Friday, 31 October 2008

Budget anger

The Church of Ireland Gazette carries the following editorial comment on page 2 of this week’s edition (31 October 2008):


Nobody can blame the present government in Dublin for the present global economic crisis, but its handling of the crisis, its dealings with the major banks in the Republic, the way it has failed to understand public sentiment, its failure to think clearly about its budgetary proposals, and its inept response to public protests, all point to a government that is failing to provide leadership and confidence and to take control.

A budget is always a major test of confidence for any government. In any parliamentary democracy, proper planning at cabinet level and consultation with backbenchers so that they do not feel excluded ensures budgets are steered through without murmurings or revolts within the party ranks, or without concessions being made to pressure groups. Once the opposition gets a hint that a government is willing to make concessions to any and all comers, confidence in the cabinet and government ministers should and must begin to wilt.

In dealing with the crisis facing the Irish banks, it is obvious the Cowen government did so without taking wide and representative soundings. It appears the banks alone were listened to, and – unlike the result in most other EU member states – pledges were made and guarantees were given without taking any share or interest in the banks themselves. It is obvious that people were angry that those guarantees were given without anything being conceded in return, and European governments were angry that they had not been consulted.

Pensioners and the elderly are angry about the threatened withdrawal of medical cards and the decline in health care. The trade unions and social activists are angry that a one per cent levy is a heavier burden on the poor and the working class than a two per cent levy is for the super-rich. They are angry and believe the less well-off are being forced to pay for the mistakes of the rich and the decision makers. Students and teachers are angry at cutbacks in the classrooms and the possible reintroduction of third level fees.

Never before has a city centre church seen thousands of elderly citizens so openly vent their anger against government ministers. The elderly have marched in their tens of thousands with their grandchildren against this government. However, the Taoiseach was out of the country and could not feel the pulse of the nation.

The global economic crisis may have been inevitable, but this government simply was not equipped for, or capable of, dealing with the consequences at home.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Helping others to pray

An icon of the Pharisee and the Publican ... standing beside others in prayer should mean helping them in prayer

Patrick Comerford


Prayer is both an individual and a collective action. And even when we pray individually, we pray for ourselves and we pray on behalf of others.

One of the most public ways people pray for others is during the intercessions in Church. And one of the first areas in which those who are new to ordained ministry are asked to help others to pray is in the preparation of the intercessions.

The word intercede literally means to go between, to be one who stands between the people and God, to be one who stands in the breach.

This is the role of the intercessor, for example, that was explained to Ezekiel: “And I sought for anyone among them who would repair the wall and stand in the breach before me on behalf of the land, so that I would not destroy it; but I found no one” (Ezekiel 22: 30).

Interceding is more about where we stand, and being willing to stand there, than about what we say. And those intercessors who stand in the breach, between God and us, need others to stand beside them and to help them in their intercessions.

The prayers of others

We are all familiar with the story of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18: 10-14). In that parable, both characters pray for themselves, and both bare themselves before God.

The Pharisee gives thanks to God. He prays. In fact, by all the current standards of and means of measuring Jewish piety, he is a good man. Look at what he tells God and us about himself. First of all he thanks God that he is not like other people. The Morning Prayer for Orthodox Jewish men, to this day, includes a prayer with these words: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a gentile, … a slave, …a woman.”

Thanking God that I am not like others is not an expression of disdain for others; it is merely another, humble way of thanking God for being made the way we are, in God’s image and likeness. The Pharisee’s prayer is not unusual. He goes on to tell God that he obeys the commandments, he prays, he fasts and he tithes – in fact, he tithes more than he has too, and, perhaps even fasts more than he has too. He is a charitable, kind and faithful man.

The Pharisee in this parable does not pray for the needs of others, in so far as we are allowed to or can hear his prayers. But then, neither does the publican. So neither man is condemned for not being heard to pray for the needs of the other. What marks the prayers of the Pharisee out from the prayers of the publican is that, in his prayers, the Pharisee expresses his disdain for the needs of others.

What is prayer?

In prayer, we should be mindful of the needs of others, and for those of us in ordained ministry we should be willing to – we are expected to – help and teach others to pray. But what is prayer? What are we expected to do when it comes to helping others to pray?

The Eastern Fathers of the Church insist that prayer is primarily the action of God.

Prayer can be described as conversation with God, allowing the Word to penetrate mind and heart. As the Carmelite Rule says, prayer can be described as “meditating on the law of the Lord, day and night.”

Rosalind Brown describes prayer as “the intimacy of our life with God. Prayer is being lost in wonder, love and praise.”

Prayer is not a shopping list that we tick off, and then use to tick off God when our shopping trolley hasn’t been filled.

The Lord’s Prayer is the Model Prayer. It teaches us that prayer:

● Must be addressed to God as our Father.
● Must ask for his will.
● Must pray for his Kingdom.
● Must include for daily needs.
● Must seek forgiveness.
● Must pray for God’s guidance and leading.
● Must ask for deliverance from evil.
● But must also assure us that God hears and answers our prayers.

Biblical foundations for teaching others to pray

John the Baptist knew the advantage of being a prayerful servant of God and also taught his disciples to pray.

Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, by word and by example. When they ask how to pray, he teaches them the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13; Luke 11: 1-5). But he also gives example of prayer in parables – the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee in the Temple.

So, he teaches them to pray by taking as examples how others pray, and he also teaches them directly by giving them an example of model prayer.

The early disciples of Jesus realised the value of prayers, and so were willing to be taught how to pray. Praying together has been a hallmark of Christian life since the beginnings of the church, as the opening reports from the Acts of the Apostles make clear.

The Apostle Paul encourages us to “pray without ceasing.” But how can we encourage others to do this unless we first teach them to pray?

Developing our own prayer lives

Praying must not be a neglected activity and a forgotten part of our life. The person who wants to learn how to pray is a person who wants to get closer to God. Without praying, how can I establish a deeper communion with God?

If we are going to help others to pray, then we must first develop our own prayer life and to watch, tender and nurture it carefully.

The first step involves fixing a pattern for prayer. Some helpful hints in setting out to fix a pattern of regular prayer should include:

● Using the office (Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer each day, or one of the shorter forms available in either the Book of Common Prayer, pp 136-138, or in Celebrating Common Prayer).
● Valuing silence: if I talk regularly to God, then I should be prepared to give God space to talk to me too.
● Being regular at the Eucharist, a sacrament that is both reconciling and nurturing.
● Praying as you read Scripture, and not just studying it.

Think simply: if you try to pack too many ideas into your prayers, you fall into the danger of thinking more about your thoughts than your prayers, and thinking more about the way you are praying than the God you are praying to.

Create a place you know you can pray in. This could be your room. It could be in your car. It could be in the chapel. Or you could create the space for prayer anywhere simply by creating the atmosphere for prayer. This can be done by attending to the appropriate background sound, by listening to music you associate with prayer. This could be on your walkman or iPod, but you need to know you are doing this to create the appropriate atmosphere, not so you can simply listen to the music for its own sake or for your pleasure.

When praying with others:

When you are praying with others, these pointers are worth remembering:

Use simple words: Don’t ask them to be theologians, but don’t patronise them.

Use simple ideas: Don’t ask them to unpackage too much at the one time, and to unpackage it quickly as you move on to the next idea.

Be aware of the focus: Who are you addressing? Is your focus on God or is it on those you are praying with?

Be aware of movement and direction: Our prayers should be addressed to God the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the name of Christ. So often it is easy for people to forget this Trinitarian movement and these Trinitarian concepts when they are praying informally. I have often heard prayer that is addressed to God as lord, then thanking him for his death on the Cross, and then finishing by giving thanks to God for so many things received through Christ his Son.

Teaching others to pray:

Teaching others how to pray is a great privilege and responsibility.

Teaching people how to pray is part of the task you will face in parochial and pastoral ministry. But as you try to teach people to pray, you will hopefully find that, of course, it is the Spirit who teaches people to pray.

Difficulties in prayer:

Many people start off praying with great enthusiasm. But when they begin to flounder and to experience difficulties, they need understanding, help and stimulation from someone who has gone the same way.

I think we can all identify a number of shared difficulties in our prayer lives, such as wandering thoughts

When it comes to praying out loud and in groups, many people find it difficult, no matter how attentive they are to their private prayer lives, to pray aloud with other people, for different reasons.

If you are someone who has a difficulty in finding appropriate words when you are asked to pray in public, then you may find it helpful to learn some collects off by heart so that they come to mind immediately on those occasions when you are put on the spot.

Be aware of those difficulties and remind yourselves that others have the same difficulties. Never put someone else on the spot or make them feel embarrassed by being asked to pray in public.

Then there those people who are going through different stages of faith, who now find that old prayers lack meaning or significance, and who are finding it difficult to find new prayers.

For some people, if not helped through these problems in prayer, then the problem becomes more difficult, and prayer becomes more difficult, sometimes to the point that they give up praying and believe it is impossible to pray.

And there are those people who are dealing with personal tragedies, including tragedies than have given them difficulties in their relationships with God. Be sensitive to those difficulties, and be gentle with those people.

Prayer and worthiness:

To return to the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, it is worth remembering that sometimes people think that because they have sinned they should not pray.

But the story of the story of the Pharisee (apparently good) and the Publican (apparently bad), in Luke 18: 10-14, tells us that the Pharisee prayed easily, while the publican could not even lift his eyes to heaven but smote his breast and prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus tells us it was the publican who “returned home justified” not the Pharisee.

The publican wants to pray even when he feels guilty of sin. We do not have to wait until we feel righteous, like a Pharisee, so we can pray. Such prayer is almost useless. I know I can all too easily pray the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner,” more readily when I am feeling righteous than when I realise I am a sinner.

Religious feelings can be deceptive in the extreme. When I think we feel like praying, we are in fact feeling “pious.” And it’s a deep tragedy. We are not ready to pray to pray at this stage. Instead, we are consumed with ourselves as pious people of prayer.

When I feel like a Publican, then I can pray like a Publican. Many times people will tell you, “I can’t take Communion … lead the intercession … serve at the altar today, because I don’t feel worthy.” But surely I’m in much greater danger when I do feel worthy.

When does someone ever say, “I’ve been so good this week I haven’t felt in the least like a sinner, and this is a great sin and deception.” Now we would be getting somewhere with prayer.

