on prayer

Forgive the long hiatus, if you’ve noticed it. Maybe if I added a category–‘what I’m writing’–I would return here more often, and sketch some of the work I’ve been doing. At present, I am writing a chapter entitled ‘The Lord’s Prayer in the Life and Liturgy of the Church,’ for a handbook on prayer. In the course of my reading, I came across a passage too beautiful not to share.

For real absolute waste of time you have to go to prayer. I reckon that more than 80 per cent of our reluctance to pray consists precisely in our dim recognition of this and our neurotic fear of wasting time, of spending part of our life in something that in the end gets you nowhere, something that is not merely  non-productive, non-money-making, but is even non-creative, it doesn’t even have the justification of art and poetry. It is an absolute waste of time, it is a sharing into the waste of time which is the interior life of the Godhead. God is not in himself productive or creative. Sure he takes time to throw off a creation, to make something, to achieve something, but the real interior life of the Godhead is not in creation, it is in the life of love which is the Trinity, the procession of Son from Father and of the Spirit from this exchange. God is not first of all our creator or any kind of maker, he is love, and his life is not like the life of the worker or artist but of lovers wasting time with each other uselessly. It is into this worthless activity that we enter in prayer. This, in the end, is what makes sense of it. 

Herbert McCabe, ‘Prayer’ in God Matters, p. 225.

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Partly cloudy

It often happens at bedtime: so tired, and yet awake. I think, I ought to do something if I am awake. There’s always so much to do. What’s wrong with me? I wonder.

Probably nothing. Nothing, that is, but the ordinary out-of-stepness that is the state of human life lived in too-close cooperation with the fallenness of the world. There is another world, but it is the same as this one, indeed, as has been said by more than one poet and quoted by Rowan Williams. And being between worlds sometimes seems like the state I’m in: finding the ‘other’ in the world doesn’t come easily, when it comes at all.

And who knows how the voice of the Other World will break through? Maybe through something I read, a chance comment somewhere (on social media, even!), in the quiet, or on a walk…I can’t predict. Some days it is as though someone added Felix Felicis to my coffee. The worlds seem to come together. Coming and going, the ordinary things, all seem to lead to a great openness and peace. Other days, not so much.

Like clouds block the sun, sometimes the light that illumines my soul dims. Who knows what ‘clouds’ might float along, stopping the brightness of the sun’s rays? And who knows how long the shadows will cover me? Not I. My only gift, the only thing I have learned to do in this partly cloudy existence is to enjoy the warm sun, to be grateful for the beauty of the clouds, and to find comfort in the sound of heavy rain.

 

 

Psalms as personal prayer

Last week, I had the privilege of convening a symposium on prayer and the practice of theology at
images-5Minster Abbey
. Over the next few weeks, I expect I’ll be thinking aloud about that experience, for which I am profoundly grateful. The Benedictine sisters of the community joined with us, and a few shared with us something of their journey. This was a great blessing to all of us theologians present! I am glad to be able to pass some of that blessing along to you, in the form of my first ever guest post, in which Sr Johanna reflects on the experience of praying the psalms. 

What is it like to use the psalms for prayer every day and many times a day?  By God’s grace, my experience of praying the psalms daily now stretches over nearly four decades.  I shall try to say a little about what I have learned during this time.

For me, the psalms are one of the chief means by which I’m able to fulfil the call I received from God so many years ago.  How is this so?

Some personal background seems necessary here:  I was a “cradle Catholic”, who was taught her faith and who received the Sacraments in the way that was customary at the time.  I went to Mass and said my prayers, but without much grasp of what was behind all this.  And had any choice been available to me, I am sure I’d have chosen to leave the Church sometime in my teens.

