On Prayer: With Our Bodies, In Community and In the Spirit
By Taylor Burton-Edwards
"So I desire that the men pray in every place, raising holy hands without anger and bickering"
(I Timothy 2:8)
"We do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit intercedes [in us] with sighs unspeakable"
With Our Bodies
I noted briefly in the previous entry in this series, "On Prayer: Our First Vocation," that different ways of praying (supplication, prayer, intercession, thanksgiving) were performed with different body postures. Some would be offered while standing, while others might be offered while kneeling or even lying prostrate (flat on the floor, face down). The posture of the body for a given type of prayer was inseparable from that form of prayer itself. It would have been as unthinkable to offer thanksgiving while lying prostrate as to offer supplication while standing. In prayer, the actions of mind, heart and body were one.
Paul underlines this as a continuing expectation when he reminds Timothy to ensure that when the men pray in worship, they do so while "raising holy hands." The raising of the hands is already a form of praying. Palms are up, a sign of our holding and releasing what is in our minds and in our hands to God. The same posture also indicates receptivity. We are as ready in this posture to receive from God as we are to offer to God. This posture, also depicted in the ancient Christian artwork above, is referred to as "orans," which is simply the Latin present participle meaning "praying."
Of course, as we have already seen, orans is not the only posture for prayer. Kneeling, lying prostrate, and even dancing are cited in scripture.
And praying could involve different forms of vocal embodiment as well. Many (including the Psalms) were sung or chanted. Some were simply spoken. Still others involved no spoken words at all, such as prayers in silence (see Psalm 62) or those times when the Spirit prays in and through us with unspeakable sighs or groans.
In every case, what the body does to participate in this prayer is not an "add-on" to the prayer, but an integral part of it. Prayer isn't just the words or ideas. It involves every part of us attending to the Spirit and offering to God what is needed from us at the moment.
With Our Bodies: Questions for Reflection and Discussion
In how many of these ways does your worshiping community embody and voice prayer in corporate worship?
In how many of these ways do you intentionally teach and help persons learn how to embody and voice prayer in small group or personal acts of worship?
What next steps will you take to expand and improve the forms of embodiment and the ways of voicing prayer where you are?
From the beginning, followers of Jesus have drawn an intimate connection between how we pray and how we live in community with others.
Jesus himself taught that if you are at prayer, even ready to present a gift on the altar of the temple in Jerusalem, and there remember you have offended someone or someone has offended you, the very next step is to leave the altar and go to the other person to start working at reconciliation (Matthew 5:23-24).
In the verse from I Timothy cited above, Paul reminds Timothy of the same linkage between prayer and community. Praying in worship has to be offered by persons lifting holy hands "without anger and bickering." Any matters that have led to anger or bickering in the community need to be attended to before worship begins.
Three different Syrian Christian documents over four centuries describe a similar expectation and practice. Persons within the Christian community who were at conflict either could not be present for worship at all (Didache, ca. 65-115) or would be dismissed prior to the prayers of the people and Holy Communion (Didascalia and Apostolic Constitutions, 230 and 380) until they worked out their conflict and were restored to more amicable relationships first.
This same impulse lies behind the reason we confess our sin and offer the peace of Christ to one another before we celebrate Holy Communion today. Our praying is hindered if our fellowship is hindered. Or, as Jesus also reminded, if we do not forgive others, neither will our Father in heaven forgive us (Matthew 6:15).
Community is that important to our capacity to pray.
Even when we pray "in secret," we still pray in community with others. While others may not be physically present with us at the time, they are always with us in our minds. This means if we have spoken words of forgiveness directly to another but sfind ourselves holding on to past hurts, we still have more personal forgiveness work to do with the "community in our minds." Community may be restored outwardly. But for community and so our praying to be fully restored, forgiveness may need to be enacted continually until our minds truly forgive the other.
In Community: Questions for Reflection and Discussion
How does your worshiping community embody the connection between prayer and community?
How do you help participants in your worshiping community work out "anger and bickering" they may have with each other?
How have you experienced prayer enlivened, personally and corporately, when community is in a greater state of wholeness?
How do you teach and help participants learn and master practices of forgiveness and reconciliation-- both public and personal?
In the Holy Spirit
Christian praying is prayer in the Holy Spirit, or it is something other than the prayer we have been called to offer as God's "royal priesthood."
Perhaps it is noise, like the buzzing and beeping dial-up modems used to make while negotiating a connection.
Perhaps it is words, even eloquent words.
Perhaps it is even true communication with God.
But part of the gift of the Spirit we receive at baptism is the gift of praying in the Holy Spirit, and, as importantly, the gift of the Holy Spirit praying in and through us.
