Apparently, Alexander the Great wasn’t so great when it came to art. An ancient historian (Claudius Aelianus) tells the story of Alexander viewing a painting done in his honor. The painting featured Alexander sitting on his favorite horse. It was a bold portrait done by a master named Apelles. And yet, Alexander was not overly impressed. It failed to move him, and he only gave it faint praise. The artist was not pleased. To prove the painting’s realism and value, he brought a horse into the atrium; and when it saw the paining, it neighed, believing that the horse on the canvas was real. “King,” said Apelles, “this horse seems to understand the painting much better than you.”
I often feel like I have very little understanding and appreciation of prayer and that most of my prayers are, in reality, just horsing around. There is an art in praying, but I am much more adept at just making my requests and giving lists of my demands (I mean, “wants” — don’t worry, surely that Freudian slip will be removed when Jo edits the final version). That’s one of the great advantages of praying the collects from the Book of Common Prayer. They not only give me a biblical structure for my prayers, but they also reorient my prayers so that they are no longer dominated by me and my wants, but by who God is. Pick a BCP prayer, any prayer, and read it; you will be bowled over by all the references to God’s goodness, greatness or graciousness. In short, these prayers teach us about God, his work in our world and his desires for us. And that is an art.
Take this prayer as an example. It is named Proper 17.
Lord of all power and might,
the author and giver of all good things:
Graft in our hearts the love of your Name;
increase in us true religion;
nourish us with all goodness;
and bring forth in us the fruit of good works;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Theology drips off this prayer. Who is the God of this prayer? He is the “Lord of all power and might,” “the author and giver of all good things;” he is the creator of our spiritual lives, the source of true religion, the spring of all goodness, and the one who produces good works in us. Throughout this prayer, we are reminded about who God is.
Another example. This collect is labeled Proper 27.
O God, whose blessed Son came into the world
that he might destroy the works of the devil
and make us children of God
and heirs of eternal life:
Grant that, having this hope,
we may purify ourselves as he is pure;
that, when he comes again with power and great glory,
we may be made like him
in his eternal and glorious kingdom;
where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
This prayer offers even more theology. If this prayer was all we had, what could we learn about God here? He has a great son who came into the world to destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and make us heirs of eternal life. If we focus on who Christ is, we get even more of a compelling picture. He is pure. He is coming again (with power and great glory), and he will transform us so that we will be like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom.
One last example. This is the first of the advent prayers. What do we learn about God here?
give us grace to cast away the works of darkness,
and put on the armor of light,
now in the time of this mortal life
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us
in great humility;
that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge both the living and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Note, in particular, God’s desire here. He wants us to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light and to do so now. And he wants us to rise again that we may be like him, but like him even now in repentance, in righteousness and in humility.
Three things strike me here. First, these prayers constantly remind me of God as I pray. Usually, I do my best to remind God of who I am and what I want. These prayers have the right order. The sad truth is I am so consumed about me and my needs when I pray, I rarely think of who God is beyond the fact that he is able to give me what I want. Once again, it is clear. If prayer is a magnificent piece of art, I typically don’t get it at all.
Second, these prayers get me to pray for things for which I don’t often think of praying. Humility, casting off the deeds of darkness, becoming pure, being prepared for the second coming, needing God to work in us (or else no work whatsoever we get done) and asking God to bring forth in us good works. On my own, I pray for such small things. In these prayers, I find myself praying for much larger things.
Third, these prayers speak to my heart at different times and in different ways. My guess is all good prayers do. Some days, I so need to pray Proper 17; but the day after, it is Proper 27 I need. And I find myself needing to pray the first prayer in Advent all through the year (let me just come out and say it: it’s bigger than Christmas). As I chose my ten prayers for this series, I wrestled with which of these three prayers should be our ninth prayer. I was sure it was the Advent prayer, but then I found myself gravitating towards Proper 27; and before I knew it, Proper 17 was the top prayer on my list. So, here’s today’s special offer (one day only), my ninth prayer is the Advent prayer, but you get to choose your ninth prayer. It really doesn’t matter because, no matter what prayer you choose, it is going to remind you about who God is as you pray so that your prayers are not so much about you and your needs, but about what God wants to do in and for you. And that is a beautiful thing.
Thomas Merton made this spectacular comment about art. He said, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” Funny thing, so does prayer. But even Alexander’s horse knows that.