Prayer: Responding to the Rhythm

Prayer: Responding to the Rhythm

Glynn Cardy 9th October 2022

We do it all sorts of ways.  Sitting or kneeling in an uncomfortable pew.  Walking on the beach, or in the bush.  Stroking our pet cat, or our neighbour’s.  We do it in empty churches and full, in the solace of our bedroom, or around the dining table with people important to us.  We do it singing, or in silence.  Some do it when we paint, or knit, build or play.

As for what we’re doing – sometimes we can describe it, and sometimes not.  The usual word for it is ‘prayer’.  But that word doesn’t tell us too much.

Sure, when we’re younger and think the world makes sense, we might describe prayer as talking to God.  Which kind of assumes that we know what and where God is, and how to talk to God.  But as we grow older all of that becomes less certain. 

And besides, if we say God is omnipresent and omniscient, doesn’t God know already what we think before the words are out of our mouth.  So why bother with talking.  What’s the use of it?

Not that I’m trying to talk you out of prayer, its just that prayer doesn’t fit within the boundaries of any usual discourse or modes of exchange.  Just as God doesn’t.  And if you give up on the idea of God as a feudal king who dispenses favours to the subservient, then you might also want to give up on the idea of prayer being the petitioning of any such being.

‘What’s the use of it?’ is actually a really good question.  If it doesn’t achieve anything, anything tangible anyway, why persist with it?  Isn’t it just useless? 

Or maybe we should ask about this differently, like: ‘Does everything of value to us have to be useful?’  Maybe there are a whole lot of useless things in our lives that actually make our live pleasurable and meaningful.

Do we, for example, plant, pick, or smell flowers because they are useful?  Maybe the planting, picking, and smelling are like a prayer celebrating and adding to the beauty in the world.

Do we, for example, raise children or grandchildren, in order for them to be useful to us?  I hope not.  I hope our answer would be closer to a prayer of giving love for no reason whatsoever save to give love.  Love without why.

Do we, for example, come to church to meet, sing, think, and pray with others in order that it is useful?  I come to church because I believe in and have experienced a deep of rhythm of thankfulness in life, and I want to carry that beat in my mind and heart, and make a symphony of music with others carrying that beat.

Which is, by the way, how I reimagine that story of the Samaritan leper who experienced a healing (Luke 17:11-20).  I think somehow, even though he lived outcast, even though he lived with the indignity of having to shout a warning to anyone who came close, even though he did not expect inclusion, he knew of that deep rhythm of thankfulness, maybe nurtured by some love he had received, so that when he received an unexpected gift from Jesus his instinct turned to that rhythm and he joined and participated in it.

The divine is like a rhythm pulsating in the depths of life, and given expression when we in time join in.  When we express thankfulness by word, deed, or sigh.  When we express loving affection by word, deed, or sigh.  When we express beauty by word, deed, or sigh.  This is prayer.

And Christianity, or any religion, does not have the ownership rights on prayer.  If it belongs to anyone, it belongs to the oikumene (the whole household of the earth).  Prayer is not some holy language to address a holy deity separate from the secular earth and its creatures.  Prayer is not some religious exercise divorced from the rest of one’s life.  Rather prayer is as natural as breathing, and God as accessible as the air we breathe.  

I was reading a collection of classic prayers the other day.  The editor had written in the preface: “I am very bad at praying.  I don’t find it easy and most of the time I don’t find it pleasurable.  I just find it hard work and not very rewarding.”  I find such a statement very sad.  Prayer has been shaped into a category removed from the editor’s everyday life.

Yet it was not always and everywhere like this.  There are many cultures in the world where daily tasks have been traditionally accompanied by prayers.  In Celtic spirituality for example there is a sublime unity of life and divinity, where one breathed and toiled and lived into the rhythm of thankfulness, love, and beauty.  Similarly, Māori spirituality integrates the sacred with everyday living.  In washing, preparing, cooking, planting, tending, caring, hunting, gathering and sleeping, prayer spoken or silent was part of the rhythm of the life, connecting with a deeper rhythm.

Maurice Shadbolt gives this definition of prayer: “There is only one reason to pray, and it is not to petition or to please.  It is, as it was in the beginning, to get a grip on our existence.  Or to flag it down for a moment as it flies past.  If we also win a little harmony from the human bedlam, that is serendipity.”

The following short paragraphs I once wrote titled Morning Prayers give glimpses into how that ‘grip on our existence’ happens in people’s lives:

Dressing gown and slippers adorned, stirring the porridge, caring for her soul, as the little ones stir awake.

The earnest believer opens his Bible, reads the prescribed text, and talks to God.  God is kind.

Walking around the rocks, rod in one hand, as the day kisses the night adieu. The sea holds her other hand, and her heart.

The same earnest believer grows tired of talking at God, and stops to listen.  God does too.

The child runs, jumps into the double bed, and cries “I love you Mummy.”  The warmth of uninhibited love floods her soul.

The warmth of the cup warms more than his hands wrapped around it.  It is a moment of nurture and, today, a moment of contemplation.

They meet for breakfast every workday morn at six.  It is a big breakfast, for big men, who lay big slabs of concrete for cars to park upon.  It’s not the food, rather the jovial camaraderie, which feeds their soul.

They meet before breakfast.  Gathered in the front room, doubling as a chapel, they use a liturgy full of old words written by others about others.  It doesn’t make sense.  But they gather anyway and leave feeling held.

The dog sniffs at nearly everything.  It is curiosity incarnate.  It is very sociable, indiscriminately greeting each and every early riser on the city streets.  The woman enjoys being led by the dog into the day, and into her soul.

Each of these vignettes captures something of the prayers being offered up every day by innumerable people.  They are offered in darkness and in light, in trouble and in joy, knowingly and unknowingly, for ourselves and despite our selves.  Prayers of thankfulness, love, and beauty.

It is also difficult when talking about prayer not to slide into poetry.  When talking about spirituality and matters of the soul after a while the language of logic and sensible becomes inadequate and arid.  Poetry seems a better medium.  Indeed, probably the most enduring Prayer Book in the English language is the Anglican 1662 Book of Common Prayer, so beloved because of the poetic nature of much of its language despite its antiquated, and frankly terrible, theology. 

Another great vehicle for keeping time with this deep rhythm is music.  Here one does not have to be encumbered by the limitations of language.  There are many of us who revel in the power and beauty of well-performed music to embrace and nourish our souls in ways that are difficult to describe.  The music’s lyrics are largely incidental.  Indeed, the lyrics, for example when extolling a patriarchal God, get in the way.

Many of us in Western Society live under constant bombardment from words.  From the moment we get out of bed, from remembering and making decisions, from reading emails and newspapers, from organizing and listening to others… our brain is going… frequently flayed by information and demands.  The volume of noise can be tremendous. It is difficult then not to come despondent about prayer if it is just one addition to the collection of sounds, one more clang in the cacophony, one more date in the litany of demands.

But, on the other hand, there are a variety of non-verbal renewing experiences that can happen every day:  When one pulls open the curtains and inhales the light of the morning sun…  When one walks, runs, or swims, and feels the body’s movements and pleasure…  When one sips and smells the aroma emanating from a cup…  When the warm wash of empathy floods over us…  When the fire burns low in the grate and the glow warms the soul…  

Each of these experiences connects us with that deep rhythm of thankfulness, love, and beauty we can name as divine.  Each of these experiences are as a prayer.

So, it’s no wonder people do it, when they do it, either knowingly or not (which is another thing), in all sorts of places, in all sorts of ways, with all sorts of people, of just alone.  We carry and keep this rhythm, we pray this rhythm.  And in so doing there is hope.