Religious people pray. Or at least we talk about it. Sometimes. I happen to believe we religious types really want to pray. The struggle to do so, though, seems to always wind up traversing the same, old well-beaten paths.
We read books and attend classes to help us understand how we “should” pray. Go into any Christian bookstore, regardless of theological persuasion and there are shelves of texts aimed at addressing our questions about the subject. Reading about prayer, however, isn’t praying. Too bad, because if reading about praying counted, I’d be a certified “prayer warrior” by now! In spite of the plethora of resources across the spectrum of theology, plenty of us feel guilty because we don’t think we pray enough, or with enough fervor, or with enough focus. Face it. Prayer isn’t for the faint of heart.
Some of us struggle with extemporaneous, private prayer. Such an exercise feels a bit like talking into the air (or to the wall). Others of us find our minds wandering during the repetition of the prayers of the Church in the more formal formats of Morning or Evening Prayer. Still others of us can barely sustain more than a couple of minutes of silent prayer before we are doing more snoring than praying. As difficult as it is to decide upon a genre of prayer (extemporaneous, ordered or contemplative), figuring out the proper attitude for the exercise is even more challenging.
On the one hand, many of us don’t believe that the right set of words (holy incantations) with the right emotional affect (holy feelings) with the right behavior (holy living) will somehow realign the heavenly tumblers and unlock the gates of God’s favor (however we may define such favor) upon the petitioner, his/her situation and/or her/his loved ones. Such beliefs about prayer smack more of attempting to manipulate the Divine than surrendering our wills to the same. On the other hand, if there isn’t at least a minuscule chance that something favorable will occur as a result of our efforts, we could well find ourselves asking the question, “Why bother?”
Some of us truly believe “prayer changes things”. Others of us believe “prayer changes the one praying who is then empowered/inspired to change things”. Still others believe tossing off holy words or sitting in holy silence is pointless — that the only sort of meaningful prayer is prayer that rolls up its sleeves and gets to work — whether in a soup kitchen, a tutoring program or a homeless shelter.
Over the years, I’ve engaged in all sorts of praying. Sometimes I’ve been more intentional than others. Sometimes I’ve had moments in prayer that were almost transcendent. Other times prayer has felt like a hike without a compass — going around in circles and not getting very far. I’ve been most consistent in prayer, though, when I’ve had the presence of others as traveling companions. I don’t think it’s an accident Jesus told his followers, “Where two or three are gathered, I am in the midst of them.” There is a power in a praying community.
To that end, I’ve invited some folks to join me for a 60 day experiment in communal praying. We’re beginning our journey together on October 1st. We will be using the service of Compline from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979 as a way of ordering our commitment to pray with one another (even though we will rarely be in the same room throughout the experiment). I’m looking forward to this latest opportunity to pray. From time to time, I’ll drop a line here to share what we’re learning along the way. In the meantime, if you think about it and are so inclined, pray that God will, “give us such an awareness of God’s mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we will show forth God’s praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to God’s service…” (The General Thanksgiving, adapted, BCP, p. 101)