Singing with the Fifth Voice: A Look at Communal Prayer

Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst. - Matthew 18:20

The place where they were gathered shook as they prayed. - Acts 4:31

The book of Acts is chock full of examples of Christian prayer. It shows prayer happening with the Church assembled (as at Pentecost). It shows prayer happening with the Church separated by great distance (as when Peter and Cornelius the Centurion prayed, miles apart, and God led them to the revelation that the gospel was for the Gentiles [Acts 10]). It even shows prayer happening among isolated Christians (Acts 18:9). But as we shall see, the prayers in Acts, whether of the Church assembled or scattered, are always communal. For (as we shall see) whether we pray by ourselves or with others, we never pray alone.

To understand what I mean, let me start by telling you about a tape I once heard by four friends with well-trained voices, a gift for harmony--and an angel who sang backup.

Well, not really an angel. But when the tape was played and the four singers' voices blended just so, a fifth voice could be heard quite distinctly. There was nothing actually supernatural here--the phenomenon is known as "overtone" and is often used to great effect in music composition. But that did not stop us from joking that an angel had helped make the tape.

Now learning to pray is like the rehearsal my friends did before they sang. They did not invent the song, harmonies and all, on the spot. They learned it and their separate parts in it by reading and listening. Likewise, we do not, of ourselves, know either the will of God or our part in it without God's revelation. Therefore, when we pray, we too must begin by listening.

You say, "Uh-oh, I'm no mystic. What does he mean by 'listen'?" Don't worry. You don't have to be St. Teresa of Avila falling into mystical ecstasies. "Listening" simply means we must start by making the same request of Jesus His disciples did: "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1). To listen is to open ourselves to the fact that a very real supernatural world surrounds us. To listen is to act in faith that God will show us how to pray--teach us His song and our part in that song--just as He did the disciples. For prayer is the way to union with God and union with God is everything Jesus came to give us.

So how does listening start? First, through the primary ways He has spoken for centuries: the revelation Jesus Christ made to us through Scripture and the teaching, traditions and sacraments of His Body, the Church. These are the major "streams of revelation" according to Vatican II. So, for example, one form of "listening" is to pay close attention to a Scripture, a papal encyclical or a homily. Another form would be to, say, study of all the prayers in the Book of Acts and see how we can imitate their intention. Or we might read some saint's writing on prayer.

In addition to these mainstreams of grace are lots of other creeks and tributaries which feed into these streams of revelation in a thousand other ways--through a chance comment, a gift of the Holy Spirit, a natural event, angels, coincidence, our conscience, etc. In short, God speaks to us in the daily occurrences of life.

Why is God so fond of speaking to us through many voices? Because, as theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar has said, truth is symphonic. Thus, we shouldn't be surprised if our Bible, spouse, pastor, prayer group, conscience all seem to be involved in a kind of unwitting conspiracy to say something to us. Suppose, for example, that during Mass or private devotions Isaiah 58 (the great passage about fasting and caring for the poor) really comes alive for you. That's a clue. Then later that week your spouse mentions out of a clear blue sky that s/he would like to start bringing canned goodies for the offertory basket at church. Another clue. Then the homily focuses on our obligation to the poor. Clue #3.

Get the picture? One senses more than simple coincidence here. So we begin to probe, through prayer and acts of obedience (like taking the canned goodies to church), whether God may be calling us to a deeper involvement with the poor. Then, we might take this puzzle piece to other prayerful Christians, we toss it into the general fund of insights held in common by your particular prayer or parish community. Before long, you find that several other people in your community are saying, "You too? This has been on my mind as well all last week! Maybe God is trying to show us something?" God virtually always gives us the "sheet music" or general theme for our prayers in some corporate fashion, through several means at once.

But that said, it is important to remember that not all prayer happens in prayer groups. Some people prefer to pray with the Church at Mass, or with their spouse or a friend over coffee. Some like to pray the psalms or get together with people on the lunch hour. Some like to say the rosary with their family. Some prefer to pray alone. All of these and a thousand other variations (including praying alone, as we shall see) are forms of communal prayer. But the common thread of all these forms of prayer is that each member of the Body of Christ is offering their prayer as a part in a choir, harmonizing their gifts and insights with the "tune" God is teaching us all to "sing." That tune is Love and the Church is the Choir. So each member is intended learn his or her individual part in the Church's prayer whether they are praying alone or with someone. For we each have a unique role to play in the work God is doing. As St. Paul makes clear, there is one Spirit with one purpose, but He has fun doing his stuff through many people simultaneously (1 Cor. 12:7-11). Thus, like my four friends, God leads us to blend our prayers, insights, gifts and talents as tenors, baritones, altos, and sopranos unite to form one voice.

