Last year we began exploring John Wesley’s often-quoted exhortation to “read and pray daily.” We noted that far from being a cliché, this twofold counsel was, in fact, an expression of classic spiritual direction. We devoted four articles to an examination of what lay behind Wesley’s emphasis upon reading. This year we will move on to consider his views concerning prayer.
For Wesley, the chief instituted means of grace was prayer. In a letter written on 29 March 1760, he observed, “Prayer is certainly the grand means of drawing near to God; and all other [means of grace] are helpful to us only so far as they are mixed with or prepare us for this.” His perspective was rooted in the view that Christianity is essentially a relationship. Relationships are initiated and sustained by communion and communication. Prayer serves that purpose in our spiritual formation-the means given us to initiate and sustain our relationship with God.
In his sermon, The Means of Grace, Wesley spoke of prayer in relation to waiting for the grace of God. By “waiting” he meant an active openness, and he used Jesus’ statement in Matt 7:7-8 to describe the kind of asking, seeking, and knocking which is related to prayer that avails much. By this kind of praying, Wesley said we would enter into the kingdom. By contrast, he believed that the neglect of prayer would place us in a “wilderness state” (see his sermon, The Wilderness State) comprised of profound dryness and aimlessness. By the time he preached this sermon in 1740, he had experienced the highs and lows of prayer and the spiritual states that attend such fluctuation.
But even more impressive than Wesley’s statements about the importance of prayer were his personal practices. In his private diaries he noted times of personal prayer with a small letter “p.” Times of public prayer were noted with a capital “P.” When he extracted material for use in his published journals, these times of prayer are duly noted. The result is a record of more than sixty years filled with daily references to personal and corporate prayer.
Wesley’s practice of both private and public prayer was centered in the Daily Office of the Book of Common Prayer. He followed its liturgy and used its lectionary to guide his prayer and devotional life. With this established ritual as his core, he added additional features that strengthened his communion with God. Early-rising afforded him the opportunity for personal prayer before he joined with others in the Order of Morning Prayer. He used a seven-day cycle of prayers adapted from others, chiefly Robert Nelson, which gave him the opportunity to emphasize a particular theme in prayer all day long. He used the Penitential Hours (9:00 am, noon, and 3:00 pm) as a call to prayer during the course of the day. He practiced moments of recollection at the beginning of each hour. And he used questions for self-examination to further his meditation at the beginning and ending of the day. The result is an eclectic and quite personalized prayer life. As such, Wesley is an example of praying in relation to a tradition, yet flexible with respect to individual preferences and needs.
An interesting practice was his habit of collecting prayers. One of his earliest compilations was a Prayer Manual (ca. 1728) containing many of the finest prayers he had found, including a metrical version of the Psalms. He used this both for his own reflection and as a means of guiding others who asked him for help with their prayer lives. His first publication, A Collection of Prayers for Every Day in the Week (1733), was an extract of prayers from the manual to be used by those who were ready to develop their prayer lives. He believed that one of the best ways to learn to pray was to pray using the words of others. In time, these great ideas would sink in and become part of a person’s natural prayer life.
We must not get the idea that Wesley’s prayer life was limited to the use of established rituals and forms. In his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, he commented on Eph 6:18 by saying, “With all prayer-with all sorts of prayer, public, private, mental, vocal. Some are careful in respect of one kind of prayer, and negligent in others. It we would have the petitions we ask, let us use all.” His own praying reflects the variety here commended. Even in his use of written prayers, he would insert parentheses-places in the ritual where he would move into spontaneous praying related to the idea in the text. This kind of system gave Wesley the best of both worlds-formality to keep him connected, spontaneity to enable him to personalize the ideas of the printed prayer.
There is far more to be said about Wesley’s prayer life. But as a way of bringing this article to a close, perhaps nothing is more important than to note the constancy and duration of his praying. He kept at it all his life, praying honestly in relation to his moods and circumstances. He prayed when he felt God was near, and he prayed when he seemed to have lost all vital contact with the Almighty. Prayer was not an exercise of soft sentimentality; it was the steel cord which ran through the whole of his spiritual life. Often it empowered him-sometimes it delivered him. Always it sustained him.
His final diary entry was 23 February 1791-just six days before his death. The first and last words written for the day are, “prayed.” This is not a melodramatic way to end this article; rather, it is a representative illustration of the way he lived. Prayer was the opening and closing action of each day of his life, with additional times for prayer woven into the fabric of the day. In the final analysis, that is what verifies his words about prayer, and that is what makes his personal and corporate prayer life a winsome invitation for us to go and do likewise.