The Discipline of Prayer

Sunday 22nd June 2003
Year B, The First Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Mark 4:36-41

When do you start to pray? Is it when a circular letter arrives saying that your routine screening has produced a slide which calls for another screening? Or do you wait until you are given a percentage chance of a serious illness? Do you pray when a child or grand child looks a bit insecure at school; or do you wait until a week before the exams? Did you pray for Brighton at the beginning of the season; or wait until they were dangling by a thread above the chasm of relegation?

In our gospel today the Apostles in their boat seemed to have been the more last minute sort of pray-ers. They had spent the day, according to Mark, listening to parables about the kingdom: they had heard about seed falling on stony ground, on shallow ground and on fertile ground; they had heard about the wonder of the mustard seed which produces a flourishing tree EVEN when the sower sleeps! After the day's work they asked Jesus what all these stories meant and he told them before going to sleep.

So there they were, heads full of news of the Kingdom, full of the explanations of Jesus about how they must behave; and there He was, asleep. Then a storm blew up over the Sea of Galilee and everything they had heard went clean out of their heads. Instead of resorting to their routine seamanship, calling, for example, on colleagues from nearby boats, or beginning to pump water out or even, in the light of the day's instruction, pausing for a moment to remember that God would be with them and that God's Son Jesus WAS with them, they had to take the final step and wake him up. Wearily, I suspect, He calmed the wind and, even more wearily, told them off for their lack of faith; and, as if that was not enough, the disciples talked among themselves afterwards, wondering what kind of person this was who had control over the weather.

St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians in the aftermath of the Resurrection, was altogether more sure of his ground. He says that we, in the knowledge of our salvation, are equipped to face anything in our lives: insult, torture and even bodily death. Well, of course, Paul is right in principle; but I dare say it was much easier to be determined and fervent when you believed that the day of judgment would happen any time now. I dare say we would be pretty fervent if we were given a window of, say, five minutes to five years for the end of the world as we know it. But we find it hard, to use a sporting term, to keep up the momentum when we see no prospect of final judgment until our rendezvous with the undertaker; and, even then, the idea of what happens to our souls after that does not have that visceral character it has in Paul's writing. We recognise the theory but fall down in the practice.

So let me, then, go back to the sporting metaphor of momentum. Whether we are planning to run a race, learn a piece of music or lose half a stone, we know that there is no point trying to make everything right at the last minute. What we require is steady application, a measured run, a period of practice, a loss of a few ounces, every day. So it is in building up our fitness through prayer, so that we are not always formulators of desperate, last minute petitions. I am sure it is slightly different for each of us but, in general, prayer is like many other aspects of life, it improves with practice and application. The disciples, I suspect, hadn't been at it all that long. They were overwhelmed by the novelty of what was happening to them. Here they were, fishermen for the most part until very recently, with an average working knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures. And then a man comes along and calls them to work with him because he says He is the Son of God.

Compared with them, we are old hands. We are deprived of the actual, physical freshness of the disciples' experience but in exchange for that we have the welcome of Baptism, the fellowship of the Eucharist, the community of our Church, the heritage of the Martyrs and Saints, the guidance of 2000 years of theology and tradition; and in order to enjoy the full fruits of these, God's gifts to us, the gifts of the Word and the Sacraments, what we are asked to do is to pray. Not just in church, not just when we or somebody we love is in a fix, but in a sustained and dedicated way; to pray as we would undertake any other task in preparation for something we really want to achieve, something that we really value.

This is not to say that as humans we will not get into a panic; of course we will. We will also lose concentration, we will be blown away from our steady course, we will be overwhelmed by events. And sometimes we will simply drift away from spiritual exercise until we find ourselves in a vacuum. We will be wrenched into attempted communion with God by a crisis or by a sudden perception of wrong or regret; we will be shaken into repentance through witnessing the fate of our fellow creatures; we will be moved to sudden fervour by fine music or words; but behind all this, beyond all this, when such episodes occur, we must exercise ourselves anew to live in harmony with the steady pulse of the heart of God. To be truly in communion we must try to match His steadiness with our steadiness.

That, I think, is the ideal for which, with God's help, we must all aim. But, of course, as I have said, there will be prayers of crisis, of intercession, when we place before God the cares and sorrows of this world and when we commend to Him the souls of those who live with us on earth and those who have died. The chief danger here is what I would call the transactional theory of prayer; if I say this number of prayers, god should reward me with this favour. Of course we know that this form of transaction is not realistic. We know that our relationship with God does not work that way. We know that we can pray intensely and in the union of millions of our fellow Christians for a certain unimpeachable outcome that does not occur. We pray in our community for a friend to recover from illness; and some recover, others do not. What we are really doing in this kind of prayer is recognising God's all powerful nature, we are humbly placing ourselves and those we care for in His hands. Of course, all things are in His hands already, and so the exercise of this kind of prayer says more about ourselves as God's creatures than it says about God. But we surely have the comfort in this, that we can trust our one and only, true, loving God to have arranged matters for the best. We in our God given human-ness are simply praying in the only way we know how, as humble supplicants relying upon God's love, his justice and his mercy.

And it is in this spirit that we return to the dilemma of the disciples on the boat while Jesus slept. They had not become accustomed to the daily discipline of fortifying prayer, they had not grasped the implication of living their daily lives in the physical presence of the son of God; it would take the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and Pentecost to put things into a truly theological perspective; and, even then, they had their lapses.

And so we, who have just come to the end of that part of the Church's year which encompasses, in the space of eight weeks, the whole salvation drama of the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension, of the bursting into life of the reality of the Holy Trinity, have the start that we need to put our prayer on a sound footing. There will be moments of individual and global crisis, there will be a proper place for intercession but, between now and the beginning of Advent, we have a long stretch of time which provides us with an even tenor of days to work towards true harmony with the steady pulse of the heart of God.

Kevin Carey

11th June 2003