By Jay Mullinix
Dear Jesu, teach me how to pray .… What can I tell thee thou dost not already know? What can I ask of thee thou wilt not give unasked if that’s thy will? Yet I must ask thee even so. —Frederick Buechner, Godric
Every weekday morning, before heading in to work, I go to the hospital. It’s a massive red-bricked hulk of a thing a few blocks from my house. I enter and pass through a gaggle of people amid a chorus of buzzers, intercom announcements, dinging bells, and random conversations. I then bank through a side door and into a courtyard where sits a small, stone, English-looking chapel. Inthat little sanctuary I sit each morning under a stained-glass window of Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus,and I read Morning Prayer from my 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Eachnight at home I pray through the EveningPrayer.
I have been praying the daily offices for eight years now. They have become the ground bass of my life. They have seeped into me and marked my soul. They are like breathing. On those rare days when circumstances prevent me from completing Morning Prayer, I feel off-kilter, like I’m walking around with only one shoe on.
Yet for the majority of my Christian life, regular, focused praying was something I could never seem to manage. During my evangelical youth I sat through or read hundreds of exhortations about the necessity of daily prayer and Bible reading. But when I tried to pray I almost never came away from the ordeal anything but frustrated. I seemed to ramble, stringing together the same limp phrases. Or I got distracted and disappeared down rabbit trails of other thoughts.
Even when I attended seminary I couldn’t find any consistency. I had one class in which I was required to keep a daily prayer journal to be turned in at the close of the semester. I kept my journal sporadically for maybe a month but flamed out. I ended up spending the two days before it was due coming up with, and desperately scribbling in, two and a half months’ worth of prayers, divine answers and deep, introspective-sounding responses and thoughts. I switched pens and colors in my entries,lest it be obvious I wrote them all at once. I thought that was quite clever.
One day in early February 2010, while rummaging about an old bookcase in my parents’ home, I stumbled across an old copy of the Book of Common Prayer shoved behind a bunch of dust-covered hymnals. It had been my dad’s in the late 1960s when, as a young music major in college, he had served intermittently as the organist at a small Episcopal parish in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Its hardbound black covers were well-rubbed, its pages browned, and when thumbed they gave up that glorious, musky smell that is catnip to every bibliophile. On impulse I took it home.
It was a daring move, this taking of a prayer book. My Plymouth Brethren heritage had taught me to be wary of all liturgy and setprayers. To go there was to stray into the territory of “vain repetitions,” which Jesus condemned. True prayer, we held, should flow unscripted from the heart, for from the depths of the heart the mouth speaks.
About a month prior, though, I had walked into an Episcopal church for the first time out of curiosity and had been deeply moved by the beauty of the worship. I had returned twice and was becoming both enchanted and equally disturbed by my enchantment. Realizing this was an Episcopal prayer book, I decided it merited further investigation. I paged through it that evening and then read through the service of Morning Prayer the next day.
I was astonished at the beauty of the language. This was no book of empty incantations. The prayers sparkled and danced. The cadence of their words and the rhythmic balance of their phrases were gorgeous. I couldn’t resist reading them aloud.
My family and I would eventually find our home in the Orthodox Church, but the Book of Common Prayer remains the backbone of my prayer life. It was the prayer book that taught me to pray. Within its pages I discovered that words I did not compose could capture and give voice to the deepest cries of my heart. For example, here is the prayer for the confirmation of a child:
Defend, O Lord, this thy Child with thy heavenly grace; that he may continue thine for ever; and daily increase in thy Holy Spirit more and more, until he come unto thy everlasting kingdom. Amen.
No spur-of-the-moment composition more ably and beautifully captures all I desire for my three children. Or take these words from the Great Litany, a matchless summation of my hope for both myself and all my brothers and sisters in Christ:
That it may please thee to strengthen such as do stand; and to comfort and help the weak-hearted; and to raise up those who fall; and finally to beat down Satan under our feet; We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
And how I have been thankful, when facing the dark times of both physical and spiritual night, for this collect from Daily Evening Prayer:
Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
A few years ago a close friend waged a terrible battle with depression. Desperate for help, he checked in to a mental facility,and on my lunch breaks I would visit him. As I watched him struggle I groped for words to pray for him. In the prayer book service for the Visitation of the Sick I found these words:
O Father of mercies, and God of all comfort, our only help in time of need; We fly unto thee for succour in behalf of this thy servant … cast down and faint of heart amidst the sorrows and difficulties of the world; Grant that, by the power of thy Holy Spirit, he may be enabled to go upon his way rejoicing, and give thee continual thanks for thy sustaining providence; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I need this language of prayer for more than just putting fuller, abler words to my petitions. I need it to so that I may speak the truth about my life. We are all of us adept at using our words as shields and masks. T.S. Eliot said that our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves. But God is not duped by our evasions. As U2 frontman Bono has said, “It’s impossible to come to God wearing sunglasses. …[Everyone else] might not know what’s behind the glasses, but God, I can assure you, does” (Michka Assayas, Bono: In Conversation with Michka Assayas [Riverhead, 2005], pp.54-55).
