29 October 2008

Helping others to pray

An icon of the Pharisee and the Publican ... standing beside others in prayer should mean helping them in prayer

Patrick Comerford


Prayer is both an individual and a collective action. And even when we pray individually, we pray for ourselves and we pray on behalf of others.

One of the most public ways people pray for others is during the intercessions in Church. And one of the first areas in which those who are new to ordained ministry are asked to help others to pray is in the preparation of the intercessions.

The word intercede literally means to go between, to be one who stands between the people and God, to be one who stands in the breach.

This is the role of the intercessor, for example, that was explained to Ezekiel: “And I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one” (Ezekiel 22: 30).

Interceding is more about where we stand, and being willing to stand there, than about what we say. And those intercessors who stand in the breach, between God and us, need others to stand beside them and to help them in their intercessions.

The prayers of others

We are all familiar with the story of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18: 10-14). In that parable, both characters pray for themselves, and both bare themselves before God.

The Pharisee gives thanks to God. He prays. In fact, by all the current standards of and means of measuring Jewish piety, he is a good man. Look at what he tells God and us about himself. First of all he thanks God that he is not like other people. The Morning Prayer for Orthodox Jewish men, to this day, includes a prayer with these words: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a gentile, … a slave, …a woman.”

Thanking God that I am not like others is not an expression of disdain for others; it is merely another, humble way of thanking God for being made the way we are, in God’s image and likeness. The Pharisee’s prayer is not unusual. He goes on to tell God that he obeys the commandments, he prays, he fasts and he tithes – in fact, he tithes more than he has too, and, perhaps even fasts more than he has too. He is a charitable, kind and faithful man.

The Pharisee in this parable does not pray for the needs of others, in so far as we are allowed to or can hear his prayers. But then, neither does the publican. So neither man is condemned for not being heard to pray for the needs of the other. What marks the prayers of the Pharisee out from the prayers of the publican is that, in his prayers, the Pharisee expresses his disdain for the needs of others.

What is prayer?

In prayer, we should be mindful of the needs of others, and for those of us in ordained ministry we should be willing to – we are expected to – help and teach others to pray. But what is prayer? What are we expected to do when it comes to helping others to pray?

The Eastern Fathers of the Church insist that prayer is primarily the action of God.

Prayer can be described as conversation with God, allowing the Word to penetrate mind and heart. As the Carmelite Rule says, prayer can be described as “meditating on the law of the Lord, day and night.”

Rosalind Brown describes prayer as “the intimacy of our life with God. Prayer is being lost in wonder, love and praise.”

Prayer is not a shopping list that we tick off, and then use to tick off God when our shopping trolley hasn’t been filled.

The Lord’s Prayer is the Model Prayer. It teaches us that prayer:

● Must be addressed to God as our Father.
● Must ask for his will.
● Must pray for his Kingdom.
● Must include for daily needs.
● Must seek forgiveness.
● Must pray for God’s guidance and leading.
● Must ask for deliverance from evil.
● But must also assure us that God hears and answers our prayers.

Biblical foundations for teaching others to pray

John the Baptist knew the advantage of being a prayerful servant of God and also taught his disciples to pray.

Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, by word and by example. When they ask how to pray, he teaches them the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13; Luke 11: 1-5). But he also gives example of prayer in parables – the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee in the Temple.

So, he teaches them to pray by taking as examples how others pray, and he also teaches them directly by giving them an example of model prayer.

The early disciples of Jesus realised the value of prayers, and so were willing to be taught how to pray. Praying together has been a hallmark of Christian life since the beginnings of the church, as the opening reports from the Acts of the Apostles make clear.

The Apostle Paul encourages us to “pray without ceasing.” But how can we encourage others to do this unless we first teach them to pray?

Developing our own prayer lives

Praying must not be a neglected activity and a forgotten part of our life. The person who wants to learn how to pray is a person who wants to get closer to God. Without praying, how can I establish a deeper communion with God?

If we are going to help others to pray, then we must first develop our own prayer life and to watch, tender and nurture it carefully.

The first step involves fixing a pattern for prayer. Some helpful hints in setting out to fix a pattern of regular prayer should include:

● Using the office (Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer each day, or one of the shorter forms available in either the Book of Common Prayer, pp 136-138, or in Celebrating Common Prayer).
● Valuing silence: if I talk regularly to God, then I should be prepared to give God space to talk to me too.
● Being regular at the Eucharist, a sacrament that is both reconciling and nurturing.
● Praying as you read Scripture, and not just studying it.

Think simply: if you try to pack too many ideas into your prayers, you fall into the danger of thinking more about your thoughts than your prayers, and thinking more about the way you are praying than the God you are praying to.

