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The Earthliness of Common Prayer

I was reading through The Parish Communion, a book of essays edited by the Anglican monk A.G. Hebert in 1937, when I came across the contribution of the priest C. Patrick Hankey.  As with V.A. Demant from my last post, I’d never heard of Hankey, but his essay “Liturgy and Personal Devotion” struck me as quite profound.  He notes that in modern times, private prayer has effectively become the only mode of prayer that most Christians are aware of.  This is regrettably to the neglect of common prayer, which for Hankey, should actually precede private prayer in terms of priority.  As he puts it:

We are to learn, then, how to make prayer in private by having learnt first how to join in common prayer: we do not learn how to take our part in common prayer by learning first how to pray as individuals.  Common prayer provides the visible setting of the earthly Church and its earthliness, which we have to make ourselves remember when we are praying by ourselves.  That is why the churchman finds corporate prayer so great a means of grace; but when we use prayer as a means of self-perfection — praying, in order to make ourselves better — we find common prayer tiresome.  We have forgotten then that ‘being made better’ is a by-product of prayer, not its purpose. (153)

What stands out here is the “earthliness” of the earthly Church that common prayer represents.  This may seem odd at first glance, since “earthly” is not usually what comes to mind when one thinks of prayer.  But common prayer places one in an intimate fellowship with other worshipers, that is, other embodied people.  And in the midst of one another, we are situated within a proper understanding of ourselves as embodied people.  We are reminded of who we are in common prayer.  So common prayer shows forth not only the true nature of the Church on earth, but also the true nature of those who prayer within it.

This is why despite the riches of private prayer, it does not take precedent over common prayer, for by ourselves, it is easier for our earthliness to be obscured.  It becomes easier for us to begin seeing prayer “as a means of self-perfection” since we’re the only ones around when in private.  So the primary orientation of prayer is found in its commonality, its earthliness, which is where grace is always most present.  All of our private devotions thus serve to point us back to that source which alone can lift us in holiness.

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