Archives for category: Liturgy

”Paul Quenon, O.C.S.O., a monk at Gethsemani, has been praying psalm 91 nightly for decades, but only in the last month have the words hit home: “I never thought the threat of plague would pertain to us or specifically to me.”… “Our society revolves around the notion that power and wealth give meaning to existence, that they allow us to take control of our lives. Power and wealth create an illusion of meaning and purpose while undermining our spiritual destiny.” We think they give us some measure of control, but in reality they “close the door to grace.” read more

Gregory Hillis

Gregory Hillis is an associate professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky.

@gregorykhillis

Fr. Santo, chaplain of a hospital in Bologna, witnesses a great desire for God among the sick, doctors, and nurses during the Covid emergency.

Fr. Santo Merlini

My name is Fr. Santo Merlini, I belong to the Fraternity of Saint Charles and since 2013 I’ve been the chaplain of Sant’Orsola Hospital. The situation of the pandemic has called me to a new step and a new beginning, in the span of a few days the hospital has assumed a new face and I wasn’t able to do my work in the same way I could before, in front of many people sick and alone, in front of so many that die without their loved ones. Different wards of the hospital had to equip themselves in order to confront a situation for which they weren’t prepared, so that the surgical, ENT, emergency, and other departments transformed into COVID wards, having to rethink the entire department. Then in the span of a few days they put in place exceptional intensive therapy to respond to the growing need.

Little by little, even without knowing these departments being that I worked prevalently for the pediatric and OB wards, I searched for ways to enter in, pushed by our Bishop whom I thank for sustaining and encouraging me. I speak with him almost every evening and he is very concerned for the many patients who are alone, he pushes me to not stop in front of the difficulties that I encounter.

I began to visit the COVID intensive therapy patients and I was immediately struck by the doctors’ and nurses’ desire to take a short break to say a prayer. At my invitation to pray the personnel stopped, making the sign of the cross to pray with me. Finding almost all of the patients in a sedated state I blessed them and I pronounced the formula for extreme absolution. Then little by little I am getting to know some of the head nurses in order to organize my time and activity in the department. I began to enter into some COVID wards, only some, but it’s an important start while sometimes I receive calls from other wards from people who desire to receive the comfort of the sacraments.

Entering into the COVID ward is very tiring, you need to undergo to many laborious procedures of dressing and undressing, often even more than once in the same ward to go from one room to another. When you have all of those clothes on you sweat a lot and the two masks that you have to wear make it difficult to breath. It’s a struggle that I share with the doctors, nurses and social workers that have to wear those clothes for many more hours than I do. But I was struck by the desire for God that I found in the people that I visited. Almost all of them desired to say a prayer with me, the many elderly but also the younger patients, that are much more that we would expect. It’s not true that the virus only affects the elderly.

Sometimes we think that there’s no more faith, that no one desires to pray anymore. I hear it said often even by people of the Church. In these past few weeks I’ve seen that there’s a great desire for God, a desire that emerges strongly in the fragile condition of an illness that forces you to be alone for many days and surrounded only by suits and masks that make those around you unrecognizable. I was struck by the witness of one patient’s suffering – an over-eighty-year-old that lost her husband, him as well for the coronavirus, with which she had been together since they were 16. They spent an entire life together but at the moment of their separation they found themselves alone, in two different wards. While the other day a sick woman continued to ask me “God didn’t forget me, right?” I was there to tell her and the other patients that God hadn’t forgotten them, that in fact through their suffering they are closer to Him.

To make myself recognizable I draw with a marker or tape a cross on my scrubs and in this way people recognize me as a priest. Some patients, upon seeing me, have said “Finally!” I administer the collective absolution to the eldest or most critical patients, inviting them to confess themselves as soon as possible.

This work is asking me to sacrifice from a personal standpoint as well, the first of which consists in having gone to live by myself, depriving me of the companionship of my brothers Fr. Peppino and Fr. Marco. The fact that I’m doing this work for obedience, not for a desire to be heroic, comforts me. It wasn’t my idea to enter into the hospitals, and a year ago I would’ve never thought to find myself in a real and true battlefield, in which I have to defend myself from the attack of the mortal enemy: the virus. I feel myself one who simply responds to his obligation. I find, however, a great support in the presence of some doctor and nurse friends, with whom I share different moments of my day and especially a moment of prayer together every day. We are careful to respect the distances as the rules say: a distance, though, that is eliminated by the decisiveness of our prayer. Their presence reminds me that I’m not alone and that I’m not the only one risking my skin to bring a little bit of comfort to the sick. There are the doctors, the nurses, the social workers, but also all of the cleaning and maintenance staff that heroically risk getting sick in order to put their lives in service of the sick.

