There is nothing more fundamental to the life of faith that prayer. Whilst on one level prayer is very simple, at times it can feel beyond us. I certainly remember extended periods during my own journey in the faith when prayer felt illusive. If that’s a familiar feeling I would suggest that whilst it’s frustrating, I wonder if it indicates an awareness of the mysterious power of prayer.
As we consider that mysterious nature of prayer there’s perhaps no better starting point than George Herbert’s poem that provides a cascade of different metaphors about prayer:
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
Yes, on one level prayer is very simple but experience assures us that it is far more than talking to an imaginary friend. It is very simple but at the same time profoundly mysterious.
Observation of daily offices is hugely beneficial to the life of prayer. There are times when we feel transported into divine revelry and others when there is just emptiness but through the discipline of regular offices we begin to experience even absence as a kind of presence, as RS Thomas put it. Beyond the importance of a routine of prayer though, it is useful to recognise that there are a variety of different approaches to prayer which can appeal to us at different times in different ways. I’ve previously spoken about the Christian Meditation movement and the value of silent contemplation, that’s one tradition. In the Roman Catholic church, the Rosary is commonly used which involves repetition of Hail Marys and the Lord’s Prayer and sometimes with reflection on particular divine mysteries so for example, the joyful mysteries involve reflection on the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity and so on. The Orthodox church has a particular focus on what is referred to as the Jesus Prayer – repletion of “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, take pity on me a sinner”.
It also has a particular tradition of praying with icons which of course engages us in a very different way. Father Gilbert Shaw, who was one of the founding fathers of Anglican religious life in this country wrote extensively on affective prayer, prayer focused on stimulating affection towards God rather than intellectual rumination. Charismatic churches give particular attention to extempore prayer including many in the Church of England. The Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, in his book about pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela notes that often he only manages to find stillness in movement so that for him walking becomes prayer.
There is a huge diversity of prayer traditions but it is striking if we look at today’s gospel that when the disciples asked ‘Lord teach us to pray’ he didn’t respond with a lesson, instead he provided a model.
It’s not that the Lord’s Prayer is the only way to pray. Sister Wendy Beckett says “the Lord’s prayer is about attitudes, attitudes of trust and love and forgiveness and about exposing needs. It doesn’t really matter how you express those things but this is a good shorthand. You don’t have to use this formula, Jesus was just telling you this is that kind of attitude you must have”.
It isn’t the only way to pray but it has a very special place. One of the reasons why the Psalms are so powerful in the life of prayer is the knowledge that they were Christ’s prayers. They connect us both to him and to the long history of God’s chosen people. In the Lord’s prayer we are given in his words the core petitions to guide us in this life in the light of his revelation. Rowan Williams notes, the Lord’s prayer is “completely fresh, it never gets stale because what it’s talking about is the human condition in the presence of God. It’s about the world we live in and the world God wants us to live in… Every single bit of the Lord’s prayer is radical because it challenges our assumptions about who we are and who God is and what the world is like and what it’s praying for is the most revolutionary change you can imagine in the world we live in. The change to a situation where all the hungry of fed, where forgiveness is the first imperative and all our relationships are transparent to God. As people will notice that’s not exactly like the world we inhabit at the moment it’s looking for change from the roots up”.
Perhaps in the light of that chasm between the world as it is and that for which we pray we may feel disillusioned and doubt the efficacy of prayer. The later part of today’s Gospel addresses this, providing assurance that God responds to prayer. It doesn’t always feel like that of course but this is another mysterious aspect of prayer. The Gospel reminds us that we generally seek good things for our children and whilst we might not always respond to others needs out of friendship, we will do so as a result of their persistent demands. Our Heavenly Father is infinity generous towards and so we are advised “ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened”.
Thanks be to God.