10 October 2011

Liturgy 3.2: Traditions of prayer (1) seminar, readings on Benedictine and Franciscan prayer

The chapel in Alton Abbey, Hampshire, one of the Benedictine abbeys in the Church of England

Patrick Comerford

EM8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality

Year II, 14:00 to 16:00, Mondays, Hartin Room:

Liturgy 3: 10 October 2011

Liturgy 3.2:
Traditions of prayer (1) seminar, readings on Benedictine and Franciscan prayer.

The Benedictine tradition of prayer

Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998), pp 31-52.

It could be said that Anglican spirituality has its roots in the Benedictine spirituality, an approach to life and prayer that arose from the monastic community of Saint Benedict in the sixth century.

In recent years, three of the most interesting commentaries of the rule of Saint Benedict have been written by leading Anglican writers: Esther de Waal, a well-known writer and lecturer on theology, spirituality and Church history and the wife of a former Dean of Canterbury; Elizabeth Canham, one of the first women ordained priest in the Episcopal Church (TEC) and who lived for almost six years in a Benedictine monastery; and Canon Andrew Clitherow of the Diocese of Blackburn.

Dom Gregory Dix (1901-1952), who I quoted at the beginning of our lecture this afternoon, was a priest-monk of Nashdom Abbey, an Anglican Benedictine community. As a liturgical scholar, his work has had an immeasurable influence on the direction of changes to Anglican liturgy in the mid-20th century. The method called lectio divina, which has been used by Benedictines to pray using the Bible, is growing in use in many Anglican circles.

There are 13 cathedrals with a Benedictine foundation and tradition in the Church of England: Canterbury, Chester, Coventry, Durham, Ely, Gloucester, Norwich, Peterborough, Rochester, Saint Alban, Winchester, Worcester and York Minster, or 14 if we include Westminster Abbey in London.

There are at least 17 Benedictine communities within the Anglican tradition, seven in England and the others in Australia, Canada (2), South Africa, South Korea and the US (5). In the Church of England, they include: Alton Abbey, Hampshire; Mucknell Abbey, near Worcester (formerly the community at Burford Priory, near Oxford); Edgware Abbey, Edgware; Elmore Abbey, Newbury, Berkshire (founded at Pershore and later at Nashdom Abbey); Saint Mary’s Abbey, West Malling, Kent; and Saint Peter’s Convent, Horbury, Wakefield. The Cistercian Monastery at Ewell closed in 2004.

At a popular level, Benedictine prayer became more accessible in popular culture in 2005 when the BBC screened the television series, The Monastery, in which the Benedictine Abbot of Worth Abbey guided five modern men (and three million viewers) into a new approach to life at Worth Abbey.

Since then, Abbot Christopher Jamison’s best-selling book following the popular series offers reader a similar opportunity. In this book he points out that no matter how hard we work, being too busy is not inevitable. Silence and contemplation are not just for monks and nuns, they are natural parts of life. Yet to keep hold of this truth in the rush of modern living we need the support of other people and sensible advice from wise guides. By learning to listen in new ways, people’s lives can change and Abbot Christopher has offered some monastic steps that help this transition to a more spiritual life.

In the Church of Ireland, two of the preferred centres for pre-ordination retreats are Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick, and the Benedictine Abbey in Rostrevor, Co Down.

So, an introduction to Benedictine spirituality and prayer life may be an important contextualisation for some pre-ordination retreats. But it is even more important as an introduction to one of the formative influences on Anglican spirituality.

Benedictine spirituality approaches life through an ordering by daily prayer that is biblical and reflective. At its base, Benedictine spirituality is grounded in a commitment to “the Benedictine Promise” – an approach to spiritual life that values “Stability, Obedience, and Conversion of Life.”

In the Rule of Saint Benedict, the major themes are community, prayer, hospitality, study, work, humility, stability, peace, and listening.

The Benedictine motto is: “Ora et Labora.” The motto does not present prayer and work as two distinct things. Rather it holds prayer and work together.

The chapel becomes the place for the Work of God (Opus Dei), but the work of God does not end at the chapel door. God continues to work where we work. The monastic cell is the place of solitude, but this is not a refuge from the common life. There must be time and place for both. For the individual there must be a unity of the inner life and the outer life.

As Psalm 19 says: “Let the words of my mouth [the outside], and the meditation of my heart [the inside], be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19: 14).

The function of prayer is to change my own mind, to put on the mind of Christ, to enable grace to break into me. – Sister Joan D. Chittister, OSB

Benedictine spirituality teaches us that prayer is not a matter of mood. To pray only when we feel like it is more to seek consolation than to risk conversion. To pray only when it suits us is to want God on our terms. To pray only when it is convenient is to make the God-life a very low priority in a list of better opportunities. To pray only when it feels good is to court total emptiness when we most need to be filled.

Prayer is not about making God some kind of private getaway from life. Prayer is meant to call us back to a consciousness of God here and now. And so, prayer in the Benedictine tradition is a community act and an act of community awareness.

