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Warning against ‘the sin of overwork’

26 May 2017

Reginald Somerset Ward’s rule of life offers a model for our digital age, suggests Jane Shaw

Melvyn Longhurst/Alamy

Set in stone: the statue of Reginald Somerset Ward on the west front of Guildford Cathedral

Set in stone: the statue of Reginald Somerset Ward on the west front of Guildford Cathedral

REGINALD SOMERSET WARD was one of the most influential spiritual directors of the first half of the 20th century, although not well known in the Church at large. His work was very much behind the scenes, and he published his books anonymously.

It was at his memorial service in Westminster Abbey, in 1962, that the full impact of his ministry became obvious: a great crowd of Anglicans, many of them holding high office in the Church, gathered to honour this priest. One usher at the service asked, “What manner of man was this?” The Dean of Westminster, Eric Symes Abbott, said in the bidding prayer, “We thank God openly for a priest whose ministry was hidden.”

Born in 1881, Ward was educated at Cambridge, and ordained in 1904. He served two curacies, and then in 1909 became secretary of the Sunday School Institute. By this time, he was having deep experiences in his prayer life, and reading mystical writers such as Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Ávila.

In 1913, he became Rector of Chiddingford, and it quickly became obvious that he was not cut out to be a parish priest — not least because preaching pacifism in the parish after the outbreak of the First World War did not make him popular. In 1915, he received what he perceived as a strong call from God to give himself up to the work of spiritual direction. He obeyed the call, and developed his distinctive ministry.

He eventually came to have about 200 spiritual directees, whom he saw four times a year, usually for half an hour each, as he travelled around England, stopping in various cities. He would begin the spiritual-direction sessions by asking, “How are things going?” and “Any sense of reality in your prayers?” The 30 minutes ended with hearing the person’s confession, if desired, and a blessing.

Ward took the work of spiritual direction with the utmost seriousness; for he believed that, for Christians to be useful, they had first to know themselves. He wrote: “What is needed above all for God’s Kingdom on earth is quality. Quantity will take care of itself if we take care of quality. . . Those who have a real desire and passion to help others must, of necessity, first attack their own lives and find in them the tool they can use to help others. The missionary spirit without the spiritual life is helpless.” To be a disciple of Jesus required humility, and to be truly humble required knowledge of God and oneself.


AT THE heart of everything Ward did and taught was prayer. He had an Augustinian sense that our thirst for God has been implanted within us by God, who puts into the human soul “that unquenchable spark which will for ever soar upwards”.

Ward believed that a rule of prayer was necessary, in part because the “poor, blind soul” can easily get distracted, but also because a rule ensures regularity. “The growth of the soul must be steady; it cannot grow by fits and starts.” As an example of a rule, he suggested: two hours of prayer daily, spread across the day, usually in four periods; a daily verse of scripture to be studied for the purpose of mystical meditation; and two days each year for a retreat. The Rule of Prayer was for Ward “the master-key of life”.

Ward did not believe that the path of deeply disciplined prayer was for everyone: it was a vocation. He formed a group for those who wished to take this path, called The Road or The Way: it was neither an order nor a society, but a training in mystical prayer.

Members included laymen and laywomen, priests and deaconesses. (Ward was always a great supporter of deaconesses, advocating greater visibility and resources for their work.) Members of The Road formed what might be called a dispersed community — a group of fellow-travellers in Britain and parts of the Anglican Communion such as South Africa, India, Australia, and the United States.


RULES and structure were important to Ward’s work. Directees were expected, subject to safeguards, to be obedient to their spiritual directors. He offered rules for most things. For retreats, he outlined the amount of sleep to be taken, the number of meals to be eaten, the hours to be put aside for recreation, and the number of services to be attended, as well as total silence and abstinence from opening or reading mail. Ward lived by the spiritual maxim that through discipline comes freedom. He believed that such structures prepared and created the conditions for God’s grace to enter people’s lives.

He divided the waking day into three portions: prayer, recreation, and work; what may surprise us is that he believed that they were of that order in importance. In particular, he warned against “the sin of overwork”. He advised eight hours of sleep a night, and one day a week free from work, in order “to give God your best service”. He lived by this rule himself, working very hard, but always taking Fridays for recreation — cultivating hobbies such as bookbinding, reading widely, and watching cricket.


WHILE Ward’s rules and structures may seem alien to our times, surely he has something important to say to our technologically obsessed generation, in which the separation between work and recreation is often hard to discern; and the possibility of his recommended eight hours of sleep is seriously disrupted, even ruined, by the blue light of a phone, and the constant reception of emails and other data. Perhaps from Ward we can learn the discipline of our digital devices.

It may be, then, that the most important thing that Ward can teach us is a rule of life. At the very least, his injunction to put prayer, recreation, and work in that order can challenge us to determine our priorities.


Canon Jane Shaw is Dean for Religious Life, and Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University,California, in the United States. This is an edited version of the third of Canon Shaw’s four Sarum Lectures, delivered in Salisbury Cathedral earlier this month. They are to be published in the autumn by Darton Longman & Todd under the title Pioneers of Modern Spirituality: The neglected Anglican innovators of a “spiritual but not religious” age.

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