Summary of the 3rd Lenten Lecture 24/03/2014
We know for a fact that the early Christians prayed five times a day, just as Jesus had done with his early disciples. They would rise at midnight to meditate on Christ’s resurrection, so that they would never forget that he was still alive and with them, as he had promised, and that he would be with them to the end of time. This practice wasn’t so unthinkable then as it is today, when most people tended to rise with the sun at dawn and go to bed at sunset. Simple practices grew up, such as, anointing their foreheads with water from the pool in which they had been baptised. This reminded them that the Holy Spirit, who had draw them up and into the risen Christ then, was continually ready to do the same now, this day and every day. In this way they would prepare themselves to imitate Christ who had shown them how to observe the first of the new commandments, by offering himself to his Father, as he had done every day of his life on earth. They knew that the Father would accept their offering, because it was offered in, with, and through him.For morning offering, try using the prayer that Jesus taught us by taking the word OUR and use every letter in it to remind you of the three principle ingredients that should embody morning prayer (Offering, Union, and Resolutions). They can be used even before you get out of bed! Then use every letter in the word FATHER, to act as a similar reminder for daily prayer, but I will detail this later.
Turning Straw into Gold
The morning ritual with baptismal water came to be forgotten with so many other practices in the early Church. In time, however, the practice of consecrating the day to God re-emerged thanks to what came to be called The Morning Offering, a prayer that my mother taught me to say as a little boy. She promised me that it would enable me to turn even very ordinary and seemingly commonplace things into something precious for God, as Rumplestiltskin had turned straw into gold. Of course I forgot to say it when I grew up and went away to school, but it was and still is the key – the Golden Key, that can transform daily drudgery into the self-same offering that Jesus made and continues to make to his Father. So let the letter O remind us to offer up everything in the forthcoming day.
Two Unforgettable Examples
When my mother went to Church, her family could see her deeply immersed in the sacred mysteries, offering to God all the sacrifices that she had made for them in the previous week. Because her offering was made , with, and through Christ, then the same love that he had received from his Father enveloped her, as she remained rapt in prayer after Holy Communion. It was the supernatural strength that she received in these moments, that enabled her weak human loving to be suffused with the divine, giving her the power to continue doing for her family and for others, what she had done the previous week.
I never spoke to my father about his or my spiritual life for that matter, but I know that after reading Thomas Merton’s Elected Silence 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. It began with a quotation that Cassian had learnt from Abbot Isaac. It was a quotation later used by St Benedict with which to begin the Divine Office:-
‘O God come to my aid. O Lord make haste to help me’.
It was followed by a further quotation that encouraged my father to use this prayer throughout his day, as a continual reminder, to try to make every action of every day into one long and continuous prayer.
‘You must continually recite this short prayer in your heart, whatever work 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 so that when sleep comes you are still considering it. When you wake, may it be 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 business , and let it follow you all the day.’
The Jesus Prayer
This is perhaps the best example of a custom used by the Desert Fathers based on the earlier traditions of the first Christians, with which they were able to transform every moment of every day into a prayer, into the Prayer without Ceasing . They would choose a quotation that particularly touched them from the chanting of the Divine Office, or from the reading of the sacred scriptures, that they would turn to, over and over again throughout the following day. This would be a means of transforming that day into the place where they observed the first of the New Commandments, through all and everything that they said and did, just as Jesus had done before them. Abbot Macarius was the first of the Desert fathers to be credited with teaching his disciples to use a simple word or a phrase as a prayer, to be used throughout the day. In times of temptation he told them to say, “Lord to the rescue,” or simply use the word Jesus or a shorter form of what later came to be called The Jesus Prayer, as first emphasised by St John Climacus and the later teachings found in the Philokalia. Although it would be extremely difficult in today’s world to pray in the way the early Christians did, there is no reason why the use of short pithy prayers throughout the day can’t achieve the same objective.
A Mystical Family
When Karl Adam used the phrase Christ our Brother to describe the spiritual ethos that prevailed in the early Church, he wasn’t just speaking of the moral brother and sisterhood that bonded the early Christians together, but of the mystical family into which they had all been reborn. So, let the letter U, for union, remind us that when we pray, we pray not only in Christ, but in union with Mary and Joseph too, with Peter and Paul, with the martyrs and the saints, who had gone before us and who are now alive in him. This is the time to pray for others in ‘our mystical family’ beginning with our own friends and relatives, before praying for others throughout the world , who are in need of the help and strength that only the love that unites us together in Christ can give.
