A few years ago, Dover Quarterly Meeting focused its program on nurturing prayer in our meetings. I prepared this simple guide for the meeting’s use, and it still may be serviceable for a meeting or fellowship group. It is intended to take about one and a half hours, total; a leader gives the introduction, and then moderates the 1-hour exercise, keeping the time, and helping Friends keep on track. Don’t worry that much will be left undone — it is designed to leave participants wanting to go deeper! It is very flexible: If you use it, or adapt it, let me know!
Considering prayer together: starting the conversation
A. Introduction and preparatory exercise
1. We have expressed an interest in considering prayer together. There are many ways of approaching this topic, and all these approaches have been used over centuries. Therefore, there is nothing new to say — except in answering the question, How does this matter to me, and to my community, in this hour, this time of life, this age of the world?
2. Let us stipulate from the outset that, while some of us are more comfortable with prayer than others, and some have lives more saturated by prayer than others, yet standing as we do on the shores of mystery, and always facing a moment we have never inhabited before, we are all beginners. Experience helps, very much so; but the life we seek to encourage in ourselves and others is very tender and vulnerable, and can be found in unexpected times and places. So we need to learn from each other’s stories.
3. It is important to take seriously, from the beginning, that prayer is not primarily a thing to talk about, but to do. Therefore, in our time together, we should actually do some praying. We can structure some of this, but each of us should be on the lookout for the moment when prayer seizes us, provides us an opportunity — perhaps private, perhaps shared
4. One other postulate: the quality, or shall we say, health, of my prayer life is linked to that of my community. It is not that if I pray well, my community will necessarily do so, or vice versa. Yet the more of us in a community that have a healthy prayer life, the more resources the community has as it faces change, uncertainty, opportunity, or conflict. Moreover, a community in which prayer is active and open can do more for the seeking and praying individual than a community in which the inward life is covered or weak.
5. Prayer and its cultivation require us to be honest: about what we desire, what we can do, what we actually do or have done, what we can’t do or think. The only requirement is a positive response to the great, simple invitation that Christ has issued: Follow me. Come and see. Walk in the Light, which is perilous, unpredictable, and streams with utter reliability from a source of love and truth. To love God with all our faculties is our only commandment, which is inseparable from loving others. Find out what this might mean.
6. Try these on, and see how you respond — and think it possible your answer needs further inquiry:
Prayer for me is:
often or always interrupted
a way to see others
a way to remember joy
a goal hard to come at
- Prayer and the community, part 1. We often do not know if people in our meeting (or even our family) have any kind of prayer life, or what kind it is. It is hard to talk about; and then sometimes it is too easily discussed. It takes care and tenderness to speak from experience, with tenderness, and without posturing high or low. But it requires being, for the moment, available to simplicity.
- Prayer and the community, part 2. Prayer is hard to talk about in community, we may feel reluctant, because the conversation may reveal surprising differences or doubts present within or among us. Then we need to remember that prayer works best in honesty and charity: speaking reverently and matter-of-factly about doubt, anger, confusion, or dryness brings these or any other issue in to the right atmosphere for response: holding it in the Light.
- Prayer and the community, part 3. How shall we get to the place where we can actually know ourselves to pray in within our community — secretely, or small groups together, or during worship, vocally and silently? We need patience, freedom from fear, mercy, kindness, and the spirit of forgiveness and forgivenness: so we always are in need of some transforming.
- Pray as you can, how you can. We are tool-using creatures, so we often need (or benefit from) external means to support inward experience. Recognizing these two truths, one sees that prayer can be scaffolded by many means, including words, but not confined to them. Work, music, location, visual cues, physical activity, sitting posture, words — all of these can help us move towards, or maintain, the inward work. Wordless contemplation, the sheer practice of the Presence, may not be the highest path, though for some it is the sweetest.
Finally, though, these things serve just to help us come to the place from which prayer arises: every act of prayer is an act of seeking. Prayer comes to us, comes to meet us as we seek it, because it arises from God’s seeking us as we seek God, the double search. Prayer is a gift, not an accomplishment.
B. A 1-hour activity on prayer
- Settle into silence. Move towards prayerfulness (however you understand that), and call to mind how you pray and don’t. What helps do you use? What hinders prayer for you? (± 5 min)
- Briefly describe this to one or more persons sitting near you, and after a space, listen carefully to their description(s). Pause. When you tell about your experience, how does it make you feel? When you hear another’s, how does it make you feel? What questions arise now? (±15 min.)
- Center again. Out of the silence, tell your companion(s) what evidence you have about the prayer life in your meeting (in worship, at meeting activities, in homes, or in private). Do people talk about it, refer to it, read about it, call each other to it, do it visibly? (± 15 min.)
- Reflect and discuss: Is there anyone in your meeting concerned to encourage prayer? How do they do it?
- What could be helped in your meeting by a strengthened prayer life?
- (last 10 minutes) During the closing silence, ask: what might be a next step for myself? What might I try to encourage in my meeting? How might other meetings, or other Friends, help me or us move forward? Keep it simple, and keep it sweet. If you feel free to, put it into words to the rest of the group, and make yourself accountable for the next little step.
A few items to read and discuss as part of further work.
Heard, Gerald. Ten questions on prayer. PHP 58
Hole, Helen. Prayer, the cornerstone PHP 123
Penington, Isaac. Letters.
Snell, Beatrice S. A joint and visible fellowship. PHP 140
Steere, Douglas: Dimensions of prayer.