During my time at theological college, when I was training for the ordained ministry, one of the persistent complaints amongst some of my fellow students was that there was nowhere where they could go to pray. When members of staff pointed out that there was a perfectly adequate chapel in the college, as well as a beautiful parish church round the corner, which was open all day and completely at their disposal, the students remain unpersuaded. They argued that the chapel and the church were fine for the formal acts of worship which were a compulsory part of our daily routine – but they were far too formal if one simply wanted to be quiet and alone for one’s personal devotions.
When the staff then pointed out that every student had a private room of their own in college, where they could be as informal as they liked in their spiritual devotions, the students were similarly unconvinced: ‘We cannot be expected to pray in the same room in which we have to work’, one of the said. ‘What we need is a special place: a quiet room that is set apart, with cushions on the floor, and icons to meditate upon. A place where we can be silent and find peace.’
This debate rumbled on for some time, until eventually the staff gave in and found a small room in one of the basements, which was duly redecorated and fitted out with cushions and icons, exactly as the students requested. And during the first few days that it was made available, the new quiet room did indeed attract a number of student visitors. But after the first week or so, as soon as the novelty had worn off, nobody really ever went there again. After all, it was a bit out of the way, down there in the basement. So the new prayer room was abandoned and unused, and the students found something else to complain about. ‘Why can’t we have more courses on spirituality?’ they asked. ‘We can’t be expected to maintain a lifetime’s discipline of prayer and devotion if you don’t give us courses on spirituality!’
The moral of this story is this: there are times for all of us when we find it difficult to pray. And when that happens, the temptation is always to blame the difficulty on external factors. Perhaps, like those students, we feel that we haven’t got the right place to pray; or perhaps we feel that we haven’t found the right book to use. I can think of a clergyman of my acquaintance whose bookshelves are positively creaking under the weight of all the prayer books and other spiritual resources that he has collected over the years – yet he still feels that he hasn’t yet managed to find the right one for him. If only he could find that elusive book, then praying would of course suddenly become very easy.
I suspect that he is just as mistaken as the students were about the source of the problem. If ever we find it difficult to pray, the likelihood is that the problem is within ourselves. And if that is the case, then no amount of quiet rooms or resource books will provide a solution.
What did Jesus do when he prayed? After all, he didn’t have access to specially designed quiet rooms, or fancy prayer books. He simply found a place where he could be alone, and he talked to God. Yes, it really was that straightforward.
In our reading from St Matthew’s Gospel, we see Jesus instructing his disciples how to pray. What he gives them is the prayer familiar to all of us as the Lord’s Prayer. And if you think about it, that one prayer tells us just about everything that we need to know about praying.
We begin by acknowledging the might and majesty and holiness of God:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
We pray that God’s will might be fulfilled in all things. But note that this is a God whom we address as Father:
Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.
We pray that God will give us the things that we need (and remember this is about needs, not wants!):
Give us this day our daily bread.
And we are to ask God’s forgiveness for our failures and our wrongdoing – before reminding ourselves that we, in turn, have a duty to forgive those who have failed us and wrong us:
Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And finally we ask God to keep us on the path of righteousness, so that we do not fall into evil ways:
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Because all things, everything that we do, and all our hopes and aspirations, take place within an arena that is God’s arena, and will remain so throughout eternity:
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
Which in essence tells us all that we need to know. This is a prayer that is emphatically not about asking God for things that we happen to desire, or think ought to happen. Rather it is a prayer in which we align our wills with the purposes of God. Which is why prayer, properly understood, is about listening as well as asking.
Prayer is actually rather straightforward. It doesn’t require special rooms or special books. Just do what Jesus did. Find a quiet place, speak to God, and begin to learn how to listen. Because, perhaps not there and then, but in his own time, and in his own way, God will want to speak to you, too.