Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Extracts from Bishop Forester's First Talk on Prayer: Nuns and Prayer

One of the most astonishing social phenomena in the first half of this century was the spread of convents. Sociologists, of course, have never noticed it. The immediate reaction to women’s emancipation was for them to rush into convents. Admittedly we received the overflow from Ireland and France, but the fact remains that even in Protestant England there is scarcely a township of ten thousand inhabitants without its convent. There are now twice as many nuns in the country as there are priests, whereas in the Age of Faith, in the 15th century, priests outnumbered nuns by about ten to one. My miserable little parish of Grumby, with some five thousand inhabitants of whom about seven hundred were Catholics, could boast two convents with over twenty nuns. And they were my boast, too. I was no more devout than the Methodist Minister and less respected than the Rector, but I could show what they could not: dedicated virgins whose integrity of body expressed their integrity of soul. . . .

The difference between contemplative and active nuns is not as great in reality as appears to outsiders. For both the prime object is the adoration of God. It is only your work which differs. Contemplatives, apart from the liturgy, dig their gardens, print, concoct elixirs or make toothpicks, whereas the active educate children, nurse and care for a thousand human needs. In fact, the work of contemplatives is with things and the work of active nuns with people. Admittedly people are desperately distracting while things are conducive to concentration; nevertheless the object of both is the same: union with God through prayer. . . .

It is nonsense to ascribe the astonishing spread of Catholicism between 1850 and 1960, on the human side, to the clergy. It is due to the nuns. It is you who broke down anti-Catholic prejudice by educating a notable percentage of non-Catholics. It is you who stormed heaven with your prayers and showed men the reality of sanctity. That, indeed, is why you were the revolution’s first target: you prayed and educated the future generation of mothers. . . .

In the assault on the institutional Church, her dogmas, the Mass and the sacraments could all be undermined by attacking her priests, questioning her certainties, their function, their authority. Yet that was not enough. It was imperative to dry up her source of prayer. Now, just as priests are the ministers of the Mass so are you nuns the ministers of prayer. And how wonderfully you did it! Well, you must stop immediately. You must get out into the world to “do good” or attend a conference. . . .

It is high time that I said something about prayer. St Thomas places it under the general heading of justice: “to render to God the honour which is his due (S.T. 2-2, 81-2).” Prayer is therefore a “natural” virtue and not a specific gift of the Holy Ghost. But Aquinas is talking about prayer in general, the prayer of Jew, Muslim, Hindu, pagan. He is not dealing with the mechanism by which we pray nor with the specific nature of Christian prayer.

Grace, as you know, perfects nature. Thus the natural act of justice in the pagan’s prayer is lifted by grace to become a supernatural act of piety by the operation of the Holy Ghost. That is to say that the prayer of a Christian differs from the equivalent act in a pagan not merely by its content or object but in its essence. Whereas the pagan is performing a natural act, aided and abetted by actual grace, the Christian is aiding and abetting a supernatural act performed by the Holy Ghost. The two processes are in fact contrary: the former is a human act sanctified, the latter a divine act humanized.

It is of course true that the Christian must do all in his power to be in a state of grace. Hence the importance attached to what the ancients called “temperance,” later writers “mortification” and the moderns “ascetics”; that is, the practice of the virtues and purification of the mind by pious meditation. But the practice of ascetics is not of itself formally prayer. What it does is to provide the circumstance in which prayer is normally possible. It is true that a meditation may be a prayer, but it will be so not by the thing thought but by the intention, since human cooperation with the Holy Ghost is not an act of the intelligence but an act of the will.

Thus the thoughts which a priest expresses in a sermon or a professor of theology in a lecture are not prayers. They remain exactly what they pretend to be: true and pious thoughts. A preacher may indeed move himself to prayer by his own sermon, but as soon as he does so the sermon will grind to a halt. The activity of the human being in prayer is something quite different: it is adherence to grace and the less he impinges on the Holy Ghost the better. This we do not by pious thoughts and good resolutions, which would remain “our” thoughts and “our” resolutions—all forms of self-centeredness—but by here and now being self-effacing, abandoning all that is “ours” to become as theocentric as grace permits. We should become recollected and empty ourselves so as to leave room for the divine operation of the Holy Ghost.

