On Being a Contemplative

I don’t often use the word ‘contemplative’, partly because its history in the Catholic Church has not always been happy, forcing a divide between the so-called active Orders and the cloistered, or even being used to set up a false hierarchy of spiritual prowess in which the contemplative outranks everyone else, and partly because I’m not sure that those to whom I might use the word would understand by it the same thing that I intend. Nowadays nearly everyone seems to claim to be a contemplative so it probably doesn’t matter very much, but I still cling to the idea that contemplative prayer is simpler and less structured than formal meditation or the devotions that form the staple of many godly people today. It is also, in my experience, less visual.

This was brought home to me by a recent discussion on Facebook where a good friend suggested we might introduce a few images as background to our podcasts. You may have noticed that Facebook, like the BBC website, is increasingly geared towards video and the use of images . The problem for us is that we are not very good at the visual. Ours is what one might call a Word-centred spirituality in which lectio divina, the slow, prayerful reading of a text, is fundamental. Visual images can intrude on this process. Apart from anything else, we have comparatively few in the monastery, so those we see tend to stay with us, for good or ill. We don’t have a TV or (usually) watch films. We live in the same space, doing more or less the same things day after day. It is, some would say, a spartan existence as far as visual stimuli are concerned. In some ways, that makes us more sensitive to the world around us: the changing of the seasons, the beauty of garden and sky, the ordering of the monastery building, have an impact on us they might not on a more casual observer.

I don’t want to sound precious or over-complicated, but that is one reason why we are hesitant about using more images on our web sites or even this blog. The Word demands our full attention. Some people find an image helpful. For others it can be a distraction. I myself use images sparingly because they have a big impact on me. For example, Nicholas Mynheer’s marvellous painting of the mothers of Jesus and Judas embracing that I posted during Holy Week stays vividly in my mind; so, too, do others.

This morning, as I was thinking about St Athanasius whose feast-day this is, I realised anew that in the person of Jesus Christ we have the perfect visual, the perfect image, one who is both God and man. Who could improve on that? Not me, certainly.

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A Few Words about our Prayerline

Nuns pray. It’s what we do, day in, day out. Our prayer takes many forms. In the Divine office we seek to hallow the different hours of the day and mark the unfolding of the liturgical calendar with an ancient form of prayer derived chiefly from the scriptures and early Christian writings (the so-called Fathers of the Church). There is also the slow, meditative prayer of lectio divina — what you might call the characteristic activity of the Benedictine — and the simple, uncluttered, contemplative prayer of the individual, which proceeds from and flows back into the Divine Office and lectio divina. In addition to these, there is intercessory prayer. One of the chief ways in which you might have come across this is via our email prayerline, which is open every minute of every day. People name their requests for prayer and send them to us via the form supplied. Complete anonymity is assured. We in our turn read through the requests and take them into our prayer.

Recently, we have noticed a new development. Some people are happy to take us at our word, and the little message we send assuring them of our prayer is enough. Others, however, have begun to ask us to send emails or letters to reassure them that we are indeed praying for them. I have come to dislike that very much. To begin with, I think it was just my curmudgeonly nature asserting itself. Another email to send! I wasn’t happy, either, at the idea of breaking the guarantee of anonymity surrounding prayer requests. If we enter into correspondence with one, why not with another? How would we manage to keep up, anyway? But then I began to think a little more about why I was so irritated and realised that it wasn’t just the thought of having to send another email/breaking anonymity. Asking for assurance that we are praying is very like saying, I don’t really trust you; yet trust at the heart of intercessory prayer. We name our need to God, trusting in his love and mercy. Prayer isn’t magic; and we don’t (or shouldn’t) demand of God that he ‘prove’ himself to us. Our prayer reflects the nature of our belief in and about God, and I think the way in which our email prayerline operates should, too.

So, if you have sent in any request for prayer, please take my word for it that your request has been read and either has been, or will be, taken before the Lord in prayer. What he chooses to do with it is his business. I think we can safely leave it up to him don’t you?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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: http://bit.ly/aklx3h.

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?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

From Mysticism to Mischief-Making by Way of Misunderstanding

A report in the Italian-language edition of Zenit has set the media buzzing again about the reasons for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s resignation. The first problem, as always, is establishing what he actually said, to whom, and in what language. Not surprisingly, we have an unattributable story which has been quoted piecemeal,  without any understanding of the language of prayer and discernment.

