Click on the links below to listen to audio excerpts from the Maundy Thursday liturgy:
Psalm 22 Deus, Deus meus
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? *
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress?
2 O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; *
by night as well, but I find no rest.
3 Yet you are the Holy One, *
enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
Today I want to speak about short prayers. There are two powerful short prayers in our Reading from Jeremiah. The first of them is, “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.” (Jer. 20:7). The second one is “Sing to the Lord; Praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of evildoers.” (v. 13)
The first of these was the acknowledgment of a call from God, a vocation to the life of a prophet. It brought with it humiliation and some sense of being shunned by others. But Jeremiah also overcame that and persevered in his vocation. That brought him to trust in God and commit himself to serving God.
This evening we conclude a Lenten sermon series based on our Rule of Life by focusing on Chapter 26, “The Cell and Solitude.” In the opening lines of that chapter, we read
The Father of all whom we seek to love is a hidden God. Therefore we take to heart the words of Jesus, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” The cell is the place of this secret encounter and reward.1
The cell – or any place where we withdraw to meet God in prayer – is a place of “secret encounter and reward.” Here we come to know God, and to know ourselves. Here we come to learn to recognize the voice of God, and to distinguish that voice from countless other voices that clamor for our attention. Here we come to recognize our disordered attachments, to do battle with our most persistent temptations, and to grow in the virtues of obedience, humility and love. “The cell is the primary place of prayer where we are to stand before God,” our Rule says.2
There is an ancient saying which encouraged monks to remain in their cells, even when they were bored or distracted or tempted to do something that seemed more useful. Remain in your cell, they were told, because “the cell will teach you all things.”3 We need encouragement to go to this place of “secret encounter and reward” and to remain there with God because there are so many pressures and temptations that deter us from experiencing solitude and tasting its rewards. The Rule of our Society names three of them:
First, it says, there are “the claims of work.” How many of us fall prey to the temptation to allow our work to dominate our lives. How easy it is to give in to the pressures of a fast-paced, results-oriented society where more is better and where productivity and busyness are signs of one’s importance and value. (I speak as one who knows this temptation too well.)
Second, there is “the fear of loneliness.” Loneliness is part of the human condition. No matter how much we are loved by others, we will all, at certain times, experience our aloneness. It may be when we are faced with a problem that no one can solve for us, or with a crucial decision that no one can make for us. Certainly we experience it at the moment of death; no one can accompany us to the other side. At times we experience our loneliness even in the company of others. If we are afraid to be alone, we will do all that we can to avoid solitude.
Third, there is “the reluctance to face ourselves as we are.” In solitude, we encounter our own poverty, incompleteness and brokenness. We see how petty we can be; how possessive and judgmental ; how angry, resentful, and mean-spirited; how self-centered in our thoughts and actions. No wonder we are tempted to flee solitude and to lose ourselves in busyness and distractions. It takes courage to plumb the depths of our soul.
And yet, in order for us to become the persons we were meant to be, we need the gifts that come to us in solitude. Solitude is not just a time and place where we can escape once in a while in order not to be bothered by others or to think our own thoughts. It is not just a time and place to recharge our batteries or to gather new strength for the ongoing struggle of life. It is not a private therapeutic place. Rather it is the place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born and grows. In this place of conversion, we come to see and acknowledge who we truly are in Christ as beloved children of God. In this place of conversion, the dark voices of anger, jealousy, resentment, lust and greed lose their power and are gradually replaced with gentler voices of contentment, peace and love. Here the illusions and deceptions of the world and its values are exposed and we learn to follow the way of Jesus, imitating his compassion, his hunger for justice, and his total dedication to God. In this place of conversion, we are united with Christ and become one with him. In this place of conversion, we grow into his likeness.
In solitude we become more present to ourselves and to God. Paradoxically, we can also become more present to others. Solitude does not pull us away from our fellow human beings but rather makes it possible for us to enjoy deeper communion with them. Few people have expressed this more clearly than Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk of the 20th century who lived the last years of his life as a hermit. On January 12, 1950, he wrote in his diary:
It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am, the more affection I have for them. It is pure affection and filled with reverence for the solitude of others.4
The affection and reverence Merton felt for his brothers he also felt for the world. Henri Nouwen describes Merton in this way:
The paradox of Merton’s life indeed is that his withdrawal from the world brought him into closer contact with it. The more he was able to convert his restless loneliness into a solitude of heart, the more he could discover the pains of his world in his own inner center and respond to them. His compassionate solidarity with the human struggle made him a spokesman for many…5
For many of us, it may be difficult to find times and places where we can be alone. Merton complained that even life in a Trappist monastery did not offer him enough opportunities for the pure contemplation he sought. One difficulty was that the monastery was simply too busy, too active:
For it seems to me (he wrote) that our monasteries produce very few pure contemplatives. The life is too much active. There is too much movement, too much to do. This is especially true at Gethsemani (the Trappist monastery in Kentucky in which he lived).6
We brothers can relate. We struggle, as many of you do, to maintain a healthy balance in our lives, and to find adequate time and space for solitary prayer and contemplation.
It is difficult to achieve a contemplative stillness without at least some separation from others. But if the truth be told, not many of us have either the desire or the opportunity or the constitution to live as hermits, as Merton eventually did. It is important, then, to recognize — as Henri Nouwen puts it — that “the solitude that really counts is the solitude of heart.”7
The solitude of heart is “an inner quality or attitude,” says Nouwen, “that can exist, be maintained and developed in the center of a big city, in the middle of a large crowd, and in the context of a very active and productive life. A man or woman who has developed this solitude of heart is no longer pulled apart by the most divergent stimuli of the surrounding world but is able to perceive and understand this world from a quiet inner center.”8
This solitude of heart we see in Mary, whom we remember on this feast day. We recall how readily she received the angel’s message, and see in her a heart prepared to receive God’s call. We recall how she treasured the mystery of the Divine Revelation in her heart, contemplating its meaning and its profound implications, not just for her but for the world. Mary shows us how to live as active contemplatives in the world. She is able “to perceive and understand this world from a quiet inner center” because she “has developed this solitude of heart.”
