I originally wrote this as a report for the elders of the church where we live, but decided it might be worth sharing with a wider audience, so here it is!
Last time we reported to elders, we spoke about some of the different projects we were involved in through our volunteering: projects which bring us into contact with many different people and situations in the city. This time, then, it feels appropriate to share something about the prayer which makes all the other aspects possible and sustainable. The rhythm of community prayer is the backbone of our life together. Its benefits aren’t as immediately tangible or easily explicable as some of the other things we do: but this is not an optional extra on the side but the very core of the existence of our community, so while it isn’t easy to explain its purpose or its value, it feels important to try.
For those who have never, or rarely, attended prayer: perhaps a concrete explanation is a good place to begin. We pray together every weekday morning at 7.30 and Monday to Thursday evenings at 7pm. Each prayer lasts between 20 and 30 minutes and includes an extended period of 8-10 minutes in silence. Morning prayer follows a set format with psalms and readings, a song, silence and prayers of intercession. Evening prayer is more varied, but always with that same commitment to reflective, contemplative silence.
The silence is an essential element of our prayer and the only thing which is written in to the community agreement. Silence is alien to a world where we are constantly bombarded by noise; and even in many church settings it is something to which we have ceased to be accustomed. In the midst of the busyness of life, it is perhaps more important than ever to recapture the space to simply be with God. In a world where value is so often determined by purpose, usefulness or achievement, it is important to recall that God is not someone we should only approach when we want something.
One “purpose” fulfilled by the routine of prayer is to provide space to “simply be”. Prayer is not something we achieve, prayer just is. We take time to enter, consciously, into what we already are: beings created and loved by God and called into relationship with him. The prayer is also a space to “simply be” together: over time there have been many who, regularly or occasionally, have found in the prayer here what they needed at a certain moment in time. Some have become friends, others we have seen only once or twice: it feels like an important thing to offer to our city.
The core values of society, I would suggest, are not entirely in keeping with the core values of the gospel. The message that your worth is in what you have, or do, or acquire is proclaimed from every advertising slogan, every shop whose doors we walk through. The message that we should fear one another is proclaimed from every newspaper report, and from many of the policies and procedures which dictate every aspect of our lives. Whatever our rational and intelligent selves tell us, it is very hard, even impossible, not to be influenced by those insidious voices. It is only by consciously placing ourselves where we can hear an alternative message that we find the support to stand for different values. I never leave prayer saying ‘today God has told me I must do this’ but I do believe that the regular routine of prayer supports me as I attempt to live by gospel values rather than society’s ones, that provides the whispered voice of guidance which leads me down, or at least towards, the road I am called to travel. I know some of our decisions are irrational by society’s standards: I think it is inherent in the gospel for that to be the case.
Above all, for me, prayer is about love: it is about consciously exposing ourselves to the unconditional love with which God surrounds us. Praying never means that God loves us more: there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, just as there is nothing we can do to make God love us less, because God is love. But while the completeness of God’s love for each one is not in question, love is fulfilled when it exists in relationship: and it is this experience of love, I believe, which enables us to overcome fear, to live life to the full, to live adventurously, to be the people God wants us to be.
I have no doubt that without the prayer, much of what we do, many of the decisions we make would not be possible: I am very happy to have found a place which has enabled us to have a regular routine of prayer. It is this which sustains our community and I remain grateful for the opportunity to have this at the heart of the life I lead.