Learning to Pray Again

Jesus Solana from Madrid, Spain / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

During the past few days I have become increasingly uneasy about the response of some Christians to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. In Catholic circles there has been outright war in cyberspace over the suspension of public celebration of the Mass in many countries. Some priests and pastors have chosen to defy their bishops; others have opted for live-streaming the Mass, organizing Eucharistic processions, or launching into videos or podcasts intended to meet the pastoral needs of their congregations. Lay people and others have condemned the decision to suspend the Mass and accused others of lacking faith or even, in extreme cases, of doing spiritual harm to themselves by denying what is essential to their being. Now that the Anglican archbishops of Canterbury and York have suspended public services in England, the war zone has become even wider. It is all rather noisy and confusing. Indeed, it led me yesterday to question whether we ourselves should step back a little from our own online engagement because the religious cyberspace is becoming rather crowded.*

Then, thanks to a friend, I read a no-nonsense response to the current situation from Don Antonio Gómez, the bishop of Teruel and Albarracín. He is not responsible for anything I say here, but he helped crystallize my thoughts. We are behaving like sheep, and rather unruly and bad-tempered sheep at that, with pastors treating their people as unable to do anything of themselves, and people treating their pastors as super-daddies, without whom they will perish. We will all perish if we go on scrapping and arguing as we are now, priests and people alike. So, let’s be clear about a few basic points.

The Church will never fail because she is founded on the rock that is Christ. During the long years of the Interdict in England, when none of the Sacraments could be celebrated, faith did not die, nor did anyone lack the graces he/she needed. The Nagasaki Christians survived for centuries without the Mass. I am not saying that not having Mass publicly celebrated is a good thing, no, never. One of the sad things about my illness is that I can rarely be present at Mass, but I may have begun to learn from that experience something worth sharing with others. God is bigger than our human perceptions. He can work through anything, and he often chooses experiences which seem to us negative to teach us something far from negative. For example, if we are lamenting being deprived of the Mass, we may well need to see the Mass in less consumerist terms, i.e. it is not about me and what I want for my spiritual life but what the Mass means for the Church as a whole, which must necessarily include those unable to have Mass because of lack of priests or illness or political repression. Mass is being celebrated somewhere every hour of every day. It is the eternal sacrifice of the Church, in which we all take part whether physically present or not. Let’s not forget that.

I am no great fan of broadcast Masses, as some of you know, so how do I link the Mass at which I am not present with my own experience, here and now? Quite simply, it is done though prayer — and I do mean prayer, not prayers. I have seen innumerable exhortations to say this or that prayer to make a spiritual communion. I don’t want to knock them. I am sure many people find them helpful and good. But could I put in a plea for fewer words, more silence, for the prayer of simple longing and adoration? For the prayer of lectio divina and the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) in which we allow the Word of God to take charge; for the prayer of baffled quiet and blundering incompetence in which God does all because we cannot do anything? Instead of rushing from one thing to another, perhaps we are being asked to slow down, to give time to prayer, even to waste time in prayer?

This is proving to be a strange Lent. We have been asked to give up many things we would never have dreamed of being asked to give up. We have been asked to be unselfish in ways we would never have contemplated. Could it be that now we are being asked to learn to pray again? To give up some of the rituals we have not valued quite as much as we think we did, so that we may learn again how very precious they are? To give up some of our old words so that the Word of God may fill our being in new ways? In short, to allow Christ to pray in us?

Additional but related content:
Digitalnun’s Guide to Self-Isolating for Dummies

Where Angels Fear to Tread

An Unexpected Sabbath

*Some people address tweets and posts to me as a way of gaining attention for themselves, but it can cause consternation among those who think I share their views — which often I don’t. I’m also a bit sceptical about the quality of some of the broadcast material. We do not need to fill every void.

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18 thoughts on “Learning to Pray Again”

  1. Superb blog post, thank you, and in my humble opinion you have hit the nail on the head. Let us each try to use the chance of quiet time for real prayer (no “s”) and listen out for God!

  2. ‘We do not need to fill every void’

    Yes indeed! I’ve stopped work (I’m a piano teacher) and am contemplating the ‘void’ in front of me with awe and gratitude. Now that I’m no longer busy I have time to pray and be and do. We’ll get by, and I’ll be praying for those with real fears and concerns.
    Take care, everyone.

