Am reading a fantastic book for Lent by a woman who serves in ministry in the Anglican Church in their home parish in Pittsburgh, PA. She is another C.S. Lewis in her ability to take complex spiritual experiences and capture them with poignant and contemporary images. Her personal honesty and vulnerability make the work eminently readable and relatable. Tish Harrison Warren is author of Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep. It is half spiritual memoir (my favorite genre of writing at this time of my life) and half prayer manual. The structure is based on the Compline service in the Book of Common Prayer, a service the author has grown particularly drawn to and even dependent upon.
Reflections on the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) always bring me back to a time in my life when I first made said prayers (the kind you read from a book) part of my own daily devotion to God. I grew up in a low church Protestant tradition which taught that reading prayers from a book was insincere or merely going through the motions of worship without really meaning it. My first exposure to more liturgical forms of prayer came through a Lutheran private school, then a Catholic all-boys high school. Though I judged at first the speaker’s prayers to be merely rote and rehearsed, the words began to have a subliminal effect on me. Over time, the words of these said prayers found their way into my own personal prayer. And why shouldn’t they? For many of them were direct or indirect quotations of Scripture. I began to see that my own prayers could really only reach as far as my own limited experience, whereas these more ancient prayers tapped a much deeper well. I also questioned my assumption that prayers read aloud were automatically less sincere. Who am I to judge the sincerity of another person’s conversation with God, especially when it is offered corporately on behalf of God’s people gathered in worship?
By the time I started college, I was trying my own hand at prayers by the book and the first one I tried was the BCP. The prayer that meant the most to me then was the one for thanksgiving spoken after the reception of Holy Communion. Up to that point in my life, I placed such elevated importance on correct doctrine, or at least on teaching that could be defended in the Scripture. While I was busy judging everyone else’s sincerity in prayer, my own fervency was waning. In an especially dark moment of my spiritual life when our family had left yet another church, I began to doubt my salvation, my membership in Christ’s eternal body. My upbringing had taught me that assurance of salvation lie in the sincerity of asking Jesus into my heart and really meaning it… this time. But for some reason, my soul needed something more tangible… something more, well, sacramental. This prayer from the BCP returned to me my hope of salvation:
ALMIGHTY and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us who have duly received these holy mysteries with the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ; and dost assure us thereby of thy favour and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of his most precious death and passion. And we humbly beseech thee, O heavenly Father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works as thou hast prepared for us to walk in; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.Thanksgiving prayer from 1928 BCP
Clearly, lex orandi, lex credendi, or the Church believes what She prays and prays what She believes. This deep prayer began to show me the unity between doctrine and worship and solved the problem of my poor ability to muster enough sincerity to please God.
What I sensed at the time was a need to go deeper than even my current pastor or elders could go. Of course learning Scripture was one way to do this, but the deeper tradition of the Church proved also a way to overcome the prejudice and limitedness of my own perspective. As Tish Harrison Warren writes, “For much of church history, Christians understood prayer not primarily as a means of self-expression or an individual conversation with the divine, but an inherited way of approaching God, a way to wade into the ongoing stream of the church’s communion with Him.”
Now that I have become Orthodox, an even more ancient and some would argue original stream, I pray both kinds of prayer, those spontaneously from my heart in the moment and those more ancient and rehearsed prayers that the Church provides from tradition. As C.S. Lewis says, the point is in the meaning not the mode of prayer:
And this, you see, makes the choice between ready-made prayers and one’s own words rather less important for me than it is for you. For me, words are in any case secondary. They are only an anchor… They serve to canalise the worship or penitence or petition which might without them spread into wide shallow puddles.C.S. Lewis, Letters to malcolm chiefly on prayer
And now, as we approach the conclusion of Great Lent and the advent of Christ’s holy passion, death, and resurrection, may we learn the art of deep, sincere conversation with God, to Whom be glory, now and forever, Amen.