The first of five addresses for Compline at Sherborne Abbey on the Mondays of Lent 2020, given on 2 March by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods

1 Samuel 3.1-10: Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.

Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’ and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’

I have committed myself to offering you this Lent five addresses on the subject of prayer. It was probably a rash decision to tackle all five addresses myself, but it is my last opportunity to offer a little teaching on a subject dear to my heart, both as a Christian and as a Christian priest. But I must begin with a disclaimer. I find prayer hard. There are many ways of praying, and of some I know little or nothing. All I can share with you is what I have discovered for myself. It may not be until the fourth address, or the fifth, that anything I say resonates with you. Equally, nothing may resonate with you at all. Please don’t judge me because of that but – far more importantly – please don’t judge yourself. There are many ways of praying, and part of what I need to emphasise again and again is that what so impresses you about the spiritual life of someone you know may be entirely the wrong approach for you yourself.

I remember when Sandra and I were going on holiday to the Derbyshire Peak District. As always, work consumed me until the last moment, and I had to pack in a hurry. From the kitchen, where we keep our Ordinance Survey and other maps, I snatched what I thought was the right one. It wasn’t until we arrived at our B&B at Eyam, that heroic village which the clergy put into isolation in 1665 to prevent an outbreak of plague there from spreading – in which they were heroically successful, though at great cost to the village community – that I discovered that I had packed an OS map of part of the Lake District. A beautiful map, an accurate map, but I just happened not to be there. And much of what books about prayer tell you are just like that:  they describe what the author has discovered, but you are in a different part of the spiritual country, so they are of no help to you. Never let yourself feel guilty about that. We are all made and kept and loved by God, and he has made us all different. And we pray differently.

I began this talk with a reading from the First Book of Samuel, because it illustrates one major mistake we make when we first try to pray. We imagine that prayer is about writing essays, or letters, or messages, for God. So we begin by saying, not ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening’, but the opposite: ‘Listen, Lord, your servant is speaking.’ And we end up by giving God the equivalent of an essay, or a letter or what – quite frankly – is not much more than a shopping list. I shall return to this when I talk about intercessory prayer, the prayer of asking.

The thing is, not all of us are good at writing essays, though we are probably better at writing shopping lists. Either way, we bombard God with requests. We need to heed what the old and tired priest of the Temple, Eli, at last advised Samuel. All he needed to say was ‘Speak Lord, you servant is listening.’

So, do not be in a hurry to tell God what you want, need or expect. Pay him the compliment of quieting yourself and listening to him. An American professor of theology once flew to the Far East to talk to a Zen Master. The Professor talked, and he talked and he talked. Between them was a low table containing the essentials for that characteristic Japanese tradition, the tea ceremony. As the Professor talked on, the Zen Master picked up the teapot and began to pour. And he poured and he poured. The cup filled and overflowed and flooded the table and the tea poured onto the ground. Eventually even the Professor noticed what was happening. ‘Stop’, he cried, ‘You are over-filling the cup.’ ‘And you, my friend’ replied the Master, ‘you are yourself over-full. There is no room left in you. There is no room for grace.’

All too often we are ourselves over-full. We are full to overflowing with ourselves, and with our preoccupations; our hopes and our fears; our dreams and our disappointments; our sadnesses and joys. We are so full that we have no room left for God or for his grace. We need to learn how to become empty – empty for God and empty for grace. And that begins when we take the lowest place, when we humble ourselves, when we become the servants of others. It begins when we see the intangible in the tangible, the sacred in the secular, the holy moments in the ordinary moments. It begins when we find the divine in the human, the Christ in the beggar and the love of God in the everyday, the humdrum and the routine. And when we have learned how to do that, we will not be far from the kingdom of God.

So here is my first piece of advice for you. When you want to pray at home, begin by emptying yourself. Sit upright in a chair that is not so comfortable that you will immediately fall asleep. Start to listen to the sounds furthest from you: an aeroplane, or traffic on one of our big roads. Gradually let your listening come closer to home. Sounds in the street, sounds in the house, sounds in your room, like the clock ticking. Then the sound of your breathing, the sound of your heart. As you gradually cross the threshold between your external world and your inner world, listen to what God may be saying to you. And then prayer may simply begin, like a spring bursting forth.

Archbishop Anthony Bloom, who died in 2003, was for many years the senior Russian Orthodox Archbishop, or Metropolitan, in the British Isles. Christians of all denominations valued his writings about prayer. The one thing he wrote which I remember best of all was of the very nervous, fidgety lady who visited him to say that she could never centre-down to listen to God, as she was always – well – fidgety. He asked her if she could knit. Yes indeed, came the reply. Then knit, he said. She left, rather put out by such trivial advice. But she tried it. And as the rhythm of the knitting took over she found her heart and mind quieted, and began to pray.  We will talk more about that next week.