“A marathon not a sprint.” That’s a phrase government ministers and medical advisers are using for the the pandemic. For those on the frontline of hospital care pacing yourself must seem like a luxury. But for those of us locked down at home it is rather different. It is a fortnight since what I think of as week zero began and my diary started to empty, actual cancellation emails or just the reality that these things are not going to happen. I have Holy Week Sermons prepared on Augustine for Paris. Conference talks on renewal of the church planned for Australia and New Zealand, parish days on Julian of Norwich, an ordination retreat on the poet Gwenallt. When that material will see the light of day I don’t know.
It was in the middle of week zero that the platforms allowing face to face meetings online began to impact. Added to Skype and FaceTime, GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams and the now ubiquitous, among clergy, Zoom.
My short term diary filled again quickly. National and diocesan meetings. Conversations with Headteachers, MAT CEOs, Local Authority Officers. I have ‘seen’ my diocesan education team colleagues more in a week than I normally see them in a month. There is spiritual direction to be done on Zoom as well as ‘meetings’ with family and friends. In the village I live in caring for the elderly and housebound is being done on a What’s App group and together with that communication have been additional shopping trips for them. The community of priests I belong to (the Sodality) is also meeting three times a week on Zoom.
At the end of Week One of Zoom working I was shattered. So I decided to take 24 hours off all digital communication. It gave me chance to think about why the digital life has been so tiring when I normally have a significant online presence (Twitter, Facebook and my blog) which does not tire me.
Before thinking about the difference between my normal online activity and the new circumstances we are all in it’s important to acknowledge the exhaustion caused by trauma and anxiety. Almost the whole human population is experiencing a significant trauma. My observation of people and my own experience, is that there is a combination of shock, and from some, still, denial. There is a permanent sense of anxiety that never goes away. Several people have spoken to me about dystopian dreams. I may be wrong but this particularly seems to be so for those living in cities who are seeing places they know well, and which are normally busy, bustling places, suddenly bereft of people. Couples, families, households are spending enforced time together, our normal routines are broken, Many people are being furloughed or can’t get the work done that they normally do. This sense of being out of control causes stress.
Add to that our worries and concerns for those we love. My elderly dad in a nursing home. My nephew in China. A friend’s son with pneumonia.
Given all of this it is not surprising that we feel more tired than usual, or express our anxiety in other ways. For headteachers there is the additional task of organising child-care and exposure to children who might well be bringing the virus into school from healthcare parents. This real danger and the fear of it will only increase.
For clergy there is a strong sense of wanting to do something, added to not being able to do the things we normally do. The resentment about closing church buildings and the large number of live streamed services is, I think, a relatively healthy expression of all this. There is also, it seems to me, a fear among clergy that this will hasten the end of many elements of our inherited church life. With collection-plate giving no longer possible everyone realises that the financial consequences for parishes and dioceses are going to be enormous.
So, to get to online working, why is that making us more tired? I don’t want to universalise my own experience but I am hearing this from many other colleagues too. It ought to be better, we might think, none of the driving and travelling that I normally do, I ought to be less exhausted! But in fact, for someone like me who is strongly introverted I have lost all my ‘down time’. Time in the car is time alone. I miss audible books and Radio 4 when I am thinking about something different, or times when I am processing the meeting I have just had and preparing for the meeting ahead. All of that is gone.
Another factor that is unusual in online meetings is that there are few transition points, arriving somewhere, getting settled, packing up at the end of a meeting; all this creates a sense of transition. I find that I am now often going from one meeting to another without any transition. Often there are literally no gaps. Zoom in its free version is limited to 40 minutes. I think there is a wisdom in that. My best meetings online have lasted 40 – 50 minutes. After that I am tired. Online meetings require a level of concentration and attention that is different to being in a room with people. There are less non-verbal signals to read. There is also less opportunity for humour to relive tension, or give a moment’s breather. We may get better at that as we get more used to using these media. We may also need to get better at controlling our use of some of these platforms. On Microsoft Teams my colleagues can see if I am available (it may be possible to stop this but I haven’t found that yet). There have been times when as soon as I have finished one call a colleague has seen that I am available, and called straight away.
My own personal use of Twitter and Facebook has tended to be much more of a broadcast than conversation. That has been harder to maintain in the past week and is very different from Zoom and the video meetings.
So this coming week I am looking to change some of the ways I have been working to give myself more reflective space. Times to reflect and to prepare. Times when I won’t take calls. But also building into my weeks and months some ‘desert time’.
I must have first read Catherine de Heck Doherty’s book Poustinia some time in the mid 1980s. It is well worth re-reading. Posutinia is simply the Russian word for ‘desert’, but it also refers to the spiritual desert of those, poustiniks, who live in the desert of solitude. For a few years Poustinias were popular among the spiritually minded. Huts in gardens or rooms set apart at retreat centres were named Poustinia. Traditionally a Poustinia contained nothing except simple furniture, a cross and a Bible.
Worn out by my week on Zoom (and other platforms) I set aside Sunday as a Poustinia day. Using the little Oratory which I have made out of a lean-to on the side of the house. (It was probably built for laundry, perhaps as a laundry for the village.) The many icons and quite a number of books are rather more than a Poustinia would provide, but it is a sacred space. The Eucharist has been much celebrated there, with many people; sins absolved; oil applied for healing and psalms sung.
Other than celebrating the Eucharist I decided to make it a non-liturgical day. Not singing the Office but simply chanting the psalms through in order and reading the book of Genesis. My two favourite books of the Bible. Prostrations with the Jesus Prayer (see here) and the simple prayer of the Cloud of Unknowing (see here) completed the day.
Poustinia is available on Kindle. Most of us can’t live as poustiniks in our daily life but Catherine encourages us to find “small solitudes, little deserts”.
In these crazy times we need little deserts more than ever. It may be just a corner of a bedroom or a spare room, the attic or even space in the garage or garden shed. Perhaps the only place is a time, a walk round the garden or local park.
We all know that there are dark days ahead. In these days caring for ourselves is vital. That can only begin with self-knowledge. A knowledge learned in silence and solitude.
I have always needed time alone. More important even than sleep. Which is why I have always love the last hours of the night and first hours of the day.
As we renegotiate our lives with technology and lockdown we will all need to look at the way we spend our time. For me, social isolation and lockdown that is full of e-communication means I need more solitude. I don’t have a parish, and in any case there are now many online forms of worship, so Sunday is a good day for me to have a desert day. It may be that another day or time will work for you. Jesus needed solitude (Lk 4:1-2,141-5; Mk 6:30-32; Mt 14: 1-13; Lk 6:12-13; Lk 22:39-44; Lk 5:16). It is not surprising that we do too.
“The essence of the poustinia is that it is a place within oneself, a result of Baptism, where each of us contemplates the Trinity … The is another way of saying that I live in a garden enclosed, where I walk and talk with God – though a Russian would say, “where all in me is silent and where I am immersed in the silence of God”.
Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Poustinia AMP 1975 p.212
“He showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered thus, ‘It is all that is made.’”
Julian of Norwich
Julian scholars seem to cluster into two groups, those who believe her to have been an unlettered peasant with no theological training, and those who perceive in her a rich stream of theological thought whether accessed directly from books, or learnt from others, perhaps taught by Augustinians or Benedictines.
My reading of Julian is of someone with deeply sophisticated theological thought. Her writing on the atonement and on the Trinity show such depth and so carefully avoid heresy that it is impossible to believe that she had not received considerable theological education in some way.
I am particularly interested in the influence of Augustine of Hippo on her. A comparison of her work and that of Augustine (see, for example Soskice) reveals influence and difference. For me, a particular interest not examined by any of the scholarship I have found so far (please feel free to send me any!) is the connection between the hazel not metaphor and Augustine’s conception of time. The post below is an old one of mine examining the Cloud of Unknowing as the source of a technique of prayer, based on this Augustinian concept of time. The Cloud is often mi-read as if it suggests that any prayer phrase is fine. In fact, the Cloud author is determined that the prayer word must be one syllable.
It is almost certain that Julian knew the Cloud. Her reference to the hazel nut, or rather the hazel nut sized ball is tantalisingly brief but matches perfectly the single-pointedness that the author of the Cloud is aiming for.
I continue to teach this single syllable prayer to individuals. ‘Teach’ is probably too strong a word. There is nothing to teach really, just a suggestion of this form of prayer and some people take that up and some don’t. Those who do continue to report its helpfulness. It is the technique I use most often when driving. Starting with a hymn to the Holy Spirit, a Taizé Veni, Sancte Spiritus …, a period of the Jesus Prayer and then the single syllable ‘God’. Interestingly driving is the closest I come to the physical labour that was always a part of the contemplative life. My body and part of my mind is occupied, concentrated even, leaving me free to pray. The desert monks wove baskets. Modern contemplative communities make cheese, bread or beer. Many of the women solitaries I know practise some form of simple craftwork in a similar way.
This famous quote from Julian provides further suggestions for the single syllable:
“The Trinity is our maker,” writes Julian,
“the Trinity is our keeper,
the Trinity is our everlasting lover,
the Trinity is our endless joy and our bliss”
This post is a combination of three previous posts on The Cloud of Unknowing and some additional sections (marked as Updates) on my experience of practising and teaching the technique of prayer proposed by The Cloud.
