Daily prayer services inspire students during the Lenten season
By Grace Kenyon
Unbeknownst to many passersby, students and faculty have faithfully gathered for prayer and liturgical worship in Adams Hall throughout the Lent season. At 8:30 a.m. or 4:30 p.m. art professor Matthew Milliner can be found in
Lent is a time in the church calendar often set aside for discipline and solemn reflection. Milliner has hosted these meetings on campus for the past six years as part of his personal desire to participate in the historic practice and to engage campus in dedicated communal prayer. An expert in visual theology, he has aptly chosen a space filled with traditional religious art, providing an opportunity for attendees to focus before their day begins, or to reflect after a day of work.
Freshman Emma Sawyer, who has been attending these services throughout Lent, described them as a “mental reset before the day begins.” It is completely non-obligatory and open to anyone within or outside the Wheaton community. Sawyer says the prayer services create a “shared sense of peace” as they begin their day with prayer.
Senior participant Jerusha Crone described the service’s start as “a ringing of a bell and a time of silence, a time to center ourselves in the space with the bodies around us in front of the icons. We then delve into a whirlwind of words: Old Testament, Psalm and New Testament readings, either Mary or Zechariah’s song depending on the time of day and a time of communal confession and intercessory prayer.”
Whether spoken aloud or whispered in the silence of the heart, these prayers constitute a rhythm of discipline and devotion that are part of classical Anglican Lenten practices. The Record spoke to Milliner to hear the story behind the service and how it became a part of the fabric of Lent on Wheaton’s campus.
Daily practices of liturgical prayer, especially during Lent, are commonly associated with the Anglican tradition, but for Milliner the practice has a unique origin. After Milliner received a B.A. from Wheaton College in Art History, he moved to Pennsylvania to work in youth ministry. “When I was a youth pastor at a Presbyterian church in Pennsylvania,” he said, “there was an old hermit — that’s almost the word I would use to describe him. He had a Ph.D. from Princeton Seminary in New Testament. He was probably 65, 70, not in really good health, but he just took up shop in our church and said ‘I’d like to have morning and evening prayer here.’”
Milliner started attending prayer times led by this unlikely acquaintance, a man of deep intelligence who worked at a convenience store. Milliner said, “I learned from him this half hour rhythm [of prayer] … and it became a part of my day, just getting fused with scripture.”
When Milliner left Pennsylvania to attend Princeton Theological Seminary, he momentarily gave up the ritual, but when he heard that the praying Pennsylvania hermit had died, he felt compelled to find another way to reintegrate this practice into his life. Years later, after graduating from Princeton with an M. Div, M.A. and Ph.D. and returning to Wheaton as a faculty member, Milliner decided that he would “start offering [Lenten prayer] and see what happens.”
The service hasn’t always been well publicized, and it doesn’t always attract a lot of attendees, but it survives. Milliner asserted that “it has been obvious that God wants this happening, and I know that we throw around language like that, but I can be really specific.” He went on to provide a few examples of how God has provided the means and motivation to continue holding these prayer times.
A year ago, on Ash Wednesday, he decided that he wasn’t going to keep hosting the services. “I decided I wasn’t going to do it because I’m just tired and I don’t need another hour on my day … I’ve done this for a while and it’s just time to not do it.” That, he said, was when God intervened. He received a letter from a Wheaton alumna currently living in Munich, Germany. The student beautifully expressed how much she valued his Lenten prayer services when she attended Wheaton, saying they were a wonderful reminder of grace in her daily life. He knew at that moment that the prayer services needed to continue. He said, “It was one of the most dramatic interventions I’ve ever had in my life.”
Another way Milliner has seen God’s hand is in the consistent attendance at the prayer services. He jokingly called the fellowship during services “the Lenten miracle.”
“I’ve never been alone,” he told the Record, “there was one time, it was 4:30 p.m. on Friday and it was only me [for the first time in Wheaton Lenten history].” Fifteen minutes passed, and he thought no one was coming, but that’s when “a studio associate here who cares for this building and puts on all the shows … he walks by and says, ‘Oh, I’ll come pray with you.’” So the services have continued, drawing in a diverse mix of people from liturgical and non-liturgical traditions alike.
Sawyer and Crone, who represent a sliver of the diverse range of liturgical backgrounds that make up the Wheaton student body, both talked about how attending a regular prayer time has helped them grow in their faith.
Sawyer recounted her own journey to observing the liturgy. “I did not grow up observing Lent. I don’t think I’d ever heard of it until, when I was twelve, I moved to the Netherlands and I went to an Anglican church. And there, it’s kind of ingrained into European culture, but it’s more the party aspect of it, like a Carnival or Mardi Gras kind of thing.” In high school, she moved back to the US and started processing what the Bible says about fasting and other similar practices. Ultimately, she realized that Lent is “a time of mourning and makes Easter more significant.”
Sawyer said that having a specific time and place set aside for prayer was helpful in her devotional life, especially in learning how to pray for others. “There’s a time in the middle [of the service] where Dr. Milliner would say to pray quietly or aloud for different people and you could just say their names.” Sawyer explained, “When I say I’m going to pray for someone, I want to pray for them.” These prayer times give her the space to do so.
Crone had some profound insight to offer about the role of Lent in her own spiritual journey. She is now Anglican, although she grew up in a Southern Baptist church. She wrote, “I think there is something powerful about rhythms and seasons in our lives that allows us to experience the full range of human emotions and experiences, and the church calendar provides us with an ordering of some rhythms that we get to enter into with our Christian community, living and dead, past, present, and future, and all around the world. It’s a chance to say, I’m having this experience of God but it’s not all about me.”
This theme of community runs deep in the tradition of Lenten prayer. Milliner made it very clear that the prayer service “isn’t meant to replace daily devotions … it is a public form of [prayer]. [Jesus] councils both, and they’re not mutually exclusive.” He went on to say that he reminds himself daily that the services are not “your little project; this is part of what it means to be the church.”
Milliner also incorporates his love of art into the services. Church icons are used as a means of further reflection and meditation.. He explained a little about the origin of these images. “These are from all male monasteries … that women couldn’t even step foot in if they wanted to.” The icons, in replica form, now take up residence on the third floor of Adams, and can be seen be anyone. Milliner hopes people see them as an “exchange of gifts across church traditions.”
In a similar way, the words used in the liturgical rhythm of the prayers and scripture are taken from a long and rich tradition that spans church history. The language is beautiful and poetic, but sometimes not gender-inclusive. Milliner decided to use the gender-inclusive NRSV for the scripture readings. However, not wanting to compromise the artistry of the original language, Milliner decided to continue using the older version of the prayers. “There’s only a couple of moments where men are referred to to signify all humanity, and we’re all adults and we can make the adjustment,” he said.
The icons, like the prayers and the words of scripture, are gifts shared between all Christians across time and space, and Milliner hopes they help participants connect to the larger body of Christ.
As the interview drew to a close, Milliner had one more message he wanted to emphasize. He acknowledged that sometimes the practice of prayer can become a burden when we make each other feel ashamed for not doing it enough. “This is not intended to make you feel guilty,” he insisted. Instead, he urged the rest of campus to “Be encouraged that prayers are rising up from Adams Hall … when we kneel and sit to repent, we’re doing this on behalf of the campus and on behalf of the church.”