Every day my colleague does a disappearing act. He stands up, reaches into his filing cabinet, pulls out an old crumpled piece of flipchart paper and quietly exits the room. A few minutes later he reappears, tucks the paper back into the filing cabinet, sits down, and returns to his work – all without saying a word.
For the past six months I’ve watched him follow this routine, twice a day without fail. I used to wonder: ‘What on earth does he get up to with that mysterious piece of flipchart paper?’
A few weeks ago I finally found out. He’d gone AWOL again, and another colleague came asking after him. It was a fairly urgent matter, so a manhunt ensued. During the search, I glanced into a vacant office room, expecting it to be empty as always. I was surprised to find my absentee colleague tucked away in the corner, standing barefoot on the flipchart paper, facing the wall, praying.
Later, when I apologised for the interruption, he explained that he prays five times a day on his makeshift paper mat – at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and evening. With hindsight, I should have guessed: after all, I live in a country where two thirds of people are Muslim, where the daily calls to prayer ring out loudly across the rooftops, and where millions of people – my colleague included – are getting ready to start fasting this weekend, for the month of Ramadan.
As someone who struggles with self-discipline (and who spends more time tweeting than praying), I can’t help but admire my colleague’s daily ritual. Truth is, the kind of prayer I struggle with most is the kind Jesus recommends in Matthew 6:6: “When you pray, go into your room, [and] close the door.” The kind of prayer that requires me to walk away and find somewhere private for an uninterrupted natter with God; the kind where it’s just me, myself and I AM. No whistles, no bells, no distractions.
Of course prayer is fluid and not fixed: it should be integrated into every corner of our lives. It should be engaging, creative, inspiring. That’s why I find it easy to say “amen” to prayer walls, prayer bunting, prayer apps, prayer graffiti and even prayer flashmobs. But ask me to talk to God in a particular way, at a particular time, in a particular position, using particular words, and I’m tempted to shout: “Religion, get thee away from me!”
Having grown up within a church tradition where liturgy was a foreign concept, and where prayer was informal and freestyle, my instinct is to flee from structured forms of worship. I used to think that having fixed times for prayer could only ever be legalistic and oppressive: that it took the ‘elation’ out of the ‘relationship’. And this can certainly be true at times: after all, it’s not about quantity, but quality.
That said, Daniel prayed three times a day, on his knees, facing Jerusalem. And, in Psalm 55, David talks about crying out to God “evening, morning and noon”. Meanwhile, in Acts 3 we hear that Peter and John go to the temple “at the time of prayer”. So I can’t help but wonder: could it be worth taking a leaf out of their prayer book? Should I try to be a bit more intentional and structured, and pepper my days with set patterns of prayer?
Of course it may not work for everyone – religious rituals can breed spiritual inertia. Still, it’s an experiment some of us might want to try. Who knows: perhaps a little dose of discipline will help us connect on a whole new level with the best conversationalist the world has ever known. Perhaps we’ll discover that there’s liberty in the liturgy. In which case, all I can say is: amen to that.
Image credit: Michael Foley