How extraordinary that in these days of washing machines, dishwashing machines, microwaves, computers, fax machines and cellphones – all intended to save time and labour – so many people suffer from so-called stress.
They are exhausted with the pace of life and the instant demands of work and social activity. They long to relax and ‘take it easy.’ Some try to console themselves with a gin and tonic, while others gaze at the television, whatever the programme, and hope the agony will go away.
The question arises: why do they feel like this? What is the aim of all this activity? What in fact is the purpose of life? The Christian believes that the purpose of life is to glorify God, to see God in every event, in every person, and in all creation, and to grow in the likeness of Christ – the God who became truly human. Yet the Christian is aware that this cannot be done without communing with God in worship and prayer.
The first necessity is to have the desire to worship and pray. Michael Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, taught that if you have the desire to pray you have begun to pray; and if you haven’t the desire to pray then desire to have the desire.
To desire to worship and pray is faith in action, and the exercise of worship and prayer expresses the Christian’s faith however deep or shallow that may be. A regular rhythm of worship and prayer provides the means of growing in faith. There are those who claim to have faith in God and Jesus as their Lord and Saviour who do not join in the regular worship of the church because they say they don’t get anything out of it.
It may be they don’t like the personality of the vicar or priest-in-charge; or they find the preaching dull or uninspiring, or the music agonizing and the service unprepared, or the people unwelcoming and unfriendly. But the reason is more likely to be a mistaken attitude to the worship of the church. Anglican and other Christians desire to worship in church ‘at the Lord’s own service in the Lord’s own way’ – the Eucharist or Holy Communion – not only to receive but also to give, not merely to see what they get out of it but also to put themselves into it – to offer ‘the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving’ and to be fed with the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation.
By doing this each communicant contributes to the building up of the Body of Christ – the company of the faithful – in being Christophers – Christ-bearers in the world. The Eucharist at which the worshippers hear and reflect on the Word of God and receive the Blessed Sacrament is the heart and centre of the church’s life and the Christian’s life.
With the worship of the church, the Christian family, there must also be personal or private prayer. Some find that easier than congregational worship and others find it much more difficult. Yet the one complements and inspires the other. Private prayer does not depend on multiple forms of prayer – although some people find collects and litanies helpful – but it does depend on putting oneself consciously into the presence of God and acknowledging his presence.
How should one do that? It is not always easy because one’s thoughts and feelings are often shooting like darts in different directions, distracting attention from the Lord to whom prayer is made. We call them ‘wandering thoughts’ – we don’t want them, they just come. They are like mosquitoes buzzing around one’s head on a hot day, or like the waves of the sea pushing your vessel off course.
It is not much use fighting the wandering thoughts but rather offering them to God quickly and turning attention back to the Lord, like the helmsman turning the ship’s steering wheel back on course and doing it many times; for the essence of prayer, and of life, is to bring the will into line with the will of God (obedience). The value of prayer is not measured by warm emotional feelings, though the emotions play their part, or by easy pietistic thoughts (though the mind has its place in offering prayer), but by lifting the whole of oneself, body mind and spirit – thoughts, feelings and will – to God for his glory and for the in-filling of the Holy Spirit.
For prayer is not just what the Christian does, it is much more what the Holy Spirit does – the Holy Spirit prays in us and unites us with Christ who intercedes for us before God the Father. Through worship and prayer we are embraced within the life of the Holy Trinity.
Two forms of the Eucharist in A New Zealand Prayer Book – He Karakia Mihanare o Aotearoa (pages 404 and 512) begin the Great Thanksgiving with these words:
The Lord is here
God’s Spirit is with us
Lift up your hearts
We lift them to the Lord
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God
It is right to offer thanks and praise
Those words summarise the purpose of life and the purpose of prayer. In corporate worship and personal prayer we acknowledge the omnipresence of the Lord. It is the prayer of affirmation. He is here in the Word and Sacrament, in the company of the faithful – the worshipping community – in each person and in my own heart.
