Who prays these days?
I often wonder what we think we are doing when we pray.
When I was a young person - engaged in theological education and formation as an Anglican priest - the daily office, or daily cycle of prayer, was a discipline the church imposed on us. We were told it connected us with the 'community of priests' around the world who all participated in the discipline, and it focused us on God. I struggled with this discipline of the daily office for a while, then without admitting to anyone, I ceased the practice. I justified my 'disobedience' by citing to myself the pressure of a young family who would not simply go away or be quiet at the set times of day. I was learning to pray, I claimed, within the chores and delights of children and family, within study and by simply being in the world in a positive and lively manner.
Not many contemporary professional clergy that I speak these days to use the discipline of the daily office to give shape to their prayer life and faith.
Do you pray nowadays? When do you pray?
Do you expect God to respond, answer somehow?
If we are honest, most of us feel the need at sometime or other for the reassurance of a personal 'God' who cares about us and has our wellbeing in hand. We can feel this even if we have given up the judging God, the king and father, who keeps track of our transgressions and who we need to please and do the right thing by so as to avoid punishment. Many of us, mostly in times of extremely painful or difficult circumstances, can probably admit to an "Oh my God" while our mind frames the request or response we hope for. Is this prayer?
Our orders of service contain what we call 'prayer'.
How do we understand what we are doing?
The reading from the gospel of John that we heard read today (it is the reading set in the Common Lectionary for today the last Sunday before Pentecost) ostensibly sets before us a prayer spoken by Jesus just before he crosses the valley with his disciples and heads into the garden of Gethsemane. It is written as an earnest, and moving intimate prayer in which Jesus advocates on behalf of his friends, seeking Gods love and reassurance that they will be supported in what they do as they continue the work he, Jesus, began. Sometimes it is called the High Priestly prayer.
But is it a prayer? Is it efficacious? Will it make a difference?
Scholars today who study the social mores and history of ancient peoples suggest that rather than a prayer as we have come to understand prayer it is an attempt to set out for the early Christian community that John was writing for, a summary of Jesus ministry and the core of his teaching. The writer was honouring this significant man Jesus, who, by the time of writing, (90-110CE) had been dead some 50 plus years. Writing a prayer such as this was, apparently, a practice used to sum up the work and core values and principles of the life of important people. It was a way of honouring their legacy. Jesus was an important person and John was aiming to convince his hearers of this. The Gospel attributed to him is a persuasive theological dissertation on why Jesus is worthy of honour and respect and why one should shape one's life to Jesus values and example.
But, prayer, as our Christian tradition has taught us, and shaped us by, has generally been a way of petitioning God to attend to our needs or the needs of someone, important to us or to change a situation we are troubled by in much the same way as we sign petitions today beseeching the government to do something. We were taught formularies for shaping these prayers: thanksgiving; acknowledgements of Gods greatness and love; noting our humility and helplessness without Gods help; and our conviction that our prayers will be heard and answered in some way.
All this was much the same as any supplicant approaching the king for a consideration.
I used to be good at these sorts of prayer- and I can still readily make such prayers - but these days I don't think God is sitting up there waiting to see if I am earnest enough, or get the formulary right, before deciding what is to be done in response.
Prayer can be a problem for Christians shaping what we call a 'progressive theology'. Some give the notion up altogether as antithetical to a truly progressive approach. My theology and spirituality has changed over the years and my understanding of prayer has been a marker of the change for me. I still engage in what I call prayer but, I have noticed there has been a change in the shape and direction of my 'prayer'. My contemporary prayer life is very different from the teaching of my Sunday School days!
There is a lot of work going on today in what we might call the 'science of prayer' by neuroscientists. At Stanford University in the USA there is an interfaith group crossing many faith traditions that meet together from time to time to reflect on the various religious traditions in the light of contemporary understandings that are emerging in the realm of neuroscience. Quantum physics and neuroscience are two areas that are being brought into the gambit of religions and 'faith'. Both have of course been in dialogue with the idea of prayer. Some scientists suggest that 'prayer' the collective focus of thought and mindfulness on a situation can make change manifest. Others of course dispute this.
What I have become clear about is that it is important for me to give outward expression to my emotional need from time to time - to give conscious voice to my turmoil. I do this without any expectation however that there is a metaphysical being waiting to hear and then to arbitrarily decide if I should have my prayer, my 'wish' granted or not. Rather it is grounded in my persistent faith in the compassion and love of the communities of faith I am part of. That is a very personal approach, a psychological need being met.
More importantly for me is, I think, how we as communities of faith attend to the practice of prayer. I continue to think it is important somehow. It seems to me, our capacity to focus our collective consciousness outward beyond ourselves, and to give voice to our best hopes, to the values we espouse for our world and our social context while expressing how we will endeavour to respond is prayer in the best tradition of prayer. This is not the 'greedy child approach full of 'may we's and please do's'. Rather it is an adult expression of delight or concern and a statement of how we intend to respond. Our focus has shifted: prayer is not longer focused on God but rather on us and on our world.
As Michael Leunig says ....
“We pray for the fragile ecology of the heart and the mind,
The sense of meaning so finely assembled and balanced and so easily overturned;
The careful, ongoing construction of love;
As painful and exhausting as the struggle for truth and as easily abandoned.
Hard fought and won are the shifting sands of this sacred ground,
this ecology -
Easy to desecrate and difficult to defend, this vulnerable joy, this exposed faith, this precious order. This sanity.
We shall be careful with others. And with ourselves.