Ampleforth Abbey

14 December 2017

Sacred Triduum Retreat 2017: Fr Gabriel Everitt
'Prayer in the Rule of St Benedict'

Talk 2: One remedy remains: to pray for him (see ch 28)

There are many things in the Rule of St Benedict which strike our modern world as odd. People turning to it as a spiritual book, as a source of inspiration for prayer, will be surprised perhaps that St Benedict includes a quite lengthy and detailed penal code and makes frequent mention throughout of punishment – the allusion which I am taking as the title of this talk comes from ch 28 on those who refuse to amend after frequent reproofs.

But there are many other challenges to our customary and acquired modern mindset. Another example, which I have noticed causing shock, is from ch 4 ‘The Tools for Good Works’ verses 41-43 ‘Place your hope in God alone. If you notice something good in yourself, give credit to God, not to yourself, but be certain that the evil you commit is always your own and yours to acknowledge’. The opening phrase ‘Place your hope in God alone’ sounds pious and unobjectionable, until perhaps one thinks about all the many other things in which one is inclined to place one’s hope – our intellect, our talent, our parents, our friends, the interlocking interdependence of our complex modern society. ‘If you notice something good in yourself, give credit to God, not to yourself’, yet we want to hug to ourselves and to our often enough fragile egos, our achievements and victories, such as they may be, our talents, perhaps especially our moral growth, as things that go together to make a healthy self-confidence. It may seem depressing to be told that they do not belong to us at all. But then on the other hand, what of our sins and failings: do we want to hear that the evil we commit is always our own and ours to acknowledge. Do we not rather feel much better blaming someone else: parents and those who have given us our genes, society, culture, education or lack of it, the system: a world of blame objectified to make us feel better about our poor misunderstood selves.

In the late fourth and early fifth centuries the Pelagian heresy had asserted a strong role for human free will to the extent of suggesting that human salvation could be won by human effort. St Augustine of Hippo, by contrast had asserted that fallen creatures are dependent wholly upon God’s grace, and it is this latter view that St Benedict asserts strongly with these verses of his, which expand on that apparently pious and smooth platitude ‘Place your hope in God alone’. There was a nerve here as monks seemed particularly prey to Pelagianism, seeing their lives of prayer and the seeking of virtue as looking like a supreme example of a human effort. Pelagius had been a British monk. So it may be a snare lurking in British values.

But it is putting our hope in God alone, which makes sense of intercessory prayer, which is the sort of prayer which I am intending to look at in this talk. I noticed yesterday that St Benedict addresses his attention to two common understandings of prayer – firstly the saying of set prayers with psalms, canticles and readings on the one hand, but secondly also prayer as asking God for things. It is this second sort I am looking now.

Most of us probably have had experience of asking God for things; our prayers may or may not have been answered in the sense of us getting what we were asking for or it may be that the process lead to something of a purification of our hearts as through some sort of mysterious dialogue with God, we learnt that there was something deeper, greater, better than the thing we were at first praying for. There are very big needs for which, week by week, we may hear prayer being made at Mass in the General Intercessions or Prayers of the Faithful, biddings for good world government, for an end to hunger, for the eradication of poverty or for world peace. They are so big and so general that it may seem they could never be answered but will continue to the end of time.

St Benedict writes about the disposition which we should bring to our prayer of intercession; in chapter 20 on Reverence in Prayer, he writes: ‘Whenever we want to ask some favour of a powerful man, we do it humbly and respectfully, for fear of presumption. How much more important, then, to lay our petitions before the Lord God of all things with the utmost humility and sincere devotion’. It is easy for our ears and minds to slip over the pious and conventional phrases, but I think this is a really important passage: utmost humility, sincere devotion.