Help people to pray like a publican. They will find so many more times available for prayer if they do. And while they are there, you and I should pray for those who are praying like a Pharisee, so that God may free us from our delusions.

Wandering thoughts:

When people ask us to help them to pray, we need to be aware of these difficulties.

Even when people pray regularly and pray often, the most common barrier to prayer is wandering thoughts. One recent survey found that over 80% of respondents find wandering thoughts are at least “sometimes a problem.”

Two-thirds also found noise or other distractions a problem. A similar survey found that “keeping concentration” is also an issue, with 40% of respondents mentioning this as a barrier to prayer.

It is important to assure people not to worry about their minds being distracted. They can learn to gently bring the mind back to focus on God, and to the area they were praying about.

Just as when we are in conversation with others, our minds regularly have some apparently irrelevant thoughts, and need to be returned to the topic at hand. So this is not a problem to worry about in prayer. It happens to everyone and everyone can deal with it.

Saint Francis of Sales said: “Even if you did nothing in your meditation but bring your heart back, and place it again in our Lord’s presence, though it went away again every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”

Many people lead busy lives, with their minds working in overdrive to cover all of the things that they need to think about. When they stop to pray, it takes time for their minds to change track and to focus in on God. You may find it can be good to ease people into prayer gently, perhaps by listening to music on a CD, or by reading a psalm or a passage from the Bible, or simply by reflecting on what we have to be thankful for.

Then we can enter into a conversation with God with our minds properly prepared.

Many of us probably learned to pray as a small child kneeling at our bedside. But even when people are comfortable about praying in their own rooms, or joining in the responses in Church, they are uncomfortable praying in public.

But try to remember. Have you ever been caught off-guard when you have been asked to say a prayer at the beginning of a meeting, or to say grace before a group sat down in dinner?

There is a large section of people who regard prayer as something private. Then there are others who are reluctant to pray out loud in case they may make a mess of it, in case they’ll fluff it, in case they sound stupid.

But on this last point you can assure them by asking them whether my task in prayer is to converse with God or to give those who are listening something that will seem wise and knowledgeable?

Singing and praying:

For some people, it may be useful to suggest they think of singing. Saint Augustine in his commentary on the Psalms stated that those who sing pray twice. Many people forget that they are praying when they are singing, whether this is in private or in public. When they are reminded of this, it can sometimes become easier for them to pray in private or in public.

Some helpful hints

If you are someone who has a difficulty in finding appropriate words when you are asked to pray in public, then you may find it helpful to learn some collects off by heart so that they come to mind immediately on those occasions when you are put on the spot.

Be aware of those difficulties and remind yourselves that others have the same difficulties. Never put someone else on the spot or make them feel embarrassed by being asked to pray in public.

Helping those who lead prayers or intercessions in church:

One of the opportunities people in ordained ministry have in teaching people how to pray is when we help people who have been asked to lead the prayers or intercessions in church.

There is an important difference between private prayer and leading corporate intercessions. When we are leading the intercessions, we are leading God’s people in prayer, rather than praying on their behalf. And so, the way that we pray should be different from our own private prayer.

The corporate act of intercession is the sum of the individual thoughts and prayers, combined with the words and prayers spoken from the front. So, for corporate prayer to take place effectively, the congregation will be praying along the lines laid before them, and extending them as individual hearts and minds engage with the topics for prayer.

It is important that the people in the congregation hear what is being prayed. So those leading the intercessions need to be audible, and they need to speak clearly and slowly.

A clearly defined structure to the intercessions helps people to pray.

It will help others if they know where the prayers are going. This frees them to pray, and to respond to the Spirit’s prompting. The most common structure in Anglican worship is:

● prayer for the Church;
● prayer for the World;
● prayer for our Community;
● prayer for others, especially those in need
● remembrance of, and thanksgiving for, the faithful departed.

A congregational response is a good way of marking out the structure, and bringing silences to and end.

Some helpful hints on congregational prayer:

If you are using a congregational response, it is a good idea to introduce it clearly at the beginning, unless it never varies from week to week. Even then, it’s worth mentioning it occasionally since there may well be newcomers coming into the church.

Using silence in these prayers can be very powerful. Silence in corporate worship allows a transition from corporate prayer, where we join in common petitions, to private prayer, where we spend time individually with God.

Often it is a good idea to direct people’s prayers into the silence, either as a part of the prayers, for example, “Father, we now bring before you in the silence of our hearts those who are known to us to be in need.” Or you could say: “We’ll keep a short time of quiet when we can pray about our response to the situation in Iraq.”

Watch your language! Leading prayer is most effective in simple, clear everyday language. Complex phrasing and long words make it difficult for those who are listening to unpackage and own the prayers, and they add to the reluctance of many to take a leading role in public prayers. Try to use simple language. Avoid “churchy” jargon and acronyms.

Keep up to date: keep up to date with the news, both national and local news, and also the current status of those who will be prayed for. Before leaving for church, check the news.

Arrive in time to check on important news in the parish: who needs to be prayed for, who is in hospital, who has been bereaved, who has had good news.

Do not pray for everything. The Eucharist is the Great Thanksgiving. All our prayers are caught up in it. If we pray for everything beforehand, if we give thanks for everything beforehand, what is left to pray for in the greatest prayer? Prayer is not a shopping list being presented to God!

Avoid being too specific in every intercession. Try to count in everything, and we’ll go on all day. Try to name everyone, and some will inevitably feel left out.

Avoid the temptation to teach during prayers. Prayers are from the people to God, they are not an opportunity to say what we think God should be teaching others.

Be careful when praying about subjects which may be sensitive to members of the congregation. Examples include divorce, abortion, sexuality, and politics.

Prepare thoroughly. Whether you use a script, or just use notes – that’s up to you. But I am always lacking in my ability to do justice to my responsibility to God and my responsibility in leading God’s people in prayer. Spend some time in prayer beforehand. Good preparation does not limit your ability to change your plans, building in appropriate links with the sermon. You might like to use wide margins on your paper so that you can make notes. But preparation should also include a time of private prayer, praying through the topics you will lead prayers for.

Promoting the Daily Office

One of the ways we can help other people pray is to introduce them to the practice of praying the Daily Office.

Modern liturgical revision in most of the Churches has restored the Eucharist to its primary place as the key rite for the gathered Christian community on Sundays. But sadly this has also led to the neglect of the daily office among both clergy and laity.

The Daily Office is one of the great treasures of our Anglican heritage. The Eucharist should not replace our need for and practice of the Offices. Rather, the Eucharist and the Office complement each another.

The Daily Office is the daily worship of the Church Catholic. It is both symbolic of and an aid to Saint Paul’s advice to “pray without ceasing.” Its constant round of Psalms and Scripture gives us food for our daily spiritual feeding and action. It binds us into the unceasing worship of the whole Church – Militant, Expectant, and Triumphant. It forms us as Christians. It is one of the great gifts that we have to offer to the divided and broken Body of Christ. It is a fragment of the treasure of the whole that we have preserved and, in this time, we may find that we can offer it back to the whole Church for the edification and rejoicing of all.

However, none of these things will happen if we do not pray it and teach others to do likewise.

Learning to pray the Daily Office

A good starting point in learning to pray can be learning how to pray the Daily Office.

If you are going to use it in your own prayer life and daily discipline, then we should learn how to capture the internal spirit and logic of the office. It is not a liturgical straight-jacket. We can mix, adapt and learn what works best for each of us.

To take full advantage of the Daily Office and its riches, we need to be aware of the resources that are available to help us. These include the Book of Common Prayer, books of prayer such as Celebrating Common Prayer, online resources such as Oremus, and other websites with prayer resources.

Teaching Others to Pray the Office

Praying the Daily Office is best done and is intended to be done in community. Anyone can start this ministry. No priests, clergy, or church professionals are needed for a full and proper celebration of the Daily Office. But what is needed is an informed body of people with the commitment to see it through and to see it done well, done consistently, done respectfully, and done reverently.

The daily-ness of the office leads to stability, to obedience and to conversion of life. It is a tool of enormous spiritual power, and no parish should ignore it.

Most people in congregations do not easily talk about prayer. Too often we think running church services and the task of leading public prayer is the priest’s job. And so, equipping lay people to be confident officiants at the Daily Office will quickly change that.

Daily morning prayer is a great way to start the day.

Next week: The spiritual dimensions of theology, the history and development of the spiritual traditions of Christianity; the place of spirituality in Church history.

Appendix: Helpful hints on working with parishioners who are uneasy about vocal prayer:

Encourage a daily time of individual prayer and devotion:
Talking with God in private is the best foundation for talking aloud to God, in a group.

Be understanding towards those who are uneasy praying with others: Make sure nobody feels under an obligation to pray out loud.

Affirm the value of silent prayer.

Provide beginners with an opportunity to start with simple public prayer: perhaps asking them not to lead grace but to say a short simple prayer before we eat.

Model simplicity yourself: avoid ‘churchy’ language; try to be conversational with God.

Think about encouraging others present to add to your prayer: When you’re asked to say grace before a meal, or a prayer before an evening event, you could follow it by saying: “Has anyone else got something to say as well?”

Trust that the full Word of God is not in any one person – not even the priest – but in the Church as a whole, as the Body of Christ.

Be confident and honest: It’s OK if you do not know what to pray when someone in a gathering asks you to pray. What’s wrong with praying: “Lord, we confess we don’t always know how to pray by ourselves. But we thank you that you know our needs before we can even find words to express them. We give this time to you and ask you to continue speaking to us and through us.”

Be quick to thank and show appreciation: For beginners it matters especially when you say: “Thank you for praying today.”

Above all, be gentle with others: In a competitive, performance-oriented world, those who are shy or embarrassed about praying out loud should know the church as a place of acceptance and safety.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture and workshop on the Year II course, Spirituality for Ministry, on 29 October 2008.

The Johannine Letters: I John 2: 12-14

‘You are strong and the word of God abides in you’ (I John 2: 14) ... The bells of the Monastery of Saint John on the island of Patmos

Patrick Comerford

I John 2: 12-14

This poetic section in I John deals with our true relationship with God in Christ. The two main assurances the writer is giving to the recipients of this letter are found in verses 12 and 14, and concern the principle difficulties with the false propagandists. These two assurances are: the forgiveness of sins, and true knowledge of the Father.

