Lord teach us to pray. Text: Luke 11: 1-13. The Very Revd Christine Wilson, Dean of Lincoln.
I wonder if you have a favourite prayer?
The late American literary critic George Steiner, who was a regular contributor to the Times Literary supplement and the Guardian, coined a marvelous phrase. It was in appreciation of the beautiful prayers handed down from generation to generation as part of the poetic legacy of the Christian Church.
He described how this treasury of prayers has helped nudge people into the neighbourhood of the transcendent.
What an inspiring expression that is!
Inscribed in the front of my own prayer book is the prayer of abandonment by Charles de Foucauld.
I am also a great fan of some of the prayers of the English mystics.
I love the wisdom and beauty of their language as it speaks of transcendence and intimacy with God. They often capture that sense of wrestling with the powers of darkness and the struggles of daily life as they place their trust wholly on God.
Recently people have commented on the fact that the troubled times of the fourteenth century, a time of tremendous disaster, change and unrest, speak powerfully to us in our present time.
We find ourselves living with a present day plague in the spread of Covid.
The shock invasion of Ukraine has brought us all too close to the horror and brutality of war.
This week blistering 40 degree heat brought home to us the reality of climate change.
In the fourteenth century there was a huge royal scandal which led to the peasants revolt.
In these last week’s we too have faced a different sort of revolt at the seat of our government.
When it comes to famine, we might also consider the rise of food poverty and food shortages
Back in the middle ages, despite calamity and great unrest, Julian of Norwich could write:
“all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
Walter Hilton was able to say of the dark days:
But this is a night pregnant with good, a glowing darkness… when I sit in darkness the Lord is my light.
And whilst we don’t know the author of the cloud of unknowing he is believed to have been a priest and spiritual director living in the East Midlands.
He emphasized a simple reaching out to God by means of what we might describe as arrow prayers. For example: “Help me now, for the love of Jesus”.
If you dip into the 1662 Book of Common Prayer it has a set of prayers which capture the concerns of the 17th Century. Prayers for rain, in the time of drought and famine, in circumstances of war and plague, prayers for government. Again we see the common ground of our prayers.
It seems that the difference in their spiritual understanding was that they viewed this as due to sinful wickedness and justly deserved calamity. I sometimes call it “miserable worm theology.” Whereas in the 14th century the focus was on drawing comfort and peace in their joy and intimacy with a loving and consoling God who poured out grace upon the whole earth.
I guess that is why I prefer the mystics to Cranmer!
It is not just those ancient prayers that can inspire. A more modern prayer about approaching God with hopeful expectancy is this:
As buds uncurl and flowers turn their faces to the sun, turn us to the light and warmth of your presence.
If we think about the simplicity and trust of arrow prayers, the classic book Finding Sanctuary, by Abbott Christopher, of Worth Abbey, directs the reader fairly close to the familiar words of our own liturgy at Evensong. He says that all you need to say is:
O Lord come to our aid! O God make speed to save us!
If we unpack this, we can see what makes it feel so adequate and complete. Simple and succinct. Firstly, it is a prayer that allows us to acknowledge our need of God and it over. Secondly, it confirms a trust in a God who is fully aware of our needs and concerns. As we call upon God’s attention there is a clear expectation that God will come to our aid and respond.
Well forgive me if that has been a rather lengthy preamble into our Gospel reading this morning where we hear how one of the disciples comes to Jesus with that pressing and perennial request: “Lord teach us to pray.”
There is much to learn from the practice of Jesus.
He withdrew frequently to be with God; early in the morning before sunrise, at the end of a long demanding day. He retreated for forty days and nights in the Wilderness.
He sought God at his darkest hour in the garden of Gethsemane and sent up an arrow prayer from the Cross. My God, my God why have you forsaken me?
When we look at the opening lines of the Lord’s Prayer we discover an important lesson.
Acknowledging God as a loving and holy Father full of goodness towards us, the prayer begins with the petition: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” The direction of the prayer is about attending to God, listening and seeking God’s will for the flourishing of the Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Again there is this orientation and surrender to God’s intentions; an aligning of ourselves to God’s desires and an entrusting of ourselves to God’s wise and good purposes.
We ask for daily nurture and nourishment, forgiveness, a willingness to be reconciled with others, deliverance from the powers of darkness and moments of trial.
The parable that Jesus then tells, roots all this in an understanding of God as like a father settled down in safety for the night, tucked up in bed with his children. It signals a quiet assurance of nearness and generosity. We are to be like children with a loving father who have nothing to fear.
We get this sense that it is entirely ok to be persistent, bold and courageous in our prayers to God, refusing to give up, in the certainty that God is not a tyrant and does not delight in giving us things that are bad for us. Jesus gives us the image of a loving and generous parent.
His own life of prayer invites us to unfurl like buds turning towards the warmth and joy of God’s presence. We are to approach God with confidence and expectation, seeking friendship with a God whom we can trust with every part of ourselves: every dream, every frailty, the darkness and the light within us. Praying to the God “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid”.
Jesus tells the disciple: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
As we seek to open ourselves to the loving generosity of God here is a prayer from Mother Julian of Norwich that demonstrates that holy courage and confidence with which to approach the throne of grace:
Lord Jesus it is your office to save us
It is your glory to do it
And it is your will that we know it.
May we love you sweetly
And trust in you meekly and greatly Amen.