Several years ago, I had a conversation with an elderly member of a congregation. We got on to talking about prayer and how hard it sometimes was to pray. As the conversation continued, I was surprised at some of the questions I was being asked….
Here was a faithful churchgoer of, probably, sixty or more years who was relishing the opportunity to talk about something that she had done for almost the whole of her life.
Something she said has stuck with me: “You see, Father – I come to the church every week; just as I’ve been to church almost every Sunday of my life. I join in the hymns. I join in the words. But nobody has ever really taught me how to pray. People just think that because you’ve been coming for so long – you ‘know’. But I don’t. And after sixty years, I’m too ashamed to ask…” I left that conversation not ashamed of that person’s ignorance, but ashamed of myself (and on behalf of my fellow clergy) that we should so ‘short-change’ our congregations that we fail to give them the basic tools they need to develop a praying life.
What is clear to me is the deep thirst amongst to speak and learn more about prayer – and it is on the back of that experience and many others over the year that I have decided to offer these short talks during Lent. More practical than theological; more pragmatic than reflective – though I hope they will still be ‘spiritual’ in the best sense of that word, I hope these talks will contain elements of all those things.
My key concern in this series is to ensure that nobody here will be able to say in five, ten, twenty or fifty years’ time – “Nobody has ever really taught me how to pray.” For although prayer is often not easy, there are very simple and practical ways in which we can help ourselves by thinking about how we pray and by exploring some ‘tools’ which may help us as we do.
But a word of warning: prayer is gift. It is the gift of God to us, through us and in us. For we can only pray as the Holy Spirit who dwells within us makes it possible. God speaks to God from within.
As it says in Romans 8
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8.26-7)
Ultimately, it is God who makes prayer possible. But we can help ‘make the connection’ with him by developing a discipline, a framework – and the tools – for prayer which work for us. Prayer is a bit like stepping on to God’s moving walkway – just like those ones you find at big airports. You’ve got to want to go in God’s direction, but once you do – once you step on – God carries you and helps you on the way. And we also need to recognise that what worked thirty years ago may no longer be the best way for us to connect with God today.
This course will, therefore, go back to basics. Over the coming weeks, we shall explore:
- Prayer and place;
- Prayer and time;
- Prayer and silence;
- Prayer and the senses;
- and finally, Prayer and words.
I will not be offering profound insights from the spiritual masters – although I hope you will detect their influence on the way. What I will try to offer is some basic teaching in the hope that there may be something fresh, something new, something as yet ‘undiscovered’ which catches your imagination and brings new life to your praying and your prayers this Lent and in the days and weeks to come.
So we begin….
Prayer and place
Where do you pray? Think about it…..
There will be as many answers to that question as there are people here in the Church. What is clear is that all of us pray in certain places. They may not be the same places. They may not be the same places every day or every week. But all of us pray somewhere. It is, perhaps, to state the obvious, but prayer is located; because we are located. As human beings, we live in a created world as created beings. We are bound by space and time. And that both limits us and enables us. If we were spirits, then prayer (if we prayed at all) would be very different – perhaps more like entering into some cosmic ‘soup’ with no bounds and no identifiable beginning or ending. Instead, prayer is an activity which we undertake within the constraints of the physical world and within the passage of eternity. And that means that there are both places – and times – when we pray. We’ll think about Prayer and time a bit more next week. For today, I want to focus on place….
I suspect that the answer to my question ‘Where do you pray?’ will have included answers like: in church at services; in church on my own; at home; in an armchair; in bed; at the meal table; and many more. It may well have included places like: in the bath; in the garden; when I’m out for a walk; in the office. In fact, there is nowhere where prayer is not possible. But perhaps what matters is that we find out ‘where works for us’…. Where are the places or the contexts where we find it easiest to pray and to connect with God? For my experience, both for myself and as I have listened to others, is that for most people there are some places which work better than others; and places which used to work, may no longer do so.
