If, like me, you take some interest in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s tweets, you may have noticed a common theme in recent weeks: an emphasis on the simplicity of ‘meeting’ God in prayer. A few days ago for instance, Justin Welby tweeted that: ‘There’s a simple way of meeting Jesus, every day, at any moment. It’s called prayer’. Similar encouragements to pray were tweeted in previous weeks – see here, here, here, here, and here! At the same time we have witnessed the launch of the Church of England’s ‘Just Pray’ website; amidst the controversy generated over its ‘Lord’s Prayer’ video, few have paused to dwell on its simple claim that ‘prayer is for everyone’.
Beneath these public statements there seems to lie an interesting assumption: encountering God in prayer – ‘meeting Jesus’ – is essentially quite easy: to believe we ‘just’ need to pray. Jesus is a person who is easy to ‘meet’, and prayer is the magic key that unlocks his presence. Faith, in other words, is straightforward – we just need to pray, and await the instant results. As an idea it sounds disarmingly simple… But is it true?
On one level, the message is indeed a valuable one: so often prayer can seem like the preserve of ‘experts’ – a task for priests and other ‘professional’ religious people. It is easy to assume that God is accessible to other people: people who are more holy, more special or more educated than me. The reality, of course, is that prayer is the most democratic of human experiences: we do not need to be experts to pray! Indeed, one of the most important tasks of theology is to remind us of this fact.
On another level, however, I wonder whether the message implied in these statements isn’t altogether too simple. Let’s face it: a lot of the time ‘meeting Jesus’ isn’t an automatic outcome of ‘just’ praying. Those of us who are engaged in prayer know that sometimes it can be powerful and dramatic, but sometimes it can be the opposite: filled with boredom, anxiety, distraction and doubt. As Rowan Williams puts it bluntly: ‘at the prosaic and daily level, it can involve a great deal of sitting there facing frustration and self-doubt of the most acute sort’. To suggest uncritically that Christians ‘meet Jesus’ by ‘just’ praying is to ignore the lifelong, transformative process of aching, seeking and struggling that constitutes the life of faith. Indeed, when we examine the New Testament we observe the very real difficulty of faith: the cry of the father seeking healing for his son in Chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel – ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ – is echoed in the yearning of St Paul, who recognises that ‘meeting’ Christ is not a once-for-all encounter but a lifelong struggling after mystery: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection…’ (Philippians 3. 10).
To my mind, the most helpful Christian voices in the public sphere are those who are prepared to face up to the difficulty of faith – to what a former Archbishop of Canterbury described as ‘the constant process of wrestling, of losing and finding, of alternating night and day’. In his recently-published book, How to Believe, the philosopher John Cottingham for instance makes it clear that the journey of faith is a demanding project, encompassing the whole of life: faith develops through a commitment to certain embodied practices, which ‘open up enriched perceptions of the reality that is being confronted’. Mature religious faith requires commitment and discipline over time. Though these may be unfashionable virtues in our impatient modern culture, we shouldn’t be embarrassed by them, since the process of struggling, longing and waiting is a life-giving and transformative one. By presenting the practice of prayer as unrealistically simple, isn’t the Church at risk of discrediting it among those very people whom it seeks to attract?
So, is the Archbishop of Canterbury right: do we just need to pray? Well yes, absolutely: God is nearer to us than our own heartbeat, and is always holding open his arms to us in the person of Jesus. But really believing this – really meeting Jesus – might be more demanding than we or the Archbishop of Canterbury are prepared to admit. After all, the life of prayer is not a simple one but – as Sarah Coakley again reminds us – a strange one:
‘This is [a] very strange thought: that the risen Christ, being God’s Son, is here all the time but that we have to “turn” and keep “turning” towards his gaze, until our senses and mind and soul and heart are so attuned and magnetized to his presence that we too can say Rabbouni – not to grasp and hold him, not to constrain him within our restricted human categories, but to worship and adore him’.
This, then, is the invitation with which God confronts us: not an invitation to just pray when Jesus seems easy to find, but an invitation to keep praying when Jesus seems hidden or absent – and to wrestle, to struggle and to turn until we truly, finally, find him.
 For an approach to systematic theology which takes seriously the democratic nature of prayer, see Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self, (2013). Coakley’s robust understanding of prayer as something which ‘is not a highly mystical endeavour’ can also traced in her interview on ‘Prayer as Divine Propulsion’, accessible online here.
 Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief, (2007), p. 156.
 Michael Ramsey, Problems of Christian Belief, (1966), p. 7.
 John Cottingham, How to Believe, (2015), p. 64.
 Sarah Coakley, sermon at Salisbury Cathedral, Easter Day 2014 – text available here.