Online Guidance: What is Prayer?

I am working with the designers at AltTen Interactive to produce a new website for my church. It has been an interesting experience. Holy Cross had a decent site but it was looking dated and the lockdowns persuaded us that we needed something completely new. This in turn raised the question, what is a church website for? It is obvious that it should have up to date information on services and events, contact details and guidance on how to get to the church. As most people access information online it will also give an impression of what the congregation is like and what its values are. If it uses the phrase ‘unchanging biblical truth’ on its home page it is unlikely LGBT people will feel welcome, if it uses the word ‘inclusive’ it is likely that they will. The former phrase also suggests that this church is not one for people who love to pray with the rosary, nor for those who love the Bible. Such hints may deceive, but most of us are attuned to them whether we know it or not.

As we are building the site, it has also become clear to me that a website has a teaching function. The popularity of Wikipedia shows that we get much of our knowledge online. Recent political events in the UK and USA have shown that the information free-market of the web has given lies room to breed. This is true in the religious sphere as much as in politics. in In our society this has coincided with rapid secularisation which has resulted in a growing ignorance of Christianity. A website, like a blog, can be a place to post reliable information about Christian faith and life. Some will find it and others can be referred to it, it may help people who might otherwise turn to a wacky evangelist who has a popular YouTube channel.

Looking at our church communications in the light of our mission, we use Facebook as a very effective tool to reconnect with our local community, sharing information to community pages and publishing pictures of events to let people know what the church is up to. It is like a newsletter whereas a website is more like a notice board, more static even if it does have a calendar and news section. Websites, like blogs, are getting a little dated and Facebook is perhaps something for Grandparents, Mums & Dads, not kids, but as the ‘missing generations’ in church go back to those born after the Coronation, they both have their place. At Holy Cross people come to us because they have seen things on Facebook. A church website, though, can thus be a place to put short pieces of Christian teaching so that reliable information is shared. If this blog has had over four thousand visitors over the last two years, a website may be a fruitful noticeboard on which to post Christian teaching.

Below is the first part of the Holy Cross page on prayer. The second part contains guidance of different ways of prayer that might be helpful such as lectio divina, the rosary and the Jesus Prayer. I thought it might be useful to share it here. Since arriving there, I have discovered that Holy Cross has a remarkable tradition of prayer, shown by its connections with various Anglican religious communities, and that there are many today in the congregation who have serious lives of prayer. It thus seemed good to start with Prayer.

PRAYER


What is prayer? Why should I pray? How do I pray? This section gives some answers to these questions, but basically we should pray because to pray is to be truly human.

Why should I pray? ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you’. These words of Saint Augustine tell us that we all naturally desire God. Look into the depths of your heart and you will find that this is true. This desire is often fixed on earthly things, not God, but it is what enables us to pray. We should pray because to pray is to be truly human.

What is prayer? Prayer is talking to God; prayer is asking for things; prayer is lifting up your heart and mind to God; prayer is the sweetness of union with God.

What is the best prayer? An essential part of prayer is common worship with other Christians, what we call ‘liturgy’. The best prayer is the Eucharist, which Jesus commanded us to celebrate, where we join our prayers to those of Jesus as he offers his one sacrifice on the Cross to the Father. At the Eucharist we are helped to pray by ‘angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’. In addition to the Eucharist, Jesus taught us to pray in other ways. At different times, different ways of prayer help us.

How should I pray? Jesus said: ‘…whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret’ and ‘pray in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name; your kingdom come; your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven; give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us; do not bring us to the time of trial, but deliver us from the evil one’.

A wise old monk once said, ‘pray as you can, not as you can’t’. Our task is to find the best ways for us to pray and we can ask God to help us in this. Possible ways may include silence, talking to God, writing, making music or making things. Others are mentioned below. Each of us is unique and is loved by God just as we are. Our way of prayer will develop as our relationship with God grows and we should be attentive to this. Words often slide into silence.

Nave window at Holy Cross

To whom should I pray? We have seen the answer to this. Jesus told us to pray to God our Father in heaven, and Christian prayer is often offered to the Father through the Son or in his name (John 16.23-24). Jesus is also God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, so we can pray to him as St Stephen did at his death (Acts 7.59). Likewise the Holy Spirit is God and so we can pray to the Spirit as the Church does when it prays ‘Come, Holy Spirit’. At the Eucharist we pray to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. All Christian prayer is Trinitarian.

A Christian never prays alone, we are always surrounded by angels. We can also ask others to pray for us. From the beginning of the Church, Christians have realised that we can also ask those who are close to Jesus in heaven to pray for us, the Virgin Mary, the angels and the Saints. We don’t have to do this but, if I ask my friend to pray for me and if I take the communion of saints seriously, how much more should I ask my friends who are close to God in heaven to pray for us.

Prayer is not just something we do. We clear the ground in our heart, but prayer is really God’s work in us. We are invited to participate in this work. Saint Paul knew this as he wrote: ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words’ (Romans 8:26).

A French priest once noticed that an old man spent hours in his Church sitting before the image of Christ on the Cross. When he asked the old man what he was doing, he said ‘he looks at me and I look at him’. This is prayer.

You can pray anywhere and at any time but, as athletes and musicians need to train and practice, it is helpful to put aside time each day to be with God. As little as ten minutes might do in the beginning and the time and place must be realistic – it might be in a quiet place or it might be during a commute.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said ‘I am far too busy to pray for less than two hours a day’. This may sound unrealistic but we are commanded to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5.17) and if prayer is a heart fixed on God we can do this whatever else we are doing.

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