No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
From the summit of John Donne’s poem you can see the interconnectedness of the entire human race. The bell tolls to summon each of us to recognise that we are bound to one another by our common humanity. I am diminished but the death of any person because every human is a piece of the continent of mankind.
What drew me to this poem recently was the idea that underpins Donne’s verse. For him it is to be taken for granted that no human exists apart from community. After a couple of centuries in the desert of individualism, this thirst-quenching truth is once more being welcomed into our society in its understanding of what it means to be human.
At a recent church discussion the question being considered was, What’s the point of prayer meetings? One answer given during the course of the conversation was that prayer meetings are about building relationships. This is radical.
Many of us will be familiar with the teaching that prayer meetings are about persuading God to give us that for which we ask. According to this way of thinking the meeting has a single purpose, which is that the church receives from God the answers to its prayers. Without wishing to deny that a prayer meeting does have a supplicatory element to it and, therefore, does encourage the church to expect the fulfilment of its prayers, I would want to argue for a broader view of the purpose of public prayer.
All public prayer, whether it is made as part of the Sunday services or during a prayer meeting is about community. It is both an expression of community and a means of building community. Paul makes it clear that all acts of worship have this concern for the church built into them (1 Cor 14:3-5; Eph 4:19; Col 3:16). But this point can also be seen from what we know about prayer and being human.
Prayer is about being human. It is not an accessory to our lives, but is fundamental to our growth and flourishing as the new humanity. The Bible also teaches that community is essential to human development: “It is not good that the human should be alone” (Gen 2:18), or, to put it another way, “No man is an island”. These two tectonic plates, prayer and community collide with continent-creating power when the church gathers in community to pray.
I would go so far as to say that communal and public prayer are the greatest expressions of prayer because Christ has redeemed the Church. It was not a for ragbag collection of isolated individuals that he died and rose again, but for a single people who through their communal worship grow into a new humanity. Prayer comes into its own, when God’s people come together to pray.