Some years ago a Catholic doctor, who had been tortured in a South American jail appeared on television. She had been given electric shock treatment and been subjected to all sorts of terrible torture. She stated quite simply that she had received tremendous help from the prayers of friends back home. She likened their prayers to ‘waves of love’ that had sustained her through some of the darkest moments of her ordeal. Coming from anyone else, such a phrase could all too easily have sounded like pious hyperbole. On the same news program I heard the story of a group of Christians suffering in Siberia, who had risked their lives to smuggle a tape recording out of their prison. The tape consisted of an impassioned appeal for prayers, from the Russian Christians to their brothers and sisters in the West. Suffering always makes people of deep faith more sensitive to the extraordinary power of prayer.
Transcending the Dimensions of Space and Time
Through prayer we can reach out to others, share our faith and love with them, and receive their strength in return. That’s why the Church made an enclosed Carmelite nun, St Thérèse of Lisieux, patroness of the Missions, to emphasize that the prayer of love transcends all boundaries, even the boundaries of space and time.
One day a lay brother bust into the room of Padre Pio to find him kneeling at his bedside lost in prayer. When he apologised profusely, the saint immediately reassured the brother –“Don’t worry,” he said, “I was just praying for a happy death for my father.” ‘But your father died two weeks ago.” The brother replied. “Yes that’s right’.” said the saint without further comment. Prayer takes us up into another dimension, out of the world of space and time; it can be just as effective in the past or the future, as it is in the present.
The daily newspapers and even the news on the television can be used as an aid to prayer. When we hear about those whose suffering makes us feel so helpless, try to remember them in morning prayer . For this is the time when they can be included in our morning offering, in, with and through Christ , and with the love and support of all with whom we are united in his mystical family. This means that those for whom we pray are included in the Prayer without Ceasing’ that we try to make as we try to transpose all that we have offered to God at the beginning of the day into practice through all that is said and done throughout the day.
Finally the letter R can remind us to make the resolutions that will enable us to try and consecrate every moment of the day to loving God, and to loving our neighbours, through all we say and do. It might be to do humdrum tasks that we keep putting off, like changing the sheets on the bed, putting air into the car tires, defrosting the freezer, or something that’s more important. There’s always that friend or relative who’s sick or in need, who we should ‘phone, or write to, or even visit for a few minutes. Alternatively, perhaps we should make a resolution to apologize to one of the family, a friend, or someone at work, for the way we behaved towards them the previous day.
It’s very difficult to stand up for someone who’s been abused by authority at work, or elsewhere, or to speak the truth when no one wants to hear it, or to make a stand for what we know is right. But nevertheless these are some of the more important things that could occupy our minds as part of morning prayer. We could end with the most important resolution of all, and that is to try and make the forthcoming day, a day when we try as best we can, to enable God’s love to draw us up, not just into the life of Christ, but into the love that endlessly flows to and fro between him and his Father. It is only there that we will be able to love God as we should, by offering him all that we are and all that we do, but most of all by offering him the way we have tried to serve him through the neighbour in need. In this way, every day is a day in which we spend every single moment trying to observe the New Commandments, firstly by loving God, and then by loving him in the neighbour in need, just as Jesus did.
The Second Commandment
One of the most important truths of the spiritual life, that we neglect at our peril is that we won’t ultimately be judged by the wonderful feelings that we’ve experienced in prayer. We won’t be asked how many ecstasies we’ve had or even how many miracles we’ve worked, or even how many people we have healed, but how we have served God in the neighbour in need. If we have done this, even if we have failed in so much else, we will be invited to share in his glory, because he will say to us:-
“I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”(Matthew 25:31-46)
But if we fail to do this, then we will be condemned to hear other frightening words:-
“Depart from me, for I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. For in truth I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
Try, Try and Try Again!
The morning offering and its implementation is not just a nice pious practice for those who have the time to do it, but something on which our ultimate destination depends. It is the place where the whole of the forthcoming day is dedicated to loving God through a continual process of prayer, self-sacrifice, and the service of others. In this way, all that is said, done, and suffered, all that is enjoyed and celebrated, is offered in, through, and with Jesus to our common Father. This is the new worship in spirit and in truth that Jesus promised to the Samaritan woman. We are called to take part in the priestly action of Jesus every moment of every day of our lives. Of course we will fail and fail many times over, but we must be encouraged by the words of the Hermit who said- “When you stop falling you are in heaven, but when you stop getting up you are in hell.” (Peter Calvay). One of the Desert Fathers, Abba Joachim insisted that we will ultimately be judged, not so much by what we have achieved, but by how best we have tried. As Simone Weil put it – “A person is no more than the quality of their endeavour,” That’s’ ultimately how God will judge us – Thank God for God!