An article by Trevor Miller
One foundational aspect of prayer taught by the Church Fathers is so basic that it can easily become a case of ‘familiarity breeding contempt’. It is this: in seeking to understand prayer the spiritual masters were more interested in the state of the heart before God rather than the techniques used and so would summarise it something like this: By far the most important thing for us, if we want to pray, is to seriously undertake to become the kind of people who can pray, who have room in their lives for a God to whom they can pray; then “pray as you can, not as you can’t.”
This well used maxim from the ‘Spiritual letters of Dom John Chapman’ is a great example of the kind of authentic prayer expression encouraged in the Northumbria Community. Henri Nouwen in his L’Arche journal ‘The Road to Daybreak’ gives a really helpful example of this by quoting a summarised version of ‘The Three Hermits’ story written by Leo Tolstoy in the 19th century, that for me gets to the very heart of prayer.
“Three Russian monks lived on a faraway island. Nobody ever went there, but one day their bishop decided to make a pastoral visit. When he arrived, he discovered that the monks didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer. So he spent all his time and energy teaching them the “Our Father” and then left, satisfied with his pastoral work. But when his ship had left the island and was back in the open sea, he suddenly noticed the three hermits walking on the water – in fact, they were running after the ship! When they reached it, they cried, “Dear Father, we have forgotten the prayer you taught us.” The bishop overwhelmed by what he was seeing and hearing, said, “But, dear brothers, how then do you pray?” They answered, “Well, we just say, ‘Dear God, there are three of us and there are three of you, have mercy on us!'” The bishop, awestruck by their sanctity and simplicity, said, “Go back to your land and be at peace.”
In other words, “There’s a difference between learning prayers and prayerfulness.” That Christlikeness and spiritual growth does not depend on our ability to learn and recite facts, even facts about God and prayer. In Tolstoy’s story, it is the monks who live and pray from the heart, and the bishop who recognises their sanctity and prayerfulness, despite their ignorance of the Lord’s Prayer. Speaking metaphorically, why be concerned about not being able to remember much, if you can walk on water!
This story is a great summary of what our Community is all about in encouraging its own prayer life and ministry. Authenticity – which, as well as the ‘pray as you can not as you can’t’ wisdom of Dom John Chapman, is the ‘what you have to be is what you are’ of Thomas Merton; the ‘finding the heart’s true home’ of Richard Foster; the ‘inner heart’ of Catherine Doherty’s Poustinia. Over time our individual daily use of specific prayers like the Lord’s Prayer and the Jesus prayer become prayerfulness, making us more aware of God around us and within us. This awareness makes possible the apostle Paul’s call to “pray without ceasing”.
Prayer as a living relationship with God is at the heart of the Northumbria Community. Our Rule of life and daily Office are the skeleton that makes the living relationship able to live, move and have it’s being. For us, prayer is life, life is prayer and this is why (early in 2002) we made some minor revisions to our Rule of life. One important modification was to acknowledge many forms of prayer as equally valid. Under Availability to God and Others, we changed the one-word title of ‘Intercession’ to ‘Praying and Interceding’ to better represent this understanding. We realised that not all are called to be intercessors but all are called to pray. Further that the significant quote from the Monk of Patmos ‘Those who lean on Jesus’ breast feel the heart-beat of God’ was more about contemplative prayer than intercession.
Though prayer may take as many forms as there are pray-ers, as a Community we have tended to emphasise three types of prayer expression.
a) Liturgical Prayer – the daily use of the Divine Office (Celtic Daily Prayer). This is how our Rule puts it, “A daily discipline of prayer is important. It is often inconvenient and may be dry, but gives stability to our life, making prayer its foundation, and allowing God to teach us inwardly. The Office is there to serve us in this capacity, and it is recommended that Companions in Community use this as an expression of our common life in God.”
b) Intercessory Prayer – In our Community there are some who meet regularly to share Principles of Intercession taken from Joy Dawson’s YWAM book – ‘Intercession, Thrilling and Fulfilling’, and in so doing continue a practice used since the earliest days of Northumbria Community with its emphasis on intercession as prophetic listening and healing prayer.
However, for most of us it is simply praying for others whose lives we touch day by day and doing so in very ordinary ways. For example at the Nether Springs we use the Prayer net for specific intercessions, the prayer basket with names of Companions and Friends drawn out for silent prayer twice each day, along with relevant written prayer requests. We also have the informative Prayer Guide to help us. You may have similar helps to prayer and intercession where you live.
c) Contemplative Prayer – This is being ‘unbusy’ with God instead of being busy with other things. It is learning to relax into not having to do anything useful or productive when centred in the presence of God. It reminds me of a much-quoted sentence from Thomas Merton in the early formation of our Community, that is, “The monk is not defined by his task, his usefulness. In a certain sense he is supposed to be ‘useless’ because his mission is not to do this or that job but to be a man of God”.
Of course, this sense of ‘intentional uselessness’ had to be lived in creative tension with the real world. In the every day of our lives there are endless opportunities to pack our minds and hearts with countless things to do, to look at, listen to, read about; numerous people to visit, email, talk to, and worry about. With all of this going on around us and within us, a life without a quiet centre easily becomes delusional.
If the world around us is asserting that “if you are not making good use of your time, you are useless” then we need to remind ourselves that Jesus urges us to “come and spend some useless time with me; come and waste time with God.’ This is the practice of contemplative prayer, the prayer of quiet.
We live in mystery. Each of us experiences a reality that others can’t see. We mustn’t presume to know too much. What we do know is that there are different experiences of prayer. They are as unique as the individuals who live them, and it follows that if prayer is to nourish and sustain us, it cannot be imposed. Rather, prayer has to be desired, longed for and then, experienced. It is both a gift, and a lifelong adventure, requiring quality time, humility, and perseverance – like any loving relationship.
We also know that God’s nature is love. He does not love us any more when we do everything right and he does not love us any less when we do everything wrong. He just loves us; that’s who he is. Prayer is keeping company with the God who loves us.