One of Father Benson’s less well-known books is a small volume entitled The Divine Rule of Prayer or Considerations upon the Lord’s Prayer. It was published in 1866, the same year he, Father Grafton, and Father O’Neill made their professions as the first members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.
What is fascinating, in part, about this book, is that in two short chapters, both about 2500 words long, he lays before the reader his understanding of the nature and purpose of prayer. He does this by constantly rooting himself in Lord’s Prayer, of which he says as prayer is the great work of life, so the Lord’s Prayer is the great form and model of [all] prayer.
Many of the themes which Father Benson introduces to his audience in this book, he picks up repeatedly over the course of his life, in his other writings. Reading things published many years after The Divine Rule we hear echoes of what he says within it, perhaps reminding us that most, including it would seem Father Benson, have only one or two things worth saying, and we spend the rest of our lives saying them in different ways.
Today we celebrate All Souls Day. We ‘celebrate’? How can we celebrate when shortly we shall be remembering by name before God our loved ones who have died, and whom we so miss?
‘Behold, I tell you a mystery! We shall not all die, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible.’ Those amazing, thrilling words from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I can never read them without hearing Handel’s Messiah ringing in my ears! And they are words which tell us just what it is that we are celebrating today. We are celebrating what lies at the very heart of our faith as Christians. Jesus truly died, and yet was raised to life by God. And all who have faith in Jesus, although we too will die, will also be raised to life by God. Paul goes on to proclaim in ringing terms, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where O death is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The promise and hope of resurrection, of new life, IS our gospel as Christians. It seems to me that so much in life points to this. Just as winter leads to spring, so death and resurrection, loss and hope, seem to penetrate the very fabric of life itself.
One of the things which fascinates me about the saints is that often those things for which they are most remembered and venerated, probably never happened. We keep today the feast of St. James and John the Apostles. As you know, James is remembered in parts of the Church as the one who first preached the Good News of the Gospel in Spain. It would appear that today only Spaniards believe this, for the earliest accounts of St. James’ travels to Spain only goes back to the seventh century. Truth, at least of the historical kind, seems to be unimportant when it comes to devotion to James, for even today his shrine in Spain continues to be one of the great places of pilgrimage in the Church.
According to that story, sometime after Pentecost, James travelled to Spain to preach the gospel. So far so good. But it gets better. While he was there, the Virgin appeared to him on the banks of the Ebro River, and commanded him to return to Jerusalem, where he faced his martyrdom. This apparition of Mary, known as Our Lady of the Pillar, is the first apparition of the Virgin, in a long series that includes Lourdes, Fatima, and Walsingham. But it gets better. Mary is presumed to have been living in Jerusalem at the time, so this was not so much an apparition, as it was an act of bilocation. Curiously, or not, some of the earliest archaeological evidence of devotion to Mary in Spain, dates to the fourth century, not far from where this apparition is said to have taken place. Another story of James’ martyrdom is that his accuser immediately repented and suffered the same fate as James. Following his death his body was transferred by to Spain, either by angels, or floating in a stone boat.
Several years ago, I found myself in a small, subterranean chapel within sight of the Old City of Jerusalem. It had once been a cave. At some point, a modern church was built over it. The floor was littered with scraps of paper. On them people had written prayers, and then dropped them through a grille in the floor of the upper church, onto the floor of this cave chapel, where I stood with Sr Elspeth. Elspeth was an American. She had begun her religious life as a sister of the Order of Saint Anne, here in Arlington. The deeper she entered the mystery of her vocation, the more she realized it was to the contemplative life she was called. So, there she was, a Carmelite nun of the Pater Noster Carmel, showing me the cave, where tradition says, Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.
Like many of the holy sites in Jerusalem, it is impossible to know if this is the place where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. None the less, this place has been hallowed by the memory of that occasion, as well as by the prayers of countless believers. Like this monastery chapel, the walls of that cave are soaked in prayer. You feel it the moment you enter.
Of all the prayers we pray, none is so universal, so loved, as the Lord’s Prayer. Wherever we go as Christians, we find others who love, and pray this prayer. We may be divided by language, culture, race, gender, economics, education, ecclesiology, or theology, but we are united by this prayer, and by praying it.
We begin to celebrate Trinity Sunday this evening, just shy of two weeks since the senseless death of George Floyd at the hands (and under the knee) of members of the Minneapolis police department. This murder (the latest in a string of fatalities of black men and women) has sparked anger and outrage, as well as suspicion of uniformed officers of the law, who have sworn to faithfully uphold their communities.[i] We have watched (and some have witnessed first-hand) the daily protests that have taken place across the country, some peaceful, and others turning violent, unable to contain the frustration of not being heard; all of this against the backdrop of a pandemic that has us reeling in isolation.
The civic unrest that we are experiencing in our country is not only the result of a Constitutional crisis symptomatic of racism, but even more so because the attempt to subdue, divide, or destroy community, which springs from the common good, goes against the very nature of the God whose image we bear. The founder of our Society Richard Meux Benson wrote: “By the communication of the Holy Spirit, the personal God is found dwelling in all the faithful, not as a Sovereign to overpower their individuality, but as a Giver of life and fullness, that our fallen emptiness may rise into true correspondence of Love with Him from whom it came.”[ii] The word community comes from the Latin communitas, which literally means “with oneness.” Community and communion are related to each other. The anger being expressed in our country over the death of George Floyd and countless other of our black sisters and brothers is a righteous anger. It is the blood of Abel crying out from the ground of our very being which is a creation of God. We should not be outraged at the anger of those who have taken to our streets in protest, but conversely, at the source of that anger. We should deeply mourn the sin of all who seek to destroy the very dwelling place of God in our midst. The inability or unwillingness to speak the truth of love to power is to be guilty of complacency. Silence in this case is not holy, but rather synonymous with death.[iii]
Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
As I read the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel, I often imagine seeing an enormous tent being painstakingly erected, like those that are used for outdoor weddings. With the introduction of each significant character – Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna – another stake or peg is fixed in the earth, with its own cord attached. These cords begin to cross and intersect at just the right angles, as if by the arrangement of some mysterious, divine geometry, held taut by the weight of poles and the canvas now unfurling from the ground into a recognizable structure. Into the particularity of time and space there unfolds a tabernacle, a tent or dwelling for Christ Emmanuel, God-with-Us. A web of divinely inspired, interpersonal encounters prepares the ground and provides a sheltering roof.