Prayer-Making Sausage Machines?

I like being a Benedictine nun. Ever since I first encountered the Rule of St Benedict, it has made sense to me. I like the way it puts Christ at the centre of everything and orders all our activity towards love and service of him, expressed not in some abstract way but concretely through love and service of very fallible human beings — the superior, community and guests. I like the way the Divine Office punctuates the day; the attention given to reading, study and hard work; the austerity and restraint which are our way of ensuring that we do not become focused on material things. I don’t myself find it an easy Rule to live by because it is always asking something more, pointing us towards a holiness not yet achieved. Over the centuries the Church has overlaid the original conception of St Benedict with ideas of her own. Thus, today, to be a Benedictine nun is to live a life ‘wholly ordered towards contemplation’ with rules about enclosure and so on that often fascinate romantics and puzzle others. Like so much in life, many of these rules have to be taken on trust and lived as best we can.

To outsiders, especially those who have had no dealings with them, nuns are an unknown quantity: figures of fun, often enough, or a symbol of everything narrow and obscurantist. From time to time some well-meaning priest will talk about ‘the good Sisters’ praying for the rest of us behind their high walls (we don’t have walls, we’re not Sisters and I wouldn’t call us ‘good’, either!) or we’ll receive some dutiful encomium of the contemplative life penned by a pope or bishop, usually with a few ideas of their own about what we should be doing (these don’t always correspond to what we are doing, but not everyone is an expert in sixth century monasticism). We regularly receive letters from organizations enlisting our help for their causes and asking us to write back with the name of the nun assigned to pray for them (we don’t do that; the community prays). At least there is a recognition that God matters, and that prayer matters, too.

Most frequently, however, we are turned to in moments of crisis by ordinary people overwhelmed by some event or hardship they don’t really know how to deal with. They know that we will pray; and although their ideas about God may be very agnostic, they have a  vague sense that it is worth asking someone to pray for them. I am often very moved by the requests we receive. No matter what form they take, we will always pray, seriously and perseveringly. Just occasionally, however, I am taken aback by the casual way in which some prayer requests are made, as though we were prayer-making sausage machines and God — the all-holy, transcendent One — nothing more than a menial to do their bidding. There is no sense of the absolute holiness of God; no sense of what prayer is.

The only explanation I can find for this way of approaching prayer is that it reflects our Western society only too well. We want something, so we put in an order to the supplier and treat the whole thing as a kind of commercial transaction. God will do our bidding, because that is what he is meant to do. He is a supplier of goods and services to humanity. I confess that it makes me uneasy, but I don’t know what to do about it. Or rather, I suppose I do. Somewhere in the life of every Benedictine there is, must be, something of that utter abandonment to the love and praise of God that characterized the saints. However inadequately, it is our role to break the jar of nard and allow its fragrance to waft abroad. Please pray that we may do so.

Prayerline
We have an email prayerline open 24/7 for prayer requests. You will find it in the Vocation section of our websites at www.benedictinenuns.org.uk and www.benedictinenuns.net, or you can make use of it here. No details are made public.

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4 thoughts on “Prayer-Making Sausage Machines?”

  1. Insightful and helpful as ever “Not-Sister” 😉

    Coming from a different theological angle, I always learn from you, and appreciate the alternative insights. You open up my world-view, and my “God-view”. I wonder if the sausage machine effect springs from “God is interested in every detail; wants me to talk to him as my Father, so I can tell him what I want freely” and then leave it to our Heavenly Father to respond in a way that is actually best for us, not what we think is best for us?

    Or maybe it’s just “here’s what I’d like Father Christmas”… which is indeed, sad.

    I only know that for myself, some of the needs I encounter leave me with no idea what to pray. Sometimes I just hold the situation in God’s loving gaze. Sometimes I am bold and ask for a miracle of healing. Sometimes we get one! Most times we get the miracle of coping.

    • The miracle of coping seems to me to be the one most of us need most of the time. I know I do! I find the ‘Letter to Fr Christmas’ type prayer requests the hardest to deal with. I hesitate to say that they sometimes seem to verge on the superstitious, but I can feel caught up in something that is somehow not right — the sausage-machine effect is the only way I can describe it. Fortunately, God can deal with them even if we/I can’t, which is why we go on praying, no matter how conflicted we may feel about it. I agree one should have the courage to ask for what one needs/wants with all the confidence of a beloved child, but most times I find words aren’t necessary and only get in the way. That is not quite true of the Prayer of Exasperation, with which I suspect you will be as familiar as I am. If not, ask Cuddy. 😉

      • Oh yes! I am very familiar with the Prayer of Exasperation! Sometimes just plain exasperation without much prayer about it, sadly!

  2. Cracking open the jar of nard and allowing its fragrance to waft abroad? What a delightful description of prayer! I shall be rolling that imagery around my mind with great enjoyment. I like how it subverts the ‘factory mindset’. Many thanks.

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