Two groups of people influenced my growth into adulthood. The first included the science teachers who got me through 'A' levels, and two professors of Chemistry in Bristol University. They were enthusiasts, devoted men who shared their fascination with nature, and their commitment to a disciplined search for truth. The second was an assortment of men and women who radiated love and peace, and spoke about God as an intimate companion. Some were clergy, monks and nuns, some were ordinary church members. Both groups were marked by their warmth, their humanity and their humour, despite the seriousness of their lives' passion. Under their contrasting influences, I discovered a convergence between the quest for truth, and learning how to pray.
"Honest to God" was a remarkable short paperback book that appeared in 1963, the year I went to university. Everybody talked about it. Some even read it. Its author, John Robinson, was a scholar renowned for his work on the New Testament. During his time as Bishop of Woolwich in South East London, a slipped disk confined him to bed for six weeks. This gave him the gestation period needed for a work which opened up modern theological discussion to non-expert lay people. For a while it was a journalistic sensation - a Church of England bishop causing consternation among religious conservatives by challenging naÔve popular ideas about God.
Robinson was a fine teacher, a biblical scholar familiar with Christian mystical thought, unafraid of tackling tough questions. His approach influenced me considerably. He stood well within a long line of orthodox Christian explorers of Godís truth, although one would not have guessed it from the media reaction. Discussing his book with fellow students started me on a journey of discovery. I found that there are some strange ideas entertained about prayer, based upon misconceptions of scripture and ideas of God which are but childish caricatures of reality. I saw how much more powerful and effective is the symbolic character of biblical language than its literal content.
St Matthew and St Luke portray Jesus telling his disciples how to pray using the words of what we call the Lord's Prayer. Matthew's is the one most commonly used, (see Matthew 6:9-13). Luke's (Luke 10:2-4) is a more concise version, but their basic content is the same. God is addressed as Father of us all, whose name / authority is revered as holy. Both pray that God's reign, as it already exists in heaven, will arrive also on earth. They ask for enough food to see us through the next day. They ask to be forgiven our debts as we forgive those who are indebted to us, as the original Greek text reads. This is a figurative way of speaking about offences against God and each other. ĎDebtsí is usually translated as 'sins' or 'trespasses'. If you offend someone, it puts you at a disadvantage towards them. You owe them something. Putting things right with them involves God. The final petition in the oldest text versions asks that we be spared the ultimate test of faith, and be protected from evil, though the Greek does not speak abstractly about 'evil', but of the 'evil one'.
This prayer asks things of God and expresses reliance upon him for everything that makes up our life, both in breadth and in detail. This sets the agenda for prayer and worship. It can be expanded into detailed petitions for our own needs or those of others, but these are set in the bigger picture of acknowledging Godís sovereignty over all people and creation. Jesus speaks of the Father knowing what we need even before we ask, but tells us: "ask and you will receive, that your joy may be full" (John 16:24b). This kind of asking requires nothing of us apart from our trust.
Petitions of concern in prayer are important because they express our love for others, and unite us with them in relation to God, whose will shall be done. Those conditioned exclusively by the modern scientific way of seeing the world may think that the trust Christians place in the prayers they say has magical overtones. Ask for something with enough fervent belief and you will get it: in fact, the Gospel teaching of Jesus even seems to suggest as much: "Ask and it shall be given to you: seek and you shall find." (Matthew 7:7) The reality is somewhat different.
I may wish for a particular answer to my prayer and the concerns it expresses, but God cannot be manipulated or bargained with. Some Old Testament stories suggest this is not so, but such stories express the immature faith of their subject, or of the story teller. God's will is sovereign. The New Testament asserts that we can do nothing to win God's favour. We are loved and accepted, our prayers are heard because what Christ did for us on the cross reveals decisively Godís love and care for us. This raises the question: If this is so, what is achieved by praying about something?
I may pray, struggling and searching to know what is right. I ask that God's will may be done, sometimes with great difficulty, but with strong desire to return Godís love with my loving free consent to the process of aligning my will with His. I donít know how this will work out in practice, but I trust God. It is not the same as the Muslim cry of 'Inshallah!', meaning: 'if it be God's will'. In Islam, the greater sense of distance between God and humankind places less value on human free will. Obedience to God is paramount. Faith means surrendering oneís will to the divine. The Islamic idea of submission to God can foster fatalism and detract from human responsibility to make things happen so that Godís will is done. Christians seek to do God's will out of love in response to his love. It demands discernment of his purpose and responsible action.