Yet he is also here wherever we go and in whatever we are doing. He is here in every event and situation, in every crisis and celebration, in the sorrows and joys of daily life. Our task is to acknowledge his presence and firmly believe that His Spirit is with us as we face the demands and challenges of each day.
In regular worship and prayer we turn away from our ego-centricity and the idols of the present age towards the God of love. By lifting up our hearts day by day to the Lord, he becomes the One for whom we “live and move and exist”. We recognise his many gifts – the beauty, truth and goodness of his creation; his redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, and the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. Our lives gradually become offerings of thankfulness and praise. We become people of love, peace and joy – and consequently easier to live and work with.
For praying Christians there are at least three basic needs that can be expressed by the words appointment, perseverance and awareness.
Appointment. There are those who say they haven’t time to pray. Life is too full. Or they are too tired by the end of the day. Perhaps they have a narrow understanding of prayer: they haven’t realised that the work they do, the service they render and the contacts they have with other people (even with the difficult ones) can be a way of prayer if offered to God. The day needs to begin with a conscious lifting of the heart to God and an invocation of the Holy Spirit for guidance and grace. Nevertheless, most people who have the desire to pray know that they need regular times of prayer – appointments with God – when they will do nothing else but commune with the Lord.
There are a number of ways and methods by which we may do this. The reflective reading of Scripture needs to take an important place in our prayer – the Sunday readings or the daily Gospel in the church’s calendar may provide a suitable scheme. In the devotional reading of Scripture we are welcoming an e-mail or letter from our greatest friend, the Lord Jesus. The Bible, the prayer book and a hymnal have always been the Anglican’s most helpful tools both for corporate worship and personal devotion. They are our roadmaps or navigation charts through the journey of life.
Another way of using prayer time is to take a phrase from one of those books or from some other source and repeat it slowly and quietly for a while. It becomes the vehicle by which we gaze upon God and give attention to him. The Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner –has been used in this way for many centuries in the East and now in the West.
There will be moments when no words need to be used and no book needs to be read – we just sit or stand, kneel or lie down and gaze. A cross or crucifix, an icon or picture, a candle or flowers may help to focus one’s attention. Or we may just prefer to close the eyes and gaze inwardly – “The Lord is here. His Spirit is with us.”
Perseverance. Some people who desire to pray resolve to have a prayer time of 15 minutes or more every day. But they lack the perseverance. After a time they give up. Other things may have encroached upon their time. Or they find it too difficult – they think they are wasting time being quiet with God. They say they don’t get anything out of it. They are like those who go to the gym every day for a month, then less often, and eventually give up.
If people think they haven’t the time they may need to re-examine their priorities or re-order their daily routine. Those who do persevere find their prayer time – their appointment with God – the most important event of the day. Everything else revolves around it. When prayer seems difficult they keep at it, because the difficult prayer in God’s perspective may be the most valuable. Every prayer is an alignment with the divine will, a means of fulfilment of his purposes in the world, a time to rejoice in his presence.
Awareness. To worship and to pray is not a way of escape from the injustices and miseries of humanity. The praying Christian and the worshipping community are in the world but not of the discordant vanities of the world. Despite our own human frailties we are in a sense Christ to the world, because as church people we are members of the Body of Christ.
We must therefore be aware of what is happening in the world. Through worship, prayer and service we undertake our priestly role in offering the world and its many needs to God through the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and witness the love of God in Christ to the world. Intercession is an important part of worship and prayer.
One way of intercession is briefly at the end of a busy day to recall those whom we have met through the day (including those whom we may find difficult to love) and ask for God’s blessing upon them.
When we are aware of the world around us we can be thankful for God’s many gifts, small and great – including even the gin and tonic. Calm instead of stress takes over.
Br Brian is a friar of the Society of St Francis, an Anglican religious order. He is a priest of more than 50 years of ordained ministry. He has served in Britain, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Australia and New Zealand. At present he resides at the Friary in Hamilton.