John is reassuring rather than rebuking his readers, and he does this by using a poetic structure that is built on patterns of three and that is presented in two parts, so that verse 14 is a poetic restating of verses 12-13, then followed by a contrasting pair of concluding lines.

Sadly, many English translations of the New Testament (for example, the Authorised Version, the Revised Standard Version and the Living Bible) miss the poetic presentation of these three verses by presenting them as three prose verses rather than as three stanzas, the first two in three paired lines each, and the third in two single paired lines:

12 Γράφω ὑμῖν, τεκνία,
ὅτι ἀφέωνται ὑμῖν αἱ ἁμαρτίαι διὰ τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ.

13 Γράφω ὑμῖν, πατέρες,
ὅτι ἐγνώκατε τὸν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς.

Γράφω ὑμῖν, νεανίσκοι,
ὅτι νενικήκατε τὸν πονηρόν.

14ἔγραψα ὑμῖν, παιδία,
ὅτι ἐγνώκατε τὸν πατέρα.

ἔγραψα ὑμῖν, πατέρες,
ὅτι ἐγνώκατε τὸν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς.

ἔγραψα ὑμῖν, νεανίσκοι,
ὅτι ἰσχυροί ἐστε

καὶ ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ ἐν ὑμῖν μένει
καὶ νενικήκατε τὸν πονηρόν.

I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.

I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.

I am writing to you, young people,
because you have conquered the evil one.

I write to you, children,
because you know the Father.

I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.

I write to you, young people,
because you are strong

and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.

‘I am writing’ and ‘I write’

The poetic structure of these verses is emphasised in the significant switch in tenses in the verb Γράφω (grapho, “I am writing”) from the present to the aorist.

The present tense of Γράφω (grapho) is used three times in verses 12-13, while the aorist tense ἔγραψα (egrapsa, I write) is used three times in verse 14. Some interpreters understand this change refers to two different writings, so that the present tense refers what is currently being written in I John, while the aorist refers to something written previously. Some interpreters believe this previous work is the Fourth Gospel. Others suggest II John, which means II John was written before I John. Others still suggest a “lost letter,” and some commentators have suggested the “source” that was supposed to underlie I John.

The content of the three aorist clauses is virtually a repetition of the three present clauses. If the author literally means that he wrote virtually the same things before to the same audience, why does he write them again and then repeat what he had written earlier as well?

Perhaps the author does not intend the change in tenses to refer to a previous work, but in fact refers to the same work he is now writing, I John itself. Perhaps the variation between the present tenses of the first part of the poem and the aorist tenses of the second part are intentional, stylistic, poetic variations on the part of the author, emphasising what he is saying through poetic repetition.

Three titles or categories

The opponents of the Johannine community have been described in the subsection we discussed last week as being “in the darkness,” “walking in the darkness” and having their eyes “blinded” by the darkness (I John 2: 11). The recipients of the letter, however, are loyal to the community and the teaching of the author, and they abide or remain in the light (2: 10). Their sins are forgiven through Christ, the revelation of the eternal life of the Father, who has conquered Satan. But, how many groups of people are addressed in 2: 12-14?

At first, it appears the author is addressing three groups or categories of believers in these poetic verses. Firstly, we have τεκνία (teknia, “little children”), who are also addressed in the second part as παιδία (paidia, “children”). Secondly, we have πατέρες (pateres, “fathers”); and finally we have νεανίσκοι (neaniskoi, “young people”). They are dealt with in two sequences: in verses 12-13 and then again in verse 14.

We could take these references literally, referring to different age groups. But we could also see the first group as new converts, the second as those who are spiritually mature, and the third as those who are moving towards maturity. But the order in which they are listed argues against this because there is no progression in the groups – either ascending from youngest to oldest, or descending from oldest to youngest.

On the other hand, we might also think that only one group is addressed in 2: 12-14, using three different titles. All believers are τεκνία (teknia, “little children”), because we are born again and our sins forgiven. All of us are πατέρες (pateres, “fathers”), because we believe in him who was from the beginning. And all are νεανίσκοι (neaniskoi, “young people”), because we are resisting the devil. This fits in with the poetic construction of these three verses.

Another interpretation suggests that two groups of people are being considered in I John 2: 12-14. They are first addressed as a whole – little children and children. Then they are addressed as two separate groups, fathers and young people. The author uses of τεκνία (teknia) elsewhere in I John to refer to the entire readership, rather than a select group within it (see 2: 1, 2: 28, 3: 7, 3: 18, 4: 4, and 5: 21). The same is true of παιδία (paidia), which is used of everyone in 2: 18, and which probably is a stylistic variation with τεκνία (teknia).

On the other hand, the use of πατέρες (pateres) and νεανίσκοι (neaniskoi) to refer to groups with the Christian community is appropriate, because nowhere in the New Testament does either term refer to the Church at large or to the entire community of Christians.

We could conclude that the first clause in each group of three, introduced by τεκνία (teknia) in 2: 12 and παιδία (paidia) in 2: 14, addresses the entire group of readers, while the next two terms address groups within the readership. Whether these subgroups are distinguished by actual age or by spiritual maturity is not entirely clear; either could be the case and the evidence from the text is inconclusive.

The children or little children

The first group are the children or little children. These may be taken as general terms of address for the whole Christian group, which includes both the fathers and the young men (see I John 2: 1, 18, 28).

Having begun a direct exhortation to his readers in 2: 1 with the address τεκνία μου (teknia mou, “my little children”), the author now continues that exhortation.

In 2: 12, the author says: “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.” He addresses his readers directly as little children, and assures them that their sins are forgiven. Elsewhere in I John, the term “little children” refers to the entire group of readers rather than a select group (I John 2: 1, 2: 28, 3: 7, 3; 18, 4; 4, 5: 21). Thus in 2: 12-14, it is not three distinct groups that are addressed, but the whole group, who are little children, followed by two sub-groups, addressed as fathers and young people. It is not clear whether these two sub-groups are distinguished by age or spiritual maturity.

The fathers

Those addressed as fathers are more likely to have been Christians for a lengthier period of time, rather than aged or elderly members of the community. They are appropriately connected with knowledge of the One who is from the beginning.

The young people

Those addressed as young people, are more likely to be recent Christians, than being youthful in years. They are appropriately connected with temptation and strength in overcoming Satan.

‘Because’ or ‘so that’

A poetic and dramatic impact is provided by the use of the word ὅτι (oti, because), which follows all six occurrences of the verb Γράφω (grapho) in 2: 12-14. But another difficulty in verses 12-14 arises because this word, translated as “because,” may also mean “[so] that.” This would give a different connotation to what is being said, leaving the author rebuking rather than reassuring his readers.

By using the word ὅτι (oti) after each of the six occurrences of the present and aorist forms of the verb Γράφω (grapho), the author gives his reason for writing to his readers, underlining his assurance to them that runs throughout the letter. He is concerned that some of his readers could accept the claims of the opponents (see I John 1: 6, 8, and 10). The author’s counter-claims in 1: 7, 9, and 2: 1 are intended to strengthen the readers and to reassure them that their sins are forgiven.

The author is dealing with a community discouraged by the controversy that has arisen within it, a community in need of exhortation.

2: 12, αὐτοῦ (autou, “his”):

This pronoun almost certainly refers to Christ. The last third person reference (2: 8) was understood as a reference to Christ, and this in turn goes back to the use of ἐκεῖνος (ekeinos, literally “that one”) in 2: 6, which is clearly a reference to Christ.

2: 13, τὸν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς (ton ap’ arches, “him who has been from the beginning”):

It could be argued that the expression “him who is from the beginning” refers either to God or to Jesus Christ, and that the use of the masculine singular article τὸν (ton) as a personal pronoun could refer either to God, who has existed “from the beginning of time,” or to Christ.

But since God the Father is clearly referred to in the next verse, a reference here to Christ is more likely. The entire phrase is so similar to Ὃ ἦν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς (ho en ap’ arches, “what was from the beginning”) in 1: 1, that it is most likely that we have a reference here to Christ. When the same phrase is used in I John 2: 14b, it follows an explicit reference to the Father in 2: 14a, resulting in a pointless repetition if the Father is being referred to.

The phrase ἀπ' ἀρχῆς (ap’ arches, “from the beginning”) occurs twice before (in I John 1: 1 and 2: 7), and twice before it refers to the beginning of Christ’s earthly career and ministry, consistent with the stress the author places on the significance of Christ’s earthly career in contrast to his opponents. And so, ἀπ' ἀρχῆς here should be understood as a reference to the beginning of Christ’s self-revelation to his disciples in his earthly ministry.

2: 13, τὸν πονηρόν (ton poneron, “the evil one”):

Those who are addressed as fathers have remained faithful to the apostolic testimony about who Christ is. When the author turns to those he addresses as young people, the emphasis is on their victory over the evil one (i.e., Satan, a theme which will reappear later, in I John 5: 4-5, where it is apparent that all true Christians are “overcomers”).

In contrast to τὸν ἀπ' ἀρχῆς (ton ap’ arches, “him who is from the beginning”) in 2: 13a, which refers to Christ, we encounter τὸν πονηρόν (ton poneron, “the evil one”) for the first time here in 2: 13b. The phrase is used in the Fourth Gospel (John 17: 15) to refer to Satan, and that is its meaning here and in each of the four remaining occurrences in this letter (I John 2: 14, 3: 12; 5: 18; and 5: 19).

2: 14, poetic repetition:

In this verse, the author repeats himself for the sake of poetic emphasis.

In the second part of the verse, in a two-line stanza, the author introduces a new thought introduced concerning the word of God which abides in believers. Compare this with the words of Christ in John 5: 38: “nor do you have his [God’s] word abiding in you, because you do not believe the one [Jesus] whom he [God] sent”).

The meaning of and the reference to ὁ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ (ho logos tou Theou, “the word of God”) in verse 14 is worth noting too. The last previous occurrence of this term was in I John 1: 10, in the phrase ὁ λόγος αὐτοῦ (ho logos autou, “his word”). There, the phrase refers not to the personal Logos in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, but to the phrase at the end of I John 1: 1, which describes the message about eternal life revealed by Christ to his disciples from the beginning of his self-revelation during his earthly ministry. To be consistent with that, the phrase here should be interpreted in the same way.

