A few weeks ago the St. Paul’s Prayer Group went on a ‘Quiet Day’ to Foxhill, the Diocese’s retreat centre in the woods near Frodsham. Surrounded by trees and gardens, the setting is an ideal place to take time out to ‘grow together with God’. The astute amongst you will have noted that ‘growing together with God’ is part of the St. Paul’s Vision statement (along with ‘living, loving and serving’). However senior we may be (or feel) there is always room for us to grow in faith, and doing so together provides mutual support and encouragement, sharing experiences and insights.
Such small gatherings however are never intended as ‘holy huddles’. The great contemplatives and mystics of the early and mediaeval church taught that any special experience of God we may have in prayer is never for the benefit of ourselves alone but for the building up of the church as a whole.
Our retreat leader, Veronica Hydon, Vicar of Bollington, chose appropriately the story of St. Oswald as our theme. Oswald was a seventh century soldier-king from the region of Northumbria. On the eve of a battle against invading Britons, led by Cadwallon, Oswald erected an enormous wooden cross at the head of his army and invited his fellow soldiers to kneel and pray with him. They agreed to do so and were victorious in the battle of Heavenfield the following day. As a result, many of the soldiers converted to Christianity, which thereafter became widely established in Northumbria. Subsequently Oswald adopted a gentler approach to the Gospel, recruiting the Irish monk Aidan as Bishop to minister to his people, and accompanying him on tours of the country, acting as interpreter for Aidan and showing compassion to the poor. As a result, he became known as Oswald Openhands.
Veronica invited us to reflect on Oswald’s confidence in asking God for victory – of great significance bearing in mind the performance of England’s football team at the World Cup…
She then read us some thoughts by Graham Turner, former Rector of St. Michael’s, Macclesfield, on the difficulty of prayer, and the importance of paying attention to our own lack of confidence.
Graham’s words echoed those of St. Paul in Romans 8: “We do not know how to pray as we ought,” (or, in Graham’s language, “I often feel rubbish at praying.”) – words which I find enormously comforting as I sigh and groan my way through my own prayer times. In fact, says Paul, it is the Spirit of God who prays in us, interceding “with sighs too deep for words.” How we formulate our prayers, and even what or whom we pray for, is secondary to the work of the Holy Spirit in us, interceding for us beyond the capacity of our language to express and comprehend.
The important thing, then, is just to have the desire to pray, allowing God to “search our hearts”, not trying to control the conversation God wants to have with us and through us. Sometimes though, we may not have even the desire to pray, being too busy, or too discouraged. Well, says Paul, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” He also makes it clear that the Spirit prays “for the saints” – in other words, for the church – which means that you are being prayed for even when you don’t feel able to pray yourself.
Growing with God, and growing closer together as a church, on this reading, is the work of the creative, sustaining Holy Spirit. May we all have ‘open hands’ and ‘open hearts’ this summer to co-operate with the Spirit’s work amongst us and in us.