WHO sometimes wakes up at three or four o’clock in the morning? I often ask this question when I am leading groups. Whether there are six or 60 participants gathered, and whether for a service or a workshop, when the question is asked as many as 75 per cent of will grin ruefully and raise their hands. It seems that a significant number of people over the age of 40 have their sleep interrupted at least once a night — perhaps as many as three or four times.
What has this got to do with prayer? Surely it is a practical matter of turning over in bed, or heading for the loo, or simply wishing that sleep would return. Or might there be something of a deeper call presenting itself here? In the very interruption of our sleep, are we being “nudged” into prayer? That is a discernment for each of us to make.
We might reflect on the level of urgency here: is night prayer, invisible and often intangible, really that important? Yes, it most certainly is. A personal experience helped me to understand this. It was a heartfelt conversation over breakfast, four decades ago, with a man from mid-Wales, which proved to be the vehicle that God used to bring this “felt sense” to my attention.
I was then a novice monk in a Welsh-Russian Orthodox hermitage near Cullompton, Devon. The abbot, Fr Barnabas, had been seeking for some time to return to his original home in Wales, to witness to Orthodoxy there, and to engage in prayer and song, caring and sharing, on home turf. On an undulating landscape near Llanidloes, we had located a small house that seemed ideal for our tiny cluster of hermits. To enable me to break my journey, Fr Barnabas arranged for me to stay for a night with a friend of the monastery in mid-Wales.
After a good night’s sleep, I came down for breakfast. The householder (whose name I, sadly, have forgotten) asked me how I had slept. In turn, I asked him the same question. He answered sadly: “I had a bad night. I have many bad nights. Often I am in despair, and think of doing away with myself.” Not being sure how best to respond to this challenging news, I asked my host: “How do you get through these nights of desperation?” He answered, simply but powerfully: “Somewhere, there is a nun praying.”
It was clear that he did not know the nun, and she did not know him. The liberating thing, for him, was knowing that, somewhere in the world, there were nuns and monks praying in the small hours — and that gave him courage.
ONE challenge nowadays is that there are far fewer monks and nuns to pray at night. Monasticism is in temporary decline in the West, and we await in hope its renewal and flowering in Western and Eastern Churches alike. Meanwhile, surely, God will not leave communities and individuals without grace, succour, and support. God needs co-workers in the Kingdom to take up the mantle of prophetic prayer, contemplative intercession, and deep interiority. Contemporary Elishas are needed, in every locality, to receive the prayer mantle from everyday Elijahs.
In essence, Hidden Houses of Prayer is an invisible network of people drawn to the practice of contemplative, creative, and intercessory prayer in their own homes. People may well pray on the bus, in the local church, on a walk, or in the oversight of the grandchildren.
We may gather in groups, large and small, to sing out our faith, to practise our discipleship, and to care for others. But, in addition, there is something earthy and particular about one’s own private space, whatever its constraints. The home is the first church. This is an especially important insight when it dawns on us that we — like the first Christians in Thessalonica — are called by St Paul to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.17).
Could it be that, whereas any time of day is good to pray, night-time can present a particular quality — of restfulness or rawness, peacefulness or perturbation — all in the mystery of the risen Christ? This may be public or private prayer, offered in the privacy of one’s home; or in the chapels of convents and monasteries, during night prayers and vigils; or in parish churches.
Core to this perception of the significance of prayer at all times is the knowing, both in the heart and in loving action, that silence and solitude are precursors to service.
DOWN through the centuries, those seeking to embody more comprehensively Jesus’s way of love have yearned to make a fuller response to St Paul’s invitation. I believe that a new generation of Christ’s followers (of whatever age and background) are being prompted to open themselves to the equipping of the Spirit. God longs for people of faith, hope, and love to step forward and make a commitment to learning both ancient and new ways in which to practise prayer without ceasing — prayer at the heart of life.
It is this belief that undergirds the particular adventure and ministry of Hidden Houses of Prayer, which is awakening interest and quiet involvement in the UK, and, gradually, in different parts of the world. It seeks not only to develop the practice of unceasing prayer, but also to encourage conversation about practices of prayer, and the telling of spiritual stories woven from the fabric of everyday living.
Philip Roderick is the founder of the Quiet Garden Movement (www.quietgarden.org), Contemplative Fire (www.contemplativefire.org), and Hidden Houses of Prayer (www.hiddenhousesofprayer.wordpress.com); email firstname.lastname@example.org.