Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lent I - Fr Damian Feeney

This homily was preached by the Vice-Principal, Fr Damian Feeney, at All Saints, Ecclesall on the first Sunday in Lent.

‘In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house
and went off to a lonely place and prayed there.’
Mark 1:35

This passage speaks of three things: The priority of prayer, the importance of solitude and silence, and thirdly what I call the ‘prayer of expectation and hope’ which is the common inheritance of the people of God. In what follows I will try to speak to all three.

There’s a very real sense in which there’s no such thing as private prayer. All our prayer belongs, in a sense, to the whole community, and when we pray, even fleetingly, we are joining in with the praying people of God across all time and space. I love the hymn ‘The Day thou gavest, Lord, is ended’ because it expresses well that sense of never being alone when we are at prayer:

‘The sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren neath the western sky,
And hour by hour fresh lips are making
thy wondrous doings heard on high’

Even if that were not so, we should never be alone in prayer, because we know that all our true praying is prompted, from within, by the Holy Spirit; that it is therefore in the power of the Spirit that we pray, and that we are in union with Christ Jesus as we pray to the Father. In prayer, we are never alone, but in Divine company.

Jesus himself did ‘pray alone’ in the sense that there was no other human present. More than that, he deliberately got up early, left the house, sought out a lonely place, and there he communed with the heart of his Father. It doesn’t sound very glamorous, and the very opposite of the more public moments of his ministry: but Jesus is showing us the importance, the value, of personal devotion – a personal prayer which contributes to the whole, and yet is conducted in the quiet hours, the quiet places. As so often, it is the use of time beyond the public gaze which in the end makes a difference, and bids us ask about our own use of such time.

Let’s cast our mind to the adult ministry of Jesus as told in the gospels. We are treated – especially in Mark’s gospel – to a whole series of encounters and meetings where demands are being made upon Jesus. Maybe your day feels a little bit like that, too. Jesus moves from place to place, from encounter to encounter, and it is generally among people who have needs – people in need of teaching, people in need of healing, people in need of wisdom. What is the net effect upon us when we have such encounters? They drain us of physical, spiritual and emotional energy. Do too much of it, and pretty soon the tank runs dry, and there is nothing left to give. So – Jesus models a style of living, ministering and praying which seeks a sense of balance. In order for there to be focus and energy for the public, the energetic, the times when Jesus was giving all the time, there had to be a balance of the other – the solitary, the gentle, the calm and the nourishing, if he was to fulfil his vocation as the image of the invisible God. Without it, the shape of his living would change, and he would have been unable to fulfil his earthly mission.

The second reason is that such prayer is good and rich of itself. It is part of God’s desire for us, and needs no other justification than that. Put simply, it is for such moments that we were made – closer union with God, a union made possible not in human words and petitions but in the unspoken longings of the human heart, where the Holy Spirit will speak for us, in sighs too deep for words, as the human soul reaches beyond the superficial. To break the habits of movement and noise in our lives, and to give a serious place to silence and stillness this Lent – what a worthwhile thing that would be.

In reality, a change such as this is a profound change of habit for many. Our lives are so busy, with so many demands upon our time. Many of us operate with ludicrously full diaries, as we seek to fulfil the flattering yet ultimately destructive demands that are made of us. To determine that our schedules need to permit space, and balance, is a courageous act indeed – and, like most worthwhile things, it can best be a achieved a step at a time. We cannot all become serene contemplatives overnight. Such changes of habit – and the recognition of the worth of such changes – do not come easily or immediately.

Can I recommend a book to you? It’s short, and very accessible. It is called ‘Do nothing to change your life’ and it is written by the Bishop of Reading, Stephen Cottrell. He tells the story of an unanticipated delay on a journey, which deposited him in an airport lounge, with time on his hands. He writes

‘What matters is what happened. Something was awoken within me while I was ostensibly doing nothing. I thought my flight was that evening, but actually the enforced delay took me on a much more exhilarating journey. Rooted to the spot I was able to travel back into myself: back into a part of me that had lain dormant for many years: crowded out with all the activity of work and busyness.’

So, there is, even before we consider the activity (or non-activity) of prayer, a sense of re-connection – reconnection with our authentic, playful, human selves – perhaps the child which elsewhere Christ reminds us that we should strive to become.

In addition to this, there is a sense in which, by not cluttering this precious space with words, requests or the like, we are reminding ourselves that the best thing we can ever ‘do’ is simply to ‘be’ with God – giving our questioning and our pleading a rest, just content to be with him. This in turn reminds us of true perspective in our lives – that first and foremost, we are precious children of God, created to love, worship and enjoy him. Self-assertion and self-centredness have no place here. This process is about truly enthroning God in our hearts, so that he might increase, and we might decrease. This bringing together of our own scale and size in relation to God is the beginning of the key virtue of humility.

All of these things point to the priority of such praying on our lives, as a balance to more public prayer, and as a balance to ceaseless activity. In placing such praying in solitude and silence, we are recognising that this prayer needs to be set apart, to require no distractions – mobiles and pagers off, no activity, no music or sound. As a society we do not do these things well, and become restless – that is because we have so little practice. You will know from your own experience just how difficult it is to carve out space and quiet in the midst of your lives – hence another reason for the early hour when all this too place.

Our third reason is the prayer of hope and expectation. Praying in the early morning is in so many ways a parable for our lives. If we are Christian people, then we are (or are meant to be) people of joy, hope and expectation – joy in what God in Christ has done, and continues to do, in us – hope for the future realisation of the Kingdom of God, and expectation in the mighty and glorious promises which he has made. The early morning is a time when we look forward – just as we do in Lent, to the Lord’s death and resurrection, and Advent, to the Lord’s Birth. In my last parish, we used to refer to those who looked forward in hope (hopefully all of us!) as Purple People, to reflect the fact that the colour purple in the church’s tradition ties together the seasons of Advent and Lent, as well as representing hope and expectation. Many years ago, one Advent, when a curate in Harrogate, I had just attended Morning Prayer in my home parish, after which I was reminded (I had forgotten) that I was meant to be taking the 8.00 am Service at Collingham, on the Northern edge of Leeds. Timing wise, this was not good. I leapt into my car and flew down the A61 (without once compromising the speed limit – it was entirely by miraculous intervention) and arrived at Collingham at two minutes to eight. What was remarkable, however, was not the speed of the journey. The true miracle was the colour of the sky. It was a deep, rich purple, such as artist could not conceive. And I remembered a saying which another priest once taught me – that the colour purple was the colour of hope, because it was the colour of the sky just prior to the arrival of the Sun. For us, members of the body of Jesus Christ which is the church, that translates into our Christian hope because we too are people who await the coming of the Son.

To pray in solitude and silence requires effort of will, in seeking out such places and times. It requires a grace filled discipline which seeks to place that time at God’s disposal. It requires that we are people who earnestly want to seek the Lord, in our hearts and souls. It requires perseverance, so that we do not give up when things get difficult. If we can do these things, we will be richly rewarded, as the silence and the grace permeates our being, and is spread even beyond ourselves to others. Seek these things, and you will be richly rewarded, both here and hereafter.