As a student I enjoyed the challenge of discussing the meaning and relevance of Christian faith with non-believers. There were five times as many declared agnostics and atheists among my fellow scientists as there were believers. One friend, observing my enthusiasm for this kind of debate said casually one day: "Did you ever think of becoming a parson?" Well no, I hadn't actually - perish the thought. I had a poor opinion of institutional religion, and couldn't imagine myself as one of 'them'. But the seed of a notion was sown, and it germinated. Slowly, working with people began to commend itself to me as a more satisfying direction for life than working with the raw materials of nature.
At home during the next summer vacation, I confided my inner thoughts to the patient parish priest who had accompanied me though enquiring adolescence. He sat and puffed his pipe, looked at me and smiled. "I thought you'd come to it sooner or later." he said. "Why didn't you say anything to me before now?" said I, exasperated. "I couldnít interfere with Godís work." he replied. I saw in his eyes that he had been praying for me.
In church services we pray together. Continuing to pray afterwards on our own doesnít come easily or automatically to everyone. On a visit to the old East Germany, a young Lutheran pastor surprised my wife by questioning her about personal prayer and how it was done. We learned that in some communities, although individual bible study and reflection is usual, there was no expectation of praying apart from public worship. Prayers used in services could be expressed in language which avoided addressing God directly. Custom reflected how God was thought of and worshipped in that situation. It is merely a hint of the diversity of Christian approaches to God. What is natural to one person is something strange which another has to discover. I have learned much about how to pray from meeting Christians of other cultures, and people of other religions.
Jesus awakened his disciples to Godís presence in the midst of life, and taught them to think for themselves. The Gospels portray them asking him to teach them how to pray, how to go beyond the everyday religious rituals they practised with him. His teaching contains a few specific points, and more in breadth on Godís compassion and generosity and how his children may approach him. His simple strategic guidelines allow us freedom and permission to explore what intimacy with God can mean for us.
There have been great changes in the way we work, rest, take our leisure and worship. Many of us now live in ways radically different from our upbringing. How we were raised is not the way our parents were raised, and not the way our children will be raised. Discontinuity between generations means tradition and inherited wisdom are not automatically relied upon for guidance as they were in former days. As a result, each phase of our lives: childhood, adolescence, career, unemployment, redundancy and retirement, marriage, parenthood, maturity, ageing, senility, present challenges which we may be less well equipped to deal with than our forebears. The conventions and ground rules are no longer obvious.
In times past, people sought advice and support from family members, from elders, from the local teacher, doctor or priest. With lives now divided between different spheres of interest, our needs are met only partly in any one place. We seek advice and support from agencies offering expertise, problem solving, counselling and therapy for every aspect of personal health and competence. Despite the call for holistic approaches to health and living, there are fewer people who see us as a whole, whose personal knowledge of us spans the range and duration of our life's experiences. I am privileged to have grown up in a community with a priest who was there long enough to see me grow from schoolboy to priest and parent.
When Christianity was still young, lack of legal status and outbreaks of persecution imposed limits on its expansion. The teaching of the Apostles fostered a close-knit life together, characterised by mutual help at the practical and spiritual level. Believers admitted their failings and sins to each other. They offered guidance and support to each another. Persecution ended, and the church was legitimised throughout the Roman Empire under the emperor Constantine after 324AD.
As a result, the discipline of the Christian community and criteria for discipleship became less well defined. This posed a problem for believers wanting to give their lives for the cause of Christ, but no longer at risk of martyrdom. Originally, the state and its pagan religiosity had embodied hostility to the kingdom of God. State acceptance of the church was regarded as compromising its vocation to live sacrificially, a threat to Christian faithfulness and identity. It led some zealots to drop out of the new 'Christian' society, and flee to a remote empty place, where they could live prayerfully in simplicity and hardship in the spirit of earlier times.
Life in the desert was dedicated to prayer and self-renunciation either living in solitude, or in small settlements where tough poor communal living tested faithful discipleship. Most believers opted to continue uneasily in society, but sought out these ascetic communities for guidance, inspiration and a respite from the compromises of the everyday world. In such uncompromisingly idealistic circumstances there were new challenges and problems. Those living in isolation, or in the austere monotony of a desert monastery were unrelieved by exposure to mundane affairs, and risked becoming detached from reality. To avoid spiritual and mental pitfalls, guidance from people more experienced at this way of life than themselves was essential.
