“Wax on, wax off!”
Of course, nobody reading is old enough to remember the 1980s and the dubious joys of Karate Kid, with those famous words from the Sensei, Mr Miyagi, so I’d better explain. Miyagi has taken young Daniel under his wing and promised to teach him the secrets of Karate, but so far, all he’s taught Daniel is how to wash his car – “Wax on, wax off” – and Daniel, true to the Hollywood trope of hotheaded youthful protagonist, is getting a bit miffed. Then, I think, Mr Miyagi punches him and voila! – Daniel’s hand automatically does the “wax on” motion, blocking the blow. By repetition and routine, even though it seemed pointless to him at the time, he has integrated that physical response: it has become second nature.
All this is particularly relevant to the second Sunday of Lent and the Gospel of the Transfiguration, because today, Mr Miyagi-style, I am going to talk about MOPping. If you don’t see the relevance now, like Daniel-san, I hope you will be suddenly enlightened later on.
You know it costs about £30,000 to climb Everest these days? If you ask me, that’s a bit steep (boom, boom). Anyway, Peter, James and John have gone up the mountain with Jesus, presumably for free, and seen Him miraculously transformed. He’s talking to Moses, representing the Law, and Elijah, representing the prophets, which shows that in Him the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament are fulfilled. He shines with the glory of God, and I wonder whether that cloud was just a cloud, or represents the blinding glare, the dazzling darkness, which protects mere mortals from seeing what is too much for our weak soul’s eyes. In any event, the transfiguration is sudden, overpowering; but then the cloud passes – and what is left, the disciples see, is Jesus alone. Just Jesus. Not superman, glowing Jesus, but just Jesus, as He was before. To be liberated by the vision of the glory of God, the disciples had to see it in the ordinary and everyday Jesus. And for us to be spiritually liberated we need to seek God not in extraordinary visions and religious experiences but in an ordinary, everyday routine of prayer.
I see the life of prayer as being something like the martial artist’s kata: and yes, I do have some experience of this. I’ve practised Aikido for a long time, but for two intense years in Japan I was the first foreigner to study a unique, local, classical martial art with the catchy name of Nitō Shinkage Ryū Kusarigama-jitsu. It involves a pair of sickles, at the end of one of which is a ball and chain. You swing the chain around and try either to clock your opponent over the head with the ball or to entangle his sword, and then you wade in with the blades. Well, to practise this art, you had to learn a myriad techniques in swinging the chain: loop the loops, figures of eight, all sorts. But first, you had to learn to swing it in a straight line. Sensei made me stand up against a wall swinging it until it no longer hit either the wall or me. Once I’d got that right, I could try hitting a little bit of white tape on a tyre on a stand. I had to hit it 50 times in a row before he’d let me progress to the next technique. This took about two months. Gruelling, repetitive training. The point is, it had to become natural. Until I’d integrated the movements, until my body had learnt the rules, I would not be able to fight freely.
A musician might say the same thing about scales, especially a jazz musician. Scales are dull and repetitive, but until you’ve mastered them, there’s no hope of ever being able to improvise freely. You have to integrate the rules if you’re going to be truly free.
This is true also of prayer, and the Anglican Reformers knew it well. So, they gave us a simplified system, a scaled down version of the tradition for everybody to use, which had only been followed fully until then by priests and monks: the Catholic way stripped for spiritual battle. Archbishop Cranmer took all the old books – the Missal, the Breviary of daily prayer, the Temporale or order for the church year, the Sanctorale or book of the Saints, the psalter – and distilled them into one book for priest and layman alike: the Book of Common Prayer. Now, I told you I was going to talk about MOPping. Well, I recently heard Abbot Stuart of Mucknell Abbey sum up our Anglican way very concisely in three letters: M. O. P. Mass, Office, and Prayer. The routine the Reformers set was frequent Communion – Cranmer intended weekly Communion for all, far more often than the Roman Church offered at the time, believe it or not. He gave us the simple office of Morning and Evening Prayer. Lastly, but very importantly, he gave other prayers for personal use, outside the set times of Mass and daily Office. And that’s the routine we inherit to this day.
But, you might say, where do I find the time for all this, to take up and continue this discipline of prayer? And I say, nobody told you that being a Christian would be easy; but there are ways of making time for prayer.
M: The Mass you come to on Sunday, and perhaps you can find a midweek one you could make it to as well, in this parish or near your place of work, even in the lunch hour.
O: As for the daily Office of psalms and readings, you can download the excellent Universalis app onto a ‘phone or tablet, or read Common Worship for free on a web browser, or if you don’t use these modern gizmos, I can give you a printout of a simplified order on a sheet of folded A4. You can pray it on the train, in the car park, any time in your daily life you know that you are going to have to wait somewhere with nothing else to do – perhaps just once a day, if morning and evening is too much.
P: Private prayer might be a matter of carving out perhaps 30 minutes a week of silence, in church, at home, maybe as you walk the dog in the park or commute to work.
We can all get MOPping – and however dry it may seem at times, however routine, it prepares you for glimpses of God’s grace when you are least expecting them: in ordinary people, ordinary places, ordinary bread and wine. Jesus looked ordinary most of the time, but that one time of Transfiguration, because they were prepared, the disciples saw Him in His glory. Maybe it’s not too late for you to take up your MOP this Lent.