Dispassionate Prayer

Easter 6 – 2012

John 16:16-24

Marian Free

 In the name of God whom we are drawn to praise and to whom we offer our grateful thanksgiving. Amen.

I wonder how you pray. Do you set aside a particular time to pray each day or is prayer something that you do on the run? Do you pray regularly or only when you are frightened or troubled? Does your prayer consist of a list of requests for God to meet or does it take the form of thanksgiving and praise? Is your prayer dispassionate or emotive? Is it a duty or a joy? When you pray do you find it helpful to use words that others have written, or are you comfortable finding your own words? Have you tried sitting in silence before God – waiting to hear what God might have to say or do you pray some other way?

I imagine that most of us pray in a variety of different ways at different times of our lives. In fact, in the space of a single day we might pray in several different ways.

Prayer is an interesting subject and one which is at the heart of the practice of our faith, yet I wonder how often we re-visit the topic and how often we re-think how and why we pray. I was interested this week to listen to The Spirit of Things on Radio National this week. The presenter, Rachel Kohn, has asked a number of Australians of different faiths and of no particular faith to write a spiritual diary. This week we heard from the diary of Howard Goldenberg – a Melbourne doctor. Two things struck me about Goldenberg’s report. One was his description of prayer and the other was his disciplined/structured practice of Jewish daily prayer[1].

With regard to the nature of prayer he ponders:

Will I pray for a speedy recovery of my sick relative who is suffering a deteriorating illness? Yes, I will, I do, I have done. Why? Do I pray to change God’s mind, or to point out to God that I have a better idea than his? Or to sway God by virtue of my piety or work?

I pray, I cry out for my loved one in distress. I give voice to my wish that healing occur, but there is no expectation or obligation upon the deity. I pray because I can, because I must, but the prayer isn’t futile, it serves my need but perhaps not my purpose.”

Goldenberg voices a common experience, that there are times when we pray out of our own need, when our prayer is a cry from the heart rather than an attempt to change God’s mind or to prove that we know better than God how to manage the universe.  In a later entry, Goldenberg speaks of the daily prayer which he has practiced since he was a young child – a prayer which is more structured and impersonal than the cry from the heart; daily routine that he finds both liberating and defining not a restriction. Prayer is so much a part of his life that to not to say the daily prayer would be as uncomfortable to him as if he had not brushed his teeth. Not only prayer a part of who he is, but the daily prayer tells him who he is and reminds him both of his past and present and locates him in the community of his faith.

Our own pattern of daily prayer emerges out of the Jewish tradition and serves similar functions – to provide structure to our prayer lives, to reinforce our Christian identity and to offer dispassionate praise to God.

The early Christians continued to practice their Jewish traditions until, after the Jewish war, they were excluded from the synagogues. A regular pattern of prayer was not abandoned. Our earliest liturgical record urges believers to say the Lord’s prayer three times a day and the Apostolic Constitutions of the fourth century encourage communities to gather in the morning and the evening for the singing of Psalms and for prayer. For some time, these acts of daily prayer took place in the central church or cathedral of a city. Over time, however, attendance decreased and for centuries the daily prayer or office was limited to the monasteries where set forms of prayer were said at least seven times each day.

At the time of the Reformation, Cranmer reduced the seven daily offices to two – Morning and Evening Prayer – and once more encouraged their practice in the Parish Church. “That the people profit from daily hearing of scripture and be inflamed with the love of true religion” This had some success. On Sundays in particular, Morning and Evening Prayer were to remain the preferred form of prayer for the next 400 years.

During the last century, liturgical revision tried once again to inspire practicing Christians to adopt for themselves a regular, disciplined practice of prayer and scripture reading. A Prayer Book for Australia provided services for the morning and evening of every day of the week in the hope that families would adopt these for their family prayers. This pattern was continued in An Australian Prayer Book.

If you look in your prayer books on page 383 you will find the forms of prayer that make up the daily office – a scripture verse, a canticle, an opening prayer, one or more Psalms, a Psalm prayer, readings from the Bible, another canticle, the Lord’s Prayer, intercessions and collects. Used on a regular basis, the daily office enables us to read the New Testament and most of the Old Testament each year and the Psalter over two months[2]. To say the office you need your prayer book and a copy of the lectionary which will tell you which readings to use.

These patterns of prayer provide a structure which dispenses with the need think up one’s own prayers or to choose one’s own Psalms. They provide a framework for the day at the same time as sanctifying the day and all that happens on that day. The daily office is a form prayer which can be offered to God with no thought of ourselves. It doesn’t rely on how we feel but can be said whether we are cast down with sorrow or filled to the brim with joy. What is more, because the daily office is used by Christians throughout the world, when we join in this prayer we are linked to a prayer that never ceases, but which continues day and night wherever Christ is worshipped. The office provides a balance between daily life and prayer, between public and private prayer and it combines prayer, praise and scripture in a regular pattern. It is a practical form of prayer because it is adaptable, simple, familiar, portable and brief.

Is prayer an essential part of your being, as much a part of your daily routine as washing your face or cleaning your teeth? Is there something you can do to change that?

[2] If you don’t have a prayer book at home you could look at these sites which include the service and the daily readings: http://daily.commonworship.com/daily-new.cgi  http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html

The Australian and New Zealand Prayer books are not available on line as yet.



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