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Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?

Last week, I shared about my experiments with the Episcopal liturgy. The liturgy comes as a liberation from the type of prayer that I was exposed to in Quaker circles. Quaker theology seemed to require that I either feel immediately inspired by the Holy Spirit, or not pray at all. Through the daily repetition of a spoken liturgy, I’m invited to pray more consistently. Regardless of how I might happen to feel at any given moment, I just show up.

As I continue to explore this framework for regular prayer, I can stop worrying so much about my own emotional state. Instead, I return to God. I remember why I’m here. I rededicate myself to the love God calls me to. I am reminded of what a miracle it is to be alive.

The liturgy empowers me to pray alone. A challenge of the Quaker tradition, in my experience, is that there is a great emphasis on corporate worship and prayer. Oftentimes, I felt a lot of pressure to gather other people for worship simply to get my own spiritual needs met. I’ve found that Quaker worship often doesn’t work very well for me if the group gets too small (less than half a dozen). Doing Quaker waiting worship on my own can often feel more like merely sitting in silence and less like standing in the presence and power of the Lord.

What’s fantastic about praying the hours is how much freedom it gives me to go solo. While the liturgy is well-suited for corporate worship, it is equally effective for personal prayer. If others want to join me in praying the hours, all the better; but if not, I can pray alone. This takes a lot of pressure off. I can invite others to join me in this spiritual discipline, but whether or not they find it worthwhile doesn’t impact my ability to practice it on my own.

I do believe that corporate prayer and worship is essential. I’m not called to the life of a hermit, and I’d like to pray with others if given the opportunity. For the last few weeks, I’ve been praying the hours on my own. Now I’m pondering what might be the best ways to invite others to explore this practice with me.

During the rise of state-run Christianity, the desert fathers retreated to the Egyptian wilderness to practice a monastic faith deeply rooted in personal prayer, scripture reading, and the psalms. These early monastics withdrew from the co-opted Christianity of Empire and devoted themselves to personal transformation in the way of Jesus. They often lived alone, retreating into the desert to fast and pray. Yet even among the hermits, there was community. They joined together for corporate worship. They counseled and watched out for one another.

What might this kind of monasticism look like in the midst of the great imperial city, Washington, DC? Is it possible to bring the wilderness into the streets of the new Rome? Can a desert spirituality emerge in the midst of daily life, work, and family? What can I do to cultivate this kind of presence, awareness, awokeness?

Despite the great individual freedom allowed by the liturgy, the need for corporate faithfulness does not go away. The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – yet we cannot be any of these things if we refuse to reach out to one another in love.

How do I live into this one, holy, catholic, and apostolic community of love? For now, my best guess is to continue praying the hours, attending the Church of the Brethren on Capitol Hill, and encouraging the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. I’m “play-testing” and refining my personal prayer book. I hope to make it available soon, in case others might find it useful. If you’re interested in receiving a copy, let me know. Perhaps, like the 4th-century desert fathers, we can find a community of prayer in the midst of our spiritual wilderness.

Related Posts:

Can I Pray the Episcopal Liturgy as a Quaker?

Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?

  • “Perhaps, like the 4th-century desert fathers, we can find a community of prayer in the midst of our spiritual wilderness.”

    I pray we can… It seems we are once again at one of those crossroads in faith that calls for – or that God calls us to – a desert life in perhaps a new way. Jesus’ 40 days seem to need to be relived again and again. The deserts fathers & mothers, St Francis, the Carthusians, Mother Julian, Fox himself, Iona, perhaps… I think you’re right: it’s time for another one.

  • one of the things I most love about regular Jewish liturgy is that it is designed with a “Standing Prayer” at its center. In most traditions this is recited individually together, if that makes sense: We all stand in the presence and recite the words of the prayer book and/or of our hearts, together, in “silence.” Jewish tradition says that you should recite “silent” prayers just loud enough for yourself to hear (which means that in some synagogues you hear a not-so-quiet mumbling). After that, there is a common recitation aloud, together.

