PostScript: Prayer in anxious times
Amid heightened anxiety, how do we find the peace ‘which surpasses all understanding’ (Philippians 4.7)?
Paul’s instructions to the Philippians to ‘rejoice in the Lord always’ and not to worry about anything (4.4,6) may well seem impossible, perhaps obscene, in our current challenging circumstances. We are daily bombarded with bad news. Unemployment is rising; our future is threatened by climate change; medical staff are dreading the coming winter. Some families are split apart, unable to visit each other, or offer comforting hugs. Other families are being forced to spend too much time together, leading to tensions in relationships. And some families are grieving. No wonder Britain is facing a mental health crisis.
We are all walking a tightrope – trying to stay informed, but without becoming overwhelmed; protecting ourselves from Covid-19 without jeopardising our mental health; looking for the strength and equilibrium to take action where we can, and live with uncertainty where we can’t. The advice for finding this equilibrium is deceptively simple: stay in the present moment, taking one thing at a time; look after your body and exercise regularly; allow feelings to come and go; enjoy the natural world, listen to music, or read poetry. None of these requires religious belief; but Christianity, in common with other faith traditions, also has wisdom to offer.
Little of the Bible arose from calm contemplation. Many of its writings represent a response to crisis. Think of the prophet Jeremiah, who castigated those proclaiming ‘peace, peace’ when there clearly was no peace (Jeremiah 6.14). Paul himself lead a stormy life (see 2 Cor 11.21-29). He writes of the power of Christ being made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12.9). Two present day religious leaders who have led demanding lives and witnessed devastating suffering are the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Yet both retain an infectious sense of joy. In The Book of Joy (Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams, Hutchinson, 2016), they advise that the fastest way to experience joy is to bring joy to others.
One image of prayer is as ‘the eye of the storm’ – the calm centre amid swirling winds. Prayer at its best is a time to let down our defences and be truly ourselves. A time to be held in all our vulnerability, uncertainty, and fear. As a new mum, overwhelmed by the incessant demands of a tiny baby, I received invaluable advice: Do not decide in advance on a routine of prayer and grimly try to stick to it. Instead, your discipline is to trust that time for prayer will be given; and the next time you get 5 or 10 minutes to yourself, spend them with God.
The psalm set for this week (Psalm 23) contains familiar soothing phrases, evoking ‘green pastures’ and ‘still waters’; but it also acknowledges that we ‘walk through the valley of the shadow of death’. The psalms, with their raw emotional honesty, are a valuable resource for prayer. They reflect the mood swings many of us are experiencing. In the lament psalms, only after the psalmist has poured out fear, rage, or grief, and dared to question God, does a note of joy enter in. The expression of distress is an act of trust, enabling the psalmist to then assert confidence in the loving kindness of God. Our joy needs to be built on an honest foundation, not on a delusional denial of reality.
Are you feeling the need to express all that is on your heart? Try writing your own psalm. Give yourself permission to be honest – to question God, to be angry, or to weep.
Or are you feeling the need for silence? Watch Laurence Freeman explaining the discipline of Christian meditation. He talks of being still; coming into the present moment; letting go of all thoughts; and going deeper – into the place of the heart.
- What time could you carve out for yourself, away from all the anxieties? Time simply to be. Where could you go? Or what ‘sacred space’ could you create?
- How could you bring joy to someone else?
What is the most joyous activity you can think of? Take time away from the doom and gloom, either on your own or with others, to do something purely for fun – like, say, jumping in puddles!
When and where have you heard Psalm 23? (Are you, by any chance, a Baggies fan?!) Try writing a version in more up-to-date language, either individually or as a group. You might like to look at The Message Bible for some ideas.
Ann Conway-Jones is an Honorary Research Fellow at The Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education.
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