On the BBC’s Sunday programme this morning (24 August) I heard a report about Archbishop Sentamu embarking on another week of prayer and fasting in York Minster. I know that he has done similar things before and caught the public imagination by what he was doing. The bit of the report that I caught spoke about the power that prayer can have when we face situations as we are doing in the Middle East at the moment. We wring our hands not knowing what we can do – and then someone suggests praying, and we wonder ‘Is that really enough?’ It seems so minimal when we imagine that real engagement in the issue would be something much more practical. So I was delighted that the Archbishop, through his own commitment to prayer, is reminding us that praying is a powerful response.
Sunday was also the day when we launched at Southwark Cathedral our Nasrani Solidarity candle. The candles are being made from the leftover candle ends from churches in the diocese that would often just be discarded or put in a box in the Sacristy for … well, no one knows why! Amongst the left over candles there are often large remains of last years’ paschal candles. All these candles are blessed by use, but the paschal candles in particular have been set apart to be for us ‘the light of Christ’, which is what we sing as the candle is carried into the dark church at the Easter Vigil. So it seems perfect to be able to use these candles to signify our solidarity in prayer with those who are going through so much darkness and yet are remaining committed to Christ.
Each candle has on it the Arabic initial letter for ‘Nasrani’, which I have mentioned before, the letter that members of the Islamic State are painting on the outside of Christian homes to identify them. It reminds me of what happened at the Passover when Moses instructed the people to mark their doorposts and the lintel of their home with the blood of the sacrificial lamb so that the angel would pass over the house and they would be saved. In a grim reversal of this miracle the houses marked with the Nasrani symbol is a prelude to persecution and probable death rather than freedom and life for the Hebrews fleeing Egypt.
The good news is that the candles sold out on day one and a fresh supply has to be made. All the profits are being sent to support the work of the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East. So the candle provides both a way of praying and providing practical support. The prayer supplied with the candle, as a suggestion of what we might pray as we light it in our own home, is from Evening Prayer – the Third Collect in the Book of Common Prayer, but the version we using comes from Common Worship.
Lighten our darkness,
Lord, we pray,
and in your great mercy
defend us from all perils and dangers of this night,
for the love of your only Son,
our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Archbishop Sentamu’s challenge to me has been to take the power of prayer even more seriously. Of course, I believe in prayer; but do I really believe that prayer can change the situation that my brothers and sisters face in Iraq; what my brothers and sisters in Gaza are facing; what my brothers and sisters in northern Nigeria are facing; what my brothers and sisters in parts of west Africa are facing from the Ebola virus. There is so much that I should be praying fervently for and with that strong faith which knows that God will move mountains.
I turn to St Thérèse of Lisieux who believed in the power of prayer and devoted her short life to prayer. She felt called to the missionary life and, I believe, to priesthood – but neither was open to her. So she embraced the vocation to the enclosed life of the Carmelite and gave herself to prayer and sacrifice for priests and for the missions. She wrote
“My whole strength lies in prayer and sacrifice, these are my invincible arms; they can move hearts far better than words, I know it by experience.”
In the book Deuteronomy it says
The eternal God is your refuge,
and underneath are the everlasting arms.
What Thérèse shows us is that the ‘invisible’, ‘everlasting’ arms are prayer and that sacrifice which is part of true prayer – giving ourselves to the task, to the work, and knowing that prayer and work are inseparable and that praying is not a weak response but one of the strongest.
may my prayer live
and may I trust
are your everlasting arms.