What is prayer like when we are older?
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
From the perspective of ministry to older people, and of Anna Chaplaincy in particular, I have written about praying for and with others:
The time to pray Prayer requires priority time and energy, something that can often be hard to obtain regularly when balancing the demands of work and a family growing up. These are not my words, but those of someone retired, writing to me in 2015 when we had just started developing Anna Chaplaincy for Older People nationally.
He continued: ‘As we grow older and these pressures abate, it may be the time for people to engage with fuller regular energies in the life of prayer, first and foremost for their own spiritual formation.’
My correspondent was so modest about his own thoughts on prayer in later life that he just signed his letter DJD. He included no address, so I’ve never been able to thank him for such wise words. (I’m assuming my mystery letter writer was a man, and probably a retired priest, but with only initials to go by that isn’t certain.)
Intercessory prayer We’re told that when we gather together for prayer – even just two or three of us – Jesus himself is there with us. No wonder we feel we can pray confidently and ask for good things for other people, knowing Jesus is not only hearing and joining in with us, but also holding them and their concerns along with us.
DJD saw intercession as one of our prime callings in older age:
For many, the relative powerlessness of retirement and ageing is a profound challenge, formed by a society based on individual achievement. But for a Christian, the commitment to compassionate and informed intercession is a primary duty. Again, this needs time and energy, absence of distraction and an intelligent and regular interest in areas of need in the world. The prayers of those in the Third Age of their life should be of real service to the life and mission of the church worldwide. Intercession needs time and energy, absence of distraction and interest in areas of need in the world.
A bouquet of pray-ers When we pray together, I like to think of us becoming a beautiful offering to God, like an attractive hand-tied bouquet, with each bloom and piece of foliage uniquely different. The poet and retreat-leader, Ann Lewin, once wrote of prayer under the title ‘Say it with flowers’:
Flower allusions abound in our language: we talk about being ‘fresh as a daisy’ or we describe someone as being a ‘shrinking violet’. People are sometimes prickly. But when you think about it, what kind of a flower are you? Are you like a camellia, rather startlingly beautiful? Or like rosemary, starting to bloom right at the beginning of your life, and continuing year on year? Are you one of those plants that doesn’t flower often? Or one that props others up? Are you a plant with rather insignificant flowers, but always there in the background to help others give of their best? Do you fill the world with fragrance, or give flavour to life? 'Words by the Way' (Inspire, 2005), pp. 61–62
I’m grateful for this flower metaphor for our distinctive personalities. The contribution you and I make to prayer won’t be the same, nor is it meant to be. As Lewin says: ‘Like a flower arrangement, we can bring out the best in each other, and complement and support each other.’ Prayer at the end of life Certainly, when we visit someone and offer to pray at the end of life, it can feel as if we’re gathering up all the threads of conversation. Poet-priest David Scott writes:
The minister, who is responsible for how the whole thing is going, becomes a channel, a gatherer, an orderer, a receiver of the power that the raw material of sound, word, feeling is giving out. We sense the need to make an order out of that, and direct it as best we can. We bring all that we are, all that we have been, all that we would like to be, to the eye of the needle, and we compose ourselves to thread all that through into the space beyond. Moments of Prayer (SPCK, 1997), p. 65
Discipline in prayer When we are being overheard in prayer by another person, or indeed by a whole congregation, we must be careful not to have our own agenda.
I remember cringing throughout some church intercessions one Sunday morning when the prayers became a rant worthy of a letters page in a national paper rather than an honest attempt to speak to God on behalf of us all. The intercessor was warming to his personal views, using such hyperbole that this listener at least was inwardly shouting, ‘Not in my name!’
Checks and balances aren’t a bad idea when it comes to prayer. Having an experienced prayer partner or being part of a prayer triplet, where you’ve known one another for a good length of time and grown in trust, can ensure we are duly (and kindly) admonished when we allow our personal bête noires to colour our discourse.
As the apostle Paul wrote, ‘Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom’ (Colossians 3:16). Prayer must be an honest attempt to speak to God.
Prayer and dementia Let’s not forget prayer with those living with dementia. Words may become superfluous as we just hold a hand and enjoy a time of companionable silence. As full members of the church, men and women with dementia can teach us so much about non-verbal communication, quietness, receptivity, awe and wonder.
I expect DJD would agree.
Debbie Thrower, Founder and Pioneer of Anna Chaplaincy for Older People