Friday, 29 May 2015

Reader's question: What is the power of prayer?

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Reader's Question: "What is your understanding of the power of prayer? How does it work? What should we prioritize in prayer? For example, I often pray for others who are effected by natural disasters like the recent Earthquake in Nepal but the prayers can feel feeble/ineffectual because I am so remote to the 'world' of these people and the extent/scale of human tragedy in such events can be difficult to comprehend. In contrast, when I pray for the soul of a friend who has died or a closer loved one the prayers feel more spontaneous because of my natural emotional connection to the people, places or events. Are more sincere prayers more effective spiritually? Or does the effort of extending our hearts to less attainable/difficult ground e.g. praying for those we do not like or whose practices/behaviours we find difficult to tolerate, render the prayers somehow more noble and worthwhile?"

My Answer: Since you asked me, I will give you my personal focus, rather than trying to summarize what is usually (and correctly) emphasized.

My main idea is that prayer is more of a means than an end - it is desired of us that we open and maintain lines of communication with God - as a person, as our Heavenly Father, so that God is central in our lives and that we come habitually to recognise God at work in our lives, in the world, in the universe and for eternity. On that basis, the more things we pray about, the better.

Therefore I try to pray frequently, whenever I remember - which means the prayers tend to be silent (or nearly silent), and brief, and in all sorts of times and situations. Mostly I give thanks, and ask for protection and help for those I love - sometimes for relief from my own, or other people's, pain and misery - and the courage to endure.

I am certain of the value of prayer in the sense that I have experienced several examples of miraculous answers to prayers - although I have not communicated these to other people because I regard them as being 'for' my own faith. Other definite benefits have been personal revelations and answers to questions communicated as a strong impression of the answer - these have created and sustained my faith, and removed stumbling blocks.

But on a specific, instance by instance basis, I do not think we usually know what happens to prayers or as a result of prayers - except that it sometimes emerges that my prayers led to the 'best' result, even when in retrospect it could be seen that I was praying for the wrong thing, the wrong result.

When I was aligned with Eastern Orthodoxy, I tried to pray continuously using the Jesus Prayer or something similar - but I would no regard this as

1. Unbalanced - we are not all of us supposed to pray all the time, because we have other things to do, and other ways of communicating with God, for example meditation (although I do not rule out that some few individuals are supposed, destined, to pray all of the time).

2. Wrongly emphasized - I now believe that it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the fundamental nature of our relation to God, for us continually, or frequently, to be requesting his mercy. We have it; and it must be saddening and perhaps irritating to God that we do not trust him and the goodness of his intentions, but feel constrained to beg him and propitiate him

- God does not need propitiating (in this sense) because all propitiation (in a different sense) was done for us by Christ and (in another sense) it is only wicked tyrants (like the Pagan gods) who demand propitiation.

So my main prayer is what I have heard called 'arrow' prayers - multiple silent, short, thanks and requests; some few memorized (fragments) of Psalms and of prayers from the the Book of Common Prayer. And the rarer more focused and lasting prayers in solitude, when I may be seeking a sense of communion and understanding, relief, strength etc.

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5 comments:

  1. Thanks for this. I've been very confused about what prayer is. This helps a lot.

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  2. It's been some while since I last followed this blog. How would you consider yourself aligned these days, Dr. Charlton? I was unaware that you had gone so far as to start the process of joining the Orthodox Church.

    For a long time, I had a deep interest in Eastern Orthodoxy, and residual influences in my outlook still remain. However, I'm more or less convinced that an American or West European can't *really* be Orthodox; it requires a certain culture and community to sustain such a way of life. At one point, I'd have considered myself "aligned" (for lack of a better word) with Eastern Orthodoxy, though I never quite went beyond reading about it and feeling very sympathetic to it. Curiously, I have considered myself a reconvert to Christianity for somewhat more than a half a decade without joining any denomination. The closest I came to do so formally was a meeting I had with some RC clergy nearly 5 years ago. I'd note that it does leave me somewhat troubled to feel, as it were, homeless in terms of a specific church. At the present, I have considered an Anglo-Catholic congregation not in communion with Canterbury.

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  3. @ACL - I am a 'theoretical Mormon' (not baptised, not a member, never an attender) in terms of beliefs; and I am not attending any church at present (or, only very sporadically).

    Mine is not a situation I would recommend to anybody, in principle I would much rather be in one of the real churches, but nonetheless that is my situation and there is at present no plan to change it.

    "I'm more or less convinced that an American or West European can't *really* be Orthodox; it requires a certain culture and community to sustain such a way of life."

    I agree. Indeed, that is what Orthodoxy says about itself.

    " At the present, I have considered an Anglo-Catholic congregation not in communion with Canterbury."

    Yes, I have explored that - but in my circumstances, it amounts to very little indeed: It can hardly be regarded as being-in-a-church when the totality of practice can be summarized as half a dozen elderly people meeting for an hour once a month to take Holy Communion from a travelling priest.

    Since I cannot at present become a Mormon, I have decided to be the best kind of Christian I can, outside of any church - and just get on with it.

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  4. "Yes, I have explored that - but in my circumstances, it amounts to very little indeed: It can hardly be regarded as being-in-a-church when the totality of practice can be summarized as half a dozen elderly people meeting for an hour once a month to take Holy Communion from a travelling priest. "

    Strangely enough, the prospects for that sort of church are better in the US. A fair number of Episcopalians of all types of churchmanship have broken ties with the formal Anglican structure. Some of the high church and Anglo-Catholic groups even include disenchanted post-Vatican II Catholics who find traditionalist Anglicanism more to their liking than, say, sedavacantism. My local RC church holds at least 2 masses a day, every day of the week, including Latin Mass twice a week. Oh that one could find such a schedule of services in traditionalist churches to one's liking! It would certainly be amenable to me if I could get over my reservations about the RCs, and I certainly have a great respect for the history and thought of that body, but I cannot quite bring myself to accept it in its current manifestation.

    A good number of dissatisfied Anglicans in the states have gone over to Eastern Orthodoxy-which I can certainly respect, but as has been noted, the cultural context simply does not mesh well in areas that have traditionally followed Western Christianity.

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  5. @ACL - The US is *much* more Christian than the UK, especially England. You'd probably need to rewind to the 1950s to find England at an equivalent level to the US now.

    The point we both make about EO does not at all invalidate joining that church, but I believe it does invalidate any claim to exclusivity of salvation. Outwith an Orthodox country with an Orthodox monarch, EO is much like any other church, and to be judged by similar criteria.

    Churches are needed for theosis - over he long haul, but not for salvation (although churches, and a Christian society, probably can make salvation more likely - and a hostile, inverted official doctrine such as we have now, probably does make salvation less likely).

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