  3. Oh Sister Catherine, your wonderful phrase describing ” the prayer of baffled quiet and blundering incompetence” is a perfect description of my inarticulate efforts. The most I can honestly claim is sincerity and (I hope) humility.
    Thank you for your wise words.

  4. A strange Lent indeed, but perhaps one that will truly have the effect that every Lent should have – stripping down to the basics and realizing what is really important in life. Then we can have a genuine Lenten journey, returning to the Lord with all our hearts.

  5. You have really clarified and also endorsed some of my thoughts regarding the possibility of the public celebration of Mass being suspended.
    God is with us always and I truly believe what Marc Foley wrote in his Lenten book,
    ‘A Season of Rebirth’: “His plan of Salvation isn’t operative only when things are going well……Often the evil (Coronavirus?) that we suffer from the hands of others becomes the instrument of our redemption and transformation.”

    Jesus Himself taught us that a humble and contrite heart is something God will never refuse. If we must live for a while without the Sacrifice of the Mass, we could all do with quiet time to simply put ourselves into the presence of God and bring to Him our humble and contrite hearts.
    I am so pleased to be entering isolation, to switch off from the busyness of life and have more time to be with ‘My Lord and my God’.

  6. If you never posted again, this needs to be preserved and promulgated. Anyone who has a regular practice of prayer – not saying prayers, as you say – does not believe the end of the world has come if Mass can’t be said. I, too, have seen some of the prayers posted on FaceBook and thought they were too long and wordy. Maybe we have an opportunity to help people to realise that the contemplative life is not for a chosen few.

  7. Thank you for this post.

    The Archbishop of Paris commented in a recent interview, in response to criticisms that suspending public Masses is “cowardly”, that thinking only of one’s own desire to receive “mon petit Jésus” and not of one’s responsibility for the care of one’s brethren is hardly a sign of being well prepared to receive Him.

  8. Thank you so much for this. It resonated with what I felt in my deep heart and in the bit of me where I keep sanctified common sense. We have Exposition tonight – always do on a Wednesday – and will give thanks for that without griping over whatever we can’t have. 100 000 000’s of others don’t have it either! XX

  9. Angry responses to the cancellation of Mass here in our part of the world, too. Most troubling are those who insist “If you really believed it was the Precious Blood you wouldn’t become ill drinking from the chalice.”

    God gave us the gift of common sense, (should we choose to use it) and His Son reinforced loving one’s neighbour. As for praying “prayers” – Jesus gave us one prayer to be prayed in unity. This is an excellent time to refresh our prayer life and align our priorities with those of our Lord.

    Thank you for your inspiring and comforting post, Sister Catherine, they are a great help to my husband and I. Much love and prayers for health to all.

  10. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject. I’ve been saddened by the tone of many of the comments I’ve read elsewhere attacking the decision to suspend public worship. Some people are clearly deeply upset, and I feel for them. After all, who could be indifferent to the fact that Mass is not being publicly celebrated or what it means to individuals? Others seem, perversely, to be enjoying a public display of emotion which, to my mind, confuses folly with faith and asks others to take risks they should not be asked to take. On Holy Saturday the whole Church goes through her annual cycle of a day without the Sacraments. Perhaps this year we shall arrive at a deeper understanding of what that means and hence of the Sacraments themselves. One small pedantic footnote, if I may. It is the public celebration of the Mass that is being suspended, not public Masses as such. Every Mass is public, whether celebrated openly in church for all-comers or privately behind closed doors, because it is offered for the whole Church, living and dead.

  11. Thank you, dear Sister Catherine, for these wise and heart felt words encompassing God’s love for us all.
    I know that our priests and vicars are saying Mass on our behalf and that warms me in these difficult times. As Christians, we are being asked to sacrifice the tangible connection in not receiving the host but know that our faith is being maintained for us in our absence from services.
    What better way to praise and serve the Lord than to distance ourselves from the vulnerable for their safety and to help, if we can, in the community those less able to cope with the current restrictions on normal life activities.
    We are facing exceptional circumstances and it is difficult to predict what may be the eventual outcome for any of us. God does not cause the problems but He does have many of the answers. Grace, love and kindness for our neighbour, whoever they may be, is our way of demonstrating our love for Him and His love for us.
    May the Lord bless and keep you and your Sisters safe. Peace and love be with you now and always xx.

