Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Help in Prayer

I've often struggled to put into words how Christian liturgy has helped me in my spiritual life. I'm usually talking to people who are suspcious of anything liturgical becuase they are scared of the "cold" and the "dead." I found the following passage from N.T. Wright's Simply Christian (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006: 164-166) very helpful for me both in articulating my own experience and attempting to speak to others about the situation. It is from his chapter on prayer.

Help is at hand not least in those who have trodden the path ahead of us. Part of our difficulty here is that we moderns are so anxious to do things our own way, so concerened that if we get help from anyone else our prayer won't be "authentic" and come from our own heart, that we are instantly suspcious about using anyone else's prayers. We are like someone who doesn't feel she's properly dressed unless she has personally designed and made all her own clothes; or like someone who feels it's artificial to drive a car he hasn't built all by himself. We are hamstrung by the long legacy of the Romantic movement on the one hand, and Existentialism on the other, producing the idea that things are authentic only if they come spontaneously, unbidden, from the depths of our hearts.

Frankly, as Jesus pointed out, there's a lot that comes from the depths of our hearts which may be authentic but isn't very pretty. One good breath of fresh air from the down-to-earth world of first-century Judaism is enough to blow away the smog of the self-absorbed (and ultimately proud) quest for "authenticity" of that kind. When Jesus's followers asked him to teach them to pray, he didn't tell them to divide into focus groups and look deep within their own hearts. He didn't begin by getting them to think slowly through their life experiences to discover what types of personality each of them had, to spend time getting in touch with their buried feelings. He and they both understood the question they had asked: they wanted, and needed, a form of words which they could learn and use. That's what John the Baptist had given to his followers. Other Jewish teachers had done the same. That's what Jesus did, too, giving his disciples the prayer we began with at the start of this chapter [the Lord's Prayer], which remains at the heart of all Christian prayer.

But notice the point. There's nothing wrong with having a form of words composed by somebody else. Indeed, there's probably something wrong with not using such a form. Some Christians, some of the time, can sustain a life of prayer entirely out of their own internal resources, just as there are hardy mountaineers (I've met one) who can walk the Scottish highlands in their bare feet. But most of us need boots; not because we don't want to do the walking ourselves, but because we do.

This plea, it will be obvious, is aimed in one particular direction: at the growing number of Christians in many countries who, without realizing it, are absorbing an element of late modern culture (the Romantic-plus-Existentialist mixture I mentioned a moment ago) as though it were Christianity itself. To them I want to say: there is nothing wrong, nothing sub-Christian, nothing to do with "works-righteousness," about using words, set forms, prayers, and sequences of prayer written by other people in other centuries. Indeed, the idea that I must always find my own words, that I must generate my own devotion from scratch every morning, that unless I think of new words I must be spiritually lazy or deficient--that has the all-too-familiar sign of human pride, of "doing it my way": of, yes, works-righteousness. Good liturgy--other people's prayers, whether for corporate or individual use--can be, should be, a sign and means of grace, an occasion of humility (accepting that somone else has said, better than I can, what I deeply want to express) and gratitude. How many times have I been grateful, faced with nightfalls both metaphorical and literal, for the old Anglican prayer which runs,

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord;
and by thy great mercy
defend us from all perils and dangers this night;
for the love of thy only Son,
our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I didn't write it, but whoever did has my undying gratitude. It's just what I wanted.

Sometimes I just say, "The Prayer Book [Book of Common Prayer] saved my prayer life." For me the liturgy of the church has proven more than something I wanted; it is something I very deeply needed.

1 comment:

W. Travis McMaken said...

Very nice quote you have there Jason. If only we could get more people to take it to heart...

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