“I’m surprised that you’re troubled with wandering thoughts in your prayers”, a lady said to me recently, assuming that we clergy have our prayerful relationship with God easy-going.
The truth is that not only I, but almost every Christian has this problem. Recently, to my shame I said the whole evening service of Compline whilst thinking of something entirely different and shocked when I realised what I had done.
I am not alone, for of the Confessions I heard from regular penitents, this problem was the most frequently referred to, hoping that I could help them to solve it.
As a result, I have returned to a practise of prayer that was my Intercession pattern for most of my priestly Ministry.
That is “Praying with mental pictures”.
Many of us have problems with our prayers, but this method may be of some help, particularly with the prayers that are part of our daily communion with God.
It may not work for you, but don’t worry too much if it doesn’t.
Ask yourself the question: “What is my mental picture of Jesus?” Many are still holding that Sunday-school image of a nice, probably white, young man holding children’s hands; the “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” image. It is essential that through reading and thinking, we can come to know the real human Jesus, almost intimately
First, seek Him in the Gospels, but particularly St. Mark’s, where quite tersely, Jesus is seen as a provocative young man, who “tells it as it is” but with a sense of humour. Try and build up this mental picture, for this is the key.
As a parish priest who visited as many of the parishioners as possible, whatever the circumstances, I tried to bring Jesus into my prayer, without needing to sum up suitable wording. Rather I imagined the person (or people) in their home or perhaps in Hospital or where ever, with Jesus beside them. Thus mentally and graphically bringing Jesus into the prayer.
I would in my imagination go along roads in the parish and stopping at each house where I had visited, praying that Jesus might enter into that family, whatever their perceived needs and picturing its inhabitants as I knew them, together with their Divine companion. In the process of holding this mental image, wandering thoughts were less capable of intruding.
This applied equally to cases where there were problems, and what I needed, was to bring the healer and the patient together.
Our prayers for people must issue from “love”; sometimes we shall need to pray for people who have offended in some way, but prayer that doesn’t stem from love (agape, which means “caring, or being concerned with”) will be ineffective.
In any case, once we bring Jesus into the prayer picture, we need to leave the result in His hands; it is not for us to determine the real need or the result we pray for.
This held good for me, not only for personal encounters, but also in situations (of which there are so many brought to us visually in the media) where we can bring Jesus into a refugee camp, a disaster, or whatever and whenever our prayers are focussed.
The Americans have a “WWJD” movement, which interpreted is “What Would Jesus Do?”, when faced with a spiritual problem or physical needs.
This can only be valid if the question is being referred to someone whom you have come to know through the Gospels together with our meditative thoughts.
Our problem is that we think that we can only communicate our prayers by words. If our minds are concentrating on pictures, there is less space for intrusive thoughts.
We need to realise that this form of prayer can be used in any circumstances, regardless of time or place, and even without words. It may not work for you, but give it a try!
A Ryde Councillor supported the refusalof a request from the Holy Trinity “Spire” for a grant towards their work, which supports all kinds of help for the homeless, the hungry, those who need counselling or help.
This Councillor justified this on the grounds that they couldn’t use public money to support a Christiangroup despite the fact that they are doing exactly what Jesus commanded His disciples as part of their Mission.
We are seeing a steady reduction in help for the under-privileged and infirm by both national and local Government. Whilst Mrs. May declared recently that it was the “end of austerity”, we are still seeing cuts in all manner of social work.
An examination of the Scriptures (both Old and New) shows that from the earliest days, God was seen as a champion of the under-privileged, the homeless, the hungry, with a command that even “strangers” (immigrants) should be welcomed and treated well.
If Jesus is the true face of the living God, then it is clear that there are some differences between the two pictures of God that we may have. Isaiah tells us that God does not require the blood of sacrificed creatures and elaborate ceremony, but rather demands social action in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and, caring for the sick, for prisoners and disadvantaged.
The Early Christians did so and when Jesus originally sent out the disciples to preach the Gospel, it was to be accompanied by healing and works of mercy, alleviating their needs.
The first call upon The Early Churches’ resources was to share their possessions with the less fortunate.
Even in the 1662 Communion service, the monetary gifts given by the people were predominantly “Alms for the Poor”; the cost of running the parish was to be met by the laity paying a tithe to the incumbent at Easter.
Where is The Church today in all this?
The disciples and their followers were commanded to “Heal the Sick”. Do we still consider this important, with the NHS at hand?
One of the great problems facing our generation is the growth of mental and psychological problems, especially among the young. Much of this stems from a sense of guilt, for which the NHS has meagre resources. It is significant that many of those needing healing in our Lord’s time benefitted from Divine forgiveness from which also flowed healing.
