Windows for prayer

‘Sometimes I sit and think, sometimes I just sit.’

The last twenty years has seen an increase in awareness of mental health issues. The last twenty years has also seen a resurgence in the use of mindfulness. The two are not unrelated.

Adopting the philosophy of Winnie-the-Pooh (not forgetting his erstwhile companion, AA Milne), taking time to just sit is in many ways representative of the mindfulness approach. To be ‘in the moment’. We spend a lot of lives worrying or having anxious thoughts based on the past and on the future. The basic principle of mindfulness is to focus on the present.

Commonly acknowledged having its roots in Buddhism, mindfulness has been adopted and adapted by people of other faiths and those of none. It’s an approach which works for some and not for others.

The same is true of different approaches to prayer. Some thrive with the structured liturgy used for centuries by the church (itself adapted and adopted in different ways). Others find their approach to prayer is one that is free-flowing and extemporary. Some may use objects like a candle or an icon to aid their intercessions. The comedian Frank Skinner, in his excellent and somewhat quirky A Comedian’s Prayer Book reflected on his use of the Rosary alongside what he calls his ‘freeform chats’: ‘The Rosary is a tighter structure, so I guess that will operate like a supporting rhythm, while these prayers are like the improvised solo: some bum notes but some exhilarating discoveries.’

In the approach taken by Benedictines and one I explore a little in my own book, Life with St Benedict, the method of lectio divina can be very helpful. Lectio divina (sacred reading) is not Bible study but is about pondering on the word to enable prayer. Stages comprise reading just a verse or a short passage two or three times (lectio); then meditation, taking a particular word or phrase that ‘spoke to you’ and ruminating upon it (meditatio); leading into prayer, open, honest conversation with God (oratio); and then resting in God, the silent prayer of contemplation (contemplatio).

This same four stage approach can also be used in the slightly less well-known visio divina (sacred seeing)  using an image instead of words. Like with lectio, visio divina is not about studying the image as if it was a piece of art. But about using the image to encounter God more deeply: a window for prayer perhaps.

I’ve written about Rublev’s Trinity elsewhere. In using that particular image, an icon in this case, one can enter in to the scene before us: perhaps sitting at the space at the table. Encountering Father, Son and Holy Spirit and letting that encounter take us in to deeper prayer.

In recent days I have put some images on to Instagram and Pinterest for using with visio divina. Let me share a couple of them now with some thoughts on how they might be used.

windows for prayerThese seats are just up the road from where I live. I find they say ‘Come, sit with me.’ As if Jesus was making the invitation. We might be reminded of how Mary of Bethany sat with Jesus (albeit while her sister Martha was getting hot in the kitchen).

So just sit. Dwell upon the image. How might your prayer develop?

windows for prayerThis more abstract photo may make us reflect on the cracks and the weeds in our own life. Maybe we can bring those in prayer to God too. A verse from Psalm 25 comes to mind: ‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust’. A reminder of God’s faithfulness and healing. Just sit.

We can come to God in many different ways. We can see God in many different ways also.

 

 

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others, subscribe and contribute your thoughts at the WorkRestPray Facebook Group. And please take a look at the images on Instagram and Pinterest.

Benedictine Quiet Day – Finding Stability in Times of Change

At a time when change is often feared, stability can be elusive, and busyness interferes with listening to God, this quiet day offers an opportunity for space and reflection. Hosted by Southwark Cathedral, the day will be held via Zoom but you will not be required to be at your screen for all the time.

Reflecting Benedictine spirituality, the day takes the principles of three monastic vows: obedience (listening to God), conversion of life (change) and stability to explore how people can relate those principles to their faith, work and other aspects of life in very practical ways.

The day is open to anyone of any denomination. No prior knowledge of monasticism is needed! There will be 3 short talks and periods of silence together with guidance on how to use the day.

For more information and to book a place please visit the Cathedral’s website or contact Very Revd Andrew Nunn, Dean as shown below.

God knows what we are doing

A few days ago, my wife, who (unlike her husband) is often prone to outbursts of excitement, came rushing in saying, ‘Richard, there’s a message on the answerphone from the Dean of Southwark Cathedral!  They’ve been using Life with St Benedict in their online Night Prayer and he wants to talk to you about it.’