A common reaction to my posts and talks on The Cloud’s method of prayer, is that ‘I do that already’, or ‘It’s just what I do’ and the speaker goes on to say that they use a prayer phrase or the Jesus Prayer. Those form of phrase prayers are powerful means for praying, however, the author of The Cloud is proposing something DIFFERENT. My personal experience and my experience in teaching this ‘one-syllable’ method is that it leads to a DIFFERENT kind of experience. I am not saying better or worse.
I will continue to teach the Jesus Prayer and use of a phrase of Scripture as part of lectio and other ways of prayer, but I would like to see where this one-syllable prayer leads. It may not (certainly won’t!) work for everyone. But it is not the same as other methods of prayer and I think we should take The Cloudseriously.
The one-syllable is the essential matter of this prayer.
“The moment is not properly an atom of time but an atom of eternity …”
You will be able to picture, no doubt, the orange robes of the Krishna consciousness devotees who have been a feature of life on London’s Oxford Street and in other cities since the 1960s:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rame
Rama Rama Hare Hare
The George Harrison version of the mantra captures the zeitgeist of the time perfectly.
At the same time, Christians began to look at our own spiritual traditions to discover mantras and other methods of prayer. Some people saw the Orthodox Jesus Prayer as a sort of mantra. Others developed Centering Prayer, and other techniques, suggesting adopting a sacred word or phrase.
John Main founded the World Community for Christian Meditation and proposed using the Aramaic word from the end of the book of Revelation, Maranatha, Come Lord!
John Main like many others picked on what had been a somewhat neglected English book of the fourteenth century which seemed to suggest something similar: The Cloud of Unknowing.
We don’t know who wrote The Cloud but most scholars agree it was probably a Carthusian hermit-monk, who was also a priest, and most likely – because of the English he used – lived in the East Midlands, a form of English very similar to Chaucer. Those of us who studied Chaucer at school will well remember:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
The Cloud author, however, does not suggest a multi word mantra or poly-syllabic word like Maranatha. He repeatedly insists on praying with one single, mono-syllabic word. He suggests ‘God’ or ‘Love’ and using that repeatedly to batter the cloud that separates us from God. He suggests that the word be a ‘dart of longing love’, an arrow piercing the cloud. Later he says that it doesn’t really matter what word we choose – ‘sin’ or ‘out’ would do. The most important thing is that the word must be only one syllable.
That is interesting. I think some of those who have referred to The Cloud to support use of a Christian mantra have missed the author’s point about this. The word itself does not matter; that it must be of only one syllable is not optional.
The text of The Cloud also reinforces this, using simple monosyllabic words whenever possible and avoiding complex latinisms and polysyllabic words. I recommend the version by Fr John-Julian recently published by Paraclete Press. But the original Middle English is not difficult and worth persevering with.
Here is the author of The Cloud explaining his technique for the first time:
When you apply yourself to this work, and feel by grace that you are called by God, lift up your heart to God with a humble stirring of love. And mean God who created you, and redeemed you, and who has graciously called you to this work: and admit no other thought of God. And yet not all of these, but only as it pleases you; for a bare intent directed to God is sufficient, without any other object besides himself. And if it pleases you to have this intent wrapped up and folded in a word, so that you might have a better hold on it, take just a little word of one syllable; for such a word is better than one of two syllables, for the shorter it is, the more fitting it is to the work of the spirit. And such a word is this word GOD or this word LOVE. Choose whichever of these two you wish, or another as it pleases you: whichever word you like best that is of one syllable. And fasten this word to your heart, so that it is never separated from it, no matter what happens.
Jordan Kirk is clear that readers have not read The Cloud carefully enough:
“Although readers of the Cloud have regularly (and, to my mind, inexplicably) referred to the “litil worde” as “preferably” or “ideally” monosyllabic, in fact the Cloud-author admits no compromise on this point.
He has only one stipulation: you can choose whatever word you like, as long as it be monosyllabic. To use a multisyllabic word is not to perform the work of unknowing in a less than ideal manner; it is not to perform it at all.”
In another helpful passage Jordan writes:
“The purpose of the Cloud’s technique is to do away with all the thoughts in your mind in order that the intellect may encounter the very absence of thought, the so-called cloud of unknowing. This encounter will be accomplished by means of the “litil worde,” which, according to an improbable figure, you use simultaneously to bludgeon your thoughts and to pound against the cloud. The double operation of unknowing consists in this blow — to which the Cloud-author gives the name “loue put” (love-thrust) — which takes place when you turn the word into an accouterment of battle, at once a sword you bash against the cloud of unknowing and a shield to keep your thoughts at bay. In being wielded in this manner, the word produces “þis lityl blynde loue put, when it is betyng upon þis derke cloude of unknowing, alle oþer þinges put doun and forзeten” (this little blind love-thrust, when it is beating upon this dark cloud of unknowing, all other things having been put down and forgotten; 58).
If the word of one syllable lends itself to this operation, it is because it can be kept whole. The Cloud-author explains that your importunate thoughts will constantly attempt to get you to explain the word, analyze it, that is, break it up into its parts, but this is what you must not do.
зif any þouзt prees apon þee to aske þee what þou woldest haue, answere him wiþ no mo wordes bot wiþ þis o worde. And зif he profre þee of his grete clergie to expoune þee þat worde and to telle þee þe condicions of þat worde, sey him þat þou wilt haue it al hole, and not broken ne undon. (28–9)
If any thought presses upon you to ask you what you are seeking, answer him with no more words than this one word. And if he offers to explicate that word for you, using his impressive learning, and to tell you about its various aspects, tell him that you want to have it entirely whole, and not broken or undone.”
I have been using the Jesus Prayer for over 35 years, since my mid-teens. It is as much a part of me as breathing. But just before Christmas in 2017 I thought I would take the author of The Cloud at his word (so to speak) and use just one word. I didn’t feel quite ready to adopt ‘sin’. ‘Love’ seemed a bit too emotion-laden. I went for ‘God’.
Since then I have been using the word ‘God’, aloud whenever I can (driving, walking, in the bath etc) and silently dropping it into my consciousness at the end of each in and out breath when I can’t. The rhythm, the pace is slow. When I first started I happened to be somewhere where a neighbouring farmer was installing some fence posts. Hammering them deep into the ground with a sledge hammer. The pace is similar to that and it’s an image that has stuck with me, driving the word deep into my heart, the slow swing of the breath, the drawing back of the hammer and the next blow, repeating the cycle over and over again.
I‘ve been amazed at the effect it has had on me and the significance it feels to have had in my prayer life. I still use the Jesus Prayer formally for two or three periods of 15 minutes a day but the remainder of the time it is the word ‘God’ that I use.
The inner experience of this is hard to describe and I am conscious that talking about one’s own prayer life isn’t quite the done thing.
The author of The Cloud writes about ‘naked intent’ repeatedly. How can we have only one intention, closeness to God, piercing the cloud of unknowing and not the multiple, mixed motives that characterise us most of the time?
I don’t want to make any great claims, but using this one word I have experienced something closer to ‘naked intent’ than I have ever experienced before. There are three reasons I think, for this:
1 Firstly, and strangely, because it is deeply unsatisfying. The Jesus Prayer is complete in itself, it names our Saviour and makes a request of him. Job done. The single word leaves me wanting more. The constant repetition renders the word almost meaningless. Yet that emptiness, that nothingness, nonsense-ness also makes it transparent, so that when I come to pray the Office or Mass the liturgy seems to complete the word, and the word seems to continue in and through the liturgy in a way not possible with a more complex phrase. The word can repeat itself throughout the worship in a way that the Jesus Prayer can’t.
2 Secondly, one of the best ways I can think of describing the experience is physical nakedness. Unless we are naturists we so rarely find ourselves naked in another’s presence other than with a marital partner. Even the doctor normally sees only a part of us. The nakedness of the single word of prayer locking each utterance to the present moment is like the nakedness of the first sexual encounter, not the consummation, but preceding it, the exposure. The moment of utter vulnerability, of utter surprise and unknowing, mixed with delight and anticipation. We often think of sexual passion as a metaphor for our relationship with God, we all know that the Song of Songs and other biblical texts point us to that. But I wonder if, in our sex-obsessed culture we make enough of chastity? Desire examined for its own sake, enjoyed and appreciated without the need for consummation. And not just sexual desire. How about allowing ourselves the time to linger in that liminal moment of hunger without eating, or not getting or knowing what the next job will be, of not being in control.
3 Thirdly, another image for how this works is the reason, I think, the author is so insistent on the word being just one syllable. If our prayer is to enable us to experience the eternity of God’s existence/presence, if the opposite of that eternal ‘moment’ is time passing, perhaps one way of experiencing eternity is to be totally present in just one moment, the smallest possible unit of time, the present moment, so our prayer word needs to be the shortest possible duration, one syllable, one moment. If we can focus all our attentiveness, all our own presence in that spilt moment we will experience, we are experiencing eternity. Time splits and opens us to eternity.
This last idea relates particularly to an Augustinian understanding of time and eternity. Two articles have pointed me in this direction and encouraged me to use this technique in praying:
This essay by Jordan D Kirk, has resonated deeply with the effect my reading of The Cloud has had on my own prayer life in recent weeks. Jordan is working on a book length study of mysticism and has re-worked his paper into a chapter which is very good indeed and fills out the paper somewhat. I am grateful for an advance read of the chapter and look forward to the book being published.
