Monday, 6 April 2009


Last night I posted a sort of snapshot of my current beliefs.

Today I am going to look at a more practical side of things.

I would say that the major change in my spiritual practice over the last few months has been that I am regularly engaging in structured prayer in a way that I have not before.

When I was young, one of the problems I had with Christianity as I encountered it then was that it seemed to be something we did on Sundays, and very fleetingly with grace before meals, and that was it. When I was very small I was taught to say bedtime prayers but it was obvious as I grew older that nobody else in the family did this. Somehow I stopped, too. I did try to pray in church, but my experience of church wasn't something that supported my private prayer. It didn't help that we moved every few years and so our little family was the only continuous community we had.

When I was observing Judaism I took on a lot. I took on habits of dress that were fairly restrictive. I took on dietary changes that make giving up chocolate for Lent look like a walk in the park. I took on making Shabbat, complete with timers for the lights and not cooking after sundown on Friday and not carrying--and there was no eruv in North London then. And all of these felt like prayer, in their way. But they were also very much things I did to fit in with the community. The bar is set pretty high for conversion to Orthodox Judaism and much of the time I found myself concerned with 'passing'. The community was warm and welcoming, and I wanted to be part of that.

Communal prayer in Judaism was strange and mysterious to me at first, then grew more comfortable and beautiful as I learned more of the language. Last spring I found, visiting a friend, that I could still get through much of the Grace After Meals, despite not having prayed it for years. But... again, my communal prayer did not support my private prayer. As a woman I would only be expected to pray once per day but I did not even manage that, most days. I did not even manage grace after meals when I was alone. I think this is partly because it was too hard for me in Hebrew, and partly because I was already doing so much and worrying so much about how I looked to others. When I moved to a geographical location where the community was less accessible, eventually all my practices faded away. My prayer had been so community-based that without the trappings of community it couldn't sustain itself.

I suddenly feel nervous about telling teh entire internets about my prayer life. A bit silly really. But I don't want to start writing about this just for the comments, I don't want to present myself one way and then find that actually, I'm another way, I don't want to walk into a trap of saying I do something adn then feeling a sham on days I don't manage to do it. So please, friends, take this, like yesterday's post, as a snapshot of where I am now, not a commitment to stay there.

Sometime in January I started praying Morning Prayer, first from the Oremus website and then the Common Worship version from the Church of England site. I think it was very soon after I read Jane R's book, When in Doubt, Sing... somehow I stopped worrying about doing it wrong, stopped worrying about agreeing with every single word and decided it would be better to pray, if that's what I want to do, than not pray. I've missed a few mornings here and there, usually due to internet outage. When I am home or alone I sing most of this, and read the readings aloud. When I am staying with Sweetie or when I'm so disorganised that I end up praying on the bus I pray silently, but that often means singing in my head. An interesting recent development has been finding myself imagining the psalmody in parallel fourths and fifths; I didn't make a conscious decision to try it, just noticed I was doing it.

I found myself wanting to pray by mid-afternoon most days. So I did, but sometimes the words wouldn't come, or more often I'd get distracted. I have a very wandery mind. It's easy to slide from praying to the sort of fidgety worrying that just wears me down.

I bought a book, Work and Prayer, which has Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Midday Prayer and an order for Compline in it, for Monday to Saturday. I started using the Midday Prayer and Compline many days. The midday prayer has most often been silent and I might get to it anywhere between about 10.30am and 5pm. It's hard to control my schedule in the middle of the day so I end up praying in breaks from rehearsals, praying in lunch break, praying on the train or the bus. Compline, I usually sing, though quietly so as not to wake my flatmates. I've been doing both of these most days since I bought that book, which the magic of the internets tells me was at the end of February. I'm not as consistent with these as with Morning Prayer.

Work and Prayer lacks much in the way of seasonal variation. Singing Morning Prayer from the C of E website and finding that oh, the text changes for Passiontide, I decided to look at other resources. I poked around the website. I considered printing off the bits I was going to use. I realised that by the time I've finished deciding what I want and printing it I may as well just go and buy a book, so on Friday I did that. I took myself off to the Church House bookshop to see what I could find. I ended up with Daily Prayer, which I will use at home when there is no internet or when I am brave enough to read the scripture from a Bible rather than nicely tucked into a website (this could be a good thing, giving me extra context. Or it could lead to entire mornings spent reading the Bible when I ought to be doing other things. Having a wandery mind is hazardous). But it's a bit big to carry around so I've also got a copy of Time to Pray, which has an order for Prayer During The Day and an order for Compline but more seasonal variation in it than the resource I had been using.

