How can I know when it is God who is speaking to me?

Whenever we experience a sense of calling from God, we generally receive that experience with a degree of ambiguity.

The Divine Hours

A complete guide to the ancient practice of fixed-hour Prayer

Doing Prayer

an excerpt from
Beyond Words: 15 Ways of Doing Prayer

CHAPTER ONE:  Doing Prayer

Moses said, "Show me your glory, I pray."
—Exodus 33:18

Beyond Words: 15 Ways of Doing Prayer by Kristen Johnson IngramDuring an afternoon break at a retreat in northern Idaho, I sat on a log and watched a fat honeybee roving around a big blue pasque flower. She tasted its petals, snuffled at the opening, and then drew back and literally hurled herself at the flower's center. For all I know, that bee is there still, soaking up whatever gifts the flower has to offer.

You may as well reconcile yourself to the fact that God apparently believes that opinion is more important than answer. God is obviously tilted toward green, brown, oceans, and beetles because that’s what we have most of. So if you pray, “Should I become a doctor?” and you hear, “Noticed the basswood tree lately? Seen those June bugs?” you can only assume that your need for guidance isn’t as important as your need to acknowledge God’s love for the earth. And God’s reason may not be clear.

Every now and then, someone brings out a book on efficacious prayer, a sort of “pray to get results.” Which we don’t always get or see. I’ve prayed for things that never came true. I’ve begged God to do things I ultimately had to do myself. And sometimes I’ve shaken my fist at heaven. Prayers apparently go unanswered sometimes or have miraculous responses at others, and that can make you think God is capricious.

Efficacious Prayer
When I was in my early teens every day I saw a blue neon sign on a nearby church, a sign that flashed,“Prayer Changes Things.” I’d like to go back to that church and adjust the sign to say, “Prayer Changes People.” I would not be a woman writing this book if I were not a woman who was changed by constant prayer. Prayer made me who I am. I would like to think my prayer also changed circumstances and conditions, but until I translated prayer into doing—until, as my Pentecostal friend likes to say—I “put legs on those prayers”—efficacy was indeed out of reach. And is efficacy really all I’m after? Is the measure of benefit whether I prayed and I got?

I think efficacious prayer isn’t about getting. What you may want is an answer to a problem, or guidance about a job, or even the right numbers for winning the lottery. But really productive prayer is whatever makes you or me more fit for the Kingdom. Norman Pittenger, the late theologian, author, and seminary professor, said that praying makes you want what God wants. 1 So prayer, whether done or spoken, whether chanted or handsprung or danced, makes people different. A praying person is not like one who doesn’t even whisper “Amen.” Prayer, if nothing else, is a blessing to the human personality.

A man close to me practices “slogan Christianity,” summing up theology in short phrases, lists, and aphorisms. According to this maxim-monger, all human petitions to God receive one of three answers: Yes, No, or Wait. Nicely composed, but his succinct analysis doesn’t work for most of us, who are trying to penetrate the enigma of God and to confront the riddle of prayer. His glib statement doesn’t help someone struggling to understand why a loved one dies or a job doesn’t happen. And such a simplistic explanation of prayer’s productivity suggests that the deck is stacked, that every answer from God is already predetermined.

I don’t buy it. Thomas Paine, of American pre-Revolution fame, wrote,“The Predestinarians...appear to acknowledge but one attribute in God, that of power....”

Paine wrote better than he knew. If God is both unmerciful and unchangeable, why pray? If everything is predestined, if God has already decided whom to favor and whom to reject, marked us before birth for heaven or hell, then the church and prayer are useless. If you reduce God to an angry, violent elder waiting to yell “Gotcha!” then prayer would be neither efficacious nor even reasonable, unless the prayer was a constant “Keep me from sin.” And if God is only a wild ball of formless energy, that fireball probably wouldn’t have the ability to hear prayers, either, much less grant them.