It’s always lovely to learn that something one has done is being helpful to others. And if you’re interested, the interchange I then had with Dean Andrew Nunn has resulted in an online event to which you would be most welcome.

It reminded me of others who have done things about which they know nothing of the longer-term impact. In my last year at school, the Upper Sixth as it was called then, Miss Edwards became one of those influencers. The geography teacher who never actually taught me was a mainstay in that final year following my mum’s death in the preceding summer holidays. She would regularly give me time and space to talk. She was the one who asked for exam boards to take into account what had happened (I still got ungraded but her thought meant far more than that). She once asked me, ‘What do you want to become in the future?’ For reasons unbeknown to myself, although it probably reflected my loss of identity at that time, I replied: ‘I’d like to be well-known – not famous, just well-known.’ Hey ho, such are the workings of a 17 year-old’s mind.

Fast forward to two years ago and I moved from being ‘well-known’ – at least in the field of work I was in – to being ‘unknown’. It was a strange transition, but supported by a guiding principle.

One of the Bible verses that has been influential on my attempts to live out the faith in which I believe is: ‘But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’ (Matthew 6:3-4)

Knowing that God knows what we do is sufficient. We are seen by God’s eyes. And God’s rewards (given  not sought) are many. It’s why you wouldn’t have found my name on the website at work. It’s why the title of this blog (and my Twitter feed) is not my name (I struggle with the ‘About’ page, by the way… oh, there you are, I’ve just hyperlinked it so you know who I am…). It’s why I am influenced by St Benedict and in particular his teaching about humility.

We do of course live in a world which depends on people being known by name (after all, who on earth is Richard Frost – it’s no wonder he has so few followers). Knowing the name of a particular author, speaker or dare I use the word ‘celebrity’, can be helpful: we might be helped by what they do. Knowing a name is useful: hospital staff have it written on their PPE so colleagues know who they are. Our name is crucial to our own sense of identity – so often challenged as we travel through life and not least in this time of pandemic when many of us have lost something of what we do and who we are.

But it is God who knows what we do. That is sufficient.

Happy New Year?

2020 was a year like no other – and 2021 may not be that different!

Lest you think that to be a ‘Unhappy New Year’ greeting, please read on…

In the coming few days as we mark the Epiphany, many will reflect on how the travellers from the East came looking for the Christ-child and found him. As this year begins we too may be considering what we might be looking for in the year that is to come. And while it would be easy to focus on what we lost last year – what we did not find, if you like – it was a year where actually we found lots of new things. In particular perhaps, new ways of being Church.

We have learnt to be Church in new ways. To come to God to pray, to worship and to learn in different ways. We have come to God sanitising our hands, sitting at a distance and wearing our face coverings. We are still the church. We have come to God through online services. We are still the church. The church: not the building but the people. The body of Christ – and Christ has no body now but yours.

So as we look to 2021, it may not be that different.

It’s realistic to think that we will be living under some form of guidance and restrictions for many months. We will still be the church. Online services will continue. We will meet in our buildings as and when we can. We will see and talk to each other during the week. We will continue to pray. Continue to worship. Continue to learn. Continue to be blessed by God.

In these very unsettling, uncomfortable and uncertain times, some things do not change. As the New Year begins perhaps it is those things we need to remember to keep looking for – and finding.

‘Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.’      Teresa of Avila

 

 

 

My prayers for you for a peaceful, blessed and safe New Year. If you are interested, the daily pattern of reflections in Life with St Benedict begin again today. Copies can be ordered through BRF.

A Sure Foundation

It’s the same every morning. The dog barks. I sit on the edge of my bed for a moment. Go downstairs and give Daisy her Bonio. Put the kettle on. Let her out. Make a large mug of tea. Let her in. Excited at the new day, Daisy does her party trick of leaping from one sofa to the other.

Then we sit. The only sounds are birds singing, the fridge humming, a clock ticking and the radiators waking up.

To you O Lord, my soul in stillness waits,’ as one of the great songs of Advent puts it.

