Berrynarbor North Devon
6th March 2019
Dear Father Ugo-Maria,
My name is James from Berrynarbor in north Devon. I am 17½ years old and since I was 13 have been considering a vocation with the Benedictines once I have finished my university studies.
I read in one of your articles that you pray a lot as do the benedictines (seven times a day + some more I think) and I wondered if you had the time that is, if you could let me know what does prayer really mean to you personally?
I know its a somewhat daft question, bit like asking a fish what the sea means to it yet I’m interested in getting your perspective on prayer … That’s all! Thank you for all the articles you write which have egged me on to consider a vocation as a religious and if you have time to answer I thank you for that as well.
I’d be very happy to share what meaning ‘prayer’ has for me. Prayer is not only my profession, it is my life, my occupation, my affection, my vocation and it is my gift from God.
Prayer therefore, is now the very purpose of my existence. It was not always so especially in my younger years but is very much so now. Yes, prayer is a means to glorify God; but also, and for that very reason, it is a means to an end in which: many other means are ordered, that is, my whole daily life revolves around prayer.
In this, the first and main help for my contemplation comes from the time, somewhat copious, which I dedicate exclusively to divine Revelation. For this reason, rather than calling it contemplation, I would call it “hearing”, hearing the Word of God. Of course in the form of reading. All hermits like to read. This is one of the secrets that I learnt from both the Carthusians and the Cistercians is that reading rewards you with richness of inner life. “Books are the perennial food of our souls”, the first Carthusians tell us, of whom it is said that they may be very poor and live extremely austere lives but their libraries are the real treasures of the Charterhouses.
For me, reading, especially Sacred Scripture, is an unceasing prayer because it ends with my response to faith. To respond is to react. All the feelings that I experience are in fact a prayer.
God reveals Himself as a living, personal Being; as someone who sees and wants. This is the foundation of Christian prayer. We would not pray if God were just something, not someone. Now this direct personal relationship with the living God is precisely the Carthusian style of praying. I say Carthusian because they are in fact the masters of Christian contemplation, dedicating themselves especially to solitary prayer. I adhere to the Carthusian charism whilst others journey different paths, as they have other forms of charisms. The Carthusian way of life tends to appeal to those whom, inwardly, are intimately attracted by Jesus’ invitation to enter a room and pray to God our Father inconspicuously. Prayer, for me, as a Hermit of Saint Bruno, above all else means solitary prayer.
It is true that all these hermits who live together in a Charterhouse meet three times a day in their church for the community liturgy (which the hermit of Saint Bruno does on his own). But even so, they select to sing in chorus, or in the dark, in relative isolation which favours an intimate and personal, uninhibited union with God alone. Soli Deo.
In fact, it is precisely this relationship with God that unites us, in the Lord, with the Church, with mankind and all of our contemplative brothers and sisters around the world. Both to those who are present and those that are absent. The heart, dilated and ignited with love for Him within the solitude, immediately enfolds humanity in its entirity. For this reason, we who are called to a purely contemplative life, find ourselves within the heart of the Church, and within the heart of the world, and our mission is to keep this contemplative dimension alive within the Church. The Swiss theologian and Catholic priest Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote: «If Christ had not withdrawn into solitude with God, He would never have advanced so much in the company of man».
With this I am saying that for me prayer means love. Solitary love for God, first, at the source. Brotherly and community love, hereafter, like flowers and fruit. Because of that, although I am a hermit, I feel happy on the rare occasions when I am able to pray with my brothers, whom I know are also united to our Lord. Yes, it does seem baffling that it is solitude which brings us together, and the interiorization that unites us to the world outside of the hermitage.
Now, in saying all this (I digress somewhat, because I am allowing myself to speak from the heart, rather than the mind, which would write yet another “Study on Prayer”), I am mindful of the fact that prayer, to me, signifies trust.
This trust then, which is the result of prayer, evokes joy. In G K Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy he says with ‘reverence’, which I paraphrase from memory: “There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray in His abrupt silence and isolation. Something that Jesus constantly covered. Something that was too great for God to show us when He was walking upon our earth; and that was His joy.” This is an unforgettable expression of views, yet if you think about Jesus and His nature, the person that He was, then one can only assume that Chesterton hit the nail on the head. More than an eremitic vocation, it is also due to the desire to remove from contemplative eyes the contemplative gifts received from God.
