Is prayer the new taboo?
Sally-Anne Lomas talks about different aspects of praying.
Working on The Cloth of Kindness Project I spent many hours in the chapel of the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) sewing quietly. I witnessed a wide variety of people – staff, patients and visitors – in private prayer.
A young nurse of African origin came to the chapel regularly before her shift. Her praying was glorious. She sang, she chattered, she laughed, and even danced. I didn’t understand the language she spoke but I could see she had an uninhibited and personal relationship with God. Blimey, I thought, I really need to work on my praying – I’m so uptight and English.
I realised then that I had no idea how other people prayed. Prayer is such an intimate experience. I’ve had conversations with my friends about their sex lives but absolutely none about their prayer life.
“Better to talk about your sex life than your prayer life. Safer to invite your friends to go out drinking than to a prayer meeting. Some things are just too personal,” warns young Christian Micah Bales in his blog. Has the burden of shame shifted from sex to prayer? Is prayer the new taboo? With considerable trepidation I decided to ask some of the people in my life to spill the beans on their prayer lives.
Prayer as reassurance
I have worked with cameraman Richard Graveling on many film projects. I think he is a Christian but we’ve never discussed matters of faith. In the time-honoured tradition of cameramen, Richard is handsome, charming and an outrageous flirt. (He’s also a devoted husband and father.) His conversation generally revolves around sport. I feel perfectly happy to tease Richard about his love life but asking him about his prayer life seems wildly daring.
He admits that prayer is not something he feels comfortable talking about outside of the environment where people know him well but he bravely agrees to tell all. For him prayer is primarily ‘reassurance’.
“It’s probably a bit one way, me asking, needing, but it’s instinctive and something I reach for when I feel out of control. You’ve probably seen me, when we’ve got a big lighting set up to do, taking myself off for five minutes, I’m praying then, not for an extra 3 by 1 light panel but for help to manage the situation. It puts me in touch with a bigger picture, stepping out into a helicopter view, and relieves some of the stress. I talk in my head to God, maybe just five or six words, not a long monologue.
“Since I’ve had kids I also pray more with gratitude. We said prayers at home when I was growing up and my wife and I say bedtime prayers with our children.
“I used to secretly pray before I went out to bat for the cricket team but it never worked! I think there’s a certain kind of British reserve that applies to prayer as much as anything else. You see footballers from other cultures kneeling down in front of millions and openly praying. Grime artist Stormzy’s latest album is called ‘Gang signs and Prayer’ so clearly some people have less of a problem being public about their prayer life.”
Prayer brings comfort
My next target is 73-year-old Jean Carr; a quiet, unassuming woman who has lived in Norfolk all her life and is one of the mainstays of our village church. I’ve known Jean for nine years, we are neighbours, have fundraised together, shared meals, but the subject of prayer has never been mentioned. When I ask her if she’s happy to discuss her prayer life she readily agrees and says she feels quite comfortable talking about prayer.
What is prayer, I ask, and she replies immediately: “talking to God”. She describes her prayer life as ‘spontaneous’ rather than disciplined; she’s inspired most often by gratitude, especially for the countryside and a beautiful day but also by concern for those who are sick or grieving.
“Prayer brings me comfort because I can give my cares and concerns to God. Prayer is important to my faith because it’s about my personal contact with God. That’s easy to overlook in a busy life and like any relationship it suffers if neglected.”
No one has ever taught Jean how to pray or given her any advice. “I’ve just been left to get on with it. You’re expected to know how to pray.”
Jean remembers the time when there was a Home Group in the village where people prayed together and that regular community of prayer was a great support to her.
Prayer on the job
How, I wondered, does private prayer figure in the lives of the men and women whose ‘job’ is praying for others? I asked the Revd Darren Thornton, Rector, St Giles, Norwich.
“For me prayer is speaking with God and asking for a blessing for those on my heart; not just people, but for the world, every aspect of being, and particularly for those who have died. Prayer joins my soul to God. As a member of the Clergy I say the daily offices three times a day, that’s part of my job and I like the way that gives a ritual and structure to my day.
“My own private prayer life occurs mostly when I’m cycling or at the gym. I ride along and give my thoughts to God, I look at the car exhaust fumes and pray for the planet. And I pray when I swim, I find the physical exercise clears my head and I’m able to concentrate on prayer.
“I’m a Chaplain at UEA and even students who have no faith will say ‘Yes please’ if I offer to pray for them. I’ve been asked to pray by a burly man in a pub who’d had a lot to drink. He knelt down with his hands together in the middle of a city centre pub. Prayer is instinctive to people.
“I think we need to break the taboo around prayer, we shouldn’t be embarrassed but must go for it.”
Prayer amidst pressure
I’m interested to talk to Gill, a leading oncologist who works mainly with patients whose treatment is not curative. Does prayer help her to cope with the responsibility she has for life and death?
Gill confesses that prayer is not something she would usually discuss openly. In her work she has to be careful to share her faith in a neutral way. But privately prayer, for her, is opening up the self to God, revealing a hidden and vulnerable part.
“More listening for me, breathing in God’s goodness. Prayer starts the moment I open my eyes in the morning, feeling grateful for another day, being here. I like the early mornings, day-dreaming with God, no noise, no interruptions, just the bird song. I do have a formal prayer time at the beginning and end of each day but prayer happens at all times, with the people I see, seeking guidance, asking God what they need, how I can help them.
“When the shortage of beds gets extreme I pray to respond with my heart rather than to the pressure. I couldn’t do my job without prayer. It’s central to everything I do, without the connection to God, it wouldn’t feel possible.
“People faced with serious illness do start praying. But we can’t always see from God’s perspective, healing can be bigger than just physical healing, our vision is limited. Many people reach a level of acceptance in which healing is a whole experience, psychological and spiritual rather than just physical.”
Is there a role for prayer in the NHS?
“Yes, the NHS is parched spiritually, and I long to find a way to bring prayer to the people I meet but I don’t know how to do that within the professional boundaries.”
Finally, I discuss the matter with my hairdresser, who tells me that she doesn’t pray at all, but then thinking more deeply says: “I did pray like crazy when my baby was in hospital and she was in danger.”
In extremity I suspect many non-religious people reach for prayer.
Prayer for all
A recent nationwide survey by Christian relief and development agency Tearfund found that 51 per cent of adults pray, whereas only 33 per cent attend church once a year.
One in five adults said they prayed regularly. Among those who said they had ever prayed, but had no religious affiliation, their top reasons for praying were: in times of personal crisis or tragedy, on the off-chance that something could change, as a last resort, or to gain comfort or feel less lonely. There does seem to be a human instinct for prayer and in the privacy of their own hearts.
Prayer is personal and unique to each individual. Everyone’s relationship to God is different. But maybe, in the way that more openness about sex has combatted unnecessary ignorance and shame and promoted greater understanding and tolerance, it’s time to find a gentle and sensitive way to bring prayer out of the closet.
Of course there are many places where people do publicly come together to pray, in home groups, at church prayer groups, on quiet days and at retreats. There is also a wealth of advice and support available online for those who’d like to develop their prayer lives or who are new to prayer.
But if Christianity is to reach out to new communities, perhaps we need to be more open and less embarrassed about the power of prayer. Rather than feeling that prayer is too intimate to talk about with people who have no apparent religious beliefs, we should be talking to them about why we pray, how we pray, and the benefits of prayer. By breaking through the taboo we may be encouraging them to come out about their own secret prayer life.
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