St Benedict gives some indication, though never systematically, more often in passing, to things for which he proposes we should pray. At the beginning of his Prologue he says ‘First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to him most earnestly to bring it to perfection’ (verse 4). In ch 4 again, the Tools for Good Works, he repeats from the Gospel ‘Pray for your enemies’, adding ‘out of love for Christ’ (verse 72). But I chose to take the title of this talk from St Benedict’s penal code, from chapter 28 on those who refuse to amend: ‘But if even then he does not reform, or perhaps becomes proud and would actually defend his conduct, which God forbid, the abbot should follow the procedure of a wise physician. After he has applied compresses, the ointment of encouragement, the medicine of divine Scripture, and finally the cauterizing iron of excommunication and strokes of the rod, and if he then perceives that his earnest efforts are unavailing, let him apply an even better remedy: he and all the brothers should pray for him, so that the Lord, who can do all things, may bring about the health of the sick brother’. (Verses 2-5). It is only after this that St Benedict then is prepared to think about expulsion from the community. I want particularly to draw attention to the fact that prayer is a matter here of last resort. Of course, yes for St Benedict it is the first thing one thinks of doing, but it is also the last, and by this point it has become desperate, a white-knuckle matter, a desperate expression of the fact that at the end we are wholly and humbly dependent upon God, who alone ‘can do all things’.

It is perhaps only as we become aware of the truly desperate nature of our plight, that our prayer becomes real, not its usual rather hollow fiction. Only then, in desperate need, do we begin to pray in ‘utmost humility and sincere devotion’. This is not so much a prayer we make as a prayer that is wrung out of us, most of us probably are only on the lower slopes of this prayer.

There seems to be an interesting example of this from the Gospels, in the story of the healing of the possessed boy at the foot of the mountain of Transfiguration in the version of St Mark (9:14-29). When Jesus comes down from the mountain and rejoins the disciples, there is a hubbub which is caused by the failure of the disciples to cure the boy, who is possessed by a very violent and destructive spirit. The father says to Jesus ‘I asked your disciples to drive it out and they were unable to’. Jesus tells the man that anything is possible to one who has faith to which the man responds ‘I have faith. Help my lack of faith!’ Jesus heals the boy. Understandably the disciples feel deflated and when they are alone with Jesus, they ask why they were unable to heal him, to which Jesus replies in Mark’s version: ‘This is the kind that can be driven out only by prayer’.

What do we suppose is happening here? The father and the disciples seem alike to have some stirrings of faith but not enough and this the father recognises ‘Help my lack of faith’. Somehow the disciples have not grasped the depth of the need or responded with the needed depth of faith, which will find voice in the needed depth of prayer. There is a felt depth of need in St Benedict’s turning as a last resort to prayer for the recalcitrant sinner; there is likewise a felt perception of deep need in Jesus’ turning to prayer for the healing of the boy, and coming from the depths this prayer can be answered.

Jesus was, as the Gospels portray him, the one who could penetrate to the heart of human need and draw this need to the surface, where it could find voice and ask for what was truly needed. Sometimes he put those who asked him for healing to the test: to the Canaanite woman, who seeks healing for her daughter (Mark 7:24-30), Jesus says in effect why should he do anything for her, a gentile dog, when the children of Israel have the claim on him, to which she replies with astonishing humility that even the dogs gather up the scraps that fall from the table. Jesus tells her that for saying this she may go home happy (Mark 7:29); in Matthew’s version she is told ‘Woman, you have great faith’ (Matthew 15:28). This testing seems to come again in the account in St John’s Gospel (4:46-53) when a royal official approaches Jesus and asks him to cure his son. Jesus replies ‘Unless you see signs and portents, you will not believe’ to which the official replies ‘Sir, come down before my child dies’ to which Jesus replies ‘Go home, your son will live’. The man believes and obeys; he goes home and finds his son was cured at the very time Jesus had said your son will live.

