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Praying in Public

Praying in Public

Monday, May 19, 2014 – 5 Easter, Year Two

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:

Psalms 56, 57, 58 (morning) // 64, 65 (evening)

Leviticus 16:1-19

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

I’ve always found it awkward to pray in restaurants, even though I grew up saying grace with my family every night before dinner and continue this practice today. Sometimes my son is already throwing food onto the floor before we can tell God that we’re thankful for it, but I guess it’s never too soon to model a spirituality of gratitude!

Because I value the practice of saying grace, I don’t mind joining in when I’m with people who are accustomed to praying before meals, even when they’re in public. Yet I’ve often felt like saying grace in restaurants contradicts the advice on prayer that Jesus gives us in today’s gospel: “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

This gospel passage asks us to treat prayer, almsgiving, and fasting as private activities rather than public performances. Practicing these spiritual disciplines secretly and anonymously protects us from the spiritual dangers of seeking approval, applause, and attention. Public prayer poses risks to the soul. The gospel today warns us not to pray “like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.”

Of course, just because someone prays in public doesn’t always mean that they have the desire to be seen and praised by the people around them. Yet, whatever spiritual practices give us life, we would do well to pay attention to these words of Jesus: “Beware of practicing your piety before others.” Public displays of piety just might lead us into trouble.

Whether we pray in restaurants or reserve grace for our own kitchen tables, we should keep in mind the warning in today’s gospel. Instead of praying, giving, or refraining in order to be seen by others, may we pray, give, and refrain in a way that others simply feel. Only God needs to know what we’re really up to.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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