Public prayer

A man who stands and prays to God. God hears him and replies. And through the scripture and prayers he reads, he hears the response of God and prays again. In that act and event of conversation that man is not just an individual acting incomprehensively in isolation. He is there together with the Lord, and the Lord with God and God. The man who stands and prays speaks with God, and speaks with and through all the generations who have prayed in this way. Though we only see only one man, two are present there. The man we see draws our attention to the Lord he speaks with. He makes visible or at least draws our attention to the otherwise invisible Lord. As long as he stands there, an upright and unmoving figure in a town centre, he is communicating with God and with man.

Perhaps our concern with written words means that we do not notice the much more direct form of public communication that takes place through this simple act of standing. The Christian communicates simply by standing still there, in public. The act of the single Christian who stands in one place and prays is effective because it is visible and public. It is an address to God and an audience with God that is simultaneously an address to the neighbourhood and nation. He simply stands there where he can be seen, and is immediately noticeable because, unlike all around him, he is still. He prays, worships and intercedes so that the world around him can hear and grasp that they are witnessing a public conversation of man and God, and they may realise, rightly, that this sets a challenge before them. Will they respond? What response can they make? When Daniel heard about the publication of Darius’ decree he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed together just as he had always done (Daniel 6.10).

He may pray and be silent, and then pray and worship so that onlookers can hear him. He may stand, and he may kneel. Those who watch or listen, or jeer and heckle, and eventually become embarrassed by their own inability to add anything to this event and who move on and return to their own business. Those who jeer are unlikely to outlast him. If he follows the long-established prayers and psalms adopted and set by the Church over many centuries, he will not run out of prayers. If he stands on the street outside a Church he can assume convention and usage give him permission for this prayer and that he is not intending to obstruct any other public activity. The spot he stands on is his as long as he remains engaged in this public event of communication that is listening to God, and replying, in prayers which are also audible to those around him, and who can therefore add their Amen and so join him. This makes this a generous act.

The man who stands and prays in a public place is engaged in a foundational political act, of creating and recreating public speech. He giving witness that there is a conversation that precedes us, and that we may address one another because this conversation precedes us all. The nation participates in a conversation that has been passed on from one generation to another from long before there was writing and literacy or a single united nation, or government or a state. He is sustaining the breadth of what may be heard in public, and so he dispels our anxieties about public speech, and so he dispels the timidity of the nation. By praying publicly, and so articulating the vast range of concerns expressed through our prayer book and psalms, he is ensuring that anything can be said in public, and so that the nation’s conversation with itself remains large and healthy. As long as he stands there, he holds the public square open.