Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Prayer is an act of daring

“Prayer is an act of daring”

I am beginning with the premise that my hearers have already spent years of their life practicing and progressing in prayer, having realised that it is the breath of the curious existence we call the spiritual life.

I propose, therefore, to omit speaking about the foundation and basic assumptions of this activity; the subject is already vast, so vast that at the end of many years of study and practice one can only say that one has stood on the shore of a great ocean and has waded a little way into its waves. At this stage we should be able to agree with Meister Eckhart ‘that we ought to be too much at one with God in will to worry very much about ways and works.’

Instead I would like to offer a few thoughts and comments which I hope may encourage you to take another look at your prayer life and consider whether it may be improved, whether you could try a new method, go down a new avenue or a side path, see it from an new angle, or even learn something from another religious tradition. This might lead to a feeling of freshness, of renewal. It is so easy, little by little, as the years pass, to lose the spontaneity, the variety which delights us when talking to our friends and which we should find also in the various meetings which we call prayer.

Why delight? Why interest? Because, as has been said

‘One who is intimate with God has received four gifts: an honour which need be known to none, a knowledge without study, a richness without money, a joyful company without companion.’
(Yafi’i, Rawdh,53)

These are highly valued by most people who would conceive them in a material way, but the person who would never be introduced, let alone become intimate with, say, a member of the Royal family, here rises to the acquaintance with the King of Kings; a person privileged becomes as learned (in a way) as any lecturer in a university, wealthy without the responsibilities and anxieties which accompany great wealth, and has joyful company without the uncertainties and changes in affection which may occur.

The question may be asked

‘How can I believe all this? And that I may become intimate with God?’

One way has been pointed out. When you come to speak to Him, you meet someone who is more humble than yourself. In church at the various services we spend a lot of time in praise, exaltation, wondering at the greatness and the glory and so on. There is as much to be wondered at here. And it puts you in your place. Yes, He is humbler than we are.

It is one of the interruptions which occur now and then in our journey. For even after many years of struggle and striving to live the spiritual life things may not go well and doubts and questions can arise in the mind. Sometimes you may feel that you have made no progress at all and that you are back at the beginning:

A patient in a big mental hospital was asked how he came to believe he was Jesus Christ. He answered that every time he prayed to Jesus, he found he was talking to himself!

You may not get into his state of mind, but the thought that one may be talking to oneself occurs to many people at some time, and it can be very distressing. There is no reply, no feedback. IS there really anyone there?

A Jewish boy asked his father if he believed in God. He answered “How do we know there’s a God? Because he keeps disappearing.”

This again may be a source of anxiety to the one who prays. Perhaps God has drawn away because of some fault or sin in the one who seeks him. This may be so.

There is a Muslim account of a man who brought up the subject with a saint of that faith:

“I have committed many sins” he said “If I turn in penitence towards God, with He turn in mercy towards me?” “Nay” she replied “But if He shall turn towards thee, thou wilt turn towards Him.”

This is one of the great truths of the spiritual life, whatever the religion. We were reminded of it only a week or two ago when the Collect for the day began “Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray…”

God initiates; we respond, or don’t.

A useful suggestion if one is unready to pray while God waits, is to begin praying as if one had never done so before. To imagine that it is a completely new experience and one has no idea of what is going to happen during the prayer, or afterwards. And it is also a good idea to wait afterwards for a while in silence, remembering the truism “The quieter you are, the more you can hear.”

‘Prayer is an act of daring (I have read) otherwise it is impossible to stand in prayer before God. When man imagines the greatness of the Creator how else could he stand before Him? Prayer is a mystery, directed in its essence towards changing the order of the world… man wants to change the order of nature, he asks for miracles. Hence, at the moment of prayer man must lay aside his capacity for shame. If men had shame, they would, God forbid, lose the faith that prayer is answered.’

R Nahman

Make sure of prayer

Art thou still young, and dost thou glance along
Life’s opening pathway with a timid dread?
Make sure of prayer, thence be thy courage fed,
And in the midst of strife thou shalt be strong.
Or do the cares of middle lifetime throng
In all-absorbing force round heart and head?
Make sure of prayer! Our Master erstwhile said:
“One thing sufficeth’ over-care is wrong.
”Or hast thou reached old age’s twilight drear?
Make sure of prayer. The die is not yet cast,
In sight of port sank many a vessel fair.
If thou dost hope – and hope supposeth fear
 –If thou dost hope for God and heaven at last,
In life, in death, make sure, make sure of prayer!

Sister Mary Stanislaus MacCarthy (1849–1897)

Fr Leonard Parry Jones October 2017

Sermon preached as part of the Confirming Faith series at St Chad’s, Shrewsbury

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