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Maurine Proctor
Tuesday, February 19 2013

An Intimate Glimpse of How a Prophet Prays

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In some ways, prayer is a most natural thing, the deepest yearnings of our heart cast toward God who is our home. Yet in other ways, we know that too often we are unsure, repetitive, awkward when we pray with a dull sense that nobody is listening. We can identify with Christ’s disciples who pled, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).

What can be more important to learn?

That’s why I love the description Oliver Cowdery wrote about the night 17-year-old Joseph Smith prayed and received the visit from the Angel Moroni. Oliver’s description is clearly based on information that Joseph told him and sheds additional insight into this prayer that burst the heavens. What can we learn from Joseph Smith about prayer from this significant occasion?

This is what Oliver wrote:

On the evening of the 21st of September, 1823, previous to retiring to rest, our brother’s mind was unusually wrought up on the subject which had so long agitated his mind—his heart was drawn out in fervent prayer, and his whole soul was so lost to every thing of a temporal nature, that earth, to him had lost its charms, and all he desired was to be prepared in heart to commune with some kind messenger who could communicate to him the desired information of his acceptance with God.

Here is the scene. Joseph is not alone in his bedroom, but sleeping with his brothers. This night the turmoil in his soul regarding his standing with God has culminated in a willingness to invest in prayer with more intensity. The scriptures describe this kind of prayer as praying “with all energy of heart” (Moro. 7:48). His entire soul is focused on this communication. Everyone in his family has retired to bed. The noise has gradually died, sounds drifting away until it is quiet, yet he cannot sleep for the energy he brings in rapt desire to talk to God and receive an answer.

Investment is a key idea here. We hope to receive rewards where we place our investments in money. It is no different where we place our investment in energy and time and hope and prayer. Investment is a giving, a whole-soul plunging in, a will that is bent on a certain end. We believe something is worth giving are resources to. We are willing to pay a cost.

We want to invest our entire hearts in our prayers, yet, too often, we are half-hearted creatures in prayer, easily distracted. As C.S. Lewis said, We are “making mud pies in a slum because [we] cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” We have been taken up with trivialities, transfixed by the mundane. Too often our imagination and sensibilities cannot begin to penetrate the divine and holy and we lack the will or discipline to pray with all energy of heart.

This night Joseph was not sleepy but fired with a desire to talk to God. This desire is on a different level than most of us muster. All the clamor that humans have in their mind, the demands upon them, the chores that weigh them to weariness have fled from him.

His heart (not just his mind) “was drawn out in fervent prayer, and his whole soul was so lost to every thing of a temporal nature, that earth, to him had lost its charms.” In the Millennial Star, that word “charms” is changed to “claims.”

Earth and its duties have so many claims on us, it is difficult to move our souls toward heaven. We are tied by a thousand silken threads to the demands of our lives. This night those claims disappeared for Joseph and he only cared about knowing his standing with God. Urgency of the heart has a marvelous ability to focus the mind.

Oliver continues:

At length the family retired and he, as usual, bent his way, though in silence, where others might have rested their weary frames ‘locked fast in sleep’s embrace,’ but repose had fled and accustomed slumber had spread her refreshing hand over others beside him—he continued still to pray—his heart though once hard and obdurate, was softened, and that mind which had often flitted, like the “wild bird of passage,” had settled upon a determined basis not to be decoyed or driven from its purpose.

Cover alt1I have always liked this description of a mind flitting about like a “wild bird of passage”. One summer day the window was open to our study and a bird flew in and then panicked when it couldn’t find its way back out. It flew in a frenzy from one corner of the room to the other, increasing in aimless speed as its terror mounted.

Our minds with their flurry of ideas are sometimes hard to settle in prayer. We mean to talk to God, but suddenly we find our mind caught up with some chore we have to do that day or some imagined urgency that comes fluttering through our brain. The ancient soul we are is bound on earth, and we cannot even think of what to say to God. Or we are not convinced he is listening. Our minds can become filled with practicalities or just simply the desire to jump into bed. We mumble what we have mumbled the night before.

The focused prayer we meant to have is taken up instead with what we have to do next.

This idea that Joseph determined not to be decoyed or driven from his purpose is a vital one for us. Our determination and desires mark our prayers.

It is noteworthy, too, that his heart was “softened”. Clearly as he prayed, the Spirit came upon him. Paul taught us, "Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with sighings which cannot be uttered" (Rom. 8:26).

Joseph Smith made an important change in that verse, saying "The Spirit maketh intercession for us with striving which cannot be expressed."

We ask for the Spirit to teach us what to pray for. We seek to have our understanding expanded and our sensibilities enlarged because the Spirit is working with the mortal person we are, the citizen of a fallen world, and lifting us to see and feel more.

