Some introductory thoughts on Prayer, from a Benedictine perspective
by R.R. Dom Alistair Bate OSBA, M.A. Div
Prayer is firstly of course primarily about a relationship, that of the soul with its maker, a relationship with Him who is said to be “nearer to us than our own breath”! It is participation in the divine life of the Trinity as we offer our prayer to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. The formula may be familiar but if we have ever meditated on this sublime mystery we realise than herein lies the fullfilment of all our longing expressed to God in prayer. The longing for the presence of God is itself the purest form of prayer, as St Augustine says, “True, whole prayer is nothing but love”!
Another thing I have found to be true is that God gives the gift of prayer to those who pray, in other words the more we pray we more we are able to pray, for the simple reason that we are not outside God but are totally infused in Him. All we have to do is step aside and allow the Holy Spirit within us to pray and the wonderful thing about that is that the Holy Spirit alone knows how best to pray, a prayer perfectly adapted to our personality and needs. When our particular crosses seem too heavy to bear, we can bring God our tears and our desire for him, as St Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans (8:26) “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” Similarly, there are times when mere words cannot contain our elation and the Spirit within may express itself quite spontaneously in ecstatic utterance or deep blissful contemplation.
to miss the Divine Office. Next to the Divine Liturgy, it is our main means of spiritual sustainance.
In our order the Divine Office is normally recited alone and whilst this may not generate quite the same feeling of worship that one might enjoy as part of a monastic choir yet there are also great advantages to solitary recitation, the most important being the freedom to pause and reflect when that vital Word of God reaches out to us through a particular portion of text. In this way the recitation of the office may be combined with that other uniquely Benedictine method of prayer, known as “Lectio Divina”, divine reading, in which a small portion of text, normally scripture, is chewed over until all the spiritual nourishment has been extracted. One of Archbishop Cranmer's most famous collects from the English Prayerbook may remind us of this process:
BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
As prayer is, as I said, primarily about a relationship then it would be very rude and quite futile to always be talking and never listening. It has got to be a “two way street”, hence the need for space to listen. This is where it gets tricky, for anyone can talk at God -and surprisingly he sometimes manages to get an answer through, one way or the other - but not everyone can listen. In fact very few people indeed can really listen to God. The heirarchs of many of the churches think that they are listening but regrettably it is all too blatantly obvious that their egos have the louder voice.
One of my favourite bible stories is about the prophet Elijah and is found in the first Book of the Kings (19: 11 – 13):
“And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind
rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?”
For two thousand years this piece of scripture has inspired some Christians to seek God in the desert of monastic solitude, a lifestyle usually found to be more conducive to the listening aspect of prayer. However, in this day and age especially, our heads are full of noise, and even though one might remove some of the busyness, even take to a hermitage in the mountains, finding that stillness is bound to prove elusive. Yet even in the midst of distractions our beloved Lord allows us to glimpse the bliss of pure prayer in rare moments, a foretaste of heaven here on earth. …
Fidelity to the Divine Office and Liturgy is vital and for many of us too the repetition of the Rosary or Jesus Prayer and/or the practice of “Centering Prayer” will also be found helpful. Over the last two millenia the saints in whose footsteps we aspire to walk have left us many beautiful and helpful guides indicating the way towards divine union, our ultimate destination, but above all
I feel the most important lesson is to remember that each of the saints became more of themselves, not less. As St Francis said “ "I have done what is mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours." We may or may not be blessed with infused contemplation in this life, but fidelity to the Opus Dei – the work of God (liturgical prayer) - for the Benedictine, is the solid foundation on which a
life of prayer may be built for the greater glory of God.