Talk originally prepared for a Retreat for Religious. Word Count 4,869
Fr. Tom leads us in a meditation on true prayer. He starts from the prize winning Egyptian novelist Muhammed Kamil Husain who reflects, in his 1954 novel “City of Wrong,” on the original Good Friday and muses how being faithful to one’s understanding of Religion can lead to ungodly, even idolatrous, acts. Fr. Tom goes on to reflect on what it takes for us to be true sacraments of Christ. He suggests that whenever and however we pray we are mediating like the priest between this whole world, and all its peoples, and its Creator. To help with this he draws on previously obscure phrases of the Roman Canon but lights them up with texts from the Apocalypse and finally with a poem by Paul Claudel which encapsulates his main message about the radical nature of all prayer.
I ask your forgiveness for sharing with you something which I find very difficult to get hold of. It’s something at the edge of my understanding, and therefore I am likely to be less than clear sharing it with you, but I hope it will ring bells with your own experience.
Every now and again, when I am fighting with God in our Chapel – and we tend to do that quite often – and I allow myself to be totally honest – and it happens about once a year (um! because I can’t afford to let it happen more often) – a great dread comes over me that it is possible for religious people and people of prayer to set up an entire world of religion and prayer which is in God’s name, but is not of God. And at the beginning of Holy Week, I want to suggest to you that this, in a way, is the issue being worked out during these coming days.
You will see why I can’t afford to let myself be that honest more than about once a year, at the most. First let me share with you a passage from a Muslim novelist, in Egypt, writing in the 1950’s.
“The day was a Friday. It was quite unlike any other day. It was a day when men went very grievously astray; so far astray in fact that they involved themselves in the utmost iniquity: evil overwhelmed and they were blind to the truth, though it was a clear as the morning sky. They were, however, people of religion and of character, the most careful of people in pursuing what was right. They were, of all people, most meticulous with a tender affection for their nation and for their land, sincere in religious practice, and noted for their fervour and integrity. And yet, this competence in religion did not save them from wrong-doing, nor immunise their minds from error. Their sincerity did not guide them to the good. They were people who took counsel among themselves, and their counsel led them astray. Their Roman overlords, too, were masters of law and order, and yet these proved their undoing. The people of Jerusalem were caught that day in a vortex of seductions and, taken unawares amid them, they faltered; lacking valid criteria for action, they foundered, just as if they were people without reason or religion. They thought that reason and religion laid upon them obligations which transcended the dictates of conscience.”
And he then goes on – but I find the translation is so obscure that I put this little bit in myself, which I think is what it’s about – “That conscience is not itself a light,” as Paul VI says, “is not itself a light, it is rather an inner eye by which we see the light. It can only guide us insofar as it obeys what it sees.”
All right? In other words, sincerity itself will not guide us to truth and to goodness. And then, Mohammed Kamil Husain goes on:
“On that Friday, men chose to murder their conscience and that choice is the supreme tragedy of mankind. Without an attuned conscience as guide, every virtue collapses, every good turns to evil, and all intelligence becomes madness. The events of that day do not belong simply to the history books. They are disasters daily renewed in the life of everyone. To the end of time people will be contemporaries of that day, ever in danger of the same sin into which the inhabitants of Jerusalem then fell. The same darkness will be theirs until they are resolved to live by their conscience.”
I think when I was younger (I am sorry to keep saying that), that I was aware that those people who were contemporaries of Jesus were very religious and devout people, but I had a feeling that what they were subject to, we were somehow saved from - because being Christian is the real thing; and being a Roman Catholic Christian is the real, real thing; and being a Benedictine Roman Catholic Christian is the ultimate security against those dangers (!!). I think in recent years I have come to feel at a very deep level that there is nothing that we can set up in the way of methods of prayer, of fidelity to religious practice, of keeping the rule of St Benedict, of doing what we are told in obedience, of being faithful to charismatic prayer, or the Rosary or the Office or whatever it is that we have – there is nothing that will secure us against the danger that is voiced in that reading that I have just mentioned to you. And that it is open and possible for all of us in any religion, to break the commandment of taking the name of the Lord in vain; in other words, to have a whole life and system and fidelity which is in God’s name but is not what God is concerned about.
