This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme:
There's an oft-repeated story that St Francis of Assisi told his Friars to “go out and preach the gospel – use words if you have to”. Like many famous sayings, however, there is no evidence that he ever actually said it. And if he did, then he was wrong. Language is as important as lifestyle in telling the truth about who we really are and what we really think matters.
Well, a week on from the appalling events in Paris it is interesting that in times of tragedy or challenge, the most unlikely people resort effortlessly to the language of prayer. “My thoughts and prayers are with the victims,” we've heard; and we've seen people kneeling, praying before makeshift shrines and at packed services in the Notre Dame cathedral. But, prayer to whom? And with what content or intention, we might ask?
Well, language is rarely reducible to a single meaning that is immediately obvious. So, when people ask for prayers for a particular person or situation, perhaps it doesn't need to be factually broken down into substantive parts, but can be taken as evidence of an emotional need to look beyond ourselves for order or meaning – or even rescue. After all, in the Christian tradition prayer is not about presenting shopping lists of requests to a god whose job it is to make life comfortable, convenient or secure for us. Rather, prayer is that exercise that, bringing us into the presence of God, gradually exposes us to the mind of God towards ourselves and the world where we are. Inevitably, this then exposes us to the need to change so that we gradually see God, the world and ourselves through God's eyes.
Now, I realise that there are people who think prayer is a bit of a weird and esoteric practice for people who like that sort of thing. Put like this, however, it is not surprising that it is open for anyone. Prayer invites us to be open and honest with God and one another – to tell the truth about our fears and anxieties as well as about the things that make us scream with joy. It's like being stripped back so that we see as we are seen.
There is a word for this process, but it is a word that is often misunderstood. 'Repentance' does not refer to some abjectly miserable confession of moral guilt, but – literally from the Greek word 'metanoia' – to 'change your mind'. It's a bit like having the lens behind our eyes – sometimes called our worldview – re-ground or re-shaped so that we see everything differently.
If any word is useful in these days of anxiety and fear, then 'metanoia' isn't a bad one. It allows for the possibility that the present situation does not have the final word, and that we will be able to see differently. No wonder Jesus told people to not be afraid – before shining a new light on their fearful experience and opening up the possibility of what one writer has called 'newness after loss'. That there is hope.