It came, then, as a huge re-orderig of my existence when, in early adulthood, some seeds of belief that had been dormant in me began to put forth shoots.  Circumstances at that time conspired to give me a desire to explore my faith – and I did.  This exploration was the beginning of my serious practice of Catholicism.  I received the gift of faith in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit; also the gift of faith in the Church as bearer of truth for humanity.  And people!  People were very much part of this conversion – humanity loomed large.  I developed a hunger to be present to suffering humanity in a deeper way than was possible to me within the constraints of what was then a career in classical ballet.  How could I bring Christ to birth in the world?  I had received the grace of conversion, and I longed to be instrumental in that grace reaching others. I wanted to be everywhere and present to everyone, on the deepest possible level.

I began to look at religious orders.  I gradually realised that it was through prayer that my intense desire to be everywhere and present to everyone could be fulfilled.  This faith in the power of prayer was another great gift from this period in my life. Eventually, monastic life, with its strong emphasis on the apostolate of prayer, seemed the way forward for me.

Now, nearly forty years later, how has this panned out?  There are many aspects to a monastic vocation, but I’ve found that it is chiefly within the Opus Dei – the Divine Office – that I find that I can be everywhere and with everyone.  That is because of the prayer book that’s used – which is the psalter.

When I go into the chapel for the Divine Office, yes, it is a time for being with God in the deep places of the soul.  But, really, all humanity is there, too, because all humanity is represented in the psalter.  In the Divine Office, we sing the one-hundred and fifty psalms of the psalter through in a week, give or take.  The psalms become familiar – some become friends.  In the psalms we have theology expressed poetically.  We have the human person’s experience of God crystallized – I suppose that’s what one might expect of biblical poetry.  But, less predictably perhaps, we also have the human experience of being human expressed in the psalms. Every human emotion is there in the psalter: there’s praise and petition, euphoria and celebration; there are psalms of exhortation; some psalms refer to a congregation being there; others seem to be highly personal and private; kings and queens make appearances; shepherds, bulls, goats and rams; all Israel is there; the psalms tell the story of their exodus, of their election as the Chosen People of God, and of their failures: Israel’s infidelity is frankly admitted – again and again; but so too God’s faithfulness is confessed – again and again: the psalms testify with wonder and gratitude to his mercy and forgiveness.  It’s notable, also, that the psalmist’s states of disillusionment and abandonment by God are written large in the psalter.  The psalter’s pictures are not just the pretty ones about deliverance and forgiveness.  Unlovely pictures of anger and anguish, rage and raving are painted in vivid colours in these inspired texts.

All this diversity is glorious, on the one hand.  But on the other, how can I absorb it when I pray?  Can it all become “me” every time I go in to pray?  Perhaps the first thing to say in answer is that the psalms aren’t just about “me” because prayer isn’t just about me. I wanted to be present to others when God called me.  The psalms in their diversity bring others to me and enable me to hear about their experiences as each psalm unfolds, verse by verse, day by day in the Divine Office.  In praying the psalms it becomes possible to pray from the perspective of others, and in solidarity and empathy.  I can take the psalmist’s experience and claim it as my own, pray it as my own. 

The monastic writer, John Cassian, writes in the fifth century that when we pray the psalms over time, it will be like this:

Unknown-1[The one praying will] take in to himself all the thoughts of the Psalms and will begin to sing them in such a way that he will utter them with the deepest emotion of heart [emphasis mine] not as if they were the compositions of the Psalmist, but rather as if they were his own utterances, and his very own prayer…. [c.f. Conf X:11].

How does this happen?  Is the every-day experience something that always involves the “deepest emotion of heart”?  Well, of course, there are good days and bad days, as is always the case with any human endeavour.  But, on a deeper level, it may be  important to say that the concept of the heart for the ancients had connotations that we don’t automatically think of today.  The heart, for Cassian’s original audience, is really the most important part of the inner being.  It includes the mind, but it is also to do with the will, the place of deepest inner truth, of self-dedication, firm decision, profound responsibility.   So when Cassian talks about the deepest emotion of the heart we need to understand something that has more permanence and stability than we usually attribute to the emotions, maybe akin to a kind of “groundedness” in truth, I think.