Next week: I John 2: 15-27.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 29 October 2008.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Laid-back Simon and Jude the obscure ... misplaced apostles?

Saint Simon and Saint Jude in a two-light window in The Parish Church of Saint Teilo’s, Bishopston, Gower, near Swansea in South Wales

Patrick Comerford

Saint Simon and Saint Jude: 28 October 2008:

Isaiah 28: 14-16; Psalm 119: 89-96; Ephesians 2: 19-22; John 15: 17-27.

Collect: Almighty God, who built your Church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus Christ himself as the chief cornerstone: So join us together in unity of spirit by their doctrine that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This morning we celebrate Saint Simon and Saint Jude, Apostles. In an age obsessed with reality television and celebrities who are celebrities just because they are, Simon and Jude appear like a pair of misfits: we know little about their lives or how they lived them, they are hardly famous among the disciples, and certainly are not celebrity apostles.

I think most men here remember schoolyard or street games of football, where we lined up in rows, waiting to be picked, as others were called forward by name, one-by-one, before us. Do you remember that feeling of hoping you wouldn’t be the last one picked, hoping that you would be called, that someone would remember your name?

Simon and Jude are way down the list of the Twelve Apostles, and their names are often confused or forgotten. In the New Testament lists of the Twelve (Matthew 10: 2-4; Mark 3: 16-19; Luke 6: 14-16; Acts 1: 13), they come in near the end, in tenth and eleventh places. Well, with Judas in twelfth place, they just about make it onto the first eleven.

The ninth name on the lists is James, the James we remembered last Thursday. Judas or Jude is often referred to as “the brother of James” and this in turn leads to him being identified with the “brothers of the Lord.” So, on this day, we celebrate Simon the Zealot, one of the original Twelve; Judas of James (also called Thaddaeus or Lebbaeus), also one of the Twelve; and Jude or Judas the brother of James and author of the Epistle of Jude.

But we’re not too clear about their names. Simon is not mentioned by name in the New Testament except on these lists – after all, there is a better-known Simon than this Simon: there is Simon Peter. And there is a Judas who is worse than this Jude: Jude is so close to Judas – their names are the same (Ιούδας) – is it any wonder that he’s known popularly as the patron saint of lost causes?

And the confusion about their names continues: is Simon the Zealot (Luke 6: 15, Acts 1: 13) really a Cananean (Matthew 10: 4, Mark 3: 18), a zealot, a rebel? Or is there a ring of teasing, of irony, in this name? Was he someone who was so laid-back or relaxed that he was easily left at the bottom of the list? And Jude truly is Jude the Obscure: why is Jude not remembered as Judas or Judah? And is he the same person as Thaddaeus or Lebbaeus (see Matthew 10: 3, Mark 3: 18)?

After the Last Supper, Jude asked Christ why he chose to reveal himself only to the disciples, and received the reply: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14: 22-23).

The author of the Epistle of Jude names himself as Judas the brother of James. In this brief letter to the Church, Jude says he planned to write a different letter, but then heard of the misleading views of some false teachers. He makes a passionate appeal to his readers to preserve the purity of the Christian faith and their good reputation.

The Epistle includes a memorable exhortation to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3), and ends with that wonderful closing: “Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24-25.)

But after that, surprisingly, we know very little about the later apostolic mission of Simon and Jude. Some ancient writers say they went together as missionaries to Persia, and were martyred there, sawn in half in Suanir.

Other traditions say these two did not travel together. Instead, Jude preached the Gospel in Judea, Samaria, Syria, and Mesopotamia. In the year 62 AD, he returned to Jerusalem for the election of Simeon as Bishop of Jerusalem in succession to James the Brother of the Lord, and then went back to travelling and teaching and was martyred in Pella in Armenia.

But these are stories without any historical foundation. In truth, we know very little about these two saints, bundled together at the end of a list, like two hopeless causes. There was no danger of them being servants who might want to be greater than their master (John 15: 20). All we can presume is that they laboured on, perhaps anonymously, in building up the Apostolic Church.

But then the Church does not celebrate celebrities who are famous and public; we honour the saints who labour and whose labours are often hidden.

In our Gospel reading, the Apostles are warned about suffering the hatred of “the world.” Later as the Gospel was spread around the Mediterranean, isolated Christians may not have realised how quickly the Church was growing; in their persecutions and martyrdom, they may have felt forlorn and that Christianity was in danger of being a lost cause.

But in our Gospel reading, Christ encourages a beleaguered Church to see its afflictions and wounds as his own.

No matter how much we suffer in our ministry and mission, no matter how others may forget us, no matter how obscure we become, no matter how many people forget our names, no matter how often our labouring in the Gospel appear to others to be a lost cause, we can be assured that we are no longer strangers and aliens, that we are citizens with the saints, that we are building up the household of God upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ himself as the cornerstone, and that we are being built together spiritually into the dwelling place of God (Ephesians 2: 19-22).

Post Communion Prayer: Lord God, the source of truth and love: Keep us faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, united in prayer and the breaking of the bread, and one in joy and simplicity of heart, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the Eucharist on the Feast Day of Saint Simon and Saint Jude, 28 October 2008.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Autumn peace and quiet in Lichfield’s Cathedral Close

Lichfield Cathedral and the Minster Pool from a poolside table in Ego in Bird Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The past few days in Lichfield have been well-spent … they have been both blissful and revitalising. Ryanair flights from Dublin to Birmingham make Lichfield more accessible than many places in Ireland, and it was a peaceful way to start into this peculiar bank holiday weekend we have in Ireland.

I stayed once again at No 8, The Close, where the rooms at the front look onto the West Front of the Cathedral, and are filled with early light at sunrise, while the rooms at the back overlook the wondrous herbal garden first planted by Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, shortly after he built Darwin House 250 years ago in 1758.

The Cathedral Close in Lichfield is the most serene cathedral close I know, and has become quieter in recent months. For the past six months, day-time car parking has been prohibited in the Close, keeping all but the most essential parking out from this area. Although the restoration work on the cathedral means there are still a number of white vans, work vehicles and delivery lorries in the Close on a normal, busy, working day, the ban on parking has had an immediate impact.

The Close is now a visitor-friendly and pedestrian-friendly area, with people relaxing and stopping to chat on the street, carers and people in wheelchairs know they’re welcome, and a calming peace has descended on this quiet corner of the Midlands.

The cathedral plays an important role in the artistic and cultural life of Lichfield. In the run-up to Christmas, the cathedral programme will include candle-lit tours throughout November and December, and Advent Carol Services on 29 and 30 November with the clever title of “Light in Our Darkness,” playing on the words of the Evening Collect, “Lighten our darkness ….” The Sunday service will be followed by spiced wine and Advent Cake in the Great Hall of the Bishop’s Palace, which is now the Cathedral School.

The Tallis Scholars – once described by the New York Times as “the rock stars of Renaissance vocal music” – are in concert in the cathedral on 5 December, with a “Journey through Advent to Christmas” presented by Lichfield Festival in association with Lichfield Cathedral. The programme includes works by Orlando Gibbons, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, and culminates with Tallis’s Missa Puer natus est nobis. And Olivier Messiaen’s centenary will be marked with a performance of Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur by Philip Scriven on 10 December.

In addition, local schools are public bodies are holding their own carol services in the cathedral, including Lichfield Cathedral School (12 December), Staffordshire Women’s Institute (13 December), the Friary School (15 December), King Edward VI School (16 December), the Mayor (17 December, followed by mulled wine and mince pies), Lichfield Cathedral Special Choir (18 December), three afternoon carol services for shoppers at 2, 3 and 4 p.m. (20 December), and the cathedral’s own traditional carol service (21 December).

Despite these and many other busy programmes, the Cathedral Close remains calm and peaceful. At night, when darkness descends, and only the slim moon and the stars light the sky, it is difficult to remember that Lichfield has city status. With lights out throughout the cathedral and the close, with no pubs or clubs nearby, and no through traffic, the calm that fills this quiet corner makes me feel as if I am in the middle of rural England.

Yet, late each night, two members of the verging staff walk around the Close, to check over 60 cathedral properties – following the tradition of Alfred Haycock, who worked at the cathedral from 1912 to 1955.

I was in Lichfield Cathedral for one of my regular retreats and pilgrimages, and appreciated the time for prayer, reflection, strolls by the Minster Pool, and a chance to reflect and to think.

There were visits to some of my favourite places, including Saint John’s, where my whole adult faith story begins, the Staffs Bookshop, which is my favourite second-hand bookshop … anywhere … morning coffee in the Tudor Café on Bore Street, strolls through the gardens of Darwin House and Vicar’s Close, a nostalgic ramble by the house on Birmingham Road where I stayed when I first began writing freelance contributions to the Lichfield Mercury, afternoon coffee in the Couch Potato, a look at the art exhibition in the Guildhall ... And there was time to drop into both the King’s Head on Bird Street and the Queen’s Head in Queen Street, and for meals in two of my favourite restaurants: in Ego on Bird Street, at a table overlooking Minster Pool, and in the Olive Tree on Tamworth Street.

From Tamworth Street in Lichfield it was time to drop in on an old haunt in Lichfield Street in Tamworth. Lunch on Saturday afternoon in Tamworth was in the Moat House on Lichfield Street, a tumbling Jacobean pile that was once home to generations of the Comberford family. Later, the light autumn weather provided a welcome opportunity to head out to Comberford Hall and then to stroll across to Comberford Village.

A peaceful and tranquil corner in Lichfield District, between Lichfield and Tamworth

Despite the proximity to Tamworth and Lichfield, Comberford is in the heart of rural England, with a feeling of remote tranquillity and rural peace … so remote and so peaceful that even the local taxi driver didn’t realise there was a Church and a whole village in this little quiet corner of Lichfield District.

The combination of the calm and tranquillity of Lichfield Cathedral and the peaceful isolation in the surrounding villages, made these ideal days for prayer, for thinking, and for being in communion with God and God’s creation. A row of autumn conkers from the drive leading up to Comberford Hall now lines the window ledge of my study … a reminder to return in the spring.