Those called Elders, or spiritual fathers/mothers, were people gifted by God with wisdom and spiritual authority to guide fellow believers in their new calling. In all other respects they were peers on the same journey. They were not necessarily leaders, often they occupied humble roles, but what they learned about Godís grace had widespread appeal to city dwellers as well as other monks. Sometimes, Elders were besieged by such crowds seeking guidance that they were obliged to retreat to ever more remote and inaccessible places to maintain some degree of solitude.
Expertise is certainly a feature of life in modern society, where the body of human knowledge is so vast and complex that no-one can have sufficient understanding of every discipline of study to be useful to all. The spiritual knowledge of Elders was based on their experience of being human and enduring the whole gamut of lifeís trials and tribulations through faith in God. The moral authority of someone with deep spiritual experience, rather than know-how, still attracts those who seek God today. It cannot be promoted or advertised, however. Guidance, and a good guide are a gift.
Whether an elder was an ordained or a lay person was originally less important than their ability to help and guide others. As church organisation and structure developed, the role of spiritual guide became more institutionalised in the officers of ministry. Clergy became regarded as the only people who heard confessions and gave spiritual guidance. Clergy became the leaders, the experts who run the church, and the laity were those led.
Despite this, recognition of the authority of spiritually gifted lay men and women has persisted to our own day. The biblical principle that the church and its ministry belongs to all the baptised has been lost and found again periodically, as the spiritual life of different communities waxes and wanes. When the church is at its best, each member has their part to play in worship, support and encouragement, community organising, service, teaching, and faith sharing.
Political and economic developments in a nation or culture have sometimes paved the way for the renewal and expansion of the church. The spiritual vitality of the church is expressed in its sense of mission. Missionary activity springs from a renewal of personal spirituality and worship, that makes believers more aware of Godís widespread activity, at work in the world as much as in the church. Prayer expresses our relationship to Christ. It makes for healthy discipleship. It is the life-breath of the community which, as 'the Body of Christ', identifies with his ministry in the world.
The celebration of the sacraments, though always an essential component of Christian life, is not the only valued expression of corporate prayer. The first Christians brought with them from Judaism the practise of praying at set hours of the day - dawn, noon and dusk - to recognise God's presence in the passage of time. They marked the passing seasons of the year, and kept Sunday, the first day of the week, as the regular occasion to recall the Lord's resurrection. All this pivoted around the annual celebration of Easter.
Monastic communities took these elements from common Christian devotion, developed and incorporated them into their own way of prayer. The reading of the whole book of Psalms, weekly or monthly, and the rest of the Bible several times in the course of the year, is a feature of monastic worship which has become part of ordinary church life. The practise of systematic scripture reading spread over the year (called the liturgical lectionary) ensures that every aspect of Christian teaching is repeatedly covered, for the benefit of disciples both old and new.
From its beginnings in the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa, monasticism spread to remote regions elsewhere, and played a key role in the spread of planned agriculture animal husbandry and formal education, a major influence in the development of civilisation in Europe and the Orient. Monasteries even grew up in and around cities, and monks took part in the pastoral care and worship of parishes. This has influenced how ordinary congregations pray, and what churches look like. The location of a church choir in the chancel area, in front of the main altar in many ancient British churches, is a legacy of the monastic origins of the building.
Ordering prayer around the passage of days, months and seasons of the year speaks of the value Christians give to time. The consecration of time is not a sacrament as such, but has a sacramental quality pointing to the sovereignty of God, proclaimed in the Easter vigil service as: "Alpha and Omega. All time belongs to Him and all eternity." In this setting, the story of Jesus and its consequences are related. The entire meaning of life is placed in the perspective of God's self-revelation in his story. Rites connected with birth, puberty, marriage, inheritance of power, death, natural events and crises, have forms of prayer and appropriate passages of scripture to use for the occasion. Guidance from scripture for daily living is built into Christian worship.
Decline in regular attendance at routine public worship in the past half century is cause for concern by church leaders in Europe and North America, though this is not the case in most third world countries. Attendance notably increases when people take a holiday for the great festivals of Christmas and Easter, for rites of passage and other special occasions. Many more profess to share the faith of the church than make a habit of regular worship. It doesnít always mean that faith is weaker. Life is dominated more by the rhythm of the economy than it is by the seasons, or the passage of day and night. Celebrating the passage of time does not mean what it did for previous generations. Christians are now faced with re-thinking how to make the principle of consecrating time effective in an age when old patterns are not helping people to pray as best they can.
