The Faintest Star

That Faintest Star

What are you going to do?
Live the Ministry of Word and Sacrament as a life of prayer.
Yes, but what are you going to do?
Pray.
Yes, but what are you going to do?

I have had many conversations like this since I offered for the Methodist Ministry at the beginning of the 1990s. What does it mean to "live the Ministry of Word and Sacrament as a life of prayer"? What is involved? How can such a life be expressed in word and deed, product, attitude, behaviour and lifestyle - especially within the Methodist Church? Three centuries after the birth of John Wesley, Methodism is still pervaded by his activist spirit. What was it he said? Something about never being unemployed, never being triflingly employed? Why am I still so surprised that Methodists expect added value from their prayers? If we expect anything at all, we expect prayer to be effective. We expect to see results.

These are good questions that take seriously the centrality, difficulty and potential of prayer. If we are to invest major resources, we want some assurance as to the outcome. We do not necessarily look for an immediate return, but we do want to see evidence that the eventual outcome will be worthwhile. A similar set of assumptions underlies the endorsement, by Conference, of the 24/7 prayer initiative. Recognising the depth of our present need in a time of crisis, we are prepared to invest heavily in prayer, in the expectation that such a sacrifice of time and effort will be rewarded.

And I have no doubt that it will be. But not necessarily in the way that we might wish. For all too often when we plunge into prayer in this way, our subconscious is asking for a sign. We are feeling vulnerable and we crave reassurance. A light, a vision, a word. A message that will signal God's presence with us, point the way forward, tell us how to act. But there is no guarantee that if we do receive a word, that the message is from God. And there is a further possibility: that the prayer will do nothing but expose us to the emptiness of our illusions, leave us waiting in silence and fear.

For to pray is to follow the faintest star - a light glimpsed far off and faltering, often obscured by cloud. Our ability to see it and to respond to it, waxes and wanes according to rhythms that are not entirely under our control. Prayer is a slow journey, at once subtle and searing. When we are assailed by personal and professional challenges, or undermined by our own inadequacy, we can lose our way. The sky becomes overcast: the star disappears. We are left in a harsh place, arid and apparently infertile, where we are stripped down to thirst and hunger

At such times, our instinct is to seek another form of prayer that will refresh us, or even to give up on prayer altogether. The best response is counter-intuitive: to go even deeper into the desert. To accept deprivation and to see how desert is forcing us to be honest about our questions, needs and fears. By day, we can only endure: the heart sleeps through the hours in a cave or in the shadow of a rock, for the heat is almost unbearable. We travel by night through the freezing dark, because then the sky is clear and patterned with stars. We cannot see what is lying at our feet, so we lift our eyes to the heavens, and trusting what we see there, we are drawn back to the road.

Prayer commits us to the journey, whether or not we can see where it is taking us. The hardest thing is staying on the road. For not only is the sky is obscured by illusion and anxiety; we can be led into darkness by God's own intent. The purpose of this "dark night of the soul" is that we learn to trust in God, and in God's love for us, in all circumstances. All circumstances. Even when it seems to us that God is the destroyer of all we hold dear.

In periods such as this, it can seem to others, even to ourselves, that we are not praying at all. In fact, our prayer is our willingness to trust God more, and with more and more of ourselves. All vision, understanding or light have gone. What remains is our thirst. "We will go by night to seek the source of life; thirst alone will be our light," wrote St John of the Cross.

Because it is essential to the life of prayer. Faith-building for the journey of prayer.

What am I doing? Following that star.

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