Lichfield Cathedral is at:

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Saint James the Brother of the Lord

Patrick Comerford

23 October 2008: Isaiah 49: 1-6; Psalm 1; Acts 15: 12-22; Mark 3: 31-35.

Collect: Lord God of peace: Grant that after the example of your servant, James the brother of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are caught up in hatred or enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Many years ago, when my friend Stephen Hilliard, Martin’s brother, was leaving The Irish Times ahead of his ordination, a senior editorial figure said he was moving from being “a column in the Times to being a pillar of the Church.”

This morning we commemorate someone we remember as a brother, a writer, a pillar of the Church, and a martyr: Saint James the Brother of the Lord.

This James is described in the New Testament as a “brother of the Lord” and in the Liturgy of Saint James as “the brother of God” (Iάκωβος ο Αδελφόθεος, Adelphotheos).

According to some, this saint was a son of Joseph, born to the wife Joseph was married to before he was betrothed to Virgin Mary. And so he was the brother or half-brother of the Lord, who was also seen as the son of Joseph (Matthew 13: 55). The brothers of Jesus named in the Gospels are James, Jude, Simon and Joses or Joseph (Matthew 13: 55; Mark 6: 3; see also Galatians 1: 19). Even Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities (20.9.1) describes James as “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ.”

However, the relationship of James and Jesus is difficult to unravel if one believes in the perpetual virginity of Mary. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions say James was the half-brother or step-brother of Jesus and that Joseph already had children – that James was already a boy when Jesus was born.

But others point out that in Christ’s time Jews observed the Mosaic advice to married couples to be fruitful and to have many children, and so say Mary and Joseph must have had more children after the birth of Jesus.

Still others say that James could have been a nephew of Joseph, perhaps the son of Cleopas, also called Alphaeus, and Mary his wife. They point out that cousins could have been called “brothers” and “sisters” in the Aramaic of Jesus, and that the Greek words adelphos and adelphe were not restricted to their literal meaning of a full brother or sister.

Whichever opinion you accept, this James is the James who is called James the Less (Mark 15: 4) to distinguish him from James, the son of Zebedee, or James the Great, and who is also called James the Just because of his great holiness and righteousness. We identify him with the author of the Epistle of James. The Apostle Paul names this James as one of the people the risen Christ showed himself to (I Corinthians 15: 3–8), and describes James, alongside Peter and John, as a pillar of the Church (Galatians 2: 9).

James was so important in the Early Church in Jerusalem that Eusebius describes him as the first Bishop of Jerusalem (Eccl. Hist., Book II: 23).

But how important was James in the Early Church in Jerusalem?

In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that when Peter escapes from prison and flees Jerusalem, he asks that James be informed (Acts 12: 17).

Later, the Christians of Antioch ask whether Gentile Christians should be circumcised and send Paul and Barnabas to confer with the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 15: 12-22). James charts a middle course, supporting those who oppose demanding circumcision for Gentile converts but suggesting prohibitions against eating blood and against eating meat sacrificed to idols.

When Paul arrives in Jerusalem with the money he has raised for the Church there, he speaks to James, and James insists Paul should ritually cleanse himself at the Temple to prove his faith and to counter rumours of teaching rebellion against the Torah (Acts 21: 18ff).

The Acts of the Apostles is silent about James after the year 60. However, according to Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities (20: 9), “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” met his death in the year 62, when he was condemned “on the charge of breaking the law.” He was thrown from the wall of the Temple on the day of the Passover and was stoned. As he prayed for his slayers, his head was crushed by a wooden club wielded by a scribe.

How many of us would like to be so close to Jesus that we could be called brothers or sisters of the Lord, still more “the brother of God” (Iάκωβος ο Αδελφόθεος, Adelphotheos).

So, whatever, the controversies around the interpretation of the title “Brother of the Lord,” we can give thanks this morning for James who was an early disciple and apostle, a witness to the Transfiguration and to the Resurrection, a reconciler and a mediator in the early Church, a pillar of the Church, the author of a New Testament epistle, and an early martyr.

Post Communion Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, we thank you that after your Resurrection you appeared to James, and endowed him with gifts of leadership for your Church. May we, who have known you now in the breaking of the bread, be people of prayer and reconciliation. We ask it for your love’s sake. Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the Eucharist in the College Chapel on the Feast Day of Saint James the Brother of the Lord, 23 October 2008.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Pastoral Ministry and Self-Care

The cloistrers are not to the only place to try living out a Rule of Life

Patrick Comerford

Introduction: Balancing Life by the Rule

We all need to balance our work in pastoral ministry and our needs look after ourselves and to look after those we love and those who love us.

If we do not work at maintaining this balance, and remain conscious of that need, perhaps by developing a rule of life, then we will soon find ourselves living by a rule that is dictating the pace of life at the back of our minds.

Your priorities are your rule. But are you in control of those priorities?

The daily pressures of life in ministry can include:

● Pressure to get things done
● Pressure from your placement or first rector
● Pressure from your parish, community, colleagues, diocesan structure, perhaps even your bishop.
● What one bishop has described to me as pressure coming from not knowing the difference between the law of supply and demand and the law of demand and supply.
● The dangers of doing only what is urgent and not what is important.

Do you recognise some of these pressures already making undue demands in your ministry?

The warning signals that this is beginning to happen include:

● Doing only what has to be done or must be done.
● Not having time to talk to one another.
● Staying up late or getting up too early to finish work.
● Missing time for personal prayer, or simply allowing chapel or church to substitute for it.
● Putting things on the long-finger – and then not getting them done.
● Rushing meals, and then not remembering what you’ve eaten.
● Not taking time to listen to music, to watch television or to take an interest in sport.
● Not having time for a walk … with your partner, your children, your dog, or even on your own.
● Not reading novels or being fed culturally.
● Not reading the paper. In a famous dictum, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth advised that theology is to be done “with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other” – to “discern the signs of the times” so that theology is relevant to our lives today, so that we listen to God’s Word to us in the midst of our lives, so that our preaching is relevant. He advised young theologians to “take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”
● Not having time for life and love.
● Not having time for silence.

If you do not have time to listen to your own thoughts, how can you have time to listen to what God might be saying to you?

An introduction to rules

In the third and fourth centuries, the first Christian monasteries wrote rules covering all aspects of life within their walls. Their goal was to keep God at their individual and collective centre.

The Rule of Saint Benedict may be the best known rule today. But there were hundreds, if not thousands, of other rules. Monastic communities still live by rules ancient or modern. Should we too?

The point of a rule of life, for communities or individuals, is that life should be lived in balance, with God as the focal point. It is so easy to live a life that is out of balance, where work or some other aspect of my life takes over. And it is often too tempting to place myself at the centre of my own universe.

Living a rule of life helps me to keep striving for balance – to be conscious of what I do and why – and it reminds me to be open to God in all aspects of my daily life. A rule helps me remember that I am not the centre of my own universe, and that I am one part of something much larger.

If you’re still in the habit of making, trying to keep, and then breaking New Year's resolutions, you have long realised that these are largely built on a negative self-images. We decide that we are too heavy, too lazy, too unattractive, and we decide we’re going to fix that. We drop the resolutions quickly, for the most part, because they continually remind us that we’re just not good enough.

A rule of life, however, grows from the positive aspects of our life. We discern it in conversation with God, make God the focus of our rule (rather than our own negative images of ourselves) and we move in the directions in which we feel called. A rule of life is a response to being loved by God in the first place, and feeling moved to become what God calls us to be in this world.

Though there are as many ways to look at rules of life as there are rules, most balanced rules address the same basic categories:

● seeking God;
● prayer;
● work;
● study;
● spiritual community and worship;
● care of our bodies;
● reaching out to others;
● hospitality.

Over the years I have tried to discern what God calls me to do in these areas.

For instance, I could ask: What kind of prayer does God call me to? How should I care for my body in a way that honours it as a gift from God? How can I be the arms and legs and voice of God for others in this world who need my help?

These are the kinds of questions we should try to answer, in conversation and in prayer with God, and with our spiritual companions and advisers.

How often have you noticed that you are often trying to take on too much, when I should be taking baby steps. Instead of discerning the next step in my spiritual life, I decide that starting tomorrow I will take on some huge and time-consuming spiritual discipline and do it every day from now on. In other words, I begin to treat my rule of life like a New Year’s resolution. When we fail to keep such a rule, it is enormously helpful to have spiritual directors or friends to remind us that we’ve set my goals too high or been too hard on myself.

Rules are never meant to be discerned or kept in isolation. The support of a close friend, adviser, or a prayer community makes all the difference in living a rule of life.

‘Rule of life’

The word rule can off-putting, and can sound authoritarian. We cannot measure human and spiritual “progress.”

Indeed, I even have problems with the concept of progress here, as if it were some kind of achievement to be measured, evaluated and judged, as if some are spiritual achievers and some are spiritual failures.

On the other hand, the need for responsible discipleship, taking stock of where we are, where we’re going, and not letting the travelling take control of the journey.

In his book, Spirituality Workbook, David Runcorn (p. 58) says a rule of life is:

● A way of grace:

‘there is no condemnation’

● To be lived in mercy:

‘love is the fulfilling of the law’

● A means of growth and transformation:

‘follow me’

He speaks of a Rule of Life in the following terms (p. 59):

1, Rule as scaffolding:

Think of what scaffolding does. It’s not the real building, but without it, it would never have been built.

2, Rule as punctuation:

You cannot read a sentence without the full stops, commas, and apostrophes. Punctuation paces our reading, and makes it meaningful.

3, Rule as guidepost and support:

The Latin word for rule, regula, suggests a signpost, pointing us in the direction we’re going, or a handrail that guides us as we climb a stairs, something to lean on.

Devising a rule of life

What should be included in a Rule of Life?

It is amazing how many priests and students I talk to about framing a Rule of Life think of “religious” priorities only. Life is not just “religious”! We all need to eat, drink, breath and sleep. These activities ought to be central in Any rule of life.

How we pray

Taking care of yourself in ministry also means being aware of the time you give to and the way in which you relate to the people who are most important in your life: spouse, children, family, community, people on this course or in your parish … and not forgetting the people we don’t like.

But it also involves the time we give to and the value we put on possessions, hobbies, leisure time activities, and money, time itself.

A rule of life should set out a balance of life between Personal, Family, Friends, Work, Church and Leisure, marking out times for each daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly.

