What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. -1 Corinthians 14:15
In my last post, I said that prayer is God letting us in on the eternal communication of the Trinity. Another way to say that is that God prays through us. This eternal and divine reality manifests itself in many ways. My working thesis is that God wants us to live into and experience the fullness of divine communion, and so we are led to pray in different ways at different times in our lives. Though God might lead us to pray in a certain way at any given time, and might withhold the gift of praying in a different way, I believe that God wants us to learn all of them. God wants Baptists to learn contemplative prayer and Catholics and Quakers to learn how to make their requests known to God “by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving” (Phil. 4:6). But everyone has to start somewhere. Be thankful for whatever way of praying God has given you, and don’t be in a hurry. The others will come in time (and not all of them are pleasant).
What I want to talk about now is how all this relates to communities and not just individuals. I am of the opinion that different Christian communions have different basic impulses regarding how they pray, listen to, and proclaim the Word of God. These are somewhat akin to the different charisms of Roman Catholic religious orders. These different impulses are not incompatible. They’re also not uniform throughout a congregation or a denomination. And the fact that a community has one basic impulse doesn’t mean it can’t grow and learn to express others as well, though I tend to think that one is always basic. I have learned to pray with the Book of Common Prayer, where the emphasis is on creating a liturgical, sacramental, and thus bodily context for hearing and responding to the Word. But under stress, I go straight to the Bible and a bunch of old Methodist and Baptist hymns about power in the blood (and sometimes to a fairly charismatic way claiming biblical promises and rebuking fallen powers). A congregation whose basic impulse is toward form and order can learn to welcome spontaneous and even ecstatic expressions, and a church that is more fundamentally inclined toward spontaneity or ecstasy can find that those gifts benefit from the form of the liturgy. “Thus one portion of being is the Prolific, the other the Devouring: to the devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains, but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole./But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer, as a sea, recieved the excess of his delights.”*
Many Episcopalians can be quite snobbish about other forms of worship, especially ones that seem to play more to the emotions. But we shouldn’t be. Those other churches may be missing something that we have, but we are likely missing something that they have. And people from more evangelical or charismatic churches shouldn’t be too quick to judge what must seem to an outsider like the formalism or emphasis on physical actions in our worship. Each of these embody a basic response to God, and at their best they are open to being enriched by the others. When we go to a church and find that its way of praying is not transparent to us (by which I mean that we do not in some way see God through it), then we should not assume that they are doing wrong. Our first guess should be that we have not yet been given the gift of seeing God in that way.
But we all have to go to church somewhere. Many people are raised one tradition in which they remain comfortably for their whole lives. I rejoice for them, though I myself ended up letting myself get transplanted. And as we find ourselves in an increasingly secular and mobile society, people find themselves “picking a church” either for the first time, or when they move somewhere new or feel drawn to something new, or for a million other reasons. And all I can say is that you want to find a church whose basic impulses are compatible with your own, and whose way of expressing those impulses are life-giving to you. It’s no good if it’s a great fit on paper, but you spend the whole service inwardly seething more Sundays than not. You need a church that you can love as it is, and pray with as it is. But you also want a church that is open to having its prayer life transformed and enriched. God leads congregations to grow in prayer, just like individuals.
I’ll end with a brief plug for the Episcopal Church (or at least why it works for me). I wish I could be a charismatic. The deepest and most transformative worship experiences I’ve had were the sort where you let yourself be overcome by emotion in an environment that is designed to evoke an emotional response. If you can get into it, you feel the Lord’s atoning blood close to your soul applied, get lost in wonder, love, and praise (funny that I can only use Methodist words to describe it, eh?). Nothing quite does what Hillsong used to do for me. The problem is that I can’t do that every week, especially as I get older. Sometimes (quite often, actually), the gift of worshiping God like that is just not given to me. And when you can’t get into a service like that, it’s agony. Everyone else around you is in tearful ecstasy, and you’re bored to tears. In Episcopal worship, there are times when I can engage it emotionally like that, and I’ve increasingly given myself permission to do so, even when it doesn’t look like anyone else is. But I don’t have to force the emotions. There’s also something for my mind and my senses to engage. There are actions to perform and things to think about. God meets me on all levels. It gives me the most room to express my own basic impulses, but also to work out other spiritual muscles.
I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the understanding also.
*William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell