Pentecost Evensong Sermon 2016
In or about the year 412, the North African Bishop, St Augustine, received a letter from a widow concerned about the words of St Paul from the second lesson this evening: we know not how to pray as we ought. Fearful that she might unwittingly persist in prayer for things that are inappropriate, she wondered in her letter whether or not she should pray at all.
St Augustine’s response is a marvelous and concise account of prayer that begins by exhorting her to pray for what all people desire: a happy life. He goes on to describe the happy life in terms that I suspect will make sense to many of us. It is not, he writes, to have what we want; for what we want may in fact be the cause of our destruction and not our well-being. It is, rather, to pray for sufficiency of food and shelter, health and well-being, for ourselves and those whom we love; it is to pray for protection against temptation; it is hallowing the name of God and seeking his will and his Kingdom – it is, in short, Augustine notes, to pray the Lord’s Prayer. We do this not because God by our words is edified or enlightened as to our needs – these are known before we ask – but because we are changed as we articulate our desires to God. Prayer does not change him, but us. Pray, Augustine wrote to the widow, for a happy life – not for oneself alone, or for one’s friends alone, but even for one’s enemies. “[I]t is our duty...,” he writes.