Annual commitments for people with children will include holidays outside term-time.

If we set out a chart with these priorities going across, and the different periods of time going down the chart, then we find 24 boxes (6 X 4), and each box needs ke a commitment. Think of what month, week, day, or time it might be fulfilled in.

As you work through such a chart pray for guidance and wisdom.

Seek a pattern that is possible, achievable, and sustainable. This is not a place for heroics. Be realistic.

Avoid legalism – “I must … I should.” Think more of asking for and needing the help of God.

Honour your responsibility to the important people in your life. The commitments we make for ourselves should not be at the expense of others.

Remember that a rule of life is about the whole of life, not a special portion of it.

But allow the rule to challenge you too. What is your present prayer life like? And what would you like to be like? What small steps can you take as the first steps towards reaching this? What things would you like to improve or change in other aspects of your life? For example, you might like to listen to all the Bach cantatas, Beethoven symphonies, or Mozart masses, or to read all the Starbridge novels by Susan Howatch.

Remember that every new challenge you take on means dropping something else.

And constantly review how your commitments and priorities. This should be part of any rule of life. If it becomes static it doesn’t remain relevant, and it becomes legalistic and a source of guilt.

Daily prayer

There is the danger of turning my spiritual life into something to add to my to-do list, and it becomes a chore and not a blessing.

A rule for prayer needs to be more open-ended.

You can be committed to praying daily, but how and when you do that may vary from day-to-day. Some days God may get five minutes of my time, and other days we may spend an hour together.

We all have our own unique relationship with God and we need to pay attention to that. Think of it as you would your close friendships. One friend you might see or talk with daily. With another perhaps you have drinks every Thursday night. What God calls you to do, and how you communicate with God is unique to your own relationship, and it takes some time and experimentation to discern what form your rule should take.

Writing down your rule of life, and learning to live it more intentionally, is, of course, only the beginning of this part of your spiritual journey. Following your rule deepens your relationship with God, and as a result of that, your rule will develop and change as you seek God more fully.

Example of rules of life and lifestyle rules:

Some example of rules of life and lifestyle rules include:

1, The Life Style Movement

In 1972, Canon Horace Dammers (1921-2004) of Coventry Cathedral, later Dean of Bristol Cathedral (1973-1984), founded the Life Style Movement, which challenged the values of the First World in the interests of the Third. The motto was simple: to live simply, so that others could simply live.

Members of the Life Style Movement are expected to sign the Commitment and some find it helpful to keep a copy of it handy. It goes as follows:

Recognising that the peaceful development and perhaps the survival of the human race are threatened by

● The injustice of extremes of poverty and wealth;
● The profligate use of natural resources and the pollution of the environment;
● The denial of useful and creative work to so many people,

I therefore seek to:

● Live simply that all may simply live;
● Give freely that all may be free to give;
● Avoid wasteful use of resources and show care for the environment;
● Work with others for social justice through appropriate action;
● Enjoy such good things as are compatible with this Commitment;
● Share my commitment with others.

2, The Community of the Cross of Nails, Coventry Cathedral:

Another effort at drawing up a Rule of Life within the Anglican tradition came from the Community of the Cross of Nails in Coventry Cathedral, which emphasised reconciliation in the decades immediately after World War II. Its rule of life is reflected in the community’s well-known prayer:

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God

The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class
Father forgive.

The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own
Father forgive.

The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth
Father forgive.

Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others
Father forgive.

Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee
Father forgive.

The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children
Father forgive.

The pride that leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God
Father forgive.

Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you

3, The Rule of Saint Benedict:

The Rule of Saint Benedict (ca 480-543) was written for monks living in community under the authority of an abbot. Over the past 1,500 years, it has become the leading guide in Western Christianity for monastic living in community, in Orthodoxy, Catholicism and – since the Reformations – in the Anglican and many Protestant traditions.

The spirit of Saint Benedict's Rule is summed up in the Benedictine motto: pax (“peace”) and the traditional ora et labora (“pray and work”).

Compared to other precepts, the Rule provides a moderate path between individual zeal and formulaic institutionalism; because of this middle ground it has been widely popular. Benedict’s concerns were the needs of monks in a community environment: namely, to establish due order, to foster an understanding of the relational nature of human beings, and to provide a spiritual father to support and strengthen the individual’s ascetic effort and the spiritual growth that is required for the fulfilment of the human vocation, theosis.

The Rule of St Benedict has been used by Benedictines for 15 centuries, and so Saint Benedict is sometimes regarded as the founder of Western monasticism.

His Rule is written as a guide for individual communities.

The Benedictine emphasis on autonomy helped to cultivate models of tightly bonded communities and contemplative lifestyles.

Saint Benedict’s Rule organises the monastic day into regular periods of communal and private prayer, sleep, spiritual reading, and manual labour – ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus, “that in all [things] God may be glorified.” In later centuries, intellectual work and teaching took the place of farming, crafts, or other forms of manual labour for many – if not most – Benedictines.

The Rule of life for Anglican Benedictine Oblates from the Anglican Benedictine Abbey at Alton in Hampshire includes these twelve points:

1, To conform one’s life to the spirit of the Rule of Saint Benedict.

2, Daily to pray a specified portion of the Divine Office.

3, To practice regular and frequent attendance at the Eucharist/Holy Communion, especially on Sundays and feast days.

4, To practice regular prayer, both formal and meditative.

5, To make an annual retreat at the Abbey.

6, To use the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation as often as may be appropriate.

7, To make the life and work of the Abbey a regular intention of prayer, especially at the Eucharist or Holy Communion. This intention should be observed with special fervour on festivals throughout the year.

8, Where appropriate, to preach about the monastic life and to foster vocations.

9, Daily to recite the Prayers of Union.

10, To keep in regular contact with the Community and to visit the Abbey as frequently as possible.

11, To practise regular almsgiving.

12, To make adequate provision for study, recreation and the needs of family commitment and personal relationship.

4, Stephen Covey: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, first published in 1989, is a self-help book written by Stephen R. Covey. It has sold over 15 million copies in 38 languages since its first publication, which was marked by the release of a 15th anniversary edition in 2004. The book lists seven principles that, if established as habits, are supposed to help a person achieve true interdependent “effectiveness.”

Covey argues this is achieved by aligning oneself to what he calls “true north” —principles of a character ethic that, unlike values, he believes to be universal and timeless.

The book was enormously popular, and catapulted Covey into lucrative public-speaking appearances and workshops. He has also written a number of follow-up books, such as Power of the Seven Habits, Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, and Beyond the Seven Habits. A sequel to The Seven Habits is The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness (2004).

The Seven Habits:

The chapters are dedicated to each of the habits, which are represented by the following imperatives:

1, Be Pro-active. Here, Covey emphasises the original sense of the term "proactive" as coined by Victor Frankl. You can either be proactive or reactive when it comes to how you act about certain things. Being “proactive” means taking responsibility for everything in life. When you’re reactive, you blame other people and circumstances for obstacles or problems. Initiative and taking action will then follow. Covey shows how man is different from animals in that he has self-consciousness. He has the ability to detach himself and observe his own self, think about his thoughts. He goes on to say how this attribute enables him. It gives him the power not to be affected by his circumstances. Covey talks about “Stimulus and Response.” Between Stimulus and Response, we have the power to choose the response.

2, Begin with the End In Mind. This chapter is about setting long-term goals based on “true-north principles.” Covey recommends to formulate a “personal mission statement” to document one’s perception of one’s own purpose in life. He sees visualisation as an important tool to develop this. He also deals with organisational mission statements, which he claims to be more effective if developed and supported by all members of an organisation, rather than being prescribed.

3, Put First Things First. Here, Covey describes a framework for prioritising work that is aimed at long-term goals, at the expense of tasks that appear to be urgent, but are in fact less important. Delegation is presented as an important part of time management. Successful delegation, according to Covey, focuses on results and benchmarks that are to be agreed in advance, rather than on prescribing detailed work plans.

4, Think Win/Win describes an attitude that seeks mutually beneficial solutions that satisfy the needs of oneself as well as those of others, or, in the case of a conflict, both parties involved.

5, Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood. Covey warns that giving out advice before having empathetically understood a person and their situation is likely lead to that advice being rejected. Thoroughly listening to another person’s concerns instead of reading out your own autobiography is purported to increase the chance of establishing a working communication.

6, Synergise describes a way of working in teams. Apply effective problem solving. Apply collaborative decision making. Value differences. Build on divergent strengths. Leverage creative collaboration. Embrace and leverage innovation. It is put forth that, when this is pursued as a habit, the result of the teamwork will exceed the sum of what each of the members could have achieved on their own. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

7, Sharpen the saw focuses on balanced self-renewal. Regaining what Covey calls “production capability” by engaging in carefully selected recreational activities. [Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1992), p. 107.]

David Runcorn adapts these by drawing up what he describes as A “rule of life for a woman with a dual vocation to working career and family life, seeking to maintain a faithful and creative relationship between them”:

● I will seek to balance career and family as best I can since both are important to me.

● My home will be a place where I and my family, friends and guests find joy, comfort peace and happiness.

● I will exercise wisdom in what we choose to eat, read and do at home. I especially want my children to love, to learn and to laugh – and to work and develop their unique talents.

● I will be a concerned and responsible citizen, involved in political process to ensure my voice is heard and my vote is counted.

● I will act on situations and opportunities rather than be acted upon.

● I will try to keep myself free from addictive and destructive habits. I will develop habits that free me from old labels and limits and expand my capabilities and choices.

● My money will be my servant, not my master. My wants will be subject to my needs and my means.

● Except for long-term home and car loans, I will seek to keep myself free from consumer debt.

● I will spend less that I earn.

● I will use what money I have to make life more enjoyable for others through service and charitable giving.

[David Runcorn, Spirituality Workbook, p. 61.]

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes used for a workshop on “Pastoral Ministry and Self-Care” with Year III students on the Non-Stipendiary Ministry (NSM) course on 18 October 2008 and with Year II students on the B.Th. course on Spirituality for Ministry on 22 October 2008.

The Johannine Letters: I John 2: 3-11

The entrance to the Basilica of Saint John in Ephesus: local tradition says Saint John the Divine lived on this site after his exile on Patmos ended, and wrote his Gospel and Epistles here (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008).

