Politicizing Prayer

As with the Synod, so with the Parliamentary debate about tax credits: they are both giving rise to a great deal of politicized prayer. By that I mean someone decides, quite sincerely, what they think the ‘right’ outcome should be and prays earnestly for it to come about, often solliciting the help of others. I can’t tell you how many requests for prayer have come to the monastery, urging us to pray that this view or the other may triumph (significant word) at the Synod, or that ‘the evil Tories’ may be foiled in their ‘plot against the poor’ or, alternatively, that all opposition may be wiped from the face of the earth. As you may have gathered, I have no intention of saying anything much about the Synod until it is over, and I won’t be drawn into party politics, so you may be wondering how we cope with such requests. How do we pray in response?

The answer is as simple as it is disappointing to many. We ask God to ensure that what he wills comes about. That isn’t as easy as it sounds, because we all have opinions, but it is the only honest way of praying when our knowledge is imperfect and our view of any situation partial. If someone who hasn’t done a stroke of work all term asks us to pray for good exam results, I trust an open-ended prayer of the kind I have described may lead to a realisation that some effort of one’s own has to be put in. We are asked to to pray for a specific result, but what God chooses to give may, ultimately, prove much better. So, too, with the Synod: those sure that the Church ‘needs’ such and such may be surprised to find that the Holy Spirit doesn’t necessarily agree. Similarly, the policies advocated by a political party may have good or bad points, but we don’t have to ask God to take sides.

What I think is important, though, is that we bring to our prayer a sense of reverence, not just for God but also for the people and situations we are praying about. One of the sad aspects of the media debate surrounding the Synod, for example, has been the name-calling and bitterness that goes with the polarisation of views and demonisation of those who hold different opinions. It is much the same with party politics. A prayer request that refers to someone as ‘evil’ or ‘hardline’ is not one I want to take before the Throne of Grace. That isn’t just middle-class niceness asserting itself, or a wimpish desire to avoid conflict: the fundamental disposition of prayer must always be profound humility and reverence. Anything less, whatever else it is, isn’t prayer. In fact, it is a hindrance to prayer because it fills us with our own noise and deafens us to the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit. At least, that has been my experience, born of innumerable failures to pray as I ought. On that basis, I think I can safely say, learn from my mistakes.


Prayer Shopping-Lists

Time was when priests complained about penitents who came to Confession with a laundry-list of sins they had committed. The internet age equivalent is the prayer shopping-list, sent by means of email or Social Media to people who are known to have a special interest in intercessory prayer, or who are assumed to be, in some way, professional pray-ers, the ‘prayer warriors’ of pious parlance.

For some years we have hosted a 24/7 email prayerline to enable people to ask for prayer at any time of day or night and be sure their request will be acted on. Many of the requests we receive are profundly moving, and I feel privileged to have such trust placed in the community and its prayer. In recent years, however, I have become a little uneasy. I’ve mentioned before the new phenomenon of people asking for prayer but also wanting us to write back assuring them of our prayer, as though our promise to pray was somehow not enough. Often this is accompanied by further requests: that we have Masses said (if only!); fast for a certain number of days or weeks for the intention named in the prayer request (hmn); undertake various devotions or say certain texts (very unBenedictine); send back relics or prayer cards (we can’t). Quite often people don’t bother with the prayerline at all but send emails to the monastery inbox or direct messages via Twitter or Facebook, probably not realising that their requests have less chance of being immediately picked up than when the prayerline is used. It is not this that troubles me, however, although I’ll admit that on occasion it can be irritating, it’s the nature of some of the requests themselves.

I believe everything we are and do is of interest to God; so I have no difficulty praying for a good exam result for x (though I would suggest that having done some work in the previous year would be a wise plan), or for a good husband/wife for y (though trying to be a good spouse oneself might be more to the point), or a successful house sale for z. The trouble comes when the prayer request becomes a list of financial/personal benefits desired or even demanded, as though the petitioner had a right to them, or worse, a list of curses to be visited upon the head of someone else. What do people think they are doing? How can we help them to a more mature understanding of what intercessory prayer is? I don’t know. If you have any ideas, please tell me, because I think it is something we need to address. It is on a par with those ‘last resort’ requests we receive: we’ve tried everything else, now we’re trying prayer. One longs to say, it’s all right, we’ll pray as though prayer were your first resort: God is the most generous of Fathers and he will hear.

I come back to things I have said many times before. Prayer is not magic, nor is it a short-cut to obtaining what we want, good or bad. Intercessory prayer, as I wrote on another occasion (see this post), invites God into the situation we are praying about but doesn’t presume to tell him what to do. We ask humbly, perseveringly, and with great trust, but it is for him to decide. To present God with a shopping-list of material benefits one wants to receive is, at best, childish; to call down curses on another is completely unacceptable, a travesty of prayer, an engagemenet with the devil. At the heart of all prayer is, or should be, profound reverence. No words are necessary — except maybe, sometimes, for us. The ‘sharp dart of longing love’ is enough.


Reverence in Prayer

Today we read chapter 20 of the Rule of St Benedict, On Reverence in Prayer. I have commented on this chapter many times, but every time I read it I find something new, something that lights up some aspect or other of prayer that I have been struggling with. If you are not familiar with the text, I suggest you read it over slowly and carefully, or listen to it on our community website, here. The English translation can’t convey the poetic qualities of the Latin, but something of Benedict’s sureness of touch communicates itself: he knew whereof he spoke.

The word that sings from the page for me this morning is ‘purity’. We aim at purity of heart, we keep our prayer short and pure. Purity in this sense means without any admixture of anything else. I wonder how many of us could truthfully say our prayer is pure? We are so busy chattering away to God, asking for this, thanking him for that, we forget that what he most desires is communion with us. Deep down, it is what we most desire too; but we are like Naaman, faced with bathing in the Jordan. We are sure it ought to be more complicated; so we read endless books on prayer and search out different techniques, and all the while the gift of prayer is within us, poured into our hearts at baptism.

Prayer is simultaneously the easiest thing in the world and the hardest. It is also, incidentally, the only activity of this life that endures to the next. Today, try to find a moment or two when you can just be with God, enjoying his presence (even if it seems to you like absence) and allowing him to enjoy yours.

Note: a Twitter friend picked up on an ambiguity in this post. When I said that prayer is the only activity that endures to the next life, I meant that we shall continue to pray (ie love and contemplate God). If a meaning is not clear, it is the writer’s fault.