Receiving mercy lies beyond my capababilities. It is always initiated by another. I am subject to their determination. Where justice is quite literally to receive my just deserts, mercy is an act of compassionate forgiveness in place of just punishment. Usually born of love, mercy has the capacity to change my perspective about myself, the world and ‘the other’, who extends mercy to me.

In a world that prefers to celebrate a ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ attitude to life, mercy can appear a weak and unhelpful intervention. It is often represented as a failure to punish misbehaviour appropriately. It never seeks to look beyond the act of misbehaviour to the reasons that gave rise to it.

The essence and power of mercy is illustrated in the oft quoted parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus’ encouragement to all of us is that the human response is to follow the example of this Samaritan. Perhaps, as the world struggles to address this global pandemic, it’s a time to remind ourselves that we are global citizens. This was something we were reminded about in the, ‘One World: Together At Home concert‘ last night.

Not to confuse matters, but as disciples of Jesus we are truly global citizens, for our citizenship, as St. Paul reminds us, is in heaven, and so the world is our stage. St. Paul also explains that material, sexual and ethnic distinctives are subsumed through are being joined to the resurrected Christ and thereby drawn into the company of heaven. This is often not our experience as our feet and fears remain rooted within our localised space; our experienced reality.

Within the Roman Catholic church, today is ‘Divine Mercy Sunday‘. A relatively recent addition to the church’s calender and one born of the revelations to a Polish nun, Saint Faustina. She had a short but impactful life, dying aged 33 in 1938. You may have natural suspicions over

Faustina Kowalska

revelations, yet I like this whole story for it is diarised conversations with Jesus and talked through with a spiritual director at the time. The whole account available on the public record.

The nub of the revelations is that Jesus is merciful and desires that we actively and practically consider those both known and unknown to us and bring them to God in prayer. This is so that they might enjoy God’s mercy; For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world. I like both the simplicity and the inclusiveness of this prayer.

It has proved really helpful to Jayne and me here in the Oratory. This is a home of prayer, whose routines are ordered around our daily rhythm of prayer. For quite some time I was struggling with how to respond to God’s request that we carry the world at the heart of our Oratory life. This discovery opened the way. Now I say the Chaplet of divine mercy every day in my attempt to ‘Go and do likewise’, as Jesus directed.

Prayer softens the heart, breaks the stranglehold of both cynicism and despondency, and consequently gives birth to a lifestyle that seeks to act out mercy in practical ways everyday. It demolishes self centredness brick by brick and generates a servant heart, where, again to quote St. Paul, we are able to put others interests above our own.

Mercy

The purpose of mercy is never to ‘let someone off lightly‘ but to open their eyes to a realm of social interaction within which the sacredness of life is revealed. Unlike material goods there is no objective price that can be placed upon a human life, something a pandemic brings home with a stark reality. Each life is priceless. It’s value set through the death and resurrection of Jesus, a costly and personal sacrificial act.

Perhaps in this season of anxiety we can take some moments to remind ourselves that we are no more nor less valuable than our neighbour. That the geatest demonstration of my humanity is when I live with others in mind, or as Ron Sider said in his 1978 classic, ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger’, we are to live, ‘totally available to and with unlimited liability for one another’. Perhaps it takes a pandemic to bring the truth of this message home to us. So let’s not lose it going forward. Start with a simple, easily memorised, prayer;

For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

And then, as Lockdown lifts, lets act out that prayer in our interactions with, as well as in our thoughts towards, others.

Easter Sunday is a day of decision. ‘The women‘, so scripture tells us, decided to go an annoint Jesus’ body with ‘perfumes and ointments‘. Their Sabbath of rest provoked a decision and an action. The purpose of stillness and rest is that we determine to make our way to Jesus. Perhaps it is with a heart heavy with disappointment like these women. What we had imagined was true about God we can no longer believe in. Yet, our fondness for the memory means that we treat it with respect, even in its death and disappearance from our world of apprehension.

Yet, what they expected to find, a sealed tomb, was not what they saw. The entrance stone was rolled away. They confronted a whole new reality. Questions flooded in. Where was the body? Who had taken it? Who had broken the Sabbath rules and ‘worked’ to remove both stone and body, breaking the religious law and rythm of rest and stillness?

