Prayer is awareness of our relationship with God. We are always related to God, God is not “somewhere else” but within us, around us, between us, as well as beyond us, whether we are conscious of God or not. In prayer, we become aware of this relationship. Such awareness can come spontaneously, perhaps in the heights or depths of our lives, but it can also come amid the ordinary. Often, as C.S. Lewis said of “joy,” we catch this awareness in the fleeting moment it passes, and are left with an imprint of God on the soul.

At other times, we become aware of God in intentional, cultivated ways and
practices. These could be formal, liturgical, structured prayers like the Daily Office, or they could be informal. Informal prayer can be conversational or reflective. In my own life, prayer has become increasingly reflective, a
contemplative shared silence. Desmond Tutu described this as something like pexels-photo-101982sitting before a fire, absorbing the warmth.

Like all relationships, our relationship with God has its seasons. Sometimes closer, sometimes more distant, sometimes going into the Dark Night when all sense of God’s presence is gone, and the old ways no longer “work” as they once did. The witness of Christian spirituality is that times of darkness are often the passage to a new and deeper awareness and practice of our relationship with God.

Perhaps the deepest prayer is a profound sense of unity — with God, with others, with ourselves, and with all creation. This awareness is not experienced as something separate from life, but rather the deepest connection with it. For most of us, such moments are rare, but unforgettable.

The Very Rev. Dr. John P. Downey, Dean, the Cathedral of St. Paul

This is the first installment in our Prayer series that will run up to the Diocesan Prayer Vigil in March. Click here to view other stories in the series, and here for more information on the Vigil.

“You Realize You Do This Wrong And I’m Dead, Right?”

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2017 newsletter of the Episcopal Mission of Warren County. 

Summer day camp for me when I was 12 involved spending 3 weeks researching local estuary health along the coast of Connecticut where I grew up. Project Oceanology provided a fantastic program for local science-loving youth that got us out doing real research. It’s fun to brag to others that I’m a published scientist with four papers housed at the University of Connecticut library. No word yet on if anyone has ever cited any of my data, but still…

Like every good experience for young people growing up, though, there’s more being learned than just the stated curriculum. So it was that one sunny morning I was in a 12-foot skiff with Mr. Hage who was one of our project directors (local science teachers who lead the program), scuba-diver-569333_640and two other young scientists like me out collecting water samples. At one location, we needed a clean sample from 8 feet down in the water, and due to the conditions it mean that our project leader would need to use his SCUBA equipment. After he donned the heavy tanks, adjusted his fins and mask, and checked the sample bottles to make sure they would open and close, he turned to me and asked me to open the valve on his tanks. I still remember his words, “one full turn clockwise, then a quarter turn back”.

As a bunch of 11 and 12-year-olds are prone to do, we had spent the whole time headed out to the sample station laughing about typical juvenile topics. We must have still been laughing as I reached over and turned the valve the prescribed distances. And thus I can still to this day close my eyes and see Mr. Hage’s face as he turned, lifted his mask, looked me square in the eyes, and said, “you realize you do this wrong and I’m dead, right?”

Most of us probably do not think of our relationships in church as involving such high stakes. We enjoy meeting people, enjoying the company of others who think and feel like us and being politely challenged by those who might be a bit different. That’s part of the growth opportunity that comes with being in a community: it’s a healthy mix of nurturing and challenging relationships that help us live more deeply into God’s desires for us. We can engage as much or as little in these relationships as we feel like any given day.

diving-403250_640I think there is more to our contribution to one another as we live together as a community of God’s disciples, though. We support one another in living our spiritual lives, lives that are under threat from so many forces around us. From the pressures of our busy lives, the challenges of medical situations, and our greater social and political world, our souls are always being severely tested. We spend a few hours together each week, and then we each don our tanks of spiritual fresh air and head off into the waters that bring both blessings and challenges.

In those times when we are together, whether all together on Sunday or Wednesday, or just a few of us at an event, one thing we are doing is preparing each other for our next dive into the wider world. We hold each other’s spiritual lives in our hands.

When we take time to invest in one another, to care enough to bring our best selves to one another with an eye toward helping them be prepared for their lives, we’re doing the real work of Christian community. We do this by educating ourselves to deepening our relationships, paying attention to practicing forgiveness, sharing of our own gifts, and working to hear one another’s stories. We do this work as well by committing to praying for one another, knowing that God joins us in the midst of prayer to open up even greater potentials for all. We do these things to adjust the valves on each other’s spiritual air tanks and invite others to check our own. We are building up the body of Christ, remembering the gravity of this thing we call discipleship life.

Mr. Hage brought me more than just a water sample that day, he brought me a lesson in how much we truly matter to one another. So far, that sense of how much we matter to one another has only grown for me in the years since. God has blessed us to be in one another’s lives not just for polite company, but so we can have true companions who love us and to whom we can direct his love. In this way we reveal the love of God to the world, in how we love one another as he loved us.

The Rev. Matthew Scott is vicar of the Episcopal Mission of Warren County – St. Francis and Trinity Memorial churches.