John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme. In this article he reflects on the nature of prayer and what we might be trying to do when we pray.
1. Prayer is a contested area par excellence, one open to gross simplification, misunderstanding and the pain of discovering it is not magic.
2. This article is written from a point of view which posits belief in God. This is not to ignore the fact that for many people the question of prayer raises profound questions about the existence of God, and God’s relation to the natural order. It is not the purpose of this article to discuss these issues.
Why Pray, and to Whom?
The starting point of this article is that we do not believe in an interventionist God who responds to impossible requests with improbable actions. However, a way of understanding what prayer is about without us necessarily swallowing the idea of a God who intervenes – or not – to meet our requests - is the concept of alignment and the transformative power of alignment. Rabbi Rami Shapiro says that we come into this world ‘to align our souls to the person of God.’ For Christians, the person most aligned to God was Jesus of Nazareth. Would it not therefore be the case that the more we take him as our model and seek to be aligned as he was with God, the more we will be seen to grow in Christlikeness, and the more we – and our world and relationships – will be transformed? Is not this is one of the fundamental purposes of prayer? What form that transformation will take we cannot tell or specify. But one thing will result is transformation of our inner orientation that manifests itself through the quality of the way we live and in our relationships.
Alone or together?
This article concentrates on the individual in relation to God. Doing to is not to downplay or ignore the significance, and importance to deepening the spiritual life of Christians, of our being part of something wider. Indeed, without the fellowship and sacramental life of the church, many people’s lives would not hold together.
Relating to God?
Many people have never had an intimate relationship with God or Jesus in the way that lots of Christians talk about it. Rather they find that God is akin to the horizon, always there, an inescapable feature of living on earth. As times the horizon is bounded, fenced in by the garden hedge. Sometimes it is purple and knobbly, both comforting and beautiful, like a distant ridge of hills. Sometimes it is immense and breath-taking, a seascape calm and blue or darkly grey and threatening. As with the horizon, so with God: God is always there. But as we cannot always be in touch with or aware of the horizon, so it is with God.
Does this negate our awareness of God, or is there actually an awareness of God that is not like any other knowing? An awareness that is not demonstrable to sense, by sight or sound? An awareness that, like an act of faith, is a risk which may not be true, that could be a human creation, a projection, a personification of our need to have something of greater, of ultimate value?
It is the experience of many that through an awareness such as this we find we are relating to the One who is the ground, the source, and the purpose of all Being, and yet at the same time is utterly different, other, greater than the greatest we can think or imagine.
How do we pray?
Sometimes prayer feels like talking to ourselves, and yet the same time we can be aware that we are talking in the presence of this One who is closer to us than we to ourselves, who is the very ground our individual being and of all being.
So does not prayer then become part of our response to the One who shows Godself to us in personal and intimate ways as well as in ways which are wholly mysterious? As Christians we are called to Christlikeness, and however much we fail or fall short, is not prayer part of that search for alignment with God and our growth in Christlikeness? If so, this search is both a purpose and a consequence of prayer.
There are many forms of prayer. It can be protest or praise, lament or petition; it can be silence, a form of centring which reveals more than just the truth about ourselves in the quiet core or heart of our being; it can be an expression of care, concern or support about and for people and situations we seem to have no other way of influencing or helping. It can be the only place where we can be truly honest about our feelings, our doubts, our emotions, and so on, and know we are known as we are, and yet still be accepted and acceptable.
There are many ways into prayer (and many more people might be doing it than know they are): liturgy; other people’s prayers; mantras; meditation; contemplation; silence; mindfulness; response to art, literature, nature, or to any person or experience, internal monologues that are not just about trying to make sense of our own experience, but are also about connecting our past, present and future with that reality which we name as God.
One consequence of understanding prayer in these ways is to see contrition more as a consequence or response than as a starting point; this is especially liberating for those who have been schooled in the negativity and inducement of guilt to be found in so many presentations of Christianity.
Why pray for others?
Maybe the key to intercession – praying for others and for the world – is to be found in the very demanding phrase: “in my name”. Jesus talks about the disciples not having asked anything ‘in my name’. so once again are we not faced with the need to align ourselves with that which is calling us? The ‘not my will but yours be done’, of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane becomes the highest expression of alignment. Put together, there is a rigour which puts to rout a lot of our own askings. Or, seen from a relational point of view, does not our concern for others make a difference to what God can do, as God works with the world as it is to lead it to what it can be?
Is prayer heard?
From what has been said so far, we may conclude that prayer is neither a form of escapism - some fatalistic mechanism for accepting the inevitable – nor a self-centred set of demands on a divinity who we think will always give us what we want rather than what we need. But still many people want to ask whether and how prayer – however we engage in it – is answered. Because prayer is a relationship with the ever-present One, we can often feel frustrated when there appears to be no presence of God with us and we can be tempted to abandon the exercise. This frustration can lead people to dismiss prayer because it isn’t answered.
But is looking for prayer to be answered looking for the right thing? May we not say – hard as this can be to comprehend – that prayer is always heard, because in part prayer is an expression and experience of the Holy Spirit working and active in us, connecting us to the Ground of Being. Looked at in that way, the question of whether it is answered becomes something of an irrelevance. As Paul says: ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.’ (Romans 8. 26-27).
What is the relation between prayer and mysticism?
People who pray may also need to exercise some sort of detachment in order to comprehend the One who is both unutterable light and yet allows us to plunge into what seems like godforsaken darkness. What a paradox! We can think of God, approach God, experience God, in terms of utter unknowability and transcendence (understanding the mystery of God as being something the deeper you plunge into it the more you find you don’t know; and yet this is also the God of self-revelation. What is the relationship, the balance, between these two poles of the paradox? Are we to place more weight on the self-revelation in the person of Jesus the Christ and try to model our lives and our prayers on his, or are we to by-pass Jesus in favour of the mystical plunge into the unknowable?
Exploring this paradox we discover that we are heirs to a great spiritual tradition which can be both fascinating and repelling and which at its extremes seems to have little to do with expressions of Christianity which are about becoming Christlike, and exalts the union with God above the reality of God’s creation in which we are called to live out our Christian vocation. And yet, as Karen Armstrong pointed out in a review of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book Silence: A Christian history:
‘… pre-modern theologians were trying to remind us that when we speak - as we must - of God's goodness or intelligence we have no idea what we are talking about, because God … is not another being but Being itself - and we only have experience of beings, with limited and temporary modes of existence. The apophatic method [ie being only able to talk in terms of what God is not] teaches us to listen to our words, hear their inadequacy and allow them to fade away. If we fail to do this, it is all too easy to turn what we call 'God' into a being like ourselves, writ large, with likes and dislikes similar to our own.’
Prayer and our embodied selves An area that still needs to be explored further is the deep connection between spirituality, sensuality and sexuality. Exploring these connections can often seem threatening and is therefore avoided. Yet we are embodied; and this is expressed, for example, on the one hand in the connection between the physical and spiritual ecstasies of losing oneself in another or the other, and on the other in the significance of recognising that the Judaeo-Christian tradition has often spoken of being naked before God who is the ground of our being. And the language of human love is often barely distinguishable from the language of, say, St John of the Cross expressing his love of God. Is simplicity the key? Finally, may we not acknowledge that, like any other way of relating, prayer needs practice and patience? And perhaps simplifying? Prayer and spirituality for many people are simply about stopping: stopping doing, stopping thinking, just being. In four simple words prayer is to rest, trust, hope, hold.
© John Schofield 2018