Something I read last week (in The Beautiful Disciplines, by Martin Saunders) has really got me thinking about prayer.
Jesus invited his disciples to participate with him in his controversial eating habits, his teaching ministry and even his working of miracles…but not his prayer life.
Eventually they ask him to teach them how to pray like he does. They don’t ask him why he prays in a way that is different to how the Pharisees pray, or John the Baptiser prayed: they aren’t in a position to make comparisons; their motivation is intrigue about something unknown. But even after Jesus teaches them how they ought to pray, he doesn’t pray with them. Even on the night of his arrest, when he prays and asks them to pray, he removes himself from their immediate presence.
In this, Jesus’ practice is consistent with his teaching, that we should fast and pray in the ‘secret place’: that this is something between us alone and God alone.
In this, Jesus’ practice is also consistent with prayer throughout Scripture. Hannah waits until there is no-one else around in God’s house. Hezekiah turns his face to the wall, so that he is ‘alone’ even in the presence of his attendants. Daniel is in the habit of withdrawing to his personal chambers three times a day to pray. Jesus points out that the Pharisees love to be seen – not heard: there is a difference – praying; in one story he compares the prayer of a Pharisee and a sinner, but both men stand apart to pray. Across diverse cultural contexts over more than a thousand years – a woman living among the coalition of tribes; a king in Jerusalem; a senior civil servant living in exile; people who have returned to Jerusalem but live under occupation – prayer is understood as too intimate to do with others.
Public prayer does take place – Elijah and Stephen pray in front of hostile crowds – but not in the sense of God’s people gathered to pray together. We see the believers praying together on a couple of occasions in the Acts of the Apostles, but in these instances they are hiding in secret for fear of their lives: i.e. it is too dangerous for them to go off alone. In keeping with Jesus’ teaching, when the church sends Barnabas and Saul off on their first journey, we should envisage the group fasting and praying apart and coming together to weigh and act in response to what God has revealed to them. Much later, we read the account of Paul praying with the Ephesian elders; but, in contrast to the record of his exhortation to them, a veil of silence is drawn over whatever he prayed.
Indeed, prayer in the early church was most probably, if not inside one’s own head, at least under one’s breath.
This is good news to the introvert. Perhaps less so to the extravert: though many of the things the people of God do together – eat, read Scripture, sing, share wealth, prophesy and weigh prophecy – are perhaps more suited to them…
That is why I like liturgical prayer. In (the Church of England) Common Worship, set words provide a structure for our prayer, with silence provided as space for our personal prayers. This is true of our prayers of Confession, of our Collects of the Day or the Season, of Intercession, of the Litany, and of the Eucharistic prayers leading into Communion. (That is also why I regularly set prayers from Common Worship with photographs on this blog.) In Synagogues, liturgical prayer follows a private-public-private pattern: everyone present prays the prayer in silence; the leader then declares the same prayer out loud, symbolising the sacrifices of old; followed by silence again, for personal response (this pattern reflects the belief that God answers our prayers primarily by changing us – not someone else – in order that the world might be changed).*
During the week, I meet with others for Morning Prayer. During this time, silence is, increasingly, my friend. It frees me from a number of problems with spoken prayer. On my worst days, I am tempted to craft a prayer so perfect that others will respect me. On my better days, I try to craft a prayer that is at least coherent – even though God knows our prayers before they are on our lips – only to be frustrated that someone else expresses a similar prayer before me. Then, a conundrum: if I pray, will my prayer be redundant? will it be taken as an implicit criticism of their prayer? Too easily, we slide from prayer into theological debate: and while theological debate should be done, and done prayerfully, at this moment it is a distraction.
Of course, these are introvert issues. But then there is extravert prayer: Lord, I, um just want to thank you, Lord, for um just Lord the way you just um… [Lord, have mercy on me, an introvert!]
I believe that everyone prays, regardless of what they believe about any deity.** That to be human is not so much a case of ‘I think; therefore I am’ as ‘I am; therefore I pray.’ This inherent prayer response is universal, and almost universally private – even taking account of cultures with strong practices of corporate liturgical prayer, such as Islamic societies. People pray, and will speak about prayer, but not pray out loud in front of others. And it strikes me that this is not because of a lack of skill, but because (skilled or unskilled) prayer is the most intimate expression of the human soul. It belongs under a cover – whether animal skins (Genesis) or a bridal gown (Revelation).
The Lord’s Prayer gives us a distinctive structure for prayer, a structure that provides skill where skill is needed. But perhaps we do violence against our neighbour and ourselves where we ask people to bare their soul, to articulate the prayer of their heart before anyone other than God? If we are to follow Jesus, we do better to teach others how they ought to pray than to draw them into our prayer life – or trespass upon theirs.
*Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks’ introduction ‘Understanding Jewish Prayer’ in the Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth is a must-read on prayer.
**While at theological college I wrote an essay on prayer engaging a series of interviews French philosopher Jacques Derrida gave about his prayer life. I can’t remember how it was marked, but it was perhaps the essay I most enjoyed writing.