Jesus is fully human and has a full understanding of and enters fully into the pain and suffering of the world, unlike us, who so struggle to have more than a limited and partial humanity, a limited and partial entering into the pain and suffering of the world. This is brought out in a remarkable sermon, written by the English poet John Donne on that famous shortest verse of the Bible ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11:35). Donne says that Jesus is recorded as crying three times in the New Testament. The first tears are recorded, as just mentioned, in the gospel of John and these are when his friend Lazarus died; these are Jesus’ human tears and they are the result of human emotion and compassion and the people say of his relationship to Lazarus: ‘See how he loved him’. We all likely know these tears, very likely also in bereavement, in sickness and facing death, participating as most of us do at some time in some human tragedy.

The second tears are recorded in the gospel of Luke (19:41-44) and are when Jesus arrives in sight of Jerusalem, the holy city, and it is said that he sheds tears over it; these are the prophetic tears of Jesus. He cries over the war and strife torn city saying ‘If you had only recognised on this day the way that leads to peace, but it is hidden from your eyes … [for] you do not recognise the moment of your visitation’. In Matthew’s version (23:37-39), he adds the wonderful detail: ‘How often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you refused’. These are the tears shed for all the sad futility of the wars of the world, for the vain graspings of power and the rise and fall of the empires of the world with all their empty promises, yet with a devastating power to do harm.

The third tears are not recorded in the gospels but they came in the second reading of today’s afternoon liturgy of the passion of the Lord, from the letter to the Hebrews (5:7-9) ‘During his life on earth, [Christ] offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard. Although he was Son, he learnt to obey through suffering’. Donne described these as the pontifical high tears of the Passion, the tears that accompanied the self-offering of himself for us upon the altar of the Cross, as he contemplates the sin of the world, our sin and the price of our salvation. Jesus cries with us, his human tears, he cries over us, his prophetic tears, and he cries for us, the prayers of the passion of our high priest.

All Jesus’ tears, but particularly the tears of his passion are also tears of intercessory prayer. ‘He offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears’. We pray stutteringly and haltingly, we barely know what to pray for, nobody knows how to pray well, it is a place of human failure not achievement. But we have Jesus to pray for us; we can pray in him. We also pray in the Spirit who helps us in our weakness, when we do not know how to pray properly, who makes our petitions for us in groans that cannot be put into words (see Romans 8:26-27).

How are we going to feel in this prayer? We are probably going to feel very empty. As with our joining in the Office, the official prayer of the Church, there will very likely be distraction, dryness, discouragement. We need the same perseverance, the same realization that we have a long and slow journey, with some wrong turns, some hold-ups as slowly we grow up in the intercessory prayer of the Spirit, the prayer of the passion of the Lord, who submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard. In chapter 7 of the Rule on Humility, in the 3rd step St Benedict advises the monk ‘to imitate the Lord of whom the Apostle says: He became obedient even to death. This is a reference to Paul from his letter to the Philippians chapter 2; it is the ‘Christus factus est’ in Latin, which forms such a strong and recurrent chant of the liturgies of the Triduum. When St Benedict tells us to imitate the Lord in his passion he means, I think, not to look as it were from the outside and to try to put into practice in our lives by our own power; but rather to enter in, to become part of, Christ in his Passion, which is the supreme intercession for the salvation of the world. This humility is therefore ‘utmost’, because it is the supreme humility of Christ.

It is long journey into the intercession of God. C.S. Lewis’ novel Till We Have Faces is a re-telling of the pagan myth of Cupid and Psyche. It was the last of Lewis’ novels, written in close collaboration with his wife, Joy Davidman; he considered it his best, a view with which J.R.R. Tolkien agreed. In the novel, an ugly though nonetheless shrewd even wise queen hides her face with a veil so that she may not be judged just by her exterior. Her story is a long journey into belief in, and understanding of, the gods. At the end of the novel Lewis writes this: ‘When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the centre of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face, till we have faces?’

The word that must grow in us is the Word, that is Christ, our face is to become the face of Christ. John says in his first letter (3:2) ‘We shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is’.