- I identify and name the particular fear or anxiety I face, releasing it to God.
- I express my desire for new life: What healing or comfort, peace or hope do I long for?
Because I knew my mother lived with great fear and uncertainty, I wrote a caim prayer for her that went like this:
Circle my mother, Lord;
keep peace within and fear without.
A caim prayer can be altered to fit any circumstance, or it can be repeated, as I did, on behalf of my mother. I appreciated its availability and focus. I didn’t have to think about how I wanted to pray; I simply moved into the familiar lines, “Circle my mother, Lord,” and felt myself encircling her with love, even as I was assured God was loving her. My fear on her behalf was held in God’s embrace, even as she was being held.
The caim prayer is not only words, however. It also involves the body. Celtic Christians offered this prayer in a standing position and inscribed a circle by stretching out their arm, pointing with their index finger and slowly turning clockwise. By making such a circle, they reminded themselves that God is always near at hand. Though the standing posture may not work as well in the middle of the night, it works well in the daytime. As I went about my work, I could pause, stand for a few moments and inscribe a circle, reminding myself that my mother (and I) were enclosed in the circle of God’s care. Engaging my body made the prayer more real, more active. I felt I had truly joined God’s circle of love around my mother.
Why do we pray? Are we just talking to ourselves? Is it an exercise to make ourselves feel better? Does anything really change?
I have far more questions than answers about prayer. Much of what we know we can only learn by experience because our Scriptures don’t provide much assistance. We are exhorted to be faithful in prayer (Philippians 4:2) and encouraged to intercede for one another (James 5:13-16). We can read about the example of Jesus, who went away to lonely places to commune with God (Luke 5:16). And we have the Psalms, which show us how the ancients prayed. But little explicit instruction can be found.
Neither does our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective offer much assistance. Prayer is not one of the topics covered in the Confession, though discipleship and spirituality are included.
What seems to matter in our life of prayer is who we think God is, who we understand ourselves to be and how we perceive the divine-human relationship.
The theological foundations of prayer are simple yet profound. God is our Creator, and we are God’s work of art (Ephesians 2:10, NLT). Beyond that, we are God’s beloved children, and nothing can separate us from God’s love. God, our Maker and Beloved, reaches out to us, inviting us into communion.
One of the ways we respond to God’s invitation is through prayer. And though there are many ways to pray, the heart of prayer is loving presence: being fully present to God, ourselves and our world. In the intimacy of that relationship, we make our requests known to God, just as children entrust their deepest desires to their parents. And then we rest in confidence that God hears us and works in everything to bring healing, reconciliation and peace.
Being united in communion with God also means we are united with God’s purposes. We are not only beloved children but partners with God’s loving, healing, liberating work in the world. We listen for the ways God invites us to act, becoming part of the work of love.
Perhaps one of the most common hindrances to lively communion with God is too many words. Healthy human relationships are characterized by give and take: We communicate with others, listen carefully, invite further response and engage in dialogue. In the most intimate relationships, people often understand each other intuitively; they sense what the other is needing, feeling or thinking. And even though words are still significant, silence also becomes a path of communion.
So it is with God. As we grow in prayer, we may find words becoming less and less necessary. Silent spaces of listening enrich our union with God, deepening our love for God and expanding our capacity for partnership with God’s purposes. Jesus himself seems to model this path and invites us to find quiet places to commune with God (Matthew 6:6-7) and then move into action.
In such loving communion, questions about the results of prayer become less relevant. Since prayer is an act of love, it is not judged by quantitative outcomes but by the quality of relationship. Because we are God’s children, we still come freely to God with our heart’s desires, but we yield them to love, trusting that God’s love will ultimately prevail.
“Now we see in a mirror dimly,” says the Apostle Paul, “but then we will see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). At the end of all our human knowing, what endures is love. And that love changes everything and everyone our prayers touch.
Marlene Kropf is retired from teaching at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana, and serving with Mennonite Church USA. She lives in Port Townsend, Washington, with her husband, Stanley, where she leads retreats and offers spiritual direction.