Create a place you know you can pray in. This could be your room. It could be in your car. It could be in the chapel. Or you could create the space for prayer anywhere simply by creating the atmosphere for prayer. This can be done by attending to the appropriate background sound, by listening to music you associate with prayer. This could be on your walkman or iPod, but you need to know you are doing this to create the appropriate atmosphere, not so you can simply listen to the music for its own sake or for your pleasure.

When praying with others:

When you are praying with others, these pointers are worth remembering:

Use simple words: Don’t ask them to be theologians, but don’t patronise them.

Use simple ideas: Don’t ask them to unpackage too much at the one time, and to unpackage it quickly as you move on to the next idea.

Be aware of the focus: Who are you addressing? Is your focus on God or is it on those you are praying with?

Be aware of movement and direction: Our prayers should be addressed to God the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of Christ. So often it is easy for people to forget this Trinitarian movement and these Trinitarian concepts when they are praying informally. I have often heard prayer that is addressed to God as lord, then thanking him for his death on the Cross, and then finishing by giving thanks to God for so many things received through Christ his Son.

Teaching others to pray:

Teaching others how to pray is a great privilege and responsibility.

Teaching people how to pray is part of the task you will face in parochial and pastoral ministry. But as you try to teach people to pray, you will hopefully find that, of course, it is the Spirit who teaches people to pray.

Difficulties in prayer:

Many people start off praying with great enthusiasm. But when they begin to flounder and to experience difficulties, they need understanding, help and stimulation from someone who has gone the same way.

I think we can all identify a number of shared difficulties in our prayer lives, such as wandering thoughts

When it comes to praying out loud and in groups, many people find it difficult, no matter how attentive they are to their private prayer lives, to pray aloud with other people, for different reasons.

If you are someone who has a difficulty in finding appropriate words when you are asked to pray in public, then you may find it helpful to learn some collects off by heart so that they come to mind immediately on those occasions when you are put on the spot.

Be aware of those difficulties and remind yourselves that others have the same difficulties. Never put someone else on the spot or make them feel embarrassed by being asked to pray in public.

Then there those people who are going through different stages of faith, who now find that old prayers lack meaning or significance, and who are finding it difficult to find new prayers.

For some people, if not helped through these problems in prayer, then the problem becomes more difficult, and prayer becomes more difficult, sometimes to the point that they give up praying and believe it is impossible to pray.

And there are those people who are dealing with personal tragedies, including tragedies than have given them difficulties in their relationships with God. Be sensitive to those difficulties, and be gentle with those people.

Prayer and worthiness:

To return to the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, it is worth remembering that sometimes people think that because they have sinned they should not pray.

But the story of the story of the Pharisee (apparently good) and the Publican (apparently bad), in Luke 18: 10-14, tells us that the Pharisee prayed easily, while the publican could not even lift his eyes to heaven but smote his breast and prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus tells us it was the publican who “returned home justified” not the Pharisee.

The publican wants to pray even when he feels guilty of sin. We do not have to wait until we feel righteous, like a Pharisee, so we can pray. Such prayer is almost useless. I know I can all too easily pray the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner,” more readily when I am feeling righteous than when I realise I am a sinner.

Religious feelings can be deceptive in the extreme. When I think we feel like praying, we are in fact feeling “pious.” And it’s a deep tragedy. We are not ready to pray to pray at this stage. Instead, we are consumed with ourselves as pious people of prayer.

When I feel like a Publican, then I can pray like a Publican. Many times people will tell you, “I can’t take Communion … lead the intercession … serve at the altar today, because I don’t feel worthy.” But surely I’m in much greater danger when I do feel worthy.

When does someone ever say, “I’ve been so good this week I haven’t felt in the least like a sinner, and this is a great sin and deception.” Now we would be getting somewhere with prayer.

Help people to pray like a publican. They will find so many more times available for prayer if they do. And while they are there, you and I should pray for those who are praying like a Pharisee, so that God may free us from our delusions.

Wandering thoughts:

When people ask us to help them to pray, we need to be aware of these difficulties.

Even when people pray regularly and pray often, the most common barrier to prayer is wandering thoughts. One recent survey found that over 80% of respondents find wandering thoughts are at least “sometimes a problem.”

Two-thirds also found noise or other distractions a problem. A similar survey found that “keeping concentration” is also an issue, with 40% of respondents mentioning this as a barrier to prayer.

It is important to assure people not to worry about their minds being distracted. They can learn to gently bring the mind back to focus on God, and to the area they were praying about.

