Last month I talked about our community priority in Church. The way we seek to serve the people of Drayton. I felt a bit bad afterwards because perhaps I should have started talking about our Spiritual priority. It is our spiritual life that gives us the energy to undertake our work in the community. It is our prayer life that is the beating heart of who we are as a church.
So what is prayer? Perhaps the best explanation was given by Fr Peter a monk from the Community of the Resurrection. Monks pray by singing or chanting. If you listen to monastic chant you will notice that it is two or three notes repeated with a little twiddle at the end. The music is set to the words of the psalms or other songs from the bible. Sometimes there is a long introduction to the psalm with the word Alleluia or a short phrase.
When I joined the college I was a bit intimidated by the beauty of the singing. I thought how could I possibly sing like that. Luckily Fr Peter gave us a class in what the chant was about and how to sing it. The first thing Fr Peter said was that we as human beings don’t initiate prayer. Prayer is going on all the time we just join in the prayer consciously when we are in church. Prayer he said is the Golden Thread that is sung into creation at the beginning of time. A note or melody that continues from the big bang and for all eternity. When we consciously pray we are simply joining in this eternal chorus of voices. We are ‘hopping on the Gold Thread’ as Fr Peter said.
Prayer is a response to the love and creative power of God that we see all around us and throughout history. The Psalm says ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’ so the idea is that all of creation sings back to God its creator. So when I say or sing, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’ I am joining the stars, the laws of physics and all creation in singing back to God that same song of love.
The church has lost this sense of connectedness with the universe as have we as a culture. We are programmed to think of prayer as sitting down on your own shutting yourself off from the world. ‘Hands together eyes closed’ is something that you never hear or should never hear in church. Prayer is about joining in not shutting off.
The other idea that has taken root in our culture is that prayer is an individual activity. If prayer is jumping on that Golden Threat then we are all jumping on together. When I sing or say, ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’ I am joining in with the millions of people who have sung that in history and the millions of people who sing that today. Even if we think about the bible, the prophets of the Old Testament would have prayed these psalms, the first Christians, Mary and Jesus himself would have prayed in this way. United across space and time with all those other voices responding to God. My mother has said that when she sings in church she can hear the voice of her father singing with her. If the prayer of creation is eternal, then her prayers are united with all people now in heaven. Singing together in response to God. When I use the old fashioned Book of Common Prayer I sometimes wonder who in the past has used these prayers and in what situations. In a real sense, the prayer book has been used in the moments of greatest joy and suffering across the ages.
The centenary of the First World War brought this home to me. That the same psalms I pray in church were prayed in the trenches.
“Well that didn’t work then”, is some people’s response to a prayer prayed in the trenches. But that is to fall into the same trap and misunderstanding. To see prayer as a form of magic, not a response to God. One aspect of prayer that Christians are uncomfortable about is honesty. Which is silly if we believe that God is all knowing. The great thing about the psalms and other songs in the bible is that they are brutally honest. Jesus himself in his prayer life is honest with his father. Psalm 22, which Jesus says from the cross, is deeply angry and honest. ‘My God my God why have you forsaken me.’ All too often Christians don’t have a good shout at God for his general irritating nature or his seeming forsaking of humanity. It is easy for us to respond to God in the joyful times, but harder for us to have the courage to respond honestly in the difficult times.
Often in the difficult times our response is to fall out with God and not speak to him at all. To believe that it is not the right thing to have a go at him. If we take this approach we are left embittered and angry. If we take our disappointment and fear to God he does respond. Because I’m a vicar people often ask me if I’ve heard the voice of God. As if I have some special connection with the divine. I have a catchphrase in response where I say, ‘I try not to listen to God too much because he always tells me to do things I don’t want.’
We hear the voice of God not in an audible sense, like a big booming noise. But we hear it deep within our souls. Fr Peter said that in the chant we hear the voice of God in the echo. When I decided to ask my wife to marry me I didn’t hear an audible voice saying, ‘Go on ask her she’s very nice isn’t she.’ What everyone who has asked such a question knows that deep within our soul a voice beyond words compels us to ask the question. Often this voice within our souls compels us to do things against our better judgement. After all getting married is a risk, but yet we still listen to this voice. This is the voice of love, the voice of God that we hear sometimes, in the echo of our prayer. This is the voice that guides and empowers us within our lives. It is only through the practice of prayer that we can discern it, just as it is only through the practice of relationship that we can hear it in marriage.
God is acting all the time all around us. We can only discover this through the practice of prayer. It is only by responding to what God is already doing that we can see his works more clearly. Over time our will becomes one with the will of God and we ask for the things that he is already giving us. If we practice prayer this way then we enter into a relationship with God that is adult and fulfilling. The problem with all of us is that we often just ask like little children. I want, I want and get cross when we don’t get. It is only when we have the courage to be honest with God and ourselves that we truly enter that relationship. Trouble is you then hear something you’d rather not.
Fr Hywel Snook, Parish Priest