The second of five addresses for Compline at Sherborne Abbey on the Mondays of Lent 2020, given on 9 March by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
Mark 10. 46-52: They came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
I spoke last week of the need not to be full of ourselves when we pray, but instead to be prepared to empty ourselves in order to be filled with and by God, and not to be in too much of a hurry to chatter away to him, because first we need to give him the opportunity to speak to us.
The dimension of spiritual depth we all need is the hidden treasure of the Gospel. It is about finding the Kingdom of God within us. It is the pearl of great price. Yet I am often reminded of the words of an Indian Roman Catholic bishop. The whole Christian Church in India, he said, had been a sign of God’s love, through educational work and medical aid and community caring. But, he wrote, the Christian Church in India had not been a sign that God lives in us. And he went on to illustrate what he meant from his own experience, in a way both honest and painful. He had for many years taught in a Hindu school for boys with over a thousand pupils. He had special responsibility for the sixty Roman Catholics among them. He tried hard to help these sixty to deepen their faith and to pray. And then one day he discovered that thirteen of them were secretly going to a Hindu swami to learn how to pray. They found the Christian prayer life they had experienced too thin, too superficial.
Or take another instance from another part of the world. An old Hawaiian man was speaking of missionary work he had witnessed. Before the missionaries came, he said, my people used to sit outside their temples for a long time meditating and preparing themselves before entering. Then they would virtually creep to the altar to offer their petition, and afterwards sit for a long time outside, this time to ‘breathe life’ into their prayers. But the Christians, when they came, just got up, uttered a few sentences, said amens, and were done. For that reason my people call them ‘haolis’, ‘without breath’, because they fail to breathe life into their prayers.
You can only be rich towards God if you sit light to the material and set yourselves to explore the sheer richness of the spiritual. If your heart’s desire is to know God and to love God and to be loved by him, then you must be a discoverer and an explorer of what the 17th century poet Henry Vaughan called the deep but dazzling darkness which is God. And as you search you will discover this astonishing truth, that the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, is already buried within you, implanted at your baptism, confirmed whenever you have truly repented and turned to God for forgiveness or come to him in humble and honest prayer, and now is waiting to be discovered or rediscovered anew. But unless you search you will not find or, to put it another way, unless you make your life a pilgrimage you will never return home.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews saw this clearly, and told his readers that it is an awful thing (that is, a thing full of awe) to fall into the hands of the living God, for our God is a consuming fire.
So then, how can we “breathe life into our prayers”? I think the first thing is to try to remain close to God throughout the day. I will come back to that in a minute, but we need to realise that it is not always possible. It is recorded of Sir Jacob Astley, a commander of the Royalist infantry during the English Civil War, that he “made a most excellent, pious, short and soldierly prayer” before the Battle of Edgehill, “for he lifted up his hands and eyes to heaven, saying ‘O Lord: thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget thee, do not thou forget me.’ And with that he rose up, crying out, ‘March on boys’.”
“If I forget thee, do not thou forget me.” That is, more often than not, one of my short prayers first thing in the morning. I know that, sooner or later, the events of the day will overtake me. It is then I need to know that God will not forget me, even when I forget him. Meanwhile, there is much to be said for breathing quiet “arrow” prayers into the day. For example, when I have the luxury of an afternoon of parish visiting (and I use the word “luxury” advisedly, because my greatest regret is that the sheer magnitude of the task of being the CEO of this Benefice has robbed me of much of the visiting I would have liked to do) I always breathe quietly the prayer before I ring a doorbell “Peace be to this house, and all who live here”. And as I leave, “May God bless John’s (or Joan’s or their) goings-out and comings in, from this time forth and for evermore.”
But how to remain close to God throughout the day? Well, in the Russian Orthodox tradition Christians are often encouraged to pray the “Jesus Prayer” constantly, as a kind of subconscious heartbeat or rhythm to everything else they are doing or thinking about. It is based on the prayer of blind Bartimaeus in the Gospels. My version is “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner”. It’s my kind of default spiritual position, for want of a better term. For example, if the day has been full of hassles and I am in danger of getting angry about it, then “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner” quietens my soul and deflates my anger or pride or pomposity.
I keep talking about breathing these short prayers. I don’t doubt that’s influenced by the words of the old Hawaiian man I quoted earlier, but it’s also because I think there is an intermediate state between words spoken out loud and words that are purely cerebral. I’m probably not putting this very well, but I wouldn’t walk through the street saying the Jesus Prayer out loud. But it doesn’t work for me as a purely mental exercise, either. Rather it needs to be part of a rhythm: you really can breathe it: In-breath: Lord Jesus Christ. Out-breath: Son of the living God. In-breath: Have mercy on me. Out-breath: A sinner. And there are so many short prayers for which this will work. One ancient fragment is preserved in the Anglican Order of Morning and Evening Prayer, and of Compline. We will sing it in a moment: ‘O God make speed to save us; O Lord make haste to help us.” That fragment is at least 1600 years old, from when it was first given to a young monk called John Cassian by an old monk in the Egyptian desert. It contains the essence of the simple prayer we need to breathe as often as we can.
I have three talks left. I want to tackle head-on the sometimes vexed issue of intercessory prayer – how do we prevent it from becoming a Christmas list sent up the chimney to Santa Claus? I want to look at how our Celtic forbears prayed, though funnily enough they would have identified with much I have said tonight. I want to look at the importance of corporate prayer, like the Office of Compline we are about to offer. And I want to offer just a few personal hints about how to pray more imaginatively. That’s four talks. I will have to be disciplined. But then, if we don’t want to be all over the place spiritually, a little discipline is no bad thing.