I am a Friend called to pastoral ministry who values the older understanding of vocal ministry that prevailed before the pastoral system, and which many Quakers still uphold. I became part of a Friends church as a young adult, and that programmed meeting was the community in which my faith in Christ Jesus was formed; but my first experiences of Quakerism were in the unprogrammed tradition, in my childhood and youth.
In that first part of my life, I had almost no acquaintance with formed, vocal prayer. I must have heard adults pray aloud during meeting for worship every once in a while when I was a child, but not so that it made an impression on me. At Quaker gatherings, I took part in the traditional moment of silence before a meal or a meeting, but I do not think I really understood those interludes as prayer. So when I encountered vocal prayer as a young adult, it was in great and bewildering abundance. It was like being confronted with a new language. Over the course of years, I did absorb the grammar and vocabulary of vocal prayer, and eventually began to practice it myself.
In my service as a pastor, there are any number of occasions when vocal prayer is called for, and by now I have grown accustomed to finding the words that seem appropriate. At times I worry that I have grown too accustomed, too reliant on my facility with words, too pleased with the way that I seem to be able to assemble phrases and make them work together. I encounter a predicament when I rise to pray at the end of open worship in our meeting on Sunday: Whose words am I speaking? Are they coming from me only? Is there anything of God in them?
One way out of this predicament — one which likely occurs to most of you reading this — is to stop the words. Many Friends simply leave the words unsaid when they are unclear about whether they have been given by God’s Spirit. I am privileged to serve a meeting whose members are equally comfortable with both silence and speaking, and who would not be disturbed if no prayer came at the time that the bulletin said there was supposed to be one.
In the outward silence, sometimes it is still necessary to focus inwardly on words. When I am unsure of my own words, sometimes I need to hear someone else’s; in times like these, the words that best describe both the place I find myself in, and the place I know I need to be, are the words of scripture.
Many years ago, in a meeting of a small Friends worship group, I was introduced to “monological” prayer, a Christian practice that goes back much farther than the Quaker movement. It has its roots in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and is said to have first been practiced by the desert mystics of the second century. Because of that history, some Friends may be suspicious of it, but in its simplicity and its emphasis on scripture, I feel that it is a worthy companion to our waiting worship.
Monological prayer involves choosing a word or phrase short enough that it can be recited within the space of one cycle of breath — the fewer words the better. I repeat the phrase inwardly to myself, inhaling and exhaling, in an unhurried fashion. I continue praying the phrase, concentrating on each word, but taking care neither to rush through nor belabor any part of it. Over time, I may find that a particular word stands out, or that the words come into changed relationships with one another, revealing something new of the source which gave them forth. I often practice this method as a means of centering, for perhaps five or ten minutes at the beginning of open worship. At times I find I need to return to it in the midst of the silence for a longer time.
There are a few brief phrases from the Bible that I have used as monological prayers at various points in my life. The classic of the Orthodox tradition, sometimes known as the “Jesus prayer”, is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is an augmented version of the prayer of the tax collector, as recorded in Luke 18:9–14. Jesus values the simple, honest words of the tax collector over those of the self-justifying Pharisee — important to remember for someone given to piling up lots of fancy words, like me!
Another is “I do believe; help my unbelief.” These words, from Mark 9:14–29, are those of a desperate father seeking healing for his son, who is tortured by an unclean spirit. The man is in crisis; no one has been able to help. And yet, Jesus says, “Everything is possible for one who believes.” The man’s response has become an important prayer for me at various times in my life. More times than I can count, I have found myself in a state of simultaneous clearness and doubt. At times, these few words are the only thing I can pray. I believe that I knew this prayer even before I was well-acquainted with this particular Gospel story.
In recent months, I have been drawn to the opening phrase of Psalm 51, “Have mercy, O God, according to your unfailing love.” The traditional understanding is that King David wrote these words after being convicted by Nathan of murder and adultery. A plea for mercy similar to the prayer of the tax collector, this Psalm also expresses trust in the unfailing love of God, the loving kindness with which God remembers us, even when we go badly astray.
There are countless other parts of the Bible suitable for this practice. Immediate, heartfelt words of prayer and petition may be the best, as when people in need cry out in the Psalms or the Gospels. It could also be useful to explore some of the many expressions of praise and thanksgiving.
When our own words fail or are false, we need not fret. The words of scripture can help us find the Word that speaks to our conditions, by the same Spirit that gave those words in the first place.
Brian Young is a 2008 graduate of the Earlham School of Religion and is entering his fifth year of service at Berkeley (California) Friends Church. He is married to Stephanie Strait and they live in Berkeley with Mordecai, the pug dog, and Violet, the tabby cat.