According to Zenit, ‘a few weeks ago’ (i.e. before 19 August, when the story was published) Pope Benedict allegedly said to ‘someone’ in a private audience (i.e. an anonymous source in a private meeting, so not intended for formal reporting or publication), in reply to a question about the reason for his resignation, that ‘God told me to’, ‘immediately clarifying that it was not any kind of apparition or phenomenon of that kind, but rather “a mystical experience” in which the Lord gave rise in his heart to an “absolute desire” to remain alone with him in prayer.’

I think most people who pray will have no difficulty with this. Pope Benedict was merely saying that, after much prayer and discernment, he had come to the conclusion that it was time for him to step aside and devote himself to serving the Church by prayer. The reasons he gave publicly earlier in the year are no different from the ones he gave privately to that anonymous source except in their expression. Reported speech doesn’t convey the way in which words are spoken, nor do those who are outside a religious tradition necessarily understand the way in which words are used. ‘God told me to’ is religious shorthand, if you like, for a long process of prayer and discernment. It doesn’t mean a private revelation with Hollywood-style special effects, it means long hours of  searching for God’s will, coming to a conclusion and then testing that conclusion by every means open to one. In Benedict XVI’s case, surely that meant weighing up his own health and the demands of the papacy, the problems faced by the Church and his ability to get on top of them, the ‘talent’ within the College of Cardinals and finally a humble acceptance that he might have done all that he could as pope. The fact that this was accompanied by an ‘absolute desire’ to be alone with God rings true. Every monk and nun has experienced that same desire growing in their heart — and ‘growing’ is the operative word. To one who prays perseveringly, the desire to be with God grows ever greater, no matter how hard or unrewarding the experience of prayer may seem to be.

For many, of course, it is that reference to ‘mystical experience’ which is troublesome; so let us be clear, mystical experience is not what most people think it is. It does not involve apparitions, lights, voices, sweet smells, levitations, extraordinary revelations or anything of the kind, except incidentally and only in the early stages. Any writer on prayer will tell you that such things should be disregarded and are often delusions of the devil. No, mystical experience is beyond all that. It can be dark, painful, searing. It has to do with the will rather than the affections. A better word for it might be contemplative prayer. And as with all prayer, its authenticity must be tested by its fruits, what scripture calls, ‘testing the spirits to see if they come from God’. Is the desire/resolution formed in prayer good or bad, is it consistent with the Church’s doctrine, does it lead to greater charity, and so on.

I don’t think anyone who has read Benedict XVI’s writings can be in any doubt that they proceed from an intense interior life of prayer. By resigning the papacy he has demonstrated that he believes prayer to be the most important service he can offer the Church at this stage of his life. Prayer has no limitations, no boundaries; like love, it can never hurt anyone and achieves victories far greater than many realise. It is at the intersection between time and eternity. The media may want to make a little mischief by misunderstanding what the pope emeritus allegedly said, but all the mischief-making in the world cannot alter the facts. We are blessed to have in Benedict XVI someone who prays for the Church and the world with unremitting zeal and fidelity; and I, for one, am glad of that.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Importance of Asceticism to Prayer

The feastday of St Teresa of Avila has sent my mind wandering down slightly different channels today. There is so much I could write about her, but I know others will do so better. For today, I’d like to offer a single thought: the importance of asceticism to prayer.

Asceticism isn’t fashionable, and I suspect it never really was; but we live in a society where the idea of ‘having it all’ has become commonplace, even in the Church. We can be ‘monastics’ without taking on the disciplines of monasticism; we can be great contemplatives without accepting the renunciations implicit in an ascetical way of life. That would have seemed absurd to Teresa.

The Greek roots of the word asceticism link us to the idea of monasticism and exercise. How much Greek Benedict knew is debatable, but he talks of training in monastic life being a form of exercise. We are exercised in virtue, so to say; we are exercised in obedience. All the other disciplines of monastic life — the regular prayer, the fasting, the renunciation of private ownership, single chastity — are ordered to one end only: the seeking of God; and God is the goal of all true asceticism.

St Teresa’s reform of the Carmelite Order tends to be seen as secondary to her great works on prayer, but perhaps the great works on prayer could not have been written without the underpinning of Carmelite observance. Still today Carmelite nuns are known for their cheerfulness and their ascetical fervour. We can all learn from them.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail