How would you teach me to pray?

Popping into a church today I was reminded of a question someone asked me a few weeks ago.

The church was somewhere that I happened to be passing. Somewhere a little off the beaten track in the middle of the bustle of a city. Not a particularly well known church but a known place to me. A place I’ve dropped into in passing quite a few times in the past.

It is a busy church – there always seems to be people popping in and bowing their heads. As they do so they find themselves sharing the space with a number of folk who obviously have nowhere else to go. Some seem to have carried in all they own with them. Some fall asleep. It is a place where devotion and need seem all jumbled up and you can’t always tell who is actively trying to pray and who just needs shelter. And you can’t always tell the difference anyway I’ve found.

It is a place where prayer has often just seemed to happen in an easy, matter of fact way.

I don’t particularly subscribe to the idea that there are “thin” places where God is easy to meet. People often describe Iona like that and speak of thin places as though that’s an old Celtic idea. In fact, the old Celts themselves seem to have been rather more robust than modern pilgrims – praying the psalms whilst up to their oxters in chilly Atlantic waters of a morning. And in any case, the whole ethos of the Iona Community seems to me to suggest that God is to be just as knowable in Govan as on a rocky crag on the edge of the world.

But still, the sense of place this afternoon stilled me somehow. I was in a place that had been well prayed in, there were some beautiful things in an otherwise ordinary space and it was possible to just rest in the presence of God and to love being loved.

And it made me think of that question that someone asked me recently – “if I were to ask you to help me learn how to pray, what would you say?”

My response at the time was that I’d probably ask a few questions and listen a lot before saying very much. The truth is, there isn’t just one forumula for praying that works. God lurks in the world, as Bishop Gregor has often said to me. And that lurking God longs to be known in ways that won’t be tied down to a method or a protocol.

If I was trying to help you to pray, I’d be asking some of the following questions…

What rhythms do you already have in life?

Do words or pictures move you most?

Does stillness come easily or do you need a routine in order to relax?

What ways of prayer have you already tried?

Have you any experience of meditation?

What gives you joy?

What gives you peace?

What are you thankful for and do you have ways of expressing that thankfulness?

I’d be trying to find out whether you found it easy to think about stories, or characters or concepts.

All these questions would be helpful in trying to find a few ways of praying that would be worth building into habits. Things that we can just do without thinking too much about them.

I don’t always find prayer that easy. And when I’m not finding it easy I’ve learned that it isn’t worth beating yourself up about it.

The world is no less enflamed with the presence of God just because I feel fidgety.

At times like that, doing something I’ve done a thousand times might be all I can do. Breathing and being concious of my breath. Using well worn words and wearing them a bit more. Reminding myself that wanting to pray is the first honest prayer many of us manage.

And then the times come, like this afternoon in a church I rarely see when different things come together and love is all there is.

I don’t know how long I was there. Twenty minutes or so. Maybe half an hour. In that time, there’s things I remember.

  • Being thankful for the gifts and skills and maturity and loveliness of someone I’ve seen this week for the first time in years.
  • Seeing an image of a biblical character and being taken straight in my head to a passage of scripture that came up at morning prayer recently. As I thought about the passage, it seemed to link with my own current experience.
  • Hearing the snores and murmurs of those scattered around the place and knowing that the prayers and actions of those who act and pray are still needed as we work to help the whole world live the magnificat.
  • And the light. And the stillness. And the peace.

I think that the question – “How would you teach me to pray?” is a wonderful one. Like all good questions, it begs more questions and there’s no one answer anyway.

It is a question that most priests I know would like to be asked more often. It is a question that many lay people would give a better answer to than many clergy.

I’d be a bit wary of anyone who said that prayer was either always easy. Or always impossible.

I’d love to hear it asked and would love to hear it answered more often than I do.