One of the best-know Benedictine theologians and writers at the moment is Sister Joan Chittister OSB. In Benedictine Prayer: A Larger Vision of Life, she explains that “Benedictine prayer is not designed to take people out of the world to find God. Benedictine prayer is designed to enable people to realise that God is in the world around them.”

Sister Joan says: “Benedictine prayer, which is rooted in the Psalms and other Scriptures, takes us out of ourselves to form in us a larger vision of life than we ourselves can ever dredge up out of our own lives alone. Benedictine prayer puts us in contact with past and future at once so that the present becomes clearer and the future possible.”

She says Benedictine prayer has several characteristics that make more for a spirituality of awareness than of consolation. She lists those characteristics of Benedictine prayer: It is regular. It is universal. It is converting. It is reflective. And it is communal. Out of those qualities, a whole new life emerges and people are changed.

For example, prayer that is regular confounds both self-importance and the wiles of the world.

“It is so easy for good people to confuse their own work with the work of creation. It is so easy to come to believe that what we do is so much more important than what we are. It is so easy to simply get too busy to grow. It is so easy to commit ourselves to this century’s demand for product and action until the product consumes us and the actions exhaust us and we can no longer even remember why we set out to do them in the first place. But regularity in prayer cures all that.”

Saint Benedict called for prayer at regular intervals of each day, right in the middle of apparently urgent and important work. His message was unequivocal.

“Pray always,” Scripture says. “Prefer nothing whatsoever to the Work of God,” the Rule of Benedict says (Rule of Benedict 43: 3). “Impossible,” most people will say.

But if we train our souls to remain tied to a consciousness of God, as the Rule of Benedict directs, even when other things appear to have greater value or more immediate claims on our time, then consciousness of God becomes a given. And consciousness of God is perpetual prayer.

To pray in the midst of the mundane is to assert that this dull and tiring day is holy and its simple labours are the stuff of God’s saving presence for me now. To pray simply because it is prayer time is no small act of immersion in the God who is willing to wait for us to be conscious, to be ready, to be willing to become new in life.

In daily life, though, there will always be something more pressing to do than to pray. And when that attitude takes over, we will soon discover that without prayer the energy for the rest of life runs down. When we think we are too tired and too busy to pray, we should remind ourselves then that we are too tired and too busy not to pray.

To pray when we cannot pray is to let God be our prayer. The spirituality of regularity requires us to turn over our broken and distracted selves to the possibility of conversion in memory and in hope, in good times and in bad, day after day after day.

Benedictine prayer is based almost totally in the Psalms and in the Scriptures. “Let us set out on this way,” the Rule says, “with the Gospel as our guide” (Prologue: 9). And so, Benedictine prayer is not centred in the needs and wants and insights of the individual who is praying. Instead, it is anchored in the needs and wants and insights of the entire universe. Benedictine prayer takes me out of myself so that I can be my best self.

Benedictine prayer life, besides being scriptural and regular, is reflective. It is designed to make us take our own lives into account in the light of the Gospel. It is not recitation for its own sake. It is bringing the mind of Christ to bear on the fragments of our own lives. It takes time and it does not depend on quantity for its value.

This is a prayer life that involves a commitment to regularity, reflection, and a sense of the universal. The function of prayer is not to change the mind of God about the decisions we have already made for ourselves. The function of prayer is to change my own mind, to put on the mind of Christ, to enable grace to break into me.

Finally, Benedictine prayer is communal. Benedictine prayer is prayer with a community and for a community and as a community. It is commitment to a pilgrim people whose insights grow with time and whose needs are common to us all.

Community prayer in the Benedictine tradition is a constant reminder that we do not go to Church for ourselves alone. To say, “I have a good prayer life, I don’t need to go to Church,” or to say “I don’t get anything out of prayer” is to admit our own poverty at either the communal or the personal level.

Community prayer binds us to one another and broadens our vision of the needs of the world. The praying community becomes the vehicle for my own faithfulness. Private prayer, Benedict says, may follow communal prayer, but it can never substitute for it. Prayer, in fact, forms the community mind.

The implications of the Benedictine approach to prayer

Holy Cross Monastery, Rostrevor, Co Down

The implications of all these qualities for contemporary spirituality can be summarised as follows:

1, Prayer must be scriptural, not simply personal. I am to converse with God in the Word daily – not simply attended to at times of emotional spasm – until little by little the Gospel begins to work in me.

2, I need to set aside and keep time for prayer. It may be before breakfast in the morning; after the children go to school; in the car on the way to work; on the bus coming home; at night before going to bed. But I need to set that time aside that time for prayer and to keep it.

3, Reflection on the Scriptures is basic to growth in prayer and to personal growth. Prayer is a process of coming to be something new, and is never simply a series of exercises.

4, Understanding is essential to the act of prayer. Formulas are not enough.

5, Changes in attitudes and behaviours are a direct outcome of prayer. Anything else amounts to something more like therapeutic massage than confrontation with God.

6, A sense of community is both foundational for and the culmination of prayer. I pray to become a better human being, not to become better at praying.

