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A Sermon from Sherborne
The fifth of five addresses for Compline at Sherborne Abbey on the Mondays of Lent 2020, due to be given on 30 March 2020 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods. In the event, the address was not delivered as all public services had by then been suspended on the instructions of the Archbishop of Canterbury, for the duration of the coronavirus epidemic.
Colossians 3:15-17: Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
This is my last short address on the subject of prayer. I hope they have been useful. As I said in my first address, talks, articles or books about prayer are only helpful if you happen to be in the same spiritual location as the author or the preacher. My hastily snatched-up Ordinance Survey map of the Lake District was of no use at all when we had a holiday in the Peak District. Choose your maps wisely!
I promised, at the beginning of this series, a few handy hints – “tips”, if you like – about prayer which have been helpful to me. Those of you already in the sun-lit uplands of the spiritual life have probably already written me off as a total amateur, and I wouldn’t blame you. I confessed in my first address that I find prayer hard. But for those of you who identify with that, here are a few survival tips which I hope might help you. Here goes.
First, remember that you never pray (like a Liverpool fan, who never walks) alone. The Prayer of the Church goes on hour by hour, day by day, week by week. There will be times when to pray is like trying to eat a pile of cream crackers without any butter. All turns to dust and ashes in your mouth.
Do not despair. This happens to all of us. But remember that, when you simply cannot pray, then others are carrying you in their prayers. In the Abbey, the Morning Office is said every day from Monday to Saturday at 8.30 am. It is part of the routine of prayer which sustains us. Nearly always led by a member of the clergy team, the Morning Office nevertheless has a regular group of lay participants. Our favourite, of course, is Jimmy, John Bradshaw’s guide dog. Jimmy brings John into the Lady Chapel about three times a week. Once John is seated, Jimmy begins to contemplate. It could be called “sleep”, but he knows exactly when the Office ends, and then comes to greet us all. Once he has done that, he goes back to John to be buckled-up, to lead him home. I can’t tell you what that adds to our morning prayers. What is amazing is the way he understands the rhythm of what we are doing.
During the coronavirus epidemic, I cannot invite you to come to join us. But the clergy will continue to say their daily prayers, and if your own prayers are turning to ashes in your mouth, the prayers of the Church will carry you. I speak from experience. They have often had to carry me. But of course you can also pray an “Office” in your home on your own, uniting your prayer with the prayer of tens of thousands of Christians around the world. Email me if you want some help with that: firstname.lastname@example.org
You probably don’t know that I am a Benedictine oblate. Why should you? It means I am a tiny part of the Anglican part of the Order of St Benedict. The Benedictines are one of the most ancient orders of monks, and oblates are those who try to follow something of their discipline of prayer in the world. And Benedictines have a very sensible approach to prayer. They like to pray briefly but often, each day, and so do I. But they recognise that sometimes it just doesn’t work that way. For example, a brother may be working in a field far from the monastery when he hears the bell summoning him to prayer. He knows he cannot get there before the bell stops. So he simply rests on this spade, thanks God for the prayers of his brothers carrying him, and returns to his digging. “To pray is to work”, said St Benedict. And to work is to pray. This ancient rhythm could not be more relevant today.
But I promised you more “tips”. One comes from a Bishop of Salisbury I never met, called George Reindorp. He was a Doctor of Divinity, and his wife was a medical Doctor, so he used to talk about them as Doctors of the body and the soul. And I have read one of his sermons when he put the two together, and talked about a nurse who, in the middle of the night, was asked by a patient about how to pray. Today she would have had to fob her patient off with some excuse. When George Reindorp was our Bishop, he was able to relay the tale. The nurse said to her patient, “I don’t find it easy to pray, and most of the books about prayer are too difficult for me. So when I pray for others I use my right hand, held up, thumb nearest to me. I begin with the thumb, to pray for all who are nearest to me – all those I love: my mother in paradise, my father, a country doctor, my brother in the army,
“Then there’s the next finger – the one people point at me. So I pray for all who teach me. My teachers at school. Sister Tutor, and Matron too (how surprised they would be) and all engaged in medical research trying to help us to find cures for people like you.
“Then the third finger. The tallest. That’s when I pray for the VIPs – the Queen and all those in authority. But remember, no cheating. Don’t just pray for your party. Pray for whoever is in power. What would it mean for the Prime Minister if every doctor, every nurse, every patient, prayed for God’s blessing on him and his Cabinet every day?
“Then the fourth finger. If you play the piano, you will know that’s the weakest of the lot. So pray for the sick, the weak, and those on the ward who you think might not make it.
“And as for the little finger – that’s not very important. That’s when I pray for myself, that I might do my job really well. I like praying for me last. It seems right, and natural, and what God would want.’
There is another way of doing this. I call it the “lens prayer”. It came to me reflecting on the regular visit, for several months every winter, of my maternal grandfather from his home in Suffolk, swept by cold winds straight off the Urals. He liked to come to stay with us in our warmer home in Brighton on the Sussex coast. Granddad Bill had lost an eye in the Boer War, and had a piratical black patch over it. I thought that made him look very glamorous. And every morning he would scan the racing pages of the newspaper with a huge magnifying glass, which I still possess. He would place his bets, drink several glasses of medicine from a brown bottle from Scotland, have his lunch and then fall asleep. That’s when I, as a naughty little boy, would go into action, especially if it were a sunny day. I would steal his magnifying glass, and then go outside and use it to focus the sun’s rays onto a fence or a gate, in order to burn my initials onto the wood.
Why on earth is that relevant to prayer? Well, you see, when I pray for someone by name, I am affirming him or her before God. I am holding him or her, or people or events or tragedies, in the sunshine of God’s love. That sunshine of love pours down upon us all the time. I’m sure of that, although I know that too often clouds get in the way. They are the clouds of my failings and flaws, my prejudices and my pride, all that the Gospels sum up in another terse statement as ‘sin’. But the sunshine of God’s love and forgiveness is strong enough to pierce through the darkest of clouds, and if I act as a lens to focus that love directly onto them, then they will soon feel its warmth. And I have had that proved over and over again.