HOW does prayer make a difference? I have often wrestled with this question, especially in the face of so much violence, injustice, and falsehood in the world. We will each have our own experiences of praying, and no one can fully fathom the ways of God. Yet, I suspect, many will relate to words of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple: “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.”
We can see how prayer is likely to benefit those who pray, making us, we hope, more God-centred, thankful, generous, and self-aware. But what about intercession for a suffering world? Some would say that we are the answer to our own prayers. It is certainly no good praying fervently for the needy while failing to any take action to help them. But there is more to praying than just making us better people.
So, what is happening? We are not trying to cajole a reluctant deity to get involved in the sorrows of the world. Jesus’s parable of a persistent widow banging on the door of a grumpy judge (Luke 18.1-8) splendidly reminds us to persevere in prayer, but is surely not intended as a statement about the nature of God.
As a child, I was taken to the local eye hospital because I had what is commonly known as a “wandering eye”. The doctor asked me to look at two moving vertical lines, and tell him when the two lines became one. (Not so easy, as my lazy eye tended to veer all over the place.)
This picture of two lines coming into alignment strikes me as a good metaphor for prayer, as we seek to bring our lives and wills in line with the loving energy and direction of God in Jesus.
This chimes with Jesus’s words, “I am the true vine . . . abide in me as I abide in you . . . for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15.1a, 4a, 5b). So, when we tackle what may seem a formidable intercession list, we are not on our own. Jesus is drawing us into an intimate relationship of mutual “abiding”, enabling his life and love to flow in and through us. A similar image is that of being “attuned” to Christ: tuning the instrument of our lives to the song of his love. This is all gift and grace, and happens in spite of our unworthiness.
MANY people can testify to wonderful outcomes to their prayers. Others have prayed for relief from suffering for themselves or others with no apparent answer. Easy explanations won’t do, but we can always trust that Christ is with us, taking our prayer into his own heart of love, and sharing and bearing the pain of those for whom we pray. I like this intercession, often used by a friend: “Place our prayers where your love beckons.”
We may have encountered brave souls who say they could not have kept going without the prayers of others. We affect each other more than we perhaps realise, through our actions, attitudes, and intentions. This human co-inherence may be easier to recognise in negative contexts, where destructive energies seem to gain a momentum of their own. Gossip, suspicion, and hidden power-agendas from a few people can poison an entire workplace, while cruel political ideologies, such as Naziism, can take hold of whole communities.
Crucially, the opposite is also true. Through our human interconnectedness, every loving action and attitude releases a positive energy into the world. And, whenever our good intentions become prayer, even our most distracted intercessions will be taken up into Christ’s healing, redeeming work in the world.
Prayer is not just something we do; it is also what God is doing, as St Paul intimates: “We do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8.26).
The more we seek to align our wills with God’s will, weeding out blockages such as self-pity, excessive attachments, and resentment, the more space is cleared for us to be channels of Christ’s Spirit, in the kind of flowing movement suggested by the beautiful, interweaving lines in illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.
AS WE grow older, we may start thinking, “All I can do now is pray,” as if this were a measly last resort. Yet, as our physical capacities diminish, and we become less busy and active, new depths of praying can open up. I am inspired by a Poor Clare Sister near us. The more elderly and stiff her frame becomes, the more her eyes sparkle with love and humour — sure signs of a soul ever-increasingly soaked in prayer into eternity.
I see answers to prayer in the amazing courage of those who clear minefields, in the dedication of search-and-rescue teams toiling in the rubble, in the commitment of medics hanging on in war-torn hospitals with scant resources, and so many more.
Whether recognised or not, the Spirit of Christ is alive and at large in the world. And, every time we tune in to his self-emptying love, we are contributing to the corporate wisdom, truth, and generosity so desperately needed on this planet; so it’s over to us.
Angela Ashwin is a speaker and writer on the spiritual life, a Lay Canon of Newcastle Cathedral, and a Reader in the diocese of Southwell & Nottingham.
FOUR hundred years ago, George Herbert wrote a poem about prayer, without explaining what prayer was. But in two words he hinted at what can happen when we pray.
Every now and again.
For a fraction of a second we luck out on an “aha!” moment.
Even if it remains something we can’t explain.
Most faiths involve prayer and, while some, like Buddhism, don’t rely on a god, the discipline of “mindfulness” offers its own form of “prayer”. Prayer is tuning in.
Opening ourselves to hearing “the tune which all things hear”, to use another of Herbert’s hints. It’s about joining a conversation with whatever or whoever may be within, behind, or beyond it all.
It’s about another way of being. Herbert calls it: “The soul in paraphrase”.
You can kneel, sit in the lotus position, prostrate yourself, go for a stroll.
You can breathe, chant, mutter, shout, say nothing.
You can flatter, beg, reason, provide a shopping list, empty yourself.
You can use a prayer book, repeat a mantra, make it up as you go along, live it out.
You can write to God, speak to the trees, petition the dead, talk to yourself.
You can pray deliberately, or allow it to happen.
You can be by yourself, or with others.
It doesn’t matter how you pray, says novelist Anne Lamott, “with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing”. “Churches are good for prayer,” she says, “but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors.”
Prayer is not about cause and effect. Or at least not in any way that anyone has ever convincingly explained. It may be about longing or listening. It may be about dreaming or grieving. It may be about changing the world, but it is always about changing ourselves.
There is only one rule, says the poet Ann Lewin. The rule of waiting. Imagine you want to see a kingfisher. Put yourself where he is likely to be and . . . wait. Maybe, just when you’re about to give up, there it is: “. . . a flash of brightness Gives encouragement.”
This is an extract from Hold On, Let Go: How to find your life by Malcolm Doney and Martin Wroe, published this month by Wild Goose Publications at £10.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9.90, from the end of August); 978-1-80432-304-5.