Patrick Comerford

This section contains three claims to intimate knowledge of God, expressed by the three Greek participles ho legon (ὁ λέγων , “the one who says”) at the beginning of verse 4, 6, and 9. As with the three conditional clauses beginning with ean eipomen (ἐὰν εἴπωμεν, “if we say”) in the previous section (1: 6, 1: 8, 1: 10), these participles indirectly reflect the claims of the opponents. They are followed by the author’s evaluation of these claims and their implications.

While the subject matter generally continues from the preceding section, the focus shifts from awareness and acknowledgment of sin to obedience to God’s commandments. It is through obedience that we may have assurance of the genuineness of our relationship with God. In this section, the writer is talking about discipline.

In the section, I John specifically emphasises the theme of keeping the commandments in order to know God. In this we need to remember that knowledge implies intimacy.

We can see here a virtual repetition of the first part of the Last Discourse in the Fourth Gospel.

The concept of “light” (contrasted with “darkness”) introduced in 1: 5 appears again (for the last time in 1 John) in 2: 8-11. The concept of “fellowship,” introduced in the prologue (1: 4) and discussed in 1: 8 to 2: 2, no longer appears in this section, but is replaced by an emphasis on “knowing” and “loving” God along with loving fellow believers (2:3, 4, 5, 10).

There are three claims to intimate knowledge of God. These are found in verses 4, 6 and 9. Each claim begins with the phrase “the one who says…” or “whoever says” and each of these claims reflect the position of the secessionist opponents.

Love of God, which is a two-way relationship involving the love of God for us and the love of God that we have, is perfected by keeping the commandments.

Verses 3-5 talk about obedience to God’s commandments. This obedience tests whether we know God, and measures the perfection of completeness of our love of God (see John 14: 15, 21, 23; John 15: 10).

Verse 3: The significance of the word kai (Καὶ, “and” or “now”) at the beginning of 2: 3 is important for understanding the argument, because a similar use of the conjunction kai occurs at the beginning of 1: 5. Here it is looking back to the previous use in 1: 5. The author, after discussing three claims of the opponents in 1: 6, 8, and 10 and putting forward three counter-claims of his own in 1: 7, 1: 9, and 2: 1, is now returning to the theme of God as light, which he introduced in 1: 5. The author will now discuss how a Christian may have assurance that he or she has come to know the God who is light, against the opponents who make the same profession of knowing God, but who lack the reality of such knowledge, as their behaviour makes clear.

Verse 3: There is some problem determining whether the pronouns in verse 3 – αὐτόν, αὐτοῦ, which are translated as “him” and “his” in the NRSV but as God in other translations – refer to God the Father or to Jesus Christ. It is more likely the author of I John is referring to God the Father here. When John wants to specify a reference to Jesus, he uses the expression “that one” (ἐκεῖνος, verse 6; translated in some versions as Jesus but not in the original Greek text). The author’s point in this verse is that obedience to God’s commandments gives us assurance that we have come to know God.

The author does not explicitly state what the “commandments” are which believers are supposed to obey. One might immediately assume that the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments.

However, there is no indication anywhere else in I John (except, perhaps, in 5: 21, with its prohibition of idolatry) that the author is concerned about the Mosaic law. God’s commands are spelled out later in the letter, in 3: 23: “Now this is his commandment: that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he gave us the commandment.” The phrase “love one another” is found as the “new commandment” of John 13: 34, and is a major Johannine theme.

Verse 6: Jesus is the pattern of obedience.

In this verse, there is no distinction between God (the Father – “abide in him”) and Christ (“as he walked/lived”). This ambiguity may be explained, perhaps, by the conviction that Jesus and the Father are one.

Verses 7-11: This section emphasises love for one another.

Verse 7: The thoughts of love and of commandments introduce the great commandment of the Last Supper (see John 13: 34).

Verse 8: The commandment to love, though old, is never obsolete or out-of-date. Instead, it is always new, being the law of the new age and overcoming the darkness of evil (see I John 1: 5; John 13: 34; John 15: 12). The reference to the “true light” reminds us of the prologue to Saint John’s Gospel.

Verses 9-11: Hatred of a brother or sister, a fellow Christian, is incompatible with Christ’s light (see John 8: 12; John 11: 9-10; John 12: 35-36). The failure to keep the great commandment of love removes one from the sphere of the light of Jesus.

Next week: John 2: 12-14.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 22 October 2008.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

The priest at prayer: facing difficulties and problems

The ordination of priests in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin earlier in 2008. The ordinal reminds us that we are called to lead the people in prayer. (Photograph: Garret Casey).

Patrick Comerford


For a few recent weeks, the Sunday Lectionary readings included readings from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. But as far as I remember, we missed out on that passage where Paul tells the Church in Philippi: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you …” (Philippians 1: 3-4).

In thinking about ordination and in preparing for ordination, most ordinands will have seen prayer – their own prayer life, praying for others and being a person of prayer – as a major expectation in their vocation and ministry.

My experience is that whatever else people want of us, as priests or clergy, they want us to pray for them and to pray with them. However, Rosalind Brown and Christopher Cocksworth say that “almost without exception” prayer is the one area that clergy admit to feeling they are failing to meet their own expectation and hopes, quite apart from the expectations of those we minister among.

Too often, clergy end up with feelings of failure and guilt, feeling unable to pray as they wish to. Many clergy know what it is to wonder whether their parishioners or members of the congregations would lose all trust for and respect in them if they only knew the paucity of their prayer life.

The other side of these feelings of guilt and failure, is the feeling of failure and guilt that comes when we are spending time in prayer and keep getting the nagging feeling that the time would be better spent “doing” something more productive.

The call to a life of prayer

Prayer is at the heart of your ordained ministry. The ordinal reminds us that deacons are called to “strengthen the faithful” and to “lead the people in intercession” (The Book of Common Prayer 2004, The Church of Ireland, p. 555), and that priests “are to lead God’s people in prayer and worship, to intercede for them … ” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 565). Bishops too are to “pray for all those committed to their charge … and to lead the offering of prayer and praise” (The Book of Common Prayer, pp 576, 577). At ordination, deacons, priests and bishops are asked by the bishop: “Will you be diligent in prayer …?” The response is: “With the help of God, I will” (The Book of Common Prayer, pp 556, 566, 578).

Archbishop Rowan Williams writes of “three-ness” of prayer for those who have been ordained: “If you have the charge of priesthood laid upon you, then the Sunday liturgy, the Daily Office and private prayer are simply there, and there is no way around them, even if you should want one. They are part of the bargain, and they grow on us as we increasingly sense in them something of the sovereignty of God. In this way, they become both a commitment and a joy, even if there are times when we would rather be doing something else. The ‘three-ness’ is not a matter of law or rules, but a part of the essence of being Christian” (Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections, Cambridge MA: Cowley, 1995).

Finding the strength to pray

At the opening of the prayers at the ordination service, the candidates for ordination are reminded that “none of us can bear the weight of this ministry in our own strength …” (The Book of Common Prayer 2004, pp 557, 567, 578).

So, where do we go to seek and draw the strength to pray? Despite those prayers at ordination, we do not suddenly become paragons of prayer when we are ordained. Indeed, whether or not you have disciplined prayer life, you know by now that you do not pray and cannot pray on your own strength.

In that weakness, I find it reassuring when the Apostle Paul reminds me: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is in the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8: 26-27).

The ordination charges to be diligent in prayer, to intercede for the people, to lead the people in prayer and worship, and to teach them by word and example are possible to fulfil only because of the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

The priority of prayer

Archbishop Michael Ramsey once said that “the prayer of the priest is … supremely important as the source of his ability to train the people in the way of prayer.”

A daily rhythm of prayer creates a growth that may remain imperceptible to us individually. But others know whether we are people of prayer. We do not have to tell them.

Prayer should be and must be at the heart of our ordained ministry. Being a priest is not simply an occupation, but is a vocation, a calling. And our prayer is not one more function or part of the job description. We are called to be people of prayer, people for whom prayer is not just something we do. Rather, prayer must be the environment in which we live because we live in God.

The poet John Donne (1572-1631), who was once Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, wrote: “[Prayer] may be mental, for we may think prayers. It may be real, for we may speak prayers. It may be actual, for we may do prayers … So then to do the office of your vocation sincerely is to pray.”

But how do we work at making and maintaining prayer as the priority it should be in our ministry?

Everyday prayer

In a well-known hymn (Church Hymnal 625), the hymn writer James Montgomery (1771-1854) wrote:

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
unuttered or expressed,
the motion of a hidden fire
that trembles in the breast.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
the falling of a tear,
the upward glancing of an eye,
when none but God is near.

Prayer is the simplest form of speech
that infant lips can try;
prayer the sublimest strains that reach
the Majesty on high.

Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
the Christian’s native air,
our watchword at the gates of death,
we enter heaven with prayer.

In this hymn, James Montgomery – who lived for a while at Gracehill in Co Antrim – suggests that prayer is our natural environment, not something that we do under duress at certain times, because it is a task or burden, or because it is one the obligations imposed on us as a condition for ordination.

Prayer is the intimacy of our life in God. Prayer is being “lost in wonder, love and praise.” Prayer is the short glance in God’s direction. Prayer is the awe and wonder felt at a beautiful sunset. Prayer is the pain or the pleasure as we listen to news. Prayer is the cry of help when there are no words to express those feelings and no words to describe that need. Prayer is the silence of being in God’s company in sorrow and in joy. Prayer knows nothing too high to be too majestic or too low to be too mean for bringing before God. Prayer, like breathing, is the underlying rhythm and pulse of life.

Or as Michael Quoist says: “Everyday life is the raw material of prayer” (Prayers of Life, 1966).

But how do we work to overcome those difficulties that sometimes stop prayer from being the soul’s desire, that stop prayer from coming from our heart as easily as the simplest form of speech, that stop prayer from being as natural as breath?

Difficulties in prayer

When we are full of joy, prayer may come easily in terms of words and actions. But when we are broken-hearted, bruised, tired or confused, we may find that all we can do is present ourselves, physically, in our place of prayer without finding words.