Do you see what I mean? And I voice it because I think it is a question that hovers just under the surface of many of our experiences and appears in prayer from time to time, but that we run away from because of the implications.
Recent events in the Middle East, events in Northern Ireland, events in so much of European history ought to be reminders to us that religion can pervert, in the name of God, that which God is concerned about. It happens throughout the Scriptures, and it’s what the prophets keep warning people about. To put it very simply:
How can we know that we worship God in spirit and in truth,
and not just in loyalty and living the life faithfully?
Because all of us are subject to the idolatries and the addictions of whatever age we live in. None of us is free of those; they follow through our whole being and attitudes and emotions and so on. And unless we are at least open to the question, to the possibility that we are using the things of God to baptise those idolatries and addictions, to have a nice Christian version of what it is that is perverting our society, then we can fail to be open to the Gospel that Jesus talked about. I think this is why that, especially towards the end, he went on and on about the need for watchfulness, to be alert, to read the signs of the times. And all the fidelity in the world will not preserve you from perverting God’s gifts, to work against the Gospel for which Jesus died.
We cannot buy into the system of our contemporary world, and then go paddling off to Jesus in prayers saying “Now, save us.” He will simply say “First of all, buy out. And then, let’s talk”. You get that wonderfully in some of the prophets. You know, like: “A hunger will come upon the land, and people will come to God for a word of life and they will not be able to receive it.” Why? Because as long as they’re bought into the system which is perverting God’s justice, then they cannot hear God’s word as a word of life. Even if they are religious people.
As I say, once a year is as much as I can take of this lot! So let me give you one clue that seems to speak to me of how we begin to answer that question “How can we be released into worshiping God in spirit and in truth?” Because it’s my suspicion that over the last 30 years, that is in the time since the Council, the Church has been groping, not necessarily in the terms that I have posed the question, at a response to this question.
Because most of us grew up in a Church which defined itself within itself, we were immensely grateful for being on the deck of the Ark of Salvation. And we peered over the guard-rails at the poor people who were outside, insecure, being lost, and for whom salvation could only be climbing up the gang-plank and getting on board. There’s a lot of good tradition behind that theology, but it gives us a feeling of being secure. It gives us a feeling of being safe, so that somehow we are on board the real thing; we are preserved from the danger I mentioned. And I think that, at the time of the Vatican Council, it began to be questioned as to whether that was really a definition of the Church that was real, at least for our age.
And I think that what we have been groping to – let me just outline what I want to say and then we’ll go back and look at it more closely – is that if we are not willing to allow ourselves, under the terrible guidance of the Holy Spirit, to be bearers of the sin and suffering of our age; to be bearers of where our world is, then we can’t be incorporated into the mediating and redeeming work of Christ. And if we open ourselves – and it will be a painful opening – and we learn to be vulnerable, to be wounded people; if we open ourselves to bear that sin and suffering in Christ, then it will disintegrate our systems. It will make it impossible for us to keep intact our own self-image, our own set up of how prayers can carry us gloriously to God, who is so happy to have us on the way – I mean, so lucky to have us on the way. Any system we have set up will disintegrate if we learn to bear the suffering of people. And out of that disintegration will come a re-integration which is what Easter is truly about.
Easter is not the patching together of some foreseen system that religious people have in mind and that God now comes to put together, as it were, but it is the re-integration by God of something that has passed through disintegration. And our task ? We are Easter people – but Easter people are those for whom the pattern of the Pascal mystery is repeated in their lives. And that’s very important.
One of the dangers of Charismatic prayer, although it does so much good, is that it lives post-Pentecost, and doesn’t appreciate that the whole mystery of Christ has to be realised right through in our own lives and in all our communities and so on. If that sounds obscure – what I’ve just said – let me go back over this a little bit, and spell it out in about 12 different looks at the same question.
First of all, during the Council, the church gave us – the Vatican documents gave us – an understanding of the Church, not as an ark of salvation, not as a place of security from any danger of being unfaithful, but it gave us a theology of the Church as the sacrament of God’s presence and work of re-creation throughout our world. In other words, you can’t understand the Church except in its place within all of God’s world. It’s a very different understanding to the one we were used to. And a sacrament is not simply a sort of show-off sign to people: it isn’t a sign that comes from outer space. A sacrament is something that God draws out of the created order itself and divinises.
