‘Prayer’ currently doesn’t have a very good press. The majority of church goers probably don’t bother with it, though they accept it is something they are supposed to do. For the increasing number of people who are more spiritual than religious, prayer is seen as boring and irrelevant.
Prayer is often thought to be talking over your current issues in a chatty relationship with God, OR assembling a shopping list of requests, OR telling God how marvellous he is. None of these have much traction with those who are more spiritual than religious.
But there is potentially much more to prayer than this; much that could potentially appeal to those who are more spiritual than religious, and who probably believe in angels and departed souls, visit Gothic churches, might well go on a pilgrimage, would call for healer or an exorcist if they needed one, probably engage in yoga, mindfulness or some kind of secularised spiritual practice, and love ‘Lord of the Rings’.
Celtic tradition: a good path forward?
I increasingly sense that the Celtic tradition of prayer is a good way back into prayer for those who have given up on it. It has a number of features that win people over. The language is beautiful and poetic, and it seems to come from a lost age of enchantment. It is refreshingly down to earth, dealing with practical matters like milking cows or lighting fires. It also arises out of real practical needs, such as how to travel safely in dangerous times.
I find that Celtic prayers for protection really strike a chord with many people who never go to church, specially that great Celtic prayer, St Patrick’s Breastplate, or something modelled on it. In suggesting Breastplate prayers to such people I sometimes hesitate to call them ‘prayers’ in case that word puts people off; calling it an ‘incantation’ or something like that makes it sounds more interesting.
You need a word for God that doesn’t raise quibbles. The Celtic ‘High King of Heaven’ is appealing, but ‘I call on the strong name of the Almighty’ seems to work. Many spiritual people are keen to invoke protection against ‘all that may assault the mind or harm the body’.
I recently suggested a short Breastplate prayer to a friend who had not been to church for 15 years. He took it up eagerly and used it about 25 times in the first day. Some people might feel that this is not really what prayer ought to be, but I would rather people started to pray in any way at all than had no prayer life whatsoever.
Such prayer has an urgency about it, and seems to be what Jesus envisaged in his story about knocking on the door of a friend at midnight asking for bread (Luke 11. 5-13). I suspect that God is happy to work with prayer that is passionate and needy, and prefers that to people going through the motions of prayer in a theologically correct way.
Christians have allowed prayer to be seen as boring and irrelevant. Radical and imaginative steps are needed if people are to take it seriously again. Prayer is worth recovering, but it is not an easy task, starting from where we are.