Surviving and Thriving

There are certain things that one is supposed to do when you are thinking about becoming a priest. Jack Dee, the comedian, was asked about what happened when he was considering the priesthood. He said that he was asked a question, replied with an answer, and a conversation ensued with led to it becoming a possibility that he might be ordained one day. He isn’t the only one. Exploring priesthood is something that many consider, and it’s about conversations. Conversations with oneself. Conversations with others. Oh, and I nearly forgot… conversations with God.

Only kidding, I wanted to get you reading… Prayer is at the heart of ministry. If you have to be told that, as an aspiring priest, then the conversation with your spiritual director, or priest, or assessor, ends right there and then. If you want to be a priest, then prayer should have been at the heart of your life a long time before you started a conversation with the church.

In many parts of the world, prayer is considered a universal- everyone prays, and usually most days. That prayer is usually at a specific time, and it follows a formula. As part of growing up, both catholic and evangelical children are taught to pray and taught that they should pray every day. Unfortunately, in the Anglican world, we have become so afraid of being thought of as being ‘old’, ‘fuddy duddy’ or even dictatorial, that we have backed off from insisting that prayer should be a fundamental aspect of life for all. Some of us are old enough that we remember prayers going on for a long time at school, and many of our generation vowed to themselves that they would never darken a church again, and that they wouldn’t impose it on their children. And yet in this ‘blow’ for liberation and freedom from religious cant, many have lost something which is of fundamental importance in maintaining our spiritual, emotional and mental health.

I am going to assert that in order for anyone to have an appropriate work/life balance then prayer should be part and parcel of their everyday life. For those of no ‘faith’ or none, then in this meaning, I would accept time set aside for reflection, for acknowledgement of their failings, reflection on the good things that have happened to them and serious time spent thinking about others and what would be best for others who are important to them. To sum it up, conscious nurturing of gratitude, reflection on how we are with others, and consciously seeking out for the positive things for those around us.

I am the first to acknowledge that there are those who will be reading this, from whom I could learn much about prayer. I am still learning. But I am also conscious that in not wanting to cause offence, Anglicans often veer away from asserting the development and formation of spiritual habits.  In fairly simple terms, I wish to be clear about how to nurture and develop spirituality. I am doing this for several reasons. Firstly, we have been teaching that throughout this crisis, we should all pray. I now wish to be clear about what we expect and mean by this. Secondly, I am clear in my mind, that the more we pray as individuals and a church, the more we will enable God to work both in our lives, and through the life of our church as we grow as a community. Thirdly, I believe that prayer is good for us. It’s a bit like exercise. If we do it, then we will benefit. There is some up to date research that suggests that through prayer, and prayer like exercises we can physically change the neuro-anatomy of our brains so that we become more emotionally resilient. That is a good thing.

Let’s start at the very beginning. Many of us will have learnt to pray like Christopher Robin. We will have been taught to kneel at our beds at bedtime, to close our eyes, put our hands together, and to have said, ‘God bless Mummy and God bless Daddy’. That is a brilliant place to start for all of us. It creates a place of silence by bringing us to a physical place of silence and stillness. We take on a specific posture which takes us into ritual. We close outside stimulus by closing our eyes and we focus on the needs of others.

We can pray by ourselves, or we can pray with others. Those prayers can be informal. It may be that as a group, silence is kept. I spent many years as a Quaker, and for us, a good meeting was often an hours’ silence. Communal prayer is powerful, therapeutic and empowering for healing and peace. We can do it as part of our services, or we can do it when it feels necessary. But it is something that is both important as something that we do by ourselves as well as with others.

One of my memories from childhood is of night-times at my grandmother’s house, and a print of Holman Hunt’s Christ at the Door, and being taught the Lord’s Prayer. To pray effectively, we do need to learn some prayers off by heart, and the Lord’s Prayer is a good place to start. It says everything in a very short format, and is universal throughout the Christian world. Wherever you are in the world, whatever the language, you will recognise this prayer. I have learnt other prayers off by heart, and recite these- some of them daily. Having a library of prayers in your head is a good thing- when you are lost for words, and there are times when this happens, you can recite these to get you started or to get you through times of upset and difficulty. For those of you who find this kind of prayer helpful, consider using a rosary- I have done this for many years, and I have worn out and broken more rosaries than I can remember. The physical action of passing the beads through fingers is part and parcel of meditative prayer. For those of you who would like to learn more, please get in touch.

Prayer books are for me, indispensible. I carry around a small Book of Common Prayer. One day earlier this year, as I was going to work, I picked up my prayer book on the way out of the house, and sub-consciously thought to myself that for some reason, I needed it that day. Five hours later I received a call that my mother was dying and that I should journey immediately to see her. I had three hours with her, reading prayers and psalms, and saying Evening Prayer with her whilst she slipped away. Prayer books are part of our ‘toolkit’ or ‘armoury’. If you are serious about your spirituality, you must have one, and you should have it with you.

I also have various books of prayers in my study. I have written out various prayers and statements about faith, and printed some of them so they are in notebooks and diaries. Sometimes I get these out and read through them and use them to help me reflect. I also have some hymns selected for the same purpose. For those of us with smart phones, there are Apps (for example, Daily Prayer) which are used day by day. They do all the hard work of looking up the right readings for the day and having the collects to hand.

But perhaps the most underestimated form of prayer is silence. As one divine once observed, a conversation which is always one person talking none stop, is not going to get anywhere. If we are to develop and advance in spirituality, then we must learn to listen and understand what is being said to us. If we don’t spend as much time listening as we spend saying prayers, then don’t be surprised if you are frustrated about your life. And how might God feel about not getting a word in (even occasionally?). We can practice silence in many ways and in different places and whilst active or still, ‘busy’ or at rest. We can be silent whilst looking at something or by listening intently. I learnt most about prayer by catching sight of a monk at prayer for a few seconds in a monastery side chapel. Think of the gaze of a mother at her new-born child. Or a couple who love each other. Or aficionados appreciating great art or music at the highest level. Prayer, can be in the same type of devotion.

For those of you who are still not persuaded, then I would say what I teach 7-8 year-olds. Imagine that in the contacts on your smart phone, you have the numbers of those who can fix the damaged or broken parts of your life. Learning to pray is like having a phone like that. Use prayer and learn how to pray. It may not save your life, but we believe that it could well make your life.

Hereford and this area have people who teach these skills on a one to one basis. They are called spiritual directors, and they are happy to help those of new and established faith, and those of us who are in-between. These is a list of them on the diocesan website. Failing that, your clergy can help…

Martin Quayle 1 May 2020