The week of December 14, 2014

Twitter and the rise of the microprayer

By Casey Cep

Almost every night between 8 and 11pm, @iamepiscopalian tweets a prayer. “Grant, O God,” read the tweet on Nov. 21, “that we lie down in peace, and rise up to life renewed. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace.” A month before that:

Excerpts from the Psalms appear often, but so too do prayers from The Book of Common Prayer, The New Zealand Prayer Book, Celtic Worship Throughout the Year, Children’s Prayers of the Nippon Sei Ko Kai, and other liturgical books. Occasionally, @iamepiscopalian retweets local churches, shares announcements about events and conferences, or offers seasonal prayers, but most of the 6,000 tweets since the account was created in April of 2009 are these nightly prayers. The prayer is sometimes shortened, with a link to the full prayer on Facebook. When Twitter first started embedding photographs, the nightly prayer became a stock photograph with text written above or over it. One of my favorites appeared below a picture of an ambulance with its doors open and an emergency medical technician visible inside.

Some nights there are still Facebook links or captioned photographs, but most nights it’s a plea or thanksgiving in 140 characters or less.

I don’t remember when I first found the Episcopal Church’s account, but I do remember how quickly these nightly tweets became part of my prayer life. In between news stories, personal ramblings, hashtag games, television commentary, and whatever sponsored corporate content Twitter has thrown into my feed, there is that little prayer. I rarely retweet it, and I only sometimes favorite it, but I often go to Twitter just to read it.

The liturgy of the hours has a long history, and the Episcopal Church’s nightly prayer is a kind of digital compline for those who cannot gather for worship. There are, of course, more features in traditional liturgies of compline—hymns, confession, scripture readings, antiphons, and other elements depending on the community—but @iamepiscopalian’s digital compline accomplishes some of what the liturgy strives to do. Readers of that nightly prayer realize that the church is both local and global, that they are one voice among many voices.

It’s been some time since I lived in a parish large enough for members to gather for daily prayer. Before I moved back to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, I worshipped in college chapels and university churches that drew from communities large enough to sustain such a busy pattern of worship. There was morning prayer before classes during college, choral evensong during graduate school, and compline most Sundays and Wednesdays at one church or another, all within walking distance. That daily habit of gathering and praying together gave a beautiful shape to my days, and I miss it very much.

The nightly prayer is also a summons for more reflection.

The discipline of daily prayer is easier to maintain when you have a place to go, where many worshippers can share responsibilities for the service. But digital compline is a welcome attempt at recreating that discipline, especially since most churches can only offer periodic vespers and compline. When @iamepiscopalian sends the nightly prayer, a few dozen users retweet or favorite it, and I realize there are others giving thanks for their days and offering their prayers for the world. Sometimes users will respond “Amen” or complete the prayer if it ends in ellipsis. It is the kind of communal experience for which Twitter is most celebrated: the kind of specific time that is no time at all, read and shared simultaneously on the East Coast and the West Coast and around the world with only the sweeping sense that days end and nights begin, no matter the exact hour of wherever you are.

I remember once as a child realizing that a friend also prayed the singsong now I lay me down to sleep prayer from The New England Primer. Even though the prayer has been spoken by parents and whispered by children for centuries, I had thought my parents had crafted it just for me. But then suddenly it was something shared with many others, some known like my friend and most others unknown. That is the sort of strange joy I experience most nights when I read the @iamepiscopalian prayer: just for me, but also the 22,500 other followers of the account. The nightly prayer is also a summons for more reflection: an invitation for private prayer, and an incitement to find prayerful spaces and places beyond the tweet.

Twitter may not provide candles or choirs, but those can be assembled or remembered, and while @iamepiscopalian offers only an introductory prayer, it can be supplemented by the reader’s own spiritual practices. How else to respond to this prayer, from November?

It asks God to dissolve any resistance to forgiving others but requires remembering such resistance, revisiting all the wrongs of the day in order to forgive them. Or this prayer, from June:

It calls attention to things said and unsaid, audible and silent; such sensitivity may begin but needn’t end with a tweet.

If prayer is found everywhere else, on television and on the radio, in emails and on greeting cards, in books and on church marquees, why shouldn’t it be on Twitter? That was at least what I thought the first few nights the @iamepiscopalian nightly prayer appeared in my feed. When I see a prayer like this one on Twitter, a prayer that has seen me through sadness and doubt, grief and sorrow, why shouldn’t I rejoice at the thought that others see it, too?

There may be hashtags for prayer and whole accounts devoted to retweeting the prayers of others on Twitter, but @iamepiscopalian’s nightly prayer is the only one that has really found a consistent place in my prayer life.

In between news stories, personal ramblings, hashtag games, television commentary, and whatever sponsored corporate content Twitter has thrown into my feed, there is that little prayer.

Occasionally, digital compline feels stiff and formal, like the starched collar of a cathedral service, often escaping the tempter’s snare.

Other times it’s contemporary and casual, the neon canvas of a lighted tent beneath the stars that reminds me of outdoor vespers and youth group retreats.

But it’s always a welcome presence in my feed, the chance to pause after work and before rest, a way to mark the passage from day to night.

Photo via Dennis Jarvis/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) | Remix by Rob Price