With the Spirit upon us, the self that is caught up in earth and its superficialities is suddenly opened to comprehend and understand. You can feel the shift in your soul as the Spirit begins to expand the way you see.

It might be well to ask at the beginning of our prayers for the Spirit to help our infirmities and to teach us what to pray for.

Joseph Smith tells us in Joseph Smith-History that this evening he had “full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as I had previously had one” (JSH 1:29). We may suppose that this full confidence came of his own accord, because he had received a manifestation before, but I wonder if that is not an error. Rather than called up on your own, it seems that such full confidence can only come from the Spirit, which then urges you on in prayer.


  1. Althought the article does not make it clear, eleven or twelve in the article must surely refer to the time (midnight) and not to the time he spent on his knees
  2. Maureen, thanks for the wonderful thought provoking article on prayer! It inspires me to repent and pray in a more dedicated manner.
  3. What is the reference for Oliver's comments?
  4. Very insightful. In response to the comment about length of Joseph's prayer--yes, Cowdery's sentence structure is a bit unclear, but as sundown in September would be at about 7, and people probably went to bed within a couple of hours of that time (candles were expensive & laborious to make), that is still a few hours for prayer before 11 or midnight. Also, I can see why Joseph was just a teenager when this happened--way fewer serious distractions to fill his mind!
  5. This article has helped to answer a prayer of my own. I've been asking for help to make my praying more fervent, heartfelt, meaningful. Thanks for your inspiring words. THE FOLLOWING IS NOT PART OF MY COMMENT: I thought you might want to know, so you can correct it, that in about the 6th paragraph, which begins with the phrase containing "key" the word "are" appears where I think the word "our" was meant. Check it out and see. (sorry, I used to work as a proofreader and old habits die hard!) Thanks.
  6. Maurine- Thank you! This was exactly what I needed this day.
  7. Thanks, your article helps me want to pray with more energy of my heart, and with more sincerity trying to lose the terporal part of the day and in spiritual longing.
  8. I deeply appreciated your thoughtful and open discussion about our efforts to pray, to truly communicate with our Heavenly Father. I relate to the weakness and struggle you describe, but am encouraged by the hope and promise that our efforts in prayer will be met with a personal response from a loving God who desires to speak to us and teach us. I know this to be true. Thanks for writing this.
  9. Maurene Terrific !!] Thanks Kieth
  10. Source of Oliver Cowdery quotes?
  11. From personal experience which I do not feel it necessary to share here, I find it very possible that Joseph was on his knees for 11 or 12 hours. I will say only that on more than one occasion I have found that I had completely lost track of time while praying.
  12. I agree with the need for prime time prayer. I'm not awake enough the first thing out of bed and I'm rushed and tired at night. We can't force the spirit to attend our prayers. But if we are investing prime time and effort in prayer, on blessed and sacred occasion the Spirit will fill our hearts and personal revelation happens.
  13. For Phil and M McLean: I put one of the most striking phrases (sudden appearance of a light so bright) in a search engine (Google Chrome) and found a book called Saints Herald, vol. 2, Letter to W.W. Phelps, Esq. Perhaps this will help with your request for a citation?
  14. Maureen, thank you so much for this insightful article with its very profound possible impact. I believe that the Lord will find many of us more invested in prayer as a result of reading it.
  15. Especially meaningful as we study this part of church history in SS. Thank you for the desire to deepen my prayer and to ask for help from the Holy Ghost.
  16. I am reminded of Roland Minson in the presidency of the Canoga Park Stake in Los Angeles. He taught us of the blessings that would come if we spent at least a half hour in sustainted pray seeking our Father in heaven.
  17. Nice article. I appreciate you. Thanks.
  18. I love this article Maurine! Especially because shortly before my mission, I made a committment to pray more like this. I now realize that the miracles I saw on my mission came because of that one small committment. I shared my little story in "Missionary Miracles and the Power of Love" (LDS Missionary section, Nov. 5, 2012) and in "Missionary Miracles and the Power of Prayer" (will probably come out this Wednesday in LDS Missionary). Thank you for helping me recommit myself to this simple and powerful principle.
  19. McConkie taught that perfect prayer is addressed to God, in the name of the Son, with words uttered by the power of the Holy Ghost. When Christ visted America he commanded his disciples to pray without ceasing. Their hearts were then filled with "desire" and they prayed unceasingly, not multiplying many words, for they were led by the Holy Ghost in all things to pray for. Joseph's experience is similar. Part of what is described here, however, is a mighty wrestle before God where as we wrestle to know God's mind and heart and to forsake our own, we become increasingly filled with the power of the Holy Ghost and desire which cometh by the Holy Ghost.

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