In 2013 Yale University Press published a volume of emails exchanged in the course of one calendar year by the American Essayist Joseph Epstein and the British novelist Frederic Raphael1. These long, often highly entertaining messages were not, as most emails are, spontaneous and unrevised – on the contrary: they were written with a view to publication by two cultured, intelligent, witty, articulate men who were set on showing the reader just how cultured, intelligent, witty and articulate they are. The book was so successful that a second, equally self-conscious volume2 was published in 2019.
In no sense is this to be understood as wholly negative criticism, despite the note of irony. I myself have some six volumes of essays and two of short stories by Epstein, whom I admire and respect (and his sense of humour strikes a chord in me). But there is clearly a difference between this kind of correspondence and the letters of, say, Jane Austen or John Cheever, which were conceived as private communication and are consequently all the more revealing of the personality of the writer. And of course, prior to the arrival of the word processor (and the automatic corrector of spelling, grammar and punctuation, which not infrequently misunderstands), mistakes, false starts, insertions and cancellations remained visible, to the satisfaction of the textual analyst.
The text you are reading was not created directly on the computer, but on paper: to be precise, on the remaining blank pages of an old, battered exercise book which originally contained notes for various university courses. (There must be several dozen such exercise books in boxes and drawers around my home; I seem to have accumulated enough scrap paper to open a shop.)
So why on earth, in 2020, would any adult who can cope with the basic functions of a word processor have recourse to pen and paper? Well, for a start, there is the sensual pleasure of forming a text in my largely illegible (to others) handwriting: the feeling of the pen, an ordinary ballpoint, as it traverses the page. Then there is the satisfaction of looking back and seeing all the cancellations, false starts, alterations large and small (more than ten, to this point, in the original). On the computer these disappear, leaving a clean, clear text, giving the false impression of a confident fluency that is in no way natural. Whether the final clean, clear version will be to the readers’ liking is an open question, but at least they will not have to hack through the jungle of the first draft.
The nature of prayer
On reflection, it seems to me that a similar distinction can be made between formal liturgical prayer, with the Breviary or in the context of the celebration of the Eucharist, and personal, private, more or less spontaneous prayer. The Liturgy of the Hours is like the clean, clear copy of a written text, offering as it does structure, discipline and a certain elegance of expression that is foreign to individual, private prayer – the equivalent of the rough copy, hesitant, muddled, undisciplined. To participate in Lauds or Vespers with a community of professed religious is a delight, especially if the participants observe the pauses and are able to sing in tune. Some Benedictine communities actually ask visitors not to sing, in order to avoid disturbing the climate of contemplation and concentration of their liturgy. At home, too, with a lit candle and an image – of Christ, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of a favourite saint – we may use the Breviary to give structure and rhythm to our prayer. But something quite different happens when prayer is a spontaneous reaction, whether to grief, pain, danger or a happy surprise, good news, even a period of glorious weather.
By way of personal example: it is my invariable habit when I get behind the wheel of my car to “remind” the Lord, with the sign of the Cross, that I am driving (one friend suggested that this gesture put the fear of death into my passengers because it seemed that I was expecting the worst), and when an accident seems imminent – for instance, if someone fails to observe a Stop sign – a rapid request for divine intervention is followed by a brief but no less heartfelt prayer of thanks. And at worst, as you climb out of your battered car clutching whatever part of your anatomy has been damaged in the collision, you can permit yourself a complaint: there is a distinguished precedent for this, for St Teresa of Avila is said to have reacted to a not too serious accident in which she was involved by remarking to the Lord: “If this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder you have so few”! What matters is that we speak to God; I firmly believe that we have carte blanche as regards what we say and the tone in which we say it. As God is love, he will understand if we complain or protest – so long as this is not our default mode.
Interviewed by Mary Loudon in 1993 for an anthology of conversations with Anglican priests3, the Rt Rev Hugh Montefiore4 had a number of stimulating comments on prayer. “I see prayer as basically being with God”, he told Loudon, and “I do think we tend to tell God more about our needs than thank Him for what He has given us […] I think it’s absolutely right that we tell him of the innermost desires and needs of our hearts, but I don’t expect them to be met. If he met all our desires, life would be chaos. You’d desire this, I’d desire that, and they’d clash”5. We also need to think about our own responsibility for the fulfilment of our wishes: God is not a slot machine. The classic example is of the student praying: “Oh God, please let me pass my exams” but not studying; but we all risk this kind of superficiality at times.
