An overlong post tonight - some thoughts that I put together for "Cake or Death" (not its actual title) - a discussion forum
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.
Reading Herbert's poem Prayer can feel rather like hearing in swift succession all of those parables of the Kingdom – it's a bit like a mustard seed – a merchant – a man sowing seeds – a woman sweeping a room...Just as you settle down to focus on one idea or image, it is replaced by another, - like trying to hold onto mercury -so that there's a risk that you might emerge more confused than enlightened.
But I think there's a reason for this.
It is that both the Kingdom – AND Prayer – are concepts that are beyond the normal range of our understanding.
So as we try to explore them, we get brief glimpses of the truth – but need to remember that the truth is always greater.
How can we be in conversation with the creator of all things?
What do we think we're doing when we come to God with our agenda?
No wonder we struggle.
So often we seem to treat prayer like a slot-machine...we pop in our requests, push the button & wait...and if nothing recognisable (and ideally matching our desires) happens in short order, well then we say that the prayer “hasn't worked”
But if prayer is less a process, and more a relationship – then things can look rather different. You see, in a relationship changes happen but they happen within those who are involved as the two parties find their world views, their shopping habits, their style of speech and much else influenced by one another. Those changes may not be conscious, or delibrate ..more often they happen gradually, almost imperceptibly.
Listen to Rowan Williams
There’s something about sunbathing that tells us more about what prayer is like than any amount of religious jargon.
When you’re lying on the beach or under the lamp, something is
happening, something that has nothing to do with how you feel or
how hard you’re trying. You’re not going to get a better tan by
screwing up your eyes and concentrating. You give the time, and
that’s it. All you have to do is turn up. And then things change, at
their own pace. You simply have to be there where the light can get at you....
God is there always. You don’t need to fight for his attention or
make yourself acceptable. He’s glad to see you. And he’ll make a
difference while you’re not watching, just by radiating who and
what he is in your direction. All he asks is that you stay there with
him for a while, in the light. For the rest, you just trust him to get
on with it
So – it's really not a question of trying harder – though sometimes prayer CAN feel like very hard work.
If you feel as if nothing much is happening- it's horribly tempting to give up...but remember that looking at a garden in winter there's no sign of the amazing life dormant beneath the surface.
Remember, too, the ancient tradition of going out into the desert to pray.
Yes, that's partly about being somewhere where there are no distractions – but it's also a reminder that deserts can be surprisingly fertile places
In Christianity the desert is a place of discovery – a place where we can expect to meet God, as well as meeting our deepest selves.
Another bishop, Stephen Cottrell
If something has happened in our life to make God feel absent, God can use that experience to nurture in us a deeper understanding of his constant presence. If we are going through a period of spiritual dryness, even if we do not know the reason, we need to begin to trust that God is leading us
through this experience to a deeper understanding of his overflowing love. What troubles me is that so many Christians are ill-prepared for the dark times that will inevitably come. I feel that many people not only give up on prayer, but give up on God when they find themselves in the desert, because they were never told that this is a necessary part of faith.
Stephen Cottrell, Praying Through Life, pp. 127–8
Prayer is part of how we express our inner, spiritual life – a way in which we make explicit to ourselves the fact that we KNOW we are more than just bodies & brains. So it follows that prayer is a necessary exercise for our spiritual well-being, something we do to keep the muscles working...If we stop, then those muscles may atrophy and die...But if Christianity is about life in all its fullness, then not to pray is to fail to keep the essential core of ourself alive...to risk suffocation, almost.
If all this talk of sun bathing, excursions to the desert or the exercise of spiritual muscles feels alien – here's another thought.
God IS relationship…the community of Father, Son and Spirit into which we are invited in prayer.
Human beings are made for relationship with God…I pray, therefore I am. When we pray we discover the truth about ourselves, that we are children of God. Within this relationship we can flourish and become truly ourselves as God has intended us to be. Stephen Cottrell
Prayer is paradox…It is all about the gift of God and God praying in us, but is also has to be an act of human will. If we don't allow for the possibility of God's action in our lives, then we are likely to miss the evidence of it. God won't muscle in – we have to get ourselves and our agendas out the way, in order to be open to the possibility of his presence and his action.
But we CANT pray without God's help.
“An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him (the Holy Spirit). But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God—that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying—the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on—the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary person is saying…prayers.” ~~C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Prayer is the most natural thing in the world – an expression of who we are and what we are for.
“You have made us for yourself” said Augustine – and the way in which we can enter into that relationship with God is through our prayer...
But because we struggle so much with our all-pervasive egos, prayer can also be the hardest thing we do.. . Like any relationship it involves letting go and allowing someone else to be at the centre of life – but we are programmed to place ourselves there....It isn't easy, even if it is natural and instinctive.
But easy or hard, prayer is never solitary. Even if we retreat to a hermitage, we never pray alone, but are part of something much greater than our individual selves. Our prayers are part of the great outpouring that has gone on since the world began...and so we pray ”with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven”…
Together we tune our voices, our hearts, our wills til they are one with God's loving purpose for the whole of creation - for prayer is always, in some way, a gift of love
a relationship with God for others
“Prayer is the way to both the heart of God and the heart of the world – precisely because they have been joined through the suffering of Christ.
Praying is letting one’s own heart become the place where the tears of God and the tears of God’s children can merge and become tears of hope”
Henri Nouwen Seeds of Hope