Over the past couple of Sunday we have looked at two good works recommended to us at the beginning of Lent - fasting and almsgiving; while today we conclude our reflections on these by considering prayer, the third Lenten practice to help us in our preparation for Easter.
Saying in a sermon that we ought to pray may sound a bit redundant. Of course we ought to pray, and we are here every Sunday precisely to do this – to approach God through praise, intercessions for the world, and thanksgiving. But as we look at prayer today, we consider particularly “personal prayer”. So, saying that we ought to pray and that prayer is a Lenten practice means that we should use this holy season to pray more often, and to examine carefully our attitude to personal devotions.
Lent is the perfect time to ask ourselves, how do I pray? Am I consistent in “saying my prayers”? Do I make time for God in my daily routine? Asking these questions is important, and there should be no shame in doing so because even the first disciples must have felt some sort of dissatisfactions with their own prayer life, a longing for more, or they would not have said to Jesus, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ (Luke 11:1)
The main obstacle to engaging seriously with prayer is the business of our daily living – a business that is often largely dependent upon our priorities.
‘O Lord, I shall be very busy this day.
I may forget Thee, but do not Thou forget me.’
This was the famous prayer uttered by Sir Jacob Astley before engaging the enemy at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642. Jacob Astley was a man who decided to be honest with God recommending to him even those moments in which the heat of battle would distract him from his Christian duty of prayer. Yet, we could read Astley’s prayer in a very different way. ‘I shall be very busy this day. I may forget Thee…’ could look as a pre-emptive excuse for not making room for God within the business of daily leaving This is a far cry from St Paul’s advice to the early Christians to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1Thessalonians 5:16) or from the words of Psalms, ‘Seven times a day I praise you’ (119:164).
We are so busy… too busy that we don’t have time to pray, but in our business we often reassure ourselves that God is there for us come what may, that we are always in his presence, and that at the end of the day he already knows what we would want to ask. In other words, we take God for granted. However, in Luke’s gospel Jesus gives us a different perspective on this. As Jesus visits his friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus we are told that the first sister prioritises house works and daily chores over spending time with Jesus – which is the very essence of prayer – whilst the second sister does exactly the opposite, sitting perhaps somewhat lazily at the Lord’s feet. When Martha complains about her sister asking Jesus for support she receives a rather striking answer from Jesus:
‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10:41-42)
Prayer should be the sure companion to our daily living and yet routine, constant worries, and even secret enjoyment at being seen as “busy” can distract us from the thing that only really matters, which is pausing like Mary at Jesus’s feet for some time.
Without prayer our fasting and almsgiving remain soulless. Nothing is more valuable in the eyes of God than prayer connected to our good works, and by consecrating to God some of our precious time each day we would allow prayer to nurture and shape what we do with the rest of it. Jesus himself shows us this pattern of life as the gospels tell us that in the midst of his own busy ministry the Lord often took time to pray, to recollect himself in the presence of the Father.
Yes, we can turn to God at every moment. Prayer is always possible but our duty as Christians is to engage with it seriously, making room for it, and learning about it from the wealth of the Christian tradition. Form a practical point of view we could start by setting aside a few minutes each day testing out different methods of prayer for ourselves. We will always be able to build on this and extend our prayer time when we feel more confident. Lectio Divina, an ancient way of prayerfully reading the Bible could be a good practice to start off the day. We could come to church outside service times to visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. We could try more structured prayers such as saying Morning or Evening Prayer, or Compline. We could also try to pray the Rosary.
There are many ways to pray and we would do well to explore them trying to embody the words of the hymn King of Glory, King of Peace by the formidable Anglican priest and poet George Herbert saying,
Seven whole days, not one in seven,I will praise thee.
Seven whole days, not one in seven. This is our goal; and practicing prayer more conscientiously during Lent can help us to achieve it.