For Everyone

For Everyone

8 July 2016

('For Everyone' is not just an additional chapter for 'The Abbot's
Shoes - Seeking a Contemplative Life'.  It gets at the intellectually
elusive kernel of the contemplative life.  And that is, all of the
praying and all of the prayers of those men and women who live to
pray, are for the whole world.  The Church's contemplative stream will
make no sense and even appear ridiculous to those who fail to
recognise this.  It is a prayer house's foundation and is what makes a
life of prayer so dangerous to the enemies of God's love, and
unfathomable for us.)

Our Night Office or Vigils began at 2.30 in the morning.  After the
novelty of getting up so early had worn off and temperatures fell
below freezing, I just sat hunched up in my choir stall wanting to
throw up.  It was a kind of timeless zone; neither late at night nor
early in the morning.  Nurses call it the "dying time".  I had known
night shift reporters lie down on the floor of their newsroom at that
hour, overwhelmed by their leaden need to sleep.

In spite of this Hour's pain, it allowed me my first glimpse (as if
out of the corner of my eye?) of the reality that enclosed
contemplatives do not abandon their fellow men.  "It is in the name of
all that we stand before the living God."  Our hearts, a Trappist
abbot once taught, had to be "large enough to embrace the whole and I have the entire world in our care".  But not just as
some abstract concept or vague, pious hope.  Our cause was meant to be
nothing less than "union with Christ".  Out of this alone, the
contemplative "gives to all of the fullness of the grace which he
knows and by which he is possessed...He shares the breath of the
Spirit, the Comforter, and becomes himself a comforter (and) lights
and warms the world".(1)

Our house of prayer seemed very small, swallowed up and swaddled by
the night.  Few visitors came into our public church at such an hour.
We were utterly alone.  A tiny vessel adrift on an ocean.  A
flickering pin-head of light, so very far away from everyone and
everything, "dead" and buried in the lush darkness.  And yet?  It was
exactly then and there that I most keenly felt and believed that even
our sometimes distracted, tuneless and half-hearted praying, actually
"worked".  Our tired voices and ancient, oft-repeated repentings and
yearnings were given wings and flew to fill the mouths of others.
Most were unknown to us and many probably infinitely more needy and
desperate than we could ever dream of being.

The consummate Reformed theologian, Karl Barth, spoke of our prayers
reaching God through the mouth of Jesus "inasmuch as he enables us to
draw near and be heard".(2)  I have not doubted that as I stood and
knelt among Bernard's Son-burnt brethren, my mouth and theirs brimmed
with so much more than our own private supplications and
thanksgivings.  It's really a remarkably subversive proposition that
the uncelebrated, unproductive contemplative utters petitions that can
traverse the whole world, igniting inextinguishable fires of valid and
meaningful prayer, even for those who dare not pray or completely
eschew it.

It is an utterly brilliant, beautiful but supernatural idea.  Perhaps
that is why contemplative communities effortlessly provoke ridicule
and offence, even from their "friends"?  In the 1960s an English
prelate caused a furore when he fulminated against "perfectly healthy
monks who are priests and who never go out to work in a parish"!(3)

For as long as the monastery was my home, some of the monks remained a
complete mystery to me.  They had withdrawn deeper into our already
secluded family.  It would be too easy to see them as strange or a bit
odd.  They might only occasionally sing an Hour and attended to their
duties and chores in isolation.  In the "normal" world they might be
rushed off to visit the doctor?  If life did become unbearable or
impossible for such a one, I certainly witnessed the brotherhood's
warm, practical humanity and absolute determination (no matter what
the cost) to settle him into a new way of life, back "outside" and
within the surrounding community.

And yet I do wonder now if perhaps some of these men, who others might
well have dismissed as misfits on the run from reality, were actually
fulfilling their contemplative vocations?  Had their lives become so
totally suffused with God over so many years that every aspect of
their daily routine was no longer merely prayerful, but prayer itself?

Perhaps the little, old brother mutely splitting firewood and stacking
it in a buckling, corrugated iron water tank was heard in Heaven more
compellingly than all the rest of us put together?  Maybe there comes
a time when the one who lives to pray at last steps over an invisible
threshold and into a place where liturgical form, word and gesture
dissolve?  Where feeding scraps of stale bread to a young magpie
translates into intercession that is as fervent as it is unobserved,
as effective as it is inexplicable?

The Scriptures understand that sometimes people become prayer, and
their silent eloquence reminds us that "the world which we can see has
come into being through principles which are invisible".(4)

1)   The Carthusian Order Statutes (Book 4, Chapter 31)  The Less Travelled Road, Rev. M. Raymond (The
Bruce Publishing Company, 1953 Milwaukee).  A Carthusian Speaks,
2)   Prayer and Preaching, Karl Barth (SCM Press, 1964 London)
3)   The Hidden Ground of Love, Thomas Merton (Farrar Straus Giroux,
1985 New York)
4)   Psalm 109.4 (KJV); Hebrews 11.3 (JB Phillips NT)