These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. 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 is the concluding chapter of the book and in it Scot ties the threads of the book together. He begins by reminding us of the two kinds of prayer: “personal, privation devotion — praying in the church; and public, communal worship — praying with the church.” The focus of this book has been the latter. So how do we, as individuals in our own contexts, adopt this practice? Scot offers some suggestions.
First, we need to have realistic expectations. It’s unlikely that any of us can thoroughly revamp the order of our lives instantly and dive into an observance of all the offices of the Liturgy of the Hours on day one. If you have a personality at all like mine, it can certainly be a temptation to try. I took his warning here to heart. It spoke right to me. That’s why I’ve moved slowly and thoroughly examined each practice I have adopted or modified. And I’m in no rush to add more. First I feel a need to allow the ones I have so far attempted to speak into and reshape my life to the extent they will. And then move to the next. The goal, after all, is not to achieve some herculean pinnacle of effort, but rather to change ourselves into people of prayer, which I take to mean people shaped and ordered by the rhythms of the sacred.
However, this is balanced by its counterpoint. We have to try. If we attempt nothing, we will not progress at all. Whatever approach we choose, we must try something or we will stay where we are today. I suppose if you’re completely satisfied with your present prayer life, that would be OK. I guess. I do wonder, though, if Jesus would expect us to follow him in some sort of sacred rhythm of prayer as well as our own private prayers of intercession, devotion, and simple relationship. This is, after all, the way he lived and the way he taught. Who understands us better? It’s the same sort of reaction I have to those who speak dismissively or negatively about liturgy. The only example we have in scripture of an order of worship given directly by God is deeply liturgical and symbolic. Might that be because God knows us better than we know ourselves? And in truth, every worship I’ve seen falls into liturgical patterns even if the word is avoided. How much uproar was there in our church when we moved the offering to the end of the service? That was a change in our liturgy. I think we are too dismissive of these sort of things. And we are dismissive because our view of the nature of people is not correct. But that could be just me.
Scot’s third point is that we must have space for silence. While the prayers can be said anywhere, we should establish a place that can become our sacred space of solitude and silence and prayer. I’m reminded here of the Celtic Christian tradition of “thin places” where the veil between heaven and earth is worn thin. By returning to a single place, it becomes a place where the presence of the invisible and spiritual can be sensed. As in Psalm 131, it becomes a place where we can truly quiet our soul. And we must become quiet. For prayer is not just about speaking. It is about being open and sensitive to God as well.
For his fourth point, Scot recommends variety and flexibility. I tend to think is a concession to the sort of people we have been shaped to be by our present American culture. However, it’s a concession that in no way bothers me. Sometimes we just have to recognize who we are, and most of us are people who will turn from a discipline of prayer and damage our prayer lives if we find it dull and inflexible. I strove to follow the “Baptist” ideal of quiet time and prayer for several years. (I tend not to expect instant results, so give such things time.) And it started fine, but fairly quickly became oppressive in its strictures and stayed that way however I tried to vary it. Such has not happened at all with those disciplines I have so far adopted in this tradition, even though on the surface they might appear dull and repetitious. Instead they are shaping my life in ways that was not true of the more intellectual and less ordered Baptist discipline. Perhaps this is a distinction between those still shaped by the Enlightenment forces of the last couple of hundred of years and those of us less shaped by them? I don’t know, but I do think it’s possible.
I like Scot’s rule: “Avoid making rules about prayer.”
His fifth observation is that we need depth and breadth. Take a deep bath in a prayer book or a specific tradition. Give it three months to a year. This one is second nature to me. I forgot it was even in here. Further, I thirst for breadth of understanding. Scot points out what I have found to be true. No practice or discipline yields instant results. But over the course of months or years an effective discipline will anchor itself in the very fabric of our being.
The sixth observation is that we need to know what to say first, words of adoration and dedication. And that is how all the prayer books open each time of prayer.
Seventh, we need to use the Psalter. Of course, all prayer books use it, so if we use a prayer book, we will use the Psalter. Even without a specific prayer book, we must bathe ourselves in the Psalms. Billy Graham did, reading all the Psalms every month. And if we don’t read all the offices of the prayer book, we may want to add to what we do incorporate the rest of the Psalms.
Eighth, we need to recite the Lord’s Prayer and the Jesus Creed every day. This is also a great place to begin. Other than the Jesus Prayer, this is the part I have already begun. It’s not enough to have their words stored in our memory. We need to say them out loud to make them a part of our being, part of who we are.
Ninth, we need hymns and readings. The Church has loved to sing and the Church has produced great writings through the ages, wisdom from which we can benefit. Both practices are important to maintain.
And so Scot closes with an invitation for us all to join with the Church in the basilica in prayer, adoration, and reverence of our Lord.