As I often do, last week I tweaked the blog post I wrote for St. James's (about why I rarely set aside solitary, focused time to pray and read the Bible) and posted it on my Patheos blog. It became, by far, my most-read post of the last few weeks, and was featured in both the weekly Patheos Progressive Christian email newsletter and as an "Editor's Pick" on the Patheos home page. Most commenters expressed relief that they are not alone in struggling with dedicated prayer time. Several said that "praying the hours" (praying set prayers and reading set scriptures at set times of day, as monastic communities do) frees them from having to come up with their own ideas for what to pray and what to read. A few, who seemed to misinterpret my post as saying I never pray or read the Bible, took me to task for shirking my duty as a Christian. My Patheos colleague Elizabeth Nordquist wrote a response, describing how prioritizing a "solitary hour" of prayer and scripture study has nourished her faith.
As I read through comments, I thought more about when and how I do pray and study the Bible. I thought about how often I ponder and look up resources for a particular Bible story or passage as background for a blog post, and how I usually say a short silent prayer, of thanksgiving for the day and intercession for particular troubles on my mind, just before I go to bed. But I was surprised to realize that most of my prayer and scripture study happens in the context of my participation with St. James's Church, usually in the context of worship. I realized that supporting our prayer and Bible study practices is yet another vital function of a church community—a function that we might overlook (I know I have).
For a variety of reasons, we often downplay the importance of regular attendance at Sunday morning worship. We want to be clear that being a Christian isn't just about showing up on Sunday mornings to sing a few hymns and say a few prayers; our faith ought to influence how we live every day, how we make a living and how we spend what we make, how we interact with our families and neighbors and wider communities, how we perceive and care for the natural world and the people we encounter, how we react when pain and trouble come. I think my desire to avoid being a "Sunday-only Christian" has led me to minimize how important regular worship (on Sundays and occasionally other days) is to nurturing my faith. A very American focus on individual effort and achievement can also lead me to believe that what I do on my own is more valuable than what I do in cooperation with others. My perception of individual "quiet time" as a central and primary discipline—if one that I regularly fail to fulfill— has also been influenced by evangelicalism's emphasis on a "personal relationship with Jesus."
As I thought this week about when and how I pray and study the Bible, I realized that, even though I rarely set aside dedicated time to pray and read the Bible on my own, I regularly do both of those things through my participation in a church community. At church:
- Every week, I hear readings from three different books of the Bible, and a sermon that addresses at least one of them in depth.
- Every week, I say prayers of praise, thanksgiving, intercession, and confession.
- On Sunday evenings in Lent, I sit in a darkened church, the only light from a host of candles, the only noise from the choir's chanting of psalms and prayers, as I connect with God in silence.
- I participate in adult education offerings that study particular Bible passages, and/or Christian books that include interpretations of and meditations on scripture.
- I participate in sacraments, including Eucharist and baptisms, which are "outward and visible signs of inward and divine grace." In tasting a wine-dipped wafer on my tongue and explicitly welcoming a child into the household of God, I experience those "thin places" of connection between the unnameable, ungraspable divine, and our material, bodily life.
In scripture, human beings are fundamentally addressed and defined corporately rather than individually. While the Bible is full of stories about individual people, those people are defined as members of a community, not as isolated individuals seeking God on their own: Abraham and Sarah as the progenitors of the Israelites, Moses as leader of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, Naomi and Ruth as examples of how sacrificial love and our identity as God's beloved ones transcend boundaries of nation and tribe, Mary as the one whose terrified but clear "yes" to God's bizarre plan enabled ultimate reconciliation for all people. The scriptures tell us that "Once you were no people, now you are God's people" (1 Peter 2:10). They tell us that where two or three gather in God's name, God is with them (Matthew 18:20). Jesus's parables and ministries were primarily concerned with people relating to one another within transforming and transformed communities. Jesus challenged traditional boundaries around who was and was not included in both religious ritual and everyday encounters. His feeding miracles illustrated what it looks like when everyone's well-being is everyone's business, and everyone ends up having enough and more than enough.
None of this excuses us from doing what we must as individuals to connect with God, and allowing ourselves to be transformed by the experience. We know from scripture that Jesus went off to pray by himself, sometimes for an entire day or night. But I'm realizing how easily I have discounted, without thinking, the praying and exposure to scripture that happens corporately, through my church participation as well as my writing and the conversations I have with other Christians, online and in person. Perhaps part of me thinks that to be worthwhile, prayer and Bible study have to be strenuous and difficult and unpleasant. Showing up to church to sing beautiful music, read ready-made prayers, and hear an excellent sermon seems too simple. Of course, I also know that participating in—belonging to—a community is far from simple, as we are called to love one another in all circumstances and work together to be God's hands in a hurting world. But belonging to a community gives us many opportunities for practicing the disciplines of prayer and Bible study corporately, even (and particularly) when we struggle with those disciplines on our own.
Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.