Friday, February 04, 2011

Learning to Pray in Community

Someone recently asked me to share some insights with them on using the Book of Common Prayer in personal devotions.  While I have not yet responded to this person fully, I recently read something from Eugene Peterson that speaks to the issue of common prayer as relates to private prayer,  and it will do quite well as a the beginning of a response.   So, what follows is a segment of an interview conducted by Rodney Clapp (former editor at Christianity Today) as it appears in the foreword to Peterson's book The Contemplative Pastor.  It's worth the read and is helpful in considering how we should teach others to pray:

Clapp:  American Christians tend to focus on private as opposed to common prayer, or prayer in worship.  Your writing indicates you're not comfortable with that tendency.  

Peterson: I'm not.  The paradigmatic prayer is not solitary but in community.  The fundamental biblical context is worship. That's why worship seems to me to be the place. It's the only context in which we can recover the depth of the gospel. 

Clapp: Does that men we learn how to pray in community, that what we do in solitude is something we take from the community's worship? 

Peterson:  That's what I mean.  If somebody comes to me and says, "Teach me how to pray," I say, "Be at this church at nine o'clock on Sunday morning."  That's where you learn how to pray.  Of course, prayed is continued and has alternate forms when you're by yourself.  But the American experience has the order reversed.  In the long history of Christian spirituality, community prayer is most important, then individual prayer.  

Clapp: What things do we learn in common prayer?

Peterson: One thing we learn is to be led in prayer.  I'm apt to think of prayer as my initiative.  I realize I have a need or I am happy, and I pray.  The emphasis is on me, and I have the sense when I pray that I started something. 

But what happens if I go to church?  I sit there and somebody stands before me and says, "Let us pray."  I didn't start it; I'm responding.  Which means I am humbled.  My ego is no longer prominent.  Now that's a very basic element in prayer, because prayer is answering speech. 

Prayer has to be a response to what God has said.  The worshipping congregation-- hearing the Word read and preached, and celebrating it in the sacraments-- is the place where I learn how to pray and where I practice prayer.  It is a center from which I pray.  From it I go to my close or to the mountains and continue to pray.  

A second thing about praying in community is that, when I pray in a congregation, my feelings are not taken into account.  Nobody asks me when I enter the congregation, "How do you feel today?  What do you feel like praying about?" 

So the congregation is a place where I'm gradually learning that prayer is not conditioned or authenticated by my feelings.  Nothing is more devastating to prayer than when I begin to evaluate prayer by my feelings, and think that in order to pray I have to have  a certain sense, a certain attentiveness or peace or, on the other side, anguish.  

That's virtually impossible to learn by yourself.  But if I'm in a congregation, I learn over and over again that prayer will go on whether I feel like it or not, or even if I sleep through the whole thing.  

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