hold my hope

So, when did you last sit down with a book on prayer and find yourself laughing? Oh, all right. I do laugh with books on prayer — but it’s often a bit rueful, as I face yet again the gap between what I hope for and what I sustain. This was different. This book is funny — and worth sharing:

Ana Hernández is someone whose worked crossed my path last autumn when I went to the Music that Makes Community workshop in New York. She is a creator of earworms, and teacher of chant.

Earworm first. I think I have shared this before: Open my Heart. It doesn’t sound like much at first, but trust me — if you listen to it a few times, it will sing itself in your consciousness at the most helpful times.

I love her songs, and they have been a large part of my prayer for the last year — but I confess, the book has made me a bit nervous. The Sacred art of Chant: preparing to practice.

I like chant. I like it contained safe in the walls of Evensong and Compline. I like it sung stunningly by well trained monks. But this book seemed to be asking more of me. I suggests that I might chant. It suggests that I might make it a part of my daily prayer. It suggests that I might make noise in prayer. Silence, yes. Noise? God of all Scariness, give us strength.

Still, you know that I tend to think that what terrifies us is good for us and one of the ways God calls us to grow, so I have persevered. Ana Hernandez makes strong claims for chant:

Chanting with an intention to open our hearts and minds to the presence of God in us helps us to be quiet in the face of mystery and learn how to hear what it has to say to us. Chanting can hep us focus when we’d normally space out, stay calm when we’d normally blow up, raise our energy level when it’s time to go out, lower our energy level when it’s time to go to bed (or vice-versa — you make the call). Chanting is great at helping us fathom how to deal with our emotions so we don’t feel overwhelmed and so we don’t overwhelm others: It helps find and maintain a balanced perspective.

… and I have this nagging hunch that what she is saying might just be true.

So, I wanted to share it — to say ‘sing this. read this. try this with me?’

Even if you find that chant is not your thing, I think this is a book worth reading. She is asking big questions about how we can live more openly with God and one another, and how we can ‘manifest our sweetest selves’. I suspect that only someone who is not always sweet could have stumbled across that goal, and I find that very reassuring.

I’ll give her the last word: Hold my hope. The Schehallion Reel of chanting:

nowhere but here

Kelvin is asking good questions again about the theology and praxis of The Church and Virtual Reality.  He sets out questions enough for several doctoral thesis, but it was this that caught my eye.  He says:

‘Prayer generally takes place in virtual space.’

And I thought, ‘does it?’ and then, ‘he may be right…’   I am caught somewhere between agreement and rebellion at the thought, so I thought I’d play out the question here.

Let’s start with the easy positives — the ways in which I could imagine talking about prayer as a virtual space.

  1. prayer — like cyberspace — creates, strengthens and sustains relationship even when we are physically absent from each other.  So, yes: a virtual space.
  2. prayer — like cybersapce — connects us across time.  Whenever we pray, we join in something that is already happening, in Christ, and in ‘the whole company of heaven.’  We join in when we can, as we can, and become part of something bigger.
  3. prayer — like cyberspace — creates its own environment, and that environment changes us.  As we pray we are drawn deeper into prayer.  The time we spend in prayer changes how we perceive and relate to the world at ‘other’ times when deliberate prayer slips into the background.  There is always the danger that we will use ‘prayer’ to avoid other forms of engagement, but this is not true to what prayer is, and if we pray well, it will lead us to more engaged action.  All of this does indeed seem very similar to what happens in online communities, and strengthens the idea that prayer is a ‘virtual space’.
  4. my sense of what happens in prayer is bound up with the idea that prayer starts and ends with God.  We are taken into prayer, into Christ, and although I believe that is a ‘real’ ‘space’ I will have to concede that it is also, technically, a virtual one. The body of Christ is not limited to (nor excluded from) physical presence.

But still, there are things that pull against the idea too.

  1. While prayer might connect us across time and space, we can only pray in a particular time and space.  Prayer is not served  by severing ourselves from our physical reality.  Honest prayer demands that we face distractions, emotions, sensations with openness to God’s presence there.  Sometimes, our physical reality will distract us.  Sometimes it will pull us more deeply into God’s presence.  But never is it irrelevant to who and how we are with God in any given moment.
  2. We are made in the image of Christ — in the image of God, who becomes human and takes our bodily existence into the divine life.  Bodies matter.  We pray as much through our physical actions, movement, stillness as we do through our attention, our thoughts and our words.  (all in agreement: please cross yourself now.)
  3. I believe that the gift of God in the moment will always trump the idea of God and the communion of saints across time and space.  I know that morning prayer is richer and deeper right now because each day, it has been accompanied by the first warmth of a blazing sun.  It is hard not to see this as grace, and I will experience it as such even though my rational brain says that the coincidence of prayer and sunlight can be explained (quite easily) otherwise.

So, does prayer generally take place in virtual space?  Sort of.  I will concede that that it does not depend on physical presence, and that it draws us into something that transcends the limitations of time, space and physical reality.  It has real effect on us without physical change.  But that is not the whole story.

Prayer is always embodied – in word or song, in stillness or breath. Prayer invites us to to meet God in the fullness of our reality — so that we pray from the whole truth of our lives, and all the lies too.   Even if, in my prayer, I am praying for and with those who are physically absent, I can only pray well if I am present to myself.  And that cannot be a virtual reality, or one which denies the physical self.

My hunch is that the question Kelvin asks is crucial, and that the very tensions of it will help us pray and relate better.  It is not either/or, but both:  virtual and real. Embodied, and transcendent of the limitations of time and space.

And — pace, dear Information & Communications chair — that goes for ‘virtual reality’ too.  The communities we create there are real as well as virtual, embodied as well as distant: a gift of God, pulling us into relation.


I caught the cathedral purring today.  Bright sun filtering through the clerestory onto the ceiling vault.  Vergers on benches or leaning against pillars, at ease among the tiny handful of visitors.  I love it like this; a gift of unmerited grace.

Then, the voicing of the organ began: a long low note from the south transept.   Voicing fascinates me, though I know nothing but what one gleans from hearing it done.  The note begins fuzzy and rumbly and is allowed to fill the space.  Then — slowly, miraculously–  it is gathered in.  The fuzziness stops.  The note rings true, and the building sighs in response.

Pipe after pipe, note after note, it is the same: each drawn into its own centre, then taught to resonate with the others.

It seems like a perfect expression of both church and prayer.  One note at a time, prayer turns the volume up on our fuzziness, till the true note sounds and we are gathered in.

It’s a slow process though.  Slower for people than organs.  In the time I was there, Jophiel and the organ tuners managed three pipes.  God and I were content with just one.