When I was at Theological College, I used to go to the Oxford meeting of the Council of Christians and Jews. On one particular occasion the visiting speaker was Clive Lawton, an Orthodox Jew. During his talk he spoke about the time he visited India, and particularly about an early morning at a very busy railway station. Being British, and perhaps a little self-conscious, he took himself off to a comer to do his morning prayers, which means putting on a prayer-shawl and the phylacteries, and reciting the morning prayers in Hebrew. When he had finished, having replaced all his prayer paraphernalia in his rucksack, he turned round to see everyone else in the railway station, whether Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist, Christian or Jew, doing exactly the same thing, without any British reserve or embarrassment. That’s what people in India do - it’s morning time and they offer their morning devotions.
On the whole, you won’t see this kind of thing in Britain, unless of course you happen to be visiting Glastonbury. I want to say at the outset that this kind of praying in India is not saying “look at me praying” it’s just a natural part of human life. Most human-beings, throughout most of human history have begun and ended the day with some kind of devotion to the God or Gods they believed in. I want to say it’s as much about marking time as it is offering prayer. I’ve often asked myself what would be different if I had no belief, or indeed if I’d lost the belief that I have. I have to say that one thing that would not change would be the early morning start to greet the morning. Indeed, before I ever discovered the reciting of Psalms, I would often greet the morning with this poem, from a book I first read as a young adult:
Hail to you, bright morning,
Shattering the sky of night,
Blazing fair, victoriously dawning,
Ever young, the newborn light! Welcome is this morning,
Golden-handed, sunlight lender,
Welcome is this day’s High King,
Light’s liege-lord, morning’s sender.
It’s an invocation of the Sun at sunrise, coming from the ancient peoples of these islands. In the ancient monastic tradition, the day begins with Psalm 95: O come, let us sing to the Lord, which we also find in our Book of Common Prayer. I have discovered, quite by chance whilst leafing through a Jewish prayer book, that this psalm is also used in the Jewish prayers for the inauguration of the Sabbath. It’s quite possible that the earliest Christians, going back to Jesus himself, may have used this psalm and others.
Now of course not everybody believes in God or even the super-natural, and therefore the offering of any morning devotion is neither desirable nor necessary. That’s fair enough. However, in her book , “The Sacred Depths of Nature”, Ursula Goodenough, herself an atheist and a biologist, explains that her book in many ways resembles a daily devotional reading found in many religious traditions. After each section which explores an aspect of nature, she offers a reflection. What this shows me is that many people feel the need for some kind of structured way of connecting with something bigger than themselves. The philosopher, Susan Neiman, has said "For me, its not important how one envisions a creator or whether one envisions a creator at all. That we have a sense (1) of gratitude for the world, and (2) a realization that wherever the world came from, it was not us that made it—I think that those are two extremely important moral emotions that might be able to unite both secular and religious people."
We live such busy, distracting, disconnecting lives that we either have no times for ourselves at all, or we are locked into a world of our own diaries and daily demands. It’s often said that we’re busier today than we’ve ever been, and whilst I think there’s a certain truth in that, I don’t think that the people of the past were less busy. Yet, built into the fabric of their living were moments in which they were almost mandated to stop and ground themselves in something that was beyond them. The great thing is, actually, you don’t have to be a believer in any God or Gods to do it. Silence needs no translation. In poetry and music, most people can find something that expresses something of who they are. So, if you feel like it, upon waking, or before sleep, take a moment to watch the Sun, see or hear the birds, see the breeze in the trees. Take a moment to connect with that which is greater than yourself; it’s one of the things that make us human.
Vicar’s thoughts for August 2017