How do we do this? Well, for starters, as the Church asks "Lord, teach us to pray," so each member must ask "Lord, teach me my role in that prayer." Often this will mean something quite commonsensical and mundane. Thus, if you are praying for Aunt Sadie's rheumatism during a cold snap and you are suddenly reminded of the pile of old sweaters and the heating pad in your closet... well, need I say more? (And you thought listening to the Spirit was only for St. Teresa!) Similarly, I have known those whom God commanded, in the Power and Authority of His Eternal Name, to rise and go do the dishes. (Later, they found that doing so freed others to do their part in God's plan rather than toiling in the suds.) So whether we heal a paralytic or dig a ditch, our obedience is highly prized by God (and can often lead to unexpected and extremely important results) Philip discovered this when he obeyed the Lord's odd command to "Go south to the road--the desert road--that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza" (Acts 8:26). In obeying such a simple command as "Walk south" Philip became God's chosen instrument to bring the gospel to the African continent for the very first time.) So as St. Paul says, "Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Colossians 3:17).

At other times though, you may just not know how you should pray. That's okay. Sometimes members of the choir just hum while someone else sings lead. So if you get stumped, just support the prayers of the Church by relying on the prayer that, without question, Jesus has taught us--the Our Father. Or, if you have the gift of tongues, especially use it here. The point is, to listen is to expect (because Jesus said to expect) that He will, in some way, show His people (even if He doesn't always show us as individuals) how to pray.

By now some people are wondering, "What about those of us who mostly pray by ourselves? Where do we fit?" Well, as Scripture teaches and the Church affirms, when we open ourselves to the life and power of God in Christ, we necessarily open ourselves to the mystery of Christ in His people--even when we can't be with them. That is the meaning of Paul's amazing statement that we are members, not just of Christ, but of one another! (Romans 12:5). Thus, there is no such thing as solitary prayer--even when we pray by ourselves.

The practical point of this is that no one is cut off from the People of Christ just because they happen to be separated by such trifles as distance, time or death. The prayer offered in the car on the way to work, the intercession in the waiting room awaiting the diagnosis, the "Oh God, help me!" before the Big Final Exam, the prayer of the bedridden senior citizen are all as much a part of the Church's prayer as the prayers at Mass. (Indeed, they are among the prayers offered at Mass.) So whether we realize it or not we are solidly fixed in the vast reality of the Body of Christ spread out through time and eternity, flung across the face of the world, terrible as an army with banners.

This is what Catholic theology calls the "communion of saints" and it stems from the fact that there is but one body and, as Jesus said, all are alive to God (Luke 20:38). Thus, beyond the local gathering of our particular community, we also, whether in a prayer group or praying alone, have access to the entire treasury of riches which are in His saints, both living and dead (Ephesians 1:18-19). Grafted into the life and power of the Risen Christ and sharing perfectly in that glory, the church in heaven is part of a swelling symphony of prayer and praise that will culminate one day in the crescendo of the Second Coming. The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us of this fact when it states that we are "surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1), that we have come "to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God, to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn... to the spirits of righteous men made perfect" (Hebrews 12:22-23). Whenever and wherever we pray, we stand in this vast landscape of joy and power--the sort of power that shook the place where the disciples gathered to pray (Acts 4:31).

That is why the Church encourages us to seek the intercession of the angels and Christians in glory as well as our brothers and sisters still on earth. Not because Christ can't get the job done by Himself, nor because they add to Christ's work, but because they share in it as we do and thereby grow in holiness to become like Him. As St. Paul says, "Through Him the whole body grows, and with the proper functioning of the members joined firmly together by each supporting ligament, builds itself up in love" (Ephesians 4:16) The "whole body" includes those in Heaven.

