Merton the Rigid?

On Facebook this evening I posted a quotation, asking people to guess its author without recourse to Google. There were some interesting guesses, but one canny lady got to it by a clever process of questioning and reasoning.

The author was none other than Fr Thomas Merton OCSO (or O.C.R. as it was), from his 1950 pamphlet “What is Contemplation?” as published by Burns & Oates as title 7 in their Paternoster Series. This is early Cistercian Merton, grappling intellectually and manfully with spiritual things. Reading this particular little section, I was stopped in my tracks on page 13: Continue reading “Merton the Rigid?”

After Fr Hamel, a suggestion

Everywhere we are rightly being exhorted to pray in the wake of the barbaric murder of an elderly priest while about the Lord’s work. We are praying for him, though with the confidence that soon enough we shall be praying to him. We are praying for the other victims, and even for the demon-inspired murderers, just in case God got through at the very last gasp. We are praying for all the persecuted Church, and those who fall victim to hatred of Christ. We are praying for those who keep us safe. Continue reading “After Fr Hamel, a suggestion”

By the Cross her vigil keeping

Today the blog has gone quietly into overdrive (for this little blog I mean – it is all relative). My thanks to you all for taking the time to read here. People from 130 countries have visited today, which is all rather extraordinary to a little Aussie in his inadequately-austere cell in a venerable but fading monastery on the Berkshire Downs.

Recent events have shown how little the dynamics in the Church have changed this past 3 years, despite all the prospects of reform (however one might conceive it). The Body of Christ is Holy, but its individual human cells are not so perfect, still saints-in-progress—hopefully! (save for those happy few patent saints who dwell among us). Continue reading “By the Cross her vigil keeping”


Recently, after Mass, someone articulated some spiritual difficulties, in particular, why doesn’t God do anything when we pray for those migrants in Calais?

It’s that old chestnut, or rather two chestnuts thrown into the blender to make one sludge of bewilderment: why does God not always answer our prayers; and why do bad things happen to the innocent? The answer to both, of course, is sin – human sin, to make it perfectly clear.

However, that is not by itself a satisfying answer to most. Books have been written addressing this real problem in Christians’ spiritual lives, and they often do it very well, and better than I could.

Yet we could still approach the problem from one angle at least.

Continue reading “Why?”

Syria – the tangled web

It is quite possible that a large number of Catholics do not know that today is a day of prayer and fasting for the intention of peace in Syria, the Middle East and the world. Pope Francis called for this universal day of prayer and penance (for he has invited people of all faiths and none, across the world, to join the Church in this initiative) last Sunday at the end of his Angelus address. To be fair, notice of less than a week allowed no time for parish bulletins to promote it. However there is the internet, and parishes, newspapers, journals, dioceses and religious orders all have websites they could use to spread the word. Many also have Twitter and Facebook accounts that could spread the word even more quickly.

Sadly the only real noise about it I have heard is from traditionally-minded Catholics. Pope Francis’ liberal fanclub have been strangely unenthusiastic about it. Perhaps the idea of Pope Francis being papal is too confronting for them? Or maybe “fasting” is far too pre-conciliar for them? Certainly even in my own neck of the woods there has been silence on it.

So the burden will probably rest largely on the shoulders of Catholics of a traditional colouring, who take popes seriously even when not to their taste or ideals. I imagine a good number of non-Catholics and people of goodwill will also contribute in what ways they can, if they have heard of the pope’s call.

Yesterday I caught a cold from one of the brethren here, so my fasting today will lose much of its merit as I am not very hungry! Nevertheless, for all Catholics in good health between 18 and 65 years of age, fasting involves eating only one full meal for the day. Many will practise a liquid fast, restricting themselves to beverages and soups. On the level of prayer, something beyond the normal commitment is called for. An extra Rosary perhaps? Going to Saturday Mass (thus not the Vigil for Sunday)? 15 minutes before the Blessed Sacrament? Lighting a candle or two, with accompanying prayers, before our Lady’s statue in a church or chapel? 15 minutes in prayerful reading of the Beatitudes? Prayer before an altar or image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus? Adding the prayer to St Michael to our normal devotions?

The allegation of chemical weapons use in Syria has precipitated an even direr crisis. One Youtube video (and not the only one) asks reasonable questions about the attack. One does not need to become a skeptic about the reality of the attack, but one could quite reasonably ask for the evidence of it to be clearly set out. Likewise, the US and UK governments, almost immediately on the apparent atrocity being reported, determined to strike at the Syrian government. This was before the UN inspectors had even begin their investigation. As yet we have not seen any real evidence of the Syrian government’s responsibility. Assertions of it are not enough. A Carmelite abbess in Syria has some bold words that we would do well to note.

