Listening spaces was the term which really struck me during the preparation of my service within the Prayer theme of Holy Habits.
Prayerful listening spaces are transformative in people’s lives in a framework of lamentation, listening and living. In “Being Christian”, Rowan Williams encapsulated Christian prayer as follows:
So, for the Christian to pray – before all else – is to let Jesus’ prayer happen in you.
Being Christian, Rowan Williams, SPCK, 2014. p88.
Lamentation is the raw and sometimes angry side of prayer. Psalm 39 was not written from a state of “happy bunny-ness”. The Psalmist is not messing around here. He is telling God that life is not easy, and it is very frail. The prayer is:
“Hear my prayer, Lord,
listen to my cry for help;
do not be deaf to my weeping.”
Psalm 39:12 (NIV)
Lamentation is all about the validity of a raw, crying-out. It has the integrity of letting out the anguish of tragedy and also the remorse of culpability in that tragedy. It can be a confession crying out for forgiveness.
The Psalmist turned to God in search of hope in such a situation:
“But now, Lord, what do I look for?
My hope is in you.
Save me from all my transgressions;”
Psalm 39:7 (NIV)
An important aspect of prayer is not so much what we say. I don’t have this view of God as being an examiner:
“Ooo, you didn’t get that quite right – if you had added “in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit”, then you would have got the full 3 marks.”
We can read an example of a transformation of someone’s life by listening in on prayers in Acts 16. Throughout Acts, Luke tells how people found spaces to “sit down”, often to pray. Here it was outside the city by a river:
“On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.”
Acts 16:13-14 (NIV)
Listening – and I don’t mean being there when somebody else is speaking – listening to people, sometimes to their lamentations, can be a profound act of prayer and grace: a healing act. Churches should be listening spaces. Listening is a way to go beyond “our selfish thoughts and ideals and hopes”, as in the way Rowan Williams describes prayer:
“That, in a nutshell, is prayer – letting Jesus pray in you, and beginning that lengthy and often very tough process in which our selfish thoughts and ideals and hopes are gradually aligned with his eternal action”
Being Christian, Rowan Williams, SPCK, 2014. p89.
Rowan Williams encapsulates the writings of some early Christians on prayer: Origen (3rd century), Gregory (4th century) and John Cassian (5th century). They stress the important links between prayer our our ways of living which can realise: “our selfish thoughts and ideals and hopes are gradually aligned with his eternal action“.
From Origen we have:
“Being ready to pray is being at peace with other people”
“generosity to the needy is part of the purification that prayer requires”
Being Christian, Rowan Williams, SPCK, 2014. p95
Prayer is not world-denying and insulated from our relationships with God’s family. Gregory reminds us of how prayer can change patterns of living:
“Prayer is a significant part about resolving conflict and rivalry. If people prayed seriously, they would be reconciled”
And the challenging:
“..you can go and do miracles – like forgiving your neighbours, and giving property away to the poor, because that is how God exercises power.”
Being Christian, Rowan Williams, SPCK, 2014. p99
Cassian provided helpful advice about how to carry out such prayers:
“Let your prayer be frequent and brief”
Being Christian, Rowan Williams, SPCK, 2014. p108.
But even then our minds can stray away, and his advice was to have some words that would bring you back – something very short, such a part Psalm 40:13:
“Come quickly, Lord, to help me”
Psalm 40:13 (NIV)
Once back, then within prayer, living in a way that puts other things beyond your self – by listening, by reconciling, by giving, by serving, helps give space for something else. That is when words fail, and expressions like Presence, Nothing (No Thing), Absence try but fail to do justice.
And do the things that happen in life make more sense with the concept of prayer? I would say sometimes, yes, definitely. In a Sound Bite, “What on Earth is Prayer”, Richard Everett provides some images of how in prayer we can listen to lamentations, and help the lamenter with our listening and our way of living.
“…Of being canvas
Awaiting the artists’ brush……
Of being empty of everything
and willing to be nothing
Until you are ready to be something.”
Sound Bites, Richard Everett, Monarch Books, 2014, p.171