As Sister Joan Chittister says: “We pray to see life as it is, to understand it, and to make it better than it was. We pray so that reality can break into our souls and give us back our awareness of the Divine Presence in life. We pray to understand things as they are, not to ignore and avoid and deny them.”

The Franciscan tradition of prayer:

Stained glass windows in the chapel of Gormanston College, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There are at least six families of Franciscan religious communities within the Anglican Communion. They include the Society of Saint Francis, which has 11 houses, priories, friaries or convent in England, and other priories or houses in Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the US (New York, California); the Community of Saint Clare, near Witney, Oxfordshire; the Community of Saint Francis, Birmingham; the Sisters of Saint Francis in Korea; and the Third Order of Saint Francis, which is found throughout the Anglican Communion.

The Cross of San Damiano

A foundational story in Franciscan spirituality tells how on a summer day in 1206, Saint Francis of Assisi was walking close to the crumbling church of San Damiano when he felt an inner call from the Holy Spirit to go inside the church to pray. In obedience, Francis entered the church, fell on his knees before what is now a familiar icon cross, and opened himself to what the God might have to say to him.

In eager anticipation, Francis looked up into the serene face of the crucified Lord, and prayed this prayer: “Most High, glorious God, cast your light into the darkness of my heart. Give me, Lord, right faith, firm hope, perfect charity, and profound humility, with wisdom and perception, so that I may carry out what is truly your holy will. Amen.”

Ever more quietly he repeated the prayer, lost in devotion and wonder before the image of his crucified Lord.

Then, in the stillness, Francis heard Christ speaking to him from the Cross: “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you can see, is falling into ruin.”

A plaque in Cloister Court in Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge, recalls Duns Scotus and the early Franciscan community in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As the tradition of religious communities was being explored once again, rediscovered, revived and rebuilt in the Anglican Communion in response to the Anglo-Catholic revival in the 19th century, many of those involved turned for inspiration to the Franciscan tradition.

The gentle approach to obedience in the Franciscan tradition has been described as a “middle way” in the monastic tradition, and so the Franciscan tradition has an immediate appeal to Anglicans of the Via Media.

The Daily Office, which is the office book of the Society of Saint Francis, was among the first to be fully updated with the Common Worship Lectionary, and so came into use throughout the wider Anglican Communion. But it has also provided the model for the offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer in Common Worship.

Francis and Franciscan values also have a relevance to the wider, international and global community. This is a world that has never been more in need of those Franciscan values of Peace, Poverty, and respect for the environment.

The Church exists to call the world into it not so much that the world may become the church, less so that the church may become the world, but that through the Church the world may enter into the Kingdom of God.

In the age of a nuclear overkill, climate change and global poverty, Francis and his rule for his community, first shaped 800 years ago in 1209, continue to call us back again to the true values of Christian community and lifestyle.

Closing Prayer:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Let us pray:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Additional reading:

Anglican Religious Life 2010-11 (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2009).
Patrick Barry, Richard Yeo, Kathleen Norris, et al, Wisdom from the Monastery: The Rule of St Benedict for everyday life (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2005).
Elizabeth Canham, Heart Wisdom: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Guildford: Eagle Publishing, 2001).
Joan D. Chittister, Benedictine Prayer: a larger vision of life: living the rule of Saint Benedict today (San Francisco and New York: Harper, 1991).
Andrew Clitherow, Desire, Love and the Rule of St Benedict (London: SPCK, 2008).
Esther de Waal, Seeking God, The Way of St. Benedict (London: Fount, 1984).
Mary Forman OSB, ‘Prayer,’ in Patrick Barry et al, Wisdom from the Monastery: The Rule of St Benedict for everyday life (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2005).
franciscan, three times a year from Hilfield Friary.
Abbot Christopher Jamison, Finding Sanctuary – Monastic steps for everyday life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006).
Nikos Kazantzakis, Saint Francis (Oxford: Bruno Cassiver, 1962).
Alister E. McGrath, Christian Spirituality (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999).
Brother Ramon, Franciscan Spirituality (London: SPCK, 1994), pp 111-125.
Nicolas Stebbing CR (ed), Anglican Religious Life: A well-kept secret? (Dublin: Dominican Publications, 2003).
Columba Stewart, Prayer and Community: The Benedictine Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998).

Some links:

Alton Abbey: : http://www.altonabbey.org.uk/
Burford Priory: http://www.burfordosb.org.uk/
Glenstal Abbey: http://www.glenstal.org/index.htm
Holy Cross Monastery, Rostrevor: http://www.benedictinemonks.co.uk/index.asp
Mucknell Abbey: http://www.altonabbey.org.uk/
Worth Abbey: http://www.worthabbey.net/

For more information on the TV series The Monastery: http://www.worthabbey.net/bbc

Next week:

Liturgy 4.1:
The development of the liturgical year and the daily office;

Liturgy 4.2: Traditions of prayer (2): seminar readings on Reformation Prayer.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This lecture was delivered on 10 October 2011 as part of the MTh module EM8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality

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