Every day my colleague does a disappearing act. He stands up, reaches into his filing cabinet, pulls out an old crumpled piece of flipchart paper and quietly exits the room. A few minutes later he reappears, tucks the paper back into the filing cabinet, sits down, and returns to his work – all without saying a word.

For the past six months I’ve watched him follow this routine, twice a day without fail. I used to wonder: ‘What on earth does he get up to with that mysterious piece of flipchart paper?’

A few weeks ago I finally found out. He’d gone AWOL again, and another colleague came asking after him. It was a fairly urgent matter, so a manhunt ensued. During the search, I glanced into a vacant office room, expecting it to be empty as always. I was surprised to find my absentee colleague tucked away in the corner, standing barefoot on the flipchart paper, facing the wall, praying.

Later, when I apologised for the interruption, he explained that he prays five times a day on his makeshift paper mat – at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and evening. With hindsight, I should have guessed: after all, I live in a country where two thirds of people are Muslim, where the daily calls to prayer ring out loudly across the rooftops, and where millions of people – my colleague included – are getting ready to start fasting this weekend, for the month of Ramadan.

As someone who struggles with self-discipline (and who spends more time tweeting than praying), I can’t help but admire my colleague’s daily ritual. Truth is, the kind of prayer I struggle with most is the kind Jesus recommends in Matthew 6:6: “When you pray, go into your room, [and] close the door.” The kind of prayer that requires me to walk away and find somewhere private for an uninterrupted natter with God; the kind where it’s just me, myself and I AM. No whistles, no bells, no distractions.

Of course prayer is fluid and not fixed: it should be integrated into every corner of our lives. It should be engaging, creative, inspiring. That’s why I find it easy to say “amen” to prayer walls, prayer bunting, prayer apps, prayer graffiti and even prayer flashmobs. But ask me to talk to God in a particular way, at a particular time, in a particular position, using particular words, and I’m tempted to shout: “Religion, get thee away from me!”

Having grown up within a church tradition where liturgy was a foreign concept, and where prayer was informal and freestyle, my instinct is to flee from structured forms of worship. I used to think that having fixed times for prayer could only ever be legalistic and oppressive: that it took the ‘elation’ out of the ‘relationship’. And this can certainly be true at times: after all, it’s not about quantity, but quality.

That said, Daniel prayed three times a day, on his knees, facing Jerusalem. And, in Psalm 55, David talks about crying out to God “evening, morning and noon”. Meanwhile, in Acts 3 we hear that Peter and John go to the temple “at the time of prayer”. So I can’t help but wonder: could it be worth taking a leaf out of their prayer book? Should I try to be a bit more intentional and structured, and pepper my days with set patterns of prayer?

Of course it may not work for everyone – religious rituals can breed spiritual inertia. Still, it’s an experiment some of us might want to try. Who knows: perhaps a little dose of discipline will help us connect on a whole new level with the best conversationalist the world has ever known. Perhaps we’ll discover that there’s liberty in the liturgy. In which case, all I can say is: amen to that.


Image credit: Michael Foley

Written by Tomi Ajayi // Follow Tomi on  Twitter

Nigerian-born but northern-bred, Tomi works in the media team of an international development NGO in London, telling stories about the people at the heart of the fight against poverty. She spent most of 2014 living in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Tomi suffers from chronic procrastination and has yet to master the art of time-keeping. She occasionally dabbles in poetry writing: her secret ambition is to be Britain’s first limerick laureate.

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