Wesley’s prayer life was connected to a variety of resources that enabled it to have roots and structure. Far from being an exercise in subjectivity and novelty, his praying was more accurately an example of the power and purpose that emerge when we utilize tried and true instruments. In this article we will highlight some of the more significant instrumentation Wesley utilized in his praying.
To be sure, the Bible was Wesley’s primary “prayer book.” He engaged daily in a reading of Scripture through the instrument historically known as lectio divina. Although he apparently did not this term, he did speak of reading, marking, and inwardly digesting what he read. Wesley found a way to meditate on Scripture-to pray the texts through carefully reading, meditating (marking), and contemplating (inwardly digesting) them. For the most part over the years, he applied this methodology to the lectionary readings found in The Book of Common Prayer, as well as prayerfully to engage himself in secondary devotional literature. By doing so, he witnessed to the ultimate purpose of such sacred reading: not to grasp the message, but to be grasped by the Messenger.
Second, Wesley used The Book of Common Prayer, which provided both basic structure and content to his daily prayers. It provided the focal point for praying together. Whenever possible, he would go to a church and join with others in Morning and Evening Prayer. When this was not possible, he would still attempt to go through the Orders with a small group of people. And when even this was not possible, there is evidence to suggest that he prayed the Orders by himself as an intangible connection with the larger Body of Christ.
Third, he utilized contemporary devotional manuals. Two of his favorites were Robert Nelson’s The Practice of True Devotion and Nathaniel Spinckes’ A Complete Manual of Private Devotions. Such manuals were constructed in a way that they could be used independently of other resources, or woven into the traditional pattern of The Book of Common Prayer. Devotional manuals were popular in the eighteenth century to expand and enrich the basic structure that the Prayer Book provided. They provided additional prayers for use in daily devotion, drawing upon prayers all the way back to the early church.
Fourth, Wesley used hymnals and song books during his prayer times. The clear connection between prayer and hymnody appeared in the 1753 preface to Hymns and Spiritual Songs (compiled by Wesley) when he referred to hymns as “prayers.” Later in 1780, when The Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists appeared, the preface again demonstrated the instrumentation of hymnody as a means of “raising or quickening the spirit of devotion.” Hymnody provided both the objective and subjective fuel for effective prayer. Objectively, they revealed the nature of the Trinity and the operation of the Godhead via the order of salvation. Subjectively, they afforded a singable means to praise God and to respond to grace. An examination of his diaries shows that he used the hymns as texts to read and reflect upon, but also that he would get up and move around, actually singing the hymns during his prayer times.
Fifth, Wesley connected reading and writing letters to his praying. A look at his letters reveals a kind of Pauline spirit-a spirit which included exhortations and counsel surely born of prayer. He notes to senders that their letters were occasions for him to praise God, occasions to ask them to pray for him, and occasions in which he promised he would do the same for them. When his correspondence was extended to a particular person over a long period of time, a kind of triangular dialog occurred: Wesley, the correspondent, and God.
Finally, Wesley incorporated the instrument of conversation into his prayer life. We see this through various questions for self-examination which he wrote in his diaries and journal. He examined himself to see whether he prayed before, during, and after conversations. His heart’s desire was that every encounter would advance God’s will in some way. Consequently, it was important to treat each visit as a sacred moment, and to bathe it in prayer. At this point, we are near what may be the overarching instrument of Wesley’s prayer life: the present moment.
Wesley was in the tradition of saints such as Brother Lawrence (and others in the holy-living tradition) who believed that the center of Christian spirituality was (and is) “the practice of the presence of God.” Such practice occurred moment-by-moment in the actual circumstances and relationships of life. Wesley’s parents had both been reared in the Puritan tradition which taught that every moment is a God-moment. He drank deeply from this tradition and thus it is accurate to say that life itself became the comprehensive instrument for prayer.