Rowan Williams on prayer

Some kinds of instruction in prayer used to say at the beginning, “Put yourself in the presence of God.” But I often wonder whether it would be more helpful to say, “Put yourself in the place of Jesus.” It sounds appallingly ambitious, even presumptuous, but that is actually what the New Testament suggests we do. Jesus speaks to God for us, but we speak to God in him. You may say what you want—but he is speaking to the Father, gazing into the depths of the Father’s love. And as you understand Jesus better, as you grow up a little in your faith, then what you want to say gradually shifts a bit more into alignment with what he is always saying to the Father, in his eternal love for the eternal love out of which his own life streams forth.

That, in a nutshell, is prayer—letting Jesus pray in you and beginning that lengthy and often very tough process by which our selfish thoughts and ideals and hopes are gradually aligned with his eternal action, just as, in his own earthly life, his human fears and hopes and desires and emotions are put into the context of his love for the Father, woven into his eternal relation with the Father—even in that moment of supreme pain and mental agony that he endures the night before his death.

Rowan Williams writing on Origen and prayer in the Christian Century

How to fill the faith-shaped hole in modern life

A lovely collection of essays in the New Statesman on ritual after God. It includes Rowan Williams’ description of how he begins his day in silent prayer and meditation.

Lucy Winkett has this to say:

If rituals help us navigate the thresholds of life when emotion is high and the tectonic plates of desire, fear, hope and despair collide, then the truth is that I travel a long way not just when I’m celebrating the Eucharist but while I’m walking the dog. Ordinary life is full of grief and miracles. Rituals are performed at the boundaries, on the border. What we do almost every day, sometimes without noticing, is step over the line.

Killings in Overland Park, KS

The news of the shooting deaths of Jews in Overland Park, KS is deeply distressing, especially on this day as Christians begin Holy Week and Jews prepare for the celebration of Passover. I mentioned in my sermon today the anti-Judaism in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ death. The deaths today are a reminder of the violence and hate that plague our culture; a reminder, too, of our duty to proclaim and work for a gospel of peace and love.

We should also pray:

Loving God, Welcome into your arms the victims of violence and terrorism. Comfort their families and all who grieve for them. Help us in our fear and uncertainty, And bless us with the knowledge that we are secure in your love. Strengthen all those who work for peace, And may the peace the world cannot give reign in our hearts. Amen.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Whenever You Pray–Sermon on the Mount Bible Study

This evening, we’ll be looking at Matthew 6, especially vss 1-14. I’m always struck when I encounter texts in different contexts and the liturgical uses of these verses are powerful and foundational for the Christian life. The Lord’s Prayer is also our prayer, recited in the Daily Office and at every Eucharistic celebration. Its familiarity is both blessing and problematic. When said consciously and meditated upon regularly, it offers the possibility of helping us shape our discipleship and faith. It helps to create a relationship with God that stresses our dependence on God for the necessities of life as well as our purpose and end (“Your kingdom come, Your will be done). But it’s also easy to allow the words to roll off our tongue unthinkingly. Sometimes that’s OK; for example when we need to pray but can’t find words of our own. Sometimes it may be an example of the sort of external piety that Jesus criticizes in the first verses of the chapter.

Those verses are always the gospel reading on Ash Wednesday. In that context they are problematic and challenging, especially of the piety we display on Ash Wednesday. It’s hard not to think about how our actions look to others, whether we’re walking around on Ash Wednesday with ashes on our forehead or attending church on Sunday morning when our friends and neighbors are drinking coffee and reading the paper or out on a bike ride or run. But hiding our piety for the wrong reasons is also a problem. Jesus criticizes “hypocrites” for wanting others to know about their donations and fasting. He isn’t addressing those of us who hide our actions or faith because we are slightly embarrassed of our quaint habits.

Perhaps most important is something implied rather than directly stated here: that our prayers and other practices should be sincere and come from the heart. Prayer is not about others or about ourselves; it is about God. Bonhoeffer has this to say:

Prayer is the supreme instance of the hidden character of the Christian life. It is the antithesis of self-display. When men pray, they have ceased to know themselves and know only God whom they call upon. Prayer does not aim at any direct effect on the world; it is addressed to God alone, and is therefore the perfect example of undemonstrative action

 

On My Reading List: Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal

Marilynne Robinson’s review in The New York Times Book Review:

It is the religious sensibility reflected in this journal that makes it as eloquent on the subject of creativity as it is on the subject of prayer. O’Connor’s awareness of her gifts gives her a special kind of interest in them. Having concluded one early entry by asking the Lord to help her “with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing,” she begins the next entry: “Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story — just like the typewriter was mine.”

Casey N. Cep writes about it for The New Yorker:

The journal reflects a single year in the life of a believer—it includes just under fifty pages of prayers from a lifetime filled with them. It is the attempt of a young writer to reconcile her worldly ambitions with her heavenly understanding. The task she set for herself, to invigorate her dulling faith, was accomplished by the deliberate, contemplative practice of praying in her own words. By refashioning the prayers she inherited and practiced every day at Mass, O’Connor was able to find new language for belief.

Paul Harvey explores it as well:

Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journals provide a beautiful glimpse into a vulnerable soul open to the rigor of life, confident that God would use trials to shape and press her into something more. Those prayers were answered through O’Connor’s life of fighting disease and practicing her craft of writing. Her strong irony did not lead her to doubt that God was with her.

The model of Flannery O’Connor challenges the prevailing ideas of modern life and challenges us to personally assess how we reconcile our own beliefs with our scholarship and use of irony. O’Connor wielded irony as an effective weapon in her writings. Her prayer journals demonstrate her ability to harness the power of irony without allowing it to define her soul. Such an approach today would be threatening to the culture of cheap irony that surrounds us.

James Parker also reflects on her use of irony and her life of prayer:

Where the Word was operational, for O’Connor, it was always disruptive: in its presence, one’s head was supposed to explode. Her short stories, especially, reengineered the Joycean epiphany, the quiet moment of transcendence, as a kind of blunt-force baptismal intervention: her characters are KO’d, dismantled, with a violence that would be absurdist, if the universe were absurd. But the universe is not absurd. “There is an interaction between man and God which to disregard is an act of insolence,” wrote the rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, her contemporary, in The Prophets. “Isolation is a fairy tale.” The upended moment, the breaking-in or breaking-through of a vagrant, unbiddable reality: this is the grace of God and the sign of his love.

Benedict of Nursia, 547, on prayer

Today is the feast day of St. Benedict of Nursia, the author of the Rule that has shaped Western monasticism for nearly fifteen hundred years (to call him the “founder” of the Benedictine order is somewhat misleading). While looking for something from the Rule to read for our mid-week Eucharist, I came across the following (from ch. 20, “On Reverence in Prayer”):

Whenever we want to ask some favor of a powerful man, we do it humbly and respectfully, for fear of presumption. How much more important, then, to lay our petitions before the Lord God of all things with the utmost humility and sincere devotion. We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words. Prayer should therefore be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace.