Making Prayer a Simple Matter

D. Gertrude More
D. Gertrude More

On this day in 1633, at the early age of twenty-eight, died D. Gertrude More, great-great granddaughter of St Thomas More and one of the nine founding members of the community at Cambrai. Her story is an interesting one because she is exactly the kind of person who ought to become a nun but who is considered by people outside the cloister ‘too lively’. She was indeed lively and high-spirited, but the liveliness and high-spiritedness were accompanied by a truthfulness and seriousness of purpose that were a measure of her intellectual and spiritual stature.

Her novitiate was not without its ups and downs. She was forever flaunting authority. Any mischief tended to have young Sr Gertrude at its centre, and she definitely took against the solemn Fr Augustine Baker who came as Vicarius to help the young Cambrai community grow in prayer. In fact, she was strongly tempted to abandon monastic life altogether but Fr Augustine showed her how to pray; a conversion followed and the rest, as they say, is history. Her holiness of life made an impression on those who knew her and today she is revered as one of the Stanbrook community’s uncanonised saints. Fr Augustine wrote a life of her in two volumes, with copious quotations from her own writing, including her far too fluent doggerel. If you are interested, you can read it online here:

But why am I writing about her under the heading of ‘simple prayer’? Partly, of course, it is because anyone who tries to pray will discover that prayer becomes simpler as time goes on. Words fall away and the silence and emptiness that remain are charged with God. So it was with D. Gertrude. She understood very well the simplest of all truths about prayer: we must pray as the people we are, not as the people we aren’t. Hers was an affectionate nature, and she used her affections to come closer to God. Not for her the composition of time and place and imaginative insertion into the events of the gospel. There was only ‘the sharp dart of longing love’ but it was enough. That she should have learned that in her comparatively short life is an encouragement to the rest of us. Can it be so hard to follow where she has led?


8 thoughts on “Making Prayer a Simple Matter”

  1. Thanks for the link – once again an important person/idea knew nothing about! I have read the chapters about different prayer suiting different people (thanks for the link) but still know that I find it hard to regularly experience silence and emptiness charged with God. It seems to happen in moments of stillness – almost when I least expect it…
    All too often, to quote Fr Augustine Baker prayer is apt to become dry and painful. I know you are right in that prayer becomes simple as we go on, – but it certainly does not (in my experience) become any easier. The distractions, unwanted thoughts and arid moments still crop up with frustrating regularity. I hope this is not unique to me!

  2. This sort of prayer is so blissfully free of any hint of ‘method’ or lists of things to ‘check-off’ in prayer, and the over-use of the imaginative powers so common among our continental brothers and sisters. It is absolute child-like, Gospel simplicity, and as such, is in the reach of all. How I groan, interiorly usually, when I see someone interested in advancing in prayer pick up one of those ‘How To’ manuals on contemplative prayer, knowing well it will usually do nothing but confuse and turn-off the seeker, ending in utter frustration a short time after starting. Thank you for this D. Catherine!

  3. I am at a loss. I have been saying the common Catholic prayers since I was a boy. To add meaning and maturity I have tried the prayers of some of the prominent saints. I still use the ” Universalis” morning and evening prayers. The meditative methods leave me cold. Still prayer remains a verbalism devoid of a personal feeling, something like the clanging gong St Paul speaks of. I hope discussions can provide the hookup I crave.

  4. There are times when I find it particularly hard to pray. My mind wanders so much to the particular circumstances I find myself in. At times like this (which occur too often) it is calming to the soul to just be. Knowing that God will meet us where we are is in a way an answer to prayers unsaid.

  5. Fr Augustine Baker also taught me how to pray – first via Shirley Hughson’s book “Contemplative Prayer” and then by reading Fr Augustine’s ‘Holy Wisdom’ itself. When I first tried religious life I struggled to connect with the John Main and Thomas Keating approaches, but then I read about affective prayer of the heart, and realised that was how I’d been desiring to pray all along: not centering prayer but earnestly crying out to God with love and longing.

    I agree with Jeffrey M, above. We must all ‘pray as we can’, of course, but I also groan at the techniques and methods which leave people thinking that’s the only way of contemplation and so maybe they’re not called to it.

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