And the psalms can take us there.  Many of the psalms are composed in the first person.  This allows a species of “transference” to take place, because when we pray things like “O God whom I praise, do not be silent, for the mouths of deceit and wickedness are opened against me” (108:1), or “When I think I have lost my foothold, your mercy Lord, holds me up” (93:18), or “I am beset with evils…” (39:13) and so on, the “I” in any given psalm can become our “I” when we’re praying, no matter what our mood might be at that particular time.  In this way, the psalms become not only a mode of praying, but also a means of self-transcendence, and of empathy.  The psalms enable us to say to humanity, “I am praying not merely for you, but as you”.  We can pray the psalms from within the very consciousness of the one represented by any given psalm.  This allows us to put our own “stuff” to the side, and really listen to and pray from the perspective of different “stuff.”

This may raise the question, what about the angry psalms – often called the cursing psalms – where the psalmist is ranting and raving and just lets it rip against his enemies.  What about them?  Should we be embarrassed about them, and try to hide them in a dark corner where no one will notice them?  Emphatic no!  I am so glad my community prays them and doesn’t leave them out.  They are so important! It’s to do again with listening to humanity.  Every good listener knows that when someone has been deeply hurt, the hurt person cannot arrive at forgiveness immediately.  Stages need to be negotiated.  Shock and denial usually come first, then a kind of mixed-up experience follows, that alternates between the acceptance of what happened and rage that it happened at all; forgiveness of the one who caused the hurt is usually way down the line.  The rage must be allowed its place in the healing process or the capacity to forgive the one who caused the pain is compromised.  In the angry psalms we find here the honest admission of anger within a relationship of prayer dedicated to the healing process.  So we are identifying with those who are in that very painful place of hurt and rage.  We don’t judge anything the psalmist expresses – that is not our role – we just allow it to be.  This might happen to be cathartic, also, for the one praying – but it’s not by any means the whole story of what’s happening when we use the angry psalms for prayer. 

We’re also learning something extremely important about God in these angry psalms.  We’re learning that we have a God who allows us to say, “THIS IS UNBEARABLE” in bold print, underlined three times, with six exclamation marks, and who doesn’t mind.  At all.  The Jewish boast, “What other nation has its gods as close to them as our God is to us,” could be interpreted in this sense: that God wants us to bring him everything, not just the nice presentable bits of ourselves, but the really raw bits, too, the whole kit and caboodle, our entire inner life. The angry psalms help us to do this. 

On the opposite end of the scale perhaps, are psalms which my express states which we feel unworthy to call our own: states of innocence, maybe.  Or holiness.  The New Testament Canticle, the Magnificat, might fall into this category.  It’s not actually a psalm, strictly speaking – but we pray it every night at Vespers, so I think it deserves a mention.  We might think, ‘How can I, a twit and sinner, pray the Magnificat.  How can I say, “henceforth all ages will call me blessed”, for example.  Again, the Divine Office is not just about me.  St. Augustine says about psalmody that sometimes we pray in the voice of Christ our head, sometimes we pray in the voice of his members.  Here, we pray in Our Lady’s voice, and in our way, we allow her words to continue to resound in the Church.  Imagine the impoverishment to the Church if, out of a misguided humility, the Church had no tradition of praying the Magnificat!  In the Magnificat, we are recalling, re-presenting, the astounding fact of Our Lady’s immaculate heart.  She knew that it was all God’s gift – and says so in the canticle.  We are praying in hope that we might receive a like gift of purity of heart – to return to one of Cassian’s favourite themes.  Admittedly, the Magnificat is one of those prayers that are too big for us, and maybe we feel like the child trying to walk about in its parent’s shoes when we pray it.  We need to “grow into” it.  But, people, by God’s grace, do grow into it.  It’s not a futile hope.  He does give the gift of holiness.  Saints are real people.  I was just reading about the recent martyrdom of a group of Missionaries of Charity and their volunteer helpers in Yemen.  I suspect they felt themselves to be pretty ordinary people.  Yet, now all ages will call them blessed.  

