My first experience of prayer, and my first meaningful experience of God, was in the parish Communion service in our local Anglican church. I was there because weekly attendance at church was required by the junior Scout organization I had joined at the tender age of eight. There, week by week, I was immersed in the worship of the Church of England—candles on the altar, the celebrant robed in Eucharistic vestments, even the occasional use of incense.
The singing of the liturgy and the congregational responses were the first movements of prayer of which I was aware. Through these invitations to personal involvement, I eventually learned to participate in the corporate prayers of the service. At certain points in the liturgy, we were taught to pray our own prayers by one of the clergy kneeling in the aisle and leading us. I have to confess that I never went to Sunday school. The parish Communion liturgy was my early childhood Christian education.
I am not recommending this as the optimum way of introducing a child to prayer! It was simply my own particular introduction to the spiritual life. But reflecting on those beginnings also reminds me of the essential link between the liturgy of the church and one’s own prayer life. In my case the former led to the latter.
So much could be written and has been written about methods of prayer—from the practices of the early Hesychasts to the modern-day popularity of Ignatian retreats, from the silence of centering prayer to the use of tongue-speaking. In this article I want to expand on only the two aspects of prayer which I have already mentioned: the liturgy and individual prayer, and the relationship between them.
The Lord Jesus himself gave us the best example of this relationship. We learn from the Gospel that it was his habit to go to a quiet place in the early morning to commune with his Father; we also read about him attending the synagogue service on the Sabbath day. Several centuries later, many of the hermits in the Egyptian desert found it necessary to surrender their solitude once a day to join with nearby brothers in corporate prayer.
01. Praying Together, Praying Alone
Let us consider how prayer with others helps us to pray alone. First of all, it instructs us in the way to approach God. We can become so familiar with God the Father in our private prayers that we forget that when we begin to pray, we are approaching the throne room of the heavenly King.
Prayers such as the Sanctus in the liturgy or the Prayer of Humble Access in the Book of Common Prayer instruct us in the right mode of approach and even give us words that we can use in our prayers of adoration. Many a time when I want to praise God, I use the Gloria in Excelsis or the Te Deum from Morning Prayer. Constant use of these and other canticles of praise has become part of my prayer life. Some of the hymns we sing in church are also good devotional material.
Second, the liturgy reminds us that we are not lone Christians. We pray with other believers around the world. One beautiful hymn reminds us:
As o’er each continent and island
The dawn leads on another day,
The voice of prayer is never silent,
Nor dies the strain of praise away.John Ellerton, “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended, 1870.
And we recall in the Eucharist that it is “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven” that we worship God. When we enter into prayer, we are entering that heavenly congregation. We can never be alone when we pray! When you repeat the Apostles’ Creed, do you sometimes wonder as I do, why “I believe in the holy catholic Church” is immediately followed by the words “the communion of saints”? I used to think that we were saying the same thing twice over. The Church is the communion of saints, using the word “saints” as Paul used it for the members of the church. The other day someone suggested to me that it means that we pray for each other. But the Creed, which is so economic in its wording, would not waste words on such an obvious idea.
I now firmly believe that this article of the Creed is there to remind us that our prayer is prayer with all the company of heaven, not in any spiritualist sense, but in and through the Lord Jesus Christ. Revelation 7 has a wonderful picture of this worship. When we pray, we do well to remember that we are joining in prayer and worship with what John saw:”a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation.” However physically isolated we may be as we pray, we can never be separated from the communion of the church in heaven and on earth.
Third, in the offices of the Church we find ourselves praying the prayers of the great Christians of all ages—from the “golden-mouthed” Chrysostom of the early Fathers, to the marvelous word-economy of Thomas Cranmer’s collects. We have indeed a goodly heritage, and we do well to use it when we pray alone as well as when we pray with the community of other believers. The prayers which came out of their lives of faith will also nurture our own devotional life.
02. Growing in Prayer
But we need to view this matter through another lens, namely, through the experience of our personal prayer life. We have to cultivate a personal prayer life if our participation in the church’s liturgy is not to become routine and lifeless.
To cultivate this means, of course, to grow our relationship with God as our Father. The relationship is there already, from the time of our conversion and baptism when we were made a child of God. But it has to be experienced. Several things are necessary for this experience.
The place. We need to have a special space where we meet God. Often, visual aids such as a simple cross or a picture will help create this prayer corner. For those of us who live in Singapore, where quiet places at home are often hard to come by, a nearby park or church may be better. Whenever I go into our cathedral church, I always find people there praying. If only more churches were open during the week for this purpose!
There seem to be a great variety of ways in which people find it possible to be recollected and prayerful. I remember one housebound lady who prayed best when she was knitting. There are many people who prefer to walk around when they pray. I believe that this was one purpose of the cloister: to provide a peripatetic venue for spiritual exercise.