There is another aspect of prayer that is often forgotten or overlooked: listening, whether to the words spoken by the celebrant at Mass or to the words we sing or read, together or individually, at Lauds or Vespers. This is, in effect, first-level, elementary listening, at which many – perhaps most – Christians cut a poor figure. We may not go so far as to exchange recipes during the Prayer of the Faithful, as two women were heard to do in my parish church; but in all honesty, can you say that you have never realised that you didn’t actually hear a word, but mindlessly repeated “Lord, graciously hear us” at intervals? The distraction may be visual – a particularly lovely flower arrangement on the altar; an acquaintance’s new haircut; a cobweb caught by the light on a statue – or entirely mental: ‘I must send a birthday card to Jane/make an appointment with the dentist/finish that article for GD800’. The result is what matters, and it is always the same, a failure to listen to the words of the prayer. Moreover, the omnipresence of television has led us to depend on images at least as much as on the spoken word, even in news broadcasts; and if the eyes are given more attention than the ears, listening becomes increasingly difficult.
There is a certain irony in the fact that the more we pray, the greater is the risk of distraction. Think of the Lord’s Prayer, in the version still used by most if not all denominations, from the 1611 translation of the Gospel6. When, honestly, was the last time you really thought about what you were saying as you recited the Lord’s Prayer? Because we know it by heart, we simply rattle it off, rarely if ever recognising what it means. Something similar happens with the liturgy of the Mass: ‘I confess’, ‘Holy, holy, holy’, ‘Lamb of God’ – we repeat them, as it were, on automatic pilot. Here I have been fortunate enough to live in a country with a different language: when I moved to Italy I effectively rediscovered the content of all these; now, after 40 years, I am in danger of falling into the same robotic repetition in Italian as in English. It is some consolation to reflect that, as Paul Murray OP observes, “[A]ll the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do”7 – including prayer.
Then there is another kind of listening in the context of prayer, still more difficult to achieve: listening to God. Contemplative prayer teaches exactly this; it is hard work and most of us will never be expert at it, but we have communities of contemplative nuns in the Dominican Order, and of monks and nuns in many Orders, who devote their lives to contemplation, as it were on our behalf. That said, we can at least try to slow down and, as Psalm 46 invites us to do: “Be still, and know that I am God”. Being still is something we find hard in our modern world. Timothy Radcliffe OP notes that: “Our fragile community is tenuously held together by instant communication. Frenetic and half-reflected messages are despatched on the spur of the moment, demanding immediate and undigested replies”.8 God’s replies are rarely immediate and never undigested; and we need to learn patience in waiting for his answer – which may on occasion be “No”. To lose faith or abandon prayer because you don’t get exactly what you want is to misunderstand the nature of our relationship with God: despite the fact that we call him “Father”, we all too readily forget that a good father (or mother) sometimes says “no” not out of spite, or lack of love, but because what the child asks for is not going to be for the child’s benefit. Listening to God is also a matter of hearing his “no” and, when necessary, accepting it.
What is prayer?
George Herbert (1593-1633) was – like Hugh Montefiore – an Anglican cleric, and one of the most accomplished of the 17th-century metaphysical poets9, was the author of a number of sonnets entitled “Prayer”. The first of these offers twenty-seven short ‘definitions’ of prayer:
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
There are concepts here that seem particularly worth attention. “God’s breath in man” reminds us that prayer is not one-way traffic, and that the mere fact that we pray is not to our credit as a personal initiative, but is itself a gift from God. “Engine against th’ Almighty” suggests that prayer can be used almost as a weapon with which we batter down the obstacles between ourselves and God (an engine, at the time of composition of the sonnet, could be “a machine or instrument used in warfare […] a battering-ram”10); “Heaven in ordinary” because prayer brings God closer to us, making him more readily recognisable and accessible; “man well drest” because we try (or at least we ought to try) to be at our best in prayer. Most compelling of all is the last image: “something understood”, which obliquely yet powerfully implies the two-way traffic of prayer, in which the one who prays is understood by the One who listens – and vice versa.
This is in no sense an exhaustive treatment of the subject. I have not touched on the physical element (as illustrated, for example, in St Dominic’s “nine ways of prayer”); I have not mentioned prayer groups, or the opportunities for creative ways of praying, or the use of music, or the various styles of prayer in different denominations – the sober, formal style of the Catholic and High Anglican churches, the spontaneity and exuberance of evangelical communities, the silence that is a marked characteristic of Quaker worship. We shall return to the topic in the future.
1 J Epstein and F Raphael, Distant Intimacy: a friendship in the age of the Internet, Yale UP, 2013
2 J Epstein and F Raphael, Where were we?, St Augustine’s Press, 2017
3 M Loudon, Revelations, Penguin Books, 1995
4 Born into a distinguished Sephardic Jewish family, he became a Christian and an Anglican cleric, and was Bishop of Birmingham from 1978 to 1987.
5 Loudon, op.cit., p. 154
6 Matthew 6:9-13.
7 P Murray, A Journey with Jonah. The Spirituality of Bewilderment, The Columba Press, 2002, p.18.
8 T Radcliffe, Alive in God, Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019, p. 108.
9 The works of the metaphysical poets are “marked by philosophical exploration, colloquial diction, ingenious conceits, irony, and metrically flexible lines” – poetryfoundation.org
10 Definition 5, Oxford English Dictionary.