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Learning the prayer of the heart

10 July 2015

Contemplative prayer means engagement with the world, suggests Ian Cowley

ForestWander Nature Photography

Still waters: Elakala Waterfalls in West Virginia, US

Still waters: Elakala Waterfalls in West Virginia, US

WHEN my colleagues and I offered a Continuing Ministerial Development one-day course on "The Contemplative Minister", we wondered what the take-up might be. Amazingly, six years later, we are still running such days for clergy and Readers. The response has been extraordinary: there is a continuing demand for "More of this, please." Listening to those I work with, it is clear that the idea of being a contemplative minister is becoming ever more timely.

At the ordination service in Salisbury Cathedral last summer, Brother Samuel SSF from Hilfield Friary preached on the question "What are priests for?" He said that the Church had many needs now that, arguably, could be met by others. It needed managers, events organisers, a communications team, and so on. Then he asked: "But why do we need priests? Well, I’ll tell you why: because we need Jesus Christ."

In our present culture, it is vital that the Church hold firm to the central vocation of those who are called to the ordained ministry. The starting-point for all that I teach at our contemplative ministry days is this: the heart of priestly ministry is the call to an ever-deepening relationship of love for God; to lead others into that relationship; and to enable them to respond to God in loving service and mission.


WHEN I was a parish priest in Natal, South Africa, our bishop invited Archbishop Desmond Tutu to spend a day with the clergy of the diocese. Asked about prayer, Archbishop Tutu said: "Our people will not expect that we will be experts in drains or in finance, but they will expect us to be experts in prayer. And that is what they should expect from us."

The experience of many who have been formed through the witness of the Church in South Africa is that the call to follow Jesus is a call to become agents of transformation. We are those through whom the world will know that Jesus is indeed Lord and Saviour, whatever the situation in which our society finds itself.

The vocation to become contemplative ministers is not a call to withdrawal from the world, nor about sitting quietly each day and watching the flowers grow — although there may well be times for that. But if it is a true identification with Jesus, then this way of being will lead us directly to engagement with the world and its needs. It will be the way of the cross — costly and demanding — and it will be the way of deepening dependence on God and the power of the resurrection.

Again and again, when I meet those who are exploring a possible call to ordained ministry, I come back to the Ordinal in the Book of Common Prayer. I ask them to read the bishop’s charge and the promises. The bishop says: "We have good hope that . . . as much as lieth in you, you will apply yourselves wholly to this one thing."

Priesthood is above all about this "one thing", which is to be "messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord", to be those through whom the Church and the world will learn to know and to follow Jesus Christ.


THE Church now finds itself asking more and more of those whom it ordains as priests, and there are many casualties along the way.

Expectations become increasingly unrealistic. Read, for example, some of the job adverts. Some speak of an ability to handle complex workloads and competing demands, while others provide long lists of skills and gifts, often also seeking a sense of humour and the ability to reconcile different approaches to traditions. In the midst of all this, how are priests to find the resources to keep their vocation alive?

The key is an ever-deepening relationship of love for God: hearts that are held firm in the peace that is in Christ Jesus, even in the most testing circumstances. Unless priests find a way to live the life of prayer, through all the joys and demands of ministry, they will not survive.

Prayer for priests is not just the daily Office and the eucharist, vital though these are. Becoming contemplative ministers is a counter-cultural way of living, rooted in Christ, in the depths of our being. We are those who are called to work out what this means, at the coalface of ministry, where this way of being will not always be well understood.

I know a priest who regularly goes for an afternoon walk by the river, to take time for reflection and prayer. One day, he met a parishioner who said to him: "Hello, Vicar. Is this your day off?"

"No," he replied, "I’m preparing my sermon for Sunday."


WHAT I have discovered is that this is not simply about a more disciplined prayer life, or better time management. Contemplative prayer is the prayer of the heart. As we practise this way of praying and being before God, we embark on a journey of personal transformation, in which we become, day by day, the people whom God created us to be: our true selves. We are slowly but surely set free from our preoccupation with ourselves, with self-promotion, self-preservation, and outward appearance.

We learn to become our true selves in Christ, letting go of our need for control and significance, and our fear of failing, living each day from the still centre. Both we and our ministry will be far better off, healthier, and more fruitful as this transformation takes place.

Contemplative prayer is at the heart of this. The essence of contemplative ministry is learning to be still, to listen, to be attentive, and to yield to the will of God — whatever that may be. Unless the Church and its priests discover anew, in our age and culture, the meaning and centrality of contemplative life and prayer, then I wonder how much of lasting value we will have to offer to our driven and distracted world.


The Revd Ian Cowley is Vocations and Spirituality Co-ordinator for the diocese of Salisbury, and the author of The Contemplative Minister (BRF, 2015).

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