SEVEN SPIRITUAL PRACTICES: Sabbatical Reflections
# 2: Prayer
“Set aside regular times for worship, prayer and the study of God’s ways.”
– The Catechism, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 847
“Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”
– John Chapman, Benedictine abbot
[During my sabbatical I want to reflect on seven practices for spiritual growth, common to all three Abrahamic traditions. Jews, Christians and Muslims share these ancient practices, which are the basis for Brian McLaren’s book “Finding Our Way Again.”
I am asking everyone at the church I serve (and anyone else!) to read it this summer.
I believe the seven practices found in McLaren’s book are so important, I will be blogging about them. The first was Sabbath. This entry is on Prayer.]
I remember with chagrin those times in my life when I have not been able to pray. I say “chagrin” because I consider myself to be a person of prayer, both by nature and by nurture. Nevertheless, there have been days, even seasons, when my comfortable, familiar ways to pray were simply not available to me. For example, sitting in silence is a kind of prayer I have been practicing for over two decades. But there have been mornings when, even though I lit a candle, folded my hands and closed my eyes, even though I was otherwise able to follow Jesus’ instructions for prayer (see Matthew 6:6), I could not for the life of me sit still. Not even for one minute, much less twenty. Other times, when I’ve been hurt or angry, I’ve found myself unable to pray for someone. And then there are times when God nudges me to change my prayer habits altogether.
Last week as I was driving from Maryland to Tennessee I took some time to sit down and talk with a new friend. She and I had shared a retreat during Lent, and I was eager to visit with her again. As we resumed our conversation, two things happened.
The first was a question I didn’t even know existed when I arrived. While she listened, I found myself able, first to form that question, then to speak it. “While I am on my sabbatical, a time of rest from my spiritual and other labors, how am I to pray…NOW?” I know that I will hold this question for all of this, my extended Sabbath time. I will set aside time to pray, but it will be different –
in a different rhythm, place and time.
The other thing that happened was this: my new spiritual friend invited me to “let your heart float,” to trust God more completely. Then, we fell into silence. As we sat there I began to feel lighter, resting more and more in God. I know my heart has been heavy from time to time over the past several years, so this unexpected buoying up felt like a gift. This gift was also an invitation – to let God be my spiritual lifeguard.
I hope you have or can find someone whom you consider to be what the Celtic tradition calls an anam cara, a true “soul friend.” Your anam cara can be someone with whom you can feel safe enough to reveal something of who you truly are. Someone who helps you keep your head while in conversation with your heart. Someone who dares to ask how you and God are doing these days. Someone who can pray for you when your own prayers fail or fall flat.
In Matthew’s Gospel account, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (18:20). On my journey from Maryland to Memphis I have been both blessed with many companions and welcomed into several different experiences of common prayer. There was Sunday evening worship at the ecumenical Circle of Mercy in Asheville, where dozens of folks gathered in an Episcopal church parish hall. There was Sunday morning worship at historic Calvary Church, Memphis, where my wife preached. And there was noonday worship at The Commons, home to Binghampton United Methodist Church, now also housing the Memphis School of Servant Leadership. At that noon Eucharist, there were only four of us, standing together at the table, feeding each other. What a feast of prayer and worship I have enjoyed this past week!
McLaren’s Finding Our Way Again helps us engage ancient practices of prayer being offered in fresh, new ways by faith communities around the globe.
His chapter on “Communal Practice” explains that “the way of community is about the inward journey, not the journey into me but the journey into we” (pp. 99-100). Whether we are more given to the upward journey of solitude or the outward journey of service, it is a common inward journey of prayer and worship to which God calls each one of us. Every time we gather with another companion or two or more, we become the body of Christ. And each person of prayer helps us in our relationships, with one another and with God.
My sabbatical prayers have certainly been different, and that difference both challenges and energizes me. May God help you find good companions – maybe even a soul friend! – to pray or worship with this week. – Peace, Tom