Strange, the things you remember from theological college (probably all the things you weren't supposed to, while other vital things went in one ear and out the other). But a random abiding memory is of the inscription on the door separating the library from the Chapel. It said 'Orare est laborare. Laborare est orare' (prayer is work, work is prayer). I would stare up at it while rummaging in the shelves for another book, for another essay...
It was the Benedictines who emphasised that prayer and work are intimately connected. Originally the emphasis was on work as prayer; that is, while you're in the vegetable garden pulling up leaks in your brown habit, you're to remember that this is holy work, no different from the work of prayer you would achieve in the Chapel after you've eaten the leaks for supper. The earth and the sanctuary are both God's arena.
But I've been thinking about it the other way round this Lent - prayer as work. Because one thing we've been learning in the Lent Group together is that prayer needs perseverance. Without being negative, it would seem that prayer for others especially (intercession) is often like a slow chipping away at a rock face bit by bit, or like dominoes - they're all stacked up and as you persevere, keeping on asking and keeping on seeking, suddenly one of them goes, and then the whole line falls and you have an answered prayer. But it can take a while.
Like most other work, prayer has tools. To get down to real practicalities, you need a place, a time, and anything else physical that might assist. For one member of our Lent Group, a daily prayer book, a rosary, candles and the psalms had all been helpful. I also have a 'box of tricks' - aide memoires that spur me on - a card that says sorry, a picture of a dove, a wooden cross, a reproduction of an icon.
I've also experimented with an egg timer, to make sure I spend at least ten minutes talking to God rather than getting lost in my own thoughts (subtle difference).
Do you need a system for prayer, or rely on the natural flow? 'Natural flow' sounds great, but sooner or later I find it dries up. In so many ways, praying doesn't come naturally. Some people find a system helps. I used to have a days of the week system - Mondays were family; Tuesday, church life; Wednesday, things in public life; Thursday Godchildren, etc. but it got so dry I gave up. For many years I haven't had a system as such, imagining I'm just listening to the Spirit...(or opting out of the hard work?)
This Lent I'm experimenting with prayer cards, an idea from Paul Miller's A Praying Life. Individuals I'm praying for each have a small postcard on which are written some spiritual and physical needs (as far as my limited perception is able to discern) so that prayer for them can be specific and direct. Time Pain writes 'one of our major objectives in intercession is the consecration of the saints' (Ashburnham Insights, Intercession, 1986) and it seems logical. When the saints are all fired up, exercising spiritual gifts and overflowing with the love of God, evangelism and social action tend to flow abundantly. People tend to be 'added daily'. We might not need any new church based programmes for getting people in the building. Sweet thoughts...
As the postcards mount up I can see I'll end up with another box to carry around...but hopefully it will be a step up from a vague 'Lord, bless so-and-so...'
So, prayer as work. Anything that's of value needs work (relationships, learning a trade, mastering golf) so it's no surprise that prayer's the same. If it's also true that work is prayer, I also get the encouragement of realising I might be spending quite a bit more time in prayer each week than I previously thought...(20+ hours, to be precise).