I still want more of the Summary of Law. To me this seems like the most important thing and yet it doesn't seem obviously prominent in any of these structured prayers.

I've also been going to church. I teach on Sunday mornings so the main service is out of the question. In fact I usually teach Sunday afternoons, as well. But my usually-in-the-evening students have cottoned on to the fact that early afternoon is easier for them, and my late-afternoon student can often do earlier in the day. When there is Evensong at Leafy Suburb Church, where Deacon Friend is spending her curacy, I go there if I can juggle my schedule appropriately. I don't know now whether I'm going to see her or for the worship. I've been made to feel very welcome there, despite my coming from so far away. When there is not Evensong at Leafy Suburb Church I go to Church on Hill for Evensong instead, which is in the area where I teach. I have to say, I don't feel as warmly welcomed, I find the music more polished but less heartfelt, and there have been some sermons which left me more confused than anything else. But week after week it's there, and I finish teaching, and I may as well drop by really. So I do.

My teaching schedule has changed a bit; I've lost some students. My first thought, after the teacherly regret, was that I might get to sleep a bit longer on Sundays. My second was that I might find an early service to go to. I'm not sure about that; the transport logistics don't work out very well at all.

I'll be moving house this summer, moving to a different area of London. I'm choosing the area based on many of my friends living there already and the possibilities for teaching from home, among other things. But recently I've also been thinking, "must check out churches in that area, see which are places I might feel comfortable, see where I might get involved even if I still can't make Sunday morning services." I can imagine myself getting to a weeknight Parish Eucharist. I can imagine myself getting to Morning Prayer at 8am somewhere.

I wrote, in an earlier post, of how others have influenced my own spiritual searching. I want to make clear again that none of them have put any pressure on me to change what I am doing or to encourage me to do as they do. In fact, all of them would be saddened, I think, if they thought I were doing this out of some desire to please them. But on days when I feel a bit sluggish, knowing that Deacon Friend will be saying Morning Prayer makes me want to get out of bed and do so too. On days when saying Compline seems like a silly, childish, goody-two-shoes empty ritual, knowing that Catholic Friend prays and takes it seriously helps me to take it seriously, too. And when I read prayer requests, great long lists of them on some of the blogs I read, I offer up my silent or spoken prayers then and there but I am also reminded, invited, to take time to pray at another point in the day. So while I'm not attached to any one community very strongly right now, I do feel supported, generally, by a community of prayer. I think that helps. And I think that maybe part of what I'm looking for in a church is a geographically convenient group of people to pray together with, something that will be able to carry me along when I'm less able to pray on my own than I am right now.

I don't know where I'm going with any of this. It feels like something I am doing out of need and curiosity, not something I am doing out of obligation or trying to impress others. So I am trying to take a wait-and-see approach, trying not to get too attached to this sort of structured prayer as any kind of hard rule but rather trying to remain faithful to the curiosity, trying to see where I end up next.

I've been doing all of this in a Christian context. This is partly because after trying to learn even the slightly familiar but new to me faith of Judaism, I don't underestimate how hard it is to learn something that isn't the mainstream culture. It's partly because the resources for Christian prayer are so accessible online, which is a by-product of some form of Christianity being the mainstream culture again. It's partly because people I love very much happen to be Christian and I want to understand them better. And it's because I think what I perceive as the underlying message of Christianity is true, and I'm willing to put up with some cognitive dissonance on issues like the Trinity if using Christian prayer structures is going to help me love the world better.

I don't think that makes me Christian. More on that in another post, though. This one is too long already.


Kathryn said...

You know, it's a privilege to read this. Truly.

Song in my Heart said...

Thank you.

I've a tendency to wear my heart on my sleeve a great deal. I'm never quite sure whether it's useful or just boring.

Knowing you read this despite a very busy week is a great reassurance.

8thday said...

I am enjoying your writing. Makes me feel not quite so alone in my being 'knocked on my arse and trying to re-center myself' church wise.

Song in my Heart said...


You are definitely not alone in that!