Month: February 2016

Prayer

By comparison with fasting and almsgiving, I’m nervous about the topic of prayer. This isn’t because I think it isn’t important, or even because I don’t do it. Part of the problem is that writing about prayer is, in our culture, an exercise in putting oneself on display to an extent unparalleled even by writing about sex. One either enters the territory of the kind of spiritual Alan Partridges who slip the word ‘Jesus’ into every other sentence and can be seen sporting P.U.S.H. bracelets (Pray Until Something Happens, apparently), or else one discloses something uniquely personal. This last thought wouldn’t be entirely wrong were it not for the word ‘uniquely’, as though prayer were something solely between me and God, with the rest of the human race, or even the Church, not getting a look in. The personal is not the same as the private. But we can’t, or I should say I can’t, entirely escape the world that formed us, and so I feel uncomfortable writing about prayer.

More than this, there’s two ideas I find floating around whenever I try to articulate anything about prayer, both suggesting an inadequacy in my own practice. One, more often encountered amongst non-Catholics (the Christian Union from my student days spring to mind), tells me that prayer should be like talking to my friends, as informal and unforced as a chat in the pub. Well, it doesn’t feel very much like that when in the day’s first caffeine-lightened haze I thumb through a breviary. Another, ecumenical in its adherents, suggests that prayer is an inward, deeply profound business, hidden from the mass of humanity, and above all difficult. Thus the abundance of techniques and books about something called ‘spirituality’. In an unhealthily pious younger phase I tried, and failed, to learn some of these techniques.

Neither view is entirely wrong. After all, on the one hand, ‘I call you friends‘, and on the other, prayer would be difficult, were it not – considered as a technique, as something we might do, with a bit of practice – impossible.

Those friends in the pub are the same kind of thing as me. They are part of my world, sharing my concerns and my language. I can work on my friendships with them, learning about them, sharing myself with them, engaging in shared activities, and forming over time a common history. God, on the other hand, is not the same kind of thing as me, or any kind of thing. God does not inhabit the world, he is not one of the things I can encounter as a find my way around it. I certainly can, as human beings have down through history, believe that God exists and want to worship him or win his favour. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is neither friendship nor conversation. It remains true, of course, that God without whom I cannot exist is, in St Augustine’s phrase, closer to me than I am to myself. But that isn’t a basis for the kind of equal relationship that deserves the name ‘friendship’ and is a precondition for what Christians call ‘prayer’. I cannot be friends with the air I breathe.

And so it would have remained had God not shown us that his own life was a form of friendship, of loving exchange between the Father and the Son, in the Holy Spirit. He showed us this in the life of Jesus, in his relationship with the one he called Father, and his gift of the Spirit. Jesus was the first human being to pray, in the strict sense of that word, because in his prayer to the Father the eternal conversation of God’s being spoke in human words. In fact, there is an important sense in which Jesus’ prayer is the only prayer, the human prayer of the Son to the Father. We, the ones he calls his friends, come to share in that prayer. By our baptism we join the conversation.

Thus Herbert McCabe:

All our prayer, whether the Mass itself or those reflections from the Mass that we call our prayers, is a sharing in the sacrifice of Christ and therefore a sharing in the life of the Trinity, a sharing that is the Spirit. All our prayer is, in a very precise sense, in Spirit and in truth. For us to pray is for us to be taken over, possessed by the Holy Spirit which is the life of love between Father and Son.

The point he’s making in the piece from which this quote comes is that a customary dichotomy between (private) prayers and the Mass is an utter mistake. Prayer is first what happens when I gather with a bunch of people, young and old, earnest and distracted, late, irritating, and whatever else the Church in its wonderful mess might be, here is prayer, because here Christ prays sacrificially to the Father under the sacramental signs. So, in particular, prayer is never private, simply because it is only as one of us, the Body united to the Head, that I can pray at all, by participation in that one and only prayer.

We, or I (as one of us), continue this participation in what McCabe writes about as ‘the reflections that we call our prayers’. Like conversations with those pub friends these are more diverse in form than either of the characters from my first paragraph suppose. Friends meet together ritualistically (‘every first Saturday evening, see you there’), engage in idle asides, phone one another to ask for help, or to share good news, and sometimes deliberately mark out significant periods of time to spend together every once in a while. In a similar way we have the liturgy of the hours, the rosary and similar devotions, our informal prayers, and even those techniques.

