|Published by Louise Adey Huish on Fri, 3 Apr 2020 16:31|
'Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.' 1 Thess. 5: 16-18
Not the easiest of instructions, is it? - to 'pray without ceasing'; I always felt it was rather too holy for someone like me. It was only during my years of healthcare ministry that it came to have a real meaning for me, and that wasn't simply because I was constantly encountering the sick and the dying, people who truly needed my prayers. It was much more a change in my fundamental understanding of how prayer works. I found that my basic orientation towards God had changed, so that I was effectively a compass constantly seeking out magnetic north; a mobile phone looking for a signal; a household animal who always knows where his human is to be found, even if he's several rooms away. At some level I was always referring my situation back to God, either actively - 'Oh help, what do I do now?' - or passively: 'No idea where you need me this morning, but I'll start walking, and you guide my feet.'
This understanding of prayer has never left me. It is true that Jesus tells us (Mt 6:6) 'whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you'; but I think this is less of a literal instruction, and more to discourage us from making a big thing about how holy we are. I certainly don't think God only expects us to pray when we are on our best behaviour and in our best clothes, at a set time or in a particular place (10.30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, for example). Perhaps the WhatsApp analogy is a helpful one here (I speak as a convert!): imagine God as a trusted person on speed-dial, who will enjoy our treasured snapshots and quirky one-liners, and who in return expects the same access to us.
Because constant listening is, of course, the flip-side of constant prayer. Again, it was in the hospital and hospice that I learned to listen, not always with my ears, but with my gut, my instinct and my intuition. Oddly enough, God rarely takes any notice of my prayers about global poverty and politicians -- but in my day-to-day existence, I am aware of answers to prayer all the time. Sometimes that's in a chance remark from a stranger, sometimes it's in an inexplicable change of mood; but it has happened so consistently for so long, that I know it is more than just chance.
Yesterday morning I felt I had battered God's ear for too long with prayers about the coronavirus crisis, and besides, I didn't really feel in the mood. So on my morning walk I resolved just to listen to the sounds of the natural world, which usually pass me by. For the best part of fifty minutes I heard constant birdsong: admittedly plenty of it was rooks cawing, pheasants creaking, and woodpigeon doing that purring thing, but also an unceasing twittering from the many inhabitants of the hedgerows. And in the odd moments when I couldn't hear anything, I would stop and listen harder; and sure enough, there were still birds singing further away, and the sound of the wind in my ears. I felt reconnected with the world around me, a part of creation, in a way that stilled the never-ending (mostly worried) voice in my head, and re-kindled a sense of joy.
I do think it's important to pray as you can, and not as you can't. I do my best praying, always, while walking. Put me in a room with a candle and tell me to sit still, and my head fires off -- yet books about prayer always tell us that it starts with sitting quietly and listening to your breath. For some people, that really is the way -- but for others it may start with reading or listening to music, with mathematics or dancing or gardening. Metropolitan Antony wrote famously about an old lady who used to 'sit and knit before God'. In my next post I'll write about jigsaws, which I think are an underrated aid to spirituality.