Worlds come together in prayer

by Maria Munkholt Christensen last modified 22 January 2018 05:27 PM
Worlds come together in prayer

Photo by Albin Hillert/WCC: A moment of prayer at Bossey Ecumenical Institute.

22 January 2018

A thousand associations come to my mind when the theme is prayer: My Lutheran parents prayed for me and with me when I was a child, and my uncle who was a Baptist minister began dinners with long free prayers. In church and at home we sang Danish hymns with wordings such as: “All good gifts come from above” and “Now we all give thanks to God”.

Later, as a theology student, when I had moved away from the comforts of home, I had an assistant’s job at a hospital. I remember walking through the hallways of the hospital, thinking about the prayers uttered within these walls. It made me aware of the value and even necessity of knowing a language of prayer to seek hope and release.

After completing my master's degree, I decided to write a PhD thesis on prayer, and how prayer was used in the early church. In these and other ways, I have been surrounded by prayer my whole life, which is not self-evident in the North-Western context where I live.

It is my experience that people of my generation often avoid or do not use the language of prayer and often hold some prejudices about what prayer is – as if prayer is only an irrational attempt to change the causal progression of events.

Leonard Cohen, one of my favourite poets, said about prayer: “We’re such a hip age. Nobody wants to affirm those realities. It doesn’t go with your sunglasses. […]. But the practice of religion, the gathering of people to articulate the burden of their predicament, those things are important, too.” I quite agree with Cohen on this one. We need a week, a year, a life of prayer with one another.

In my studies on prayer in the first centuries, I focused, among other things, on common prayer, because in early texts, collective prayer is held in high esteem. For instance, St. Cyprian emphasized that we are praying not to “my”, but to “Our Father” as a collective people, and Origen envisioned that saints and angels join praying congregations.

However, common prayer is more than people praying in the same place; also prayers uttered in the same spirit, although by people who are geographically scattered, are common prayers.

Set times and ways of prayer have always created a fellowship among Christians although they found themselves at different locations and in different circumstances. The common activity of prayer creates a “sacred time” that joins people into communion. A scholar has noted: “Christians are bound together for they participate in a single liturgy, not just as a community, but as a body made up of geographically dispersed communities.”[1]

The idea of collective prayer, despite distance, goes back to Old Testament times - for instance, Judith prayed at the same time that the temple liturgy took place (Book of Judith 9:1). In prayer, worlds come together, and people are united. Prayer raises our awareness of God in our world, of our connection with past and present, of our relations and responsibilities in the world.

Prayer is something deeply personal. St. Augustine composed his autobiographical writing, Confessiones, as a prayer, and he expressed in it that only God truly knows him. Prayer is Augustine’s response and key to understand the pilgrimage of grace to which God has moved him Augustine also wrote in a letter that prayer is meant, not to instruct God, but to change the person praying. However, if prayer is helping us to come to terms with our own individual life, at the same time it is inherently social to pray.

Prayer is a bridge leading us out of self-centredness and of our struggles, into communion with God and with others. This Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is dedicated to the struggles and hard won freedom of the people in the Caribbean. I gladly join in this week of prayer – connecting from Germany to the Caribbean with prayer.

[1] O'Loughlin, The Didache and Early Christian Communities, in: K.J O'Mahony (ed.), Christian Origins. Worship, Belief, and Society. The Milltown Institute and the Irish Biblical Association Millennium Conference, London 2003, 103.