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Prayer In A Time of Crisis

I think we can all acknowledge that inherent in our human condition are all sorts of complicated confusions and paradoxes.  For example, a tendency to fantasize and idealize.  Or the very opposite - to catastrophise, or perceive relatively routine events in our lives, or our world, as existential crises. 

Our attachment to social media, even traditional media (overdosing on the Today programme, for example) doesn’t help when it comes to seeing the worst in human nature, or becoming despairing in the face of global challenges brought closer to us than perhaps in truth they sometimes are – the worst impacts of climate change, war in the Middle East, or mass migration for example.

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It can be tempting to console ourselves with idealisations of our heroes: Taylor Swift, perhaps, or, more my taste, spiritual writers like Thomas Merton, Jean Vanier, Rowan Williams, Pope Francis.  And to believe it when people say ‘You can be anything you want to be if you want it enough’.  Maybe - but maybe not!

Benedict, and Benedictine-ism, seem to me to chart a different course.  Part of what makes the Rule or the monastic life attractive is an almost stubborn refusal to glamorise human existence, the spiritual life, or the call to discipleship.  Benedict is really rather low key and sober.  He comes across more rooted realist than inspirational mystic. 

I spent some time as a novice at Worth. The novice master, Fr Bede, a monk who excelled in practical virtue (never happier than when driving a tractor, ideally in Peru), eschewed the charismatic, and could even come across a little dour.  Our infrequent one-to-ones would start with ‘How’s the prayer life going?’ to be followed, regardless of the answer, by ‘Jolly good, keep it up.’  End of spiritual conversation.

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I won’t pretend that I wouldn’t have welcomed a bit more encouragement.  With hindsight I think Fr Bede was nurturing that very Benedictine quality – (quiet) perseverance.  Even if he went about it in a very Bede-like way.  Not suitable for him, nor, I suspect Benedict, was the idea that we can fantasize, or simply will our way to heaven.  That’s not how it works.

Faced, as we are in this moment of history, with a good deal of chaos, uncertainty, and profound foreboding, which none of us can ignore or wish away, the simple, even plain truths, of the Benedictine way are perfectly attuned to our predicament.

Benedict gently insists that we begin every day, every action, with prayer - deep attentive listening to the word of God.  He insists that living in community is a must if we are to learn what it means to love and to serve others, especially those we find irksome or challenging.

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And he encourages us to persevere in discipleship, by which he means an unflagging commitment to conversion of heart - come what may. 

Benedict’s response to the crises he surely experienced, personal or in terms of the wider social and political context of the time was to persevere in the basics of the Christian life: prayer, lectio, community life, the office.  Not an offhand ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ but trust, hope and perseverance in the love of God. 

It may not be the most glamorous of injunctions, but in a time of crisis, Benedict, like Fr Bede or Thomas Merton, falling unexpectedly and passionately in love,  seems to say:  ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’

If we remain faithful to our rhythm of prayer and to the community, to ora and to labora, no crisis can prevent us from becoming ‘inheritors of His kingdom’.

Tim Livesey


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