Every time I start to write about prayer, I stop praying.
And then I have to stop writing. It’s happened at least three times now.
I guess it’s a bit like how, the moment you think you’ve cracked humility, you get proud of yourself for being so humble and you have to start again. Each time I get to a point where I’m discovering deeper depths to prayer and drinking in all I can from close moments with God and I really want to share some aspect of it – that’s when I get self-conscious. And the consciousness makes me proud. And before I know it, the time I did spend reflecting on God has become time reflecting on myself and how I will share my wisdom with the world. And then there’s no wisdom to share.
Prayer must be a bit like a frog, I suppose. When you dissect it, you kill it.
So I can’t write about prayer, because every time I try, I stop praying. But today, I’ve caught myself off-guard and I’m hoping I’ll finish writing this before the cycle kicks in, because there is one thing I really want to share – not my own wisdom, just something I was shown, that’s changed how I engage with church.
If you go to church a lot, you’ll probably recognise the whole range of different attitudes we can walk into services with. And since I’m now in church for at least two services, sometimes more, a day – I’m experiencing the whole spectrum of attitudes at a dizzying rate.
Sometimes it’s carefree – I’m happy to be in church because there’s little else worrying my mind so I may as well be here.
Sometimes it’s expectant – I come knowing that I need to connect with God, and trusting that he is ready to speak if I’m ready to listen.
Sometimes it’s full of praise – for what’s happened in the day, for excitements to come, for beauty and fun and satisfaction.
But perhaps just as often, I come with cynicism – reluctant to engage with the same old rituals when they don’t seem to change anything, and it’s probably all just an excuse for people to ponce about in silly outfits.
Other times, I come in body only – mind left behind in the stress of the day and the fear of the future.
Sometimes I come in a rush, having forgotten until two minutes before leaving that I was supposed to write intercessions. Sometimes I come grumpy at God, or grumpy at the world, or just grumpy at myself.
And then half an hour, three Psalms, two readings, a responsory and some canticles later, I leave, wondering again what the point of all that was.
So I’ve been trying something that I learned back with the Community of St Anselm, something so simple I had no idea what a difference it could make. I’ve been trying out having periods of silence before I go to Church.
On our week-long retreats last year, we’d have one night designated as a night for reconciliation. There was space for reconciliation with God, expressed through confession, through writing, through lighting candles and quiet adoration at the foot of the cross. And there was space for reconciliation with one another, through honest conversations, apologies, hugs and sometimes tears. In other words, big stuff happened on those nights.
And so to prepare for them, we’d have a few hours of silence first. It was more than just stopping speaking. An atmosphere of prayerfulness would descend, and each person would prepare themselves for what was to come. We’d have a very simple supper of soup and bread, and some would choose to fast. We’d return to our own rooms, quieten ourselves and ask God to show us what needed doing that night. And when we came together to worship, there was a palpable sense of expectancy. By the end of the night, there was rejoicing at all God had done.
It’s a bit different here, not least because outside of that intense community, there’s no exactly equivalent times to prepare for. But there are some services, such as healing services, that I want to come at with that same attitude – quiet, prepared, expectant. So I’ve tried, a few times now, that same sort of ritual. If there’s anyone else home, I let them know I’ll be keeping silence. I switch off my phone, and avoid social media. I eat a more simple supper than usual. I spend some time in prayer. I walk to the service, rather than driving, using the physical activity as a way in to reflect on the journey towards meeting with God.
And it’s not a perfect antidote to my grumpiness and cynicism. It doesn’t always happen – I forget to leave enough time to prepare, or I can’t persuade myself that a simple evening is more worthwhile than lounging in front of the Big Bang Theory with a glass of wine. But I have found God to be gracious with my few attempts at quietening myself, and that he has honoured my silence by coming tangibly close, whispering clearly enough for even me to hear, and leaving me tingling like he’s passed an electric current across my skin. It’s addictive, and it makes me ever more sure that the life I’m designed to live is a life of prayer.
So next time you find me moaning like a broken record, or sitting sulkily in the back pew, you might like to gently remind me to shhh – that Church is much better when I’m prepared to listen to God.