It is interesting to notice how commonly political leaders now say, in regard to the victims of something like a natural disaster, or the latest mass shooting in the United States, that ‘our prayers are with them’. I find myself wondering what this means. I do not decry the compassion and sympathy indicated by that statement, but in this increasingly secular society, one wonders what exactly people understand by that statement.
There is an important challenge here. This week, Australian theologian Val Webb made a very insightful comment on the way we can use the idea of praying as a substitute for serious action to address injustice or other social needs. Drawing upon her excellent research into and book about Florence Nightingale, Webb wrote on Facebook:
The great reformer Florence Nightingale had strong words about praying about things when action is needed. “It is a religious act to clean out a gutter and to prevent cholera,” she said, “It is not a religious act to pray (in the sense of simply asking to take cholera away)”. As for those who say God will take care of everything if it is God’s will, Florence said: “God will do no such thing … [God] does not treat [us] like children; humankind is to create humankind. We are to learn, first, what is heaven, and secondly, how to make it [here]. We are to ascertain what is right, and then how to perform it”.
This is spot on. It does not mean there is no place for prayer, but rather that genuine prayer cannot be a substitute for responsible action. Reflective practice requires both. This I think is very much in line with the teaching of Jesus. This Sunday I will be saying something along these lines too. In Matthew’s Gospel we read these words:
Matthew 6. 5 ‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7 ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
In this reading, Jesus challenges his followers to think about praying. What really does it mean to stand before God? The reality is that so much of what was happening then, and I think also is possible now, is pretence, or if you like performance.
Religion can be about performance—often a performance that helps us avoid the truth, about ourselves, and somehow we think that this can also deceive God as well. As if!
Genuine prayer has to be about honesty, truth, integrity: honesty with ourselves and with God.
Worship and prayer imply an approach to God, or if you like an acknowledgment that we are in the presence of God.
It’s a kind of orientation: working out where we are: and also what we are going to do.
I have found it very helpful to reflect upon some of the prayers left to us by ‘saints’ of earlier centuries. Our situations are in many ways very different, and yet there is a common humanity, common needs and also similar potential for compassionate response, that expresses itself in prayers—and calls forth similar and appropriate action.
Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109) was a Benedictine monk, Christian philosopher, and scholar who is recognized for many intellectual accomplishments, including his application of reason in exploring the mysteries of faith and for his definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding.”
He also worked with the idea that theology, thinking about God, must also be a form of prayer. Seeking God is really about trying to learn how to know and relate to God, and ourselves with God: in thought and deed.
Here is a translation (from Latin) of a wonderfully compassionate prayer he wrote: it simply recognizes so much of our life as humans, and a desire that we might all find some hope, some rest and relief, and I think the idea is not that God will ‘fix’ all these needs and concerns, but rather that together we will live with and through them. I like the fact that here there is no pretence about life: things are tough for many people, and Anselm does not pretend otherwise. He also implies that this is of concern to God, as it clearly is to him. His prayer, offered as a collective or communal prayer, thus calls for engagement, concern and action, wherever possible.
We bring before you, O Lord,
the troubles and perils of people and nations,
the sighing of prisoners and captives,
the sorrows of the bereaved,
the necessities of strangers,
the helplessness of the weak,
the despondency of the weary,
the failing powers of the aged.
O Lord, draw near to each,
for the sake of Christ our Lord, Amen.