To mark the publication of my new website I would like to introduce you to my own personal spiritual journey, as I first learnt how to pray. I am only doing this so that you may learn from my failures more quickly that I did, and in the hope that what little I have learnt may be of some help to you on your journey.
My first recollections of prayer were of kneeling at my bedside repeating the same set of petitions night after night. God bless Mummy and Daddy, my brothers, and all my aunts and uncles who were mentioned by name. It was only after my cousins were prayed for in order of age that my turn came. I was not taught to ask God to bless me as he was asked to bless everyone else, but to make me a good boy! Who wants to be a good boy? I didn’t! So I stopped praying to be a good boy the moment I was left to pray on my own, and I started to ask for things instead. The first time I stormed the gates of heaven it was to ask for either an airgun or a catapult. Nothing happened for about a week and I was just about to lapse into atheism when the parish priest told the whole school that God was not only everywhere, but knew everything, even our most secret thoughts! It didn’t take me long to realise why my weapons of mass destruction hadn’t materialised. If God knew all things, even our most secret thoughts, he knew what I wanted them for! From then on I didn’t pray for things as often as I would have liked. Most things that I wanted didn’t fit in with being a good boy, so in future I didn’t think God was the best person to ask. Inevitably night prayers tended to be forgotten when they were no longer supervised by my mother, and when there was nothing that I could ask for that I thought God would give me.
There was another form of prayer that my mother taught me to use in the morning. She told to kneel at my bedside and make the morning offering. She explained how, by this prayer, I could turn ordinary commonplace things into something precious, by offering them to God, as Rumpelstiltskin turned straw into gold. I kept to it religiously for a time, until during a particularly severe winter I found it too cold to get out of bed and it didn’t occur to me to pray before I got up. We did say the Morning Offering at assembly in the local primary school, but when I went to senior school I forgot all about it. So, by the time I was ten or so, my personal prayer life wasn’t what it should have been, in fact it would have been non-existent except for a type of prayer that I discovered all by myself when I was only seven or eight years of age.
I was one of six boys chosen to be trainbearer to the May Queen. However I became so angry when one of the other boys was chosen to carry the velvet cushion for the Queen’s crown that I wolfed a large piece of chocolate cake that we had been forbidden to eat until after the ceremony. I made the mistake of sitting next to the radiator when the visiting preacher began his interminable sermon. Before he was more than half way through, the chocolate cake began to cook inside my stomach, and I had never been particularly fond of hot chocolate pudding. It ended up on the caretaker’s compost heap long before the sermon was over and I ended up feeling sicker than I’d ever felt before. It was the first time I really prayed from deep down within me, without any prompting from anyone else. When I had asked my mother why I had to pray that God would make me into a good boy, she said, “Because that’s what God wants more than anything else.” Suddenly in my hour of need the penny dropped. If that’s what God wanted more than anything else, then that’s what I will promise him, if he would only make me better and soon.
“Please God,” I prayed, “Make me better, and I promise that I will be a good boy.” Even at that tender age I had realised that God could not be bribed, not with the whole contents of my piggy bank, not even with the contents of all the piggy banks in the world. God had everything that he wanted, everything that money could buy. But I realised that I had it in my power to give God something that money couldn’t buy, something that my mother said God wanted more than anything else. When I did get better, I realised that I would always get what I wanted out of God, by promising to give him what I knew he wanted more than anything else. In case God rumbled my little game I only asked him for something when things were desperate, and even then I tried to be a little better for a day or two as insurance for the future. The first heart-felt prayer that most of us make is usually the prayer of bargaining with God, offering our good behaviour for his goodwill or for whatever we happen to need, or for whatever we think we need. I was always getting into trouble at school, particularly with the homework that I never seemed to do, with fighting in the playground and when the school report was due, so I never stopped praying for God’s help, in fact I couldn’t really manage without it, even though my prayers were not always answered. However there was another sort of prayer that I didn’t even realise was prayer at all, until much later, but I will write about that next time. In the meantime let me end by calling to mind the words of T.S. Elliot when he said – ‘the end of all our travelling is to end up at the place where we started and to know that place for the first time’.
After very many years of studying Christian spirituality especially as practised at the dawn of Christianity, my prayer life returned to the simple prayer my mother first taught me, but I understood it clearly for the first time. When I did I realised that, without any of the theological education that I was privileged to receive, my mother understood all she had tried to teach me in the only way that really matters and that was in the way she put her morning offering into practice every day of her life for her family and for the God to whom she offered everything each time she celebrated the sacred mysteries. What I learned from her is so important that I have made it the subject of a Podcast entitled ‘Entering into the Prayer of Christ’ which I would like you to listen to as it completes all that I have been unable to say in this post.