What’s the Meaning of Prayer?

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In the commonly understood sense today, prayer is difficult to make sense of. It may be tolerated when we are in a state of desperation. No one would mock someone who is facing a terrible crisis if they pray for help. Credible belief collapses. But a bankrupt kind of hope allows us to believe in anything. In desperation, we have to believe in something, however incredible. Diagnosed with a terminal illness, facing the bleak landscape of a life without your loved one, disappointed in love or failed in life, fallen from grace and favour with the world.

But in normal circumstances, prayer in modern culture is generally felt to be amusingly or distastefully self-deceptive, superstitious, superficial or just an embarrassingly cheap escape from reality. Better to sit facing the harsh blank wall of reality like an impassive zen monk, waiting for nothing or for the final end of an endless series of finalities, than to pin up on the wall pictures of false hopes on to which we project weak fantasies drawn from filtered childish memories of people who come to our rescue. In real life there is no escape. In reality, there is precious little altruism directed towards us even in childhood and even less after. In extremis, prayer may be excusable, because it is understandable in the light of human frailty, how hard it is to face reality honestly without false consolation. But, as a regular means of escape from the discomforts or loneliness of existence, it is merely a fantasy that diminishes human dignity.

There is another attitude to prayer. According to the seventh-century monk Isaac the Syrian, a person prays a lot when there is no other help. The more he prays the more ‘his heart becomes humble’ because you can’t cry out from a state of helplessness without acknowledging your powerlessness. This is the wisdom of humility as seen in the first of the twelve steps of recovery. We see here the beginning of a different approach to prayer in extremis. It is not that the person praying is expecting a supernatural divine intervention. But the very act of praying – and here prayer might mean no more than the verbal or mental expression of troubles, feelings and needs – the very act of praying changes us. It brings us to an experiential self-knowledge and self-acceptance that actually transforms us. Here, then, humility and self-knowledge are the same. To be in this state is to gain the happiness associated with poverty of spirit: depending on none of our own resources because we see that undeniably we have none to rely on, except the blessed ability to acknowledge this poor fact.

This is the opposite of passivity and despair. It is a long way from the fantasy of winning the lottery of God’s special attention. But it needs to be worked at and persevered in.

Isaac the monk says that until we have found this humility it is impossible not be scattered. Our imagination is working on one fantasy solution after another. Humility gathers the heart together, he says. It makes us single-pointed, mindful, still.

In this state the very thing that is not expected or fantasised about, happens. A sensation of divine compassion touches us surprisingly in the very poverty of our hopes. If we try to possess this, to manipulate it to obtain what we wanted before we stopped wanting, then God will be scared off and we will be in extremis again. But, let go of the anxiety generated by fantasy and what Isaac calls the ‘strength of trust’ returns.

Prayer then takes on a very different meaning. As indeed does God.

This is why the desert monks used to say ‘pray for the gift of prayer’. It is not that prayer fulfils our wishes but that prayer is the fulfilment of our deepest needs arising from the place of poverty that we usually prefer to avoid entering. This is pure prayer. The prayer that the great masters mean when they extol the fruits and blissful state of prayer.

Now, interestingly, this state of prayer, where words and intercessions, petitions and desires, are completely left behind because they are no longer necessary, can be entered by means of these words and cries from the heart. Provided they come from the heart. When that is, they arise from the pure need or bare desperation itself, not from an intermediary state of fantasy and addictive wish-fulfilment. Then we don’t need to stay long with the words. Or we reduce the words to a bare minimum. We don’t need imagination because the actual experience is more real and present. Then, as soon as they are faced in this poverty of spirit, the feelings of pain and anxiety themselves begin to change. Stay in this place, simple, undemanding, silent, and prayer itself – the direct participation in the presence of God – is the reward.

Meditation? Simply putting this into daily practice. It is the way of making this blessed realism a permanent state. Prayer then is understood not as an escape from reality. Not a lottery of wish-fulfilment. But as not less than a way of life that transforms, enhances and brings our humanity to the highest degree of being. Nothing to laugh at in this which becomes the laughter of the spirit.

