by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“Always pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and every petition. Indeed, pray constantly and attentively, always persevere in prayer for all the saints, the people of God.” — Ephesians 6: 18.
Many of you know (and I have probably said this from the pulpit about 1,000 times) I grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition. I can still recite in Latin whole swaths of the old Tridentine version of the Mass.
For example: “Et introibo ad altare Dei”— these are the first words of the Mass in Latin intoned by a priest. The person serving at the Mass then responds: “ad Deum qui laetíficat iuventútem meam.”
The translation: “I will go onto the altar of God,” are the words said by the priest. The server then says, “God, my exceeding joy, God who gladdens my youth.”
That is a quote from Psalm 43. Bonnie and I used that quote as a thought for meditation in the bulletin at our marriage ceremony, celebrated at First Parish Church, United Church of Christ in Brunswick, Maine, thirty years ago a week from tomorrow.
Now, the Tridentine version of the Mass was instituted in 1570. Only in 1962 was it revised for the first time since that date. (Slight pause.) Churches— did you know things change slowly in churches?
There was a second development with the Mass in 1962. Reciting the prayers of the Mass in Latin was no longer a requirement. Permission and eventually instruction to use a vernacular language was granted. English, French, Swahili— whatever the language common to a specific location or group could now be used.
Well over the years I have on occasion heard my companion Protestants make an interesting accusation about the how Roman Mass is celebrated. “Those Catholics,” it was and is still today sometimes stated, “those Catholics don’t even pay attention to what is being said. They just recite everything by rote.”
That accusation having been voiced, let me offer some personal history. In my youth I was, in fact, a server at Mass, an altar boy. So I have, myself, experienced, served at a Mass when a priest recited it by rote. The service lasted about 20 minutes.
However, this needs to be heard also. Canon Law requires all priests, every priest, to celebrate at least one Mass every day— not every Sunday but one Mass every day. That can be tedious and it becomes understandable why rote comes into play.
But, interestingly, a priest cannot celebrate Mass alone, by themselves. In order for the Mass to be valid, there needs to be at least one other person in attendance. And so, there needs to be a server. On occasion that server would have been me which is why I have experienced a 20 minute Mass.
However— and this is the real reason at least one person other than a priest needs to be present at each and every Mass and the very thing which makes the requirement interesting. The Mass both is and is meant to be a communal event. Worship is a communal practice.
That brings me back to the idea some people float about a Mass celebrated by rote. I agree. This happens. There are Masses said by rote.
However, if any priest or any altar boy or any parishioner recites the words of the Mass by rote, they are doing it wrong. That poses an obvious question: if celebrating a Mass by rote is wrong is there a right way to celebrate Mass? Indeed, is there a right way to be engaged in an act of worship? Is there a right way to… pray? (Slight pause.)
We hear these words in Ephesians: “Always pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and every petition. Indeed, pray constantly and attentively, always persevere in prayer for all the saints, the people of God.” (Slight pause.)
You have heard me say this from the pulpit probably about 1,000 times. “Let us be in an attitude of prayer.” Being in an attitude of prayer has nothing to do with our circumstances, our physical position, our past, about who we are about who we think we are.
In that an attitude of prayer might be about what we do as we pray, how we act, I want to suggest being in an attitude of prayer might be about focus. But what I do not want to imply by the word focus that there is any one way to attain a focused state.
We Westerners seem to equate silence or physical stillness with a prayerful attitude. That would not be true for a whirling dervish. They pray as they dance. Indeed, their dance, the movement itself, is an aspect of their prayer.
An attitude of prayer is about the state of your own spirit as you strive to listen for the will of God in your own life. And yes, striving to listen for the will of God in your own life may mean you need to be silent and still. That is just not true for everyone.
In fact, as I indicated about the Mass— and the Mass is, after all, an extended prayer— communal prayer is an important aspect of prayer. We need to pray with and for one another. So perhaps community is a contributor to being in the spirit.
To be clear, by definition each of us prays on our own and in our own way. But I would suggest God longs to hear the cacophony of prayer which pours forth when we pray together as a community. (Slight pause.)
I need to mention another interesting idea we Westerners seem to have about prayer. We treat prayer as if it was a medicine. Take this pill called prayer. It will fix everything. To me that makes prayer sound like snake oil medicine.
Prayer as a remedy also places prayer in the realm of monetisation— changes prayer into money. Pay this, get that back. Trade, barter, is not the purpose of prayer. So, what is the purpose of prayer? (Slight pause.)
You may have noticed something fairly unusual about our bulletin this week. There were three Thoughts of Meditation.
Here’s the first one: “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” — Mahatma Gandhi.
The second one: “There are three basic prayer themes: Wow! Help! Thanks! ‘Wow’ prayers express awe and wonder— amazement at… the miracle of life itself. ‘Help’ prayers articulate our deepest needs, hopes and fears, aspirations and longings. ‘Thanks’ prayers give voice to gratitude for our blessings— our lives, souls, the miracles, wonders and goodness that surround us every day,… the opportunity to be God’s partners in the ongoing work of creation, for God’s love and care.” — Rabbi Richard Block
The last one: “The purpose of prayer is not prayer. The purpose of prayer is to come to love God as much as possible with all the insights into the nature and presence of God this world allows.” — Joan Chittister, Order of Saint Benedict.
Did you notice the origins of these quotes? One is a Hindu; one is a Jew, a Rabbi; one is from a Roman Catholic nun.
There are two obvious conclusions to draw from that. First, this should be quite clear: prayer is a very universal concept, idea, practice. Second (and perhaps this is my take on what an attitude of prayer might mean), prayer is an act of worship and worship is a very universal concept, idea, practice.
All that brings me back to admonition found in Ephesians which tells us to (quote:) “…pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and every petition.”
As I suggested earlier, I believe God longs to hear the cacophony of prayer which pours forth when we pray together as community. So for me prayer is, first, primarily, an act of worship. Put another way, the worship of God is at the core of prayer. And the worship of God is, first, primarily, a communal act.
This stance makes no claim that each of us does not or should not pray on our own. This stance makes no claim that each of us does not or should not worship God on our own.
In fact what I am suggesting simply points out an attitude of prayer might be a place where we join hearts and perhaps even minds in worship. You see I maintain we are invited by God to community. In fact, I maintain the first invitation of God on our lives is to live in community.
And the first invitation of God on the community is to worship God. What is worship of God? Worship of God is extended prayer. Worship of God is striving, as best as we can, to pray in the spirit.
So yes, Ephesians has it right. We are to (quote:) “…pray constantly and attentively, always persevere in prayer for all… the… saints,… the people… of God.” And yes, that is how we are to (quote): “Always… pray… in… the Spirit…” Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Over the years you have probably heard me say about 1,000 times we are called to community. Community is not easy. Indeed, the Gospels and Epistles are clear: the Apostles and the early church had many arguments. And what makes community not easy is even when arguments exist we are, all of us, no exceptions God’s people called to be in community. So perhaps one key to community is the aforementioned communal prayer.”
BENEDICTION: Let us trust God to provide all we really need. God knows us, loves us and blesses us in Jesus, the Christ. Let us love one another as Christ has loved us. And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.