Just as when we are in conversation with others, our minds regularly have some apparently irrelevant thoughts, and need to be returned to the topic at hand. So this is not a problem to worry about in prayer. It happens to everyone and everyone can deal with it.

Saint Francis of Sales said: “Even if you did nothing in your meditation but bring your heart back, and place it again in our Lord’s presence, though it went away again every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”

Many people lead busy lives, with their minds working in overdrive to cover all of the things that they need to think about. When they stop to pray, it takes time for their minds to change track and to focus in on God. You may find it can be good to ease people into prayer gently, perhaps by listening to music on a CD, or by reading a psalm or a passage from the Bible, or simply by reflecting on what we have to be thankful for.

Then we can enter into a conversation with God with our minds properly prepared.

Many of us probably learned to pray as a small child kneeling at our bedside. But even when people are comfortable about praying in their own rooms, or joining in the responses in Church, they are uncomfortable praying in public.

But try to remember. Have you ever been caught off-guard when you have been asked to say a prayer at the beginning of a meeting, or to say grace before a group sat down in dinner?

There is a large section of people who regard prayer as something private. Then there are others who are reluctant to pray out loud in case they may make a mess of it, in case they’ll fluff it, in case they sound stupid.

But on this last point you can assure them by asking them whether my task in prayer is to converse with God or to give those who are listening something that will seem wise and knowledgeable?

Singing and praying:

For some people, it may be useful to suggest they think of singing. Saint Augustine in his commentary on the Psalms stated that those who sing pray twice. Many people forget that they are praying when they are singing, whether this is in private or in public. When they are reminded of this, it can sometimes become easier for them to pray in private or in public.

Some helpful hints

If you are someone who has a difficulty in finding appropriate words when you are asked to pray in public, then you may find it helpful to learn some collects off by heart so that they come to mind immediately on those occasions when you are put on the spot.

Be aware of those difficulties and remind yourselves that others have the same difficulties. Never put someone else on the spot or make them feel embarrassed by being asked to pray in public.

Helping those who lead prayers or intercessions in church:

One of the opportunities people in ordained ministry have in teaching people how to pray is when we help people who have been asked to lead the prayers or intercessions in church.

There is an important difference between private prayer and leading corporate intercessions. When we are leading the intercessions, we are leading God’s people in prayer, rather than praying on their behalf. And so, the way that we pray should be different from our own private prayer.

The corporate act of intercession is the sum of the individual thoughts and prayers, combined with the words and prayers spoken from the front. So, for corporate prayer to take place effectively, the congregation will be praying along the lines laid before them, and extending them as individual hearts and minds engage with the topics for prayer.

It is important that the people in the congregation hear what is being prayed. So those leading the intercessions need to be audible, and they need to speak clearly and slowly.

A clearly defined structure to the intercessions helps people to pray.

It will help others if they know where the prayers are going. This frees them to pray, and to respond to the Spirit’s prompting. The most common structure in Anglican worship is:

● prayer for the Church;
● prayer for the World;
● prayer for our Community;
● prayer for others, especially those in need
● remembrance of, and thanksgiving for, the faithful departed.

A congregational response is a good way of marking out the structure, and bringing silences to and end.

Some helpful hints on congregational prayer:

If you are using a congregational response, it is a good idea to introduce it clearly at the beginning, unless it never varies from week to week. Even then, it’s worth mentioning it occasionally since there may well be newcomers coming into the church.

Using silence in these prayers can be very powerful. Silence in corporate worship allows a transition from corporate prayer, where we join in common petitions, to private prayer, where we spend time individually with God.

Often it is a good idea to direct people’s prayers into the silence, either as a part of the prayers, for example, “Father, we now bring before you in the silence of our hearts those who are known to us to be in need.” Or you could say: “We’ll keep a short time of quiet when we can pray about our response to the situation in Iraq.”

Watch your language! Leading prayer is most effective in simple, clear everyday language. Complex phrasing and long words make it difficult for those who are listening to unpackage and own the prayers, and they add to the reluctance of many to take a leading role in public prayers. Try to use simple language. Avoid “churchy” jargon and acronyms.

Keep up to date: keep up to date with the news, both national and local news, and also the current status of those who will be prayed for. Before leaving for church, check the news.

Arrive in time to check on important news in the parish: who needs to be prayed for, who is in hospital, who has been bereaved, who has had good news.

Do not pray for everything. The Eucharist is the Great Thanksgiving. All our prayers are caught up in it. If we pray for everything beforehand, if we give thanks for everything beforehand, what is left to pray for in the greatest prayer? Prayer is not a shopping list being presented to God!