  • Ruth

    I appreciate your openness to changes in practice which draw you closer to the Divine. As a practicing Quaker I often feel bereft of Spirit when worshipping in my meeting. I recognize the joy of corporate worship but unless everyone who is gathered is indeed listening for the voice of God, then we are as you so aptly say, ‘merely sitting in silence’. It is my understanding that in some Quaker communities the doors of welcome were opened to all but we often fell down on the job of offering guidance to new people of an understanding of what foundation we stood on. Soon those friends who were not previously appreciative of a tradition of faith came to understand that we were simply experiencing a brief hour of quiet – a balm to the angst of life in our times. They often resent the ministry that hinted at a faith in anything in particular.
    I began a practice of Christian Meditation which was started by Fr. John Main. This daily practice alone and regularly with others came with a firm foundation of the teachings of Jesus and it was through the WCCM that I was opened to the desert fathers AND mothers and the very different path taken by Eastern Christianity.
    I believe the dissolution of listening to the voice of God in deference to human leadership was what troubled George Fox. There was in him a call to set aside the politics, money and control that Western Christianity had fallen prey to.
    From where I stand, there is room in our Quaker practices to embrace the things which offer us personal proximity to our Guide. I have the Book of Common Prayer on my bookshelf too and many other works from outside of Quaker experience. They speak to me. I often reflect on something I heard from Richard Rohr. “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is control.”
    Let us seek God – there is no label necessary. There is no cause for hubris over any particular path. Let Us discern rightly the leadings that come.

  • Maggie Meehan

    It occurs to me that a gathered meeting for worship does not preclude other occasions for individual prayer in any form.

    I keep a journal in which I have a very simple structure: first come thanksgivings, then intercessions and lastly petitions.
    Something else that helps me value both structured and unstructured prayer is understanding Muslim prayer forms. Most of us are familiar with the regular times of daily corporate prayer. There is also a private form of prayer called dua which I understand as a more free form prayer of dialogue with Allah. From Muslim friends I understand that “dua” is often intercessory but its characteristic feature is its individual nature.
    I hope writers more familiar with dua will amend this as needed.

    • BCZ

      I keep a journal as well, but also don’t understand exactly what could possibly be the move against talking to God when ever moved by the spirit. I find this aspect of Micah’s piece surprising and a little confusing. I can read and meditate on devotional s of various types, but these aren’t prayer… so,etimes they become prayer… but I don’t force it. But I can find anything that is hostile to this in the Quaker tradition (as opposed to forced scheduled prayer – where’s there clearly are some rather stark writings on the subject in early Quakerism)

  • Mariellen Gilpin

    I journal, too. The practice began as a way to figure out where reality was, when I was labelled (not diagnosed, not really!) mentally ill. My therapist actively discouraged God-talk, and also actively discouraged journaling. I think she was afraid I’d journal myself deeper into a hole. She used a cookie-cutter approach to therapy; she never did ask me, for instance, “Do you ever find you’ve dug yourself deeper in a hole when you journal?” and “What do you do to keep from triggering yourself when you journal?”

    My pattern for several decades is to begin each day’s journal by recounting the events (outward and inward) since the last time I wrote. Then I reflect on what I’ve recorded and consider how I might work around the trials and temptations I’ve recorded. I have always watched for the patterns in my behaviors, and worked to improve the patterns, And I always do this work in the presence of God.

    I often do this work in the diner while I wait for my first appointment of the day. The diner regulars use their observations of me to start conversations. I think they pick up the vibes of what I’m about–they never pry–but often their first conversations are about their lives, their sorrows and regrets. I think they sense I’m reflecting on my life and feel permitted somehow to reflect on their own. So journaling for insight has become a form of modeling self-reflection….

    • Very cool! Thanks for sharing that, Mariellen.

  • Terry H

    I will bereally interested in your prayer journal when it is available.