Paul describes this extensively in Romans 8. The verse listed above is just one quick sample.
How is it that we pray in the Holy Spirit? How is it that we can distinguish praying in the Spirit from praying merely in our own power?
One of the most pervasive ways in the history of Christian worship has been the brief dialog between the one leading the assembly into prayer and the beginning of praying itself.
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Let us pray.
It's a simple, re-orienting reminder of what we're about to do. The intent is to "kick-start" our awareness of what we're up to, that now we are about to pray, and indeed to pray "in the Lord" and "in the Spirit," our spirits bearing witness with the Holy Spirit that we are children of God, priests of the Most High. And more, that we are such not on our merits, but by the presence and gift of the Spirit.
Praying in the Holy Spirit takes attentiveness. Learning to flow with the Spirit in prayer takes time and practice. It rarely happens automatically. We have to shift our minds, our attentiveness, into that "space," the space of the Spirit's dwelling in us and among us. Having started, we can easily get derailed, even with considerable practice. And so we may, individually or collectively, need to "shift back in" again, called by and following the Spirit's lead, whether in more structured or in more spontaneous praying.
Some Christian traditions have taught and continue to teach that praying with either a set structure or a fully written prayer that one learns "by rote" stands in opposition to praying in the Spirit. But the deep wisdom of those who have truly learned such prayers-- either as a structure for bidding prayer (let us pray for X topic.... silence or spoken prayers on that topic... let us pray for Y topic... etc) or as a fully written prayer (such as a collect, a confession of sin or the Psalms)-- is that having learned them, it is often less we who pray those forms or words, but the forms or words that begin to pray us. It is in learning a few forms and prayers deeply so that we no longer have to think about them every time that through them the Spirit may pray in and through us with even greater freedom and power than we may have known without them. As my colleague, Kwasi Kena-- Director of Evangelistic Ministries at GBOD and also an accomplished jazz pianist-- often reminds us, you can really "riff" only after you have the original tune down in your fingers.
This is why, by the way, John Wesley insisted that the Methodists learn the words and suggested tunes in the hymnals he published exactly as written, and sing them neither more slowly nor more quickly. It wasn't about boxing the Methodists into the "one right way" (i.e., his way!). It was about getting those words and those tunes in deep enough that when they needed them, they could be brought out spontaneously by and in the Spirit in their hearts and on their lips.
And this is to take nothing away from spontaneous praying in the Holy Spirit, either personally or in corporate worship. Indeed, the forms of bidding prayer (or prayers of the people, as they are sometimes called) can be an invitation to such spontaneous prayer in the Spirit in a focused way. And other ways of praying throughout the Christian world do this as well. In Korea, as well as in a number of charismatic traditions, it has been a common practice for all present to pray spontaneously as the Spirit leads, raising a virtual symphony or concert of prayer. In many congregations of African or Hispanic descent, a pastor may offer a fairly spontaneous prayer while others in the congregation are invited (and often do!) join in praying right along with or offering vocal encouragement or support of the pastor's prayer (Say it, pastor! O Lord, Lord! Yes, Lord! Amen to that! Hallelujah, Jesus!). And across all times and cultures, in personal and corporate prayer, there have been times where it became clear that the Spirit was calling for the individual or the assembly simply to stop and pray, right on the spot. In such times the Spirit often supplies not just sighs unspeakable, but exactly the right words for that moment.
But sometimes the Spirit presses for such spontaneous prayer, and the environment is unwelcome to it. It is possible to invite and at the same time uninvite such spontaneous praying. You know this is happening if you invite and no one says a word. A comfort level for such spontaneity has not yet been created in that community or in that place. Or perhaps an active hostility to such praying has been practiced and taken root over time.
In either case, if spontaneous praying in the Spirit is to be part of the worship life of that community, a truly welcome space needs to be opened up for it. Sometimes this can be as simple as talking with a few persons before worship and inviting them to pray aloud themselves when the invitation is given later. This lets the rest of the assembly know you as a leader of prayer are serious that such spontaneous, spoken prayers are welcome, and in what form they are welcome.
In the Spirit: Reflections and Questions for Discussion
What cues or actions do you offer in worship to help the Christians present understand they are invited and expected to pray together in the Holy Spirit?
What practices do you use and teach to help people "get in the space" where they can pray in the Spirit, and not simply read the printed words or let their minds wander?
What forms of prayer or fully written prayers do you use in worship or help people to learn for personal and group prayer deeply enough that these forms and prayers can begin to pray them?
How do you leave welcome room for truly spontaneous praying-- both in your personal prayers and in corporate worship?
May we always take up our first vocation of prayer as we have been fully empowered and set apart as priests by God to provide it-- with our bodies, in community, and in the Holy Spirit!