Angela Tilby: ‘Whatever’ and ‘Oh, well’ prayers

09 February 2018

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IN HER book of autobiographical essays, Travelling Mercies, Anne Lamott describes a friend whose morning prayer is summed up in the single word “Whatever,” and evening prayer as “Oh, well.”

I like that downbeat approach. I suspect that, for much of the time, and especially for ministers, prayer is a routine, a necessity undertaken out of faithfulness, as much for others as for oneself. It is to be valued precisely because it is not self-generated. It reminds us daily that “it is he who has made us, and not we ourselves,” and it locates our creaturely experience within a rhythm of day and night, season and year, grounding us in the prayer of the Church of all times and places.

Yet for many today, this plodding-on approach is unsatisfactory. They feel that prayer ought to be more obviously enlivening and more emotionally rewarding. The discipline and duty of Christian prayer has been challenged by the contemporary fascination with spirituality, and the habit of prayer is often seen as a channel of personal aspiration and identity.

So, although I may live in a city, and rarely venture north of Watford, I find Celtic Daily Prayer more exciting than the boring old Common Worship office; all those lovely encirclements and lights and darks. Or I am into walking the labyrinth, or meditating with stones, or bowling down to the local Charismatic church for a good sing with hands in the air instead of sticking it out where I normally go. There is nothing wrong with any of these things in themselves, but the promotion of “spirituality” in church can exacerbate a restless, fidgety, and self-centred desire for personal authenticity which simply mirrors contemporary obsessions.

There is, of course, value in experiment and exploration, but only as extensions of a well-grounded pattern rather than as a substitute for it. Ignatian prayer, for example, is immensely helpful at times of decision, or when discerning a vocation. If you are a Jesuit, it may well be the way that you pray every day.

But that, again, is to ground the practice in community and tradition, not to pick it off a shelf, like spiralised vegetables. I am not sure that prayer is really about cultivating agreeable experiences. Nor am I sure about the connection between spirituality and “wellness”. It is true, of course, that prayer has both integrative and ethical dimensions; the gradual recovery of the self that God created should be leading us into deeper self-knowledge, deeper resilience, and therefore deeper commitment to loving and serving others.

This Lent, I don’t expect to do anything very different from usual, although it would be good to do it more lovingly. But my morning prayer will still be a version of “Whatever,” and evening prayer “Oh, well”.

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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