I long vowed that I would never add to the enormous number of books on prayer by writing one more myself. But, so much for resolve! In what I think is a relatively fresh presentation on the topic I start by making a distinction between prayer and praying, arguing that prayer is not something we do but something God does in and through us. Prayer is, I suggest, the act of breathing in the love of God and then breathing this same love back out into the world. It is opening our selves to God and allowing the life of God to flow through us. And when words are involved, it is listening in on God’s conversation with God as it passes through us.
Organizing prayer around the four movements of the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina, I describe four major prayer pathways – prayer as attending, prayer as pondering, prayer as responding and prayer as being. Suggesting that we understand the components of lectio divina as movements in a divine dance, I then present how these come together to describe the contours of a path to communion with God.
What I present in this book is my own journey back from prayer as an act of discipline to prayer as a response to the God who is already communicating and who invites us to open ourselves, tune into that communication and then respond to it. I pray that it will be as revitalizing to your prayer life as it has been in mine.
Just imagine how different your life would be if moment by moment you were constantly open to God. Think of how much your experience of yourself, others and the world would change if you were continuously attuned to the loving presence of God and allowed the life of God to flow into and through you with each breath. Such a life would itself be prayer for, as we shall see, prayer is not simply words that we offer when we speak to God but an opening our self to God.
Most of us live most of our lives somewhere between the extremes of being completely closed to God and completely open. This is why I speak of opening. Opening implies not just a position but a direction – a direction of movement toward full openness. It recognizes that, even for those of us who long to know deep communion and union with God, we are ambivalent about the vulnerability of the surrender that this involves. We are hesitant in our openness – often taking a tentative step toward it and then quickly pulling back again. Obstacles obstruct the channels of self that we long to open fully to God, blocking our capacity to receive the fullness of God’s life. These obstacles can take many forms – psychological (i.e., our fears and unhealed wounds), theological (i.e., our distorted views of God), and spiritual (i.e., rigidly hanging onto spiritual practices that no longer bring us life). It is these sorts of blocks to openness that God longs to remove so that we can become progressively open to God and increasingly full of the very life of God.
This is why prayer holds the possibility of being so transformational. Of course, through prayer God can touch the world. But first and foremost, through prayer God touches and changes us. We become whole as we learn to live in openness before God. And as we respond to God’s constantly inflowing life, God touches the world.
The possibility of transformation lies right at the heart of Christian faith. Think of the promise of being born again, or, if this term sounds too archaic or feels like a better fit with some other faith tradition than your own, of conversion or spiritual awakening. The magnitude of the changes implied in these concepts might be somewhat embarrassing to us when we feel discouraged by the extremely limited progress typically resulting from our spiritual self-improvement projects. But they do remind us that Christianity is built on a hope that in Christ, all will be made new.
Transformation is foundational to spirituality. Unlike religiosity, which can involve nothing more than beliefs and practices, spirituality involves a journey. Much more than a mere identity, it is walking a path. This is, of course, particularly clear in the case of Christian spirituality since the earliest followers of Jesus were called People of the Way. And prayer has been central to that Way since Jesus was asked by the first disciples to teach them to pray.
Prayer would not be worthy of being called a spiritual practice if it did not play a central role in this deep inner work of transformation. Perhaps you have never thought of prayer in these terms. I certainly didn’t for a long time. I was quite content to think of it as spiritual work but never considered that it might be the means through which God gained access to me to do the spiritual work of transformation. This has not only changed how I understand prayer, much more importantly, it has changed how I understand my role and God’s role in the whole process.
If, however, you happened to notice the sub-title of this book you might wonder how the ancient monastic practice of lectio divina connects to this transformational dimension of prayer. Anything coming to us from a monastery might strike you as quaint but irrelevant to twenty-first century Christians living busy lives in the world. But this could not be further from the truth. For, as we shall see, this ancient prayer practice was developed expressly for transformational purposes. It was understood as a way of opening ourselves to God so that we might be touched, awakened, re-aligned, integrated and healed. Or, we could say, it is a way of opening ourselves to God so that we might be born again, and again, in a continuing series of conversions that together constitute this grand process of transformation. This is precisely the gift that lectio divina offers us. It leads us to a way of understanding and practicing prayer that is vastly different from how most of us understand and practice it because it leads us to opening ourselves to God so that God can pray in and through us.
Be prepared, therefore, to have your understanding and practice of prayer changed. In fact, if you are not open to this happening, save yourself the time and put this book down. It won’t be for you. If, however, you seek a deeper openness to God and long for God to continue the Divine work of making all things new – in you and in the world – then read on. If this is you, you are the reason I wrote this book. I wrote it to help you see how much more prayer is than you could ever imagine – how things you may have never considered to be prayer are, in fact, ways of opening yourself to God. I wrote it to help you move from prayer as something you do – or, worse, feel you ought to do – to prayer as a way of living your life. I wrote it with the prayer that you and I would both not simply become people who pray but people for whom our lives are prayer.
“This book represents a new maturity in spiritual thinking and teaching. David Benner is wise, broad and deep all at the same time. And you will be too after you finish this wonderful book.”
“In Opening to God David Benner has gifted us with a thoughtful and comprehensive guide to Christian prayer. The intimacy with which Benner writes about prayer betrays a deep and abiding knowledge of the subject, thus this book is destined to be valued by individuals and groups alike in their quest for more intimacy with God.”
“David Benner’s Opening to God should become a classic! It is warm, wise, gentle and challenging. For the beginner or the experienced it offers guidance in the Christian prayer practice of lectio divina, making this ancient monastic approach to prayer wonderfully accessible to the contemporary seeker. By no means is it a rigid or opaque ‘how to’ book, but rather an invitation to go ever deeper in the life of prayer. Reading it is like a conversation with a trusted friend.”
“Opening to God is an invitation to prayer — not just a book about prayer, but a guide for daily practice. Like an intimate retreat with a spiritual master, it brings centuries of wisdom close enough to speak to our lives. I’ve never met David Benner, but I felt like I was reading someone who had listened to my prayers.”
“This is a very well written and thoughtful book with very practical application sections at the end of each chapter. I highly recommend it.”
“One of the great blessings of my life is to have experienced scores of warm and insightful conversations with David Benner. I have walked away from almost every one with a deeper openness to the transforming love of God. And that is exactly how I was impacted while reading this wonderful book. What a gift! Life as lectio; life as prayer.”
“In Opening to God David Benner comes alongside our lives as a wise and discerning companion. His words water our desire for God, encourage us in our spiritual practice and widen our lenses through which we view the landscape of prayer. They will speak to any heart that longs for a deeper, closer and more intimate walk with God.”
“David Benner has given us another great gift with Opening to God. A tremendous book on prayer for people at all stages of their relationship with God. Practical, devotional and rich. This is a book I will go back to again and again.”