But, when so many people pray with such conflicting needs and desires, it leaves us asking: how can God answer prayer? Classic answers are: God's answer to prayer can sometimes be 'No', or simply a silence, because our asking is not genuine. Parents often say to their offspring: "I want doesn't get." Do we cast God in the role of super-parent, according to our ideas of parental responsibility? Of course we do. But hopefully, eventually, we realise how stupid this is. Sometimes it seems that God answers prayer perfectly, with timing that is miraculous. If we pray in just the right way maybe we get results, we think. But, we slip into an illusion if we generalise and draw up rules for always getting what we want.
We may think God does what is right by us, and we may think God utterly fails us. Whatever the outcome of our prayer, his reasons and purposes are beyond us. "'My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.' says the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8). In our approach to prayer we get out of alignment with God's will, because our thoughts are governed by needs and feelings which are far from trusting and humble. Then, we easily misconstrue God's purpose, we begin to imagine that he is rather like ourselves, made in our image, rather than we in his. What has occurred in the history of the church's sacramental ministry of healing serves as an example of this.
Anointing with oil was used to consecrate a person as priest or sovereign in the Old Testament, and in the life of the Church. Anointing with oil with prayer was also used to consecrate a person's suffering of physical or mental sickness, in the belief that Godís Spirit would work to make them better by the healing processes of nature and medicine. This is the basis of what the church calls the sacrament of Holy Unction.
In early Christian times people postponed Baptism until they were close to death, hoping to die without lapsing into sin, and losing salvation. Likewise Holy Unction was offered only to people nearing their end. It was given after confession of sins and absolution along with Holy Communion under the heading of 'Last Rites', so that a dying person could make a peaceful sinless departure. Fear of hell and damnation for those dying in sin resulted in Holy Unction being used like an insurance policy, unrelated to oneís spiritual journey throughout life. God's saving purpose was so narrowly understood that for centuries these sacraments were ill used.
Today the Church re-emphasises Baptism as the beginning and sign of discipleship. Unction, like Holy Communion, is offered for every stage of the disciple's journey, not just journey's end. It is now given in crisis, when health or inner well-being are under threat, as a spiritual aid to recovery. It involves prayer for the healing of a person and affirms that God's will for them is health, not suffering and disease. It includes two actions, the laying of hands on the person's head asking for the gift of the Holy Spirit (as in Confirmation and Ordination), then making the sign of the cross with a drop of blessed olive oil upon the forehead, and other parts of the body - hands, feet, eyes, ears, lips, chest - as appropriate. The cross is a sign claiming the whole person - body soul and spirit - to be the subject of God's love.
The fact of touching someone who is suffering is important, because in sickness and emotional distress a person can feel deeply isolated. But, isn't a hug and a cuddle enough to overcome the sense of isolation? Physical contact is important, but the ritual words and action of anointing mark a very human expression of relationship. Signs of the presence and power of God are placed at the heart of human suffering.
Scientific medicine has taught us much about how the human body works and the conditions under which sickness or health may prevail. Medical practitioners often admit that they do not know exactly how and why healing takes place in one person, and not in another similarly afflicted. Despite the techniques and resources available to us, there is a mystery at the heart of healing. The work of enabling a person to recover health, although built upon scientific knowledge and skill, remains an art. Love is an essential component of its effectiveness. Christians believe that God the giver of life is also the source of health and healing. The sacrament of Holy Unction declares this in faith, and at the same time represents the different kinds of care and attention (medical and social) through which God's love operates in the healing process. It is not the same as believing that 'my faith' alone (placed either in a doctor, or a gifted healer) will effect a cure.
Medical researchers are examining the role of religious beliefs and practices in promoting health and healing. Experiments to assess the power of prayer to stimulate recovery from sickness have taken place in recent years. It seems that a life based on faith in God, the exercise of forgiveness, and the practice of prayer and worship makes a measurable difference to health in some cases. But, such findings establish little of real value. People with impeccable beliefs and behaviour can have many others praying for them, yet still succumb to life threatening disease, accidents or the ravages of senility. A sound faith will find blessing in the misfortunes of life, and even in the face of death.
It is impossible to live without experiences of betrayal, disillusionment, weakness, and sorrow. Love grows, is refined and matured through experiences of suffering, and proves its reliability as the foundation of our being and well-being. Our understanding of God's purpose is forged through persistence in prayer. The sign of Holy Unction empowers us to discover that God is teaching us new things about what it is to be human, and loved, in order that we may more consciously and fully draw closer to Himself.
