​In nine thousand characters- Protestant prayers

2017-06-01 L’Osservatore Romano

I was born on the western coast of Norway to a Pietist family in the Lutheran Church and from birth my life was constellated with prayers. There were the obligatory prayers at table and before going to sleep. They were full of the rendering of accounts and oppressive feelings of guilt. And there were others which helped us to live.

My grandmother had a decisive influence on my spiritual life. In the summer before sunset she would take me to a large slate rock on the edge of the steep path which led to the summer stables. We would sit there, we would watch the sun setting over the sea and sing hymns. Lastly we would pray freely for all the people we loved. In those moments a strong and joyful bond was created between my grandmother and me and between both of us and God. We were free and beloved.

A reproduction of the large Runic Stone of Jelling, Denmark, with the portrayal of Christ

Years later I recognized the style of the prayers of those marvellous times when I discovered the liturgy of the community of Iona, Scotland. Gratitude to the Creator for his kindness which is revealed in nature, in time and in the seasons, Christ as a friend and the Holy Spirit, the divine creating force, were the constitutive elements of what I had experienced on that large rock and they too were in the prayers of the Christian Celtic tradition. These similarities are rooted in history: the Western coast of Norway was Christianized by slaves from the islands of the North Sea (many of whom were monks) brought here by the Vikings.

Was all this the consequence of my grandmother’s initiation into prayer or simply the grace of Baptism? I do not know but Jesus had been my friend since I was a little girl and in telling him everything I could feel safe. My times of prayer were breathing spaces in a tough world in which men thought they had God in their pocket and in his name imposed evil living conditions on women and on children.

Before moving to the east of the country, Sunday school and primary school had gradually enabled me to discover another way of living Christianity. A cheerful, trusting way rooted in the grace of God who is manifest through Christ. We were the last generation to be educated in an ancient scholastic system, with the obligatory learning by heart of a hundred hymns with all their stanzas, as well as Luther’s catechism and a large number of verses of the Bible. Later in my life I discovered that many of those hymns were so deeply rooted in my unconscious that without realizing I was doing so I continued to recite them. God’s forgiveness came before all things and benevolence to others could be experienced in youth groups, parish councils, biblical study groups and prayers for young people, where we shared in moments of recollection which were far from being formal. For many young people the prayer group was an invaluable place for sharing and for learning Christian spirituality. Our doubts, our sense of guilt, our learning of discernment and our personal blindness to the answers which God gave us to our prayers: nothing was taboo, everything taught us to live our faith in common.

A detail of the cloister of Iona Abbey, Scotland.

I then discovered Catholic prayer thanks to the works of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Sigrid Undset. With her trilogy Kristin Lavransdatta [Kristin, Lavrand’s daughter] she was able to tell of the development of faith in a Norwegian woman of the 14th century, described in her books from infancy to old age, up to her death. I think that reading this book profoundly influenced my acceptance of a pastoral vocation. In fact, especially as a woman, the training and then the pastoral ministry would have been unimaginable if they were not firmly rooted in prayer. For some years after my arrival in Switzerland in 1978 I had nowhere where I could pray. Until I became pastor of a small parish with two churches dating back to the Middle Ages, I did not find a single place outside my home which I could enter and sit down in in order to pray and regenerate myself. I found the churches terribly austere and I once talked about this with an elderly colleague of the Reformed Church. He explained to me that the Huguenot churches were places of prayer only when they were full and when the community was praying together.

During my pastoral internship I very soon found that the needs of the parishioners did not necessarily correspond with the theological counsels of the pastors: many of my fellow pastoral interns held that prayer had no sense because God already knows everything.

Yet the need to have a place in which to regenerate oneself alone or with some dear ones was deeply felt by many, especially by women. Not having the practice of confession, some of them expressed the need to talk to another woman to whom they could tell everything without being ashamed: abortions and solitary mourning, being annoyed with God and with the whole world, conjugal violence, rapes, incest, terminal cancer, the cry of despair. Listening and giving guidance in these challenging situations often resulted in moments of prayer and especially in a renewal of the life of prayer of the person who little by little was relieved of his or her burden and entered a process of forgiveness. Likewise, my own life of prayer was deepened by listening to them and in turn being accompanied. Because how can one know what words to say to a person who is completely prostrated without these words opening even the tiniest wound? How can one be a matrix equal to God to make them reborn, when the time comes, such as they are? Walking beside them means accepting that I know nothing and that there is only God’s Spirit which can guide me.

Praying in silence beside someone who is dying or is in a coma, or someone who has had a lot to say: it is the same practice of acceptance of the person with his or her mystery and of listening to the Spirit, and also of the acceptance of my small power. The biblical texts prayed make it possible to ease suffering.

If I have been able to walk beside my parishioners, colleagues and inhabitants in the rest homes and people in hospital, I have also had the pleasure of working together with those who went to visit the elderly. It often happens that a person falls ill and we in the group take turns to be with them. We pray and listen together. Members approaching the end of their lives have told us how all this sensitive attention and intercession has helped them to come to terms with their illness and especially with their families.

When I myself was forced to lie in bed for four and a half months, I discovered that I could let myself go and feel the breath of the prayers of so many people I knew and also of many whom I did not know. I was moved by that solidarity among Protestants, Evangelicals and Catholics who felt united in the same humanity in Christ. Unknown people stopped me in the street to ask me news of my convalescence and told me they had prayed for me without really knowing what had been wrong with me. They felt the need to feel that we were united as believers: that each of us prayed for the other.

It is therefore hard for me to speak of a Reformed prayer. It is possible only to speak of the fact of praying to God. Indeed many lay people and pastors are regenerated in Catholic monasteries and communities or with rabbis. The Bose community has had great importance for the Protestants of Neuchâtel in particular, and of other French-speaking Swiss cantons. Its way of practising and of teaching lectio divina has renewed spiritual life in many parishes. The continuous formation courses for French-speaking ministers organized by the Brothers and Sisters of Bose have also involved French Protestant parishes and chaplaincies. Similarly the links with the contemplative Sisters of the Protestant Community of Grandchamp are a source of inspiration for many Protestants in Romansh-speaking parts of Switzerland.

Theologians such as Lytta Basset, Francine Carillo and Marion Muller-Collard have imbued the French-speaking Protestant Churches with great humanity with their books and their conferences. Each of them in her own way transmits the courage to live one’s personal faith in an incarnate way in the alternating vicissitudes of life. Thanks to them and to others, are we perhaps less in need of an emblematic figure like Mary, even though some Protestants say that that they still feel the need to pray to her? And might meditation on the biblical texts, especially on those in which God cares for the human being like a mother (for example, Ezekiel 16) or shows his compassion perhaps be able to replace this need?

In our current situation it is important to know where we come from and who we are in the religious context. However, prayer is the language of the heart which unites all Christians, Jews and Muslims despite their differences. Perhaps respecting others’ manner of praying will enable us to understand each other better.

Solveig Perret-Almelid