Some time ago I read a book entitled, The Hermitage Within. Ever since reading that book, the image of “a hermitage within” has had profound significance for me. I believe the experience of solitude allows us to gradually build within our hearts a hermitage where we can dwell in union with God, even in the midst of busy lives. We still need times of solitude apart from others when we can shore up the foundations of this “hermitage within” and deepen our sense of connection with God there. But we can also carry this hermitage within us, and learn to abide in it as we converse and interact with others, and as we carry out God’s work in the world.
Seek the gifts that come from time with God Alone. Develop this inner quality of solitude of heart. Learn to abide in the hermitage within. Love your cell. “The cell will teach you all things.”
Lenten Preaching Series: A Framework for Freedom
Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living within you (2 Timothy 1:14)
In the center of London, just off the Strand, lie the ancient Inns of Court where English lawyers or barristers live and work. One of the Inns of Court is called the Middle Temple and one Christmas, centuries ago, Queen Elizabeth I presented the barristers with a Christmas pudding “made with our royal hands.” Because this pudding had actually touched the royal hands, they decided to save a bit of it and add it to the mixture for the next year’s pudding. Then, a spoonful of that pudding was saved for the following year. And so it has gone on through the centuries until today. A sort of culinary apostolic succession!
This evening’s sermon, in our Lenten preaching series, takes its title from Chapter Three of our Rule: “Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition.” Tradition – from the Latin verb tradere – means literally to hand on, from one person to another, from one generation to another.
That story of the Christmas pudding is probably a source of fun to those lawyers today, but it says something of how important tradition is in our lives. It gives us our roots and it helps us establish our identity. We love to touch, to hold, to see, to feel, things from our past. There’s a church near here where, on the table in the sacristy, there is a chunk of creamy stone. I picked it up, and a label on the back said “a piece of Canterbury Cathedral!” I don’t know who managed to dig it out of the wall, but it was brought back 80 years ago to this country as a kind of relic – a physical, tactile contact with the mother church of our Anglican tradition.
Colossians 3:12-17; John 15:9-17
The story is told of a weary man, aged beyond his years, who walked slowly into the office of a country doctor. The man appeared spent, even by the brief walk back to the doctor’s examination room, and he sat down heavily onto the examination table.
“What seems to be the problem?” asked the doctor.
The man answered, “Doctor, life is very short and very hard, and I find no joy.”
The doctor listened to the man describe his symptoms, then examined him. On finding no physical abnormalities, the doctor wondered how he could possibly be of help? Finally, the doctor’s face lit up when he thought he might have a remedy. The doctor said, “There’s an amazing clown appearing in our local theater. Prokevia is his name. He’s absolutely marvelous! Go and see him, and perhaps he will remind you of the joy that lies hidden in your life.”
The man looked up at the satisfied doctor, breathed a sigh and said, “My dear doctor… I am Prokevia.”
Today is Ash Wednesday, the day which marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. During this period of forty days we give ourselves to prayer, fasting and self-denial in preparation for the celebration of Easter, the day of Resurrection. In a few moments we will present ourselves for the imposition of ashes, drawing on a tradition of the Church that is over a thousand years old.
Why these ashes?
Ashes are an ancient sign of sorrow and repentance. They symbolized mourning, mortality and penance. There are numerous references to the symbolic use of ashes in the Hebrew Scriptures.
- In the Book of Esther, Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes when he heard of the decree of King Ahasuerus of Persia to kill all the Jewish people in the Persian Empire (Esther 4:1);
- Job repented in sackcloth and ashes after he was struck by calamitous circumstances (Job 42:6);
- Foreseeing the destruction of Jerusalem, the prophet Daniel “turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3);
- In response to Jonah’s call to repentance, the people of Nineveh proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth (Jonah 3:5-6).
“I’m with the Society of St. John the Evangelist,” I told the clerk.
“Society of St. John…” she repeated slowly as she wrote. “Society of St. John the what?”
“Evangelist,” I repeated.
She looked puzzled. “Umm… could you spell that for me?”
‘Evangelist’ isn’t a word in everyone’s vocabulary. For those who do recognize the word, it is likely to be associated with those who publicly proclaim the gospel on street corners or on television, or those who button-hole passers-by to ask whether they have been saved. For many – Christians and non-Christians alike, ‘evangelist,’ ‘evangelism’ and ‘evangelical’ are not words that carry a positive connotation…
…which is odd, given that the word ‘evangelist’ derives from a Greek word (euangelion) that means “good tidings” or “good news.” Evangelists are those who proclaim good news. Most everyone enjoys receiving good news, so it should strike us as curious that so many are put off by the efforts of Christians to share their faith.
Memories are a powerful force in the human psyche. They have the ability to trap and imprison, but they have also the ability to liberate and free. They have the power to make one weep in despair or grief and to laugh with the delight of a child. They have the power to shape and mold a life and in hindsight to help make sense of all that was and is, and even is to be. As we all know, it doesn’t take much to trigger a memory: a sound, a taste, a smell, an image, even just a word or phrase and suddenly we are back there as if it were happening this very instant.
I have one such memory that crops up in my mind and heart on a regular basis and it happens many days at Morning Prayer. Had I known it at the time, the event itself was to be a harbinger of things to come. As a memory it continues to delight and console, and even assure me.