Doing This, Doing That

From time to time someone will ask whether I have done such-and-such — usually, have I finished the book I’m writing, or updated the web site, or done any of the thousand and one things they regard as important and which they know are on my to-do list. The problem is, of course, that my to-do list is actually unachievable. It contains far too much for one lifetime, especially one monastic lifetime where all the doing has to be fitted into an overall scheme of prayer and community life. That doesn’t mean I won’t attempt what is on the list, but I have learned to be flexible about the priorities. The person in distress who telephones and takes up an hour or more becomes the priority of the moment, the way in which God is asking one to use his gift of time. If it means the community meal is late, or other tasks have to be abandoned, tough. The ever-increasing amount of administration required by law or the demands of living in a house where we do all the general maintenance and so on make further inroads into one’s time. Mutatis mutandis, I imagine it is much the same for most of my readers. So, how do we make all this doing into prayer, into a way of becoming closer to the Lord?

St Benedict is very straightforward on the matter. He tells us that every good work we undertake should begin with prayer. In the monastery that means that every job we do begins with a silent commendation of the task to God. We pray before reading, switching on the computer, eating, driving, weeding, writing, doing the accounts, before doing anything, in fact. We do not pray with many words, just a lifting up of the heart and mind to God — and that is the point. Into our busiest moments we need to inject a little interior silence, a small space in which God can act. It is inevitable, with a General Election next week, that everyone should have become much noisier than usual. We are all keen to share our valuable insights (=opinions) with others, and some of us like to immerse ourselves in the storm and fury of media debate. We react rather than reflect, and all those beautiful gifts of the Spirit for which we have been praying so earnestly become forgotten in the rush and tumble of our words.

On the eve of Pentecost, let’s try to find a moment to pause, to be quiet and let the Holy Spirit find a chink in our armour against him. Our priorities may need re-thinking. Our to-do list may be placing absurd burdens on us or on others. Above all, we may be living with such interior clamour that we are wearying ourselves unecessarily. We do not need words to reassess our lives, just a willingness to allow God’s grace to work within us. Of one thing we can be sure, his generosity in responding to our need.

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Ascension Day and the Gift of Counsel

For those of us celebrating Ascension today rather than on Thursday, there is a special appropriateness in our praying for the gift of counsel. This third gift of the Holy Spirit can be said to complete the gifts of wisdom and understanding, just as the Ascension can be said to complete the paschal mystery.

The opening sentences of chapter 11 of Isaiah remind us

And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root.  And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom, and of understanding, the spirit of counsel, and of fortitude, the spirit of knowledge, and of godliness. And he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge according to the sight of the eyes, nor reprove according to the hearing of the ears. But he shall judge the poor with justice, and shall reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. And justice shall be the girdle of his loins: and faith the girdle of his reins.

Counsel is thus an attribute of Christ himself but not one we often think about. It is sometimes described as the perfection of prudence (which Benedict calls the mother of all the virtues), an interior working of mind and heart that leads to right conduct. I have sometimes wondered whether, when Jesus urged the rich young man to sell all he had and follow him, we are right to assume that the story ended with his going away sad because he had many possessions. He was obviously a thoughtful and prayerful man. Did he make a once-for-all rejection of the invitation given him? Isn’t it just as likely that he went away and wrestled with his conflicting thoughts and emotions, and perhaps did do as Jesus asked? That would have been counsel at work in him.

Today we tend to talk rather glibly about counselling of one kind or another. Usually we mean the kind of listening/guidance given by someone trained to help those with specific problems or difficulties. Counsel, as the Church understands it, is sheer gift: it can be developed, but not taught. It must operate within the individual before he or she can share its fruits with others. To be attentive, to be receptive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, that is our role; and it requires steadfast prayer and reflection on the scriptures. As we pray for the gift of counsel, let us pray also for perseverance in those things that make us open to the Holy Spirit.

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