The polymath and theologian Blaise Pascal suddenly wakening extremely happy in the middle of the night, in his ecstasy exclaimed.“Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy!” happiness was showering from everywhere!
Now, this type intimate satisfaction and joy can often be a source of great confusion to us, St. Paul confessed: “We have no idea if we are worthy of either love or hate”. Put in another way: I have no idea if my prayer pleases God or not. In any case, I know, it is a fact, that it does please me. However, I rarely think about it, I prefer not to lay eyes on my prayer. I again became aware of my happiness when I was asked to give this testimony; ordinarily, our prayer proceeds in all simplicity. We listen or read the Word of God, we respond with faith, abandonment, joy and love. Spontaneously. I was therefore glad to learn that in Aramaic, the words that Jesus spoke to the Samaritan sounded somewhat like “spontaneous and authentic worship”.
At the same time, prayer is of course a duty for me, the Liturgy is an obligation. But, what religious would consider the Mass or similar Sunday’s, as a simple precept? What religious would not feel grief stricken, total despair or even penitent if they had to miss the office Matins or any other prayer for that matter throughout the day? I know that when it inadvertently happened to me after a fall for which I was hospitalised, I was for many days quite inconsolable.
In naming the night now, it reminds me that I have to tell you the reason why it is easy to pray within the hermitage, the reason why many solitaries, hermits and monks have no concept of what spiritual aridity is. There is no merit in that, I would say. The explanation lies within the monastic environment of the hermitage … Especially at night: the monastic tradition had created the term of phrase “the great silence” to designate this strong and profound impression of the it is easy to pray during Matins.
And during the day, there is yet another form silence, one that allows you to hear, under this blue sky of the Kentish countryside where the hermitage is located, the hundreds of birds that take refuge on the hermitage grounds. Just imagine how uninhibited and joyful it is to pray like that surrounded by God’s creation! How rewarding and fortunate it is for me to be allowed to contemplate here!
Still, for some people and their disposition, consolations may be less accessible, and the aridity far more frequent. Each soul has its own story. In the Imitation of Christ Thomas à Kempis tells us “some suffer great temptations in the beginning of their conversion, others toward the end, while some are troubled almost constantly throughout their life. Others, again, are tempted but lightly according to the wisdom and justice of Divine Providence”. Man can therefore never really be altogether free of temptation as Job tells us “The life of man upon earth is a warfare” [Job 7:1]. A novice will know a little about everything. Yet “whoever perseveres to the end, will be saved, will achieve the bliss of simple and affectionate prayer. In the Solitary life, perseverance usually depends on the test of loneliness. This forces many to simply give up; yet this loneliness is what brings joy and happiness to those who stay.
This deliberation affords me the opportunity to bring this response to you to an end by declaring that, whilst Diocesan Hermits like myself are few, I am happy and filled joy, which is due to my continued practice of prayer within solitude, which is a direct and personal relationship with our God, who is Love.
James, I do hope that this answers your question. I wish you all the very best with your studies at Uni and your vocational discernment. Please do let me know how you are progressing? You will be in my prayers.
In closing I would like to say persevere always, never give up. Sometimes God will speak to you and on many occasions He will be silent. But most importantly He is permanently there. Always keep you mind at peace, do not allow yourself to be distracted, forget about it, whist always remaining focused on the mysterious reality of God.
These days, I find the Carthusian maxim particularly comforting: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis “The Cross is steady while the world is turning”.
The Cross is steady while the world is turning
Poem reproduced by kind permission
How sweet it is to feel, dear Lord
That You will surely see
Each work, or thought, or act of mine
That may be done for You!
That when I try with pure intent
To serve, to please, to love You,
Your watchful Heart each effort knows,
Your blessing rests above me.
Empty my soul of all desire
Man’s idle praise to seek,
Hide me in You, for You do know
How frail and weak I am.
Please take my all, since for so long
Your providence has sought me,
Make me Your own since at such cost
Your precious blood has bought me.
Live, Jesus live, so live in me,
That all I do be done for You,
And grant that all I think and say
May be Your thoughts and words today.