“…few things are needed – indeed only one…”
I recently had the great privilege of staying as a guest at a Carmelite Monastery and, moreover, of meeting someone who has been a heroine of mine for thirty years (more of that later). It was a time of extraordinary peace and joy. The nuns there spend most of their time in prayer – either together or alone. This is their daily timetable.
One Hour in the morning
One hour in the afternoon
I later discussed this with a friend (a Catholic) who told me he could understand nuns who, say, taught, or were nurses, and who blended their life of prayer with a caring profession, but to him the full comtemplative vocation seemed frankly to be a waste of time – a dead loss. It all depends what you believe of course. To atheists, such a life is no doubt a scandalous, self-indulgent waste, and indeed, as I implied earlier, many Christians are sceptical of the true value of this vocation
I wish my friend had seen the face of the guest sister who looked after me during my stay – it was utterly radiant – an infinitely better demonstration of the value of the life of prayer than anything I am about to say.
So why spend your life praying? Listen to the greatest “popular” theologian of the 20th Century, C S Lewis:
“…the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time… God became man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful …whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.”
From “Mere Christianity”
The question then, is how do we become “little Christs?” Of course, I am not for one minute suggesting that we should all join a contemplative order – this will (no doubt) always be a very particular and rare calling. We all have our own unique vocation. But those who have direct experience of these things- the great mystics such a St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, tell us unequivocally that in order to have a close relationship with Jesus we need to pray. There is no other way. So, as Christians, we all need to have something of the contemplative about us. We need to take every possible opportunity presented to us in our busy lives to pray.
This is surely where the importance of orders such as the Carmelites and Cistercians comes in. They keep the light of prayer burning, reminding us, quietly but very persistently, that, as Jesus said, the one thing necessary is prayer.
Of course they are not primarily praying for themselves but for the world. When he was asked why he became a monk, the great Trappist Thomas Merton said: “because I believe in the effectiveness of petitionary prayer”. Simple as that. This is linked very closely with St Paul’s idea of the mystical body – somehow, we are all one body – the closer one person comes, through prayer, to God, the closer we all come to Him (the reverse is also true, alas). These nuns and monks, by allowing Jesus to take over their lives, are carrying out a great act of love and mercy for us all, drawing us along the road to becoming little Christs. No wonder the guest sister’s face was shining.
I wonder what you think of this:
“We must let grace in, and this we won’t do unless we see somehow or other what perhaps we never even glimpsed before; that we are blind, that there are dimensions of existence, of closeness to God, of holiness, of which we cannot even dream at the moment, but which are open to us would we but drop our defences , our self-righteousness, our unconscious sham, our desperate need of feeling spiritually successful, and expose our wretchedness and helplessness to God, acknowledging that we do not know him, that we are a failure, that spiritually we have got nowhere.
At that very moment, if we have truly reduced ourselves by standing in the searing light of truth, and if we look only to him, Jesus, our holiness, then he gives himself to us.”
This was written by someone whose books have been an enormous help to me over many years. Heaven knows I am not saying for one second that I have got anywhere near the state she describes above, but her works have kept me more or less on the right road! This is Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun, and I was greatly blessed to be able to speak with her on my recent visit to themonastery. It seems to me that she is a living embodiment of the Carmelite charism, helping us all to become little Christs.
I would urge you to read her books, which are available on Amazon, and, if you are not familiar with them, I would recommend you begin with “Before the Living God” – a memoir of her early life.
She is doing the one thing necessary.