By Paul Dumbrille
We often hear about a “vigil” being held outside a home or at a specific location when a tragedy strikes, such as when multiple people are killed from a tragic accident or crime. Dictionaries define a vigil as a period of keeping awake and watchful, especially during a time that is often spent asleep. However, when an event is announced as a Christian “Prayer Vigil”, we might wonder what it is; why it is being carried out; where one might be held; and how long it last.
In a Christian setting a Prayer Vigil focuses prayer on a specific event, an urgent need, or a particular issue. For a set period, usually in a designated place, people concentrate on expectant listening and communicating with God. We do this in response to Jesus saying, “Watch and Pray”. The vigil can be described as “watchfulness” and Scripture confirms that power is released through concerted prayer: Matt. 17:21; Matt. 18:20; Acts 1:14, Eph. 6:18-19. Prayer Vigils are held in a variety of places. One of the easiest places to keep focused in prayer is before a cross in a church, but any place is a potential location where prayer can be offered. If indoors, as an aid to providing a focus for prayer, a cross, an open Bible, and perhaps a candle on a small covered table are helpful. There is no set time for a Prayer Vigil, but ideally it lasts for a relatively lengthy time, often 12-24 hours continuously. Individuals can pledge to participate for segments of 15, 30 or 60 minutes. Longer vigils for synods or conventions may cover up to two weeks during meeting hours, with many people participating. Sometimes a “virtual vigil” is organized with people not gathering in any specific place but committing to pray for an identified reason for a specific time. Participants in a Prayer Vigil may be anyone who believes in God and appreciates that God responds to our prayers in a variety of ways. Often existing prayer groups are a good source of people to keep vigil.
I have participated in several kinds of Prayer Vigils over the years. One of the most memorable was in a chapel in the Cathedral in Winnipeg during the several hours of balloting and election of our current Canadian Anglican Primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, in June 2007. I was also privileged to be part of a group of people from across the Diocese praying at a Prayer Vigil in the chapel in Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa when Bishop John Chapman was elected Bishop of Ottawa in September 2007 – it was quite a year! In both these instances there was no organized rotation or list of participants. The time and place were announced ahead of time and people came and went as they wished, but at least two people were always present. I have also participated for many years in a very different type of Prayer Vigil. This Vigil is held in the sanctuary and chapel of our parish church, Julian of Norwich, all night, starting after the Maundy Thursday evening worship service until the celebration of the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday morning. In this case, the church is kept open all night, and people can come and go at any time, and stay for as long as they wish. However, there is a signup sheet for individuals or groups to commit to certain times ahead of time, so that there is a guarantee of at least one person being in the church at all times.
Organizing and carrying out a Prayer Vigil is neither complicated or difficult. Ideally it is organized by 2-3 people who gather to pray and plan together. Here are some things they might consider.
- Advertising the vigil by preparing and publishing paper and electronic material containing an invitation to join the vigil and an explanation of the vigil purpose, as well as the time and place and who to contact for more information.
- Producing signup sheets with space for times, names and perhaps phone numbers and email addresses so that organizers can contact individuals if necessary.
- Providing suggestion sheets of “What to do in a Vigil”, such as using appropriate Scriptures, encouraging listening, and how to use a prayer request basket (if used).
- Arranging Furnishings at the location of the Vigil, and providing Bibles, Prayer Books, a basket or two for prayer requests, along with paper and pencils/pens.
Organizers should be prepared to help potential participants prepare for the Prayer Vigil ahead of time. This is particularly important when people are participating in large events (e.g. a Synod). Providing people with answers to any questions they may have, or relief from any anxieties ahead of time, will allow them to say, “Now I can really pray!” when the vigil starts.