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Prayer for the week

20 December 2013

Ann Conway-Jones reflects on a prayer of calm and confident expectation


For the darkness of waiting
of not knowing what is to come
of staying ready and quiet and attentive,
we praise you, O God:

for the darkness and the light
are both alike to you.

For the darkness of choosing
when you give us the moment
to speak, and act, and change,
and we cannot know what we have set  in motion,
but we still have to take the risk,
we praise you, O God:

for the darkness and the light
are both alike to you.

Janet Morley, from All Desires Known  (SPCK, 1992)


IN THESE days of email and mobile phones, waiting might seem like a dying art. No longer do we stand at the ticket barrier and wonder why the person we arranged to meet is not on the train. No longer do friends abroad write letters that take weeks to arrive.

Despite instant communication, however, there is no escaping waiting altogether: it is an inevitable part of human life. The most obvious example is pregnancy: there are no instant babies. Mary, like other mothers, had to wait nine months for the new life inside her to develop into a fully fledged human being.

We might also think of crops ripening, or of wounds taking time to heal. And there is no instant answer to the question: "What am I to do with my life?" It is a matter of trying things out, taking risks, pushing at doors, and seeing which ones open.,

I wrote last week about the desperation expressed in a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins (Faith, 13 December). In this week's prayer, with its refrain inspired by Psalm 139.12 - "for the darkness and the light are both alike to you" - Janet Morley captures a different kind of waiting: the quiet confidence that this present time of darkness and confusion will be fruitful; that new life will emerge from the uncer- tainty.

This is waiting as surrender, when there is nothing left to do or say. It is the calm before the storm; the moment of quiet before the party, when everything is ready, but the guests are yet to arrive. The prayer was written in 1985, and used in the Liturgy of Hope celebrated in Canterbury Cathedral on 18 April 1986, in the run-up to women's being ordained as deacons.

The Deacons (Ordination of Women) Measure gained the Royal Assent in November 1986, and the first ordinations took place in 1987. So the prayer grew out of the long years of campaigning for women's vocations to be recognised, and the joyful expectation that change was finally on the horizon. But its rich imagery is relevant to all sorts of situations.

Two verses are printed here. The other three talk of "the darkness of staying silent", "the darkness of hoping", and "the darkness of loving in which it is safe . . . to let go of our self-protection and to stop holding back our desire".

The common theme is that lack of certainty and control opens up a space for new possibilities. Just as too much light can dazzle, so too much information can overwhelm insight. Darkness forces us to feel our way slowly, to attend to the immediate, to take one step at a time.

It is often in the humility of not knowing that God's presence is felt, or God's call is heard. We might recall Elijah's hearing the still small voice, or Moses's ascending into the darkness of Mount Sinai; and, above all, Mary's leap into the unknown: saying yes to the angel with little idea of the consequences.

So take a little time between baking mince pies, putting up the decorations, and wrapping presents to say this prayer, and to give thanks for the fertility of waiting.

Dr Ann Conway-Jones is a freelance writer, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham.

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