In my younger days, Prayers for healing, with Healing Services were part of the parish programme, regularly naming those for whom our prayers were desired. They seem to have disappeared over the last few decades, yet it is clear that there are so many folk, young and old who need “healing” (meaning “whole-ness”). This cannot come from a pill or an operation, but from a spiritual realignment.
People in such need often say that there is no one easily available with whom they can talk and open their hearts.
Dr. Iken (an American doctor) in her valuable book “New Concepts of Healing” wrote (in the 1950s) that of the people in Hospital in the USA, 50% had mental problems, of whom at least another 50% could “go home tomorrow if they could be convinced that their feelings of guilt could be removed”.
Jesus was concerned with making people “whole”, and among the tasks we have as Christians is to ease the shadow that lingers over many lives. The welfare of people, both spiritually and physically must be OUR concern, for our Good News must be accompanied today (as it was in times past) with these Social and health concerns which for many, only the Gospel can relieve. That is why our “Mission” can assist those who, whilst they may need a “Food Bank” also need to find access to the “Spiritual Bank” of which all are the “staff”.
"Now you have finished your 2 yr. Course satisfactorily, you have a year left prior to Ordination; what do you plan to do?”
So enquired our Co“llege Vice-Principal after I had received the satisfactory results of my General Ordination Exam.
Frankly, I hadn’t a clue, but one subject sprang to my mind, and that was the structure and conduct of the Prayer book services.
“That won’t occupy you for a whole year; why don’t you study “Moral Theology”, that will be of great pastoral help”.
What it meant was, studying human behaviour and being capable of judging the moral value of our judgements and that is important when dealing with troubled parishioners, particularly in hearing Confessions.
Provision is made in the Prayer Book for this (no, it’s not “Popery”), but essential when “guilt” is probably the most troubling emotion in many people’s lives.
The Confessional enables a penitent to have a one-to-one contact with a priest, which includes “solemn absolution”, but also spiritual guidance that can be tailored to their spiritual needs.
Among my set books was one by an 18th century philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who, whilst not a Church-goer had studied “why” we act in certain ways when making moral decisions.
His first important conclusion is that “The only thing that can be called good, without qualification, is ‘A Good Will’ “, for without that some actions may be misguided, for the prime object needs to be to act for the good of whatever or whoever we come in contact.
We may perform good actions, but they may possibility spring from some form of self-interest and not because we wish the best for others, meaning that their moral value is lessened.
Our nation could do with a lot of “good will” on all sides if we are to be an harmonious Society.
Setting the Bible aside for a moment, Kant attempts to draw up guidelines for “good” decisions and our nation could do with a good dose of that!
When contemplating some action or another, to test its morality, Kant suggests that we ask “Could this action be a universal rule for everyone?” In other words, if for instance you feel that you wish to harm someone in some way, could you make that action permissible for everyone to perform? If not, then it fails the test of a “Good Will”.
Then, passing to social relationships, our philosopher considers how we treat people. He says that when dealing with them we need always to consider in making decisions whether we are “using” people to attain our objectives. If so, we are abusing their status and humanity. He says that “We must always see people as an end in themselves, NOT as a means to an end”.
Kant stresses there must be consideration regarding other people’s status and dignity, for each one of us is capable ot “using” others to achieve our own ends.
Now, if you have been with me so far (well done!), you may feel that if Kant has read the Gospels and Our Lord’s teaching, then he and we, will find all this enshrined in Biblical teaching, not only in the New Testament, but also in the Old.
We are to “Love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and our neighbour as (much as we do) ourselves”
That is why, when the Summary of the Law is read at the Communion, to which we reply “Amen (which means “I agree") Lord have mercy” we are pledging ourselves to allow our ‘good will’ and consideration of the needs of others to guide our judgement.
You can sum this up with words from a 1930s Song (altered):
“It ain't what you do it’s the WHY that you do it”!
Well, that isn’t quite what St. Paul said (Romans 10, v14); he said “Preacher”, but it’s much the same thing, for what people need today, regarding Christianity is “Knowledge”.
I imagine, few who spend millions celebrating the birth of Jesus, ever equate the spit and blood covered tottering figure carrying a cross, with the sweet babe surrounded by squeaky clean angels.
Of course, they buy Hot Cross Buns” (on sale from Christmas) but few understand why, and the figure on a cross is something alien. There is the true story of a young lady customer who said to the jeweller “I don’t want one of those plain crosses, but one with ‘the little man’ on it”!
The truth is, that we are no longer a Christian nation, for the simple reason that there is no one as far as I can see, trying to inform people of any and every age what the Gospel really is.
Nor has there been to any degree since the end of the last war.
You may tell someone that the word “Gospel” means “Good News”, but be incapable of explaining what that Good News is.
If you tell someone that it is “Jesus died for us on the cross and rose to life again”, fair enough, but such is the widespread ignorance, that they may well reply “Pull the other one “!
