A couple of days ago I was asked to say a prayer to close a meeting. It's one of the joys of being in my line of work that people ask for this sort of thing. If they ask me on the spur of the moment, I usually pause long enough to remind myself of God’s presence, then open my mouth and just wing it. But if I have a minute or two to prepare, I often choose something from the Book of Common Prayer, not because I think God likes well written prayers better than my stream of consciousness (though that’s not impossible), but because hearing a prayer that has stood the test of time can help us think both about who God is and about what it is we really need from God.
Over the years, I have noticed that a few prayers from the BCP are greeted as old friends – people will smile in recognition when I start to say them, sometimes they’ll even join in. There are at least four that almost always get a response.
First, the prayer the BCP carefully labels “A prayer attributed to St. Francis.” Although it is generally believed actually to have been written in the early 20th century in France, the fact that so many people have associated it with Francis is testament to its Franciscan spirit:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen. (BCP, page 833)
Second, from the just-before-bed service of Compline, a prayer by St. Augustine, the fifth century African bishop who included it in a sermon:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen. (page 134)
Next, a prayer by John Henry Newman, the 19th century priest who is in the process of being declared a saint by the Roman Catholic church (this prayer gained popularity when it was featured in the movie of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules):
O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen. (page 833)
And finally, again from the service of Compline, the words of Simeon in the Gospel of Luke, when he sees the infant Jesus and recognizes him as, quite literally, the answer to his prayers (this prayer is known by the first two words of its Latin version, the Nunc Dimittis):
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. (page 135, in Rite 1 language)
These four are among the best loved in the whole BCP; certainly, they’re among my favorites. The first two do what many great prayers do: they gently refocus our gaze beyond our own limited horizons. It’s easy to pray for peace, but the Francis prayer leads us into praying, as the saying goes, “to be the peace we want to see.” It’s easy to pray for a restful night’s sleep, but Augustine’s prayer reminds us that our rest time is somebody else’s work time, and that our experience of the world isn’t the whole story of the world. The last two prayers present a vision of completeness, where the roller coaster of our day to day life is all part of our life with God, and where there comes a time when we can only say, “Right, for better or worse I’ve done what I can do; now it’s time to offer it all up and say ‘good night’”. In praying these prayers, we ask for what the prayers ask for, of course, but not only that. We also open ourselves to the prayers’ larger perspective.
What are your favorite prayers, and why? Good prayers can act as a sort of spiritual Rorschach test. They grab us in ways we don’t fully understand. If you don’t have a list of favorites at hand, try this experiment: take some quiet time and flip through the BCP, reading prayers at random. Some will seem stodgy, flat, lifeless. But one may strike you as particularly beautiful or wise or compelling. Ask yourself why that prayer seems alive to you right now. Asking the question may draw you deeper into your ongoing conversation with God, may even reveal a hot topic in that conversation you weren’t aware of.
In any case, it could be a promising (and painless!) way to do a little informal spiritual digging this Lent.