14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:14-21 (NRSVA)
So far in my weekly reflections, I have introduced two spiritual practices designed to bring us closer to God and thereby grow spiritually – SOLITUDE and SILENCE. Today, I want to introduce PRAYER, well, an aspect of prayer, really, CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER (as opposed to Intercessory prayer in our Gathered Worship).
The passage above from Ephesians has always been a favourite of mine anyway but, as your Rector, it sums up my prayer for us at St Paul’s and the global church. Indeed, when I consider the priorities of the Church for now and the future – it is this passage I return to again and again. It is also why the Spiritual Practices are so crucial to internalising the love of God and to attain the fullness of God. The fact that Paul prays to God, underlines the importance of prayer.
In these days of physical separation and the craziness of our times, I wanted to introduce a 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich, as the bridge to connect our current context and the practice of prayer. Perhaps the most famous phrase associated with her is in the picture here (which is with me at home) is ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’.
Wait! Seriously? I mean, what does she know about the world we live in today with coronavirus, questionable global leadership and so on? Often the phrase above is trotted out glibly and is therefore unhelpful, to say the least. However, there may be a teaching moment here for us….
Living in 14th century Norfolk, Julian would have been all to familiar with pandemics; political and religious upheaval, conflict and economic turbulence. She lived through three attacks of the bubonic plague (which wiped out nearly half of nearby Norwich, second only to London in population size). In her lifetime, a king was assassinated, the Archbishop of Canterbury was assassinated, and three popes fought for the papal throne. The Bishop of Norwich brutally tortured the Lollards (considered heretics) to death close to Julian’s cell. To this we can add her own personal suffering – she was very ill aged 30, unable to speak, and was given the last rites as she was believed to be dying. It was at this point that she received 16 visions and she then spent the next 20 years reflecting on their meaning. Her story is far richer than we have time to explore here.
Once in a time of prayer, Julian heard the words, “I am the foundation of your praying”. Certainly, it was in prayer that she developed a deep understanding of the goodness of God, which transcended her circumstances and the dark, violent times she lived in. She, in fact, calls the experience of the goodness of God “the highest form of prayer.”
I am going to class this type of prayer, as contemplative prayer. I am sure that Julian practiced other forms of prayer, like intercessions for others, but it is the contemplative tradition I want to focus on. It is, I believe, a major tool for personal and community transformation because it touches the heart.
Thomas Merton wrote a famous prayer, often referred to as The Merton Prayer (Seize the Day: Vocation, Calling, Work; 2012) which I think speaks about the inclination of the heart as a way of inhabiting the life of prayer and negotiating this world.
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Does that speak to you? As many of you will know, I often reference flawed people like Abraham and King David who messed up frequently…spectacularly, even, yet God judged their hearts to be ‘towards me’ (my paraphrasing). I take huge encouragement from that.
Richard Rohr speaks frequently on a form of contemplative prayer called Centering Prayer. Incidentally, I hope that the Labyrinth will be a venue for some work on this next year but in the meantime, as a resource, I quote directly from one of Rohr’s devotional emails, on the topic:
Centering Prayer is simply sitting in silence, open to God's love and your love for God. This prayer is beyond thoughts, emotions, or sensations. Like being with a very close friend or lover, where words are not required, Centering Prayer brings your relationship with God to a level deeper than conversation, to pure communion.
Because our minds are so attached to thinking, Father Thomas Keating sometimes suggests choosing a sacred word, with one or two syllables, "as the symbol of your intention to consent to God's presence and action within. [Then,] sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly, and silently introduce your sacred word. . . . When you become aware of thoughts, return ever-so-gently to your sacred word. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
”Two sessions of 20-30 minutes of Centering prayer is recommended each day, but if that is too much for you, begin with five or ten minutes. Let go of all expectations or goals during this time. It is not about achieving anything, whether emptying your mind or finding peace or achieving a spiritual experience. There is no way to succeed at Centering Prayer, except to return again and again to love. Allow thoughts to come and go without latching onto them, without judgment. "Ever-so-gently" bring your sacred word, the symbol of your intention, back to mind and return to resting in Presence.”
There are many resources available on the subject of contemplative prayer and I encourage you to look at familiar partners like Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, Henri Nouwen among others. For me this life of prayer is the one I have discovered later in life and it is here I have discovered healing and the raw power of the Holy Spirit, so I offer it to you as I wish I had discovered and practiced it earlier!
Finally, let us pray together:
Come, Holy Spirit. Fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love! Amen