At the very end of February, the parish held a weekend of prayer and, oh, how we need prayer now. We spent time together – something that seems precious from our new perspective – ate breakfast, walked a labyrinth, did Mindfulness, listened to Welsh prayer and music and ate Welsh cakes with Neil Fairlamb from Tilford (now there is a man with the gift of oratory) and Wendy Edwards who sang beautifully. There was a service and vigil, there were prayer stations at all three churches, and we walked, we did art and craft, we attended a Benedictine Office of Readings, we sang and prayed and sang chants at a Taizé service.
It seems a long time ago yet so very pertinent. We cannot get together for prayer now but we can pray individually, we can pray in groups using technology, we can follow online services and prayer groups, and we can know that all around the world we are joining in prayer to a God who knows and loves us and is in this pandemic with us.
On the Saturday of the prayer weekend I led a small service about prayer which led into a time of quiet prayer afterwards. For this I wrote a sermon which I am including here:
What follows are some of my thoughts about prayer as I have been investigating it. Volumes have been written; many holy, not so holy and in between people have practised it; and followers of all sorts of traditions are still exploring prayer. If they haven’t come up with a definitive answer then I certainly can’t. So, mine is just a small contribution to the thoughts.
But maybe there was a definitive answer in the prayer handed down to us as the one Jesus taught when he was asked how we should pray.
The passage to look at is found at Matthew 5: v 5-13.
‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.’
Some of the words may be a little different from the ones we know best but this is still our familiar ‘Lord’s Prayer’.
In this passage, Jesus told his listeners to “Go into your room” for a start and to pray in private, and not to heap up “empty phrases as the Gentiles do”. Well I’m a Gentile, but thankfully the gospel of the love of God expressed in Jesus is for all nations. However, there is a tendency for many of us to heap up phrases and this has long worried me. Should we ask for things?
In the prayer that follows we are told to ask for a few things – basics like bread and forgiveness and support for ourselves in times of trial and difficulty – and to ask for God’s will to be done, God’s kingdom to come – but these aren’t things that we are asking for ourselves but for God. We are asked to do something too – to forgive others. It’s not a huge list but it encompasses huge things, some of which may perhaps be accomplished only if we are able to open ourselves more to God, align ourselves with God, and this brings me to the type of prayer I have been exploring for a number of years: centering prayer.
Centering prayer is a form of prayer which starts with your own room, an inner room ideally. The person who developed these ideas was the American monk Thomas Keating and he is well worth reading.
Back to the inner room. It sounds lovely but is not necessarily feasible. We don’t all have them. We don’t all have quiet places and maybe the disciples didn’t either as Jesus would have known. Instead, it could be that this inner room is our inner self where we are to retreat, wherever we are, a place where we can still our thoughts and focus on God.
But how do we focus? From my perspective, centering prayer is rather like mindfulness if you have tried that, or Christian meditation where we use a mantra, a word or phrase which focuses the mind and allows you to bring your attention to God. In the meditation group I go to in Elstead it is suggested that the word we use is an Aramaic one ‘Maranatha’ which means ‘the Lord is coming’, or ‘Come Lord’. So you still yourself, and breathe in and out breathing in on ‘Mara’ and out on ‘natha’. Your mind will wander but you simply keep bringing your thoughts back to this word and somehow this opens you to God. And maybe it is a case not of prayer changing things so much as prayer changing us and then we change things. I have been thinking – what if we were all more aligned with God, wouldn’t things change a bit then? Wouldn’t there be more love and justice, more care for the environment, for the marginalised, wouldn’t God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?
But what if we have concerns? We all do. How can we still our minds when we are worried about something? We know that worrying doesn’t add an hour to our lives, probably takes them away in fact, but what do we do with those worries? I have a suggestion which comes in part from Suzette Jones who until recently worked for the Diocese of Guildford and who taught Mindfulness here in the parish, passing her skills on to Lesley Shatwell. Suzette suggested laying our concerns in a basket at God’s feet, or at the foot of the Cross and then say to God – here they are, I don’t know what to do with them. God, I believe, is a God who shares our burdens.
And this is also where I wonder if prayer does change things. If we are leaving are worries at the feet of God, maybe the light of God is then shone on them and on us and then sometimes things happen.
I’d like to finish this by inviting you to sit quietly for a few minutes and try to go into that inner room. Maybe just say hello to God, and breathe in and out and focus on your breath and on a word – Maranatha, Holy, Loving etc something with an equal number of syllables. Have you got worries? Then leave them with God. God knows them – and focus again. God is a loving God. God is with us. Come Lord.
Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer by Thomas Keating is published by The Crossroad Publishing Company. ISBN: 0824525299 www.crossroadpublishing.com/crossroad/