Sunday, September 15, 2013

Prayer - the words that we say

Prayer is, quite simply, our friendship, our daily relationship, with God. It is responding from deep within to his love, bringing before him our worship and our hopes, as well as our brokenness and our fears. It is listening for God as well as speaking. In prayer, God strengthens and supports us as we open our hearts and minds to him. 

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Unuttered or expressed,
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of an eye,
When none but God is near.

Prayer is the simplest form of speech
That infant lips can try;
Prayer the sublimest strains that reach
The Majesty on high.

Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
The Christian’s native air,
Our watchword at the gates of death,
We enter heaven with prayer.
- James Montgomery (1771-1854) in The English Hymnal, 474

Because prayer is essentially “being with God,” it does not consist primarily in the words we say.

Words are important, of course, especially in the communal prayer of the Church. And some words have been hallowed by centuries of use. They are the “mantras” of the Christian tradition, having come to us across the centuries laden with their ancient power to raise our hearts and minds to God.

It is sad that arguments continue in churches of various traditions about whether set prayers or spontaneous prayers are best. Some regard utter spontaneity as the best indication of particular closeness to God. Others would never dream of departing from the set words of a prayer book.

Set words are very useful in public worship, for the celebration of the sacraments, and for landmark gatherings such as weddings and funerals. Ancient liturgical services in poetic language that is truly beautiful, help us to enter the great river of prayer that has formed and refreshed our community through the centuries. 

In private prayer, however, there are no hard and fast rules. It’s a matter of what is appropriate and meaningful for us personally. That can vary in different circumstances and at different points in our spiritual journey. Some people just “chat” to God; others like to sing hymns, psalms, worship choruses or simple TaizĂ© chants; others use a prayer language (“speaking in tongues” ) the Holy Spirit has given them; still others stick to their books of devotion.

Anglican clergy, like those of other traditional churches, are committed daily to a set structure of psalmody, readings and prayer that (with the Eucharist) forms the scaffolding of the spiritual life. I observe growing numbers of lay people incorporating abbreviated versions of these forms into their own life of prayer.

The reality is that the daily prayer life of most Christian people is a blend of silence, spontaneity and set prayers. This ought not surprise us, for the Gospels clearly indicate that such was the experience of Jesus in the days of his earthly sojourn.

Fr Robert Llewelyn (1909-2008), a much loved Anglican spiritual director, puts this into perspective and expresses perfectly the relationship between even the most beautiful of our words and the movement of love which is the essence of our praying: 

“The important thing is that the intention to pray remains, ourselves meanwhile attending gently to the words as the Holy Spirit enables us, knowing that the heart is at prayer even though the mind may wander from time to time. We have to remember that the real prayer lies beyond the words in the inclination and the offering of the heart, and the function of the words is to set the heart free to pray. The words may be seen as banks of a river enabling it to remain deep and flowing. Without the banks, the waters would scatter and become shallow and even stagnant. A similar danger is open to prayer when the framework in which it freely flows is removed. Yet the prayer is not the framework, but lies beyond. And just as when the river flows into the sea, the banks are left behind, so when prayer flows more deeply into God, the words, having served their purpose, will drop away.”
- in With Pity Not With Blame, p. 54-55


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