The 1656 painting Praying Always by the Dutch painter Nicholas Maes is an icon of the Reformation. It shows an old woman at her kitchen table, with a simple but symbolic meal set before her. The fish, the bread and wine, the key hanging on the rudimentary hook alongside the hourglass, the bell, the book, and even the devilish cat tugging at the cloth: all these echoed the Eucharist for the 17th-century viewers. The image underlines the priesthood of all believers and makes a central theological point: that all Christians, not just church specialists, are called to pray.
…the ‘Work of God’
Earlier Christians would have referred to the woman’s pause in the midst of the everyday, as doing ‘the work of God’. The conviction that prayer is the work of God, and not our work, is based strongly on Scripture.
When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he responded with an example: “When you pray say, ‘Our Father…’”. Claiming an intimate relationship with God who made us, alongside Jesus’s own relationship with the Father, is at the heart of Christian understanding of prayer. Similarly, Paul’s Letter to the Romans reminds us that we are not slaves but children of God, who cry out with the Spirit ‘Abba, Father’. Paul affirms that prayer is the work of the Spirit (Romans 8: 26-27). Prayer is God’s gift.
…to ‘become something’
There is a popular perception that prayer means getting God to do things. It is certainly human to pray for what we need, and Jesus models exactly that in the Lord’s Prayer. But prayer is also more than this.
Both scripture and tradition are clear that prayer is often about increased self-understanding and growth towards God. In his helpful book from 1991 on Reformed Spirituality, Howard Rice distinguishes prayer that aims to ‘get something’, from more deeply Christian prayer that aims to ‘become something’.
Rather than being a duty or just an urgent cry for help, the second more mature type of prayer reflects a conviction about who God is, and about ourselves as God’s own. Above all prayer is a way of shaping us to become like God, to involve us in the life of God in and for the transformation of the world.
…to shape us into God
The woman in the portrait lived in a world where the most popular guide to faith was John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Perhaps in contrast to Calvin’s (undeservedly dour) reputation she would have found some expansive writing on prayer in that monumental work, including key ideas in Chapter XX of Book 3. There, in keeping with his overall emphasis on God’s initiative, Calvin stressed that prayer changes us.
Calvin taught that Christians come to prayer empty-handed. There is no prerequisite for a confident faith, rather prayer deepens and strengthens faith. Calvin also noticed that bringing what he ‘wanted’ to God frequently changed his hopes. Self-knowledge is one of the important risks of prayer.
Prayer opens a different horizon. It raises awareness of God’s perspective and can open up a conversation where hope and suffering are in dialogue with a loving God. Suffering remains real but prayer connects suffering to the wider reality that Love triumphs. God knows how to give bread, as the Gospel story says, even when our requests are for stones or something less than bread.
… for a new imagination
The woman at the table bowed in prayer is an icon of these convictions. We live in a world with other images.
Dylan Voller strapped to a mechanical chair in Darwin, Omran Daqneesh alone in an ambulance in Aleppo, and the tiny body of Alan Kurdi washed up on the beach. These images are iconic too. They call us to respond to an overwhelming catalogue of need – for political will, for social justice, for compassion. Perhaps they even mock us with the apparent futility of prayer.
Calvin interrupts and nuances this train of thought. He agrees our efforts are futile, but reminds us they are not ‘our’ efforts. Essentially he makes clear we are nothing without God. The negativity of his views is sometimes so countercultural we miss their honesty, their tough-minded self-awareness, and their capacity to trust in God’s love rather than in making excuses.
When we cannot see beyond the images of abuse, he prompts us to remember that prayer enables more than we can understand, in us and beyond us. We will always be surprised by what Grace can do. Prayer empowers a new imagination.