The time. We also need a time of the day which we guard jealously as God’s time. This must be sufficiently long that we are free of a need to hurry or keep looking at our watches. Most of us spend a good deal of time watching TV or in other leisure activities. Let’s be generous in our time for God! During clergy retreats I often ask our busy pastors how they find time to pray. Some tell me that when they get to the church each morning, they block out their first hour for prayer. The time when each of us prays will vary according to our personal circumstances, but a fixed time is essential if our relationship to God is to grow.
Patience and Stillness. We all need to learn and to develop the discipline of sitting or kneeling quietly and waiting patiently upon God. C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity that when we wake in the morning and a thousand and one thoughts rush upon us, we have to learn to put them aside and listen to the other voice in the depth of our being—the voice of God speaking to us.
The pastor of a country church used to go into his church at midday. There he would find, at the very back of the church, one of the farm workers sitting with a rapt expression on his face. After observing this for several days, the pastor eventually approached the man and said, “May I ask you what you are thinking about as you sit there? You look so very happy!” The man answered, “I just look at Him, and He looks at me.” This may be the highest point of contemplative prayer—wordless adoration. Learning to make use of silence for wordless worship in personal prayer also teaches us how to use the moments of silent times during, and before—church services. Of course, our meditation needs to be directed by Scripture; otherwise, it can become vague daydreaming or worse. The Word of God will always serve as a compass and a road map to keep us on the right track.
God-Consciousness. Paul tells us “pray constantly.” The Hesychasts constantly repeated the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner”), and this practice has won popularity in some modern Christian circles. But I think it is not for all. An even simpler and very helpful way of maintaining a sense of God’s presence is to pause at intervals in the day—perhaps as we complete one task and before we begin another—and use a short prayer of adoration and thanksgiving, just to tell God that we have not forgotten about Him.
I often find myself thinking of Millet’s painting of the peasants in the field with their caps off, standing motionless as the church bell rings out the midday Angelus. Over in the monastery library, the brothers have laid down their manuscripts. In the kitchen, Brother Lawrence has taken the large pot off the fire to stop the soup burning, and all are still, and all are praying. God’s presence has invaded the world and stopped the affairs of men. I believe we can recapture some of those pauses during the day to keep us constantly close to God.
World-Consciousness. Our own prayers can easily become very self-centered, prayers for others reduced to requests for our nearest and dearest. The intercessory prayers of the church will school us to remember that there is a whole world out there, a world of conflict and terror, a world suffering from hunger and AIDS. Even the daily paper should fuel our prayers.
Self-Consciousness. There is another spiritual concern that must form a part of our private prayer. It is the need for self-examination and confession, whether done daily or weekly. The searching of our hearts before God to know our sins will give substance to the penitential prayers we repeat in church and keep them from becoming mere vain repetition. This will also be an important part of our preparation for worship, especially for Holy Communion.
03. Personal and Liturgical Prayer
There are many other points of interaction between our prayers at home and those in church. I Hope the few that I have highlighted serve to demonstrate that our spiritual formation is advanced when we seek to pray the service in church and offer personal prayers mindful of the prayers of our faith community.
There is one way we can all develop the link between prayer together and prayer alone. While it would be wonderful to be able to attend church service every day, as college students are often able to do in their college chapel, for most of us those halcyon days are past. However, we can all enter into the community prayer of the church by using a very short form of Morning Prayer, or if mornings are too hectic, the late-night order of Compline, the last daily office. People who have experienced Compline in a retreat always speak of it with great nostalgia. But it is there for anyone to use every day, and there are modern versions in simple booklet format available in most Christian bookshops.
The office and the cell? By now most readers will have guessed at the meaning of the cryptic title to this article and realized that the office is the divine office and the cell is the prayer cell. Each nurtures the other, and each helps us grow our relationship to God.
Lady Julian of Norwich was an anchorite who spent most of her adult life in a prayer cell built onto the wall of St. Julian’s Church. In one of the walls of this cell was a window looking into the church. Through this she could see and hear the priest at the altar and join in the daily office and receive the Sacrament. The rest of her day was spent in prayerful meditation. It was here that she received her visions, or “showings” as she called them. Perhaps hers was an ideal combination of liturgy and personal prayer.
Let me end with a quotation from the writings of this fourteenth-century woman of prayer who has been called the first woman writer in the English language!
For in truth, I was never shown that God loved me more than the least soul that stands in his grace; indeed I am certain there be many who have had neither sight nor showing save that of the common teaching of holy Church, yet they love God better than I. For when I look to myself as a single individual, then I am nothing. But all my hope comes from being united in one love with all my fellow Christians. For on this unity the life of all that shall be saved depends.Julian of Norwich, Revelation of Love, trans. John Skinner. (New York: Image Books, 1996) 19.