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Prayer for the week

19 September 2014

Christopher Collingwood on living in the constant awareness of God's presence


O Lord! thou knowest how busy I must be this day: if I forget thee, do not thou forget me.

Baron Astley of Reading

I HAVE known this prayer for a long time, ever since the day one of my teachers delivered it to me before an exam. I can remember being touched by this gesture. By reminding me of the reality of God, he was effectively saying to me, amid all my inevitable nerves and anxieties: "I know this exam is important to both of us, but don't worry: trust. Whatever happens, there's a larger perspective than how you fare in this exam."

This prayer, then, was a great comfort: even if I forgot God, God would not forget me; everything is enfolded in God's grace and love.

Jacob Astley was caught up in the traumatic events of the two English Civil Wars (1642-51). A Royalist, he was the King's Major-General of the Infantry. He uttered this prayer in the presence of all his troops, just before the Battle of Edgehill on 23 October 1642.

It is an extraordinarily realistic and human prayer. Most of us will know what it is like to become caught up in our busyness, and then to be brought up short by the realisation that we have lost all sense of proportion. We become irritable and self-obsessed; we lose sight of God.

If we are fortunate, something happens to bring us back to reality. We find ourselves pausing, remembering God. As a result, new life is breathed into us, and we recover God, ourselves, and others.

The most important question, perhaps, is how we can live in the constant awareness of God's presence. Those who say the Jesus Prayer - or who use another word, mantra, or phrase - will know that the repetition of such a prayer can eventually take root in their depths, such that it begins to recite itself, almost without conscious effort. Perhaps this is what St Paul means when he enjoins us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5.17).

There may be something even deeper than this, however. In his book Love's Endeavour, Love's Expense (DLT, 1977), William Vanstone tells of an occasion when a medical student observed a brain operation. The slightest error would have had fatal consequences. Such was the concentration required of the surgeon that, after seven hours, a nurse had to lead him out of the theatre like a child or someone blinded.

Vanstone's point is that such self-giving is the very likeness of God. The paradox is that, had that surgeon lost concentration by thinking about God, it could have been the very thing to cause a fatal error. What was required of him was to be utterly focused on the task in hand, and thereby forgetful of self.

This was the surgeon's prayer, whether he knew it or not. He was not simply remembering God: by forgetting himself, he was being God in action in him.

St John of the Cross (1542-91) explains this by suggesting that our relationship to God is analogous to that of a window to the sun. The purpose of a window is to let light in; indeed, to be transformed into light itself. If the window is dirty, the light is less able to shine.

So it is with us: we are to become so transparent to God that what is visible is not so much us, but God in us. Our self-preoccupation is like the dirt on a window: it blocks the light. When we let go of ourselves, the light of God naturally illuminates all that we are and do; we become God's action in us.

The ultimate fruit of our prayer that God should remember us, even if we forget God, is that by being empty of self, we wake up to the fact that God is always already present. Our remembrance of God becomes a habitual state, beyond words, as natural as our breathing, and without thought. Prayer is then God's action in us.

The Revd Dr Christopher Collingwood is Canon Chancellor of York Minster.

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