I CHOSE to prepare for ordination at Mirfield, partly because I wanted to be trained by a religious community, by people who had committed their whole lives to a life of prayer.
As a young man, I confess, I found Mirfield quite oppressive. All that monastic square-bashing – compulsory morning prayer at seven o’clock every morning, followed by the eucharist, followed (or preceded) by private prayer — was a bit much. Evensong, beautifully sung in the community church, was a bit more appealing, but the whole experience felt a bit like living in an open prison. (I believe it’s more relaxed now.)
Though I found it difficult, I remain immensely grateful for all it gave me, and particularly for the discipline of prayer that it instilled in me. Since that time, I haven’t been able to envisage life without saying the offices, morning and evening — which is fortunate, as clergy are obliged to do this. . .
The Offices give me a good dose of scripture every day, which, over the years, has helped the latter to become a big part of my mental furniture.
I prefer saying the Offices with others: I am fortunate to live next to Worcester Cathedral and to be able to slip in in the morning. Very often, I can’t be there, though, and I am immensely grateful for the Daily Prayer App, particularly the audio version, which helps me to feel that I am never praying alone. I recommend it.
In my youth, I used to wonder why all the spiritual gurus tell us that we should pray early in the morning. It took me a while to realise that the reason is quite simple: if it’s not done then, it’s unlikely to happen at all.
However and whenever we do it, the clergy must find time to pray.
In the same way as we should all uphold the law, while the police have a particular responsibility to do so, all Christians should pray, but it must be central to what the clergy are about. The danger is that it can begin to feel like just another task that needs to be done, and an unmanageable one at that. That can be particularly the case, perhaps, if there is a considerable number of people to whom we minister, who are in need of our prayer.
Expectations on the clergy have always been unrealistic, and they’re arguably worse now. There are many demands on us, but I’m clear that the most pernicious pressures have always come from within. We don’t feel we’re holy enough — which, of course, we’re not. More fundamentally, we don’t feel we’re lovable, and find it impossible to accept for ourselves the unconditional love of God which we preach.
Prayer can help. Prayer should not be understood as task — or ask — but relationship. What sort of relationship is characterised only by requests for help? Only a very immature one, surely. Asking has its place, but we need to remember that prayer is primarily about being with the God who loves us so much. We shall never really feel God’s love embracing if we do not commit ourselves to praying.
WITH that in mind, I want to commend a particular sort of prayer. Important though the Offices, prayerful reading of the scriptures, and receiving communion are, there is no substitute for just being with God.
For that, we simply need to find a place and time of quiet for the Spirit to search our deepest selves. Finding time to do this might be hard, and the process of being completely still for a few minutes can feel unbearable. It can seem anything but quiet at first.
Diocese of WorcesterThe Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge
Prayer begins with a racket, the noise of all the different parts of us wanting to be heard. That won’t be comfortable. We have to cultivate the discipline of sitting quietly and waiting while all those bits and pieces of ourselves crowd in on us, and plead for our attention.
If we can sit that out, we shall begin to hear through the clamour a great river, springing from our innermost depths, sweeping away superficial influences. Prayer will then enable us to become aware of the deepest longings that rise from our hearts, the voice of which we are generally not conscious.
Ah, you might say, but I do not know about this prayer, I can’t begin to pray like that. Well, there are some people for whom this might be true, but most of us can force ourselves to sit still for a few minutes each day. I constantly return to words from T. S. Eliot:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope,
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing. Wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.
Just sit and wait.
AS FOR the prayer, St Paul has encouragement in his letter to the Romans: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” It is the spirit which prays, which does the work for us. We just have to be there.
I find it ironic that, while most Christians have lost touch with our faith’s rich tradition of silent contemplative prayer, the secular world has discovered the benefits of being still, of meditating. It has even been found by medicine to be invaluable to health. We, on the other hand, are in danger of falling into what E. M. Forster referred disparagingly as “poor little talkative Christianity”.
There are various techniques for quieting the mind as we seek to pray. I use a version of the ancient Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me.” I was introduced to it by a spiritual director.
I have found having such a guide invaluable when exploring prayer, and I encourage all clergy — and lay people who take prayer seriously — to have a spiritual director, a prayer companion, or a soul friend, someone with whom to talk about our journey with God. Such a person is likely to encourage us to take regular prayer days and a retreat — which I find a treat.
PRAYER is as old as the human race, and should be as natural to us as breathing. Silent prayer has been referred to as “primary speech”, which can enable us to reach the silence beneath the cacophony of voices pressuring us within and without.
It can enable us to get in touch, not only with God, but with our deepest selves and offer us a path of integration which silences the myriad voices of Babel in our culture, which seek to confuse us.
It can confront and break the pressures which bind us down. If you want to know more about this sort of prayer, I recommend the World Community of Christian Meditation (www.wccm.org).
Since being at Mirfield, I have always been attracted to a Benedictine approach to prayer. I’m made aware of it every time I enter Worcester Cathedral, a former Benedictine monastery. Central to the Benedictine life is the commitment to formal prayer punctuating the day. The hope is that the punctuation marks will seep out into the rest of the sentence, all of life. That happens for me with the Jesus Prayer, which I find myself saying almost involuntarily during the day.
Benedictine spirituality is popular in this country. I think that might be because, like the best classic English spirituality, it is gentle. Characteristic of that tradition is Mother Julian’s observation: “The best prayer is to rest in the goodness of God, knowing that that goodness can reach right down to our lowest depths of need.”
I say to all my fellow clergy, and to all reading this article, be gentle with yourself in prayer and in life, as God is gentle with you.
Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.
View the full list of ordinations and pictures in the Gazette