Another essay, by Eleanor Johnson, is also important in understanding the prayer method proposed by the author of The Cloud:
The quote from Kierkegaard at the start of this post seems to suggest something similar to Johnson’s ideas on the monosyllabic word as the shortest possible unit of time and therefore as closest to eternity. There is an interesting article on time here, also see here. I am working on this concept and on Augustine’s view of this and hope to write more in the future.
It is early days yet. But this practice does seem to create a softening or expanding of the heart. I have found myself experiencing the gift of tears in prayer and accessing an outpouring of poetry in my writing. I don’t know how these relate to each other. It is not about emotion or angst, quite the opposite, almost the simplest experience I have known. I would be interested in the experience of others. Monastic authors talk of purity of heart / single heartedness – the single syllable can be a way of getting close to that. It is a technique that seems to make living in the present moment possible.
Over this last few months I have used opportunities to introduce this prayer to individuals and groups. I don’t think I have found exactly the right way of teaching the method yet but several individuals have reported extensively on the profound effect this prayer has had on them, here are two extracts quoted with permission:
“When X left me and I was on my own I didn’t think I’d ever be able to pray again. All those words seemed too much, choking and just made me angry. Just using one word has been sort of liberating. I couldn’t use ‘Love’, that word has been ruined for me. But ‘God’ works. I don’t know what it is, but that’s OK.”
“I only came to the Mindfulness course because someone said it would help me deal with stress. The breathing works really well, and it does help. But it’s the use of one word over and over that has, well, sort of changed my life. I use the word ‘Love’, it kind of means all the best moments of my life. When I do this I feel part of something much bigger than me, like I belong, that I’m not one my own. Almost like there’s ‘someone’ there. You’ll be pleased to hear this: I’ve started going to church. Well, the cathedral actually. I just sit at the back on Sunday afternoon while the choir are singing. It’s the best place I know to do this. You haven’t made me a Christian yet, but I certainly want more of this.”
The ‘cloud of unknowing’ is not a cloud that will part in this life, if it did we would be destroyed by the reality of God. The cloud protects us. When RS Thomas writes of the presence of God as the presence that has just left the room, he is describing how we can only cope with seeing God out of the corner of an eye. Like Moses who could only see the backside of God on the mountain and whose face still had to be covered afterwards it shone so brightly.
Thomas in his famous poem The Absence writes:
It is a room I enter
from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism
of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews
at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?
Two other poems can help us here, I think. One The Panther by the poet Rilke, and the other The White Tiger by R S Thomas.
They are about the cloud of unknowing. For Rilke the bars of the panther’s cage only occasionally allow him to see through the bars:
“an image, [that] enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.”
For Thomas, the Tiger:
as God must be beautiful …
It was the colour of moonlight
and as quiet
as moonlight, but breathing
as you can imagine that
God breathes within the confines
of our definition of him, agonising
over immensities that will not return.”
The colour of moonlight on snow. No colour at all. But totally present, totally real.
What is clear from the communications I am receiving from people who trybthis is that there are many people who have found praying with a one syllable word helpful. Some have mentioned contact with Indian Christians through the teaching of Bede Griffiths, Shantinavam and Abhishiktananda (who I will quote from extensively later), most have come to this by their own intuition. A few mention the gift of tongues leading into this, one sound from that forming their word.
Three questions stand out:
– How does this experience relate to praying in tongues?
– How does it relate to Jesus?
– Are there any other places where praying with a monosyllabic word are suggested?
In Relation to Praying in Tongues
In the article cited below, Eleanor Johnson writes about the place of ‘nonsense’ in the technique suggested by the author of The Cloud. This fits with his suggestions that any word of one syllable will do and that the meaning is irrelevant. We all know that when you think about any word too much it becomes nonsense. As children acquire language and particularly young teenagers they find this nonsense quality of words particularly amusing. It seems to be a phase they often go through.
I have my doubts about the usefulness of the nonsense image. Just as children are now taught artificial phonics through made up, but phonetically correct, words, but the author doesn’t suggest that. In fact he chooses two powerful words God and Love to start with. I suspect that most of us need the positive connotations of words like that to sustain us in this sort of prayer. I have only been practising like this for a few months so can’t claim any great expertise but I certainly don’t feel drawn to ‘sin’ one of the author’s other suggestions. I wonder whether for a new-comer the author would always have suggested positive words? Or even how serious he was about the use of the word sin …
Among the words that some of you who have been in touch use are:
This is a good list. I suspect that most of us need a word with a positive vibe. We come to prayer in various states, sometimes tired and weary, sometimes in an even darker place than that, even after appropriate introductory prayers a positive mental state is needed.
Praying in tongues has been a part of my experience since I experienced baptism in the Spirit as a fourteen year old. However, it is not a form of prayer that is, for me, sustained for a long period of time. Using the word ‘God’ in the Cloud’s way of prayer does often lead into or from a time of praying in tongues but the mono-syllable is one way to maintain this prayer in my daily life.
In terms of the inner feeling or sensation I think there is much in common between the way of The Cloud and the gift of tongues; it is a suspension of the rational mind, a stepping out of mind-consciousness into another place and there is a liminal quality to it.
A common experience when I meet and talk to Pentecostal and charismatic Christians is conversation about how the practices of the spiritual life often associated with the Catholic stream of Christianity can enable them to sustain prayer on a daily basis. One danger of charismatic spirituality is the need for a ‘high’ every now and again to top up the spiritual feeling. Allowing these intense experiences to lead into contemplative ones can build resilience and sustainability.
The place of Jesus in the Way of the Cloud and another source for the one-syllable prayer
The Jesus Prayer is clearly a Jesus-centred prayer. The way of the monosyllable is less obviously so. I always begin prayer with an invocation of the Trinity and prayer to the Holy Spirit – normally the Orthodox prayer “Heavenly King …” and then a time of singing “Veni Sancte Spiritus.” It is important to remember that The Cloud, like Julian’s Showings assume a normal liturgical and sacramental life within a Bible-based, orthodox, Christian community.
However, the experience of the Way of the Cloud seems to – as it should – relate to Jesus at a more fundamental level. I happened to dip into the writings of Abhishiktananda as I was thinking about this and came across some remarkable passages. Abhishiktananda was a French Christian monk (Henri le Saux) who travelled to India and lived the life of a Hindu renunciate while remaining faithful to his Christian faith and monastic and priestly vocation.
Abhishiktananda stresses that the point of all we do is to enter into the inner silence which …
“Can be summed up in one Hebrew phrase of Psalm 65, which Jerome translates: silentium tibi laus. Silence is praise for you. Silence in prayer, silence in thanksgiving, prayer and adoration, silence in meditation, silence inside and outside as the most essential preparation for this stillness of the soul in which alone the Spirit can work at his pleasure.
In the old tradition of Vedic yajna (sacrifice) four priests had to sit around the Vedi (altar). One of them had the function of performing the rite and meanwhile repeating the mantras … Another was in charge of chanting the hymns … The third invoked the devas … But the fourth one, the brahmana priest par excellence, was to remain silent, whispering as it were without any interruption an almost inarticulate OM. Yet it was that silent OM which was considered as the thread uniting all the different parts of yajna and giving to the whole its definitive value.”
Further Shore, pp 117-118
Om is a meaningless syllable, but it is also the sacred sound, sometimes called the seed syllable. Two more passages stand out for me in Abhishiktananda’s writing, the first:
“God is outside all time. And eternity is present in each moment of time.
‘The smallest abyss.’
We must leap just the right distance,
or else we shall miss our aim and find ourselves further off than ever,
on a ‘further shore’ which is not the true one.
God is too close to us. That is why we constantly fail to find him.
We turn God into an object – and God escapes our grasp.
We turn him into an idea – but ideas pass him by.
So Mary Magdalene was too much taken up with her thoughts about Jesus
to be able to recognise him in the gardener …”
The Further Shore p. 121
This theology of time and eternity is utterly Augustinian and surely that held by the author of The Cloudwhich explains his reliance on the shortest possible prayer? I don’t know where the phrase ‘the smallest abyss’ comes from, it is perfect. As is the description of God being too close to us for us to see him. This is exactly R S Thomas’s presence that has just left the room, or the movement that we can never quite catch, no matter how quickly we turn our heads.
Abhishiktananda embraced the Hindu devotion to the word ‘Om’. I am not advocating that western Christians adopt this practice wholesale. I have only once experienced the use of this word in Christian circles. It was at Park Place, the Pastoral Centre of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth and must have been some time in the late 1990s. Staying there for a conference I happened to wander into the chapel when the sisters, who at that time ran the centre, were praying. They were mostly Indian (I think a Franciscan community) and used many Christian mantras in their prayers, often including the word ‘Om’. I was very interested in this and spoke at length to some of the sisters about it.