Avoid being too specific in every intercession. Try to count in everything, and we’ll go on all day. Try to name everyone, and some will inevitably feel left out.

Avoid the temptation to teach during prayers. Prayers are from the people to God, they are not an opportunity to say what we think God should be teaching others.

Be careful when praying about subjects which may be sensitive to members of the congregation. Examples include divorce, abortion, sexuality, and politics.

Prepare thoroughly. Whether you use a script, or just use notes – that’s up to you. But I am always lacking in my ability to do justice to my responsibility to God and my responsibility in leading God’s people in prayer. Spend some time in prayer beforehand. Good preparation does not limit your ability to change your plans, building in appropriate links with the sermon. You might like to use wide margins on your paper so that you can make notes. But preparation should also include a time of private prayer, praying through the topics you will lead prayers for.

Promoting the Daily Office

One of the ways we can help other people pray is to introduce them to the practice of praying the Daily Office.

Modern liturgical revision in most of the Churches has restored the Eucharist to its primary place as the key rite for the gathered Christian community on Sundays. But sadly this has also led to the neglect of the daily office among both clergy and laity.

The Daily Office is one of the great treasures of our Anglican heritage. The Eucharist should not replace our need for and practice of the Offices. Rather, the Eucharist and the Office complement each another.

The Daily Office is the daily worship of the Church Catholic. It is both symbolic of and an aid to Saint Paul’s advice to “pray without ceasing.” Its constant round of Psalms and Scripture gives us food for our daily spiritual feeding and action. It binds us into the unceasing worship of the whole Church – Militant, Expectant, and Triumphant. It forms us as Christians. It is one of the great gifts that we have to offer to the divided and broken Body of Christ. It is a fragment of the treasure of the whole that we have preserved and, in this time, we may find that we can offer it back to the whole Church for the edification and rejoicing of all.

However, none of these things will happen if we do not pray it and teach others to do likewise.

Learning to pray the Daily Office

A good starting point in learning to pray can be learning how to pray the Daily Office.

If you are going to use it in your own prayer life and daily discipline, then we should learn how to capture the internal spirit and logic of the office. It is not a liturgical straight-jacket. We can mix, adapt and learn what works best for each of us.

To take full advantage of the Daily Office and its riches, we need to be aware of the resources that are available to help us. These include the Book of Common Prayer, books of prayer such as Celebrating Common Prayer, online resources such as Oremus, and other websites with prayer resources.

Teaching Others to Pray the Office

Praying the Daily Office is best done and is intended to be done in community. Anyone can start this ministry. No priests, clergy, or church professionals are needed for a full and proper celebration of the Daily Office. But what is needed is an informed body of people with the commitment to see it through and to see it done well, done consistently, done respectfully, and done reverently.

The daily-ness of the office leads to stability, to obedience and to conversion of life. It is a tool of enormous spiritual power, and no parish should ignore it.

Most people in congregations do not easily talk about prayer. Too often we think running church services and the task of leading public prayer is the priest’s job. And so, equipping lay people to be confident officiants at the Daily Office will quickly change that.

Daily morning prayer is a great way to start the day.

Next week: The spiritual dimensions of theology, the history and development of the spiritual traditions of Christianity; the place of spirituality in Church history.

Appendix: Helpful hints on working with parishioners who are uneasy about vocal prayer:

Encourage a daily time of individual prayer and devotion:
Talking with God in private is the best foundation for talking aloud to God, in a group.

Be understanding towards those who are uneasy praying with others: Make sure nobody feels under an obligation to pray out loud.

Affirm the value of silent prayer.

Provide beginners with an opportunity to start with simple public prayer: perhaps asking them not to lead grace but to say a short simple prayer before we eat.

Model simplicity yourself: avoid ‘churchy’ language; try to be conversational with God.

Think about encouraging others present to add to your prayer: When you’re asked to say grace before a meal, or a prayer before an evening event, you could follow it by saying: “Has anyone else got something to say as well?”

Trust that the full Word of God is not in any one person – not even the priest – but in the Church as a whole, as the Body of Christ.

Be confident and honest: It’s OK if you do not know what to pray when someone in a gathering asks you to pray. What’s wrong with praying: “Lord, we confess we don’t always know how to pray by ourselves. But we thank you that you know our needs before we can even find words to express them. We give this time to you and ask you to continue speaking to us and through us.”

Be quick to thank and show appreciation: For beginners it matters especially when you say: “Thank you for praying today.”

Above all, be gentle with others: In a competitive, performance-oriented world, those who are shy or embarrassed about praying out loud should know the church as a place of acceptance and safety.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture and workshop on the Year II course, Spirituality for Ministry, on 29 October 2008.

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