The opening prayer of the Mass asks us to ‘honour you with all our mind….and to love everyone in truth of heart’: mind and heart: intellect and heart. Two parts of us: brain and emotional awareness. For St Paul: the ‘torn two ways’ is between ‘unmarried’ and ‘married’. He is not the most tactful of Biblical writers, and not always right; but he is right about one thing: we are, all of us, ‘torn between two ways’ and he wants us to be ‘free from all worries’. For him the solution is: either / or: the ‘pleasing of each other’ and involvement in ‘worldly affairs’ OR ‘devoting self to the Lord’.
St Benedict would not have agreed. Yes: a monk must ‘devote himself to the Lord’; but St Benedict’s genius was so to create Monastic life that it, yet, developed a sense of community of service to the locality, indeed to the world. Listen to St Gregory the Great’s moan as a Benedictine Pope in the 6th Century: ‘when I lived in a monastic community I was able to devote my mind almost continually to the discipline of prayer… but now .. I must judge the lives and actions of individuals….I am forced to take part in civil actions ….I must accept political responsibility…. I must bear patiently ..but I must also confront…..My mind is sundered by the many and serious things I have to think about…Who I am I – what kind of watchman am I ?
Not many years hence, many, most of you, will find an echo of that in your own thoughts as you plan a career and develop a family. How to be a serious Christian, prayerful and dedicated; yet how to live in a secular and even irreligious world, how to tread delicately between the traps and emerge sane and sound. A loving wife: hopefully. But much will rest on your inner strength, commitment and the wisdom of experience.
We learn of course, all our life in a sort of continuum, but you know how much you learn here as you study, think, develop relationships, lose them, worry about work, agonise about friendship; hope that the Lord will help you (that is partly why you are here today) and find often enough that he ignores you. Loneliness and often being ‘lost’ is as much part of the spiritual journey as is the happy devotion of a satisfying prayer life.
St Gregory the Great was one of the first to experience the conflict in religious life between prayer and community religious life on the one hand, and the things of the world and worldly responsibility on the other hand. But it has been part of the character of monasticism that such is the case and in Britain, perhaps more than elsewhere: think only of Westminster Abbey as a Benedictine Monastery but also in effect a worldly icon in the Middle Ages. It may surprise you to be told that St Benedict in his Rule was cautious about the life of prayer: ‘let us be sure that we shall not be heard for our much speaking but for purity of heart: our prayer therefore ought to be short and pure…’ and he went on: ‘in community let prayer be very short’. Prayerfulness does not need hours on one’s knees: it does need short spans of concentration. But there are other things to be done.
Here is another spiritual writer: Frances de Sales, a post reformation Bishop: ‘it is not only erroneous but a heresy to hold that secular life is incompatible with devotion….purely contemplative or monastic devotion cannot be practised in secular callings…it must differ for the retired, the worker, the mother, the young, the old, and be adapted to particular strengths, circumstances and duties…. If secular man/woman spent as much time in Church as religious, such devotion would be ridiculous and cause intolerable disorder…yet this mistake is often made… a devotion which conflicts with anyone’s state of life is undoubtedly false’.
What St Gregory discovered and what St Benedict and St Francis appear to be commending is a ‘balanced’ way of life, whether in the ‘desert’ of the religious life or the ‘market place’ of involvement in the world. And indeed ‘desert’ and ‘market place’ are only the extremes of the situation most of us find ourselves in most of the time: ‘torn between two ways’. At a simplistic level it is between: good and evil; more profoundly between laziness and discipline and not only in our religious practice; but also in our relationships with others. It has been well said, albeit with a hint of exaggeration: ‘discipline without love is bleak…love without discipline is catastrophic’.
Let me pursue the ‘desert’ / ‘market place’ theme a shade further to try to emphasise the ‘balance’ required of us as we journey through life: between independence of mind and action and mutual dependence upon family and friends. Indeed: it is true also of the work place: our ambition to succeed; our ability to work with others for the common good.
It was Fr Basil as he then was, and later Cardinal Hume, who explained the ‘torn two ways’ dilemma and with a solution: ‘We can (and do) escape to the market place because we fear the desert, fearful of solitude, fearful of silence… but .. we shall never be safe in the market place until at home in the desert’…’The heart must learn to live in its desert if it is to be capable of involvement in the market place… it is only in the desert that you can learn to turn loneliness into solitude; and it is only when we have learnt solitude and freedom – the capacity to be alone – that we can safely be involved with others’.
‘The capacity to be alone’. A mistake is made, I think, if in the modern world we only equate religion with ‘being with others’ as a ‘sense of community’, a ‘joint effort’ and comfortableness together. Somewhere in our being is a quiet persistent gnawing: ‘a search for meaning, a search for God’. Yes, we find God in others. Of course we do and must.
But there is a different strand: we call it private prayer or being ‘alone with God’. Do not think that this is something only for the so-called elite: the professionals, the priest the religious. Do not consider yourself unworthy to make the effort. There will be times enough in life when ‘praying’ will of necessity be firmly rooted in your experience: moments of joy, sadness, fear, worry, anxiety, failure. At such times a little bit of experience will reap rewards. The best advice: keep it simple and, as St Benedict said, keep it short, but learn to make it pure.
You can find in all sorts of books ways and means but consider this lot: from step one: ‘The Desire to Pray’, through ‘The Prayer of Incompetence’ to the discovery of ‘God in the depth of our being’ and a final realisation of the ‘God of Love’. Let me pick out just one reflection from this group: the truth is that none of us is much good at Prayer and too many worry about that. Look on the bright side: the prayer of incompetence, when we flail around getting nowhere particularly fast is probably a richer experience than a prayer where we ‘feel’ the awareness of God’s presence, whatever that actually might mean. For a start, it keeps us relatively humble. It also gives us an insight into mystery and a yearning to keep seeking for meaning. And it can hurt, for example, when ‘prayers’ are not answered. At such moments we have to bend the knee and accept that the Love of God, through Jesus Christ , involves both a death experience as well as an eventual resurrection. Both/and; not either/or.
A balanced Christian life involves both involvement in the world which hopefully you are learning well enough but also a comfortableness within the self for which I have suggested the silence of the desert is a reality to which we do have to come to terms. It is the ‘appreciation and the understanding of the role of solitude and internal silence that can enable us to acquire and dwell in the internal desert of solitude and silence’. Once that is achieved, we are well capable of coping with the stresses and strains of the market place of the world. ‘Torn between two ways’? No! Gradually they become reconciled as we develop a balanced way of life.
Dom Felix Stephens OSB