How we spend our time is a very good indicator of what we value. Prayer, for many, is simply a waste of time and effort. Some even find the whole notion offensive. My first tweet of the day, which is always to assure people of the community’s prayer for them, usually gets one or two grumpy responses along the lines of ‘Don’t waste your time on that nonsense!’ or ‘Thanks, but no thanks’. Yet I notice that our email prayerline and our Facebook page attract numerous requests, while people sometimes ring up in the middle of the night to voice their concerns and ask for prayers.
All these prayers are asking God for something: a favour, a healing, a miracle even. Yet at its simplest, prayer is about nothing more than being with God, ‘wasting time’ with him. He knows our needs and is always ready to respond, though not always as we might wish. It is in this context that today we re-read chapter 20 of the Rule, On Reverence in Prayer. The text is so important that I shall quote it in full:
Whenever we want to ask something from powerful people, we do not presume to do so without humility and respect. How much more ought we to pray to the Lord God of all things with profound humility and pure devotion! And we must realise we shall not be heard for our many words, but for our purity of heart and tears of compunction. Prayer, therefore ought always to be short and pure unless perhaps prolonged by the inspiration of God’s grace. In community, however, prayer should be kept very short; and as soon as the signal has been given by the superior, all should rise together.
We could tease many ideas out of this short passage but there are two words that occur again and again, ‘humility’ and ‘purity’, so let’s look briefly at them.
How humble are we when we pray? By that I do not mean how grand are the titles by which we address God or how lowly is our concept of self, I mean how truthful are we? To be devoid of falsity, to allow God to search our innermost being, requires more honesty and courage than most of us can muster. It takes a lifetime to achieve that kind of humility, but it is what we aim at because humility tears down the barriers we erect between ourselves and God. It allows our humble God to find a way into our proud selves.
‘Purity’ is a word freighted with theology. In Greek the original meaning of apatheia was ‘detachment, without feeling’, but thanks to Cassian’s genius in rendering it in Latin as ‘purity of heart’, we have come to see that the purity needed in prayer is one of great attachment. We are serious about prayer, not in the sense that we are sad-faced or solemn, but as people to whom prayer matters — prepared to give it time — because we love God and wish to be close to him.
If you read this chapter of the Rule slowly and carefully, you will see that it has much to say about prayer that we are apt to forget. ‘Short and pure’: that is what Benedict recommends our prayer should be. It isn’t difficult to make it short, but pure? There is a challenge for today.