We remember all too well Tony Blair’s and George W Bush’s assertions that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction, and on this basis we went to war in Iraq. In the course of this decade-long campaign two things have become starkly clear: no weapons of mass destruction were found, nor evidence of them having existed; Iraq is now an highly unstable country propped up by American money, with its population divided and close to civil war.

So it was with great relief that the UK Parliament actually employed the democratic process so championed by the Western alliance (when it intervenes in non-democratic countries) and voted against British military intervention. There was no clear evidence of guilt and no evidence that intervention would benefit anyone but Al Qaeda and jihadist rebels in Syria.

For, as the video highlights, why would the Syrian government use chemical weapons so near to Damascus, with UN officials in the vicinity, and with the threat of US retaliation regularly and loudly made? It would be tantamount to a death-wish, and Mr Assad shows no sign of being suicidal or hysterical with desperation. The only winners from such an attack would be the rebels. It should be remembered that a number of government troops have defected to the rebels, and could easily have brought with them some chemical weapons. And it equally likely that if the rebels did not deliberately launch an attack, the recent apparent gassing of civilians may be an accident, the result of rebels’ inexperience and ineptitude in handling such dangerous items.

Further complicating matters is the division in the Muslim world. Shia are pitted against Sunni, and nations that stand in either camp intervene in Syria to their own advantage. Saudi Arabia clearly supports the rebels, and Iran clearly supports the government. We have seen the tragic results when a power vacuum is created in a mixed Muslim country like Iraq after Western military intervention. The medicine was worse than the disease it tried to cure.

Likewise there is no one united front covering the Syrian rebels. Some are moderates; some are jihadists intent on erecting a hardline Muslim state in the place of secular Syria; some are Al Qaeda infiltrators seeking to exploit the chaos. Whom would Western intervention actually help? Jihadists and Al Qaeda? How could the Western alliance (what remains of it in this case) guarantee that any arms they sent to the rebels would not fall into militant Muslim hands?

For all their many faults, Assad and Saddam Hussein, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, were able to maintain stability, balancing Islam with a secular approach that allowed Muslim and Christian minorities to live in relative peace and promoted a good degree of economic prosperity. There may have been little democracy under these regimes, but why do so many assume that Western-style democracy is a panacea for every nation? Some countries are just not ready for it, and it cannot be implanted straight into a nation’s political landscape and be expected to work from the outset. Democracy functions well enough in western nations because we have previously weathered centuries of conflict which prepared the civil soil for democracy. All this, of course, assumes that democracy is really a major issue for the US government, and not merely a propaganda tool. We would be fools indeed to think that the US (and UK) do not have strategic interests dominating their planning; otherwise we would have already intervened in North Korea or Zimbabwe by now. Sadly, they seemed to have learned nothing from Afghanistan and Iraq, and are advocating the same failed approach for Syria.

Christians have perhaps begin the biggest losers in the Syrian conflict. Churches have been razed by the rebels, Christians murdered or forced either to flee or cower in holes – remember the martyrdom of Fr Mourad at the hands of rebels? Remember the two Syrian Orthodox bishops kidnapped by the rebels, and of whom we have heard nothing since? The bishops of the various Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental churches have all spoken against any Western intervention, as has Pope Francis. Trappist nuns in Syria have heart-wrenching words that the West will probably ignore. The biggest losers from Western intervention will be the native Christian population, as their lives and their culture are threatened. The biggest winners will be Muslim fundamentalists, jihadists and Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda… Perhaps the most worrying thing about US foreign policy is that it has no sense of where its actions will lead, nor any moral compass in choosing whom they support. Remember, Al Qaeda was made possible not by Osama bin Laden, but by the US government, and that is from the horse’s mouth.

Some thoughts on prayer

One of the phenomena in the modern Church is the explosion in the variety of prayer techniques and methods, some of more value than others. Many of these seem to rely on their own books, seminars, workshops, and courses, all of which seem to come at a (sometimes hefty!) price. Indeed it might not be unreasonable to speak of a spirituality “industry”. We have had creation spirituality, centring prayer, workplace spirituality, wymmyn’s spirituality… you could probably fill in more. They come, and many fade away. The authentic and sound endure.

