August 2012 Witness Letter
Why is it that old churches seem so much holier than new ones? Is it the architecture? the old wood? the dust? I have spent that past week touring many beautiful and historic churches in London and Paris and I reflected while I was there that there is something powerful about these buildings that goes far beyond their style of architecture or their state of repair. I’m sure that others have experienced this as well: that feeling of walking into a place and knowing instinctively that the spiritual world is somehow closer to us there. While I think that architecture, age and grandeur all play an important role in drawing our minds and hearts to God, I do not think that it is what gives these places their sense of transcendence. What makes these churches holy is the effect of prayer over time.
Prayer has a cumulative effect over time. Day after day, year after year, century after century, people come to these places to present to God their hopes and their fears, their thanksgivings and their petitions. Churches are witnesses to the joy of baptism and new life; the hope and commitment of weddings, confirmations and ordinations; the sadness and grief of reconciliation and burial, all the while being filled by the adoration of the faithful and the presence of Christ’s body and blood. How could the effect of such weighty matters not transform a place over time? I think that prayer works upon the world in much the same way that a glacier does. A glacier’s movement is usually imperceptible, but it is one of the most powerful natural forces on earth. The Himalayas, the Alps, and even the island of Manhattan all owe their form and existence to the work of glaciers. I think that those centuries of prayer scratch away at the material world like a glacier pushing away the earth’s crust and they allow us to reach a place that is much deeper and closer to the foundation of our existence.
I once worked in a church that had a sign near the entrance that read: “This is a place where prayer is wont to be made.” You knew that what the sign said was true; you could feel it in the walls of the building. The years of daily prayer and almost daily Eucharist had transformed that building into a sacred space, the holiness of which no one could doubt. Once when visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, I leaned up against a wall for just a moment, only to discover when I pulled away that my hand now smelled strongly of incense. It was a delightful reminder that prayer becomes a part of the fabric of our churches, as much as, if not more than, the bricks and mortar. Prayer transforms buildings over time.
Prayer has the power to transform and shape us as well. This year the Church of England and many other churches in the Anglican Communion are celebrating the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The cumulative effect of centuries of using the same prayers (themselves often translations of prayers that had seen centuries of use before the Reformation) has had a profound impact not just upon the Anglican churches, but upon the English language as well. For centuries people have been coming into God’s presence using words that they had learned from their parents and grandparents, often using the same prayer books as well.
There is something truly wonderful about having a prayer work its way into your memory, and your soul. I’m not talking about the kind of rote memorization that schoolchildren are sometimes forced to do; I’m talking about the familiarity that comes through use: knowing a prayer because you have prayed it time and time again. That sort of thing can’t happen if the liturgy is completely different each and every time you walk into a church. It also won’t happen if we don’t use the prayers regularly in the exercise of our faith. We must allow prayer to shape us over time, just as it has transformed the ancient churches of the world into blessed and sacred spaces.
As I begin my time at the Church of the Ascension I have many hopes, and maybe even a few ideas, but my supreme hope, wish and goal is that the Church of the Ascension will continue to be, as it has been: a place that is shaped by prayer, filled with people that are shaped by prayer; to be unquestionably “a place where prayer is wont to be made.” There are sure to be many parties and many missions, much joy and much work, but through it all should be the unending river of prayer, praise and adoration that is at the heart of who we are as the church. In the end, the legacy we leave should do honor to the legacy we have received: a deep and profound faith in God’s love and redeeming work done in Christ; a faith whose prayers may not always seem to work instantly, but when given time (like a glacier), have the power to move mountains.