The second passage from Abhishiktananda is even more profound and describes, I believe, exactly how Jesus relates to the mono-syllable, the Way of the Cloud:
The OM which our rishis heard resounding in their souls,
when they descended to the greatest depths in themselves,
deeper than their thoughts and deeper than all their desires,
in the existential solitude of being,
the OM which sounds in the rustling leaves shaken by the wind,
the OM which howls in the storm
and murmurs in the gentle breeze,
the OM which roars in the rushing torment
and the gentle murmur of the river flowing peacefully down to the sea,
the OM of the spheres making their way across the sky,
and the OM that throbs at the core of the atom.
That which sings in the song of birds,
that which is heard in the call of beasts in the jungle,
the OM of people laughing and the OM of their sighs,
the OM that vibrates in their thoughts and in all their desires,
the OM of their words of warfare, of love, or trade,
the OM that Time and History utter on their way,
the OM uttered by Space when entering into Time.
This OM suddenly burst out, whole and entire,
in a corner of space and at a point of time,
in its indivisible fullness,
when in Mary’s womb was born as Son of man,
the Word, the Son of God.
Diary pp 189-190
The Word that God uttered in the beginning, the divine logos, the Word that is Jesus. This is the “deep calling to deep” abyssus abyssum invocat, of the soul meeting God. The Spirit groaning within us. The blade slicing into the thinnest fragment of time to open eternity.
When the new edition of the complete works of John of the Cross came out last year (review/note from me here) I began re-reading the prose works (I have read his poetry pretty much constantly over the years) and a number of commentaries and books about his writing. That reading led me back to David Knowles’ The English Mystical Tradition. The chapter in that on The Cloud of Unknowing is particularly strong and makes an excellent comparison between the teaching of The Cloud and that of John of the Cross. It is well worth reading.
This essay by Jordan D Kirk, has resonated deeply with the effect my reading of The Cloud. the prayer method proposed by the author of The Cloud:
The Cloud has been much favoured by the ‘spiritual but not religious’ and given that ‘all translation is treachery’ has not been well served by all its translators. Maggie Ross has written a splendidly frank view of the various versions of The Cloud:
Ross is an Anglican solitary and lives the life, her recent Silence: A User’s Guide (in two volumes) is fundamental reading on the contemplative/solitary life. I preached this sermon recently which picks up on some of the themes in The Cloud, notably the word ‘behold’, and was profoundly influenced by Ross and her earlier books.
The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counselling, Ed Hodgson, Phyllis, Early English Text Society/OUP 1944 (the 1982 edition is the most recent and the one usually used as a reference text. Eg by Gallacher – below).
This is the ‘base text’ for study of The Cloud. reproducing the best available reading of the Middle English text with extensive notes. Given Maggie Ross’s comments and my own experience of the various dodgy translations that are around I am making increased use of this, the Middle English (I studied Chaucer at A’ Level) is not as difficult as it looks at first glance. I also find that the more familiar I become with sections of the original the more dissatisfied I am with the translations available. I wish I could find a recording of the Middle English text being read, let me know if you find one.
The TEAMS Middle English Texts version ed by Patrick Gallacher, it is a version of the ME text using modern orthography which makes reading a little easier. It is also more readily available. Maggie Ross is not keen on the introduction and it certainly is not particularly incisive on the practice of prayer but it is a good overview of the Tradition. The notes are very good and update Hodgson often referring to other modern translations. More importantly it is available online and is interactive which makes looking up notes etc very easy. HERE
The Complete Cloud of Unknowing with the Letter of Privy Counsel, Fr John-Julian OJN, Paraclete Press 2015
This has become my go-to translation. I like the style used and most of all the notes, a facing page for every page of text from The Cloud, are extremely detailed. Even when the reader might disagree with a choice made there is always either an explanation or pointing out of alternatives. The introduction is also very helpful and there is some useful material in appendices.
The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Writings by an English Mystic of the Fourteenth Century with a Commentary on the Cloud by Fr Augustine Baker OSB, Ed. McCann, Justin, Abbot, Burns and Oates 1924 (1960 edition)
See Maggie Ross’s comments on this, which are right:
“Oh dear, there are a number of problems here. First, while he claims to have used an assortment of mss, his version differs from Gallacher/Underhill enough so that one suspects he is privileging the Ampleforth manuscript, which he calls the ‘second recension’, and which is very different from the Hodgson text. Next, he has paraphrased, often quite patronizingly. His filter seems to be an effort to make this radical manuscript acceptable to a highly conservative, anti- ‘modernist’ pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic church. He has kept ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ and the -eth endings but there is something deliberately antiquated, a bit kitsch olde worlde about his paraphrases for reasons I haven’t been able to put my finger on—yet. He also censors phrases such as that in chapter 12 about private parts—but we have to cut Underhill and McCann a little slack in this regard as they were working in the 1930s. McCann somehow makes the Cloud author sound precious, which he most certainly is not.”
Pocket and nicely bound versions are regularly available second-hand but I find it so difficult to read that I don’t use them.
A Book of Contemplation the which is called the Cloud of Unknowing, in the which a soul is oned with God, Underhill, Evelyn, Watkins, 1912 (1956 ed.)
Pocket versions of this turn up second-hand regularly and I have one that I carry with me so refer to quite often.
Maggie Ross: “This is the closest of the modernized versions to the Hodgson benchmark but has some curious interpolations about spiritual direction, possibly due to her contact with von Hugel. She has not changed many words and for the modern reader may have not changed enough, but her version hast the advantage of clarity without intruding too many anachronisms. She has kept thee and thou and the -eth endings but somehow these are not intrusive as with McCann. This version is published online at several sites including the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Type ‘Cloud of Unknowing Underhill’ into your search engine. She omits the author’s hyperbolic phrases that would offend genteel sensibilities, such as the mention of cutting off of private parts in chapter 12.”
The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, Wolters, Clifton, Penguin, 1961 (1978)
This is disappointing given that it is the Penguin version. Not a book I refer to.
Maggie Ross: “Wolters’ is an outright translation and he has the same concerns as McCann to make this work acceptable to a very conservative Roman Catholic audience on the cusp of Vatican II. His version has the advantage that he has dropped the ‘thee’, ‘thou’, and ‘-eth’, but sometimes his paraphrases amount to Counter-Reformation glosses, and he seems to leave out or condense sections. He claims to be using Hodgson, but he also says he has consulted McCann, and, like McCann, he leans towards Ampleforth and the Latin (the original text is in English). As I create a parallel text of these versions, there are often times when I wonder if Wolters and McCann are using the same Middle English text as I and some of the others are.”
The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Walsh, James, Paulist Press 1981 (Classics of Western Spirituality)
Maggie Ross is, in my view, unnecessarily harsh. The introductions are good and the notes helpful. I use this volume a lot as a check. It is, as Maggie suggests, clearly written with an orthodox Catholic standpoint, but that is helpful as an antidote to some less than orthodox perspectives that are common.
Maggie Ross: “Walsh tries to make the Cloud-author into a neo-scholastic, which he most certainly is not. His translation is prolix and full of the ‘experience’ problem. He is prone to making absurd and completely unsupportable claims such as: the practice the Cloud teaches cannot be undertaken by non-Christians. His scriptural and other citations are often wildly scattershot, not really seeming to relate to the text properly, as if he had a lot of references on slips of paper and threw them all up in the air and then wrote down whatever came to hand. He did the same with Julian’s texts. However, his text has the advantage that it includes Richard Methley’s comments in the footnotes. To my ear (but maybe this is due to the fact that I dislike his translation so much) he sometimes sounds fatuous.”
The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counselling, Ed, Johnston, William, Doubleday, 1973
Maggie Ross really doesn’t like this version. She is right in what she says. However, it is a useful reference book in terms of understanding the reception and use of The Cloud. It also reads well. I like Johnston and find his drawing on the Eastern/Buddhist tradition very illuminating and helpful, particularly at the level of experience.
Maggie Ross:“This purported translation—only in part; it is really more a platform for Johnston himself—is so strange and has so many modern interpolations that I often wonder if he is using the same text as the rest of this group as a basis for what he is writing. Johnston comes from a humanistic psychology and human potential movement background, and is anachronistically continually looking at the Cloudthrough the lens of the much later John of the Cross. Johnston feels free to move paragraphs around or omit them altogether, to interpolate material that simply isn’t there or even implicit. I’m not quite sure what this book is, but it doesn’t have a lot to do with The Cloud of Unknowing.”
The Cloud of Unknowing With the Book of Privy Counsel, Butcher, Carmen Avecedo, Shambhala, 2009.
Not mentioned by Ross. She wouldn’t like it! This is definitely one for the ‘spiritual but not religious’. It reads well. I have been listening to the Audible version which is very easy to hear. But it is more like using The Message version of the Bible, not a translation but a meditation, Jim Cotter would call it an ‘unfolding’ of the text. Good for lectio, but needing to refer to the original.
The Cloud of Unknowing for Everyone, Obbard, Elizabeth Ruth
Again, not a translation, and it doesn’t pretend to be. A useful book for lectio and prayer. Obbard’s books are deceptively simple, with charming (perhaps rather too charming) cartoon like sketches – think, Good News Bible. In fact the text is rather profound and very helpful, Obbard is always orthodox and accessible.
Commentaries and Notes
The Cloud of Unknowing: An Introduction
John P.H. Clark
Vol 1: Introduction, 1995
Vol 2 Notes on the Cloud, 1996
Vol 3: Notes on the Book of Privy Counselling, 1995
These three slim volumes, if you can get hold of them, are, again, essential reading for anyone studying The Cloud, especially for engaging with Hodgson’s Middle English text. Immensely detailed, wise and sensible I use these all the time.