Perhaps one motivation underlying this industry has been the noble desire to bring more Christians to experience the power and the consolation of prayer. However, in so doing the industry has sometimes made the life of prayer an almost frightening prospect for many. No one needs to do a course to pray! With prayer, as with so many things, essentially there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

So maybe we need to re-familiarize ourselves with some fundamentals. St Paul urged the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing (I Thess 5:17). To most people this is a pretty tall order. We have to work for a living, spend time with and care for families and communities, relax a little, clean, eat, sleep… perhaps St Paul was getting carried away with himself. Even cloistered nuns have to do chores at some stage of the day.

First off, we must remember that St Paul was writing to a Church, not to individuals. The Church, as the Body of Christ, is united to Jesus Christ, its Head, who is now at the right hand of the Father, pleading for his people, his Body (see I John 2:1 and Hebrews 7:25). In Christ, as His Body, the Church is thus always before the Father in prayer and intercession. United to Christ, the Church is thus always praying.

If this so, why then would St Paul exhort the Church to constant prayer? Christians, and the Church in general, are not merely passive receptors of God’s grace. We cooperate with God, we act so that through our actions God may act in us – and act not against our grain, but with it. The Church is God’s dearest instrument on earth: while God has spoken and still speaks his Word, it is the Church that proclaims this Word to the nations. God loves the world, and the Church spreads that love abroad throughout the world. Christ our High Priest is constantly praying to the Father for his people and the world, and it is the Church that articulates and anchors this prayer in the world, and distributes its fruit.

The highest activity of the Church in this regard is its offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice in obedience to Christ’s command. But that is something more than prayer; it is worship, and of the highest form. For now let our focus be more on the role of individuals in the Church’s mission to pray without ceasing.

The Church already has in place the means by which individuals can unite themselves to the unceasing prayer of Christ’s Body. It is the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours. While clerics and religious are obliged to pray it, it is not restricted to them by any means. It is pre-eminently the prayer of the Church, and is available to all members of the Church to pray. Truly when one prays the Divine Office, one is not praying alone even if physically alone. Those who pray the Office are united with the Church’s great global enterprise of prayer, making the Church-at-prayer locally present and active. It is broken into various “hours”, from the early morning to the night-time. One need not pray it all, just those hours that are practical. It is eminently sound prayer, being mainly a mix of psalms, scripture readings and songs, and intercessions. In it the Word of God sounds with the voice of the Church, and it is a communal voice, all the louder for each new person who joins in with it. There are handy reduced versions of the full Office, such as a volume of Morning and Evening Prayer. But no money need be spent. Websites such as Universalis will allow you to pray the Divine Office at no expense at all.

All round the world someone is praying the Hour of morning prayer, or evening prayer, or prayer before noon, or night prayer. Every hour of every day is being sanctified by prayer somewhere in the world. Each person who prays the Office embodies, both as symbol and reality, the Church always at prayer.

However, God relates to each of us also in a more direct and personal way. Our relationship to Him in the Church must find expression in and be bolstered by our personal relationship with Him. So the Church constantly at prayer will be found also in the personal relationship of the multitude of individual Christians to God, and in particular in an individual’s personal prayer. This personal prayer requires no courses nor skills. There is no one way of doing it, but there are certainly wrong ways of doing it. So what then did Christ teach us about personal prayer:

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.Pray then like this:

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
[Matthew 6:5(b)-15]

This is our Lord’s own recommendation for prayer. Truly, if we can say this prayer sincerely and with recollection and attention just once a day, we have prayed well. Of course there is a catch. The proof of our prayer is in our living, as our Lord hints at the end of the passage above. Our prayer to be forgiven will be only as effective as our own forgiveness of others. It is a tough challenge. This is no childish prayer.

It reminds us that prayer is not something divorced from the rest of our lives, nor a discreet compartment within our lives. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2745) quotes the Church father Origen on precisely this point:

He “prays without ceasing” who unites prayer to works and good works to prayer. Only in this way can we consider as realizable the principle of praying without ceasing.

When we let our prayer bear fruit in our actions and our lives, then our actions and our lives themselves become one abiding prayer.

Lastly, one way that really does help anchor prayer in our lives and our living, is to keep God as much in mind as possible. It is hard to sin when you are thinking about God, and talking to him. This is the principle behind the spiritual practice of recollection, or mindfulness of God. It is not the only principle of course: for when we love someone, we constantly think of the beloved and long to be with the beloved. So being “in love” with God is another important principle behind recollection. It does not matter that one does not feel “in love”, for prayer is not about feelings (though positive feelings are often a by-product of prayer). Indeed, the more time we spend with God, the more we recognise his constant presence with us, the more we find that we do, in fact, fall in love with God.