The water is drawn from creation in order to become baptismal water, and it’s very important that it is drawn out of the whole earthliness of God’s creation. The Bread and Wine are drawn from the work of human hands and the soil and the stock of matter in order to be given out. And they’d be pointless if they came from outer space for just that purpose. And if the – if we – when I say “Church” I mean “we” not them over there – if we are to be the sacrament of God’s work of re-creation, then the fact that we are earthly people, the fact that we are in God’s world, the fact that we share the suffering and the agony and the journey’s and the understanding of where people are, is absolutely vital to that sacrament. You can’t withdraw yourself into a special world called “Church” and then be a sacrament. You might be a show-off or a sign, but you won’t be a sacrament. And that’s why the Council chose those wonderful words which you know,
“…the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor, or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and the hopes the griefs and the anxieties of the followers of Christ”.
There ought to come a point in our prayer journey when we stop fussing round our peccadilloes, when we stop worrying about ME – ME – ME, and our prayer takes on in us the joys and the hopes , the griefs and the anxieties of people, and especially the afflicted, the dispossessed, those we call the poor.
And during the last 30 years since the Council, I think the Church has been groping for this great mystery. You remember the unfortunate phrase in some ways “the preferential option for the poor”. It’s a very unfortunate phrase, we’ll come back to it. But it’s so important for us to understand what lies behind that, and what lies behind it is that, as Christians, we are called, not to look at and admire Christ, but to be Christ. All right? That’s what it is to be his body. As this week goes on, we don’t stand at the foot of the cross, sorrowing for Christ, or even admiring Christ, but we learn to be Christ. All right? We are the members of the body which is Christ. And in Christ, as his members, we are mediators in God’s world. Not mediators because we are a “third party” between God and the world at large, but mediators because we are OF God and of the world at the same time, as Jesus was. A common member of the two orders.
If we don’t know how, in prayer, to be vulnerable, to be torn apart, by taking into ourselves the suffering and the agony and the injustice that people in our world are suffering, then we will finish up in a secure, beautiful, nice religious world, with good systems of prayer and fidelity which would not be of God, even if it is in His name.
What I am saying is that we are a priestly people. I don’t mean we are a Church that has priests: I mean we are a priestly people and all prayer is mediating, all prayer is intercessory. Whenever a Christian who is in Christ prays, that Christian is praying in a position of intercession and mediation for our world and part of our world as a whole. And that’s true even of prayer of praise, or of thanksgiving, or whatever. We are by definition in a mediating position or place.
Let me share briefly, two thoughts about two extremely obscure prayers which you will have heard.
I wouldn’t like to count how many times – and those of us who are priests have said any number of times, - but I’m sure that most of us don’t quite understand them. They are two prayers that appear in the Roman Canon after the words of consecration, when we invoke or call to mind the sacrifice of Abel with a strange prayer – remember this strange prayer? Very weird! And then Melchizedech, and Abraham our father. So what are we doing? Abel represents the bringing to God of all creation’s work and suffering, if you see what I mean, Abel is the place of the whole of creation. Then Melchizedech is the offering of religion, naming God however obscurely.
Abraham, the father of Muslims, of Jews and of Christians (how relevant to this time!) and we’re saying that in Christ we are bringing into focus and bringing to God, creation, religion and the Muslim – Jewish – Christian world. In our prayer and worship – we are at a point of mediation and of expression to God. That’s a very different approach to the sort of exclusive thing – ‘here we are, Christians doing our Christian thing, and they’ve got it all wrong’. And very relevant too, to our own self-understanding of who we are as Christians.
