I awoke at about five o’clock the next morning, and although I did not at first open my eyes, I became immediately aware of a strange atmosphere that was somehow communicated to me. I opened my eyes and sat up. The whole room was permeated by an uncanny red glow that created a sense of expectancy, as if some strange unearthly event was about to take place. I sprang out of bed, ran over to the window and stared out in the direction of the sea. The scene that met my gaze was indescribably enchanting and will haunt me for the rest of my life. The long jagged inlet ended its landward thrust in a sharp point not more than fifty yards beneath my window. It looked like a twisted dagger of brand-new metal, polished to perfection, but it shone, not with the cold splendour of naked steel, but with the savage beauty of newly spilt blood. My eyes followed the shape of the cruel blade back to its maker, spreading out to the horizon like a vast petrified lake, glazed with deep crimson death. The smooth motionless water mirrored its own bloody complexion upon the surrounding countryside. The sky was hidden behind thick, evenly spread clouds that acted as a perfect backcloth, receiving the same eerie light which suffused the entire scene with varying degrees of intensity. It was as if I had been transported back in time to some prehistoric landscape long before the primeval forests began to sprawl over the earth before the birth of even the most elemental forms of life. I cannot tell how long I stared at the prodigious panorama laid out before me. I was so enthralled by its primitive magnificence that time no longer had any meaning.
Suddenly, I came to myself again and dressed as quickly as I could. In a flash of practical insight, the mystic was transformed into just another snap-happy tourist. I grabbed my camera and rushed outside. But the scene had totally changed. It was a dull, cheerless Saturday morning, heavily overcast, with a touch of freshness in the wind that bordered on rain. Disappointed, I turned round and went inside to an early breakfast. I don’t know why, but I did not tell Peter about my morning’s adventure. I have never told anybody about it until now. There was something intensely private about the whole experience that is wholly incommunicable.
Peter arrived at the jetty at about a quarter to ten, but he went to the post office first, with his old sports bag in one hand and his stick in the other. He would be sending off the week’s quota of mail. It was about five past ten when he sat down once again in his usual chair. Conscious that time was running out he began immediately to talk about the main part of prayer, the prayer that grows not so much from talking, but from listening.
Learning to Listen to God
Nobody will ever be able to pray properly unless they learn to listen to God speaking to them. This is where most people fall down, especially beginners. At the beginning of any new friendship we usually talk too much, but as time goes on, that changes almost without our realizing it.
James immediately intervened. “I see the importance of what you’re saying, but can you be more explicit in what you mean by listening to God? Does he speak to us as he spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, or in a dream as he spoke to Joseph, or do we hear voices, like Joan of Arc?” James was not intending to be funny, but only wanted Peter to explain exactly what he meant, because he had been misled in the past by so much vague and woolly talk about ‘listening to God’. Peter was not offended by James’ unintentional facetiousness and answered immediately.
How does anybody speak to anybody else? There is nothing mysterious about human communication. We get to know someone else by listening to the words they use. Spaces between people are bridged by words. They enable us to find out more about them, they enable us to draw closer and closer, and eventually to love them. This is why all Christians have always regarded the Bible with awe, because it contains the words that bridge the space between God and Man: God’s words. It even goes a step further by showing how God’s words were eventually embodied in the flesh and blood of a man, the man Jesus Christ. When we listen to his words, we learn to listen to God; when we learn to love him, we learn to love God. This is why all authentic Christian prayer begins not by flinging oneself into obscure transcendental states of awareness, but by trying to get to know and love Jesus Christ.
St Jerome said that to be ignorant of the Scriptures is to be ignorant of Christ, and so it goes without saying that the starting point for getting to know Christ is to read the Scriptures. They were written for all of us ‘so that we may have life and have it more abundantly’. They were written specifically ‘for those who have not seen but who have learnt to believe”, that we may come to know the ‘Lord Jesus Christ and to find life through his Name’. When we read the Scriptures slowly and prayerfully, allowing them to sink into our hearts, then we listen to the Word of God speaking to us now. This is why, whatever other methods of prayer we may at times find helpful, we must never forget the Bible and always turn back to it as the Christian prayer book par excellence.