So if I were to recommend one book on prayer, it would be The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. Editions of this classic abound, and it can be found for free at the link just above, or here, though the online editions do not include his maxims. Br Lawrence, born Nicholas Herman, was a Carmelite lay-brother who lived at a friary of his order in Paris in the 17th century. His work for most of that time was firstly in the kitchen, and then later as a repairman of the friars’ sandals. The book we have today under his name he did not write; rather it is a collection of the recorded spiritual maxims and conversations of Br Lawrence, as well as some of his letters, compiled in a short volume by a priest shortly after his death.

Br Lawrence was no scholar, no expert, not even a priest. His work was menial. Yet his spiritual understanding is as profound as you can find, and as authentic. He expresses something fundamental in Christian spirituality, so much so that the book is considered a classic by Protestants as well as Catholics: no less than John Wesley recommended it. His basic principle is that whatever we do in life, at whatever time, we should do for God and with God himself, consciously and deliberately. By becoming aware that God is indeed present to us (or better, that we are in His presence) we find our work, and every moment of our lives, suffused with new meaning and new purpose. We find help and strength in time of need or temptation, and we find a partner in our joys. By recognising that we are constantly in God’s presence we find that the power of temptation diminishes, that the smallest things have value, and that nothing is unbearable. This is to be in communion with God, a living out of our Holy Communion in the Eucharist.

If heaven is being in the eternal and immediate presence of God, in fullest communion with Him, then Br Lawrence’s way of beginning to be ever more aware of His veiled presence with us now is a superb preparation for heaven. To finish, a quote from his maxims (not found in the online editions) will give you the gist of his way:

The holiest, most ordinary, and most necessary practice of the spiritual life is that of the presence of God. It is to take delight in and become accustomed to his divine company, speaking humbly and conversing lovingly with him all the time, at every moment, without rule or measure, especially in times of temptation, suffering, aridity, weariness, even infidelity and sin.

We must continually apply ourselves so that all our actions, without exception, become a kind of brief conversation with God, not in a contrived manner but coming from the purity and simplicity of our hearts.
[Maxims 6 & 7]

No preparation, course or skill is needed – you can begin right now to pray without ceasing.


How the Pope prays

I have just begun reading the recently-released book of the interview Pope Benedict gave to Peter Seewald during the summer, entitled Light of the World. Not too far into the interview Seewald asks the Pope how he prays.

In light of the fact that the Pope is, and has been for decades, a first-rank theologian, I was half expecting a weighty and perhaps even complex approach to prayer. Instead he is as direct and to the point as it is possible to be, and reveals a beautifully simple and authentic prayer life. To the person familiar with his writings both as theologian and as Pope it becomes clear that the spirituality of his theology is distilled to its essence in his prayer, which is situated right in the heart of the Church as the communion of saints, and its rich and profound traditions, focused on the Lord with whom he relates as “by old acquaintance”.

As I did, you might want to read his answer and learn about the prayer that matters, the prayer that endures more readily our human weakness and inconstancy (it might help to know that as a young theologian his doctoral and post-doctoral dissertations were on St Augustine and St Bonaventure respectively):

As far as the Pope is concerned, he too is a simple beggar before God – even more than all other people. Naturally I always pray first and foremost to our Lord, with whom I am united simply by old acquaintance, so to speak. But I also invoke the saints. I am friends with Augustine, Bonaventure, with Thomas Aquinas. Then one says to such saints also: Help me! And the Mother of God is, in any case, always a major point of reference. In this sense I commend myself to the communion of saints. With them, strengthened by them, I then talk with the dear Lord also, begging, for the most part, but also in thanksgiving – or quite simply being joyful. (p.17)

Given his relative isolation from close acquaintance as pope, it is no wonder that Pope Benedict turns especially to the saints, fellow members of the Church, unseen but ever-present, and not subject to the security measures necessary to keep popes safe nowadays, measures which sadly must tend to breed loneliness. Pope Benedict reminds that us in the Church, though no other person be physically present with us, we are never alone. Prayer attunes our spiritual senses to recognise the saints and angels who are always at our side to encourage us, to listen to us and to pray for us to God in whose very presence they live.