Such questions created the threshold upon which fresh opportunity is always born. They rightly resisted a search for immediate answers to satisfy their questioning minds. Rather, they chose to wonder what this might mean. They pondered, they contemplated, they meditated; the best way to live within the space born of stillness, silence and solitude. The characteristics we are invited to explore in this period of lockdown.

Returning to the eleven disciples they told their story, which was met with incredulity, disbelief. So some of them rushed to the tomb to satisfy themselves. Doubt can prove the necessary stimulus to awakening fresh faith. Doubt and disbelief are the friends of faith seekers who face an uncertain future. They are the compost and the fertiliser for fresh growth. The first shoots of which are wonder, astonishment and awe.

It is only as the circles of our certainties are breached that we stand any chance of finding fresh understaning. An understanding that has the capacity to carry us through the day that lies before us. It is the reason Jesus so strongly demanded that NOW is the only moment that natters. Yesterday, with its fond memories and sad regrets, is long past. Whilst tomorrow, with its imagined fears, has yet to arrive. I, and you are marooned within the present moment alone. So our thoughts, constructed by memories of our past and fears for our futures, conspire to distract us from this present moment.

The discovery of an empty tomb was a present reality. It’s meaning or consequences unknown. Yet, Jesus’ erstwhile followers responded from their hearts, with wonder, amazement and astonishment. Something with unknown consequences is always best pondered.

Had a twenty first century media circus arrived upon the scene the good people of Jerusalem and beyond would have been subjected to the views and analysis of endless experts, whose credentials, albeit flashed across TV screens, offer little by way of reassurance that they know anything more than the facts themselves tell me. The noise created by so many voices, disperses the stillness and drowns out any sense of wonder.  Such media easily steals my imagination and populates it with ideas, no doubt well meant, but which have their own irrevocable logic. They bind me and restrict my movement and action.

Today, I personally choose to stand before that open tomb, with the women and the disciples, in an attitude of wonder. The stone rolled away challenges all my assumptions of what I might expect. I can decide to settle for a logic born of the wisdom of others. I can decide to weave my own coherent narrative joining the past, which I’ve observed, with the evidence before me in the present with a proposal about the future, born of my reason. But I choose not to do so.

I gaze upon the the open tomb and allow my imagination to consider that this is a door into an as yet unknown future. One in which I do not seek to satisfy my own need for answers, but one in which I decide to continue asking questions. For if the one who was dead is alive, how can he die again? And if alive, must the imagination draw any line as to what is now possible? I find myself pondering a range of possibilities, none of which I can apprehend until and unless I choose to decide to set out in pursuit of them.

Easter Sunday is the day in history when the world changed. It became different. I too am invited to change. To exchange my spectacles, through which I view life and determine shapes and identities, for a new pair. To consider exchanging the life I’ve known for a different, if quite similar one. To become altogether different in the way I will live from now on. All change requires my decision. No one and nothing changes me. I alone have the capacity to make changes in the way I think and perceive.

I believe it was only because the disciples chose to wonder and to ponder that they were enabled to meet the risen Jesus. Whilst Mary initially perceived Jesus as the gardener, and assumed he might have removed Jesus’ body, it was only as she recognised and responded to a familiar voice that she was able to perceive Jesus. For many of us we all too easily embrace the logic of misbelief and unbelief. In so doing we dismiss the sounds that awaken new neural pathways within our understanding and, in dismissing such sounds, fail to perceive the risen Christ.

The stone has been rolled away; the tomb is empty. Today suggests that we have everything to play for in an as yet unrealised tomorrow.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
 I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Easter Saturday probably best equates to the lockdown in which we, like many other nations, find ourselves. There is an unnatural silence due to an absence of what we’d assumed until very recently were the actual sounds of normal life. We are left wondering if those sounds will ever return. Or has covid-19 ended once and for all the busy life we’d become so familiar with and habitualised? Now, as never before in our life experience, we have both time and space and it’s a luxury we’re not sure we want or can effectively utilise.

Time has been too easily squeezed into a narrow definition; that of ‘utility’. What can I achieve in the time that I have? How many ‘widgets’ might I produce? How much money might I accumulate? How far can I progress my career? All the while adding more demands, and with each demand increaed pressure, upon what can only ever be a finite quantity; 24 hours in any day.

This misunderstanding of time as utility confuses our rational mind. Now that we have the time many of us have longed for, we discover we are all too easily bored. At a loss of knowing what to do with boundless, albeit finite, time. This is because even our so called ‘free time’ we treated as utility. Whilst we longed for ‘vacation time’ and days off, we couldn’t help but rush to fill such space and time with holidays, theatre visits, bingeing on streamed TV series and the like.