The early Christians knew no other. Many of them knew vast chunks of the Gospels, of the whole Bible, off by heart. They had no other prayer books to hand, nor did they have any need of them. Read Cassian’s description of the way the Desert Fathers used the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament and the Psalms. He emphasizes that they were not interested in how much they read, but how deeply they were able to penetrate the sacred texts. They would read a few verses at a time, going over them for a second and even a third time, poring over them, entering more profoundly into their dynamic inner meaning. The monks would pause in moments of deep silence, to allow the same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures in the first place to inspire them also. When they had fully savoured one particular text, they would reverently move on to another and repeat the process, leaving pauses for silence, for the words to seep into the marrow of their being. As their prayer grew more and more intense, the moments of silence would become more prolonged until in the end words would give way to a deep interior stillness. In this stillness the monk would meet his Maker in a way and on a level known only to the believer who has given his all to the One who is the All-in-All.
“Why is it that Roman Catholics have lost this ancient and traditional way of using the Scriptures, if you don’t mind me asking?’ James asked Peter. ‘Why have we not been brought up to pray in this way?” Peter explained.
When Christianity spread west along the main trade routes of the world, along the famous roads built by the Romans, it found itself in what were rude and primitive surroundings compared with the sophisticated empire into which it was born. How could you give the Scriptures to a people who could not read or write? Although it was always the policy from the earliest days to translate the Sacred Liturgy and the Scriptures into the language of the people, how could you do this when the people had no language, or at least no written language sufficiently developed to allow such a translation to take place? By the time this became possible and people were able to read, it was reformers, unacceptable to the traditional Church, who first gave the people the Word of God in their own language. This is why for centuries the Catholic Church frowned upon, if not positively discouraged, the reading of the Scriptures. During the centuries when ordinary people were starved of the Scriptures, it was the particular prerogative of the great saints and spiritual leaders to present the central mysteries of faith to the people in a way they could grasp. Simple devotions grew up for the illiterate, techniques of mental prayer were introduced, and methods of prayer came into vogue, culminating in the meditation manuals that we have known almost up to the present day.
Many of these ‘helps’ to prayer have stood the test of time, like the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross, the Exercises of St Ignatius, and others, but many were second rate and have been discarded. In general these various improvisations were good and still are, because they genuinely represent the authentic teaching and spirit of the Gospels. Insofar as they did this, and do this now, they can be used with profit. However, the Scriptures have been opened to all once again, so they ought to be put in pride of place. We should be only too eager to return to the most ancient and hallowed Christian prayer traditions, as practised by all the great Fathers of the Church.
“Do you mean that the main body of our prayer time should be devoted to this slow, meditative reading of the Scriptures, in a similar manner to that of those monks described by Cassian?” James asked.
That was exactly what Peter meant and he explained in his own words.
I always advise people to stick to the New Testament; and I usually recommend that people use St John’s Gospel to begin with, turning to his famous discourses, especially the discourse at the Last Supper, from chapter thirteen to chapter seventeen. There is enough food for prayer there to last a lifetime, then turn to the letters of St John and St Paul, and the other Gospels. I usually advise the use of the introductory section of the Blueprint for Prayer as a preparation for reading the Scriptures. Then to open St John’s Gospel at the discourse at the Last Supper and read some of the texts several times, pausing over them, repeating them, and asking God’s help to enable us to penetrate their meaning, and to allow the impact of that meaning to burst into our consciousness. Let me show you what I mean after lunch Peter said, so we went into the Kitchen to eat.
David Torkington will be reading this series on Radio Maria England in the Autumn of 2020. The program will be broadcast by DAB radio in the north of England or world wide via the internet, or on this site