This series will lead the reader to the Augustine Baker tradition of the English Benedictine Congregation which is such an important part of the reception of The Cloud.
The English Mystical Tradition, Knowles, David, Harper 1961
As already mentioned Knowles’ chapter on The Cloud is excellent. The whole book is important to read and has worn remarkably well given when it was written.
English Spirituality, Mursell, Gordon, SPCK, 2001 (2 volumes).
A brilliant overview of spirituality. Mursell has a superb writing style and makes excellent connections across spirituality, literature, theology and the different spiritualities described. The section on The Cloud is relatively short but a must read. Another for the essential reading list.
UPDATED CONCLUSION 3/10/18
Teaching Mindfulness it is clear to me that this is a pathway for faith, a way that doesn’t do violence to people and allows them, very gently, to experience the presence of God as the Other who is as close to us as our breathing. Use of the one-syllable method is a helpful next step. There is a tenderising, softening effect that cuts through negative attitudes to religion as well as the hardened crust that life creates on our hearts. The suspension of the intellect, the rational mind is especially important in inoculating the mind against the poison that so much of our anti-religion, anti-mystical training plants there.
fabfininbarEditMaggie Ross is pretty brutal! Any thoughts on the new Penguin Translation by AC Spearing? I like the Carmen Butcher translation, it reads really well. I have the TEAMS but I haven’t ventured to try yet! Just found this site yesterday looking for articles on the Cloud, thanks for this all the best.LikeReply
Father Richard PeersEditShe certainly doesn’t mince her words! Butcher is a paraphrase not a translation in my view, good read and the Audible version is easy to listen to, Penguin not at all bad … Thanks for the Feedback! Blessings.Liked by 1 personReply
Neil WorkEditThank you so much for this blog, Ive only just come across it. The Cloud writer’s insistence on one syllable has interested me for years. I once came across Fr. Augustine Baker’s commentary on the Cloud. It may have been the Underhill version,(it was in a relative’s library). I looked up what he said about the single syllable. If I remember correctly, he appeared to say this was not to be taken too literally, that, for example, a phrase was o.k. or something else short. He gives the example of one of St. Francis’ brothers, whose prayer was to simply run. (I had to think of Forest Gump running across America!) . I once put this apparent puzzle to an Augustinian monk. He said continuous prayer will start off with many words (like this, he said, praying quickly ) which over time will distill & concentrate until there are no words. I notice that in ‘Privy Counsel’ the author emphasises that everything we can think about God is contained in the word ‘ is’. I feel very cautious about the ‘Centering Prayer’ movement, not least because the CDF letter from then Cardinal Ratzinger in the 1990’s so obviously referred to some of what it was doing. The introduction to the Cloud is so clear about the need to be orthodox, not to pick bits & leave others. In this vein , I like what the writer says later about people who do not submit to church teaching – they have some vice they want to continue with.. There aint no short cuts.LikeReply
Father Richard PeersEditInteresting, lots of people say one syllable or a few it doesn’t matter, that may be true but that is not what the Cloud says. I am not do cautious about the CP stuff, they at least try and address what original sin/falleness might be instead of just ignoring it. I don’t think I was ready for The Cloud 30 years ago. CP really helped me then.LikeReply
Please let me know your experience of this prayer, I am keen to develop ways of introducing and teaching it.Advertisements
“Do not neglect prostration. It provides an image of humanity’s fall into sin and expresses the confession of our sinfulness. Getting up, on the other hand, signifies repentance and the promise to lead a life of virtue. Let each prostration be accompanied by a noetic invocation of Christ, so that by falling before the Lord in soul and body you may gain the grace of the God of souls and bodies.”
Theoliptos, Metropolitan of Philadelphia
in The Philokalia, Volume, 4 p. 185 (Palmer, Sherrard and Ware, Faber 1995)
“So: the regular ritual to begin the day when I’m in the house is a matter of an early rise and a brief walking meditation or sometimes a few slow prostrations, before squatting for 30 or 40 minutes (a low stool to support the thighs and reduce the weight on the lower legs) with the “Jesus Prayer”: repeating (usually silently) the words as I breathe out, leaving a moment between repetitions to notice the beating of the heart, which will slow down steadily over the period.”
I have been practising the Jesus Prayer (the Prayer) since I first learnt it as a teenager. I have taught it, in sermons, on retreats and quiet days and in prayer accompaniment to many others. Although I have been practising prostrations and walking meditation with the Prayer for many years I haven’t so far taught these, or talked about them much to others. The former Archbishop’s piece has encouraged me to write this little blog about how I use these physical postures and movements in the hope that it will encourage others to explore this side of the use of the Prayer.
“Glorify God in your body.” Is St Paul’s clear exhortation to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:19) but, probably like many other pious Christians I am very much a ‘head’ person. As a child when my siblings were playing in the garden I would much rather have my head buried in a book. I have had to work at and enable others to liberate me from this.
It was experience of Catholic charismatic renewal, ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ and praying in tongues when I was fourteen that freed me to be more physical in my prayer (and in life generally). Although I had read The Way of A Pilgrim in my mid-teens it was as a late teenager that I discovered the prayer more thoroughly from the Anglican monks at Crawley Down (Community of the Servants of the Will of God). My, then, Spiritual Director and Superior of the community, Fr Gregory, had a strong friendship with Archimandrite Sophrony at the orthodox community at Tolleshunt Knights in Essex. At Crawley Down the only prostrations associated with the prayer was a deep bow, touching of the floor and sign of the cross at intervals during the communal recitation of the prayer which replaces Compline.
Communal recitation was itself an innovation at Tolleshunt Knights but one that works well and I have used with many retreat and prayer groups. Single voices, reciting the prayer in turn, 50 or 100 times each, praying the short doxology after each set of recitations.
Prostrations, often over a prayer stool, had also been a form of prayer that I had learnt at Taizé which I’d first visited as a seventeen year old. At the Friday prayer around the cross there individuals also place their foreheads on the icon of the cross lying on the ground, a powerful form of prayer.
Retreats with the Buddhist monks at Chithurst Forest Monastery in the south downs and at Amaravati north of London (both in the Thai Forest tradition) also taught me the art of bowing the forehead to the ground.
Sometime in my late twenties I began to practice prostrations with the Jesus Prayer. Both types of prostration from the standing position (I have never felt comfortable praying sat in a chair and usually use a Taizé style prayer stool or a Buddhist meditation cushion.) For the basic prostration, with each repetition of the Jesus Prayer, I bow deeply at the waist, making the sign of the cross and touching the floor with my fingers, I do this for each of 50 or 100 recitations of the prayer (using a prayer rope to count) and then pray either the lesser doxology or the Lord’s Prayer dropping to my knees and placing my forehead on the ground.
I find this level of physicality in prayer very helpful especially immediately after getting up in the morning and before praying the morning Office, or in the middle of the day. Sometimes if I am tired it is a helpful way of preparing for Vespers. I rarely use this form of prostration before Compline as I find it overstimulating at a time when I want to relax. If I am sleepless because of an over busy mind it can be a good way to switch off thoughts before a cup of camomile tea and a return to bed.
On occasions, for a change, I use the short Greek form of the Jesus Prayer:
Kyrie Jesu Christe, eleison me.
Other times I seek to remind myself of the faith dimension of the words by speaking aloud an extended meditation/ prayer on the meaning of Lord/Jesus/Christ etc. I think this is important so that the Prayer is always an exercise of faith, trust in Jesus and never perceived as some sort of mantra or invocation.
There is a good piece by Saint Ignaty Brianchaninov here. He describes how:
“The bows warm up the body and somewhat exhaust it, and this condition facilitates attention and compunction.”
Of course, this sort of prayer is only for private use. On retreat or holiday I have occasionally practised prostrations for extended periods of several hours at a time; I find the sense of exercise very helpful. It is also a good practise for outside facing the rising sun in a chilly autumn dawn.
I haven’t said much here about uniting the Prayer with the breathing; I would very much encourage this and find it an essential way of using the prayer and extending the prayer into my daily activities.
There is a very good essay about uniting the Prayer with the breath here.
Walking meditation is another way of using the Prayer physically. Again this was something I learnt from the Forest monks. The best way I find is to alternate prostrations with walking meditation. Find a flat area where you can walk up and down a line for about 20 feet and just walk very slowly along the line and back again. Outside in a private area and focusing the eyes simply on the steps ahead. I find it is best not to be too artificial about the pace of walking; just as slow as is possible without being theatrical. I have never been able to combine the rhythm of walking with the breathing although I am told that some people do this; I breathe in the first part of the prayer and breathe out the second part and let the walking look after itself. I find it easier to combine the breathing with the prayer when praying silently in my head but sometimes, and usually with the prostrations, pray the prayer aloud, again only in private.
The Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh who met Thomas Merton, practises a much freer form of Walking Meditation that is much more just mindful walking. I sometimes use this with a mindful verse that he suggests:
With every step / a flower blooms.
There are plenty of YouTube films of Thich Naht Hanh teaching this kind of prayer:
I have used this form of group walking meditation, silent walking, with retreat groups, it has a strong bonding quality for a group and can be a good break from sitting and listening in a retreat centre!
