A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler on the First Sunday of Lent
10th March 2019
A Rule of Life: Pray
Our Lent Sermon Series at St Mary’s is an exploration of a Rule – or Pattern – of Life, a structured way of living out the Christian faith, which we are considering making part of our life together at our church. This sermon is the first of six on the elements of such a rule: Pray, Read, Learn, Tell, Serve, Give.
I have to start this sermon with a confession: I feel like a fraud in preaching about prayer. I chose to preach this sermon though, as we embark on our Lenten exploration of a Rule of Life, a balanced, structured pattern of Christian living. I did so because I know many others feel like frauds when it comes to prayer too. So this is not an expert telling others how to do prayer. Find someone else to preach that sermon. This is, to quote another famous saying, one beggar telling another one where to find bread.
These six sermons are to be determinedly practical. I’m not going to theorise. Instead, I would like to share some ideas about how prayer can become part of a pattern of living. In doing this, I recognise that prayer is always an individual thing, even though when we gather we pray corporately. The most useful piece of advice I or any other person has probably been given about prayer is this: pray as you can, not as you can’t. Avoid comparing yourself to anyone else. Don’t imagine anyone else is better at praying than you, that the person you admire as a person of prayer is somehow got the secret. What’s more, don’t for a minute imagine that we need to get our motives and techniques sorted before we pray. That’s never going to happen and it will paralyse us from starting in prayer. The truth is, we all come to pray with a mass of conflicting motives – selfish and generous, compassionate and hateful, loving and bitter. We’re never going to unravel the good from the bad. Start just as we are, whether we believe in prayer or not, whether we think it useful or not.
Think of the three ways of praying I’m going to run through this morning as rather like the way in which we mature in a significant relationship, a parent/child or a close friendship, whichever has been the most life-giving for you.
One writer on prayer says this: “In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture, so a child of God cannot offer a bad prayer.” The most basic form of prayer is this: just bringing ourselves before God as we are. We don’t try and sort out of feelings and thoughts, we don’t try and censor ourselves before the Almighty. We just ask for what we want or say how we feel – whether we want good weather or a safe journey, or whether we are are happy about a meeting at work or frustrated and angry with our partner. Prayer is, in essence, being as we are consciously in the presence of God. It is, in a sense, all about us. The good, the bad and the ugly are all mixed together. Just like it is with a child and a parent.
Practically speaking, this means starting with the stuff of life: family, job, friends and neighbours. Praying like this, praying at its most basic, is to believe that God can reach us and bless us in the everyday stuff of life. The details of our life are the proper content of prayer. This basic and simple form of prayer, done as we go about our daily life, is simply talking to God, being present to God, in it all: sharing the joys, the sorrows, hurts and frustrations, freely and openly. We don’t need to try too hard, but (and this is where the Rule or Pattern of life becomes helpful), we do need to practise at praying, we do need to get used to this. And, just as a relationship between a parent and a child matures beyond “Mummy I feel…” or “Daddy, I want…”, so our praying to God will slowly grow as we learn that we are not as much the centre of the universe as we first thought. But, when it comes to prayer, and learning to pray regularly, it will do us no harm to imagine that we are God’s number one priority.
The second form of practical prayer has a special name, but it’s a familiar idea. Imagine the moment when you come home from work or see a friend after a short gap in time. What do you do? You catch up, you share the news, you go over the events of the day. The second form of prayer is called an examen. The word is related to our modern word examination, but in its origin it has less of an academic meaning. An examen in Latin is the indicator on a balance or scale, the thing that points to the true assessment of things. A prayer of examen is a prayer of review. Put very simply, we walk through the day or the week with God, replaying in our minds the events and reflecting on them. This is of course something that any reflective person can do, Christian or not. But it is as we do it with God, the one we have already learned to allow to be part of our life, that it becomes really powerful as a regular part of a pattern of Christian living.
There are two ways of approaching it. In one simple way, you walk through your day with God, firstly looking for causes of joy, for which you can be thankful and full of praise to God, and then you walk through your day again, looking for causes of sorrow, which can lead to confession or to prayer for others. This is a very good place to start with an examen.