The Practice of Prayer
Growing up Episcopalian, I didn’t question whether prayer worked or not. I prayed out of obedience to God and for love of the language in our Book of Common Prayer. I murmured with pleasure “grant us such a lively sense of thy mercies,” “we have erred from thy ways like lost sheep,” and “O ye whales and all that move in the waters, bless ye the Lord.” Eventually I wanted something richer than words, so after I was grown, when the Episcopal day school where I taught began in 1967 to have chapel services from new prayer book revisions, I detached myself from tradition and embraced God’s continuing revelation.   And finally, I decided to do my prayers besides just saying them.

The truth filters down to earth through many screens and sieves, and I can’t know while I’m on earth how valid the truth is about prayer. And that’s a good thing. Prayer is—and should be—a mystery, the greatest mystery of all because in it you try to engage the God who is unknowable in ordinary conversation. In prayer you call up the eternal and ask it to be revealed to the finite. Perhaps you whisper the Our Father as you fall asleep, and say grace over your food, and holler “Fix this!” at God when you watch the day’s depressing news.

But sometimes you can’t find words, or you’re so mad at God you can’t form a sentence. Or maybe you feel verbally inadequate to express your love or anxiety or whatever. Or maybe it’s just that the nonrational wins that day. You’re not just a mouth attached to a brain: if God made all of you, then all of you needs to learn how to communicate with God, and doing prayer responds to that need.

Observant Jews know how to do prayer. Prayer can of course mean recitation, but many devout Jews put the emphasis on mitzvah, or a good work. To love another as yourself would be prayer, and so would picking up the oranges that have fallen to the sidewalk at an outdoor fruit stand. You do prayer when you hand twenty dollars to the homeless woman who stands in the median strip, holding a sign. Taking your disabled neighbor’s garbage can in is mitzvah and therefore a prayer that honors God and your neighbor.

Making Prayer
Converting spoken prayer to doing prayer may start with the need to accompany words by moving the body: bowing again and again while reading Torah, my kneeling and standing in church, a nun bending to light votive candles, an elderly couple raising their hands and arms during praise, or your walking through the dark, ferny woods as you recite the Jesus prayer. When you want to move closer to God, when the “bee of your heart” longs to taste heavenly nectar, you can take the next step and the next thing you know, you’re doing prayer.

You may already be doing prayer. Perhaps all you need to do is notice what you do and dedicate that time to God. For instance, one woman had spent a couple of hours in prayer and meditation every afternoon. In the year before she went to seminary, she listened to music and engaged in spiritual reading and contemplative prayer after lunch every day. But during her first months as a postulant she felt absolutely frazzled: she had no free time to devote to her contemplative exercises because she had piles of books to read and papers to write, kitchen duty to help pay for her tuition, and evening discussion groups with other students.

Finally, she realized that reading theology and understanding the Bible and digging into church history were prayer So every day when she sat down at the table in her tiny seminary apartment to study, she lit a candle. At the end of her homework, she added a doxology and said “Amen.” Not only did she feel better about her prayer life, she began to enjoy study as much as she had loved her afternoon music and devotion.When she graduated and was ordained, she entered the priesthood with increased enthusiasm.

Sometimes doing prayer is intentional, but at other times, you realize during or even after your activity that you have entered into new communication with God. Maybe you were working in the garden, which is one of the most meditative things people do; maybe as you dug your fingers down into dark soil, you whispered, “Oh, look! Red wigglers!” Or “Look! The nasturtiums are coming through the soil!” When you trust the earth to bring forth the seeds you plant, and praise the presence of worms and seeds and insect-eating birds, you’ve joined God in creation and found another way to do your prayers.

Or maybe you take a walk every day in a place that declares God’s presence. I’m as aware of creation when I walk on the nearby logging road in tree-spangled, rainy Oregon as I was when, as a child in Arizona, I hiked beside the saguaro cactus that lifted their arms to heaven, while lizards with blue undersides swifted up the palo verde trees. Every time you acknowledge Creation, you have prayed.

Zen Buddhists believe in a strict policy of “mindfulness,” in which walking while thinking, taking pictures, listening to a CD is unheard of. When you walk, you pay attention to walking. And although the concepts of Zen Buddhism originated in the East, they are not so different from those of Western mystics. Once a novice found St. Teresa of Avila devouring a partridge, holding the roasted carcass in her hands and ripping the meat off with her teeth. “Well,” she told the horrified novice, “when I pray, I pray. When I eat a partridge, I eat a partridge.”

