The Bell Newsletter of the Episcopal Church in Chester
St. Paul’s, 301 E. 9th St.
From the Priest-in-Charge
It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
Although she is an Episcopalian, the poet Mary Oliver talks of prayer in ways that are hard for a lot of Anglicans to completely accept, not because we sometimes find the concept of the Holy Spirit uncomfortable, (it shows up in our worship all the time, after all) or that her idea of it is a little “free-form” for people who are used to a framework on which to hang our prayers. Many of us use the forms in the prayer book because they are so polished, honed by people who have used many of them over centuries. If we are doing it mindfully, praying the offices, the daily devotionals or anything else in the Book of Common Prayer can feel like being in a side chapel in an old cathedral: you just know a place that has been prayed in over and over again.
The problem is the difference between prayers and prayer. Prayers are important, especially to a people who have spent so much time in debate over proper language, whose liturgies and practices help tell us who we are. But prayer, as we often practice it, is something different, and Oliver's admonition to “just pay attention” is about that difference. It is about a way of approaching our day or even the moment with a kind of openness and presence that we would not otherwise cultivate. Much of what we encounter in the prayer book are the “blue irises” that she mentions, prayers in lapidary prose that we can only admire in the ways they balance praise and petition, confession and intercession for those we love and those whom the world often neglects. But many of my prayers can be small stones and decidedly rough, and I bring them before God anyway because they are what I have.
It is about finding God in the ordinary and the beginning of Pentecost is a wonderful time to begin such a practice. When I visit friends, we take turns doing the dishes, but there are always some left in the morning. I am an early riser and I have begun to look forward to these dishes as a gift. The house is silent, and I can wash each of them slowly, thinking about the gift of touch when I rinse the plates, of gratitude for the food we enjoy, for the people who made it and for the lives of each of the people they nourish in our house. I can also think about each of the people, most of whom I will never meet, who will not have enough that day. It has become something as necessary to me as any of the other prayer I do and I am probably more intentional in its practice than I am about any other part of my prayer life.
During this season of Pentecost, this practice is also an important as a doorway into thanks, thanks not only for the Resurrection but for the hundreds of resurrections we experience all the time: the sight of a spouse, child or grandchild after a hard day, a glimpse of all the people at St. Paul’s coming into church on a Sunday morning. For all these things, the silence of gratitude often seems the only acceptable response, silence in which I can finally begin to hear the faint voice of the divine.
- The Rev. Mark Smith
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