This year-long exercise in prayer was not my doing. I started it in response to a cousin who had serious back surgery and was quarantined for possible COVID. I kept it going long after she recovered. I simply couldn’t put it down. The contributions of this “cloud of witnesses” captured my imagination and sustained my interest.
We learn to pray by praying. When the disciples ask Jesus for help with prayer, he doesn’t deliver a treatise on the subject. He gives them a sample prayer known to us today as “the Lord’s Prayer.” Praying other people’s prayers deepens our prayer life.
I compiled a year’s worth of prayers in Prayers from the Cloud—365 prayers in all. These prayers span 20 centuries. One benefit of ancient prayers is helping us correct distortions of our modern age.
Someone asked me recently for my top ten list of prayers. Fair enough. What follows is a representative sampling of prayers that have resonated with me and shaped my prayer life.
Our first prayer dates to the second century AD. Irenaeus of Lyons (130–202) represents the last living link to Jesus’ original 12 apostles. This second-generation follower of Christ was instrumental in guiding the church in its infancy:
Give maturity to beginners, O Father; give intelligence to the little ones; give aid to those who are running their course. Give sorrow to the negligent, give fervor of spirit to the lukewarm. Give to the perfect (those in their older years) a good consummation, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Augustine (354–430) came to faith in Christ in mid-life after a wild and tumultuous past. His autobiography, of sorts, Confessions, was the first of its kind in the annals of church history. Augustine may be the most recognized Christian leader the church has ever known apart from Paul and Peter. His prayer opens the Confessions:
Almighty God, in whom we live and move and have our being, you have made us for yourself, so that our hearts are restless until they rest in you; grant us purity of heart and strength of purpose, that no passion may hinder us from knowing your will, no weakness from doing it; but in your light may we see light clearly, and in your service find perfect freedom, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Amma Syncletica (380–460) was a contemporary of Augustine who also warrants serious consideration. Amma, meaning mother in Hebrew, was a spiritual mentor to younger women intent about cultivating spiritual practices such as prayer. This desert mother has much to teach our frenetic culture about the value of solitude and stillness:
O Lord, I am yours and you are mine. You are all I need. Why do I go on thinking I need anything apart from you? Forgive me when I fall into pride, believing my virtues win your approval. Forgive me when I fall into despair, convinced my sins cannot possibly be forgiven. Do not let me lose hope in your power to save and redeem.
There is one more prayer from this early period of church history in my top ten list. Patrick (385–461) was captured by pirates and sold to Irish slaveholders. After six years of hard labor, Christ appeared to Patrick in a dream, directing him home to England. In a subsequent dream, Christ sent Patrick back to Ireland as a missionary. St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer is so-called for the protection God offers people. Patrick begins by binding himself to God:
I bind unto myself today,
The power of God to hold and lead.
His eye to watch, his might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, his shield to ward,
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.
We turn to the Middle Ages for our next two prayers. Richard of Chichester (1197–1253) uttered this prayer in the final moments of his life. A fellow priest was so taken with his deathbed prayer that he copied it down to include in his biographer in tribute to his departed friend. His prayer expresses gratitude for God’s mercy and closes with poetic flourish:
Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits thou hast given me,
for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother,
may we know thee more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.
Historians regard Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) as the finest writer and ablest theologian of the Middle Ages. While he taught theology at leading universities, he is not only remembered as a first-rate scholar, but as a spiritual giant in the faith:
Give us, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no selfish desire may drag downward; give us an unconquered heart, which no trouble can wear out; give us an upright heart, which no unworthy ambition can tempt aside. Give us also, O Lord our God, understanding to know you, perseverance to seek you, wisdom to find you and a faithfulness that may finally embrace you, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
I had a hard time choosing a single prayer from the Reformation era. How could I ignore theological heavyweights like Martin Luther and John Calvin? While I gave serious consideration to their prayers, I am drawn to a prayer by John Wesley (1703–1791) who led a reform movement in the Church of England known as the Methodists. Wesley’s prayer expressing total surrender was characteristic of the way he lived his life:
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you.
Praised for you or criticized for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
And now, O most wonderful and holy God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it also be made in heaven.
Christina Rossetti (1830–1894) was a well-known English poet. You may recognize her verse in the words of the Christmas hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Her poems often contrast the capricious nature of human love and earthly pleasures with Christ’s enduring love. Her prayer invites us to offer our entire selves to God:
you see that all hearts are empty
unless you fill them.
and all desires are thwarted
unless they crave you.
Give us light and grace
to seek and find you,
that we may be yours
and you may be ours forever.
We turn to the 20th century for our final two prayers. Thomas Merton (1915–1968) was a member of a strict order of monks in rural Kentucky and devoted his life to writing and prayer. His following prayer is taken from a collection of prayers titled Thoughts in Silence. This prayer is among my personal favorites. How many times have I entertained such thoughts yet neglected to pray them:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will lead. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so. Yet I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope that I have this desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from this desire. And I know that, if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen.
The last prayer on my top ten list may be the most popular prayer of our modern era. It’s called the Serenity Prayer, made famous by groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) preached a sermon in the early 1940’s and concluded with this memorable prayer. The genius of the prayer is its ability to distill three essential truths in profound simplicity—grace to accept things we cannot change, courage to change things that need changing and wisdom to know the difference:
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
The things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
Which should be changed,
And the wisdom to distinguish
The one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardships as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your Will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
There you have it: my top ten list. I offer one more prayer for good measure. In my role as pastor, I conclude every graveside service with a prayer from John Henry Neuman (1801–1890). His prayer directs us to entrust ourselves to God’s mercy in life and death:
O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, the fever of life is over, this busy world hushed, and our work is done. Then, in thy mercy, grant us safe lodging, a holy rest and peace at the last, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.