And, a few words about singing.  In the fifth century text I quoted above from John Cassian, he refers to singing the psalms – which indicates that this was an accepted practice.  To give a proper treatment of why singing is a good way to pray the psalms would require another talk.  Again, from my personal perspective as an ex-ballet dancer, music is highly important to me, and I am so grateful that this long tradition of singing prayer exists.  The psalms were first used in Jewish worship, and they were composed to be sung there; the poets intended this when they wrote them.  The link-up between music and meaning is extremely close in these works; music wasn’t an afterthought.  So it’s arguable that the psalms come alive most fully when the words are integrated with music.  There are other reasons, too for singing.  St. Benedict says, “Let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.”  He’s talking about the power of music to keep us focused and recollected.  Singing integrates more of the body into the act of worship than is enlisted in reading silently.  In singing you involve the eyes, the ears and the voice most obviously.  Less obviously, you have the effect of musical rhythm.  Even if one is singing while standing or sitting still, this rhythm is felt by the whole body.  Music also elicits a response from the emotions – beauty and pathos can be expressed even in a simple, repetitive melody.  Song, further, is an aid to memory.  A snatch of a verse from a psalm may return to me later in the day because melody has a way of coming back and back.  This is how it works for me.  And I am so grateful that music and psalms have been partners in my vocation for nearly 40 years.  

I am never alone when praying the psalms, and this is not just because I pray them in the liturgy and in community.  Many people pray the psalms privately, and they, too, are not alone.  This is because the psalms, you might say, “refashion” the heart of the person praying.  Our hearts tend to be self-concerned, but the psalms fashion a heart that is “other-concerned” because that is the way the psalms are.  One of our Oblates, Maude Felicity, offered the insight when she read this talk that the psalms give one a “communal heart.”  And so perhaps Cassian’s phrase that we “utter the psalms with the deepest emotion of heart” refers to this communal heart that is, over time, formed within the person who prays the psalms.  Therefore, through the psalms, our narrow, personal concerns can widen out, as we learn to take on the concerns that each psalm places before us.  When I say to individual people that I am praying for them, I know that the psalms enable me to pray for them in depth.  I can pray not only for the particular thing they have requested, but with reference to their whole person, the whole state of their heart.  This is what I felt called to do nearly forty years ago.  Thanks be to God for showing me the way.

May 2016

Sr. Johanna Caton, O.S.B.

Minster Abbey

Prayer and the practice of theology

Evagrius1A few years ago, I came across a quotation from Evagrius of Pontus on my students’ papers. Actually, it was a paraphrase of a famous bit of Evagrius, in which he says that ‘one who prays truly will be a theologian, and one who is a theologian will pray truly.’ The impression you would have had from the context in which Evagrius was being paraphrased  is that anyone who prays is a theologian. My uncertainty about that, which started as a certain skepticism (of the form ‘I do not think it means what you think it means’), has led me to wonder about the relationship between prayer and the practice of theology down the ages. Now I am a theologian, but not a historian. And this topic warrants historical and theological investigation. So I need help!

It therefore makes me feel like the luckiest person in the world to be able to gather a small group of wise and learned and spiritually astute people to talk about just this topic. Not only that, but we are gathering at my very favorite place on the planet: Minster Abbey. For two days, we will join the community for prayer and spend the rest of the time in conversation about the relationship between prayer and theology in a handful of theologians from late antiquity onward.

What is the relationship between prayer and theology? While I fully expect that this question will continue to vex future generations, I have reason to hope that we who gather at Minster in Eastertide will be nourished in our lives of prayer and theology, and for that I am unimaginably grateful.

Deo gratias.

 

not the usual Sunday night Compline

Usually, we say compline together each evening. And most evenings we follow basic form set out for the office, the way the nuns sing it at Minster Abbey. We have our own prayer that stands in for the hymn, one the children learned at school and like to say.

I thought as our 9-year old is about to make his first confession, that we might talk a little bit more about the examination of conscience that normally occurs just at the beginning of Compline. So last night I did.  We followed our brief conversation with the confiteor, which we don’t often say. Afterward, my 9-year-old observed that the language includes asking ‘brothers and sisters’ to pray for us. This sparked a further conversation about the relationship between members of the body of Christ: although in the context of our family, I am the mother and they the children, in the family of God, we are all brothers and sisters.