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“.. when he feels that God is there and that he comes to his aid, immediately his heart is filled with faith and he then understands that prayer is the source of our help, the source of salvation, the treasure of our trust, the port that has been freed of the storm, the light of those who are in darkness, the support of the weak, shelter in time of trial, help at the crisis point of illness, shield that saves in combat, arrow sent out against the enemy. In a word, a multitude of good enters into him by means of prayer. So from then on, he finds his delight in the prayer of faith. His heart glows with trust. ((See, Isaac the Syrian, Spiritual Discourses, 1st series, no. 21)

 

Compassionate Contemplatives

 

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Photo by Turelio, 1986/CC BY-SA 2.0

I recently read these thoughts, quoted below, of Mother Theresa of Calcutta about the meaning of contemplation. Although controversial in some eyes, she was loved by most of the planet because of her passionate care for the poorest and most derelict and abandoned members of society. Members of her still thriving order are recognisable the world over. I often see them sitting in small groups of two or three at the back of the room or church, when I am giving a talk or leading a meditation. Quiet, observant, listening, in their white sari-like habits lined with a little blue border.

Whenever I see them I remember my meetings with Mother Theresa, the talks I gave to her sisters and the retreat she asked me to give to her contemplative sisters who live in a simple community close to Calcutta railways station. She was totally unconcerned by her celebrity. If she had a fault it was her intense concentration on her work and its expansion and the force with which she drew others into it in accordance with her plans. I felt it myself and it was hard to resist.  But I noticed too how totally, freely, she let go of the ego when she felt the force of a direction other than her own.  When I last saw her, at the funeral of the priest who had been her close friend and companion for many years, she told me with enthusiasm that he would now be praying fulltime in heaven for her intention of getting a house for her sisters in China.

She understood meditation intuitively and deeply. For her sisters, she said, the most important times of the day were the hours of silence at the beginning and end  of the day. In between they were to be unconditionally and boundlessly committed to the service of the poorest, on the streets, in the soup-kitchens, in the homes for the dying. But without these two pillars of contemplation each day their work would not be God’s work. She recognised in John Main’s teaching a reliable source of practical wisdom and authority that her sisters could draw on to nourish and deepen their contemplative prayer.

The Missionaries of Charity show a very special kind of vocation, as are all forms of consecrated and monastic life. But they testify to a healthy and demanding understanding of contemplation relevant and necessary to every walk of life. “Contemplation has nothing to do with shutting oneself up in a dark cupboard,” she says. True contemplatives are often hard-talkers and usually outspoken, like Thomas Merton who irritated his fellow monks when he told them they were not living a real contemplative life but were more like ‘introverts saying prayers all day’.

In our digital, media-saturated, individualistic culture, pathological introversion is a chronic danger. It is the symptom of a life-draining self-centredness like the dementors in Harry Potter. Behind it is an often undiagnosed narcissism, that manifests (as we can see today) in the highest corridors of power. It seeks, sucks attention rather than giving it. It is fascinated by images of the self rather than living the direct experience of the self that takes the attention off ourselves.

Outward forms of life – working with street poverty or living in a  monastery – do not in themselves produce a contemplative life. Each person in the unique solitude of their calling need to discover the sources and resources of contemplation for themselves. What is common to all, however, is the wisdom that urges us to adopt a contemplative practice – one that converts introversion into interiority. And this shows us that contemplation is no more and no less than being in the present, seeing things as they really are and relating to reality from the real centre of our being – a relation that is proven by the quality of our love and our spirit of kindness.

Meditating twice a day, morning and evening, is as universal a practical wisdom for living this as we can find anywhere.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) 

We have been called to love the world. And God loved the world so much that he gave Jesus to it (Jn 3,16). Today, he loves the world so much that he gives you and me to the world to be his love, his compassion and his presence through our lives of prayer, sacrifice and self-surrender. The response that God is waiting for from you is to become a contemplative, to be a contemplative.

Let us take Jesus at his word and we will be contemplatives at the heart of the world, because if we have faith then we are his permanent presence. In contemplation the soul draws directly from God’s heart the graces that the active life has been entrusted to distribute. Our very existence is to be intimately bound to the living Christ within us. If we do not live in God’s presence, we cannot keep going.

What is contemplation? It is to live the life of Jesus. That is how I understand it. To love Jesus; living his life at the heart of our own; living our own at the heart of his… Contemplation has nothing to do with shutting oneself up in a dark cupboard but in allowing Jesus to live his Passion, his love and his humility in us, to pray with us, to be with us and to make holy through us. Our lives and our contemplation are one. It’s not a question of doing but of being. In fact it is about the complete happiness of our spirit through the Holy Spirit who breathes God’s fullness into us and send us out into all creation as his own, personal message of love (Mk 16,15).

