The parish of St Francis of Assisi, Sheffield recently held a day devoted to Pray and Praying.  Mike Campbell relates his experience of the day.

The ideas that Deacon Stephen Parker explored included the notion that prayer is a conversation between ourselves and God and conversations are not one-sided. The Lord’s Prayer is one prayer that everyone knows but one where we do all the talking, and it is equally important to listen.  However, listening can be difficult, distractions abound, and we need props to help us be still in the presence of God.

Jacinta Campbell started looking at Art as an aid to prayer. She chose paintings from two traditions, Icons and Classical, and also from two periods in Jesus’ life, his childhood and his death.  Jacinta has a particular interest in Icons, and she showed us three Icons of Mary and the child Jesus, known as the Theotokos or God-bearer. She pointed out the conventions that the Icons follow, for example the three stars to indicate Mary, the colours of the clothing have significance and they have narrow noses and small mouths.  She then chose three classical pictures illustrating Jesus being taken down from the Cross by Giotto, Van der Weyden and Rubens.  She pointed out the characters present in all three, in particular Jesus’ Mother, Mary Magdelene, St John and Joseph of Arimathea and how they could be recognised.  She mentioned that the classical pictures were all commercial works of art and not holy in themselves, unlike the Icons whose painters were anonymous and the Icon itself is a source of reverence.  An interesting aside was that the Van der Weyden was sponsored by crossbow men, and one could see that Christ’s body and the way the arms were curved, did indeed represent a crossbow.

Left to right, Deacon Stephen Parker, Jacinta Campbell and Stephen Spooner at the How to Pray Day.

Stephen Spooner showed us how music can help us pray, in particular classical music. He felt that after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible was music.  Music can help remove trivial thoughts from our mind to help us listen for God.  He shared with us some of his favourite pieces which aid prayer: Claire de Lune by Debussy, to still the mind; Pie Jesu from Fauré’s Requiem as an example of the exquisite heights religious music can reach; a cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten by Part and Beethoven’s string quartet no 15 in A minor, written as a prayer in thanksgiving.  The Beethoven, in particular, was beautiful to listen to and could help one forget quotidian matters.  Stephen also gave us a list of other music that had special meaning to him including Mozart’s Mass in C and John Tavener’s Protecting Veil.

Deacon Stephen Parker told us about the Jesus Prayer. It is simply, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”.  It is repeated endlessly, and helps drives out all other thoughts.  He told us a bit about its history and popularity, particularly in the East.  He compared it to the Rosary, which again uses repetition to focus the mind on God.  It can also be contrasted with meditation, which uses a repeated phrase, but is not necessarily religious.

Overall, this was a lovely way to spend a Saturday, restful but thought provoking.  I, for one, felt I had some new tools to help my prayer life.