“The mission of the Church is weak because its prayer is weak.”
Not my words, but those of the Franciscan friar, Fr William of Glasshampton. If you haven’t heard of him, you might assume that he is some dim and distant mediaeval figure, perhaps around the time of our native diocesan patron saint Chad, pre-Reformation, definitely Roman Catholic. If so, I’m afraid you’re wrong: because Fr William was a Victorian friar of the Church of England. People these days are sometimes surprised to hear that we still have monks, nuns and friars in the C of E: weren’t they all suppressed by King Henry VIII during the Reformation? Well yes, they were; but they were revived in the mid 1800s and they exist still today.
Glasshampton, the house which Fr William founded, still exists close to my parents’ house, in Shrawley, Worcestershire. Nowadays it is the training house where Anglican novice friars receive their initial formation in the Franciscan spiritual life. You can go there on retreat, if you like: they are very hospitable. But you have to find the house first, which is not always easy, as it is extremely secluded. So much so that my little car once came off the rugged track as I tried to drive up there on an icy winter’s day.
The seclusion is deliberate: exactly what Father William intended. Now, don’t get the impression that he was some kind of holier than thou, otherworldly figure, incapable of surviving in the bustle of the real world. Far from it. At first he responded to God’s call to serve the desperately poor and marginalised in London’s East End, including a leper community. He did this for years, not an easy option in the old, smoggy, deadly, gaslit London of the late Victorian age. And it was only after all those years that he became convinced God wanted him to leave all this behind to start up an enclosed, secluded, contemplative community, purely dedicated to the inner spiritual life of prayer.
His own community was at first resistant to the idea. Then, as now, there was a danger that the church relied too much on its own efforts, its own activity, its own sense of mission, rather than on the power of God. But Father William saw clearly that for the church’s mission to thrive, there needed to be some people dedicated solely to prayer. He saw that the Church of England’s claim to be part of the one, Holy Catholic church could not be fulfilled without the ancient tradition of religious communities, monks and nuns, whose constant rhythm of prayer should be the very beating of the Church’s heart.
Yet, you don’t have to be a monk or nun to engage in contemplative prayer. The way they live their lives in absolute poverty, simplicity, hospitality and constant prayer is a powerful witness and example to the rest of us, but in our own albeit lesser way, we can all be contemplatives, mystics, people of prayer, too, in our parishes, our homes, even our workplaces.
But how? A fair question, echoing that of the disciples, as they find Jesus at prayer: “Lord, teach us how to pray” (Lk 11:1).
In Matthew’s version of the story, before Jesus teaches what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, he first tells the disciples, “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father… and when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words” (Mt 6:6-7).
So, Jesus’ preliminaries for prayer are (1) solitude and (2) silence: going somewhere alone and ending the babble. You can see where Fr Wiliam was coming from.
But even among monastics, there are different levels of solitude and silence, ranging from the Franciscans, who tend to live and serve in cities among the poor, but ground their lives in daily silent prayer and frequent retreats; then the Benedictines, who live in communities where there is a great deal of silence, but not total (many Benedictines run schools, for example); and at the most extreme end, the spiritual SAS of the church, as it were, you have the Trappists and the Carthusians, hermits who live in almost complete silence except for the hours of prayer that they observe together.
So, there can be different levels for us, too: perhaps some can find only 10 minutes a day of silent meditation first thing in the morning or just before bed, perhaps some can pray the daily office of morning and evening prayer every day and incorporate silence into that, perhaps some of us can make an annual retreat at a monastery for a day or even longer. But make no mistake, if we want to come closer to God at all, and to be suffused with his love and joy, there is no shortcut: some time in silence is fundamental to the Christian life.
What then? Once we have found our silence, what does the Lord’s prayer have to teach us about the way we pray?
The first thing is our orientation to God. Jesus tells us to call God “Father.” In an age where there were many religions of mother goddesses, Jesus is making an important distinction. We are not born from the womb of God: the Earth is not God’s body. Now of course, God does not have genitalia, but if we reduce the difference between male and female only to what is between our legs, then we are being both biologically and psychologically naive. The sexual binary of male and female is necessary for the generation of life, truth attested to by scripture and by reason, despite modern social scientists’ protestation (which is neither really social nor scientific). Male and female are not interchangeable. So while God properly speaking does not have gender, it is less inappropriate to speak of God as Father than as Mother, because calling God “Father” preserves the necessary distance between us and God. In prayer, we approach God first as our transcendent Father, equal to one another as brothers and sisters in his adopted family.
Next, we call for God’s Kingdom to come. Here, we have to be careful: because God’s kingdom, in the Greek, is not a place (like the United Kingdom, for example). Rather, it means God’s kingship, his rule over us. We are putting ourselves in the position of being his subjects. We are not his equals in a democratic polity, we do not get to elect or unelect him: I’m not trying to draw parallels with our new prime minister, but there are reasons why we talk about the kingdom of God and not the Republic of God or the People’s Soviet of God. What makes us and the rest of creation equal to one another is precisely our inequality with God, our shared difference from him. And this needs to affect how we see and interact with the world, not as our property, but as God’s, with us acting as faithful stewards who look after what he has given us and not use it just for our own selfish ends.
Asking for bread, we put ourselves at God’s mercy. We acknowledge that we rely on him for all that we have and all that we are. But also, what we will be, because the word “daily” in the English Lord’s Prayer is a very weak translation of St Luke’s Greek. The phrase ἄρτον ἐπιούσιον actually means something more like “supernatural” bread. And so, in daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, we turn ourselves towards that bread of life which Jesus offers us in the Eucharist. We give thanks to God, which is what “Eucharist” means, not just for giving us our daily bread, but for giving us the bread of eternal life, the possibility of becoming one with God through Christ.
This gift of supernatural bread and eternal life is given freely, but not without cost. It cost Christ’s life on the cross, it cost his forgiveness of sin: and so in our prayer also, we must always be honest about our own sinfulness, praying for God’s mercy and compassion, and letting his forgiveness so seep into us that we can share it by forgiving those around us, too. Through repentance, we learn not to look so critically for the speck in our brother’s eye. We become part of the reconciling work of the cross, bringing all things into that peaceful order which is the Kingdom of God we are praying for. For only that Kingdom can save us, deliver us, from the times of trial and temptation that we live in now.
So, my challenge to you this week, your mission if you choose to accept it, is: spend more time in prayer. Five minutes of silence each day, followed by praying the Lord’s prayer, slowly, deliberately, stopping at each verse to think about what it means and what God is calling you to do about it.
Because if the prayer of the Church is strong then so will be its mission, to reconcile all things, all people, to God and to one another, through the mystery of the Cross.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.