There was never sufficient time to give any thought to consider investing time in doing nothing. This was after all  to waste a utility; nothing gives rise to nothing, which, by virtue of its ‘nothingness’, cannot be objectively measured and therefore enjoyed. Must enjoyment always relate to objective criteria? Nothing appears to give little useful sensual feedback for my empty selfhood struggling to find and express itself.

Living as a contemplative, committed to prayer here in St. Cuthbert’s Oratory, I have many times had to wrestle with the anxiety that my life amounts to at best very little, at worst nothing whatsoever. For where can I locate the objective measure for my value? ‘Oh’, I hear my imagined critics saying with some disdain, critics who I’m sure include members of my own family, ‘what a waste of a life. Such a promising start; Oxford and national Christian leadership. Now all squandared by simply doing nothing‘.

I fight back against all such tormentors of the mind, for if they take hold, and resistence is a perennial struggle, then I am cast into the deepest depths of despondency. My self confidence drains away. My focus is entirely upon myself rather than remaining fixed upon Jesus. Like Peter I slip beneath the cold, tempestuous waters of a Galileean lake out of fear that my life decision has left me to drown in the arrogance of my own presumption.

Yet, all those who treat time as utility can also all too often remove their gaze from God in their quest to find how they might make the most of time as utility. Many are convinced they are furthering God’s cause. However, scripture is clear, God’s cause is in no need of any help; never has been and never will be. Surely Easter, the consummation of God’s incarnate sojourn, is evidence, if any were required, that God’s cause remains entirely at God’s discretion. There is and never was any need to look for human encouragement or involvement.

That’s why nothing is perhaps the best response once one has made one’s peace with God. The ‘lending God a hand‘ mentality reveals to me an all too human need to fill my time with some worthy cause from which I might draw down some sense of my own purpose and value. Yet, my ultimate value has been disclosed by the ends to which God went to woo and win my heart. I contributed nothing to God’s decision to do so, nor to God’s strategy and method in accomplishing this great redemptive miracle.

So, why does Easter Saturday resonate so closely with our current lockdown staus? It is beacuse for this one day all of creation holds its breath. God, in the expression of Jesus, has died and is gone. The whole universe is teetering on the edge of the abyss of despair and destruction. Satan is already making plans for his coronation and entering into his assumed kingship. This can ony be to the detriment of all humanity. For one whole day the promise remains just that; a promise! Only Easter Sunday will provoke a galactic sigh of relief. It will reveal that God remains true to God’s word, even though not to do so is an impossibility for God by God’s own admission. Yet, it’s Saturday, and Sunday has not yet arrived; nor has Jesus.

Whilst Jesus is in the tomb, or visiting Hades with a message of Good News, there is nothing humanity can do. It is indeed the very essence of Sabbath. A period of looking to and waiting upon God. Waiting with the bated breath of uncertainty. We can only contemplate our complete impotence to change our circumstances, however much we hope and dream we might. We remain dependent upon the intervention of God alone. Yet, this is forever true, even when not facing a life changing pandemic. It’s simply that now the volume of the silence has been turned up.

So today, let us reflect upon how we can make peace with our doing nothing. That is the nothing that opens the cavernous space, an opportunity, to contemplate God and yearn for the fulfilment of God’s promise. The scale of that promise exceeds my ability to enter any comprehensive description save that it is the fulfilment of all things; it is the total fulfiment of myself.

My today will involve morning prayer, consideration of the mercy of God, the silent contemplation of Jesus, all those things whose utility is non-measurable this side of eternity. Yet also all those things that provide the heartbeat for any healthy Christian disciple. Like the disciples hidden somewhere in Jeruslaem, fearing their discovery and destruction, we too must wrestle with the promise of God and fight to maintain our prayer of hope for the resurrection of life beyond Covid-19, a life I pray that, just as the disciples and the emergent Christian church dscovered, can never go back to what it had been prior to that first Easter weekend.

Lord grant me to greet the coming day in peace.

Help me in all things to rely upon your holy will.

In unforseen events let me not forget that all things are under your care. Amen

Today is Good Friday. Unusual this year for we are all under lockdown in our own homes. The normal church services are only available online. Yet, one benefit arising from our restricted movement is more time to reflect upon the events surrounding our redemption.