Study will show that there are diverse explanations of the cross by scholars, some of whom do not agree with the others, some of whom do not see the Father God as “loving and caring” when He allows His Son to die a criminal’s death in order to appease His anger at the world’s sins.
So, explaining The Gospel” is not simplicity itself.
Nor do many see the true Jesus, who was an outspoken revolutionary and have little awareness of who He was and why. They dismiss Christianity (and indeed most religions) as “boring”.
Reading the Gospels (especially St. Mark), we discover that Jesus was never “boring” or “respectable”; anything but! He was one who spoke the truth about Man and God, arousing animosity in all His critics.
A brave man who walked steadfastly into shame, pain, ignominious death and in some mysterious way, that man was (and is) also, God, which baffles us, but we are dealing with a Being and force beyond our comprehension, which many (including some church-goers) find difficult to grasp.
The Evangelistic report of which I have spoken before, in its criticisms of the Church of England’s condition (writing in 1944), drew attention to the poor preaching that was (and sometimes still is) heard in our parish churches.
As Editor of the Portsmouth Diocesan “Link” (from1967-1977), I used to receive numerous copies of parish magazines, which revealed the inability of many clergy to present basic teaching to their people in a language they could understand.
Indeed, so was the ignorance in the post-war years that the report spent a chapter on “How to use the media”, including literature (parish mags., radio and TV etc.) that went into people’s houses.
Indeed, I had words with one Bishop, for he seemed incapable of writing something that the average parishioner (living on the big Portsmouth estates) could understand; remember, that in those days we published no less than 27,500 copies of the “Link” (compare that with the measly 8,500 that now comes in the form of a quarterly, high class magazine).
The Bishop replied that “He wrote for the ‘opinion formers’ of the parishes and not for the ordinary folk!”
Whenever I have taken over a parish, I have always kept the 3 “Cs” (Communication, Community and Communion) in mind as the thrust of my Ministry.
“Between me and you there is a great gulf fixed” so Lazarus (in Paradise) told the rich man (suffering in hell) (Luke 16, v26) and the truth is, that the great gulf of “ignorance” still exists, so what should we be doing about it?
I sat spellbound as I watched the Easter Day Eucharist on the television from a packed St. Alban’s Abbey 2 years ago.
It was more congregational than many cathedral services, using the same Gloria, etc. as we sing at Brading, with an eminently understandable sermon, immaculate ceremonial. The more intriguing moment was when, prior to the “Peace”, one be-coped Canon disappeared (did he need a toilet perhaps?) but to return leading, like a clerical Pied Piper a procession of children, some babes in arms, together with their parents who joined the congregation for the rest of the service, and although “wriggly”, settled down as they proceeded into the Offertory Hymn.
A further surprise was to come, in that unlike getting a paternal pat on the head as a blessing, children as young as (I would think), 8 yrs. old received Communion together with their parents and behaving reverently.
“Were they confirmed?” you may ask, and the answer is simply, “No”, but the cathedral was taking advantage of rules that were changed some years ago, saying young children could be allowed to receive, provided that they were suitably instructed. This was to be authorised by the Bishop of each Diocese, some of whom welcomed the change, others were antagonistic. But the Ely report on the matter, concluded that Communion of unconfirmed children was lawful and indeed, desirable.
“But, they’re too young to understand?” is often the cry, yet an examination of the Acts of the Apostles, shows that whole households were converted and baptised, Despite the Church of England’s rules about admission to the Sacrament, Church history shows that Confirmation as a necessity for Communion was not part of the Early tradition. Indeed, Rome has always accepted baptism as the qualification, together with the Eastern Orthodox, for they give Communion (administered in a spoon), to the newly baptised baby!
It is Baptism that makes you a Christian and we have no evidence to think that an Episcopal Confirmation was always essential. Indeed in the Prayer Book rubrics, it says that “None shall be admitted to Communion without Confirmation or be ready and desirous to be confirmed”. When you think of medieval times when the whole of Cornwall was in the Diocese of Exeter, with communications being so poor, one wonders how long someone living in St. Ives might have to wait before the Bishop could arrive?
It is due to this policy that St. Alban’s Cathedral is able to instruct and welcome whole families at the Communion rail into the Family of The Church and this practise is growing.
We are able to hold services with a teaching element for the whole family and there is a growth of suitable lesson books available offering imaginative and participatory teaching.
Is this the way forward? I think so, from my own pastoral experience, but think and pray about it, for you may well disagree, but the lack of children and young people in our churches shows that what we are doing is not working.
However, I am only trying to give you some idea of how The Church is moving to become as inclusive as is reasonably able.
Children can accept teaching, without necessarily understanding. In answer to the cry “They won’t understand” I am bound to ask “Do YOU understand?” Because, I don’t. “I believe and accept” for that is what Faith is all about. Experience tells me that by “believing”, I truly receive the benefits of that Faith and Belief. Think about it.