'One thing needful’

by
02 November 2006

Travelling round the diocese in the course of my work as a spirituality adviser, I am aware of a recurring paradox. On the one hand, I meet increasing levels of stress among the clergy and laity, whose lifestyles are so demanding that prayer tends to get squeezed out at the edges. On the other hand, the yearning for God, reflected in a restless dissatisfaction with a way of life that doesn’t satisfy, seems never to have been deeper.

What is prayer, for us? If we think of it as just another thing to be done — another item on the list — perhaps it isn’t surprising that we never find time for it. There’s always something more immediate clamouring for our attention. If we decide to put time aside for prayer, this is not always easy.

Delia Smith once wrote of making such a decision, only to find her good intentions threatened by the letter that just had to be written right now (even though she had been putting it off for weeks), and the plants that would shrivel before her eyes if they weren’t instantly watered.

If prayer is to become an effective force in our lives, two basic things need to happen. First, we need a sea change in our thinking. Our prayer may most often be expressed in terms of offering praise and thanks to God, in asking for forgiveness, and in praying for the needs of others.

These are familiar to us in the common prayer of the Church as the prayers of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. But unless all this arises out of a bedrock experience of prayer as essentially a love relationship with God — involving listening as much as, if not more than, speaking — then our prayer may never get beyond the words we speak, nor be more than mere Christian duty.

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Prayer is not so much a thing to be done as a relationship to be lived. It is through prayer that we find ourselves in that place of meeting with God which transcends the daily round and our human limitations — where we find ourselves forgiven, accepted, and loved unconditionally for the person that we are.

We love, because God first loved us: our love for him and our longing for a deeper relationship with him are a reality only because from all eternity he reaches out to us in love and tenderness. The sensual, erotic language of the Song of Songs captures the essence of the love relationship of prayer poetically.

Second, we need to take a realistic look at our lifestyle, with its demands and obligations, and then make a decision to devote some time to prayer each day. Differing circumstances as we grow through life will inevitably alter the pattern of our prayer, but the sea change we need to embrace, whatever our circumstances, is a movement from the idea of prayer as something tacked on, to prayer as the one thing we cannot do without.

John Wesley was reported as saying that he had such a busy day ahead of him that he couldn’t afford to spend less than three hours in prayer. But it isn’t the length of time that’s significant — it is its necessity. The prayer pattern of a retired person might be very different from that of a young mother or a company director, but what matters is that for each one it is "the one thing needful".

A sea change will also challenge our priorities. We may feel that even a short time is impossible — but is it? Whatever time we normally get up, could we not set the alarm clock a little earlier? Or what about the evenings — how about sacrificing some television or computer time?

We may also find we can transform dead time. One young woman I met recently said that she now prays as she waits in the traffic jams as she travels to and from work. This has transformed what used to be a time of intense frustration into a sacred "time apart", containing and hallowing all the day’s activities.

In the next three weeks, we shall explore together some of the well-trodden pathways that are available to us, ways that can help us grow deeper into the God who loves us without constraint.

The Revd Barbara Mosse is Assistant Spirituality Adviser for the diocese of Portsmouth, and the author of The Treasures of Darkness ( Canterbury Press, 2003).

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