  12. This afternoon our pastor sent a letter to parishioners via our parish website assuring us he would be celebrating Mass privately and on behalf of us all. We hope it brings reassurance to everyone who feel the loss of participation.

    Every day, throughout the day, there are priests offering up the holy sacrifice as well as religious praying throughout the day and night, while we are asleep in our warm beds. Much like Moses battling Amalek, while he was supported and so advanced, we are likewise supported. All is not lost.

  13. Thank you, dear D. Catherine. A reader from New England here, on the coast north of Boston, where today we have a dreary day to usher in spring. It would force us to stay indoors even without all the new changes to our daily lives, so its seasonal familiarity is a blessing in disguise…a rainy day when we’d be housebound anyway. It brings its own “normal” with it.

    I have never commented before, although I have been reading for a couple of years. (I have written many responses, though, and then had a colossal failure of courage about posting, which I am sure others have experienced as well.)

    However, at the time of one of the dreadful school shootings in this country—Parkland, in Florida—I more or less swore off internet commentary and social media. It seemed to have more negatives than positives, and that temptation to “hit the send button” on something irretrievable was no longer quite so tempting, although I have always tried to be civil, decent, and if possible, kind, without being patronizing. Suddenly, I thought prayer and turning my thoughts to other things was a better use of time and soul. And then, I found this blog: it was, as my mother used to say, “meant.”

    To you yourself, and to all here, greetings and many prayers as we, like endless others before us, try to navigate this international struggle of disease and sorrows. May we give each other hope along with our prayers.

    Dear Dame Catherine, you have been in my daily prayers and my Masses for some years now. I think, having been the recipient of your beautiful and so on-point thoughts and lessons (because they are, and greedily absorbed, too!) it is only fair that yet another of your readers thanks you and lets you know that you and the community, are ever prayed for, across many time zones.

    My local masses are gone now, too. But many, many years ago I went to grad school in Washington, DC, about a stone’s throw from the great basilica to Our Lady, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. From the exterior it always struck me as a bit much. And then I went inside—and instantly was captivated: it is so beautiful. In this time of tele-mass, my old “parish church” is televising Sunday mass at noon Eastern Daylight Time. Far from being a slight “oof” of disappointment to not physically be in a church, it was *wonderful* to attend mass there, even from a distance. I recommend that if all reading this have an old favorite church, should their own not televise, to scout around—as I did, you may find an old friend. It did wonders for my battened-down self, and so was an unexpected blessing. May others find their own!

    It also brought back a slew of memories, although one was not quite as elevated as you might think. We students loved “the Shrine,” not necessarily because of the extraordinary beauty. It was also a magnet for tourist busses, and down near the crypt there was a gift store and—wonders—a wonderful cafeteria, which, because it was subsidised, had the best cheap eats in the District. If you beat the busses, you could have a wonderful breakfast or lunch and study session. The staff encouraged this—and I’m sure knew that for all those who scooted out to class, there were always a few who took a few moments to go back upstairs and pay a visit. I had no idea, then, that it would teach me how easy it is, really, to steal a few minutes from a “busy” day for a little prayer interlude. I did not do it often in my later life as a worker bee and after that as a mother, but now, as I get older, I have become like all those little church ladies with their wrinkled skin and grey hair and smiling eyes, who, like monks and nuns, are the backbone of the church’s prayer life, even if they would pish-posh that notion.

    God bless you, dear D. Catherine, and your community, and Brother D. God bless all here, and all those we love, and all those everywhere who need our prayers.

    • What a nice, kind comment! Thank you, Anne. On the matter of televised or livestream Masses, everyone must make his or her choice. I don’t think there is any right or wrong answer. The thoughts I expressed in the blog post will resonate with some, irritate others. One of the points to consider, especially by those of us in rural England, is that Broadband is not an inexhaustible resource and we need to make wise and generous choices about how we use it. For some, joining in a live-streamed Mass will be a priority; for us, with the rich liturgical life of the community, we will opt for something else — I am reserving what bandwidth we have for keeping our online outreach going and not trying to hog more than our fair share. May your interludes of prayer enrich your life in every way!

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