Here is a story from my past whose power is with me still, but which has shown some development.
Just after I came to faith as an adult, I stopped work and began to do ‘what I’ve always wanted to do’ and began studying theology. I thought that by doing this I could come closer to God. Well I gained a lot of knowledge, which I found very important, but devotionally, I had to admit that after 3 years I had not been able to ‘get at’ God. Then I read about the power of stories. I came to the conclusion that although God was ‘in light inaccessible hid from my eyes’ I did have the stories about God, and I loved them. I would have to be an agnostic about everything else, as genuinely unknowable, except for the fact that behind the stories lay the God who sponsored them and that would have to be enough. And for a long time it was. But you can see that I was putting up with a kind of continual kind of ravine between me and the love of God.
Then I went to be a curate in Geelong. My vicar’s wife, Fran, used to be a nun, I think, but at any rate, she was a very holy person, and used to devoting lots of time to God. Being a person of an ‘Anglican-Catholic’ mindset, she had also explored some catholic practices, including the use of the rosary. One day she said to me “You know, the rosary asks us to meditate upon the mysteries of Christ’s life, the five sorrowful mysteries, and the ten joyful mysteries. Each hour of the day I meditate upon one of these mysteries, and change my meditation at the change of the hour.’ Now I thought that that was just ‘over the top!’ I was in a different place, I guess, and was saying ‘Too much religion is bad for a growing boy!’ This practice seemed excessive.
Over the years however, the practice of loving the bible stories has meant that the God who lies behind them has taken on a more ‘solid’ kind of reality for me. It is not necessary for me to emphasise God’s distance or ‘otherness’ from me, because the period of time living ‘as if’ the God of the stories is ‘real’ has meant that the ‘God of the stories’ has taken on ‘reality’ for me. This sounds horribly proud, for me to say this about the ‘living God’, but it is the truth of the way the story has gone.
So in the present, I have been coming back to the idea of being close to God, and of being aware of God’s presence more. The idea of Fran’s hourly meditation came back to me. So the week before last, in our Gospel reflection group, mentioning this desire of mine, and the story, I decided to do the ‘hourly’ thing. Now is the prayer of Richard of Chichester which goes like this:
“O Most merciful redeemer,
my friend and my brother,
may I see thee more clearly,
love thee more dearly,
and follow thee more nearly day by day. “
This is the prayer I pray every hour. My hope is that by attending to God’s love for me,
and for my desire to connect with God, my life will be governed by that reality, and not others.
My experience of this so far has been this. For the first few days, I did feel particularly close to God in the recitation of this prayer. But then, because I was saying it so often perhaps, I discovered that the saying of the prayer was not enough. What I had to do was to really stop. It was necessary to take a little bit of time to bring myself into the company of God as I said the prayer. Otherwise, the saying of the prayer becomes just another ‘rote’ thing that happens. For the moment, this is a good practice, which I will keep up.
Thinking about how this devotion has gone, reminds me too of the way that at the Reformation, there had been so much accretion of ‘rote’ saying of prayers and so on, that the thing that had made Christianity really powerful in its early life, her ability to connect ordinary people with the Divine life, was being lost amidst a welter of ceremony and so on. It was right, I think, that Luther and the other reformers spoke about the fact that faith was not a ‘possession’ that one could ‘have’ but that what ‘saved’ was the ‘obedience of faith’ or the ‘living before the face of God.’ This ‘living before the face of God’ can go, just like that! As Adam and Eve discovered, as they turned their faces away from the face of God to live before the ‘face’ of the serpent.
The Quakers have been the religious group who have taken this the farthest. For them, it is the presence of the Spirit in anyone at one of their meetings who can speak. But for them, as for us all, the most important thing, and the most difficult, is the act of moving from the ‘rote’ saying of a prayer, to the taking the time to ‘be in touch’. I’m sure that the Quakers have the same difficulty. One of the benefits of the reformation was to give us back ‘heart’ religion, by some very serious ‘head work!’
I am thinking too about how it goes in Church on a Sunday. This celebration of the Eucharist is an opportunity to bring ourselves into the company of God. Luckily, the structure of what we do in the Eucharist: ‘preparation- action- and response’ (for the ministry of the Word and the Sacrament) helps this process of coming before the face of God, and of allowing God’s presence to flood our lives. But without a pause to enable us to be fully engaged then coming to Church can degenerate into ‘rote’ repetition of the prayers, without the genuine sensing of the presence of God, which God guarantees every time come to celebrate the sacrament of God’s giving of himself to us.
This is exactly what the documents of Vatican 2 say should happen in Church. They talk of the whole assembly, and invite everyone into a ‘full, active, and conscious’ participation into the life of God in the Eucharist. This is new, because before a more passive ‘hearing’ of mass, or a ‘participation in heart and mind’ alone was enough. Now, the whole congregation is the ‘celebrant’, and that requires more involvement from all the members. But I hope that, like my own practise, an increased attention (mindfulness) about the presence of God in life will result in more ‘living before the face of God.’