‘It is said that in times of great uncertainty people pray more, so we can assume the lines are jammed right now. And with a recent report, from the thinktank Theos, suggesting that praying together is good for us whether we believe prayer ‘works’ or not, maybe we should all be looking for somewhere to pray and someone to pray with.’
You may have heard Rhidian Brook beginning his ‘Thought for the Day’ with these words (29 vi 16). When I consulted the report I’m assuming he refers to (Religion and Wellbeing), I found only that it spoke of studies showing ‘a limited positive effect of private religious practice (which is mixed with the effect of public practice)’ on mental health. However, it won’t be the first or the last time that the psychological benefits of prayer or religion are evidenced and the reactions from theists, atheists and sceptics will no doubt be varied, extensive and even colourful. Nowadays you’ll get fewer funny looks and pitying glances if you talk of meditating rather than of prayer and there must be as many ways to meditate as there are to pray.
A conversation of the spirit
Nothing new here: the desert fathers in the 4th and 5th centuries certainly seem to merge prayer and meditation in their writings, having themselves reached a stage where ‘the intellect is concentrated, words are suspended’(Olivier Clement on early Christian mysticism). Evagrius of Pontus (who was responsible, indirectly, for the Seven Deadly Sins – so he should know) said that ‘in our prayer time’, we should ‘banish all tricks and devices and behave like a child just weaned from its mother’. Prayer, he also said, ‘is a conversation of the spirit with God … without any intermediary’. And John Chrysostom told his listeners that ‘prayers that come from the bottom of the heart, having their roots there, … are not knocked off course by the assault of any thought.’ The psalmist (s) had a few quotable quotes on the same theme.
The current interest in mindfulness harnesses just one way of stilling the mind and communing with our deeper selves, and – who knows? – with God. Professor Mark Williams told us in answer to a question at Wychwood Circle in March that it is suggested that Jesus was pretty ‘mindful’ and showed its positive effects on character and attitudes most strongly. The best book I’ve come across on ‘Meditation and modern life’ (its subtitle) is The Wilderness Within by Nicholas Buxton (Canterbury Press 2014). It doesn’t devote more than a few sentences to how to meditate. The right technique, the author says, is whatever works for us:
‘Meditation is less about technique than attitude: an attitude of openness and humility. After all, the point of our practice is not simply to become good at meditation, but to wake up.’
He is equally dismissive of shopping lists. Prayer is not ‘something we do for the sake of the results and benefits that will accrue to us’ but should be ‘an end in itself’.
As elemental as breathing
One way of bridging the gap between pray-ers and others is to create a space where believers can pray, others can meditate (or practise mindfulness), others again can just pause for thought, reflect quietly, enjoy sharing a period of silence. We try and provide such a space on the third Wednesday of every month at Ascott Church, but for some the need for others, let alone ‘another church’ with its ‘tense, musty, unignorable silence’ ( Larkin) or other sacred building, may not be so important. It may just be a question of making time for our inner life – and not just on holiday or in retirement. As Rhidian Brook also said:
‘In its widest sense prayer is a universal activity, as elemental as breathing.’
We don’t need church and we don’t need priests, though both might help. We don’t need a bible or a prayer book or a missal. We just need to acknowledge, and maybe reflect, the persons we were made to be, for whom silence out there and silence ‘in here’ are vital elements of being human and essential to what the Archbishop of Canterbury likes to call ‘human flourishing’.