On Prayer: A Letter to a Colleague
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
This is a letter I wrote to a colleague about prayer and pastoral life some years back. I've redacted references to my colleague and my colleague's situation. I find this still reflects my own current thinking and practice, and so commend these thoughts to you, my readers, as well.
I have no platitudes to share with you about prayer, or worship, or the pastoral gig. My first wife’s cancer and death killed those for me decades ago. If people were listening to the kinds of things I was saying right around that time, I may have contributed to the killing of such platitudes for a number of my fellow seminarians as well. I don’t tolerate them well.
Prayer has become for me an act of submission, of centering, and of offering persons I care about and things I am called to care about before the Divine Mercy. Intercession is not about reminding God of anything. God knows. Nor is it about getting enough people to remind God of something, as if God were directing some sort of divine poll and the top ten requests get attended to. Sometimes, in praying for others, and sometimes over others with those persons present, prayer does become a channel for speaking blessing and healing into the lives of others. The occasions for that are rare, but a blessing when they do occur.
But for the most part, it’s about picking up a ministry we’ve been given in baptism—the ministry of intercession, one of the chief ways in which we all embody the “royal priesthood” we’ve been given. The power in prayer is not my powerful praying, but rather the act of submission to this calling. The power of it grows in part as I master—get into my bones so I don’t even have to think about—specific prayers and patterns of prayer. But what I find is that the mastery isn’t really about the words or the patterns, or even about mastery, but as I suggested above, about submission, of letting go, of allowing my being to settle into the Divine Presence, trusting the rhythms and cadences of the acts of prayer even more than the words to be a means of grace to get me (and those others for whom I pray) where I and we need to go.
And since this intercession extends to myself as well—that I am to bring myself before the Divine Mercy, offering all of this as well—at that point, practically speaking, the intercession usually turns to silence. On better days, that silence become attentiveness, a way of simply being before God. On worse days, I neglect to get to the silence or even the intercession—and on such days I find I am often (though not always) more anxious, less able to listen, more obsessed with my own agendas, more negative and more fearful.
I don’t know if I’ve shared this with you, but in the past year I’ve received a diagnosis that has made some sense of my life, and especially its more destructive edges. The diagnosis is “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” I won’t go into that. You can Google it if you like. But for me, a way to manage given the presence of this process in my mind, there is one prayer I now find very helpful to offer daily at the end of intercessions (usually at morning prayer, and as the prayer I offer immediately before or immediately after a time of silence after other intercessions). It is the Collect for Grace from the Book of Common Prayer—but in one of its older incarnations. I’ve adapted it a bit further from any of the established texts as well, but this is the form I’ve come to use and find most helpful:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hast brought us in safety to this new day, defend us in the same with thy mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor run into any kind of danger; that, in all our doings, ordered and governed by thee, we may ever be found righteous in thy sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
I share this prayer and its value for me only because it helps me. I do not know whether it helps you or anyone else. But it does help me. I am prone to wear myself out, and becoming overtired, fall into sin. I am prone to run, not walk, into danger unawares. I do not imagine I am reminding God of anything new by praying this—God knows. But I am reminding myself and God that I know, and that I get it, that I do need God’s power, to cooperate with that power, and so also to submit to it, that my doings may be ordered (given direction and shape) and governed (both led and restrained) by the Spirit.
(The term “governor” in Greek is kubernetes—the pilot of a ship, not necessarily its “captain” as later military structures would call the position—whose careful attentiveness to the stars, the winds, the waves and the position and tautness or slackness of the sails is responsible for getting the ship to its destination).
We can have conversation about ‘the pastoral gig” at another time, and I hope we may. I am grateful that you are in it, and that you are raising what are to me good and important questions about its value as habitually constructed. The book I have found most helpful—if at times also frustrating because it is challenging to pull off its advice—is Eugene Peterson’s, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity.
Again, thanks for the letter. You and your family continue in my intercessions.
Peace in Christ,