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.

Praying for the Powerful

Just over four years ago, I was on sabbatical in the USA and one of the institutions that I visited was Washington National Cathedral in the US capital. It is an odd entity in many ways, carrying with it what feels very much like a load of assumptions about established religion in a land where religion is not established. There’s no doubting that the cathedral is there for America rather than simply for its city or its locality as that is what it was built for and determined in foundation documents. Yet the paradox is that America proudly believes in the separation of church and state in a way which might lead one to believe made a National cathedral an impossibility. As usual, religious people manage to hold the paradox together, believe 6 impossible things before breakfast and Washington National Cathedral has a place in the life of the United States that can’t really be explained with logic alone.

When I visited, the question that the cathedral faced was what happened if Obama were to lose the election. Not because the cathedral cared particularly about Obama winning but because his opponent was a Mormon. No-one knew what would happen. Would a Mormon president want a liturgical act at an Episcopal cathedral or not? And work was being done to try to find out. It is the nature of conservative institutions to work very hard to adapt to circumstances and all cathedrals are inherently conservative in that sense. That’s what often makes them places where radical things can happen.

There is currently a hoo-ha about whether the choir from Washington National Cathedral should sing at the inauguration of President Trump on Friday. The word has gone out that the choir will sing and there’s quite a lot of people who think that is inappropriate given the mores and peccadilloes of the incoming president.

I can see this one from both sides. It seems unsurprising to me that the cathedral would want the choir to accept the invitation. Otherwise, they are going to have to vet every incoming president’s agenda for suitability in the future and that is not a comfortable place to find oneself. It seems to me that one either accepts all the invitations or none of them. One cannot get into the business of picking and choosing or else one will forever be in the midst of conflict and forever be upsetting half the country.

However, I can also see it from the side of those who want something to protest about. Trump is a baffling figure to the liberal establishment at prayer. He is their worst nightmare. Why should the church turn out on parade for someone seen as an ogre? Are there no limits? Isn’t Trump so far removed from normality that normal presumptions no longer apply?

There’s a similar connected discussion about whether there should be a liturgical celebration for the new president in the National Cathedral and indeed about how or whether people are going to pray for the new president in US Episcopal churches across the country.

There’s a wee nugget of Scottish Episcopalian church history that our US daughter church might want to be aware of in trying to work their way through these dilemmas. However, before I get to that, I think it is worth noting that it can matter hugely whom one is praying for.

A significant part of my time of formation for priesthood was spent in Egypt living with the Coptic church and also with Anglicans in Cairo. In that environment I learnt about subtle and not so subtle forms of persecution and have never forgotten the response of one Coptic bishop when I asked him why a particular sectarian attack on Copts had taken place. He leaned back on his chair and stroked his not inconsiderable beard and said very sadly: “attacks take place because we do not love our Muslim brothers and sisters enough”. I’ve never forgotten those words from someone who himself could have been a target of violence. (They were spoken in the compound which was recently blown up with great loss of life just a few weeks ago).

The point is that at that time in most of the big churches in Cairo (Anglican and Coptic) people were very careful to pray for the then president Hosni Mubarak. The reason they were keen to pray for him was that there would generally be a couple of well dressed young men in the congregation to check that such loyal prayers were being uttered. The secret police were not really that secret. The government was always just checking up and people prayed with an implied threat over them at all times.

When I was in the USA – I was immediately intrigued by one aspect of the intercessions that is connected with praying for the powerful. Wherever I went I found that the intercessions contained prayers for the Archbishop of Canterbury. That is unremarkable in the USA but to a Scottish Episcopalian on tour it was a revelation. We tend to pray for our diocesan bishops and sometimes (but not that often) for the Primus, and almost never for the Archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, not praying for the Archbishop of Canterbury is almost a part of who we are.

The prayers for the Archbishop in the USA illuminate the incredible hurt caused by Rowan Williams and his successor in snubbing the American church and persistently misunderstanding or misrepresenting its polity. “We prayed (and also often paid) for your ministry” you can feel the US Episcopalians wailing in their distress. We played the pipe for you and you refused to dance.

But back to the Scottish Episcopal Church – that church which blessed the US Episcopalians into being.

For controversy about prayers for the powerful are a big part of our history. At times in our history, the safety and wellbeing of those gathered in church was directly connected with which monarch was being prayed for in the prayers. I am not the first Episcopal priest in this city who needed to worry about safety and security for the congregation. Prayers for the House of Stewart could (and sometimes did) lead to violence.

Gradually it became the practise of Episcopalians in this part of the world to pray for the ruling House of Hanover. However, not all in the pews ever really got there.

American Episcopalians today might be interested in the historical records of Scottish Episcopalians in the pews faced with clergy who, rightly or wrongly, and for a whole range of reasons believed that they had to pray for the Hanoverian regime.

There are records of congregations going to divine worship and when the state prayers for the House of Hanover were read those in the pews simply and loudly slammed their prayerbooks shut or coughed loudly.

There’s even reports of people deliberately partaking of snuff in the pews at the contentious moment the better to affect a snuffling, coughing and sneezing fit.

Now, let us finish with a prayer from the wonderful US Book of Common Prayer.

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world:
We commend this nation to thy merciful care,
that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace.
Grant to the President of the United States,
the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth),
and to all in authority,
wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will.
Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness,
and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.

Now, do I hear the people say Amen?

Or Aaaah-choooo?