Quaker Prayers – Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, 5-7 Oct 2015: Report for Uxbridge Quaker newsletter
Whoever you are, prayer is not necessarily an easy thing. Quaker prayer is arguably even harder, and it is almost never actually talked about. The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2006) helpfully I think goes as far as describing prayer as a “battle” – against oneself, one’s surroundings, and “especially the Tempter who does all he can to turn (one) away from prayer”. (§572). I my experience there is indeed much that antagonises the reaching out of one’s heart and mind to God. Quakerism’s origins are located in a deep concern to go to war with all that distracts and detracts, to ‘crucify’ the intrusion of the self, and all worldly preoccupations that militate against pure silent communion with God. In fact ‘thoughts’ were held to be, in the context of Quaker worship, just the very Tempter – a diabolic intrusion. George Fox preached against idle imagining, against a flabby undisciplined spirituality – “Give not way to the lazy, dreaming mind for it enters into the temptations. “
So is prayer in the form of words suspect? I don’t believe anyone was saying that it was not, or that now it is not possible to approach the Divine Centre with words, inspired words. Language can be a ‘way in’ or a ‘way through’ the noise that separates.
But before I started out on the course into the practicalities of prayer, worship, Centering Down, etc a question arose as to the title of the course, the first in fact ever held at Woodbrooke… do contemporary Quakers actually pray? The conclusion I gained was that they most certainly do, even if they may not be entirely aware of it! One finds that the matter often comes down to a question of language. Few Quakers have any problem with the activity of ‘holding Friends in the Light’, or with the tradition of ‘upholding’ – such we might of the Clerk at the table in a meeting for worship for business, as she works away on an acceptable minute.
Prayer actually courses through the roots of Quaker tradition. Fox was described famously by William Penn as “above all excelling in prayer”, and as “most awful, most reverent of all in prayer”. For me the traditional Quaker caution about the use of God language, the care to find terms which resonate with others’ experience and the very silence at the heart of Quaker worship is a form of hallowing of the divine name. Early Hebrews approached the name – written in the consonants YHWH with great fear and trembling – it had ceased to be spoken aloud by at least the 3rd century BC during Second Temple Judaism, and vowel points for’ Yahweh’ were not written until the early medieval period. In other words Quaker experience of God frequently draws a response much more profound and awe inspiring than words can possibly reflect or accompany.
But back to the work of prayer – I think those without familiarity with the Bible, and the message of the Gospel are at a disadvantage as Jesus both set an example of prayer and taught explicitly on it, especially in Luke Ch 20. For me above all he demonstrated the essential “surrender’ of self-will that the practice requires. This holy surrender was much commented on by Thomas Kelly, a great 20th American Quaker. Jesus’ last words before his death for me serve as a hardy everyday breath-prayer along these lines: “Father, into your hands I entrust my life.” (Luke 23:46 CEB) He took this from the Hebrew Psalms (31:5) which makes this aspect of self-offering spirituality something spanning millennia.
The course examined biblical prayer, the different extents Quakers feel comfortable explicitly ‘praying for’ one another, other traditions like Sufi prayer, the use of the lawn Labyrinth, and so mixed things up as to extend our experiences and repertoire in our spiritual practice. On reflection, the course gave me more confidence in praying, and a resolve to do it more often, in different ways, and ideally all of the time, everywhere. A good start for a relative novice though is to start somewhere, at some place at some time, in some way, and then work from there. As regards our meeting, I’m sure that when our Quaker roots in prayer are nourished our fellowship is certain to flower and that we shouldn’t be prudish about prayer and in talking about prayer. There will be a variety of personal experiences which will enrich the community. We value an experiential spirituality and I’d say that the experience of worship – the engagement of the whole self, the exploration, the relating-to, the immersion of it, is all synonymous with prayer. In the words of another great American Friend Douglas Steere, in Dimensions of Prayer, in 1962:
“Prayer is for the religious life what original research is for science.”
In summary prayer is much like the art of living itself, living in the Light; it calls for discipline, self-offering, open mindedness, and perhaps above all, confidence. It requires no mediation, it is available to all.
This meditation of Gibran’s on the violent force of love, and the Psalm extract below it, with it’s prayer to be purged with bitter hyssop, for exposure of one’s secret heart surely speaks to the condition of every man and woman who experiences true love. It’s not all lace and bows…
(from Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet)
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth. Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.
All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
There’s a lot of mystification in religion. That’s not to say there is not awe and amazement to creation, and to Divine method. But we only need to be still and listen to our heart of hearts to hear what we are commanded to do, with the promise of all the riches over the Jordan. Stand still in the Light that discovers….
“God, your God, will outdo himself in making things go well for you: you’ll have babies, get calves, grow crops, and enjoy an all-around good life. Yes, God will start enjoying you again, making things go well for you just as he enjoyed doing it for your ancestors. … But only if you listen obediently to God, your God, and keep the commandments and regulations written in this Book of Revelation. Nothing halfhearted here; you must return to God, your God, totally, heart and soul, holding nothing back. This commandment that I’m commanding you today isn’t too much for you, it’s not out of your reach. It’s not on a high mountain—you don’t have to get mountaineers to climb the peak and bring it down to your level and explain it before you can live it. And it’s not across the ocean—you don’t have to send sailors out to get it, bring it back, and then explain it before you can live it. No. The word is right here and now—as near as the tongue in your mouth, as near as heart in your chest. Just do it!”
Deuteronomy 30:8-14 The Message