Such reflections may well prove both helpful and necessary for our peace of mind. In many conversations, now all conducted over the internet, it is clear that this is a time of anxiety for people. Legitimate anxieties such as how might I earn income, how vulnerable am I to catch covid-19, the pain of being unable to gather with immediate family or friends? Others face the pressures of living within a confined space, with no means to find time and space alone.

On rare excursions out, the world has changed. Few cars, social distancing maintaining gaps between neighbours and friends, and long, queues snaking around supermarkets. Everything is different and this very quickly begins to play upon our fears and stir up anxieties within.

Finding and sustaining faith during such times can prove challenging. Much depends upon the level of intimacy we have built between ourselves and Jesus over the years. This sudden change in our life experience can only highlight for us the character of the friendship we enjoy with God.

Today many of us will reflect upon the long and brutal walk Jesus was forced to take. Bearing the instrument of his own torture and death upon his back, he was experiencing the greatest test to his faith to date. Like Abraham had to hold a knife aloft above his only son, bound in readiness for sacrifice, so Jesus must face this the greatest test to his self professed claim to be the Son of God and his total confidence that God would neither fail nor forsake him.

Many of us find ourselves in just such a situation. This is a season of our own Passion or season of enduring suffering, the actual meaning of the word. We are invited to persevere and the ‘not knowing’ what the future holds for any of us can unleash a host of ‘demons’ that continually torment our minds and depress our mood.

Our confidence can only lie in recognising that in agreeing to follow Jesus, a voluntary decision that is within the power of everyone of us to take or reject, we also agreed to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. Therefore, today of all days, whilst sombre in tone, is also a source of our instruction and encouragement. We are only living where Jesus has been before us.

Whilst painful, this is a safe place. Our lives are hid with Christ in God. And whilst we cannot know the future in any practical detail, we do know, like Jesus, that our lives are ultimately in safe hands, those of our God and Creator. What we have to do is turn our gaze from considering the many possibilities that flood our minds about our unknown tomorrows and direct our full attention to how and where we are today.

The remarkable thng about Jesus, who remember had never experienced resurrection and only had his Father’s promise to go on, maintained a very present focus. In the Stations of the Cross, which many traditions will contemplate today, Jesus, amidst the beatings and his stumbling beneath the weight of the cross, has time to comfort both Mary his mother and the women of Jerusalem. The point being he remained focussed upon the present. This was true once crucified and raised aloft as he took time both to forgive those who’d engineered and carried out his execution as well as welcome a penitent thief into paradise, an eternal embrace conducted within the social distancing execution demanded.

All I can ever respond to is my present. However, my mind fills with thousands of anxieties as I imagine, and seek to navigate my future. Sadly tomorrow does not exist. Only NOW is real. Naturally the circumstances of my now will raise the specter of those issues I have willfully buried beneath the busyness my normal life affords. But maybe, these days of enforced solitude are an opportunity not simply to clean the house and tidy the garden, for those fortunate enough to have one. They are perhaps a heaven sent opportunity to dig up and dust off all those unresolved fears. Time to consider what it is I really need to worry about and why.

My own reflections have helped me see more clearly than ever that so many of the ‘givens’ of my pre lockdown life are the shadows of idols that merely distract me from living a full and complete life. Too many of the aspirations I pursue prove empty promises. They simply evaporate the moment I lay hold of them and prove themselves to be of no lasting or substantial value; they are no help when I face more signifcant questions such as who I am and who has my back in this crisis?

Media directs our gaze toward government, yet what can they do? Despite their essential assurances to quel potential social meltdown, they, like us, are mortal and have no knowledge of what the future holds. Daily briefings from government ministers and an array of ‘experts’ remind us that they are only ever talking about the present, for, as I’ve said, the present is all that any of us can deal with.

So like Jesus, trudging toward Golgotha under the weight of his greatest fears, we are to follow the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength‘.

If we solely look to government this only presents us with the classic misdirect of the illusionist, for we fail to see the source of our help and health, who is God alone. So as we enter this Easter weekend, let’s take the time to place those unrealised fears, stirred by an unknown tomorrow, into the hands of God and pray for both ourselves and those throughout the world who share these troubling times with us.

‘For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world. Amen’

There is a simplicity in silence. Sitting watching the rain over the last two days reminded me of the fullness of life there is in apparently ‘doing’ nothing. Yet watching the rain fall upon a garden bleached brown by the lovely summer to date, awakened again memories of sitting as a child conscious of nothing more then the present moment.