But before we explore where we pray, let’s think about where Jesus prayed:
- He prayed in the mountains and on the hills. In each of the Gospels, weread phrases such as “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.” (Matt 14.23). Often, he would steal away on his own to ‘re-charge’ (as it were) after some great miracle or exercise of ministry such as the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Sometime, he would retreat to such a lonely place before making a significant decision – like the choosing of his disciples; or some significant event – such as The Transfiguration – the point at which he finally turns his face towards Jerusalem and the Cross. For Jesus, whose tradition as a Jew told him that‘mountains’ were places to ‘meet with God’ – just as Moses and Elijah had done – retreating to such a high and lonely place, in the open air, was an acknowledgement that it was time to meet with his Father to be strengthened and to discern his will.
- But Jesus also prayed ‘indoors’. Most notably, he prayed in the Upper Room with his disciples on the night before he died. Here, he was not alone, and through his praying he revealed once more – though to deaf ears – the truth of his relationship with the Father and the purpose of his ministry on earth. The disciples, as it were, are allowed to ‘eavesdrop’ on his prayer as he is enfolded in the love of the Father and prepared for the cruel death he will suffer but a few hours – prayer which continues of course in the Garden of Gethsemane in the moments before his arrest.
- But his praying did not stop at his arrest. Even in the midst of his agony on the Cross, he continues to pray to the Father. He intercedes for the penitent thief; he seeks the Father’s forgiveness for those who taunt and mock and kill him; finally, he commits his own spirit to his Father’s care. Jesus prays in the midst of his suffering both for others and for himself.
- Finally, of course, he prays even now – our exalted Lord and King in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father, the One who “ever lives to make intercession for us”.
The variety of ‘place’ is notable: outside; inside; alone; in company; in public; in the midst of suffering; in heaven…. And, of course, Jesus not only gives us the example of himself, but also teaches on prayer – especially in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6) – where he encourages his followers to ‘pray in secret’ and ‘not to heap up empty phrases’, unlike the Pharisees and the Gentiles who want to be both seen and heard by others.
So where might we pray? Let’s think first about some of the obvious places – though for some people they may not be so obvious….
Most of us pray in church. In the Christian tradition, the place of gathering for the Christian community is a place where Christian’s pray – both with others and on their own. In the earliest days of Christianity, those places of gathering may have been homes, synagogues, public spaces or even outside in market places. It was the gathering of the people that made the ‘church , the ecclesia – not the building. But over time, particular buildings were erected and these became set apart as places for prayer – places where (in some cases) prayer has been offered for centuries….
You, like me, will sometimes have walked into a church building – often an ancient one – and had a strong sense of it being a ‘holy place’. As T S Eliot so lyrically puts it
If you came this way
Taking any route, starting from anywhere
At any time or at any season
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice pray….
(From ‘The Four Quartets’)
In such places, we are caught up into the prayer of centuries- carried on the ever-ascending desire of countless thousands who have knelt before us and in whose place we now kneel – literally preparing the ground for others who will follow afterwards…. One such place for me is the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. I never cease to be moved each time I visit. It is a holy place.
You may have others. Not necessarily churches.
For each of you there may be similar ‘special places’ which seem to invite us to pause and ponder and prostrate and pray. Relish them – they are the gift of God and of his faithful saints who have gone before us. And such ‘holy places’ are not limited to buildings. They can be in the open air – expanses of nature and beauty that stir us to prayer. Burrator one such place for me. So is the raw beauty and power of nature at Shaugh Bridge as the two rivers meet.
If prayer is difficult or dry, then a visit to such a place may be just what is needed to help us ‘re-connect’.
But it’s also worth acknowledging that – sometimes at least – church is not a place we can pray. There is nothing wrong in that! If you’ve ever been a churchwarden; or even if you’re simply ‘on duty’ as a reader or intercessor, church can be the last place where you can connect with God: there is simply too much going on; too many things for which you’re responsible! If that is true for you, then it is important simply to accept the fact that – for now, at least – you need other ‘places’ as well.