Learning about Jesus, coming to conversion and making a commitment to discipleship opens up the way to discover personal prayer. Thoughts about God change into something else. Instead of simply talking inwardly to myself, I realise that inner thoughts (with or without words) can move out of the lonely closed circuit of my mind and go beyond into the unknown. This movement can be pictured either as reaching out beyond myself, or as going inwards into the depths of the void within. It's like reaching out to communicate with another person - as opposed to talking to yourself - except that, whether you move outwardly or inwardly, you reach into an unknown empty realm.
To start you can fill the void by imagining someone there: Jesus, one of the saints or an angel. Children do this, and many adults do as well. As I do this, my attention does not rest within my finite imagination, but reaches beyond to the wholly Other, outside the mindís reach. To pray to God is to address thoughts neither to myself, nor to my neighbour, but to the limitless source, the uncreated origin of all creation. Words and concepts cannot embrace the One who embraces us, and listens.
The strange, paradox when we open ourselves out to the infinite beyond or within, even in the smallest most tentative way, is that we are not consumed, but met, sustained, held in being. Slowly, imperceptibly or overwhelmingly (it is different for each person), we are filled with wonder at our finiteness, and a sense of being loved, held in being. Most people have some sense of awe aroused by the intricacy and grandeur of the cosmos, but this feeling of being loved personally by the One who embraces our lives is different.
It works for people in different ways, sometimes enhancing and transforming, other times challenging, awakening a hidden sense of self. Nature's beauty can inspire us, feed us, move us and point us to its creator. Creation can be thought of as a sacrament of its author. But, we do not pray to nature, nor do we open our inmost depths to creation itself, but to One who is the unbounded source of all, indefinable, beyond thought or imagination. In this self-opening and self-orienting, encounter with the wholly Other takes place, and we glimpse an awareness of who we are, unbounded by mundane human definitions of self.
Although in prayer we expose our inner selves to the infinite void, the experience of love which awaits us is not abstract or impersonal, it is like the unbounded love of another person. As we let ourselves receive this love, our ability to love grows and overflows into every other aspect of our lives. This experience builds us up and also exposes our moral weakness. We can be tempted to domesticate the relationship, and project on to God aspects of our own self. This can lead us into illusion and idolatry instead of worship. That is why spiritual guidance is vital, to give us the checks and controls we need for the development of a healthy individual prayer life.
Realising that we can pray has a powerful effect on us as we venture to become disciples of Christ. But, the effect can wear off just as the emotions of falling in love wear off with familiarity in relation to the beloved. Three inter-linked aspects of what makes us human are of vital importance in sustaining the relationship with God in prayer: memory, understanding and will.
The will to pray is as essential as the will to act upon the truth we know. Encountering God can give us wonder and joy, and a hunger to pray, but it can also arouse negative feelings of anxiety, boredom or grief, making prayer a struggle. Jesus teaches us to ask the Father, in order to receive. The will to start praying is his gift, the will to continue and not lose heart when feelings discourage us is also his gift, freely given to all who ask. Commitment in faith trains and directs the will to loving God and other people, not just in right feelings, but in right actions.
Understanding empowers us to grasp the truth upon which we must act. Even people with the simplest of minds can reason effectively within their capacities, and thatís what is important Ė doing justice to our particular gifts and abilities. The Spirit works through the combination of imagination, intuition and intellect to guide us through what our reading of scripture teaches us, to reflect upon the events of our lives, and to make connections between them. It's a matter of trusting all the gifts we know we have in order to reach a right discernment.
Lastly, memory. In addition to the unique store of our own recollections of life, there is a multitude of memories we share with others in our faith community, in our culture. Recalling the truth of God's love for us, and who we are as his children, remembering set prayers and rituals of worship, texts of scripture, past experiences of the sacred: each of these work to open us up, to connect us to God in the void beyond or within. We draw upon the great well of memory for the material with which to understand who God is for us now and where He is leading us.
The words and gestures of our personal prayer may be many or few, poetic or banal, passionately spontaneous or carefully considered. Expressing ourselves, our entire lives in prayer, however we pray, builds our relationship with God. In time, self-opening leads us to stillness and silence beyond words. Here, we find we are at home with who we are, and with God. All our words of prayer, scripture reading and efforts to understand tradition, lead us to this place. They are the foundation and the nourishment which secures us and keeps us healthy. In the silence of intimacy with God, the main stage of our discipleship journey takes place. Prayer is the crucible where the process of self- transformation by the Spirit into the likeness of Christ continues after conversion.