Which reminds us that eating and drinking can be holy occupations. So can looking at your environment, or an icon, or a person’s face. The prayer of the eye needs no words, because what you see dances straight through your brain and your nervous system and imprints forever on both memory and spirit. Dance and listening to music can all be spiritual activities that you can dedicate to God. In her novel, Household Saints, Francine Prose wrote about a young girl who imitated the Little Flower, the saint who gloried in small tasks. That girl was so enraptured doing work for God that as she folded laundry, she stretched her arms out in ecstasy as her arms and hands held the sheets up like huge wings.2

Getting Started
You might want to start by making a list of things you like to do, and choose one to start your new prayer life. These don’t have to be brand-new, untried exercises. Tonight as I sliced potatoes, onions, and parsley into the frying pan and laid a fresh trout below the broiler, I turned my work into prayer. I love to slice potatoes, seeing the faint flowery pattern in their centers. And the rainbow that shimmered on the side of the trout reminded me of God’s very first covenant. When I put dinner on the table, I waited until my husband said grace, and answered “Amen”—to both my potato prayer and the one my husband spoke.

But doing prayer can be spontaneous. Today, in the middle of August, I looked out at the big snowball bush that grows by my window. Although its big pompom blossoms have faded and dropped, the dark green leaves now shade the house; and today, the wind moved in them, dappling sunlight on my window and reminding me that the wind bloweth where it listeth. I spread my arms upward like branches in wordless invitation to the Spirit to blow through me, too. So you’re as welcome to the wind as I am.

The first step in doing prayer is making your activity intentional and consecrated. “Intentional” means you decide beforehand what you’re going to do and “consecrated” implies that you will commit a sacred act dedicated to God. If you find yourself singing as you walk the dog, you might feel prayerful and God will certainly honor your celebration; but we’re talking here about planned worship.

Theologian Matthew Fox says, “Everyone is a mystic.” He explains that we were born full of wonder, and can recover that sense of wonder at any time by exercising our awe. So approach your first efforts with delight and expectation. Say to yourself, “This is how I am going to pray,” and then begin. Choose an activity—juggling, journaling, painting, poetry, hiking, or haiku, and dedicate it to God as prayer.

Before you begin, create a ritual: you could light a candle, or wash your hands, to remind yourself of your baptism, and of the refreshment of living water. Or make a physical motion: place your hands together in front of you in the namaste, or prayer position, then bow, genuflect, or take a few dance steps. The hymn “God Be in My Head,” is a good one to sing as you start on this journey:

God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing. 3

Then create or continue an activity, dedicating it as prayer.At the end of your walk or painting or garden work, say “Amen,” extinguish your candle, and let gratitude for God’s approval fill your heart.

A Prayer for Your New Prayer Adventures
Dear God, please be in my understanding. I’m going to learn a whole new way of praying, and I am both excited and scared. Help me find the kind of “doing” that’s best for me. Amen


1. Norman Pittenger, Praying Today: Practical Thoughts on Prayer (Grand Rapids,Mich.:William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974).

2. Francine Prose, Household Saints (New York: St.Martin's Press, 1981).

3."God Be in My Head," from the 1538 Sarum Primer. "Sarum Use"is the name applied to the particular rendering of divine worship in the English Church that was developed at Salisbury, in Wiltshire, from the early thirteenth century, a local expression of the Western or Roman Rite in England up to the Reformation. "Sarum" is the abbreviation of "Sarisburium," the Latin word for Salisbury, which was and is both a city and a diocese in south central England. Words: Sarum Primer, 1538; Music; God be in my head, by Sidney Lytlington, (1875-1947); Meter: Irregular. "God Be in My Head" is # 694 in the Episcopal Hymnbook 1982, ©1985 by The Church Pension Fund, 800 Second Ave., New York, NY 10017.

Excerpted from Beyond Words: 15 Ways of Doing Prayer by Kristen Johnson Ingram. Copyright ©2004 Kristen Johnson Ingram. Used with permission by Morehouse Publishing. Beyond Words is an book.

Beyond Words: 15 Ways of Doing Prayer by Kristen Johnson Ingram

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