I’ve mentioned Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, several times in different posts. After reading it the first couple of times in 2006, I wrote a series of reflections for a few friends of mine. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.
This book by Scot McKnight is a short one and I’ve already read it twice. It makes the millenia old tradition of set prayers, first established by Yahweh to order the time and lives of his people, accessible to the large swathes of Christians who long ago lost this aspect of our faith.
McKnight opens by noting that most Christians are not happy with their prayer lives. It’s my observation that he appears to be correct. Certainly my prayer has often been less than formative. In fact, I’ve often lacked words to pray, and through that lack and a deep desire to pray accidentally rediscovered one of the oldest Christian prayer traditions (which we’ll see later in the book). I believe I also read somewhere (don’t remember if it was in this book or not) that many pastors are less than satisfied with the quality of their own prayer life.
It’s important to understand the title and focus of the book. The sort of prayer many Christians know is that of praying alone in the church. Scot paints a picture of praying alone in the church “whenever an individual prays exactly and only what is on his or her heart.” That’s true even when the prayer is public or with a group of Christians. When it is our prayer and our thoughts alone, we are praying alone *in* the church. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, Scot notes that it is essential to healthy Christian formation and is modeled on Jesus and the Apostles. We cannot do without it. However, it is not the only sort of prayer we find modeled in Scripture and throughout the early church. It is on this latter sort, widely forgotten and ignored, that Scot focuses in this book. As the title would indicate, he calls this sort of prayer praying *with* the Church.
Praying with the Church consists of praying set prayers from Scripture and from the pens and hearts of some of our greatest writers at fixed times during the day. This creates a sacred rhythm of prayer joining with millions of Christians around the globe who pause to pray the same prayers. This is variously called liturgical prayers, fixed-hour prayers, the Divine Office, the divine hours, the hours of prayer, or the Opus Dei (“the work of God”). Whatever it is called, it is joining hands and hearts with Christians around the world as we pray together as the Church. Praying with the church requires that we order our lives around prayer rather than ordering prayer around our busy lives — something which often ends up as very little prayer indeed. As with children, the quality of time is not more important than the quantity of time. Without a regular and reliable quantity of time ordering our lives and relationship, the quality inevitably suffers. We are body, soul, and spirit. As any part of us goes, so goes the rest. I have been adding things slowly, essentially feeling my way, but I can already attest to that truth. As I have allowed even fairly simple prayers to order my life, the quality of the rest of my prayers have dramatically improved.
Ours seems to be a tradition that finds saying the prayers of another somehow dangerous. We even go to tremendous lengths and exegetical gymnastics to avoid actually saying the prayer Jesus personally designed for us to say during set prayers. I’m not really sure why this is the case, but it clearly is. We need to get over it. Whatever it is we’re trying to do in its place clearly isn’t working. I’m not even sure what, out of the practices we do encourage, is really supposed to take its place.
What about people who say fixed-hour prayers and don’t mean them? That’s an objection Scot says many raise. I don’t know that I’ve heard it myself, but my answer would be similar to his. What about them? We all have a knack for turning just about anything into meaningless acts. That doesn’t invalidate the act itself, otherwise we could find plenty of examples for anything and be left with nothing we could actually do. (I’ve heard N.T. Wright note that even if you do nothing but sit perfectly still during ‘worship’ somebody will leave the service pleased with themselves for sitting so very still.) More importantly, when teaching Jesus never seemed to use the poor practice of others to invalidate a spiritual practice or discipline, especially those like this one given us by God. I recall lots of statements that included the phrases “When you … don’t do as … but instead do …” or a form similar to that. And when it comes to prayer, we need both the set prayers with the church and our own prayers in the church. This is an instance where we definitely need both to attain any sort of sustainable balanced prayer life. At least, most of us do.
Scot then tells a story of a trip to Italy where he and Kris visited the site of St. Francis’ little ‘portiuncola’. That small, humble building is now a building within a building. Its wholly contained in the grand basilica, St. Mary of the Angels. Scot uses this image throughout the book to contrast the two sorts of prayer. At times we need to move into our portiuncola and pray in the church, but at other times (set times) we need to step out into the basilica, join hands, and pray with the church.
Prayer is both small and private and quiet and all alone (like the portiuncola), and prayer is public and verbal and with others and in the open (like the basilica). Prayer is both private and public, both personal and communal. We may seek individual prayer, but the individual needs to be encompassed by the Church in prayer. We need both the personal and the communal — both are good; both are spiritually formative.
Scot then writes that we need this second type of prayer for two reasons. First, “we pray in order to come into union with God.” Secondly, we need to pray with the Church “because we confess the communion of the saints.” Let that sink in.
And as a Church we desperately need this. We live within a fractured church and joining in prayer at set times is something we can all both agree to do and actually do. Even if we are not otherwise able to heal the many divides, surely we can at least join in prayer to our God and our Savior, praying the Psalms, the prayer Jesus gave us, and the best prayers penned through the centuries. If we can’t even do that, then we don’t believe in one holy, catholic church, whatever we might say.
Scot concludes with a little of his own story and present practice and it’s a good conclusion to the introduction.