There is a great difference between the skill and the grace of prayer. The skill is but the outside, the shape, the carcass of our responsibility. The grace is the soul and spirit that gives it life, vigor and efficacy, that renders it acceptable to God and of real advantage to ourselves. The skill consists chiefly in a readiness of thought consistent with the various aspects of prayer, and a facility for expressing those thoughts in speaking to God. The grace consists of the inward workings of the heart and conscience toward God and our life of faith.
— Isaac Watts, “On Prayer,” cited in For All the Saints, compiled and edited by Frederick J. Schumacher
For All the Saints (F.A.T.S.) is one of my tried and true devotionals. It is a four volume monster that offers a devotion for each day of the year over a two-year span. Each day brings a number of long Scripture readings, another long classic text of old (like this one from hymnwriter Isaac Watts), some prayers and a variety of daily prayer offices for use. I rarely take the time to devour everything assigned for the day I open to. Yesterday was no exception. But the past week and a half allowed me a little more reading time than usual, so I re-acquainted myself with my old friend F.A.T.S.
The phrase which really grabbed my attention here was the second sentence, “The skill is but the outside, the shape, the carcass of our responsibility.” The “carcass of our responsibility” — what a perfect phrase to describe what my prayer sometimes becomes. The shell and skin of a dead thing. Spiritual road kill. And even when I was trying to make my way through our weekly prayer chain petitions, instead I found myself engaged in self-examination — Was this particular prayer a carcass? Was my heart right with God? Were my words skillful, but empty? Yikes. Talk about the sin of self-doubt. Have you ever gotten in one of those spiritual or reflective funks, where you are your own worst enemy in terms of questioning yourself? Now, let it be said that a little humility and self-doubt never hurt anyone in their prayer life. But this was ridiculous. I kept picturing my words laying on the side of the road like some squished squirrel, empty and dead. In the end, Watts was my rescue, as his words offered me assurance, as if for the first time, even though I have read this devotion before: “the grace consists in the inward workings of the heart and conscience toward God and our life of faith,” Ol’ Isaac rescued me.Although deep reflection and meditation are not my forte, I really tried to be settled and at peace with myself, and search deeply. I don’t know that I found any wells of grace or wisdom, but the process itself was centering and helped to put me more in a “graceful” spirit, at least.
As you prayer and meditate this week, reflect on the irony that Watts presents to us. Sometimes those who seem the most “skillful” in praying, may be the very ones who disguise a spiritual emptiness by their craft. As pastors, we sometimes feel like that, I think — I do at least. Conversely, sometimes those who are the least “eloquent” with their prayers, may be the very ones who truly have their finger on the pulse of life and faith. It is a reminder that looks can be deceiving. Consider the possibility that at those times when you feel the least graceful in praying, because words simply don’t seem to come, you may be experiencing a deeper grace that your words cannot describe. Challenge yourself, also, at those other times when fancy and eloquent words may be covering up an unwillingness to really dig deep into the spiritual meat of our struggles. In every case, honesty with yourself and with God are divining rods to wells of spiritual nourishment, and should lead you to health and grace in prayer.