Farewell to Huston Smith

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Huston Smith, who led the John Main Seminar in Tucson, Arizona, in 1999 has died aged 97. He delighted the participants with his thought about religion in modern culture, sharing with them what was to become a book called ‘Why Religion Matters’ and stayed in touch with the community afterwards. A lifelong student of world religion, born in China to Methodist missionary parents, he always remained centred in Christian faith while exploring the spectrum of human religious experience and passionately defending religious freedom. His sharp and capacious mind and his sweet nature made him an unusual scholar of both personal depth and brilliance.

Laurence Freeman OSB

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Christmas Eve 2016

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Photo by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Dearest Friends

When Mary was carrying her child she must have thought ‘he is me but he is not me’. Through our long journey of faith, as we allow Christ to be formed in us, we go through the same kind of discovery of who we are and who we are not by discovering who he is.

When we think we have this problem wrapped up, we soon realise how short-sighted we were. To live in faith means to allow the mystery of Christ in us to grow and make us one with him. ‘You and I are one undivided person,’ the Risen Christ will say.

Christmas begins in the great silence of God from which the Word springs from the depth of God’s being into human existence for all to see and touch him. Our deepest response to this eternal birth in time is silence. Silence, first through the letting go of images and concepts, then in free-fall, restores us to this primal silence which is the fountain of love through all dimensions of time and space.

Many of us will be giving and receiving presents soon. Let’s remember that the gift beyond price is already in our own being waiting only to be accepted and unwrapped. Our meditation on this day of the great Gift is never more profoundly a gift to others. But let’s remember the many who have no gifts to share, and little enough hope with which to look forward. In doing so we will come closer to them and to him who was born in a stable and visited by the poor shepherds before the kings arrived.

And as our Christmas present from some politicians has been a call to make more weapons of mass destruction let us proclaim in confidence by our silence the greater power of the great healer of humanity, Jesus who is our peace.

At midnight mass tonight I will hold, with great gratitude, all of our brothers and sisters in our very blessed community in my heart. Happy Christmas!

With much love

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Forth Week of Advent

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A short walk from the retreat centre in Rio there is a path that leads you into a little Amazon. Follow it through to the end – don’t fear, you are never far from the familiar world and the path is man-made – and you find yourself immersed and welcomed as part of the endless buzz and activity of life. The ecology of the forest is a dance of such complexity and intricacy that cannot be conceptualised. To analyse it is to lose it. To grasp it as a whole needs a change of focus.

Its complex inter-systems – insects, birds, fauna, flowers, trees, parasites and all the other kinds of life that shyly avoid bipeds like you – revolve in their own worlds of survival and self-reproduction, like countless whirling galaxies. Sometimes they collide silently and the stronger prevails. But no one complains. Destruction is part of the life system. Continually, leaves flutter down, having served their purpose. They settle on the ground to decompose and disappear forgotten and become something else. All the time there is a constant vibration of noise, the origin of music, but also forms of energy beyond our few weak human senses.

Looking down I see a perfect impatiens walleriana, the little five petalled flower of pastel colours I have on my balcony in London and that we call Dizzy Lizzie. It is a bridge between worlds but you are still the only human being in this particular parallel universe.

Walk out of the forest past the retreat house, you find well-manicured gardens, part of the tamer human ecology. Forest becomes garden. Low paid workers, now in their homes in the favella, keep it neat and tidy for those who have leisure to enjoy, but perhaps have also lost the calmness necessary for leisure. The flowers have the look of flowers that are looked at, the origin of cosmetics.

What if, from within and beyond these great artless symphonies of wild nature and the self-conscious aesthetics of human culture another vibration were to emerge? It comes silently, concealing itself in the very forms in which it is clothed. It is the source of both worlds including all worlds yet to be. In those perhaps the self-regarding human will be unknown. It is the primal utterance that brings existence out of being and leads it back to being. As leaves flutter down so universes expire. But this originating Word is the base line of all time and space.

We wait for it. It is coming. It is here. It is moving on, completing its big purpose, with or without us. But it has come to its own, as gloriously, movingly human as a newborn. Utterly weak so that it can reveal itself as the power of life to those who recognise it and are not too busy to listen to it during their short span of days. It was why a good Advent makes for a Happy Christmas – all year.

A very happy Christmas and peaceful new year to us all.

Laurence Freeman

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Third Week of Advent

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I once met a young businessman from a very troubled part of the world. I noticed that in an earlier conversation with others about the political situation he kept aloof and said nothing. Later, alone, he told me that he didn’t do politics because ‘they (politicians) are all the same’. I thought, well they are the same inasmuch as they are all imperfect; but their way and degree of being imperfect is not the same. I asked him how his business was going and he brightened up. ‘It’s going very well. Hard, risky. But you can do very good business in a crisis’. It was for me the saddest point of my visit and threw a lurid light on the future of our broken democracies.