Some of the weaknesses in prayer that each of us is familiar with include not having enough time, and being distracted constantly by other thoughts in our minds or other events taking place around us. When we find difficulties in prayer are crowding around us, and the words cease, the thoughts wander, and we want to escape from the place of prayer, it is worth remembering that at times our presence alone is sufficient prayer.

Saint Theophan the Recluse: an inspiring and great Russian teachers on prayer

Among the inspiring and great teachers on prayer is Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894). A persistent theme in his writing was the task of developing an interior life of continuous prayer, learning to “pray without ceasing,” as the Apostle Paul teaches in I Thessalonians.

He wrote: “Prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right. For prayer will not allow anything to go wrong.”

Priestly ministry calls on us to live on the boundary between earth and heaven, to be at home in both worlds, to be able to speak of each in and to the other.

But how do we ensure that we have an interior life of continuous prayer that is the driving force for everything in ministerial life?

Prayer at the heart of ministry

Some advice that may help people in ordained ministry who find that their commitment to prayer is becoming difficult would include the following: do not worry, slow down, be disciplined, keep priorities in focus, do not get too upset or worried about techniques of prayer, do not try to be perfect.

Do not worry? You know the saying, “It could happen to a bishop.” Bishop Alan Abernathy has conceded: “I must say that I still find prayer very difficult. There are days when I cannot pray. There are days when I do not want to pray. There are days when I wonder if am living a lie” (Fulfilment & Frustration, p. 120).

When you face difficulties, remember that you are not alone. Everyone in ministry has these feelings at different times. Indeed, everyone has these difficulties.

Slow down? Kenneth Leech has written: “There is no need to rush around feverishly looking for a prayer life: we need to slow down and look deeply within. What is the point of complaining that God is absent if it is we who are absent from God, and from ourselves, by our lack of awareness … At heart, prayer is a process of self-giving and of being set free from isolation. To pray is to enter into a relationship with God and to be transformed by him” (Kenneth Leech, True Prayer).

Be disciplined? In the canon law of the Church of England, Canon C26 reminds all clergy – bishops, priests and deacons – of our call to and duty of daily prayer:

“Every bishop, priest, and deacon is under obligation, not being let by sickness or some other urgent cause, to say daily the Morning and Evening Prayer, either privately or openly; and to celebrate the Holy Communion, or be present thereat, on all Sundays and other principal Feast Days. He is also to be diligent in daily prayer and intercession, in examination of his conscience, and in the study of the Holy Scriptures and such other studies as pertain to his ministerial duties.”

This is not a canonical requirement for us in the Church of Ireland. But it is a good and useful, tested discipline.

Keep priorities in focus? You will be under pressure to do, rather than be. Being a priest is much more important than doing the things that people think we should do as priests. We are ordained to be ministers of word and sacrament and to be people of service and prayer. But you will constantly under pressure to do things – under pressure from parishioners, from other clergy, even from your bishop do so many things that you were not ordained for. At times, that pressure may be so great that you are finding there are unacceptable pressures on your prayer life and the time you give to prayer.

That pressure was recognised over 60 years ago by Evelyn Underhill when she wrote: “We are drifting towards a religion which … keeps its eye on humanity rather than Deity, which lays all the stress on service, and hardly any of the stress on awe: and that is a type of religion which in practice does not wear well. It does little for the soul in those awful moments when the pain and mystery of life are most deeply felt. It does not provide a place for that profound experience which Tauller called ‘suffering in God’. It does not lead to sanctity, and sanctity after all is the religious goal” (Evelyn Underhill, Concerning the Inner Life with The House of the Soul, p. 4).

Do not get upset about techniques of prayer? Almost 100 years ago, the great pioneering spiritual director, Somerset Ward, warned: “It is a common reason for failure in prayer, that we are more aware of the subject of our prayer rather than its object; we are apt to think more of what we shall pray for than of how we shall pray” (To Jerusalem, p. 111).

There may be times when the words of the Daily Office, Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, pass you by and you cannot find words for prayer. But your presence is prayer itself. There may be times when the words and actions of the Eucharist or Holy Communion pass you by. But you can be assured that you are caught up in the timeless prayer of the church, present with all the saints, and the angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven.

Do not try to be perfect? Because of the images and expectations that people will project onto you, it becomes easy to forget that we are called not be priests who are perfect, in perfect places and parishes. No. We are called to be priests and people of prayer as we are, in the lives we live today. Learning to deal with and to dismiss unnecessary guilt is an important discipline in the priestly life.

Do you remember how Eli upbraided Hannah for her apparently unseemly behaviour as she prayed in the Temple. He accused her of being drunk and making a spectacle of herself. But she replied bluntly: “I have been pouring out my soul to the Lord,” or, as the Jerusalem Bible translates that verse: “I have been speaking to God from the depth of my grief and resentment” (I Samuel 1: 16).

We do not need to feel holy as we pray, or to worry whether others will regard us holy as we pray. God meets us where we are, not where we think we should be, where we are pretending to be, or where others think we should be.


You may find devising a rule of prayer helps. For an example, see what Saint Theophan the Recluse has to say about a Rule of Prayer in Letter 47, which is appended.

You may want to consult a spiritual director about this. But I repeat, in the words of Saint Theophan the Recluse: “Remember, all of this is a guide. The heart of the matter is: Stand with reverence before God, with the mind in the heart, and strive toward Him with longing.”

Whatever you do, do not worry, slow down, be disciplined, keep priorities in focus, do not get too upset or worried about techniques of prayer, do not try to be perfect.

Additional reading

Abernathy, Alan, Fulfilment & Frustration: Ministry in today’s Church (Dublin: Columba, 2002).
(Bloom, Anthony,) Practical Prayer (Ben Lomond CA: Conciliar Press, 1989).
Bloom, Anthony, and LeFebvre, Georges, Courage to Pray (London: Daron, Longman and Todd, 1973).
Brown, Rosalind, and Cocksworth, Christopher, On being a priest today (Cambridge MA: Cowley 2002). Also published as Cocksworth, Christopher, and Brown, Rosalind, Being a priest today (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2002).
Christou, Sotirios, The Priest & the People of God (Cambridge: Burlington Press, 2003).
Leech, Kenneth, True Prayer (London: Sheldon Press, 1980).
Quoist, Michael, Prayers of Life (Dublin: Gill and Sons, 1963).
Ramsey, Michael, The Christian Priest Today (London: SPCK, revised ed, 1992).
Redfern, Alistair, Ministry and Priesthood (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1999).
Underhill, Evelyn, Concerning the Inner Life with The House of the Soul (London: Methuen, 1947).
Ward, R. Somerset, To Jerusalem (ed. Susan Howatch, London: Mowbray, 1994).
Williams, Rowan, A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections (Cambridge MA: Cowley, 1995).


Saint Theophan the Recluse: Prayer Rule (from Letter 47):

You ask about the prayer rule. Yes, because of our weakness, it is proper to have a prayer rule. For one thing, it controls excessive zeal. The great men of prayer had a prayer rule and kept to it. Every time, they began prayer with the established prayers, and then, if self-initiated prayer came, they turned to it from reciting prayers. If they needed a prayer rule, then we need one even more! Without formal prayers, we would not know how to pray correctly at all. Without them, we would be completely without prayer.

Nevertheless, we should not collect too many prayers. A few prayers, correctly read, are better than many prayers raced through. And, of course, it is hard to keep from rushing when, in our eagerness to pray, we have gathered more prayers than we can handle.

For you, it is quite adequate to complete the morning and evening prayers as they are found in the prayer book. Always strive to complete them with as much attention and feeling as possible. To do this successfully, make an effort in your spare time to read them with extra care, attention and feeling, so that when you are at prayer, you will be familiar with the holy thoughts and feelings contained in them. Praying does not mean repeating a certain number of words of prayer; praying is reproducing the contents of the prayers within ourselves, so that they flow as if from our own mind and heart.

Having contemplated their meaning and reacted deeply, make an effort to learn the prayers by heart, so when it is time for prayer, you will not have to fumble with books and lighting. If you learn prayers by heart, you will not be distracted by what your eyes see, and you will be able to hold your mind’s attention more steadily upon God.

You will see for yourself how beneficial this is. Learning prayers by heart ensures that at all times and in every circumstance the prayers are with you, and this means a great deal.

Having so prepared yourself to stand at prayer, strive to keep your mind from drifting away and strive to keep your feelings from turning cold and indifferent. Always strain to pay attention and to nurture warmth. After reading each prayer, do as many prostrations as you feel necessary, or say the usual short prayer (that is, the Jesus Prayer). Your prayers, no doubt, will take longer this way, but they will grow in strength.

Particularly at the end of your prayer rule, spend additional time saying your own prayers. Ask for forgiveness for involuntary inattention during prayer and surrender yourself to God’s care for the whole day.

We must continue to hold our attention on God during the day. To support our attention, I have said more than once: Remember God through a briefly worded prayer.

At times, it is very fruitful to substitute a few psalms for the short prayer psalms you have reflected upon thoroughly and memorised. You can do this during free moments and throughout the day's activities. Repeating memorised psalms is an ancient Christian custom that was developed and brought into the monastic rule in the fourth century by Saints Pachomius and Anthony [the Great].

After spending the entire day in such a prayerful attitude, take even more time in the evening to concentrate at prayer and increase your prostrations. Intensify your supplications to God and, having again dedicated to God’s care, bed down with a brief prayer on your lips and fall asleep with it, or with the repetition of a psalm.

Which psalms to learn? Memorise those that drop into your heart when you read them. Different people are moved by different psalms. Begin with Psalm 50, then Psalms 102 and 145, the antiphons for the Liturgy; also, the psalms from the Preparation for Communion (Psalms 22, 2:3, 115); as well as Psalm 69, Psalm 4 (the first psalm of [Great] Compline [during the first week of Great Lent]), the psalms for the Hours, and the like. Read the Psalter and choose.

Having memorised all this, you will be totally armed for prayer. When a disturbing thought comes to mind, rush to the Lord with a brief prayer or some psalm, especially, “O God, be attentive unto helping me” (Psalm 69), and the disturbing cloud will immediately vanish.

That summarises prayer rules.

But I repeat: Remember, all of this is a guide. The heart of the matter is: Stand with reverence before God, with the mind in the heart, and strive toward Him with longing.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture on 21 October 2008 in the Year III course, Spirituality for Today.