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My good Child, know this

14 December 2012

James Steven in the third of his four-part series


Praying by heart: Terry Waite, on his release from captivity

Praying by heart: Terry Waite, on his release from captivity

AT THE east end of the church where I worship, on a panel of oak and in gold letters, stands the Lord's Prayer. It is accompanied by the Ten Commandments and the Apostles' Creed on the wall behind the communion table, as is commonplace in churches that date from the Reformation.

Churches were required by royal edict to place these three texts on the east end of the chancel, replacing crucifixes and other late-medieval ornaments. Thus positioned, they summarise for the worshipping community the faith, conduct, and prayer of the Christian profession.

These texts' being prominently visible on the wall also draws our attention to an educational strategy of the English Reformers: these texts were to be learnt by those preparing for confirmation.

Learning by heart, however, is not particularly fashionable in contemporary educational circles, and, in the matter of prayer, it can have its drawbacks. Witness the frustration when the language of a familiar prayer is changed in liturgical revision. Nor does reciting prayer necessarily mean that an individual enters into the spirit of prayer.

This is why the catechism of the Prayer Book requires confirmation candidates to explain the meaning of the Lord's Prayer after reciting it. Notwithstanding these difficulties, I believe we greatly benefit from befriending the ancient practice of learning prayer, and the Lord's Prayer is a prime example. An example from unusual circumstances got me thinking.

In his book Taken on Trust (Hodder & Stoughton, 1993), Terry Waite tells the story of his four years of solitary confinement as a prisoner of Hezbollah in Beirut. Among the many incidents that capture the reader's imagination, perhaps the account of his mock execution stands out. Blindfolded, after torture and a sustained period of interrogation, he is freed from his chains.

"You have been sentenced to death by Muslim law" are the chilling words of his interrogator. "Stand."

"I would like to say my prayers," Waite requested.

"You can do that."

Waite then says the Lord's Prayer aloud and prays silently for loved ones and his captors. He then stands, and feels cold metal against the side of his temple. There is a long pause; Arabic music plays on the radio. The gun is removed. "Not tonight - later," says his interrogator.

From the chancel wall to a prison cell in Beirut: this is prayer in extremis. Although this could hardly be said to be a situation common to us all, it does highlight the most obvious benefit of learning a prayer: it allows the Christian to pray "at all times and in all places". The learnt prayer becomes a portable prayer-stool that can be assembled at a moment's notice. It provides a form of prayer at a time when words may fail us. It is like an emergency chain that is at hand to halt a train out of control.

Learnt prayer also becomes a native language, allowing us join with others effortlessly in corporate prayer. Familiarity means that we are liberated from concerns about the technicalities of prayer (such as getting the words right), and freed for praying about the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Perhaps we can identify how we first learnt the Lord's Prayer - perhaps through repeated recitation in church or in school assembly.

The vision of our forebears is that, whatever befalls us, the Lord's Prayer is a constant companion. They might even say that Christian prayer is prayer "off the wall".

The Revd Dr James Steven is the Director of Liturgy and Worship at Sarum College.

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