Bowing to the ground with the forehead is normally referred to as the Great Prostration and touching the ground with the fingers while bowing at the waist a Small Prostration.
There is a very helpful page about the use of the Jesus Prayer on the St Vladimir’s seminary website here.
I thoroughly recommend using physical posture with the Jesus Prayer and exploring posture in all our prayer (bowing at the doxology at the end of the psalms in the Office, for example) but there is no ‘right’ way to pray. As St Teresa of Avila wrote,
“mental prayer is none other … than an association of friendship, frequently practised on an intimate basis, with the one we know loves us.”
The important thing with prayer, as Dom John Chapman wrote, is that we pray as we can, not as we can’t (Spiritual Letters 109).
There is a lovely sentence in Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle (1.28):
“It is very important for any soul that prays, whether little or much, that it doesn’t tighten up or squeeze itself into a corner” (tr Peter Tyler).
Posture helps me to pray because it loosens me up; it frees me from my head space and allows me to descend to the heart. It works for me because I am a naturally fidgety person. Other things will work for other people.
Prayer is friendship with God, just as we each find our own ways of friendship we all need to experiment and try things out to find our way of being friends with God. Posture is a form of touch, a making physical our prayer, our friendship. Just as touch is important in friendship, so it can be important in prayer.
So I did it. After many requests. And after seeing the wonderful efforts so many others have made to provide Christian worship in this time of pandemic. I live streamed the Eucharist in the little Oratory which I’ve turned a lean-to on the side of the house into.
Some rooky errors: apparently FaceBook live stream won’t film in landscape on my iPhone so the whole thing was at right angles; despite Kate Bottley’s very helpful advice I didn’t place the phone high enough up which gives the whole thing a rather odd look. I shall improve on both of those tomorrow
It was my friend and brother Sodalist Fr John-Francis Friendship who made the point to me (on the phone) and publicly on Facebook that perhaps we need to make some greater acknowledgement of the viewer in these online broadcasts. I think he is right.
At the beginning of the liturgy I will say:
Wherever we are we meet in the name of Christ who is present in every time and place as our friend and brother:
The Lord be with you: And also with you.
At the offertory I will pray this prayer adapted from Common Worship:
Be present, be present, Lord Jesus Christ, our risen high priest, make yourself known to us; though we are separated unite us in faith; though we are apart grant us the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen
At the intercessions I will add:
Remember us, separated by pandemic, but united by faith in the body of Christ; may all who see this celebration of the Eucharist know the presence of Christ in their hearts and in their lives. Strengthen our communion that we may be strengthened in the service of others.
At the moment of Communion I will turn towards the camera holding the consecrated hosts nd chalice and say:
Christ is in or midst. He is and always will be.
I will make the sign of the cross with the host before turning back to receive communion.
I am working on a suitable post communion prayer. I would appreciate any help on this:
Almighty God, we thank you for feeding us by your holy Word and by our fellowship in the body of Christ. United with him and with all the baptised in every time and place we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice. Sustain us in our isolation by the power of your Spirit, that we may live in peace, and free from all anxiety, to your praise and glory.
Finally, I love singing. Praying by singing has a whole different effect on me. It used parts of my brain I don’t use when reciting prayers. Sadly I am not the great singer I would love to be. I thought about not singing in the live streamed liturgies but I am going to carry on. Sorry!
The form of the Eucharistic liturgy I use is adapted slightly from Common Worship and I use Eucharistic Prayer H with intercession inserted. Here it is with the prayers above added for live streaming.
Please do continue to send me names of people you would like to be prayed for. I will pray aloud for everyone by first name only. I don’t mind if it takes me half an hour or more!
NOTE: I have come in recent years through my educational/pedagogical work to believe that repetition is more important in learning than novelty and total coverage. Applying that to the liturgy I suspect that one year lectionaries are better than the multi-year cycles that have been developed in the last 60 years or so. Thus, I am using the BCP Sunday lectionary, repeating those readings on weekdays unless there is a saint’s day. On saints’ days and in seasons – such as Lent – where there is daily provision the readings from the old western rite are used as found in the 1958 edition of the English Missal. These are taken from the Authorised Version.
As we come nearer Easter, anxiety is growing across the world in the face of the spread of the coronavirus. At Taizé, it seems that for the first time we will probably spending Holy Week and the Easter celebration without visitors. We have had to ask the people who had registered for the meetings to put off their stay, and the Church of Reconciliation is closed. We continue with our life of prayer and work “separated from all but united to all.” We are very conscious that intercession keeps us united with so many other people throughout the world.
By phone or internet, we receive a lot of news from people facing similar challenges in different parts of the world. Some of our brothers are living or travelling in Korea, Italy and elsewhere. Our Chinese brothers, in contact with their families there, have been following with attention and deep concern the developments of the epidemic since its beginnings.
Quite apart from the question of the precautions and changes to our way of life that are necessary, this quite unexpected and exceptional health crisis touches us in a deeper way. First of all, we are led to feel for the suffering and anguish of the victims, the sick, their families and all those who are severely affected by its economic consequences. We bear them in prayer.
We would also like to give thanks and express our admiration for those who are committed with all their strength to helping the victims and, more generally, in reorganizing public services. There are so many testimonies of creative generosity, of solidarity, and of people resisting passivity and discouragement.
In this difficult period, how can we not ask ourselves: What does Christ expect of us? What does the Risen One, who came to be with his discouraged disciples in spite of the closed doors, offer us? And to what is he calling us today? In the difficulties of the present, in Brother Roger’s words, “Not simply to endure events but, in God, to build with them.”
Following Christ leads us to an experience of conversion, of turning away from darkness and towards the light of the Risen One. Day by day, let us not be diverted by fears, anger, regrets, confusion, and the darkness that often claims to cover the whole world and to monopolise our attention… But let us remain united, deep within our hearts, to the source of peace that remains always beyond everything.
As containment measures and health precautions are increased to prevent contagion, let us take great care of the treasure of human relations. Let us keep in touch – through telephone calls and messages of friendship – with those who are isolated, and first and foremost the oldest, the most fragile and those already affected by another illness or hardship.
Over the coming days, we would like to take and transmit some concrete initiatives to express our solidarity spiritually. Every evening, a prayer with a small group of brothers will be broadcast from our house on social networks(at 8.30 pm, Western European time). And those who wish to do so can also send us prayer intentions.
As Saint Paul said to the Romans: “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble, or anguish, or persecution, or hunger, or deprivation, or danger, or death? (…) I am certain that nothing will be able to separate us from the love that God has shown us in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 38-39)
Christians and other religious groups are not gathering together for prayer during the current pandemic. This is a really good time to remember that every Christian home is a ‘domestic church’ and can be a place of prayer. Whether you live alone or with others, whether you have children at home or not, having a prayer space at home is a good way of blessing our homes and lives.
One of the things I love when I visit schools is to see the prayer spaces that many schools have in each classroom or in an area of the corridors or shared spaces. Huge imagination goes into making these spaces interesting, calming and places of beauty. Children also love them. In every school I visit it is clear that children use these spaces for prayer and mindfulness.
When I was growing up my gran had a prayer corner. In the back room a statue of Our Lady, her bible, prayer books and Rosary. It was a special place that fills me with peace and joy just thinking about it. Prayer Spaces can work for all families and households as places that trigger positive emotions when we go to them, especially if we light a candle, an incense stick and make it a place of peace and calm.
Whenever I teach Mindfulness I talk about how to build a habit of Mindfulness. Just five minutes every day is better than a splurge one day and nothing then for weeks. A Prayer Space is a great place to go and practice mindfulness and silence. It is amazing how quickly the space will become associated with positive feelings and trigger them even when bad things are happening in our lives.
At first you may feel self-conscious or embarrassed praying aloud with others. It’s Ok to laugh about that. Remember when you are praying you are talking to God just as you would talk to anyone. You don’t have to put on a special voice!
I have written a little prayer and made a card about prayer spaces. It is pictured above and the PDF is available below. Let me know if this works for you. Why not send me a picture? Whether your Prayer Space is Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or completely secular I will be glad to see it.
Update 1: Thank you to Mary Hawes for this set of resources for worship at home: here.
17 March 2020 Thank you to Facebook friends for providing links to some of these. This is not a polished response but a quick list, please send me any other links to add or resources you have made. I will keep updating at the top of this post. Our Archbishops urge us to maintain the disciple of daily prayer and Eucharist. This is more important than ever. Reducing stress and anxiety will come when we have solid patterns of praying in our lives and model that for others. For all of us this is an opportunity to deepen our prayer and pray in new and old ways. As the Bishop of Liverpool writes to the diocese:
You will see that [the Archbishops] encourage us all to find new ways of being the Church in these days. As they say: “Public worship will have to stop for a season. Our usual pattern of Sunday services and other mid week gatherings must be put on hold. But this does not mean that the Church of England has shut up shop. Far from it.” Church is changing, and we all need to be part of that change.
