Jesus... went up to the mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed... (Luke 9.28-29, NET)
(updated April 22)
If we seek the transformational powers of the Spirit, we need to recover an ancient approach to prayer.
Moderns see the world as one-dimensional, the material-physical. And thus when moderns pray, it often is a way for them to get in touch with their inner hopes, desires, and wishes. A significant reason for the loss of the reality of the spirit world is the disappearance of the ancient forms of prayer. The world of antiquity saw reality as consisting of spirit and material, heaven and earth, unseen and seen. There was more, so much more. Prayer then was a portal through which the spirit world was accessed and experienced, where the more touched the now.
The landscape of the wilderness captivated the imagination of the spiritual seekers as liminal grounds where transformation was centered. Abraham was tested by the Angel in the wilderness of Mt Moriah, Jacob was transformed into Israel by the Angel in the wilderness, Moses was called to his destiny by the Burning Bush on 'backside of the desert,' Israel transformed into a "Kingdom of Priests" at the wilderness of Mt Sinia, Elijah encountering the transforming "still small voice" at the Mountain of God. And Jesus defeated Satan in the wilderness.
Let's run the word "prayer" through these words.
- Inform: getting information and words inside. knowing what to say.
- Form: taking on the shape of something. knowing how to say it.
- Reform: returning to a previous form. knowing what and how to say it anew.
- Conform: taking on the form of those around you. knowing to fit in with the group and its way of praying.
- Transform: changing into something beyond you. entering into space where the Spirit transforms you.
Prayer takes on many shapes and forms in the life of religious people. We may pray from an informational. We may pray from a formation, program or structured place. Or when we have neglected prayer we may come back to it to reform and renew an old discipline. Many times my prayer has been an exercise in conforming to the forms and expectations of others around me and how they pray. Most of us would say, however, that we long to be transformed, and for prayer to transfigure us into something beyond ourselves.
This latter kind of prayer is the kind of prayer Jesus engaged in frequently in the wilderness.
- And while he was praying [in the wilderness during his baptism], the heavens opened, (Luke 3.21)
- Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit…was led by the Spirit in the wilderness (4.1)
- Yet Jesus himself frequently withdrew to the wilderness and prayed. (Luke 5.16)
- Now it was during this time that Jesus went out to the mountain to pray, and he spent all night in prayer to God. (6.12)
- Jesus took with him Peter, John, and James, and went up the mountain to pray. (9.28)
- And in his anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (22.44)
The Spirit of God was frequently transforming the spaces the Jesus prayed in:
- transformed the environment (heavens opened, cloud descending, voice booming like thunder)
- transfigured his countenance,
- illuminated his clothing
- transformed his companions (Peter, James, John).
Every detailed narrative of Jesus praying in mountains or wildernesses or deserts is described with deeply spiritual language. In fact, most moderns have no experience or culture to even interpret such realities. But the first-century world was one deeply in touch with the spirit, and that's why no apologetic or explanation was ever given by the Gospel writers. From Jesus’ first moment in the wilderness at his baptism to his frequency in the wilderness throughout his Galilean ministry, we read of supernatural phenomena: wild beasts, the devil, spiritual teleportation, a cloud of heavenly witnesses, the Voice, the Presence, the opening of the heavens, and the Holy Spirit. And lest we think that this is some superpower that only the son of God had access to, Luke continues the same narrative in the lives of the disciples throughout Acts. The spirit world was fully accessible through the portal of prayer.
The question is what was prayer to Jesus? What was prayer to the disciples? What was prayer to first century Jews? Or Galileans?
Josephus and other Jewish writers tell us that the Galileans had several mystical or charismatic figures before and after Jesus’ time: two of the most famous, Honi the Circle-Drawer, Hanina ben Dosa. These Elijah types frequented the desert, sought to live in the power of the Holy Spirit, frequently performed miracles and had powerful spiritual experiences with Yahweh. Their tradition of praying was a long tradition rooted in the stories of Ezekiel, Elijah, Elisha, and Daniel. And was one that connected the spirit to the earth deep through the portal of the soul, the desperate soul. And it is in this long line of spiritual and charismatic spiritual fervor that Jesus, fully-man, fully filled with the Spirit, engaged the world of prayer.
- lengthy prayer. ("all night" or "40 days and nights")
- praying the scriptures. by the time Jesus (or the Jewish mystics) hit the wilderness they would have committed to memory the Torah, Psalms and the Prophets. Bibles and scrolls were not available to take along, only what they had memorized and it was from this reservoir they prayed. Jesus prayed from Deuteronomy when in the wilderness of temptation and from the Psalms when on the cross. And the fact that Moses and Elijah, the embodiment of Torah and Prophets, appear with him in the wilderness is another clue into the transformational nature of praying the Scriptures.
- deep and internal silence. (disciples fall asleep on several occasions, while Jesus prays.)
- deep union and oneness with God. (Jesus' Farewell Prayer: "that they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us... that they may be one just as we are one— I in them and you in me—that they may be completely one")
So what is this notion of transformational prayer?
(the video below is me sharing my experiences with transformational prayer).
An exercise in transformational praying:
The second video is me approaching the Now through a transformational prayer, in a raw and unedited first take, just seeing where it goes. I have found prayer is something better experienced than talked about, better fumbled through than performed, better on empty than full.
My approach follows, first, what we know of Jesus praying in the wilderness from his experiences and prayers and from what we know about the prayers of the Jewish desert mystics (in the century leading up to and after Jesus). Second, my approach is taken from Origen (3rd century) the Desert Fathers (4th century) in what they termed in Latin lectio divina (praying the Scriptures, lit. 'divine reading').
These early Christians held the Scriptures in sacred reverence, they sought to honor from the center of their existence the words, not merely reading them to be informed, but praying them to be transformed. This kind of wilderness-now-transformational-praying moved through four landscapes: (1) reading (lectio) the Scripture (usually 4-7 verses) and getting a feel and familiarity of the words. This may take several readings. (2) meditating (meditatio) on the deep meaning of the Scriptures, the words, the characters and what God is saying to you. (3) as the Scriptures speak to you, you begin a conversation (oratio) with God, sensing and be present to God's nearness and nowness ("I am"). As he is revealed your longing gets expressed. This can take on many forms such as words, emotions, stillness, ecstatic utterances, journaling. (4) surrender (contemplatio) to the silence as you rest and resolve to live out what the Spirit is revealing to you. This last movement is the means by which you carry the experience into the warp and woof of life, and transfers the transformation "of heaven" to "earth".
One final word on prayer. Prayer is only a form, only a medium, only an activity, it is not God. The moment that it becomes God or takes the place of God it's an idol. Once I am awakened to the presence of God everything goes out the window--the form, the discipline, the method, the words. Prayer is NOT the goal, God is the goal. Getting through my prayers, words or allotted time does not define the fruitfulness of the moment, God is what I am after. And the very best prayer is a lousy substitute for God.
CHREIA OF ACTION
- Conversation. Have a conversation with someone about experiences you would like to have in prayer, transformations and spiritual encounters that you would love to be present with.
- Reflection. Reflect on a time when you sensed transformation happening to you in prayer. What was God saying? How did it influence your day and your relationships with others?
- Prayer. We did that together. :)