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I was similarly surprised when people tell me that they didn’t vote in the recent US election because ‘one side was as bad as the other’. Reflection on the meaning of Advent should throw light on all dimensions of our life – not only the interior and solitary but also the ways we are obliged to interact responsibly in the world. Most moral decisions – and all decisions are moral – are not black and white. Many situations, especially in this post-truth world where extremism is rising, force us to choose the lesser of two evils. The greater evil, linked to moral cowardice, could be not to choose at all because we are waiting for a perfect set of circumstances to arrive to match our prescription of reality.

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Keeping Advent trains us in realism. We choose to wait – without fantasy – for a good that will never fit into a packaged scenario of our imagination. We learn to believe in a good beyond what we can desire. We await a degree of goodness, of plenitude that has already begun to influence us from the first time we hear about the good news. We may dismiss it as myth or false consolation, not worthy of a modern sceptical rationalist. Or we may get impatient and doubt it will ever break through. But if we get the Advent spirit we learn what it means to ‘wait in joyful hope’ as one of the prayers of the Advent liturgy puts it.

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Joyful hope is not the same as celebrating an arrival, a homecoming. The time dimension hasn’t yet been penetrated by the eternity that sweeps up and unifies all dimensions including those we have not yet discovered. Chronology has not yet been bathed in ontology. Doing the daily stuff has not yet been illuminated by the radiance of being. Just knowing that all this is yet to come lifts the spirit and gives encourages us to engage with the hard decisions of the times.

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But at least we’re getting there. Knowing that much strengthens our trembling knees and saves us from the precipice of cynicism where our only loyalty becomes to ourselves. The delay is only the time it takes us to us to drop over into another kind of precipice by letting go of our defences, to recognise and believe what is coming towards us. In that instant we see that incarnation happens when we stop fantasising and accept reality.

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It is not only the eternal Word that is made flesh. Time and eternity are partners in a marriage. We too need to become incarnate. Then we recognise what we are hurtling towards. We realise that what is coming towards us is also here. It is concealed in its self-revealing until we have been shaken up and transformed by the peaceful collision of Christmas.

Second Week of Advent:

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Last week we looked at Advent as an illumination of desire. Human beings, who are creatures of desire, experience growth in self-transcendence and through the transformation of desire – what we want and how we pursue it. Eventually, we see that we do not want only what we like but we want the happiness of others. In that self-recognition we expand into the kingdom, free form the self-centred orbit of our self-made suffering. The catalyst for this transformation is to discover progressively that we are desired by a love beyond our wildest fantasies.

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Advent is a time to sense how this desire beyond the event horizon of our imagination is hurtling towards us in all the sweet majesty of its stillness. All of this is poetry until we meditate. Then it becomes ‘experience’ – but beyond all that we normally think of as experience. The early Christian thinkers who drew the ground-plan of this theology changed our anthropology in the process. The way we understand God changes the way we feel about ourselves. St Gregory Nazianzen, for example, wrote in the 4th century that in Jesus the Word of God comes to its own image in the human, ‘to unite himself to an intelligent soul.. to purify like by like’. This insight helps us imagine this core mystery of Christian faith from the inside as well as an external event.

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God forms into the human even beyond the event horizon of the cosmos. But that horizon is equally present in the deepest and brightest mystery of the human soul. Thus we can speak of the two births of the Word – in God eternally and in my time-bound soul. And it comes in three waves, in the great Beginning of all things, in Bethlehem on some unknown date and at the unpredictable end of time. The trick of our Advent this year of the Lord 2016 is to relate all this to Black Friday hysteria, to tinsel and sentimentality and to Christmas trees in public squares – or rather sharply to distinguish them.

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This coming of God into the human, from beyond and from within, is the great revolution of human intelligence. Once we have started to consider it we are never the same. It redefines power and weakness, richness and poverty, time and eternity. In other words, the Word made flesh explodes the fission bomb of the paradox of reality. It will never allow us again the cheap indulgence of dualistic answers. We have been plunged into the reality that is deeper than the atom.

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We are drawn to this almost in the same measure as we dread it. But in this advent – and our meeting with what comes towards us we discover the joy of being, the freedom to love and the supreme delight of sharing in the life of the source of our selves.

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In Amazonia there is a stretch where the two great rivers of the Amazon and Rio Negro meet. Their confluence is dramatic, the black river and the sandy-coloured river. For six kilometres they run side by side without mixing because of the differences in temperature and flow speed. But eventually they recognise each other as water and become one.