Forty years ago I was challenged by a Canoness. I had just finished a weekend course on personal prayer at the retreat centre that I ran in North London when the Canoness struck. She wasn’t just any Canoness, but a Canoness of the Holy Sepulchre. Her dedication to liturgical prayer had made her somewhat dismissive of personal prayer which she felt was all well and good for the laity, but not for semi-contemplative nuns like her, whose spiritual meat and drink was primarily and almost exclusively ‘the prayer of the Church’- the corporate expression of the faith of the community.
Shortly after I had founded the retreat centre, where I had given the course, I went to Franciscan Italy to prepare myself for the task ahead. I spent some time in the hermitage of Fonte Colombo high up on the hillside overlooking the Rieti Valley, where St Francis had completed his rule in 1223. It was here that I first came across the words of the great Franciscan reformer, St Bernadine of Siena. So that nobody would ever forget them, he had written these words in capital letters around the sanctuary where the liturgy was celebrated each day. They were meant to remind his friars of an important spiritual truth that they would teach to others. The words were written in Latin, but anyone with a smattering of the Romance languages would be able to understand them – “Si Cor non orat, in vanum lingua laborat.” – “If the heart does not pray, then the tongue labours in vain.” These words were a constant reminder for his followers for generations to come, and not just for Franciscans, but for Jesuits and for Carmelites, like St Teresa of Avila, and St John of the Cross, and for other orders too, and for all who looked to them for inspiration and guidance.
The simple but profound meaning of these word was well known to the first Christians in the immediate aftermath of the Resurrection. They not only knew their profound meaning, but they prayed privately and personally at least five times a day, as Jesus himself had been taught to do by Mary and Joseph, according to the ancient Jewish custom. It was here that, like Jesus before them, their hearts were set afire with the love of the Father that they expressed together when they came to celebrate what later came to be called the Divine Liturgy, most especially in what we call today the Mass. The Mass is the peak of the holy mountain which is the liturgy, but there is no peak without the mountainous work of offering our daily love to God through personal prayer and the service of others that is its fruit.
Sadly this is a truth that has been long forgotten by many, including the Canoness. “I have read the new testament from back to front and many times over”, she said, “But I can find no evidence there for the personal daily prayer that you have been advocating in your talks. Admittedly,” she conceded, “there is mention of Jesus praying at the beginning of his public ministry, and at the end in Gethsemane, but there is nothing to justify the sort of daily private prayer that you have been talking about this weekend, apart from a couple of occasions when Jesus went alone into the mountains for prayer.”
No matter what I said, I know I didn’t convince her because she had fixed ideas in her head that reason could not remove. Let me explain what I tried and failed to explain to her, because our spiritual life and wellbeing depends on it. If you love good food you will undoubtedly be a devotee of Delia Smith, Mary Berry, Nigella Lawson, Gary Rhodes, Rick Stein or some other master chef. No matter whether you read their books, listen to them on the Radio, or watch them on television, they all make an understandable assumption about their fans. They, not only assume that they have ovens, but that they know how to use them, and that they use them often, perhaps many times a day. In short they assume that they know how to cook. It was exactly the same with all the writers of the New Testament.
They assumed, no, let me put it more strongly, – they knew that their readers all prayed regularly every day, as they did themselves. They did not therefore detail when they should pray, because everybody knew. Nor did they detail how everyone should pray or the prayers that they should use, because they all knew that too. It would be stating the obvious. Nor did they have to describe endlessly how the love that they received in prayer would enable them to love others as Jesus had done before them. Nor, for that matter, did they have to keep underlining how these, their daily efforts, would become the offering that they made with their brothers and sisters at the weekly Mass. This is why for Catholics it is not just the scripture, but the scriptures and tradition that conveys the teaching of Christ to successive generations.
You don’t have to tell fish how to swim, it’s what they do. You didn’t have to explain how to pray to the first Christians. It was what they did, it was the living environment in which they lived and moved and had their very being. Read the New Testament with what I have just said in the forefront of your minds and you will be able to understand them in a new way, a far more profound way than ever before. However if you re-read the New Testament while practising a daily prayer life, similar to that of the first Christians, you will, not only understand them in a new way, but much more. For the Holy Spirit, who inspired the scriptures in the first place will be inspiring you too. This will enable him to lead you on, and into, the One whose life, death, and resurrection they have been written to glorify.
