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Prayer and Sunbathing

by André Gounelle
translation Louise Thunin

˝Pray without ceasing,˝ writes the Apostle Paul. Impossible directions to follow ? It all depends on what we mean by prayer : a rite that we carry out or self-exposure to the presence of God in our lives ?

˝ I can’t manage to pray.˝ These words have been written to me by an enthusiastic young girl who has just completed her communicants class. An experienced minister admits to me with some embarrassment : ˝I never pray, except at the pulpit, when I’m presiding a service.˝ I ponder this. Might these two not be victims of a concept of prayer that I was taught in my youth : ˝You place your palms together ; you shut your eyes ; you speak to God, beginning with, ˝ Dear God, Father,˝ and you end with ˝ In Jesus’s name, Amen. ˝
I don’t mean to reject this ritual prayer ; it can comfort, support and even vivify some of us. But we have to recognize and accept that others find it artifical and hardly ever practice it or not at all. In this case, rather than feeling inadequate or guilty, it is important to consider what concept we hold of it.
A few quotations can help us. For Emerson, our sighs, our hopes and our emotions are prayerful expressions equal to, if not greater than, ˝audible and structured˝ discourse. Kierkegaard emphasizes that to pray means ˝ to be still and listen ˝ not ˝ listen to oneself, but rather…to remain in silence and wait until one hears God.˝ According to Charles Wagner, we pray when we open ourselves up to ˝ the One who alones sees all and understands all. ˝
Praying doesn’t (not only or mainly) consist of setting apart, between parentheses, a special time in order to say something to God, either in public or within ourselves, in a chamber whose door we have shut, following Jesus’ advice. We pray when in our everyday occupations, in the middle of or work and our activities, without interrupting them, we place ourselves before God, and we become aware that He is present and near.
I sometimes compare ritual prayers to sun baths. Every day we benefit from the sun, from its light and its warmth ; and then, in summer, sometimes we go to the beach to tan. Those special prayer times expose us to God just as, at the seaside, we expose ourselves to the sun. Their goal is to help us feel the presence of God with us more intensely, at every instant. As for sun baths, which can be dangerous if they last too long, we mustn’t overdo it (in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus provides his disciples with a very short model prayer). If ritual prayer bores or weighs on us, if the sun bath turns out to be tiresome or ill-advised, then let us dispense with it and look for something else. We don’t get any less benefit from the sun and God is no less present.
To my correspondent, I replied, ˝ Don’t worry, no one manages to pray well. When you contemplate a beautiful landscape or when you listen to music that touches you, you feel that you’re in contact with something that is greater than you and at which you marvel ; in this way you have, without realizing it, prayed.˝ To the minister, I replied, ˝ Actually, you pray a great deal, for, day after day, you refer to God in your readings, your meetings, your activities.˝ To those who cling to traditional prayer meetings, I’d like to say : Don’t blame those who don’t attend. They pray too, but differently from you.
We don’t know how to pray, wrote Paul, but˝ the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8 :26)…. ˝ In other words, if we don’t practice the rite called ˝ prayer,˝ it doesn’t matter. God prays in us and makes us prayerful each time His Spirit makes known its presence.

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À propos Gilles

a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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