Part 26 in a series; see other parts here.
Without prayer there can be no spiritual life. Fortunately prayer takes many forms, and we grow spiritually by discovering and developing different forms and learning how to use them, which is why Sarah Coakley likes to describe a theologian as the one who truly prays. Prayer is quite literally the medium in which we work out our God-talk. That said, prayer is not something we master, but something we practice. Prayer ought to be a discipline, a form of spiritual exercise or ascetic practice. The need for form, even in extempore prayer, makes prayer an art: the pas de deux we dance with God.
The image of prayer as the soul’s blood indicates this need for form. Without a heart to pump it or vessels to chart its course through the body, blood is just a mess, its cells deprived of the occasion to perform their proper functions. Formless prayer—perhaps the simple desire that precedes prayer—may be more efficacious than a pool of blood on the floor, but its efficacy can increase with form. The bodily postures we assume, the different ways we frame our address, the modes of speech we adopt: each influences the kinds of connection we experience. We can find different forms suitable for different times and purposes. Prayer is meet for every occasion, and it can dress for every occasion as well.
Each moment of prayer comes to us as the cosmos first came to God: without form and void. The discipline of prayer schools us in the art of spiritual creation, and, as Paul told the Galatians, the new creation is everything. By learning to shape our prayer, we slowly gain the skills needed to shape the world. In this way, prayer begins as the life-blood of our own souls, and as we gain vigor by learning to channel it effectively until it reaches to every fingertip and toe of our lives, it becomes also the life-blood of a world still in need of coaxing toward spiritual life.
Prayer makes our own lives abundant even as it also pulls us beyond ourselves, calling us to put our spiritual gifts into circulation. We live daily in the arteries and veins of the world: are we nourishing the cells around us with oxygen, and are we gathering in carbon dioxide for reprocessing? Prayer makes us alive, but more importantly it also becomes how we give life to other people. The Spirit blows where it lists: will we raise our sails and enter the stream?