Of course as a contemplative the disciplined practice of silence is an essential element of my daily rhythm of life. I deploy the tool of Centering Prayer as my springboard into silence. For silence can be approached along a number of pathways. The place for silence is growing in importance for as a society we are increasingly turning to noise to distract us from the stresses life presents. I have been surprised over recent years the number of car radios that continue to play even as I travel as a passenger. We talk, yet the radio is a perpetual background noise, filing any silence between our conversation. For others social media affords the suitable distraction. I will turn on the TV instinctively when wanting to relax. Of course all such methods are passive rather than active; I am the object, not the subject of such activity.

I wonder just how lost I am as I wade through yet another Netflix box set. The story lines are much the same, just located in a different context. And I’m amazed at the amount of what I would call ‘soft porn’ has crept onto my screen. I cannot see what additional value or context it affords the plot. Of course all this is entering through my eye-gate and is being processed somewhere in my brain. To good or ill effect I am uncertain, but fear the latter.

Silence is a practice best served without distractions. For those familiar with Centering Prayer it is by use of a prayer word that the individual seeks to refocus upon God when the mind consistently seeks to distract with a myriad of unrelated thoughts. The mind never stops, therefore this constant traffic noise of random thoughts will never go away. Yet learning to abide in silence is of increasing importance in value as we age and have more time on our hands and less energy for activity.

Another favoured route is to use Ignatian techniques that utilise the imagination. This means our mind is employed in directed activity to serve our desire to make use of the silence. These meditative approaches, as distinct from contemplation, enable us to direct the minds creativity to serve a divine purpose.

For me I have discovered an increasing desire for more silence as I’ve applied myself to contemplation. Rather than reading I seek time to be still, silent and rested in the divine presence. The simplicity is the very fact that I need little to sustain me in such a space. I emerge sometimes frustrated for managing my forever active mind has proved draining. Yet, then I remind myself I am being hijacked by a sense, deeply embedded in the human psyche, that time somehow has to produce results. Time spent in silence is its own result. It demands no ancillary product.

So gazing at the rain falling from the sky was a valuable lesson recovered from my childhood practice. I do indeed need to become a child again to approach God in any meaningful way.

IF you are interested in discovering more about the simplicity of silence consider our day retreat in the Oratory on Friday October 19, TURN UP THE QUIET’. A Beginner’s Guide to Contemplation‘.

The subject of the presence of God raises a host of descriptions that have been entrusted to sermon, books and blogs over the years. It is something, or Someone, who every disciple seeks. Perhaps it is in the seeking that the greatest challenges lie. It was once said of Christopher Columbus, the pioneer explorer credited with finding America, that he set out not knowing where he was going, returned not knowing where he’d been and did it all on somebody else’s money.

 

Whilst amusing, it appears his methodology didn’t die with him. So many of us have great aspirations, especially around drawing near to God. Problem is these aspirations most frequently never get beyond the sofa. Imagining a personal and intimate relationship with the Trinity is one thing; establishing it quite another.

 

James Clear helps clarify why such aspirations often remain no more than the longings of the human heart. A failure to take action will guarantee we make little or no progress toward our desire. It is down to us to give our aspirations a time and a place to live in the world. In other words, take the initiative in putting a specific date, time and duration in your daily schedule when you will create an opportunity for an encounter with the divine presence.

 

James uses a simple analogy. Imagine a cup of coffee. If I am to benefit from that coffee I first have to notice that it is there. How can I lay hold of something that I know about yet is not within my field of vision of experience?

 

Next I have to want that coffee. Jayne’s system reacts badly to caffeine. She may on smelling coffee feel drawn towards it. However, its impact upon her health is sufficient for her to say she doesn’t want it. Pursuing God’s presence, I must want to find myself in God’s presence. This desire is what will sustain me when the going gets tough. Is my desire greater than the effort of overcoming any obstacles that lie between me and my aspiration?

 

If I notice and want the coffee, then next I must do something, like pick up the coffee, or perhaps even pour it into a cup and then drink it. Doing is the basis upon which any practice is built. Many people have a terrific prayer life within their heads, yet they never actually engage in a daily practice of prayer. Without such practice there can be no substance to my aspiration.

 

Finally, I must like it. If what I do is not liked it will sadly have little chance of enduring and becoming a part of my daily practice. Drinking coffee because others do, even when I don’t enjoy the bitter taste, is not likely to grow into a personal habit. When I make coffee I engage in a little brewing ritual that I enjoy. It reminds me I’m taking a break from writing and having some down time. The ritual prepares me, my body, mind and spirit, for this down time. I grind the beans, heat the kettle (90 degrees only), just cover the freshly ground beans in the cafetiere and allow thirty seconds for the gases to be released before pouring the rest of the water and leaving to brew for a further three minutes thirty seconds and then plunge and pour immediately. Creating a ritual to take you into your daily prayer time is the best way to manage distractions that all too easily lead you away from prayer.

