As we enter into Lent, we traditionally hear the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, directing us to pray, to give alms, and to fast…in secret. In my sermon last week, I tried to get us to see this business of “secret” not as a command to hide the practices of our faith, but to practice our faith with integrity. We don’t pray ostentatiously or give alms flamboyantly or fast dramatically. We do these things from the heart, as our way of living humbly in God’s presence.
Prayer, giving alms, fasting. These are the central practices Jesus commended to his disciples. As Jesus looked at the multitude who wanted to follow him, as Jesus set about forming a new humanity, giving them renewed purpose and a renewed way of life, he encouraged sincere prayer, giving of alms, and fasting as the sorts of things his followers would do in the presence of God, who sees in secret. This new humanity was to be a secret service of prayer, of generosity, and of humility. We’ll talk more about giving alms and fasting in the weeks to come, but this week, I want to say something about prayer.
Prayer is the engine of our lives in Christ. Prayer is the atmosphere in which our baptismal life makes any sense, the ecology of our experience of God. Prayer is the manifestation of our delight when we feel the presence of God acutely, and prayer is the longing in our gut when God feels absent. Prayer is, above all, encountering God, opening ourselves to God, laying bare our hearts and our wills and inviting God to disarm us and restore us. Prayer is our salvation…and our judgment. And it a pure gift.
Prayer is a gift as the heartbeat of the church. As Anglicans we prize Common Prayer, meaning not ordinary prayer, but prayer we hold in common, together. The Anglican heritage, in which we stand as Episcopalians, encourages two forms of communal prayer. The most obvious is our weekly rhythm of celebrating the Eucharist, in which we give back to God in thanksgiving what we have first received, the love, the welcome, the compassion that has flowed from God’s own heart, we offer back to God even as we receive grace upon grace. The mystery of the Eucharist that not only heals us, but transforms us, renews us, and strengthens us in faith, hope, and love, is like the beating of our heart. We do not control it, but our life depends on the regular beating of our heart.
The other form of prayer of our church is the Daily Office (beginning on p. 35 of the Book of Common Prayer): Morning and Evening Prayer, along with Noonday prayer and Compline (Nighttime Office). The Daily Office, in which we lift our daily prayers and are nourished with the Scriptures, are like the inhale and exhale of our lungs. Breathing in, breathing out. Once again, our common prayer is the life of the Church. If the Daily Office seems daunting, you might look at the Daily Devotions in the Book of Common Prayer, beginning on p. 136.
Praying in community (even if community dispersed across geography), praying in common, binds us together before God, and opens to us new depths of being Christ’s body, whose own heart beats in the Eucharist, and whose lungs breathe in and breathe out in our daily prayers together. Within this context, our private prayers find their meaning and their ground. Like the heart and lungs, the Church maintains the essential prayers of Christ’s body, so that each of its members might flourish in their own way. The functioning of the heart and lungs is what makes the operation of our imagination possible. And personal prayer, your own pattern of devotion and longing after God, is the gift God gives to you. Do you sing in the presence of your Creator? Do you use the words of the poets, or some body practice like yoga? Do you walk in the woods, or contemplate the clouds? Do you acknowledge your regret? Lament your sins? Rejoice in the body God has made? Name all those you love? Name all those you hate? Do you pour out your litany of discontent and anxiety? Or, maybe. Maybe you simply sit in silence before your God, who draws near in the dazzling darkness of that silence and sits with you, regarding you with pure and intense love.
This, dear friends, is the most meager beginning of describing prayer. If you are still not sure how to pray, I am of course available to pray with you, or offer advice. But Nike’s advice on this matter is apt: just do it. Don’t be afraid of failing or of what you will or will not feel. Giving ourselves to these rhythms of prayer is our daily work, our weekly joy, the invitation of our every waking moment. This Lent, I hope you will find room in your life to take up the invitation, to receive the gift, and to fall deeply into the heart that has always held you.