This does not mean that all interior acts of petition, repentance, hope and gratitude will, or even should, cease. What it does mean is that such acts will be infused with adoration. Petition will tend towards joyous submission to Divine Providence; repentance to acknowledgement of the gulf between our void and God’s Being; hope to the fulfillment, in the love of possession, of our present love of desire of God through faith; gratitude, as in the Gloria, to giving God thanks “for His great glory.” This is what adoration is: divine love returning to the Father through the medium of us creatures. It is the ultimate object of all prayer.

It must not be imagined that such a view of prayer may be descriptive of high contemplatives in the unitive way but cannot be applied to the simple faithful. Yes it can. All the forms of prayer peculiar to and encouraged by the Church imply and require a state of recollection and adherence, not of meaningful commitment and activity. The Rosary, the Litanies, the Stations, the Divine Praises, indulgenced ejaculations—in what possible way are such repetitions “meaningful”? Their use is to reduce the activity of the human mind to a minimum in order to liberate the soul for adherence to God in prayer. But far more important than in any devotion, this same state of recollection and adherence was required in the supreme act of worship: the Mass.

I learned to say my prayers at my mother's knee—and I still say the same ones each night. But I learned to pray when I was dragged off to Mass on Sundays. Something was altered with Mummy and Daddy. They did not talk to each other or look at each other. Mummy usually fiddled with a Rosary. Daddy thumbed intermittently a Garden of the Soul which one of my nephews still uses. My eldest sister, Gertrude, who became a Benedictine nun, knelt bolt upright with her eyes usually shut. As I looked round it was the same with all our other relatives and neighbors. What was most unusual is that nobody paid the slightest attention to me. Even if I pulled Mummy's skirt, she just gently pushed me away. I once tried to climb on Daddy's back; he lifted me off and put me under the seat. That, too, was strange: although I was in my Sunday best, I was allowed to crawl about the floor provided I did not make a noise. Funny little boy that I was, I realized perfectly well that something was up.

I do not think that I was a particularly precocious child but I was certainly very young when I tumbled to the fact that all these people were praying without saying prayers, as I did. Children are imitative: I too wanted to pray without saying prayers. I opened up to my sister Gertrude. Just sit quite still, like a good boy, she said. You are too small to kneel. Keep your hands still as well, on your thighs. Try not to look round and keep your eyes shut if you can. Then just say 'Jesus' under your breath, slowly but constantly. I'll prod you when you say 'Thou art my Lord and my God' and you can say it with me.

That, mutatis mutandis, is I suppose how we all learned to pray. The point I am getting at is that the Mass itself was our school of prayer. It was there that we learned to be self-effacing, detached, recollected and to adhere to the Divine Presence. It was also at Mass that the simple faithful practiced prayer throughout their lives. They may have known little theology but they prayed as theologians often do not. Moreover, the simplest of them attained to heights of prayer and sanctity far beyond me.

There lies the tragedy of the New Ordo. Although its theology is ambiguous and its liturgical theory abysmal, those are not what I hold principally against it. The real trouble is that the New Ordo is unprayable. For seven long years I have both celebrated and attended it. It presents itself as a human action, an event, requiring participation; instead of a divine action, The Event of the Sacrifice of God Incarnate, requiring adherence. On the one side you have self-effacement, recollection and adherence, on the other self-expression, self-commitment and participation; these are irreconcilable. And the New Ordo does not merely call for its specific attitudes, it enforces them. You cannot be recollected with a microphone blaring at you in your native tongue which you cannot help but understand. You cannot be self-effacing if you have got to stand up and answer up. You cannot adhere to God if you are busy shaking hands all round. I shall not go into details, illuminating though they be.

Yes, that is the tragic triumph of the renewal; it has destroyed the source, the school and the practice of prayer. . . .

— Bryan Houghton, Mitre and Crook, 1979, pp. 166–170.