And yet it’s never quite the same as those pub friendships. Our relationship to the Father is altogether more secure, founded as it is on utter self-giving love. It is, meanwhile, not comprehensible in the way my human friendships can sometimes be. I do not understand the divine life in which I participate; Aquinas says that we are united to God in this life ‘as to one unknown’. So even the mystery-merchants who glory in the fact that prayer is deep and difficult have a point. One suspects sometimes that such people consider this depth an unconditionally good thing, a sign of the praying person’s membership of a spiritual elite. This is to end the story prematurely: ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.’ I do not yet know the nature of this uniquely wonderful friendship in which I share, and which grounds my very being. My unknowing, though, is not the destination but the journey.

So, I think, it’s probably good that I feel inadequate, and to an extent unsatisfied, by prayer. What we now call ‘prayer’ isn’t our ultimate destiny. Just as the Mass anticipates, even whilst making present, the banquet of the Kingdom, so our sharing at the moment in Christ’s prayer speaks of what will one day be, when he is all in all.

Fasting

So I thought that over the coming three weeks of Lent I’d write a post each week about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

These activities (if fasting, which after all consists in not doing something, counts as an activity) characterise this season. Yet there’s something very odd about them, at least from a contemporary perspective. A 21st century mindset has trouble making sense of them, and often only succeeds in thinking it has done so only by substituting its idea of the practice for the real thing. Catholics have 21st mindsets as much as does anything else (whether they think they do or not is irrelevant: traditionalism, for instance, is every bit as modern as the modernity it defines itself against). So I think they deserve reflection.

That is not to say I’m quite attempting to justify Lenten prayer, fasting, and almsgiving here. They are simply part of what the Church does. If we ask why we should do these things there is a basic sense in which we have misunderstood who we are. But in a spirit of practice-seeking-understanding we can perhaps try to understand them better in terms which make sense to 21st century people such as ourselves.

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I’m going to start with fasting, rather than following the traditional ordering, partly because it is the most problematic of the three, tied up very often with a frankly unedifying retributional theology, but mainly because it is taken by many to be the most characteristically Lenten. Fasting, many think (wrongly, but understandably enough), is what Lent is all about. So much so, in fact, that a non-negligible number of non-Christians have taken up what they take to be Lenten fasts in recent years: a topic to which I’ll return.

Here’s a bad reason for fasting. God wants to punish us for sin, so in order to avert some punishment, we’ll do the job ourselves. This can persuade us only in the context of a idolatrous picture of God as some kind of angry child who requires placating. We do not, at least when we are being as merciful as we are sometimes able to be, require that those who hurt us deny themselves to restore the balance of harm. And God is both more merciful than us and cannot be harmed in any case. When scripture speaks of God as angered, hurt, and distributing vengeance – as indeed it does frequently – it should be read metaphorically. Far from being some kind of modish liberal nonsense, this is an entirely standard patristic and medieval approach to this language, grounded in a sound sense that God, who is the reason why there are creaturely beings, is no kind of creaturely being. Inhabiting as we do an age that is prone to imagine the Almighty as a slightly more intelligent celestial Donald Trump, the language should be handled with severe caution when thinking about fasting. If we devote ourselves to a masochistic idol during Lent we are hardly preparing well to celebrate the triumph of divine Love at Easter.

A better reason has something to do with self-control. We have a tendency to allow things that are good in themselves play a disproportionate role in our lives, undermining our vocation to love God and our neighbour. Lent allows us to recheck the balance of our lives, not ultimately in order to dismiss the goods of creation as barriers to God (my Dominican predilections are hardly going to compromise with Albigensianism on this) but in order to acknowledge properly their use on our journey towards God. This is the point at which care is needed: fasting (or abstinence, which is strictly different, but gets subsumed under the general heading at this time of year) can easily turn into a form of puritanism, lending undue credibility to the kind of silly idea that cream cakes or single malt whisky are ‘sinful’. This well-meaning call from a Lutheran pastor for secular participation in Lent doesn’t entirely escape this trap.