Prayer. Asking for God’s blessing on the day ahead. Prayer for the three people I love most. Prayer for those who work – refuse collectors, shop workers, NHS staff; those facing difficult meetings; those finding fulfilment; those fearful of job loss. Prayer for myself. Sometimes rambling. Sometimes concise. The same words begin. The same words end.

It sets up the day. Whatever the day may bring. A sure foundation.

On this Advent Sunday, as a new Christian year begins, it is perhaps good to reflect on how prayer sets up all we do and all we are and all we are to be.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.’ (Psalm 127)

(As an aside, that Psalm also speaks to those who work too much… ‘It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil.’)

The centrality of the prayer is the foundation on which the Lord builds the house which we not only inhabit but also reflects our total being.

And yet, for many of us, it’s difficult to develop and maintain a routine of prayer. (My evening time is much more variable.)

Perhaps that’s because we are trying to be like someone else? We try to be a better Christian based on what other people do – or what we perceive them to be doing. ‘I wish I could pray like you’, ‘I should be reading the Bible every day but…’ How on earth do any of us know how someone else prays!?

If someone else finds extemporary prayer helpful then that’s great but it may not suit you. If someone doesn’t find structured liturgy helpful that doesn’t mean to say that you won’t. Silence or speaking in tongues, how other people pray is of no consequence. There is no one, single, right way to pray.

It’s important to find an approach that reflects both you and your unique relationship with God – and what God wants for you as the person you are.

So back to the edge of the bed. The words of Psalm 25. The same prayer starts every day before anything else…

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust.

May that be a prayer for all of us in the year ahead.

Life begins again

Well, you don’t need me to tell you what strange times we are living in. And how much life has changed since the last full blog post on Ash Wednesday. Little did we know what we would be giving up for Lent.

Along with ‘Coronavirus’ and ‘Covid-19’, terms such as ‘self-isolating’ and ‘social distancing’ have entered our vocabulary as if they have always been present. We’re told to ‘stay at home’. Many are being ‘shielded’. Others are called ‘key workers’ – and doing far, far more than ‘just their job’.

There is death. And plenty of it. Death on a scale not seen in this country (and many others) since the Second World War. Death has not lost its sting. Families are unable to be with their loved one. People dying, sometimes alone, sometimes with the strangers who cared for them. Mourned in public by few or none.

And yet, within it all. Within all the tragedy, the grief and the fear. There is, remarkably, hope.

  • A reduction in air pollution (civilisation being given one more chance to address the causes of climate change perhaps…).
  • In some places (but not in all), people are slowing down (a helping hand to deal with increasingly poor mental wellbeing maybe…).
  • A resurgence of communities caring for one another (an antidote to modern society’s self-isolating behaviour…)
  • A renewal of respect for those who serve the public in often unappreciated and oft-criticised ways (blessed are the meek…)
  • The Church, the community of believers, rediscovering and discovering other ways of being one in Christ. As Luke Coppen put it, ‘Christianity began amid defeat and despair… this won’t be the end, rather a new beginning.’ (The Spectator 11.4.20)

And yet, within it all. Life for most people has been turned upside down. Many are finding aspects of the current times difficult. Gone are all the normal activities and usual freedoms. Many are struggling with unprecedented change. Many find it frightening. Many are anxious and worried.

All those are normal feelings and having them doesn’t mean your faith is lacking – nor does it mean that God is absent (even if it may feel that way at times).

In some respects, life is beginning again…

Finding stability in times of such change is key to living in these current times and beyond. Many are writing about the relevance of St Benedict’s teaching to our modern day lives and experiences – so much so, there’s been at least four books published in the last year. Laurentia Johns OSB writes about the ‘blessings of beginnings’ and former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has written about how ‘Benedictine stability is the context in which we learn to sit still with whatever company arrives, in the confidence that God in Christ sits still with us.’

In helpful contrast, award-winning, American journalist Judith Valente reflects on the Rule of St Benedict in How to Live: a book which is ‘about living—not just surviving… a book about how to live a balanced, meaningful, and conscious life rooted in the ancient and time-tested wisdom of the Rule.’

