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Thinking Out Loud

A 'Place' Set Apart

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 18, 2016

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We'd love to hear what you have written in your "spirituality notebook." E-mail us!

Hexham Paintings

The rain was coming down in buckets. Raining cats and dogs. Raining donkeys. We were drenched, Debbie and I, as we headed into Hexham Abbey for evensong that night. Ducking into the side entrance, we were met with stammered greetings, shyly warm smiles, and a couple of members of the congregation handing out little prayer books.

The cathedral felt cavernous, the ceiling disappearing into the shadows far above the heads of our little band of worshipers. The priest arrived, and we began without ceremony. It was a simple "read" evening prayer service. No glorious choir. No pageantry. Just a group of Christian folk praying in a place set apart for prayer. We exchanged the peace of Christ, and in a few minutes we all went out again into the darkness, the cold, the wind and the rain of northern England.

It was one of the most memorable experiences of worship in my life. I remember it distinctly though it happened almost twenty years ago. Why?

Hexham Abbey has long been precious to me. Its associations with Bishop Wilfrid, whose stone episcopal seat still sits in the middle of the choir, its connections with long-ago saints of Northumbria, such as the family of Aelred of Rievaulx, and many more emotional ties are so lively and so real to me. Yet, these connections and associations don't seem to be the reason this simple prayer service in Hexham Abbey has stayed in my mind all of these years. Nor was there something unusual, neither a moment of crisis nor of great joy, in our own lives that made this time and place stand out.

I suspect that the reason this occasion has remained in my memory is the purity of that service, or maybe the pure simplicity of it. A small group of about 15 people, mostly locals, and a bare sprinkling of visitors, including us, gathered with a priest presiding at the simplest of wooden lecterns in the front corner of that vast nave just to pray the evening collects and the appointed Psalms for evening prayer. That's all. A small gathering of Christian folk who waded through the pouring rain and chilly breeze to pray together. I found myself so deeply drawn to this little band of Christians that evening that I wished I might join them. They became a place set apart in their simple prayer.

But is prayer ever really simple? The core of the daily office (the morning and evening prayer services) in the Anglican tradition is that set of Psalms prescribed for the day. The Psalms are anything but simple.

Throughout the year, as each day begins and ends, we pray the Psalms, making our way through the whole of the Psalter every month: Psalms of praise, lament, wrath, gratitude and blame, sometimes humbly penitential and sometimes chest-thumpingly self-righteous; Psalms that, as John Calvin once observed, express every sort of human condition we can imagine.

"Praise the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me praise his holy Name. Praise the Lord, O my soul: and forget not all his benefits." (103:1-2)

"Have mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness: according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences. Wash me thoroughly: and cleanse me from my sin." (51:1-2)

"Why art thou so full of heaviness, O my soul: and why art thou so disquieted within me? Put thy trust in God: for I will yet give him thanks for the help of his countenance." (42:6-7)

"The pains of hell came about me: the snares of death overtook me. In my trouble I will call upon the Lord: and complain unto my God." (18:4-5)

"Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee: in whose heart are thy ways. Who going through the vale of misery use it for a well: and the pools are filled with water. They will go from strength to strength: and unto the God of gods appeareth every one of them in Sion." (84:5-7)

"Lord, thou been our refuge: from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made: thou art God from everlasting, and world without end. ... For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday: seeing that is past as a watch in the night." (90:1-2, 4)

"Hear my prayer, O Lord: and let my crying come unto thee. Hide not thy face from me in time of my trouble: incline thine ear unto me when I call; O hear me, and that right soon. For my days are consumed like smoke: and my bones are burnt up as it were a fire-brand. My heart is smitten down, and withered like grass: so that I forget to eat my bread. ...  I am become like a pelican in the wilderness: and like an owl that is in the desert. I have watched and am even as it were a sparrow: that sitteth alone upon the house-top." (102:1-4, 6-7)

"Great is our Lord, and great is his power: yea, and his wisdom is infinite. The Lord setteth up the meek: and bringeth the ungodly down to the ground. ... He hath no pleasure in the strength of an horse: neither delighteth he in any man's legs. But the Lord's delight is in them that fear him: and put their trust in his mercy." (147:5-6, 10-11)

Anyone who follows this pattern knows that praying in season and out of season is no simple matter. It may bring comfort, but it may also trouble the waters of our too-often, too-settled hearts. Praying the Psalms can push us out of our comfort zones, force us to see the world from the margins, set off alarm bells and awaken the voice of rage just as frequently as it may evoke praise and thanksgiving, and strengthen and comfort the timid soul. Praying the Psalms regularly, whether gathered or dispersed, the words of praise soak down into our souls like the rain that fell that night in Hexham, soaking into our hearts and forming deep reservoirs on which we can draw in dry seasons. The Psalms supply us with a language fitted to communion with God and furnish us with images that make sense of our lives in God's presence. The Psalms create the house of the Lord, a place set apart within which we may speak God's word back to God and hear God's reply on our own lips. Even a humble little group of Christians gathered in an old building on a rainy night can find themselves lifted up into the courts of God.

I suppose this is, in part, why that evening long ago in rainy Hexham has stayed with me. I can only imagine what drew each person that night to pray together rather than to choose to sit comfortably with a book and a cup of tea in their sitting rooms as the weather lashed the sidewalks and streets without. I can only imagine what hope or faith might have been stoked by the prayers and Psalms we prayed together as the shadows lengthened. The words we spoke created a space among us where we all were sheltered, if only for thirty minutes or so, in a place set apart to be human in the presence of other human beings in the presence of God. Nothing special. It happens every day, morning and evening, somewhere and has for millennia. That is precisely why I can't get that evening out of my head.

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