I particularly urge us to explore the serious Christian tradition of praying 7 times a day; even if only briefly. The use of Psalm 119 divided over the day is very powerful with its gentle rhythm and constancy. Nothing dramatic just the simple love of the Lord who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
I am profoundly grateful to my friend and fellow priest in the diocese of Liverpool. Mother Hannah Lewis, for this first blog on spirituality as a single mum. I would be deeply grateful to anyone else who would like to contribute to this series from the perspective of their own family life:
Called to a life of prayer (while following vocations as a religious, single mum and priest)
Benedict instructs his communities, during the day, to recite brief, simple, scriptural prayers at regular intervals, easy enough to be recited and prayed even in the workplace, to wrench their minds from the mundane to the mystical, away from concentration on life’s petty particulars to attention on its transcendent meaning. (Joan Chittister: commentary on the Rule of Benedict, chapter 16 18th February http://www.eriebenedictines.org/daily-rule)
What is prayer for me?
I first remember trying to pray when I was a young child, although all I can remember is a vague desire without any detail. Almost 50 years later, I’m still aware of a desire to pray, an itch that has nagged at me for most of the intervening period of time, and which sometimes I feel like I’ve almost succeeded in scratching. As I’m currently going through one of those phases when I feel like I am praying more or less as I’d like to be, Richard suggested it might be good to share some of my experience of what helps (and what hinders) my prayer life with others. I also thought I’d write about some of the development and the ups and downs of my prayer life as its all part of me learning what helps and hinders. If some of this reads as self-indulgence, forgive me; likewise if some of it makes no sense. Prayer is possibly the most intimate thing to talk about; a communion with my nearest and dearest (Jesus) with its share of mysteries beyond words (and silly moments you had to be there for, and magical unspoken moments of connection as well as a lot of banal, trivial, everyday encounters hugely meaningful to me but perhaps not to anyone else).
Perhaps a first step for me was the discovery of the concept of a Daily Office – set written order of service for different times of day, based around the reciting of the psalms. In particular, it was my first encounter with compline or night prayer (in the candlelit crypt of a retreat house) that really gripped me – the office putting into words what I felt and wanted to say but didn’t know how to. Or it might have been a few years earlier, during choral evensong in my college chapel when I discovered the words of evensong could carry me somewhere beyond myself even when I was exhausted (coping as a Deaf person with undiagnosed underactive thyroid in a busy hearing world), stressed out of my mind with essay writing or revision and/or too busy partying to stop and pray for myself. With hindsight – and a lesson that has needed to be reinforced on a regular basis as I tend to forget – these experiences enabled me to learn that prayer isn’t all about me, what I do and don’t do, and do and don’t feel, and in fact it does not start with me. It’s no accident that the first words of the first morning office are ‘O Lord, open our lips’ – until the Lord opens our mouths and hearts and minds we can’t begin to pray.
Twice, in particular this lesson has been reinforced. The first time while training for ministry was by a spiritual director when I was bewailing the lack of time to pray – when she suggested I could pray for the time to pray as a first step. A prayer that was answered as I found myself not so much with time magically increasing so that I could pray, but the desire stirring in me to make prayer a higher priority and therefore pushing aside other things so that I could find time to pray. The second was much more recently – last year in fact – well established in my current pattern of prayer, I began to wonder (and worry) if it was all ‘just words’ because I was too tired, stressed, mind racing on a million other things to ‘mean it’ and think about what I was doing. But I was drawn to read Ruth Burrows “The essence of prayer” and she gently, but firmly, repeats in different ways that prayer is about what the Spirit is doing in us, we don’t need to ‘feel’ anything for it to ‘work’ and all we need to do is ‘turn up’, be present in all our distracted busyness. And so I became aware that while, all too often, it was a poor offering on my part, every now and then the clouds would clear and I would suddenly realise that this regular ‘turning up’ kept me plugged into the deep running stream of God’s love and that when I needed it, it was there.
The other part of the ‘prayer starts with the Spirit and not with us’ is the reminder I need that it’s a two way thing. I want to talk to Jesus and Jesus wants to talk to me. One little step on my part is so often met by a great, open armed stride on his part. If I give a little bit of time and attention – yet as much as I am able to give at that moment – like the widow’s mite – it will be accepted and welcomed and celebrated.
Journey to where I am now
Morning has always been my best time for prayer. Obviously it’s also the best time for sleep and the two desires are often in conflict. Before Child (and before iPhone) it was slightly easier, it was a matter of a morning routine of alarm, snooze, snooze, tea, shower, breakfast and prayer (from Celebrating Common Prayer which I first prayed regularly and learned to love when I was a youth worker with a large Anglo Catholic ministry team). Having a ‘prayer space’ (an armchair and a coffee table with candles/icons/bits of natural objects/ nice coloured cloths for the season as well as somewhere to keep the necessary pile of books) has always helped me. Sometimes it’s been in the corner of my study, sometimes in a corner of the bedroom – it’s a space that becomes a visual prompt and a necessary part of the day. Days that don’t start there somehow feel wrong. Night prayer back then was last thing before sleep, compline from memory (with only the short psalm 134) – one of the bonuses for me from praying evensong and compline regularly in my early 20s was that so many of the words stuck in my memory and only needed a prompt to recall. It’s much harder to memorise things now I’m in my late 40s.
Pregnancy was a major shock to my prayer life – severe pregnancy sickness made morning prayer impossible and exhaustion meant I usually fell asleep while reflecting on the day during the first part of compline. During these months, a single verse stuck on repeat was the sum of my articulated prayer: Isaiah 40.31 “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” It didn’t feel like things got any better either as I disappeared into the thick fog of motherhood with a baby and then a toddler. But again with the benefit of hindsight there is one thing I’ve realised about my prayer life during those years, and one thing I wish I’d thought of then.
The thing I’ve realised is that the maternal habit of ‘pondering’ and ‘treasuring’ and ‘brooding’ over our children (otherwise known as ‘baby brain’ ) can be understood as prayer if we accept that prayer starts with the Spirit and not with us. I look back and in amongst the struggles I remember quiet moments breastfeeding at all hours of day or night and other moments when I sat dozing with a sleeping child on my shoulder because they had a cold and couldn’t sleep lying down and the odd times when playing the repetitive toddler games wasn’t boring but a fun moment of connection and I am deeply, deeply thankful that smartphones weren’t a thing in the early 2000s so I wasn’t distracted at these moments but fully, if sleepily, present. Reflecting on these moments now, I am reminded of the number of times we are told in Luke’s gospel account of the birth and childhood of Jesus that ‘Mary pondered these things in her heart’.
In the absence of being able to keep the office, I might not have felt like I was praying but looking back I realise that the Spirit was praying within me.
The thing I wish I’d thought of then was expanding my use of relevant scripture verses beyond that one I could remember by sticking bits up around the house. Psalm 63 for example – “O God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you, my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you as in a barren and dry land where there is no water” would sit nicely near the kettle and teabags and cups as a prompt to pray when I made a cuppa. Not the full office, or even formal morning prayer, but a means of staying connected while those years of alternating full on child care and sleep passed.
The next step for me, still with a pre-school child in tow, but with brain fog/ baby brain receding a little and in response to a desire to re-find my prayer life was in reading Angela Ashwin (Heaven in Ordinary) and Norvene Vest (Friend of the Soul). Ashwin reminded me about making decisions how we use time (and decide our priorities), which for me meant (and has continued to mean) that time for prayer is up there along with cooking a meal and making sure clothes are clean, above other things like tidying or hoovering. This decision has also meant learning not to care what other people might think of the state of my house, which has been a spiritual journey in itself.
Vest was my introduction to Benedictine spirituality, and the aim of a balanced life where prayer, work and study are integrated in pragmatic ways. At the time it was chapter 31 (on the work of the cellarer) that really caught my attention. Handling everything as if it were ‘sacred vessels of the altar’ meant that folding clothes, and washing up, could become prayer prompts – sometimes consciously interceding for others, sometimes doing them with love and attention as a way of offering prayer.
Life then took an unexpected turn with the agony of my marriage break up – and many sleepless nights when I started praying vigils (from the Benedictine Daily Prayer: A shorter breviary – the first, 2005 edition) out of a desperate need to find a way to cope. I also memorised the Venite (Psalm 95) to pray in the shower as that was the only place I could find space for prayer and I needed to use someone else’s words because I had none of my own.
It has been a slow rebuilding of both my emotional life and my prayer life from the ruins of that time – it has taken years not months. Along the way, I did an Ignatian retreat in daily life (otherwise known as the 19th annotation version of the 30 days retreat). This meant 9 months (more than 30 weeks) of sitting with God and scripture for 45 mins a day and meeting with my spiritual director once a week. This enabled me to reconnect with Jesus in a new way, and realise for the first time at heart level that I was truly and unconditionally loved by God. But it also re-established the habit of a more formal daily prayer time first thing in the morning (alarm set an hour early, which often meant earlier bedtime for me – part of my call to prioritise prayer). If my daughter (then aged 7-8) came in during that time I gave her my phone to watch YouTube and asked her to respect my prayer time (which she usually did, occasionally she came to join me in the corner and sat on my lap and said she was praying too)
My current pattern of prayer
Following on from this morning prayer time became a necessity and after trying a number of options I’ve settled back on Celebrating Common Prayer and its echoes of the time I spent praying it regularly with others. I continued the habit of setting an alarm earlier than I need to, making a cup of tea and getting stuck in. As I was drawn to pray more and more I started exploring the idea of praying throughout the day, first through memorising the Angelus as midday prayer and then came across Richards’s blog as an eye opener that you could work full time and pray Terce, Sext and None. I pray a shortened version of the classic little hours: 8 verses of psalm 119 (apart from Sunday when I pray the first 32 verses in a single midday office), opening and closing responses, hymn, short verse, response and collect.
