prayer: the heartbeat of the Church

This morning at morning prayer, as we waited to begin, there was a hush in the church. And in that hush, the quiet and muted thump thump sound of the clock’s mechanism up in the tower, counting out the seconds. In that peaceful space, it almost sounds like the heartbeat of the church, perhaps helped by the fact that the tower is situated above the crossing at the very centre of the church.

It made me think about prayer itself as the heartbeat of the Church. A gentle continuum, which is always going on somewhere in the world. As the sun sets in one place, it rises in another and people awaken and give praise to God. In the well-known hymn The Day Thou Gavest, John Ellerton wrote

As o’er each continent and island
the dawn leads on another day,
the voice of pray’r is never silent,
nor dies the strain of praise away

And not only is this prayer continuous within our twenty four hour clock; as I sat in St Mary’s, I was conscious of all those thousands of people who must have stood or sat in that place before me, offering prayer and praise and petition to God, for all kinds of things. For a moment, there was a sense of complete timelessness as the clock above me continued its slow heartbeat. Thump, thump, thump.

Sometimes words are wholly inadequate to express what we feel, what we know in our hearts. St Paul writes in Romans (8.26-27) that when “[w]e do not know what we ought to pray for, … the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And [God] who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.”

Prayer is as much about silence as words. Often it is beyond words. The poet George Herbert wrote several poems on what prayer is; perhaps the most famous is his sonnet, Prayer 1. In it, he begins with the word ‘prayer’, and everything that follows is a potential, possible description of prayer (pay close attention to punctuation in this poem!), but each one on its own falls very much short of what prayer is. It is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Prayer: the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinners’ tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Prayer is indeed the heartbeat of the Church. It is what connects us to God in relationship. It is often how God speaks to us. It is how we express our innermost anguish, it is how we give thanks in our joys.

Herbert finishes his description of prayer as “something understood.” In one sense, yes. But equally it is almost beyond our understanding just as it is beyond our ability to express in mere words.

The psalm set for this morning (Ps. 73) gave me an answer to this paradox, of something that I sometimes think I understand and yet the true essence of which always escapes me. The psalmist writes:

“Then thought I to understand this,
but it was too hard for me,
Until I entered the sanctuary of God…”

And in that sanctuary, hearing the gentle thump thump of the heartbeat of the Church, in the place where the very walls are soaked in the prayers of all those who have gone before me, in company across time and space with all those praying to God, both near and far, I understood.

(image by kind permission of Sutherland Rowe Images)