But it is a deeper thing as well. If you like, this first way is an examination, a review of consciousness: was that disagreement at work about more than a challenging decision? Was the voice of God present in the voice of the person I disagreed with? Perhaps that moment of transcendence as I walked along the river to the bus stop, as the sun glinted off the river and the towers opposite, was a moment of reminder of God’s presence and an invitation to look for other beauty and divine presence in the day. You get the idea. But it can then go deeper, not just to how we are conscious of God’s presence and how we are conscious of those around us, but an examination of our own conscience as well. How much was our behaviour in that meeting about my stubbornness and desire to get my own way? Or on the other hand, how much was my feeling of guilt in that moment down to my own lack of sense of worth, rather than any real sense of responsibility for what happened? I’m not saying that making a regular examen is always easy or comfortable, but what a regular examen can, and I think, will do, is to enable us to develop self-knowledge. To know oneself is a huge gift, because to know oneself is to know how you affect others around you as well. To pray regularly, and to have a pattern or rule of prayer, is to be committed to growing in self-knowledge. We get to learn the unvarnished truth, the good and the bad.
Practically speaking, this is about learning to find God within, not just God ‘up there’. We bore down into ourselves, not to become ever more introspective, but to journey through ourselves and all that we are, so that we can find God in our deepest, truest selves. As one of the Fathers of the Church put it, “Find the door of your heart, you will discover it is the door of the kingdom of God.”
This is a sermon, not an hour-long lecture, so I must move on to the third sort of prayer that I think might be helpful. This is the sort of prayer that is like being in a close friendship or relationship. The one where you know yourself safe, and loved and held and supported. The sort of prayer where you don’t need words all the time. Some writers call it the prayer of the heart, the prayer of close relationship. We see this in the life of Jesus, who seemed to call God his Father or, in Aramaic abba, or dear Father. This is the prayer of close relationship and it seems to be a rather unique element of Christian prayer. But it is an element of Christian prayer, because Jesus teaches us to call God abba as well. “When you pray, he says, say ‘Our Father’…that’s abba. Praying like this, comes from knowing oneself loved by God, and is a deeper, more intimate, way of praying, that comes from the gift of the Holy Spirit, who we are given in our baptism. We are reminded by Paul in his letter to the Romans that when we pray, and even when we don’t consciously pray, the Spirit within intercedes for us. If this is the case, then the Spirit who loves the Father and the Son, prays within us his prayer of love and they in turn pray in love to the Spirit. Prayer of the heart tunes into this ongoing prayer of the Trinity within us, and we find ourselves caught up in the knowledge of love. For some people this can be a powerful, felt experience of being loved; occasionally that has been my experience; for others, it can be a physical sensation or a new language or a strong sense of a word – perhaps from the Bible – coming to us. This is perfectly natural if we understand that the Godhead is praying, communicating within us. It should not be surprising that we should be given things back by God, even if we usually think of prayer as something we give to God.
I don’t think this sort of prayer is about methods or techniques. There are no methods of falling in love, but that is the nearest metaphor I can find. If you can find words of love for God then that will help, but it is not easy. For some, it can be a simple phrase such as “Father, I am yours and you are mine.” In the East the famous Jesus prayer is often used, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Repeating such prayers again and again can free up our hearts to know God more deeply and to touch on this most profound experience of being loved and loving. I did not know what love was until I knew myself loved by God. One writer suggests that simply asking God to kindle a flame of love in our hearts is the best way to enter into this prayer of the heart. I would encourage all of us who seek to develop a pattern of Christian living to seek to enter into this experience and to long for it; it is what, for me, turned my faith from chiefly a matter of the heart to an affair of the heart. I wouldn’t imagine I could do what I do without that sense of divine love.
So, this Lent, whether you feel a novice at prayer – or like me a fraud – try praying a bit more. And as we seek to ponder whether God is calling us to a rule or pattern of living, explore the simple prayer of the child, the examen of consciousness and conscience, and the abba prayer of the heart. There is much more to prayer than these three: but they are perhaps the way to balance, growth and faithful following of Jesus, at least for me. But above all, pray as you can, not as you can’t.