Suddenly they were all attentive. Not only that, I said (taking advantage of this miraculously teachable moment): you have a very special place within the body of Christ, as children. When Jesus’ disciples were arguing with each other about who was the greatest, he put a child in the midst of them, and told them that unless they became like little children, they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. Amazement. We talked a little bit about what it was about children that was so important to Jesus. Not their crazy antics (mine are especially prone), but some key qualities. The one we spoke about was a capacity for awe and wonder. My 9-year-old interjected something about a really huge snake. Exactly! Awe and wonder. Of course there are other things, but the teachable moment is just that, at least with my children: a moment.

After that we veered off course slightly, according to the rubrics. We each said a ‘God bless’ or a ‘thank you, God’ and said a Hail Mary, at the 4-year-old’s request. Then we had the nunc dimittis and final prayer. As I prepared to play the Alma redemptoris mater (we like the Marian antiphon for the season), I realized there was a problem. Just as I was about to be frustrated, one suggested (again the 9-year-old) that we simply stand around the prayer table and look at the candles. So we did. It was the most beautiful silence I have ever experienced. It was not only quiet, but peace.

Deo gratias.

Friday of the third week of Lent

What has Ephraim to do with idols any more when it is I who hear his prayer and care for him? I am like a cypress ever green; all your fruitfulness comes from me.
                                                                                                                               Hosea 14
[Abba Apollo said] No one can endure the enemy’s clever attacks, nor quench, nor control the leaping fire natural to the body, unless God’s grace preserves us in our weakness. In all our prayers we should as for his mercy to save us, so that he may turn aside this scourge that is aimed even at you. For he makes a man to grieve, and then lifts him up to salvation; he strikes, and his hand heals; he humbles and exalts; he gives death and then life; he leads to hell and brings back from hell (1 Sam 2:6). So Apollo prayed again, and the hermit was set free from his inner war. Apollo urged him to ask God to give him a wise heart, in order to know how best to speak.
*          *          *
It is somewhat troubling to think that God strikes, humbles, gives death, and the like, even though Abba Apollo assures us that God also gives life and heals, and exalts. It istroubling, but less so when we are reminded that God was willing to undergo the same cycles of humility and exaltation, death and life, and the journey to hell and back again. There is nothing that we experience in the whole of our human life that God’s Word did not take upon himself in his own humanity. Our fruitfulness does indeed come from the one who has made the way for us from death to life.
I am reminded of Jesus’ words about the vine and the branches: we, the branches, cannot bear any fruit without being connected to, and nourished by, the vine. All the contrition and humility of Lent draws us closer to the vine. It is not that we accomplish anything merely by our self-denial, byt that we attend more closely to God, and simplify our lives to make that attention possible. What fruit our practice brings comes not from us, but from God.

Monday of the third week in Lent

Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. Then his servants came near and spoke to him and said, “My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
2 Kings 5:12, 13
 
. . .

Exactly. Naaman expected something dramatic. If a miraculous cure is sought, the healing ought to amaze. But there isn’t anything too exciting about taking a dip in the river.

This is a great story for me, for Lent–or anytime, really. A suitably astounding miracle (I’m thinking Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al) would go down well, especially if some intense engagement were required on my part. Extreme Christianity: ascetic achievement; big, bold miracles.

Nope. I think it is Abba Sisoes who, when asked for a word, says, ‘go into your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’ Say your prayers, do the things you are supposed to do, and you will do well. It isn’t the grand gesture, once-in-a-lifetime, but the little things done every day, that mark the path to holiness.

So says St Therese of Lisieux; so also said Mother Teresa. It’s the little things. Being drawn to Benedictine spirituality, I tend to think in terms of the daily office: praying the appointed psalms at the appointed times. Work and pray, rest, repeat.

Simple. Not easy, but simple. And miraculous: this simple rhythm of work and prayer is possible only by grace.

Deo gratias.