And as for presence, well that remains a unique personal possibility and lays well beyond any verbal constructs.

The Second Essential of Prayer

Once we have achieved an appreciation and something of a practice of ‘Stillness, Prayer essential #1, what are we to do in this new found yet soon to become familiar Stillness? The second essential is Attentiveness. Attentiveness has two meanings.

Meaning One

I guess we all recognise the demand to pay close attention to our context, ‘Driving requires attentiveness to road and traffic conditions‘, i.e. not the time to write a complex rebuttal to a disagreeable proposal. Once in the Stillness therefore it is not the stillness itself that is the objective of our prayer. It is the context to which such Stillness has introduced us.

As I sit in summer mornings enjoying the swelling sounds of the dawn chorus I can hear a cacophony of enjoyable birdsong filling the air. However, as I apply attentiveness, I distinguish blackbird from song thrush, robin from goldfinch. Naturally the ability to distinguish such sounds is dependent upon a certain amount of work carried out in familiarising myself with the different songs of British garden birds, and would prove of little value on a trip to Malaysia. Which goes to show that the attention we have given over our life to discerning and distinguishing the character and the ways of God is the foundation upon which we establish prayerful attentiveness. I hear yet must learn to discern what it is I am hearing, an act of attentiveness.

Meaning Two

However, attentiveness also means attending to the interests and comfort of others as in, ‘They live in constant, kindly attentiveness to each others needs‘. In approaching God it is not simply that I anticipate or demand that God in some interventionist and measurable way attends to my ever swelling bandwidth of ‘needs’. Rather that I attend to the ‘needs’ of the Divine. Can I really suggest that an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God has a ‘need’ of my attentiveness? Regardless, I do. And that’s because God’s will in the earth is expressed through the obedient action of those who determine to love and serve God. God is voiceless and shapeless without an engaged, redeemed humanity.

Purpose

God is purposeful in that there is always an end as well as a present in view. For me prayer once was a response to the present with little objective focus upon the end in view. In fact God thinks from the end backwards, in which case the present is rather more incidental than essential. Whilst this might feel like it reduces human value, it cannot, for such value can only ever be established with the end in view, i.e. I have been created human, in the image of God for the purpose of growing up into maturity in Christ. Over investment in the realities of the present can only lead to stunted growth, in other words a deformity or abnormality perhaps in the aspiration that I’m invited to share alongside God.

Attentiveness affords me the opportunity to discern the present in light of the end in view. I recover perspective.

Illustration

As my first darling wife, Katey, battled with MS, the initial prayer focus was consumed with the present; an assumed need that she be physically healed. I’ve no doubt God does intervene and physically heals today. We had both prayed and seen medically confirmed healing through the vehicle of prayer. Indeed we had experienced such healing ourselves. However, physical healing is incidental and not the end God has in view. This end is most certainly about healing, yet healing as wholeness or completion, where only death affords us the key to such completion.

Whilst Katey and I, and a concerned congregation, threw every prayer we had at seeking to determine a new, or different, present, we paid little attention in discerning the distinct word of God in the season. In fact we assumed we were mounting a raid against Satan to rescue Katey from what can only have been the devil’s work.

Exhausted and momentarily exhausted and disillusioned, where a moment is as a thousand days if not years, it was out of broken dejection, and the aloneness and sense of abandonment that followed in the melting away of an exhausted and confused congregation, that we together began to pay attention to God and seek to discern the voice of God. The end remained the same, ‘To you have I lifted up my eyes, you who dwell in the heavens: my eyes like the eyes of slaves, on the hand of their lords…our eyes on the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy…Have mercy on us Lord, have mercy‘.

We again reminded ourselves we are God’s property, albeit fearfully and wonderfully made. That God alone has the word of life and so it was to the Lord we directed our gaze. No longer consumed by physical disease we waited and began to develop an attentiveness to who God was in this set of circumstances and discern God’s unique words for us both. We found comfort even as we knew pain and disappointment. Attentiveness is a long way from the soothing balm of a hot bath of scented bubbles.

