The Prayer of Incompetence and Failure

From time to time someone will ask how to pray ‘better’. When we tease out what is troubling the questioner, it usually turns out that he or she expects something to ‘happen’ in prayer; and when it doesn’t, feels a failure. Of course, something always  does ‘happen’ in prayer, but not always what we were expecting or hoping for. Remember Naaman and his indignation at being told to wash seven times in the Jordan when he was expecting Elisha to come out and perform some quasi-magical ceremony for him? We can be like that in prayer. We want things to go according to our notions, but God has his own ideas and they are rarely the same as ours.

One of the first lessons any of us has to learn is to pray as we can. We need to keep in  mind that God is in charge and rather keener on this prayer business than we are. Our enthusiasm tends to come by fits and starts. Not so God’s. He has been planning this moment of closeness with us from all eternity. That can be an encouraging thought when prayer seems dry and pointless, when all we experience is incompetence and failure. The secret is to keep at it, to go on trustingly with our prayer times. One of the lovely phrases George Herbert used to describe prayer was ‘the heart in pilgrimage’. Anyone who has undertaken a real pilgrimage, walked the Camino de Santiago, for example, will know that temptations to give up crowd in when one is tired and footsore, but one just goes on. So it is with prayer. Incompetence, failure, what do they matter when God has promised us his very self?

There are some simple guidelines for prayer on our main website, here.


Epiphany 2011

The Three Magi
The Three Magi

Readers of Colophon may remember that we used this image of the Magi for our post about Epiphany last year. The Autun sculptor has captured beautifully both the mystery and the humanity of these three seekers after truth. I particularly love the tender way the angel is wakening one by touching his little finger as the other two lie fast asleep. One can imagine him whispering, “Get up, this is the way!”

Often we resolve problems or come to a deeper appreciation of things by not explicitly attending to them. Sleeping on the problem, going for a walk, playing something on the piano or weeding a flower-bed: all are tried and trusted methods of allowing our minds to break free of the constraints we put upon them when we are trying to work something out.

For the Christian there is another and more effective way of breaking free of these constraints, and that is prayer. Not prayer as instant solution or easy way out, but prayer as quiet, persevering seeking after God. The Magi loved truth and undertook an enormous journey in pursuit of it. They found what they sought where they must least have expected to find it: in a small child born in an obscure part of a Roman province. We often seek truth in odd places and can be disconcerted to discover that it lies much nearer home. May Epiphany reveal to you the wonder of him who is Light from Light, our journey’s goal, Jesus Christ our Lord.

(If you wish to reread the Colophon entry for Epiphany 2010, the best way of doing so is to go via our web site and click on the archive for January 2010. At the moment the JS-Kit comments script is making things work very slowly, so we need to decide whether to  drop the comments, which we are reluctant to do, or find another way of archiving them. We’ll take our own advice and sleep on it.)