1 Peter 1:3-17
“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” Soren Kierkegaard
Historical perspective has everything to do with understanding what brought on the “Dark Ages” and what finally brought western Europe out of that spiritual decline so many centuries later. For our purposes, it may be enough to know the Roman Empire under Constantine in the 4th century legitimized the Church. Consequently, the power of the Church rose and fell with the Empire itself since the power of the institutional Church came from the Empire.
Without delving into a lot of historical detail, let us remember that the real and legitimate and lasting power of the Holy Church comes from the Spirit of the Living God and our willingness to embrace the Eternal Word. Imagine, then, the limitations of the Church’s legitimate moral authority when we grant to the “empire” the power to say “yay” or “nay” in the life of the Church.
It makes me think of the irony between our disdain for Islam’s very rigid sharia law, the power of which comes from an “empire’s” authority to control – and our demand for institutionalized moral laws. I’ll grant it is a tension not well considered by many – including myself - because of the “rightness” of what we believe to be good and true and moral.
Nevertheless, institutionalized moral, religious laws were a disaster for the Dark Ages (hence the name) because the emphasis was (and still is) directed at what one must not do. The Gospel of our Lord, on the other hand, emphasizes what the Church must do in ministry, in service to others in life-changing ways not according to what the “empire” will allow, not according to what tickles our fancy, but by faithful devotion to a life of prayer in earnestly seeking The Father’s will.
It must never be our declaration that “the empire (rather than the Kingdom of Heaven) has come near”.
Yet this is the awkward position the Church finds itself in today, but it is not because the “empire” has done anything (though many are suspicious, and opinions vary regarding the overreach of the “empire” in the life of the Church). Rather, we are finding ourselves appealing to the “empire” in every election to … what? Give us back what we think we’ve lost? Protect our rights and privileges? Ask the “empire” to use its power to protect the Church from … the “empire” itself?
The Benedict Option, then, (named for the 4th-century monastic, not the former pope) challenges us, the Church, the Body of Christ, the community of believers, to return to our roots, to look into ourselves and to the ordered – and ORDAINED - life of the Church to determine exactly who it is we are appealing to for answers, for authority, for guidance, for protection, and even for permission to live into the Covenant into which we are baptized. If we are clamoring for judges and senators and presidents to be the guardians of the Holy Church, the Church is no longer holy and no longer guarded.
So we turn to prayer – not as a “last resort” but as recovery of the necessary, fundamental discipline; the order of the Church’s life AND the disciple’s necessary service and contribution to that life. I know many, perhaps most, Christians would impatiently prefer “action” to “contemplation”, but our actions must be informed by and bathed in prayer. It is what keeps us grounded in The Lord’s Presence and Will. “Life as a Christian requires both contemplation and action [because each] depends on the other. There is a reason Jesus retired to the desert after teaching the crowds.” Rod Dreher, The American Conservative, “The Benedict Option”
What this means is, first, we understand the nature of prayer; and that nature cannot be understood or even appreciated without acknowledging the contemplative nature of prayer. This means we do not merely recite a prayer, call it good, and then go about our business. Rather we take the time to fully engage in and immerse ourselves into the very Presence of The Lord. This requires no distractions.
In Jesus’ devotion to His prayer time, it was necessary for Him to disengage from the culture, from the crowds, and even from His friends so He could be completely with the Father without distraction. So in order to fully connect with the Father, Jesus was following His own advice: “When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father …” (Matthew 6:6).
Jesus’ life, His very being was entirely wrapped up in His intimate connection to the Holy Father. His prayer life was not incidental to His social life; rather His social life was dependent on His devotion to prayer. Jesus was not impulsive, it seems, because He was undivided and uncompromised in His prayer time. If you or I were to recite a simple prayer “on the fly”, it is likely we are already on a particular mission, our minds are already made up as to what we desire, and our prayer is not inclined to Divine Will as much as it seeks Divine Endorsement of our own desires.
It is a form of the false narrative of the so-called “prosperity gospel” we claim to reject. If not this, then perhaps the obligatory, perfunctory prayer just to say we prayed – rendering the undisciplined practice as empty as receiving Communion without understanding what it means or being baptized but only getting wet, lacking real resolve to follow Jesus. In each instance, then, we are reminded of Jesus’ affirmation of The Lord’s words to the prophet Isaiah: “They honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me”.
In every instance in which anything less than our whole self is engaged in prayer, we come away empty and perhaps eventually decide prayer doesn’t work; that we are better off simply operating for conscience’ sake, just “being good”, doing feel-good “programs”, living into that other false narrative of the “New Age” doctrine that we ourselves are our own “gods”.
Yet simply “being good” or living into our own self-proclaimed doctrine will never be good enough because we are acting on our own impulses, according to our own desires, and primarily for our own sakes. A question was posed at Annual Conference as to why things and persons are sometimes so nasty in the Church. It is because we are completely disengaged from the very Presence that feeds us and sustains us and informs us.
Compare Jesus’ actions with Peter’s actions within those last hours of Jesus’ life. Jesus devoted Himself to prayer – ALONE - before His arrest maybe because He knew there was the danger of His human impulse to survive overtaking His spiritual need to stay on The Father’s course. Peter, on the other hand, rather than being connected to The Lord except by physical proximity, lied when questioned, and then fled when he felt threatened.
Was it The Lord’s will that Peter survive to serve another day? Maybe, but this misses the point of our need to be in constant prayer – “on the fly” to keep ourselves aware of The Lord’s presence in our daily living and work, in our rooms with the door closed to be mindful of the reality of The Lord in our homes, AND with the Body of believers for the sake of the Church’s mission to be always mindful of The Lord’s reality in HIS Church – not OUR club.
Only in faithful prayer, then, can we know and appreciate what it means to fully serve in The Lord’s Name rather than acting according to our own desires. The ministries of the Church cannot be based only on what we may feel like doing within a particular “season” and only according to what we think is important and affordable; for our Lord, our God, our Shepherd alone knows what He needs from us in every “season”; and only He knows what it is we truly need for ourselves. Only in devoted prayer, then, will we ever know what these are.
We may already be in the midst of a modern “Dark Age” in which we have come to depend on the “empire” to subsidize and legitimize the Church. If this is true – and I think it must be because we seem to be more aware of the limits imposed by the “empire” – the only way out of the Dark and into the Light is by our Lord and Shepherd. Nothing grows in darkness. It is long past time to turn on the Light of the Church, the very Light of the world [for] (“You are the light of the world …” Matthew 5:14). Amen.