So much for church. For most of us, however, our places of prayer are more ‘domestic’. And it is ‘prayer at home’ that I want to finish with. Because praying at home can be both the easiest and the hardest place to pray. Easy, perhaps, because it is already ‘our space’; it’s where we are familiar, relaxed, at ease. It is comfortable.
But the factors which make it easy are the very factors which also make it difficult! For being in a very familiar place can ‘take the edge off’ what we are doing. Most especially, the possibility for distraction is huge: we notice that layer of dust on the table; we are disturbed by the doorbell or the phone; we are interrupted by a family member who comes into the room unexpectedly; we simply doze off! (Incidentally, I don’t think God really minds if we drop off when we are praying – I often do last thing at night, and it’s rather a lovely way to go…..)
So what can we do to help ourselves? The most helpful tip I can give is to create a ‘place for prayer’. It’s best if can be in a room or a corner away from the hubbub of the rest of the house – whether or not other people live with you. So, a bedroom is often a good space; or a conservatory; of if rooms are limited, simply a chair in a corner of the room that can be turned to face out of a window, or at some sort of focus, that consciously takes us away from looking at the everyday ongoing demands of living. Or you may have a summer house or even a shed in the garden – a place that you can go to that is set apart from the house afar enough away from its distractions. Some people like to pray anywhere; but for many of us setting aside a particular place for prayer becomes part of our discipline. When we go to that room; when we sit in that chair; it’s as if we are ‘keeping an appointment with God’
– consciously giving him our attention, and giving him first priority at that particular moment. We shall think more about ‘taking time’ for prayer and ‘dealing with distractions’ next week, but having a ‘place’ is – for most people – very important.
So what do we do when we’ve set aside our place? Well, despite my earlier comments, it is important that our place is comfortable enough not to be distracted by pains in the back or frozen feet! The type of chair, or kneeler, or prayer stool matters: chairs should be fairly upright, comfortable enough not to distract, but not so snuggly that you fall asleep. Kneelers or prayer stools need to be the right size – otherwise you’ll simply not be able to settle. And the temperature needs to be just right. One of the reasons I think people come in to pray in the Church is because it’s warm enough to do so; many of our church buildings would simply be too cold….
And all of these very basic things are important because we are bodily people. We are physical. And prayer is not just about what our spirits or our minds are doing; it’s about our bodies too. Think for a moment about how you pray…. Do you prefer to stand; to kneel; to sit; to lie on the ground; to walk; to run; to swim? All of these are possible – and some will work better for you than others… And some will be right on one occasion and not on others. There is no right or wrong ‘position’ – whatever you may have been taught at Sunday School! And what do you do with your hands? Do you rest them on your lap; or hold an object; or clasp them together; or raise them in the air? Again, there is no right or wrong thing to do – but equally, it is important to think about what you do do, and experiment with other possibilities. You may discover that what you thought you should be doing is the most uncomfortable position for you to contort your body into these days…. If it is, then change it! God wants your attention – not your distractedness because of the pain and discomfort you are in!
I am conscious that much of what I am saying is simply common sense. But you would be surprised how often we Christians put ‘common sense’ to one side because we think there are ways that things ‘should be done’. Be freed from such constraints! As your rector, I give you permission to pray in whatever place, environment or bodily position helps you to connect with God. There are no rights or wrongs – though I suspect that if all of us decided to get out of our pews and prostrate ourselves on the floor at the 11.15 or 9.30 Eucharist, we might have a slight problem…..
Seriously, I hope you will take time this coming week to think about where you pray and how you might make it easier to pray – especially in your own home. Move the furniture a little. Talk to your spouse or children or others who live with you – discuss your need of a particular ‘place’ where you may connect with God and see what it may be possible to create. And think about what you do with your body when you pray – what helps and what distracts…
For all these things are important. A first step.
Next week – we shall be thinking about ‘Prayer and time’
With grateful thanks to the staff of Wimborne Minster on whose work this is extensively based.