In the gospel this week, Jesus told his disciples to pray always and not to lose heart.
Last week, a parishioner and I were going through some prayer books in the cupboard. They are a bit worn, with fading covers and threadbare bindings. When we flipped from the back binding to look at the white block of pages we noticed a discoloration running down the center. At first we thought it was a stain, but one by one we checked - and each shared the same dark line in the midst of the white. So we opened to those pages. You may already be guessing what this was…Our Eucharists…“Of course!” we nodded to one another. The discolored pages were the Sunday morning Eucharists. Those pages held onto the oils from our hands from years of use; from fingers opening to those few pages time and time again. It is a testament (a record even) to a community committed to prayer.
In the gospel, Jesus essentially asks us to pray ceaselessly. But what does that mean? As we grow up, we recognize that prayer is less about persuasion and petitions, and more about letting God work inside of us; in the dwelling place of the heart. Praying connects us to our hearts. There it dwells ceaselessly from that eternal spring that Jesus offers us, and where we can take ceaseless comfort.
As Jeremiah prophesied:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when I will make a new covenant…
…I will put my law within them,
and I will write it on their hearts;
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
Jesus is known as “the way,” pointing us always into relationship with God. He taught that if we put the intention of letting God’s living water flow within us, then prayer also flows more naturally. It becomes a way of being.
But there is not one correct way into prayer.
When we saw the prayer books’ mysterious “line” revealing a commitment to ceaseless prayer, I also wondered about the rest of those white pages: untouched - or nearly so. The prayer book is an incredible resource to have at home. There are daily devotions for families, all of the psalms, prayers and thanksgivings, canticles (which are early Jewish/Christian songs that show up in our offices of morning and evening prayer, compline), prayers for the sick, prayers and services of grief and mourning, and of great celebration. It offers us an outline of our faith and information about the councils who helped draft the theological language we use to try to name our belief about God. It is a rich resource for use - and much of it is for personal use. You do not have to be a clergy person. It is the book of common prayer.
What is telling about our prayerbook use, is that the Eucharist is what we are most familiar with. It is vital to our common life, to commune with one another and God. But to tell you the truth, the Episcopal Church has done us a bit of disservice in terms of making this the priority at the expense of the rest of the pray book and other forms of prayer. We forgot to teach prayer.
The Eucharist is our highest form of liturgy. We celebrate the great mystery of communion. We recite the creed which is an effort to use language to point to the very mysterious nature of the Trinity. There is a lot about the Eucharist that many people don’t understand which is why we call it a mystery… but in this day and age, many no longer want to participate, or even be Christian. And for many of us remaining, we still don’t trust our own ability to pray. Sometimes we are afraid of not doing it the “right” way.
There is no “right” way.
It may be very helpful to use the book of common prayer and daily devotionals to develop a practice. Practicing Prayer is our foundation. That’s why we often memorized prayers as children. To have something, and some language to connect us to God. It is not about practicing so that you will be considered good and lovable in the eyes of God. God already loves you. It is about having a life line to God. When you have a prayer practice it is the greatest resource for handling what the world throws at us.
At one point when I worked in the hospital, I used a little devotional three times a day: on my commute to work, at lunchtime and on my way home. It’s what got me through a particularly difficult time. Someone recently told me she uses part of a psalm, and it can lift her like a cup of coffee. Prayer can be a favorite passage, it may be focusing on your breath. In and out. Prayer unites us to our own being. We say our body is a temple because we are made in the image of God, so in Centering prayer we focus on God in the indwelling of our hearts.
Jesus says, “don’t lose heart.” Discovering spontaneous conversation with God; your unique and personal dialogue with God throughout the day may become an antidote for anger, to help quell the spirits, a shield against fear, an embrace of consolation.It alters how we make our way through life, how we respond, how we connect with others, and how we manage the big upsets and notice the little blessings.
It is nourishment, the daily bread that feeds us all week long until we come again to the communal feast of the Eucharist.
How sweet are your words to my taste! *
they are sweeter than honey to my mouth.