Such radical connectedness means, among other things, that any Christian praying (even alone) has enormous resources at their fingertips for learning and doing the will of God. The humblest believer not only has the gifts and insights his local brothers and sisters possess, he also has (if he but seeks them) the prayers and unique gifts God has bestowed on each of the saints and angels. For as St. Maximilian Kolbe put it, the saints have both hands free. They are no longer half-occupied (as we are) with battling their own temptations. They are utterly free to love as Christ does and do the will of God on our behalf. None of us sings a capella; each of us is backed by the London Philharmonic.

And even more exciting than this is the fact that communal (that is, Christian) prayer is a sacrament of God's own nature. For in the depths of the Godhead, the utter fullness of that communal love is rooted in a kind of dance or drama which is played out eternally between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father loves the Son and pours Himself into Him; the Son adores the Father and gives Himself and all He possesses (including us) to Him (John 17:10). And out of the core of that blinding fusion proceeds the Holy Spirit--Himself God as much as the other two Persons. All this is the very life of the Blessed Trinity, and it was in order to be taken up and made a part of this pageant of self-giving love that the whole universe was created (Romans 8:20-21; Eph 1:9-10).

It is, then, in the heart of this colossal mystery of love that all prayer finds its center. The Triune God desires to sweep us up in the Music of His own eternal life. And to do so, He has entered our world (through the Incarnation of Jesus) and our hearts (through baptism). Without warning, the God whom we searched for and sought in the high and holy place tapped us on the shoulder with a human hand. He comes alongside us in a flesh and bone body: in Jesus of Nazareth--a man who sweats real sweat, laughs true laughter, and bleeds real blood. In Him, God Himself joins the ranks of those who seek and pray and groan for the coming of His Kingdom. That is why he teaches us to pray our Father; for God is, says Jesus, "my Father and your Father, my God and your God" (John 20:17).

So Jesus is not just sitting in heaven listening. Nor is He content merely to teach us to pray. Instead, He is praying with us and (crowning wonder) through us. For St. Paul says that the Holy Spirit prays through us, not only when we have clearly discerned His voice, but even when we do not have the foggiest notion of how to pray, "making intercessions for us with groanings which cannot be uttered" (Romans 8:26). In other words, Jesus not only teaches us to pray and prays with us; but by the Holy Spirit within us He even becomes our prayer! My friends' experience as they sang turns out to be a kind of glimpse or taste of an ultimate truth: "For where two or three are gathered in my Name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matt. 18:19-20). Jesus is the true Fifth Voice.

The simplicity and practicality of prayer is, in a sense, startling. Surely, we think, discerning God's voice is a peak experience reserved for the solitary mystic. That the Creator of the Universe, the God of Israel, the One Who sits upon the Sapphire Throne from everlasting to everlasting--that such a God desires to reveal Himself not just to Moses or St. Catherine of Siena but to Barney the mechanic and my irritating cousin Zelda and to me for crying out loud--well, who can believe it? Nonetheless, the offer stands. No cleverness, no mystical powers, no psychic abilities required; only the faith to believe Jesus when He says that He will never leave us or forsake us as He guides His people, as a people, in their prayers (Matthew 28:20).

"As a people" since, as we have seen, all prayer (even solitary prayer) is communal. As the Church's grasp of that reality has deepened under the guidance of the Spirit, so has our awareness--both of the present living encounter of prayer and of the vast treasury of spiritual riches mined by previous generations. That is why communal, listening prayer is being rediscovered in our day with fresh force and power. We are beginning to see that we are not alone in the presence of the Holy One. Many have gone before; many are standing, even now, at our side.

And we find, lastly, that all this is possible because the One Whom we seek has sought us from the beginning and drawn us to Himself even when we thought He was hiding. As Jesus Himself says "No one can come to me unless the Father draws him" (John 6:65). Or as Lady Julian of Norwich, a 14th Century contemplative, captured beautifully in her Revelations of Divine Love:

"I [God] am the ground of your praying. First, it is My will that you have it; then, I enable you to will it; and then I enable you to pray and you pray for it. How should it then be that you should not have what you pray for?"

Prayer, then, is like music. The Triune God--Composer, Singer and Song--knits us together into one miraculously unified choir of many voices. And He stands with the stage door held open for anyone (you, for example) who wants to join their voice or instrument to the divine work of bringing His Unfinished Symphony to its climax. Why not have a seat in the ensemble? It promises to be quite a performance!

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea