My mother taught me to say my Morning Offering the moment I woke up in the morning. But above all she showed me how to put it into practice by her own example. It wasn’t the little things that I noticed at first, but the big sacrifices that she made, that even I noticed. Like that terrible moment in her life when her own precious son, my older brother, died at the age of 22. It was then that, with the help of her spiritual director Abbott Williams she gradually learnt to accept his death, as Mary had done, as she stood at the foot of the Cross. Lessons learnt in such moments are never forgotten. They indelibly stain the memory and determine the way you think and act for the rest of your life, for better or for worse. In my mother’s case it was for better not worse, as it had been for Mary.
For both of them it meant that through their terrible ordeal, their motherhood had somehow been refined and deepened to the benefit of other children, who looked to them for the motherly love that was always given without measure. I for one know this because I have experienced it for myself, and still do. My Morning Offering always reminds me of my mother, for it was she who first taught me how to make it. It reminds me of the other mother too, who inspired her and who was given to us all by Jesus himself, as he died on the Cross. So this is the time in my morning prayer when I say a Hail Mary to ask her to help me today, as I try to offer all I say and do to God the Father through her son, Jesus. I always try to remember my mother’s terrible loss and to pray for her as well as for my brother.
When the family went to Mass each Sunday, they saw their mother totally absorbed in what they took all too easily for granted. Their selfishness meant that they had too little to offer, while she was offering a thousand and one acts of self-sacrifice made for them during the previous week. This meant that she received to the measure of her giving. Without any formal theological education, she discovered for herself that the Mass is not only a sacrifice, the place where we offer ourselves in with and through Christ to the Father, but something more. It is also a sacred sacrificial meal where we receive the love that is endlessly pouring out onto and into all who are open to receive it, through daily sacrificial giving. It was here that she received the help and strength she needed to go on selflessly giving in the forthcoming week for the family that she loved so much. Each day she reminded herself of this, her sacred calling, by making her Morning Offering, as her ancestors had done for hundreds of years before her when so many of them had to suffer imprisonment, torture and death for the faith that we can so easily take for granted.
I never spoke to my father about his or my spiritual life for that matter, but I know that after reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography, Elected Silence or Seven Story Mountain as it was first called in North America, he became very interested in the Desert Fathers. It must have been the way they offered their day and everything in it to God that affected him most, because after his death I found a quotation from John Cassian on the final page of his missal which helped him to keep his Morning Offering on course throughout the day. It was the short prayer recorded in the works of John Cassian. It seems my Father used it throughout his day whenever he was in need. The prayer was simply – ‘O God come to my aid, O lord make haste to help me’. Cassian said that the prayer was taught to his disciples by Abbot Isaac and later used by St Benedict with which to begin the divine office throughout the day. Under this little prayer my Father had copied out the following words from Abbot Isaac, written for the benefit of his followers: –
‘You must continually use this prayer in your heart, whatever you are doing or whatever office you are holding, or journey you are undertaking; in adversity that you may be delivered, and in prosperity that you may be preserved. You should be so moulded by the constant use of it that when sleep comes you are still considering it so that you become accustomed to repeating it even when you sleep. When you awake let it become the first thing that comes into your mind, let it anticipate all your waking thoughts. When you rise from your bed let it send you down on your knees, and thence send you forth to your work, and let it follow you all through the day’.
Abbot Macarius used to tell his disciples to say simply, ‘Lord to the rescue’, or call upon him by name by using the holy name Jesus whenever they were in danger of losing their way or forgetting what they were about. It was believed that Abbot Macarius was the originator of the Jesus Prayer, later developed by St John Climacus into the prayer as we know it today, ‘Jesus son of God have mercy on me a sinner’. These short prayers first called ejaculations by St Augustine, were not only used by the Desert Fathers, but have been used continually throughout subsequent centuries. They have always been used to help Christians keep their attention fixed on their calling throughout the day, and to help them when distractions or temptations threaten to engulf them. One of my mother’s favourite little prayers that helped her throughout her day was: – ‘Jesus mercy, Mary help’. My primary school teacher taught us all to say: – ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus, I put my trust in you.’
The morning offering wasn’t the beginning and end of daily prayer, for it was the custom of the early Christians to pray five times a day, as Jesus himself had done. It is still possible for us to do this, as I believe my father did. I remember asking him why he had put little stickers on his wrist watch. One was pointing to 9 o’clock another to 12 o’clock, and the third to 3 o’clock. He merely said it was a little device to help him remember something. Unlike my mother, his forbears were Protestant. His parents were converts and like them he was always reticent to speak about his faith. When it came to the spiritual life he was an intensely private man, who found it difficult to speak about the spiritual life, let alone his own. However, one thing I know for certain was that he always tried to find some time each day, in addition to all else, for what my mother called his inner shed in which he prayed each day.
It was the custom of orthodox Jews to pray at prescribed times of the day as Muslims do today. Jesus would have done the same and taught His followers to do likewise. Furthermore, he taught them how to pray in such a way that they would avoid the ostentatious way many of the Pharisees prayed in public to draw attention to themselves. When you pray he insisted ‘Go to your private room and, when you have shut your door in that secret place, your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you’.
When lifestyles and work patterns changed in subsequent centuries, Christians no longer found it possible to stick to the prescribed times that Jesus would have used with his disciples, so the practice of morning and evening prayer began to take their place. Sadly, in recent years that seems to be disappearing, like grace before and after meals, which are all too often eaten on a tray in front of the ‘telly’.
If we have not already done so, it is time to start by setting up an inner little shed into which we can retire every morning and evening. There we will find the inner freedom to receive and experience the self-same love that inspired Jesus and transformed everything he did. This Love will change us like nothing else on earth, making us more loveable, and enabling us to love those we already love more deeply, and even those we’ve never loved before.
First published on Catholic Stand