The Rule of St Benedict provides a rhythm for prayer and reflection through its four-monthly pattern of daily readings. That pattern is also about to begin again – on 2 May – and you may like to use my book of everyday reflections,  Life with St Benedict as a way of building such a rhythm of stability: one that  relates this ancient Bible-based wisdom to the ordinary and not so ordinary aspects of life. (There are some films to help you find stability in these times of change and uncertainty also).

There is nothing good about this pandemic but there is good that is coming out of it. And it’s to be hoped that when this is all over, we don’t completely revert to how things used to be as we learn how to begin life again.

 

 

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Finding Stability in Times of Change

At this time of major change in the way we live our lives and with many people feeling isolated, anxious or unsettled, I’ve put together some short films to help provide some stability.

Click on this link to find out more and to watch them.

Saying the right thing

‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’

Those words, often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, demonstrate that whether speaking, writing, texting, messaging or emailing, we may know what…

  • we said
  • we tried or wanted to say
  • we said without actually saying it
  • we didn’t mean to say.

And yet Shaw’s words also perceive that the one with whom we have communicated may…

  • understand, not understand or not want to understand
  • hear only what they think is being said
  • interpret it to mean something else
  • have decided their response before we’ve said it…

Or, in other words… ‘A man hears what he wants to hear. And disregards the rest’, as Paul Simon put it (and, for clarity in this piece of communication, that’s the songwriter not the playwright).

Then there’s those occasions when we ‘read between the lines’ but it turns out we hadn’t read the lines in the first place. Or when we assume and it makes an ‘ass out of u and me’.

And take this e-mail from a long-standing friend: ‘Many thanks Richard…very much enjoying your book most mornings!’ Now, is it that they are reading my book most mornings and enjoying it? Or only enjoying it on some mornings and not on the others? Hopefully it’s the former – but it may not be…

I expect all of us (at least I hope it’s all of us…) have fallen foul of a miscommunication. I know I have – many times (and just last week, as it happens) – often unintentionally. Those times when I said or wrote ‘the wrong thing’ or the person I communicated with received it as the wrong thing. Times when perhaps I should have remained silent. It’s true of me as a listener and receiver too.

Workplaces are notorious for unclear communication. You know the type of thing, I expect. Rumour becomes reality before the facts are stated – and when the facts are stated they’re not believed… because of the rumour. Cynicism also plays an influential role: ‘Oh yes, we’ve heard that before…’ and is in itself representative of disillusionment with efforts to communicate.

And it’s not just in workplaces, of course: churches, social clubs, families, any gathering of people experience issues with communication and miscommunication.

Language and communication are complex things.

Indeed, I’m not really sure what I’m trying to say through this blog post. And, in any case, who am I to try and say it…

But I do like what St Benedict said as one of the twelve steps of humility: ‘We speak gently and without laughter, seriously and with becoming modesty, briefly and reasonably, but without raising our voices, as it is written: ‘The wise are known by few words.’

‘Our authority to speak is rooted in our ability to remain silent,’ writes Barbara Brown Taylor. ‘Some of the most effective language in the world leads you up to the brink of silence and leaves you there, with the soft surf of the unsayable lapping at your feet… When we run out of words, then and perhaps only then can God be God.’

 

The next post will be on Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. That will be the last full post until after Easter: so during Lent, Holy Week and Easter why not take a look at a series of short films, called Out of the Wilderness.

It’s not about me

In the paid work I used to do, I was often heard to proclaim, “It’s not about me”. No… it was about the work we were doing and, in essence, the hundreds of people who were making it happen. And it was usually other people who, very kindly, were mentioning my name and it all resulted in that never to be forgotten trip to Buckingham Palace. But at times it all sat rather uncomfortably.

So, as today sees the publication of Life with St Benedict, there is the honour of being chosen to have one’s jottings in print (and I am so grateful to all at The Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF) for making it possible, as well as those who have already supported and ordered it) but with books, of course, it’s often about the author too.

While there was the privilege of ‘self-concealment’ in my paid work, with a book it’s much more difficult. The name’s on the front cover… and on the back… and in five other places! No hiding this time… There will also be book signings (who, me?) and other publicity. Of course, yes, I do enjoy and thrive with the attention. But there will also be reviews – where any compliments will be as nothing in the shadow of one single criticism, I’m sure…

But in the end, it’s not about me. No… it’s about how God may use those jottings to help others grow their faith and deepen their relationship with Christ.