Such attentiveness was not primarily to provide us with any emotional satisfaction for we discovered that feelings are untrustworthy and in no way confirmed if God were present or not. Attentiveness was finding the capacity to rest in the reality that God’s will might be done in the earth and in the outworking of that will we discover God and deepen our understanding and appreciation of God, even as and when mortality brings death at an age my humanity might never understand and rail against.

Conclusion

So in the Stillness we learn to become attentive to God. Our own will, aspiration, assumption and perception will readily seek to occupy that Stillness. Only problem with this is that it must inevitable drown out the still small voice who is Jesus. I say ‘learn’ for not one of us can accomplish attentiveness without a disciplined commitment to practice; Intuition + Practice = Performance. Discerning different songs within the overwhelming orchestration that is the dawn chorus takes both knowledge and discipline, and is of course continually accompanied by doubt. In all such attentiveness it remains to me to discover what it is the Master says, where saying is not essentially an audible word. And where attentiveness may require nothing more of me than attentiveness itself.

‘if the Lord had not been on our side…then the waters would have engulfed us, the torrent gone over us…Blessed be the Lord who did not give us a prey to their teeth…Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth’.

I have concluded after numerous conversations that there are the three essentials of prayer.

Too often prayer is a seemingly endless monotone of requests, concerns, hopes and fears directed broadly at some entity we trust is God, or in reality someone or something that might come to our aid. The ‘God’ persona is regarded as some form of life belt, required as we struggle to stay afloat in stormy seas, a means of escape from an inevitable drowning.

This, of course, may well reflect our point of entry into God. For God is often ill considered when the yacht’s intact and the cruise in full swing. Crisis creates quasi believers of us all. And why not? Better to grasp for a life belt in despair, than quietly slip beneath the waters of obliteration.

What is Prayer?

In fact prayer is a practical and precise response in search of a God who I desire to encounter. There are no guarantees! I may simply be ‘whistling Dixie’. For God is sought and found in faith, and faith is literally without substance, built solely upon the insubstantial foundation of inner resolve. In other words it can only ever be established a priori. For faith is to knowledge, what skill is to sport, intuition + practice = Performance.

So there are the three essential of prayer for anyone who desires to explore the unknowable God proclaimed by the Christian church for two millennia, and Judaism for quite some time before that. Today let’s look at the first of these three essentials; Stillness.

Prayer Essential #1: Stillness

Stillness is the absence of motion. Of course this might recall the game you may have played as a child called statues. Yet, it’s not stillness in the sense of being perfectly motionless physically. It is the stillness of mind and heart, the management of the distractions that flood in once we choose to be still.

Of course the mind is never still. It is processing millions of bytes of data that our senses send for interpretation. The brain is the control centre for our life, and must itself learn the art of stillness. The discipline of stillness trains us to manage distraction. For many people the thought of stillness proves highly problematic. Years of activity including work, family, maintenance, hobbies, all take their toll. The brain demands stimulation which each of these activities offered in spades. This is something stillness apparently fails to offer. We are restless within ourselves when forced to do nothing through periods of illness or when retirement creates a breach in our life time routine of work and the longed for rest proves a challenge to occupy effectively and satisfactorily.

Stillness is a process through which we grow to know ourselves. In stillness we grow content within ourselves and with our own company. Stillness reduces our constant need for distractions to sustain us. Into that stillness we can find the space and the time to wait upon God. For God is apparently elusive, and never seeks to compete with our preferred distractions. As in every relationship, for that is what we can enjoy with God, the party to that relationship demands my attention and is wounded at every distraction. Even those distractions I foolishly convince myself are for their primary benefit. Most often they are for my own satisfaction.

The Practice of Stillness

Oratory Garden

This practice requires three steps.

  1. A heart’s desire to move away from dependency upon distraction. What I call our inner spiritual Intuition.
  2. The concentrated discipline of taking time each day for short periods of Stillness. What I call Practice.
  3. Living below the constant rumble of traffic noise as the brain processes all that incoming data, whilst you disengage from interacting with it and find a sacred space into which you invite God. What I call Performance.

There are tools to accompany our search of this stillness such as breathing prayer, a long practiced form of centring self on God. Details of breath prayer are available from the Oratory.

It’s also worth ditching portable electronic devices for each period of stillness. Oh, how mobile devices have increased our fascination with distraction whilst crowding out yet another space for stillness.

Conclusion

What I can say is this first step takes time and demands my full attention. It can prove painful, for stillness is nowhere practiced in a society that is forever speeding up and driving each one of us to feel a loss of self worth if we are not ourselves busy, where busy has become a false synonym for productive.

Essentials #2 & #3 to follow.

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