Written by Alex Swain, Beloved in the Desert
I am still, in all honesty, quite new to the discipline of regular prayer and I feel a bit out of my element writing this post. For much of my life my presence in prayer was tightly tied to feeling. When I felt spiritually close to God, when I felt the electrifying presence of the Holy Spirit, I possessed a zealous desire to worship and draw near. That is when I prayed.
Eventually, as I’m sure many of us have experienced, the feeling faded. This then crumbled my sense of proximity to God and my prayer life would wither and dry up. I think this pattern of prayer life is specifically what Father Martin Thornton describes as the “tyranny of feeling” and notes that “emotion and feeling must be disciplined and understood” in relation to direction in prayer (Christian Proficiency, pg.28).
This year, as a member of the Episcopal Service Corps through Beloved in the Desert, I truly began to learn to pray.
Prayer is the heartbeat of our communal life in Beloved in the Desert. Beginning in late July 2019, we five members of Beloved began a journey of faith and service rooted and revolving around prayer. Monday through Friday we gather around the altar to pray the morning office, and each evening we gather again ending our day with compline. Evening office is left to be prayed individually.
This cycle of beginning and ending our day steeped in prayer, rested in community, has had a profound impact on my faith and relationship to God in a way that cannot be captured in a simple blog post, but I will try to articulate it.
“Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.” (Isaiah 55:6, RSV)
In prayer, I find myself stepping towards hallowed spaces. Prayers are those moments of time where the busyness and humdrum machinations of “my life” are set aside, and the Almighty is intentionally approached. I resonate strongly with the above verse from Isaiah, as much of the time in prayer I find myself seeking God, seeking to draw near to God.
This process of coming before God, regardless of feeling, requires discipline. Looking back on the historical patterns of my prayer habits, when left to my own devices, I flee from these terrible and awesome (and often mundane) moments. This, therefore, is what I am learning: a discipline in the daily office to haul myself before God each day. Thanks be to God that I am doing it in community!
While praying the office, the senses and experiential components rattle me. The act of standing and sitting, bowing and kneeling, draw my whole being into that hallowed space. Praying with the body, accompanied with a modicum of attention, powerfully brings God’s presence to be known. As we pray the psalms, for example, I sometimes find myself transported. Flabbergasted to be saying the words that so many saints and sinners have said throughout time. Shaken, because these prayers connect me to the saints and host of heaven across space and across time.
Sometimes, as our fives voices are lifted up in prayer, I imagine the saints and the host of heaven present with us, saying these very same words. The scents of the church and of incense boundary off, and make more prominent, the displacement from the regular to the holy.
The experience of the office, in community, done over weeks and months, has been nothing short of transformational. And through it, by God’s grace, by the blessings bestowed by this very community, I am learning to approach God throughout each day, even outside of the offices.
Emanating from our opening of the day in prayer, I have found that my contracted sense of self, on the good days, unfolds. I become more open, my eyes a bit more focused, my mind a bit more joyous, in sensing the very presence of the Lord filling my days. Slowly, painfully, Saint Paul’s suggestion to “pray constantly” (1 Thess. 5:17) becomes less arduous. I find the words of Father Martin ring true, that through these blessed moments of recollection, “prayer will become less of a duty, and more of a need.” (Christian Proficiency, pg. 63)
It is well and good that prayer has opened me and drawn me ever close to God. My relationship with God has never been more solid, more fundamentally built on trust. If prayer is transformational, and draws me unto the Lord, how then, do its ripples emanate out?
When moments of time are displaced from the self, and brought to the holy and consuming fire of the Lord, what then is the effect amidst the pandemic?
Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that the widest, and deepest, sense of the power of prayer is, “Loving God in act so that the divine love may communicate itself to us, and through us, to the world.” (Christian Proficiency, pg.15)
I love this quote of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and I think this is my experience. I suspect it is also a similar experience held by my community, and by the broader Episcopal Service Corps. Prayer steeped in the loving power of God (“Loving God in act”), manifests itself to and through us. It is the manifestation of the response to the called. It is the action to go, love, and serve the world!
In beholding God through prayer, I find God’s love being communicated through the many members of Episcopal Service Corps all the more clearly. Our work in non-profits is made all the more important. I have no doubt that this is work of the kingdom of God. I see it in the work happening here in Tucson.
I see it when we assist organizations like Habitat for Humanity and the Communtiy Food Bank to get fundamental resources to those in need. I smell it as my housemates prepare meals and get groceries to bring goods to elderly persons in housing communities, all of which is performed with great care and to ensure appropriate sanitization to protect vulnerable populations. I hear it, in the conversations that are had when another housemate is calling, scheduling pick-ups and deliveries of goods to those in need through their placement at Interfaith Community Services.
This, then, I think, is one of the most radical and realized fruits of prayer.
We come before God, draw near to God, and then we go to bring the world nearer to God. Amidst these dark and troubled times, while praying for the end to the pandemic, for the healing of the sick, for the freeing of the captive, for the restoration of those who have been devastated economically and relationally… Amidst all of this, the divine love of God is made manifest in the work engaged by Episcopal Service Corps members across the nation.
Thanks be to God.