Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Swimming in the ocean: a penny-drop moment - by Helen Murray

Well, January not yet done, so is it alright still to be mulling over New Year Resolutions, do you think?

My New Year Resolution, if you can call if that, is to love God more. I thought I'd go for something big this year. Specifically, to try to see what it means to love Him with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind. I suspect this is a life's work, if not more than that, but the last few years have led me here, and I think that everything that's important kind of stems from this, the first and greatest commandment.

Years ago, I read a book by Margaret Silf, called  'The Gift of Prayer: Embracing the Sacred in the Everyday'. I've no idea why but my eye was drawn to it again the other day. I had asked God what I could do to love Him more, and I think He began to answer me my reminding me of the wisdom in these pages.

The author talks about prayer as a belonging, a coming to stillness; it's about listening and learning to live reflectively. Each of the little sections is beautifully expressed but the one that stopped me in my tracks was the heading:

'Prayer is a Gift, not an Achievement'

This is what Margaret Silf has to say:

'There is one more commonly held notion
that we may need to let go.

We were told from earliest childhood 
that we would have to work to achieve our dreams.
Our so-called work ethic
is all about personal achievement.

No wonder then, that we expect prayer to work
the same way.
The harder we work at it, we think,
the better it will be.
If it doesn't seem to be 'working', it must be our fault.
We must be doing something wrong.

But suppose prayer were more like love than work?
Suppose it were something that is simply given,
and all we are asked to do is to be open to receive it,
and respond to the gifting?'

Well, I have always been an achiever - lots of exams and qualifications and measurable outcomes. I'm a 'completer/finisher'. I've always tried hard: my writing is neat, I listened in class. I've always believed that if you do your best and persevere then you'll get there eventually. 'If at first you don't succeed, practice makes perfect (and it has to be perfect!) and all that stuff.  

If something goes doesn't go to plan, I assume that it's probably my fault.  Just as Ms Silf says, if it doesn't work, then I must be doing something wrong. I've never expected things to drop into my lap without effort - I've always accepted that I've had to work and I've heard it said that nothing worth doing is easy. So can it be true that prayer is not like work?

I certainly make it hard work. I have often laboured over my prayers and made heavy weather of the whole thing.

Where should I pray? 

How should I pray? 

Is it ok to write down my prayers? 

Surely I should have some sort of on-my-knees-hands-tightly-clasped times of prayer (preferably with an agonised look of intense concentration) as well? 

How about the times when I 'pray' without  feeling my prayer?

Without the sense of presence that I sometimes get?

Without the conviction? Does that count?
What about the times that I fall asleep mid-way through a prayer? How rude.

What about the times when my prayers are just a list of complaints and requests? How selfish.

What about the times when I try to be quiet and listen and then I get distracted so quickly? How superficial.

What about the times when it all seems too much like hard work and I give up and go and do something else? How lightweight I am.

With all my heart and all my soul and all my mind? Yeah, right. Can it be that prayer is not like that?

A gift?

Like love. I met my husband and we were friends before we fell in love. I didn't realise for ages that I loved him. He asked me out three times before I said yes. My love for him crept up on me. I didn't do anything; and it certainly wasn't like work. In fact, his predecessor had been much harder work and it's one of the ways that I knew (eventually) that this one was right for me; I didn't have to try hard. I didn't have to work at being interesting or someone other than me; being with him was easy and comfortable and before I knew it I couldn't imagine wanting to be anywhere else. 

Love was a gift. A gift from him to me, and from me to him. A gift from God, certainly. A blessing. I didn't do anything. I didn't work for it. I realised one day, somewhat belatedly, that I had it. 

Prayer is like that, the author says. 

'There is nothing we can do to earn another person's love
or achieve it by hard work,
or pass an exam to obtain it,
or compel it in any other way.

We can only receive it with a joyful heart,
and respond to it with a generous life.

And so it is with prayer.

Prayer is God's gift,
and never our own achievement.'

Now, if this is true, part of my heart leaps with joy at the idea that I am freed from the pressure of trying and failing, and the other bit of my heart sinks as at least I understand the concept of passing exams. I know where I am with exams. You do the work, you pass the exam, no?

So I wanted this gift when I first read the book years ago. I asked God if He would please give me this wonderful gift. I asked Him again as He once again opened my eyes to the truth of it.

And here's the penny-drop point. The moment of apokalupsis - literally 'uncovering': when the veil is lifted; when head-knowledge becomes heart-knowledge. The point at which you suddenly understand something that you've known for years - a revelation.

God has given me the gift already. He's given it to all of us; every one of us who ever wondered about prayer - what to do, how to do it, whether we're doing it right. To every one who ever glimpsed who He is and turned to face Him with a whispered, 'Yes, Lord.'

The author goes on:

'Everybody who ever tries to pray
is convinced that everyone else is doing it better!'

Ain't that the way?  I look around my church and everyone without exception seems to have more of a handle on prayer than me. Some people seem to find it so easy. Some people seem to do so much praying. I wish my prayer life was like his, or hers...

'It isn't true, of course,
because the love of God is the ocean in which we all swim.
All we can do is become more aware
of the reality of that ocean
and let this awareness inform the way we live.'

How beautiful is that? We are all swimming in the ocean of God's love. It's not about getting it right. It's about spending time in the water. The more time I spent with my husband-to-be, the more I got to know him. The more I knew him, the more I loved him. The more time I spend with my heavenly Father, the more I get to know Him. The more I know Him, the more I love Him.

So, this gift, Lord God. Prayer. As I read and write this, as I try to invite You into all the stress and strain of my daily life and practice your presence all the time instead of squashing you into the bleary tail end of my day, help me to unwrap the endless layers of the gift you've given me.

I want to swim in the ocean of your love, dive right down further and further and discover the treasures hidden in the deepest, darkest places. I want to go right under and learn to open my eyes to see. I want to float where the tides take me. I want to experience the breadth and width and depth of it. I say yes, Lord. 

Come, Holy Spirit. Teach me to pray. Let it grow and grow until one day I look back and realise that I love You with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind. 


Helen Murray lives in Derbyshire, England, with her husband, two daughters and her mum.

As well as writing and reading, she drinks coffee, takes photographs, swims, breeds Aloe Vera plants and collects ceramic penguins.

Helen has a blog: Are We Nearly There Yet? where she writes about life and faith.

You can also find her here:

Pinterest: @HelenMMurray
Twitter: @helenmurray01


  1. That was absolutely beautiful and exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you.

  2. I love how your post gathered momentum as it grew in passion and honesty. The section about swimming in God's love made me go 'Yes Lord!' Wonderful! :)

    1. Martin, thank you. I'm glad it struck a chord. Amen indeed!

  3. Thank you so much for this. Like you, working hard has always been my 'thing' (I was a perfectionist). It took an illness for me to realise that God wants a relationship with me and that it's more about being than doing. I'm on a journey at the moment with my prayer life. Have you read Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence? I shall take a look at the book you have talked about.

    1. Thanks Vicki. Yes, I love the Brother Lawrence book! Inspiring stuff. I want to be like that....