Still, self-control (temperance, as Aquinas would have put it, before the word was appropriated by teetotal Victorians as an effective synonym for ‘tediousness’) is no bad thing. However -this is another point at which the broadening of Lent beyond the Church could fuel unhelpful ideas if we’re not careful. Fasting is not some form of holy CBT, a means of getting ourselves into a good way of doing things to be properly functional and useful functionaries of capitalist society. Fasting as a Christian discipline, as distinguished from a diet, is done under grace. Whilst we are correct to speak here of self-control, since God’s gracious action is not in metaphysical competition with our freedom, when we fast we respond to, and participate in, God’s approach to us in Christ. Our own self-control, in this sense, is God’s gift. For this reason it is no coincidence that properly Lenten fasting always happens in combination with prayer.

A final rationale suggests itself to me. In a world in which the lives of the rich and poor rarely intersect and in which suffering is hidden in a hospital or behind a ‘trigger warning’ fasting is a conscious act of solidarity with those who suffer, in particular those who do not have enough. It therefore leads in naturally to almsgiving. It is a conscious acknowledgement of suffering in an age that would rather forget it. Similar things could be said about devotion to the Passion. Again, there are dangers here: either of a condescending pseudo-identification with the damaged and oppressed or of deploying this justification that the poor and oppressed include many of us, the baptisedBut so long as we retain a keen sense of this as strictly symbolic solidarity, unlike the appalling ‘live on developing world wages for a month’ initiatives run by charities (to which Pulp’s Common People is the only adequate response), I think there is value in thinking of fasting like this. Then again, there’s the danger of secularising the discipline via this rationale. The already-mentioned need to emphasise its symbolic nature already guards against this to some extent: it only makes sense within a community that is at home with the symbolic, such as the Church. But more fundamentally, the ultimate connection to be made here is with the act of divine self-identification with human suffering, with the moment sin and oppression were revealed for what they were on Calvary, and with the death knell that was sounded for them at the empty tomb. As Christians, we see the brokenness and injustice we acknowledge in fasting in the light of the Paschal Mystery, in which they are focused and overcome. To look to the poor is to look to Christ. “For what you do to the least of these, you do to me”.

 

 

My Lent books 2016

I always try to have a book or two on the go for Lent, which I read at bedtime. This time I’ve chosen Mark Allan Powell’s What are they saying about Luke? Contrary to some peoples’ experience, I’ve always found that knowing a bit about biblical scholarship helps me engage with scripture better. The ‘What are they saying’ series is generally good, and since it’s Year C, Luke seemed a good choice. I suppose that, having been written in 1989, the book should probably now be renamed ‘What were they saying about Luke’, but nevertheless I hope to get something from it.

The second is Paul Murray OP’s The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality. Much though I dislike the modern coinage ‘spirituality’ (I think I’d use ‘charism’ as an alternative here), things Dominican are a great love of mine. In fact I hope to be accepted as a Lay Dominican later in the year. Here’s some of the blurb from the back:

One of the things that has characterized the Dominican spirit from the beginning is a sense of openness to the world. Dominicans such as Thomas Aquinas, Jordan of Saxony and Catherine of Sienna were not only impressive celebrants of grace – they were also defenders of nature. After the example of St Dominic himself, they learned to drink deep from the wine of God’s Word, and became witnesses not only to certain great moral and doctrinal truths, but also witnesses of an unimaginable joy.

 

 

Alleluia, Song of Sweetness

I can’t remember where I first came across this, but it’s an eleventh century hymn that I use in the run-up to Ash Wednesday. It captures quite nicely the thought revived by Sancrosanctum concilium that Lent is a time in which we prepare “to celebrate the paschal mystery”:

Alleluia, song of sweetness,
voice of joy that cannot die;
alleluia is the anthem
ever raised by choirs on high;
in the house of God abiding
thus they sing eternally.

Alleluia thou resoundest,
true Jerusalem and free;
alleluia, joyful mother,
all thy children sing with thee;
but by Babylon’s sad waters
mourning exiles now are we.

Alleluia cannot always
be our song while here below;
alleluia our transgressions
make us for awhile forgo;
fort the solemn time is coming
when our tears for sin must flow.

Therefore in our hymns we pray thee,
grant us, blessed Trinity,
at the last to keep thine Easter,
in our home beyond the sky,
there to thee for ever singing
alleluia joyfully.