And the Mass goes on with another very strange prayer, in which we ask the angel to come and take our offering, representative of all our prayer-life, to the altar on high, in order that we may then receive the blessings from on high. And we move on quickly to the rest of the Canon, because we haven’t got a clue about what’s in mind. And I think what’s in mind is a very strange passage, to our ears, from the Book of Revelation:
“Now, when the Lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”. Gosh! After all that! They must have been so pleased with that silence. But the silence in heaven for half an hour was to give space for the prayers of you and me, of the church, the people of God, to be taken up and join the version of the liturgy on high, to share in that work of intercession and mediation. “I saw the seven angels who stand in the presence of God. They were given seven trumpets, and the seven angels of the churches. Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding the golden censer. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. And the smoke of the incense from the angel’s hand went up before God with his people’s prayers…” (Rev 8) It’s your Office in the morning, whether in chapel or wherever, or your rosary. It’s your prayers, right? Not some other lot. And our prayers get caught up into that great liturgy of mediation working of the re-creation of the world, God’s world.
“The angel took the censer, filled it with the fire from the altar and threw it down on the earth. There came peals of thunder, lightning flashes and an earthquake.” We needn’t bother about that bit. It’s always very surprising that the Book of Revelation found its way into the New Testament, isn’t it? But that little bit of silence in half an hour to give space, in all that heavenly clamour, for our prayers to be incorporated into God – it’s wonderful, isn’t it? And I think that’s what lies behind that prayer in the Roman Canon. So we’d better say the Roman Canon when we celebrate mass, hadn’t we?
When we talk about bearing in ourselves the sin and the suffering of the world, voiced, as I say, in that phrase “making a preferential option for the poor”, I think the Church is asking us not to go on simply living within the criteria and the familiar ways which we are used to, but to be willing to be opened out and live our lives in communion with those we do not necessarily see, or we don’t necessarily live amongst, but with whom we have this deep communion in Christ. It is not a communion which is simply to do with action. The option to be in communion with the poor is not in order that we can do something about it, because, if we’re very honest with ourselves, many of us can do very little about the real reasons behind poverty in our world; do very little about, for instance, the place black people have in the Liverpool community, do very little about homeless people in our country.
Our communion is not simply to do with the action we can take, rather the supreme Christian mystery is that the most salvific moment in the world’s history was when Christ could do nothing for anybody about anything. This is the strange mystery of the Cross. We’re called to this communion because that is where God is. It is not a question of judgement: it’s not saying “Poor people are innocent and rich people are guilty”. It’s nothing to do with moral judgement, and anybody who has really worked amongst the dispossessed in our world knows perfectly well that that romantic idea about poverty or the poor is nothing to do with what this thing is talking about. We are in union with the dispossessed and the forgotten because God is. And that’s the root of it, not because of any moral judgement one way or the other. This is much misunderstood by people who think that their preferential option is some condemnation of others.
And it is not “the poor” as a sort of class or in general. It is not “the poor” as failed rich. When I’m occasionally with disabled people and the L’Arche community, it is so important that it is Ian who is disabled, and not one of the “disabled” who are “failed ordinary people”, if you see what I mean. It’s Sam who can’t find a home, it is not one of the homeless who are “failed home owners”. They’re not “failed” anything. Betty, who can’t find a job, is blessed by God but she is not a “failed worker”. She is Betty who can’t find a job. And God has this special tenderness and communion with them, so that Jesus can say “blessed are you poor”, not because you’re poor, but because, while the rest of the world is saying you’re failed something else, I am saying that, because God is God and you’re you, that you’re blessed. You’re ok. It’s alright to be who you are. And that’s the basis of the good news, that the rest of the world is saying it’s not ok to be who you are, I, God, am saying it is ok to be who you are.
Now let’s go on and do something about justice. You see we are called to be Christ in these things. We’re called, not to admire Him or appreciate the Gospel or something: we’re called to take the same stance in our society and our world that Jesus did. And your stand-point will then turn out to be your view-point. And it is not necessarily a geographical stance, but I think we’re all called, whatever work we are involved in, or wherever we are - we may be politicians, we may be bishops, we may be anybody at all – we’re called as Christians today to have this stance of being where we are, but in communion with the dispossessed of our world, because God is.
Now this involves us, let’s be honest, with quite a lot of anger and of anguish. During the Gulf War, I knew that people, people’s prayer, became very anguished and angry. With God? And about people? But the Good News as Christians, and as Religious, is that the Psalms give us permission to be angry with God. And I think that’s one of the best things to be given permission to do.