The essence of the ancient Jewish prayers were still used by the first Christians after the resurrection, but they were transformed. The prayers that had once been said with Jesus before the sending of the Holy Spirit were now prayed in, with and through Jesus, into whose mystical body they now lived and moved and had their very being. The inner dynamic power and vitality on which the early liturgy depended was the quality of the daily prayer and service of others during the previous week that was offered at Mass in, with and through Jesus to their common Father. However, what is supposed to be a liturgical climax, can turn out to be an anti-climax, if those who come to Mass bring nothing to be offered, because their previous week had been barren and bereft of trying to practise the two new Commandments that Jesus gave us. Our daily endeavour to implement them is the offering that we bring with us to offer, through Jesus at the weekly Mass. If we come with nothing, then we receive nothing, and the Mass becomes meaningless, not in itself, but for those who bring nothing to offer when they enter the church.
In the same way the local gymnasium has within itself the power to transform our physical health, but it becomes meaningless, if we only go there to socialise, to chat with friends, and drink coffee. It becomes meaningless not in itself, but for ourselves, if we do not participated in all that it offers us. We may go regularly, but unless we actively take part in all that it offers it will do nothing for our physical health and wellbeing. No matter how regularly we go to Mass, if we do nothing to participate in the Mass then the Mass will do nothing for our spiritual health and wellbeing either. I don’t just mean by the way in which we listen to the prayers, the readings, and answer all the responses, I mean very much more than that. I mean by the way we offer all that we are, through all that we have done in the previous week. The Mass is not magic, but the mystical embodiment of all that Jesus offered to his Father from the moment he was laid in a wooden crib to the moment he died on a wooden Cross. This offering is continually made present to us through his sacramental presence, so that we can unite our offerings to his and receive in return something of what he received from his Father immediately after the Ascension.
When, at the end of a series of apparitions to three young girls in Northern Spain, one of the girls asked Our Lady to take them back to heaven with her, she looked at the girls and said with a rather sad smile, ‘But whatever for, for your hands are empty, you have nothing to bring with you’. She would say the same to us if we come to Mass with empty hands without anything to offer, with and through her son. Renewal in the Church does not primarily depend on a perfectly designed liturgy, but on the quality of the spiritual lives of those who participate in it. Let us suppose that I had a magic wand and I could wave it to give everyone the liturgy of their choice each time they went to Mass. It might be the new liturgy as introduced by the Second Vatican Council, with a perfect translation of the text and with all the rites and rituals perfectly designed to satisfy everyone. On the other hand it might be the old Tridentine Mass in Latin that so many of us were brought up on, or a grand sung high Mass with music by Parousia, Palestrina and Purcell, or the mediaeval Mass that was so loved by some of the greatest saints that have ever lived, or the ancient Mass known to the Fathers of the Church, which was said in Greek long before the introduction of Latin. Or what about Mass according to the Chaldean rite said in Aramaic the language that Jesus himself would have used at the Last Supper.
Believe me the introduction of any or all of these rites in themselves would do nothing to change us personally, or the Church to which we belong, unless they were animated and inspired by the same profound ‘daily liturgy of spiritual endeavour’ as practised by the first Christians, in imitation of how Jesus prayed, and served the neighbour in need throughout his life on earth.
It is not the outside of the cup that matters, but the inside of the cup, the intrinsic quality of the personal spiritual life of those who participate in the liturgy. Get the first right without the second, and you have a recipe for the disaster that St Paul predicts in his letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 13). Love’s endeavour is the offering that makes the Mass what Jesus wants it to become. If you take that away the gongs may boom and the cymbals might clash, but nothing else will rise from us to give glory to God in heaven or on the earth that he created.
The famous Jewish Philosopher and mystic, Simone Weil said that – ‘a person is no more than the quality of their endeavour’. It is this spirit-filled endeavour, demonstrated in the personal prayer that we have made, and in the good works that we have performed, that we offer through Jesus to the Father when we take part in the Mass. Many years ago I failed to convince a Canoness, about the absolute importance of personal daily prayer as practised by Jesus himself and his first disciples. I do hope that I have managed to convince you, because without it we cannot practise the first commandment properly, nor therefore receive the grace to practise the second.
I hope too that it has enabled you to see how the fullness our faith can only be seen and understood, not by the scriptures alone, but by the tradition that we have inherited too. The first Protestants derided good works, and that included personal prayer, because they couldn’t see this. Both the scriptures and tradition are important for they both illuminate each other. Our total commitment to both makes us what we are, not just Christians but Catholics, the true living descendants of those who lived, prayed, suffered and died with Christ, in the immediate aftermath of the Resurrection. To dismiss or to belittle the importance of daily personal prayer is to be Protestant, to proclaim and live it is to be Catholic.