Life with St Benedict offers daily reflections on the Saint’s 6th Century Rule for monastic living and how we can apply that ancient guidance to our 21st Century life and work. There is a well-established scheme of daily readings to enable the entire Rule to be considered over a four-month period – and thus doing so three times in every year and Life with St Benedict follows that pattern. (There’s a short film on YouTube which says more about the book – he writes in a non-self-publicising way…)

In his own quirky and excellent book, Humility Rules (worth buying for the pictures let alone the words) the American Benedictine monk, Augustine Wetta writes ‘If you are really good at something, it is no act of humility to belittle your talents. When you do that, you just wind up insulting God, who gave you those talents in the first place.’

Unbeknown to my publishers who set September 20th for release, there is a very appropriate part of the Rule that occurs in today’s reading. It’s one that I underlined when I first read the Rule some 12-15 years ago and it’s stayed with me ever since:

If you notice something good in yourself, give credit to God, not to yourself.’

We are allowed to feel good about ourselves. Knowing and naming those things reflects God’s gaze upon us. Such reflection balances out the more difficult aspects of our life and who we are. This is the balance of taking full responsibility for all we do or say which is wrong and giving God the glory for all the good within ourselves.

Making comparisons

Oh, how I hated role-play!

Waiting for the moment when the enthusiastic, upbeat, uber-confident, staff trainer or presenter would make us act out what they’d been teaching us to do. ‘Please don’t pick me, please don’t pick me,’ my inner voice repeated over and over again.

Thankfully on many occasions, it was the confident extroverts who had their moment to show everyone else how it should be done. ‘Phew, not me,’ says the relieved inner voice. ‘Until next time…’ I whisper back. I’ve had enough trouble playing myself at times, let alone trying to be someone else… They’re bound to be better in any case.

A previous post reflected on how, as human beings, comparing ourselves with others is one of our least helpful attributes. Usually applied negatively, doing so exacerbates feelings of stress, inadequacy and failure – especially when it all gets too much or we perceive someone is more successful than we are.

In a recent interview with Radio Times, the broadcaster Paddy O’Connell put it like this: ‘You don’t measure success in Volvos. Success is being the sort of person people want to bump into.’

So, what makes us that sort of person?

We all have our public persona and our private persona. Most people see the public, outer person we present. Many like the public version of themselves – for some it’s a role they can play with confidence. For others, the outside is a uncomfortable place to inhabit. Whereas, much fewer people (if any) meet our private, inner being. There also, in that location, some are happy with who they are, while others are deeply unhappy.

In her excellent new book, fellow BRF author, Cally Hammond reflects on what we can learn from the public and private personas of one the prominent figures of the early church, Augustine of Hippo. She writes one of the most perceptive comments I’ve read for a long time:

It is a mistake… to compare the outside of other people’s lives with the inside of our own life.’

We all do it. We compare our inner, private self with someone else’s outer, public self. But, if we think about it, how crazy is that? We’re being the person we are and they’re playing a role… no wonder we don’t feel happy or successful…

Whether it’s at work, socially or more personally, many relationships are built through those public, outside portrayals. However, the deepest, most special relationships are often the ones in which the role-play mask is put aside and the inner person is revealed. And it is in such relationships, the ones built on love, trust, acceptance and communication, that often we discover there are no comparisons that need to be made.

For deep down inside, many people are very similar to ourselves.

Think of those times when you thought you were the only one going through a particular experience. What a relief and reassurance it was when you discovered other people felt the same.

We are, of course, more than the sum of our parts and as life goes on, many people strive not only to like the person they are – both the inner and the outer self – but to love that person too.

One of the other prominent early church figures, St Benedict quotes words of Paul ‘By God’s grace I am what I am’ (1 Corinthians 15:10). It is one of the great joys of God’s love that we are enabled to draw closer and closer to the point of being able to say, ‘I am who I am’. Of accepting the person we are. Of accepting that God’s love is for the person we are.

Maybe that’s the sort of person we’d like people to bump into.