The third in our series of Letters from Lockdown, written each week for our e-newsletter, is from Robert Wilson, Churchwarden of All Saints’, Cuddesdon. This letter was originally published on Friday, 19th June 2020.
My letter is all about prayer. The lockdown forced a change of prayer practice on me and it has prompted much thought and a slightly different approach to how I pray. Ever since I became churchwarden at All Saints’, I have enjoyed walking through the village in the morning to the church and unlocking it. Always I went inside and sat down and as the silence closed around me, started praying. Very often I used the old Book of Common Prayer to help me get going: the language of Matins and Evensong, of the Communion service and all the other services in that book is very congenial. Out of reading and pondering a few almost randomly chosen bits, my own prayers would come, thanksgiving for the goodness of life, prayer for guidance and for help in the tasks ahead, intercession for those I love and for those I know are in distress. But, with lockdown, I am locked out in spite of my key and that time of daily prayer in a building I know and love had to change.
Instead of entering the church, I decided to continue to visit it every morning and to walk around the building as many times as I seemed to need and, in the course of this activity, a different form of prayer emerged. I have no prayer book in my hand and sometimes things seen or heard are distracting. Recently workman have been demolishing some of the farmyard buildings in the site to the east of the church. Great crashes signify the collapse of another bit of huge barn made of compressed asbestos. Demolition experts dressed like spacemen deal with it all. My eyes wander to the many areas of decay in the fabric of All Saints’; a huge task of restoration yet lies before us.
Prayer seemed more and more difficult until I remembered The Jesus Prayer.
This is a very ancient and brief prayer that is repeated almost as Pater Nosters and Ave Marias are repeated on a rosary. I understand that the Jesus Prayer is much used in Eastern Orthodox Churches and a few years ago, I attended a day course on how we might use it. Many people, far better qualified and more experienced than I am, have analysed its use and what I have to say is offered merely as a personal response.
The prayer is
‘Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
On first acquaintance, I did not like the way the prayer ends. Why should we grovel, characterise ourselves as sinners? This is a poor sort of way to evaluate all of human achievement and endeavour. But more recently the simple description of self as ‘sinner’ has felt entirely appropriate. Here we are, ordinary human beings, full of self-concern and self-regard, always and inevitably failing to live up to even our own highest standards, let alone approaching the love of God as manifest in Jesus. I now see ‘sinner’ in this prayer as defining the human condition, its creatural condition and the prayer places the ordinary human being in close juxtaposition to the Almighty One, the transcendent God, the God of creation and love and redemption. How can we approach such a Being? We can only say with Job, when the revelation of God’s greatness is made to him, ‘I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.’ Awe and humility are the only possible responses before the greatness of the transcendent almighty, the source of all life and light… Unless, that is, we pray through Jesus, for the Jesus Prayer is addressed to a person, to the person of Jesus; it is intensely personal and through that experience of personal closeness, our hearts are taken up into prayer and the Holy Spirit brings us into direct unmediated communion with God.
From repetitions of this prayer arise a desire to thank God for all the blessings of this life. I find that comes naturally as I circle such a beautiful place as our church. And it is natural to turn from the particular privileges and blessings of our own lives to pray for guidance and help in the challenges we face and to pray for those we love and those we know to be in need, to be aware of the wider suffering of people full of fear and anxiety, of some isolated in sickness, hospitalised but struggling for very life in the absence of their loved ones, to be aware of the deep injustices in our fallible human society and our human failure to live in peace. And we need and want to bring all this and so much else before God, not to nudge Him into action but to ask that we may in some small way be channels for His love in this often benighted world.
Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.