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‘Prayer without ceasing’ is not just hyperbole

21 November 2014

David Bryant suggests an outlook on life that not only brings prayer alive, but makes it seem much less daunting

THE 33 secondary-school pupils looked glum and rebellious. Religious Education was not their favourite lesson. Most considered it to be a waste of time. It looked as if I was heading for a tough 40 minutes. I injected fire into the classroom by posing a deliberately provocative question: "What word comes into your mind when I say 'prayer?'" It elicited a deadpan response from the sour-looking girl in the back row. "Boring, Sir." Her neighbour, a tough reject from a Wembley school, was blunter. "Rubbish."

I knew precisely where they were coming from. Their skeletal conception of prayer was a repetition of archaic, totally incomprehensible language, addressed to a stained-glass God wearing white robes, bearded, with a harsh, judgemental demeanour. Many of these teenagers came from troubled, uncaring backgrounds, and had been raised in godless, secular, and materialistic environments. Few had entered a place of worship.

The New Testament was a closed book, and the theological language of prayer would have been meaningless to them. Silence, contemplation, intercession, forgiveness, meditation, and liturgy lay beyond their understanding.

Nor, I guess, was it just a classroom problem. Feedback led me to conclude that their parents were equally baffled or uninterested. It was not that there was a dislocation between the sacred and secular in their lives: it was starker than that. The sacred simply did not impact on their Sitz im Leben (situation in life).

Further questioning unearthed a possible exception to this. One or two had asked the Almighty to come to the rescue by helping with exams, or turning up winning football coupons. This was on a par with Ernest Hemingway's soldier in A Farewell to Arms. He lay in the bombarded trench, pleading: "'If only you'll keep me from getting killed, I'll tell everyone in the world that you are the only thing that matters. . .'" But "he didn't tell the girl he went upstairs with at the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody." As with the youngsters, it was more a case of self-interest than prayer.

ALL this could be viewed as a final debunking of prayer, a relegation of it to the dust of the past. That is a premature assumption, too drastic.

There is a way out of the impasse. Prayer can be viewed as a continuous existential dialogue with the world that confronts us, an inter-communication with what lies four-square before our eyes. It can be internal or spoken.

Draw back the curtains in the morning, exclaim "What an incredible sunrise!" and you are responding to the wonder of creation. Stand in the supermarket queue observing the meagre purchases of a weighed-down, financially insolvent mother of three, and you find your thoughts sliding into the realm of compassion. Make a slice of breakfast toast, waken to an awareness of the blessing of food in a hungry world, and you are enfolding the human race in caring.

The words "Are you feeling better?" said to a friend experiencing a rough time are an outpouring of concern for humanity. "I love you," spoken to a partner, is a reflection of the sparks of divine fire which float about in creation.

That is all very well, but not all dialogue and thought is positive. Sometimes, our responses are less than admirable, and our relationship with the world is angry, resentful - even cruel. On the face of it, this is destructive and profoundly damaging. But flip the coin, and redemption becomes possible. Shame, remorse, and a desire to reshape our future conduct may follow. To put it simply: we can learn from our mistakes, and rebuild out of our failings.

All this throws a different slant on life for what appear to be trivial thoughts: insignificant snippets of conversation and unfortunate expressions of dissatisfaction have been reappraised and given a deeper meaning.

ADD a divine element to the equation, and something surprising comes about. Our casual interactions with the world become God-infused and enormously enriched. In short, all our perceptions, considerations, words, and dialogue have become prayer. Turn to the John 17, the prayer of Jesus before the betrayal, and you can see this process in action. His intense, agonised outpouring is a continuous flow of thought, irradiated by the presence of God.

This is not as revolutionary as it might seem. Stream-of-consciousness authors have done it before. In the novels of writers such as Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, the characters develop and burgeon through an ongoing soliloquy with all that life throws at them. Every thought and word becomes deeply significant. Is this just verbiage, or does it work?

I decided to test it out in a small way on my class of recalcitrant, ennui-filled teenagers. I told them the true story of a four-year-old Italian child who fell down a well in a remote village, and I piled on the emotions as thick as syrup.

The entire village gathered round the shaft, horrified, and a courageous man offered to be lowered head first down the well. He was able to reach the small, outstretched fingers, which grasped in desperation. But he could not pull her free. Time and again he tried. She weakened, whimpered, and finally went to her maker in fear and darkness.

The classroom went uncannily silent. I asked if anybody had a comment. Up went the hands. "Felt sorry for her mum and dad." "Wicked being stuck like that." "Gutted me." On and on went the pained responses. There had been a breakthrough. For a moment they had sensed the pain, loss, and love lying at the heart of the universe. Their sensitivities had been awakened. So I came out with the punch line: "In that case, you were all praying." For the first time, they sat bolt upright, listening.

If we put God at the heart of the entire thrust of our life, with all its thoughts, actions, and conversations, something radical and startling occurs. To our amazement, we will find we are doing that apparently impossible and seemingly outrageous task enjoined on us by St Paul. We will be praying at all times without ceasing.

The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest, living in Yorkshire.

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