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.