What the prayer book so often does, I find, is strip me of my sunglasses. It forces me to be far more authentic and real than I would be if left to my own devices. Take, for example, the General Confession from the morning and evening offices:
Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
There are those who don’t like this prayer, what with its branding of us as “miserable offenders” in whom is no health (and indeed the 1979 Book of Common Prayer excised both of those phrases). I won’t quibble with them, but I will say that I find this prayer deeply helpful. It hauls me into the open light of day. It won’t let me gloss over my selfishness and propensity to often do the exact opposite of what I ought to. Nor will it let me ignore or wish away my captivity to,and culpability with,in as a consequence of my fallen human nature. As Fleming Rutledge has put it, “Understanding Sin requires us to recognize its power lodged in ourselves” (The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ [Eerdmans, 2016], p. 197). This prayer compels me to tell the truth about myself and my life. Even so, it doesn’t bring me into the light to shame me, but to heal me, for those who confess their faults and those who are penitent are precisely the ones who are spared and restored, and this by a Father who is most merciful.
The prayer book also liberates me from the tyranny of my subjective feelings. There are times, frankly, when it doesn’t feel as though God is a “most merciful Father,”when I question whether he is really “Almighty,” even; when I don’t find his “service [to be] perfect freedom,” but rather a weight around my neck; when the last thing I want is for God to “order [my] unruly will and affections.” I’d much rather he keep his ordering hands to himself, thank you very much.
The prayer book teaches me to pray what I ought to desire and believe, what is no less true even if I struggle to believe it or feel it today. Its words bear me up and carry me. And I’ve found that in the saying of those words the believing of them often follows.
The prayer book also takes me beyond the shallow waters of my experience and shoves me out into a deeper current in which I am not the end-all be-all of everything. Left to my resources, my prayers tend to not get very far away from home. I end up focusing on my uncertainties, my thanksgivings, my ambitions, my immediate family members and friends. Without some kind of help, I find it very difficult to think about much else.
In the prayer book I learn to pray daily for our leaders and lawmakers, that God would “endue them plenteously with thy heavenly gifts,” whether I agree with their policies or not. I learn to pray not just for those clergy who minister to me, but that God might “illuminate all Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, with true knowledge and understanding of thy Word.” I learn to pray not just that God would provide for my family, but that he would “defend, and provide for, the fatherless children, and widows, and all who are desolate and oppressed.”And I learn to pray not only for those who happen to be walking about the earth today but also “for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service”.
The prayer book teaches me that Christian prayer is communal prayer, and the Christian life islived in an ecclesial community. When I read the daily offices I am not merely an individual sitting down to have a quiet time of devotions with God. I may beby myself in a physical sense, but I am far from alone. I know that the very words I utter are also rising from the lips of countless others around the world. As well they have risen in the past and will yet rise in the future from countless more. The boundaries of space and time become thin in these prayers. As Bishop Jeffrey Lee points out,
For Christians, in a real sense, there is no such thing as private prayer. In fact the word “private” shares a Latin root with “deprivation” — privatio in Latin is to deprive. This is not to deny the importance of times of personal prayer; but even personal prayer is fundamentally ecclesial in nature. When Christians pray, they do so with the church, not in isolation, even if they are alone: we pray always “with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven” (Opening the Prayer Book [Cowley, 1999], pp.128-129).
Regular, disciplined prayer is difficult. We have to make a point of setting aside time — something we always seem to have scant enough of to begin with — for it and our frenetic pace of living and working war against this. Things are often rendered only more difficult when we are left to our ingenuity to fill that time and without any structure to guide us.
This is where the Daily Office saved me. The very things I had been told would put fetters on my prayer life — liturgy, form, pattern — did the opposite. They set me free. I didn’t have to rely on my creativity for what I would pray or read. That was all there in the offices and the lectionary. What I had to do was show up. And as I showed up, God began to go to work — slowly, quietly, often without me even realizing it, but inevitably nevertheless. Rowan Williams was getting at this when he compared prayer to sunbathing on BBC Radio 2’s program Pause for Thought in 2005:
There’s something about sunbathing that tells us more about what prayer is like than any amount of religious jargon. When you’re lying on the beach something is happening, something that has nothing to do with how you feel or how hard you’re trying. You’re not going to get a better tan by screwing up your eyes and concentrating. You give the time, and that’s it. All you have to do is turn up. And then things change, at their own pace. You simply have to be there where the light can get at you.
There are still days — probably too many — when my mind goes whizzing off to far-away countries, present anxieties, or childhood memories, or when a fly scuttling along the pew back in front of me suddenly becomes utterly fascinating theatre. But eventually I glance back down at the book in my hands and the words of the liturgy are still there and they bring me back.
There are also days when I pray and don’t feel like I did much of anything but read from a book in an empty chapel. It might as well have been one of the endlessly appearing project-update emails I get from my boss for all the good it seemed to do. But the thing is, it has done good. I’ve been letting the light get at me. Because of that, change has happened, is happening. I have found that the simple discipline of making time to pray has enabled me gradually to do a better job of prioritizing all my time, of cutting out of it those things that seem critically important but really aren’t. I find that phrases from the Psalms and from the canticles and collects of the prayer book pop into my head in reaction to events and people. I find that these prayers and praises, litanies and laments, are becoming a part of me.
Jay Mullinix is an Eastern Orthodox Christian living in Wichita, Kansas. He works in construction as a project manager.