In a world estranged from God, it is common to despise weakness, and to worship strength and power. The solutions to many of the world's intractable political and social problems seem to involve, all too often, a degree of violence to people or to the environment. The primal belief in salvation through violence, expressed in the myth and stories of every era, is so pervasive that many Christians find it hard to recognise the essentially non-violent character of Jesusí teaching and ministry. The Crusades, capital punishment, religious dedication of military weapons, are all hard to connect with the Galilean rabbi-carpenter. His Way has often been distorted to make it conform to the ancient and cruel response to human needs and problems.
The measure of a society's ownership of humanitarian values is the treatment it affords to those who are weak, poor, handicapped, strangers, criminals, or simply unfortunate. Even the most morally and socially advanced societies fall short in one way or another, and this is because of the status given to the demands of the powerful. The Gospel from the outset was spoken of as 'good news for the poor'. This does not exclude the rich and dominant. It challenges them to use their resources and power differently from accepted norms. Since the beginning, there have been Christians who have played their part in advocating justice for the poor, and in caring for the victims of the world's misuse of power. But this has not been universally true of all believers. It has to be admitted that despite the ideals, many down the ages have compromised Christ's teaching with the materialistic values of the prevailing social order, and made Christianity less credible.
Consciousness of God's gifts and the responsibility to use them well leads also to the temptation to abuse them, and to refuse to recognise one's own weaknesses. In contrast to popular notions, Christians do not believe that temptation in itself is sinful. After the Spirit descended upon Jesus at the start of his ministry (Luke 4:1-13), he struggled in the desert against temptation to misuse his powers. His will to resist the suggestions of the devil is portrayed as rooted in his focus upon God. He is nourished by his memory of scriptural wisdom. It guides Him away from over-reliance on His own resources. We learn, following Jesus, to discern to accept our potential and our limitations.
When we are sick, exhausted, or facing emotional and spiritual hard times, we come face to face with weakness in ourselves which we are conditioned to despise or pity in others. We taste the fear of powerlessness, and must struggle against despair, without arousing the anxieties of others. What happens to individuals is mirrored in society. Under the guise of Ďbusiness as usualí, nations, institutions and economies stagger on sick and disordered, driven by forces dimly perceived. They continue to function badly as if nothing was wrong. Nobody understands how to stop and overhaul the system. Those in service feel helpless to prevent harmful errors being made. The healing of nations and of our planet seems beyond our capabilities, yet we care. We feel we must not give up trying to make a difference. Personal prayer can give us a fresh perspective on everything.
Unburdening ourselves in powerlessness to One who listens to us proves to be a source of strength. St Paul, coping with his own un-named infirmity asked God to save him and heard the answer: "My grace is sufficient for you: my strength is perfected in your weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:7-9) God can act through us when we feel least able. In another passage Paul reflects that: "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, what is weak in the world to shame the strong." (1 Cor 1:27) Christians do not despise power, but see it as a gift of God, taken on trust, for which they are accountable. When we pray, something happens to enable us to face the truth and to enable us to act beyond what we think is our full capacity. God works to bring about inconceivable changes in people, and often this cannot be seen in the shadow of events. It is only recognisable in retrospect.
Communism collapsed under its own inefficiency and corruption. The trigger was the prayers and protests of the few who stopped acquiescing to a godless status quo. They struggled bravely against a system ruled by lies and fear, which could have easily destroyed them. Though not alone, Christians were influential in the movement against totalitarianism, and the unthinkable happened. The end of the cold war era offered a new opportunity to people of faith to engage in healing the wounds of injustice dividing the world. Now, there is a new challenge to people of faith and prayer.
The rise of orchestrated international terror aimed at destabilising the present world order has uncovered deep festering wounds due to centuries of prejudice and injustice against Arabs and Muslims, summed up in the denial to the Palestinian people of their own independent state. The present political and humanitarian crisis offers an opportunity for Jews, Muslims and Christians to pray and act together to overturn barriers and work for political healing and reconciliation, non-violently in defiance of prevailing fear and despair. The search for justice and peace, and the struggle to uphold truth transcends traditional religious loyalties, just as it bridged the gulf between atheist and believer under soviet tyranny. There are signs that just such a spiritual break-through is beginning to happen.