The Problem With Books About Prayer

The problem with books about prayer is that they tend to stop us praying. What I mean is, instead of getting down to the business of trying to pray, we spend time reading about it; and the more we read, the more discouraged we often become. This wonderful, mystical adventure the writers promise, where is it? How does this dreary half-hour on my knees or that vacant sitting still on a chair, trying to summon some soul energy, measure up? Where am I going wrong?

17 August marks the anniversary of the death of one of the great English contemplatives, D. Gertrude More; and she had exactly the same problem, though in her case, the books about prayer she found uncongenial were the kind I myself have difficulty with. She did not find formal meditation helpful. Only when Fr Augustine Baker showed her a simpler, older way of praying did she discover that the Lord had been inviting her to pray all her life; and once she discovered that, there was no stopping her. When she died at the early age of 28, she was widely regarded as a woman of singular holiness.

The best advice anyone can give is Dom John Chapman’s ‘pray as you can, not as you can’t.’ Of course, there are some things we may find helpful (see, for example, the pointers given here) but we each have to find our own way. The great adventure of prayer will have its difficulties and its longeurs, but like any relationship, it grows and changes over time until, ultimately, there is nothing left but that great Love which draws us to himself.

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Getting Our Priorities Right

The anniversary of the death of D. Gertrude More, about whom you can read in this blog (please do a search in the sidebar) or its predecessor (please follow this link) is as good a day as any for reflecting on our priorities. What are they?

God comes first, of course; but what do we mean by that? The whole of Benedictine life is ordered towards the search for God. Prayer, liturgy and observance, every detail from lectio divina to the ups and downs of community life, the clothes we wear and the buildings we live in, is meant to lead us closer to God. A splendid liturgy may give us wonderful feelings about God but they tend to disappear when faced with a mound of washing-up or half a dozen loos to clean. Yet singing the praises of God in choir and doing more mundane tasks outside are all part and parcel of monastic life. They are all equally part of our search for God, the only difference being that, although we may postpone, say, the washing-up for a while, nothing may come before prayer. Prayer is the search for God neat and undiluted, whether it be the common prayer of the Divine Office or the more private contemplative prayer of the individual.

There is a catch, however. Even St Benedict, who exhorts us to prefer nothing to the work of God, makes one very important exception. He tells us that care of the sick should come before everything else. Forests have been felled and gallons of ink expended in an effort to try to reconcile these two seeming contradictions. Personally, I don’t think there is a contradiction. St Benedict was a sensible man, with a sensible approach to the problems of everyday life. If someone is really sick, we honour God best by serving him/her rather than by abandoning them while we fulfil our alloted service in choir. The problem comes when we find endless tasks that are to be preferred to prayer; when we use people and things as an excuse for not praying; because then we are putting ourselves first, rather than God; and the tragedy is, we often misuse good things in this way.

Well-meaning people sometimes look around and note all the great problems in the world and ask what contemplatives are doing about them. They rarely stop for an answer. No one who seriously tries to pray can be indifferent to the sufferings of others, to the injustices many labour under, to the sheer horror of poverty, war and disease. Most will quietly do what they can. Monastic communities give money/help where they can, write letters, try to influence others for good, but the most powerful thing they can do is to intercede with God. If one doesn’t believe in God, or if one only half-believes in God, that won’t make much sense. Prayer for such people is essentially a waste of time — something to get through, the spiritual equivalent of a quick cup of coffee before the real work of the day begins. For a Benedictine, by contrast, it is life itself, our meaning , our purpose; and unlike that quick cup of coffee, it is something that carries us over from this life to the next.

D. Gertrude More was, at one level, an obscure seventeenth century nun whom history has overlooked in favour of her distinguished ancestor St Thomas More. Yet to those who know her she is at least as important as he. She never did anything very ‘important’; never held any major office in community or had any overt influence on the events of her day. But, when she died at the early age of twenty-eight, she was already accounted a saint — not the plaster-of-paris type of treacley sentimentality but the adamantine type of steely determination. She was funny; she was clever; as a novice she was outrageous; but she knew exactly what her priorities were. One day we may discover how much she achieved through her fidelity and generosity of spirit.

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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?

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