I made my own small portable prayer book by sticking pages into an old pocket diary, with bookmarks to provide seasonal variations (I do love seasons). This helped to make the prayer work within what I could do – it’s easy to carry everywhere so I’m praying on the train, praying in the car (while parked!), at my desk, everywhere I am – I have tried to get into the habit of always carrying my midday prayer book so I always have the means to say the office when I can. The days when I miss one of the hours, I add the portions of psalm 119 to the hours I do keep.
Evening prayer has always been difficult for me to pray alone and for years I only said it when I was able to attend the office in church somewhere. It’s such a challenging time of day – both low energy and busy – with offspring home from school, cooking dinner, juggling all sorts of things. But again I felt a desire to fill that gap, particularly as things at home changed with a growing child and getting to evensong/ evening prayer even once a week became almost impossible. Reflecting on what was working for me, prayer wise, made me realise that what I needed was a daily thing I could link in with evening prayer so it became a habit. And the one thing I do on a daily basis in the evening is cooking tea. So I now use BCP evening prayer as my basis as I can remember everything except for the psalm and the single reading I use (the gospel for the day). I keep a prayer book on the dining room table (no kitchen table), start tea, pop next door to say the psalm and gospel and continue with the magnificat and preces while cooking (omitting the creed), pop back for collect if possible, but if not use the other two collects, and finish. It works for me, and following Burrows, its still prayer – making myself present and available and pondering even though it’s a multi-tasking kind of prayer.
The day finishes with compline, usually in bed from memory supplemented with a (self-printed from CW online) booklet for psalms 4 and 91, which, despite saying almost every day for several years in a row now I have still failed to memorise. If I am very tired I might use the Dominican Compline app and listen to them chanting compline (listening for me involves reading as well as hearing, so I can’t do it with eyes shut, sadly). If I am very, very tired, I will start saying it from memory and fall asleep while ‘reflecting on the day’. Either way the day ends, as it began, consciously being present to God.
My prayer is always evolving; I build in regular reflection on practice as part of my rule of life. If I notice that I am missing one or more office on a regular basis I look at why. Sometimes it’s a question of carry on trying, and whatever was blocking it (health, energy levels, extra busy, extra teenage demands) passes naturally. Sometimes there’s something I need to change for a season, either in my expectations or in the details of what I do.
The most recent development, in Lent 2019, was the reintroduction of a daily period of silence as it was something I felt the need of. I use Thomas Keating’s lovely gentle method of what he calls Centering prayer (as described in Open mind, open heart which, again, is about being present and trusting the Spirit to do her thing (whether you feel it or not). With the constant ‘mental load’ of a mum (sit quiet and every little thing you are trying to remember about shopping and cooking and appointment booking comes up in your head) it has been a challenge, but what this method taught me was to drop everything into the river of God’s love, trusting that it will come back up in due course.
Summary of key things I’ve learned:
Prayer starts with God and the Holy Spirit and not with me. If I begin by trying to listen and be open to God in my daily life, then I find myself drawn to develop a pattern of prayer that is right for me at this stage of life. If I start with a pattern of prayer I think I ‘ought’ to follow, it doesn’t work.
I need to make the pattern of prayer into a habit so it (mostly) happens whether I feel like it or not. This means tying it to things that happen anyway (getting out of bed, break and meal times, bed time) and doing whatever is needed to ensure I can keep that pattern. In my case means prayer books and bibles and booklets all over the place so I can pray where I find myself without having to gather materials (I dislike praying from an app as I am too easily distracted into responding to messages or ‘just checking twitter one more time’).
I adapt, adapt, adapt as needed to make the office work for me (and the lectionary – there is a limit to how much scripture my brain can cope with in any one day). It was liberating and affirming to discover that there is no single ‘Benedictine prayer book’ because all Benedictine communities adapt the office and the pattern of psalms to their own circumstances.
I need to accept that some of the times in my life formal prayer is harder than others. I found it helped to know that I was being prayed (by God) in that time, and making the most of the moments of ‘pondering’ to try and be present in some way.
I need to be prepared to push other things aside to make room for prayer. At the moment I am aware that my iPhone doesn’t help me focus on prayer so I am trying to put it down away from me when I pray. With varying success.
Visual prompts and set aside prayer spaces help me a lot, so however we change rooms around, and if/ when we move to another house I know I need to create that space when thinking about using the rooms.
I have found patience and persistence as well as flexibility helps – my pattern of prayer has taken years, not weeks or months to develop into something sustainable in the busy-ness and it is still evolving as job and teenager change and evolve.
Despite the challenges, I have loved the journey of being called to a life of prayer in this way and look forward to where it takes me next.
Monasticism is in. It is fashionable. Or at least the spirituality of it is. Not the reality of the commitment of lifelong vows. ‘New monastic communities’ are a great blessing to the church. But we need to see the difference to the sacrificial lives of those vowed monastics who have been at the heart of the renewal of the church through the centuries.
Sometimes ‘monastic’ is used as a way of distancing ourselves from the disciplines of the spiritual life. Ordinary, everyday, diocesan priests, for most of Christian history have prayed an eight-fold Office, fasted, meditated, celebrated Eucharist daily. Yet when we do this in our time it is described as ‘monastic’. I don’t believe it is. This is one reason why in the Sodality I have always resisted the definition of us as a ‘new monastic community’. The serious Christianity we aspire to is normal for diocesan priests, it is not ‘monastic’.
Most of the people I direct, accompany, in the spiritual life are married, most have children. What is an appropriate non-monastic spiritual life for them?
I don’t have children. But I don’t believe that my own practice is monastic. I am a diocesan priest, a householder. I want to hear from my married, parent friends how they create a space for serious Christianity in their lives. I certainly don’t want to impose anything on them.
This new series (I hope) will give some of my friends the opportunity to reflect on that.
One of my brothers in the Sodality has recently become the father of a second set of twins. Four children under five. I am privileged to have been asked to be godfather to one of the new-born. What is an appropriate, serious, spirituality for that family, for him as a priest? I hope that we can begin to explore that.
In the form of Mindfulness of Breathing that I was taught thirty or more years ago, and still teach myself, there is a shift in stages between noticing the in-breath and noticing the out-breath. It’s a subtle shift but most people sense a change of energy and perception. I feel the same way about changing my practice of praying the Daily Office. Having used the Divine Office for many years and then Common Worship Daily Prayer I have now moved to the Book of Common Prayer. (Originally described here). The shift is subtle. It is still, after all, just an arrangement for daily praying of Scripture but there is a different energy, the shape is different. I like it. Now I have started singing the Office hymns at the traditional place (before the gospel canticles) the front-loading of lengthy psalmody gives the whole thing a still, contemplative feel. The lack of variety adds to this. Novelty is stimulating, the very opposite of contemplative.
Several readers and friends have asked how I am getting on with my use of the BCP Office (and 1928 lectionary) this liturgical year. The changes since my first version of the booklet will show some of the ways in which I am adjusting to this.
I began using antiphons for the psalms but actually the Office is rich enough without those so I just sing them to plainsong tones without antiphons.
The 1928 lectionary is a joy. Just one OT book across Morning and Evening Prayer makes use of commentaries much more feasible alongside the gospel and other NT reading. The monthly BCP cycle of psalms makes following commentaries through with the psalter so much easier.
This is the second time in my life I have made long term use of the BCP (the other when Mother Victoria and I prayed the Office at St Andrew, Earlsfield). So nothing is unfamiliar. And, of course, a lifetime of cathedral Evensongs.
I am using the Mirfield 1949 Office Book (as rare as hen’s teeth on Abebooks etc) which provides all the Office hymns, responses and Mag and Ben antiphons as well as the lectionary readings set out. This is very helpful. It also includes Compline and the Little Hours. Since I travel so much having all this in one book is very useful.
I am just beginning trying the Office hymns (melodies in the English Hymnal) in the place traditionally assigned them before the gospel canticles which seems less strange than I thought it would. At Compline the hymn after the psalms. The CR book suggests Psalm 51 daily in Lent as the first Canticle at Matins and this works well. I use that with modern four part tones as I often do for the Gospel and other canticles, so traditional plainsong tones always for the psalms, including Venite. This gives the psalmody a different flavour too. Not sure I can describe it but I am not missing the slightly over rhythmic quality of modern psalm tones on all the psalms and canticles.
Four substantial readings is enough in a day so I am using the traditional one-year cycle of readings at Mass daily, repeated on ferias unless there is daily provision (Series 1 lectionary) and alternating the additional OT readings with the Epistle. The repetition is really sustaining and the range of patristic and later commentaries enormously enriching.
People occasionally join me for Morning or Evening Prayer or for Mass, especially at weekends, and this has worked well. I use an NEB lectionary at Mass with a CW Order of Mass (described here), and an RSV Bible for the readings when praying with others. There is a familiarity with the shape and texts that seems to make this very accessible for visitors.
This form of Office is very manageable, accessible and, also, very Anglican. A good place to feel at home in.