The Book of Job does, as well. We don’t have to tidy ourselves up; we don’t have to sort out our emotional anger; we don’t have to present ourselves as nice, controlled, holy people before God before we can pray. We can let it all come out. And the great mystery – I think it’s what the whole book of Job is about – is that if we know how to pray out of the gut anger in ourselves about what is being done to people in our world, if that becomes prayer, it turns out to be God’s anger on the world, and in naming the sin and in praying it, it then becomes, in its own extraordinary way, redemptive. We take part in the redemptive work that God is achieving in the world. But let’s not keep our prayer all tidy and nice and well-behaved, because we think God is. Our God is a God of anguish and of abrasion, and of challenge, and who will turn things over.
For many years as a Benedictine, I used to sing the Magnificat in Latin to Gregorian tones. And the first time I discovered what the Magnificat was about was in Belfast, where one of the great things about the Office now being in English is that we can’t avoid knowing what it is saying. The trouble is, that since we’ve cleaned up some of the Psalms in the process and left out the bits that – you know – aren’t quite nice for Anglo-Saxons to say to a nice God. Anger is so important in our prayer.
Let me just finish by sharing with you a little canter through Romans 8, because Paul takes us through a three-fold anguish which in our prayer we share, and it turns out to be God’s anguish in us. In other words, our prayer is the prayer of God. It’s not simply prayer to God. He talks about the whole of creation groaning. That wonderful thing of sort of capturing the agony, but also the yearning for fulfilment that is built into the whole created order. Probably he has in mind the created human order. Today, in our ecological interests, we tend to extend it to the whole of creation groaning for its own fulfilment… He then goes on to say that, because God’s creation is brought into a unified whole in Christ, what creation is groaning and in anguish and birth-pangs to bring forth, will only find its fulfilment in the liberation of all the children of God.
In other words, that human beings are sort of the first-born of the whole of creation as brothers and sisters of the One who is the first-born of all creation.
Then Paul goes on to say that “of course we too share in the pain, the suffering, the joys, the agony of the whole of creation, because we are still on the way.” It’s not that Pentecost hasn’t happened; it’s not that we are being Pelagian or something: it’s that we have the down-payment of the Spirit, so we have that assurance. But it is still not the whole – that which Christ died for has still to be realised; it hasn’t happened, it doesn’t happen, by magic. So we groan, we are in anguish, and we must learn the art of suffering in Christ, the sufferings of our world.
And then he says – now this is the Good News for today – “we don’t know how to pray”. I think that is wonderful, because there are so many people around telling me today (…pray this way, pray that way…). Paul says: “we don’t know how to pray”, and His answer is: “it’s in that poverty, it’s at that point at which, because you are bearing the agony and the suffering of the whole world, and now know no longer how to pray, that you discover the Holy Spirit is in you – that it is the Holy Spirit who is praying in you, who is guiding you.” And that’s your confidence, for it almost doesn’t matter how you pray as long as you are aware that your suffering and your carrying and bearing as a Christ-bearer is a mediating, intercessory role, which the Holy Spirit is praying in you. So your prayer is the prayer of God.
We refer to the Office, the Prayer of the Church, as the Opus Dei, and it took me 30 years as a monk to realise, it probably means, not our work for God, but God’s work in us.
I’m going to finish with a clip from a poem “On Bliss” by Paul Claudel written many years ago, which has meant a great deal to me…. “Not one of our fellow people, even if he wished could fail us. In the most unfeeling miser, in the innermost being of the prostitute, in the foulest drunkard, is an immortal soul intent on keeping alive, but which, shut out from the light of day, worships in the night.
I hear them speaking when I speak and I hear them weeping when I kneel to pray, and I accept all this, I reach out to them all. There is not one that I do not need or can do without. There are many stars in the sky, and their number is beyond my power to count, yet there is not one that I do not need in order to praise God. There are many people alive on earth and I scarcely see more than the few that stand out and shine, while the others flounder about as if in the slime and suction of a world in chaos. There are many souls, but there is not one with whom I am not in communion in that sacred space where together we utter “Our Father””.