Given at Allen Hall Seminary on 14 March 2015 at the Insitution to the Ministry of Lector.
One of the privileges of living in community is that you can pray alongside other people if you so wish. The mysterious thing is that you never know how they pray.
Let’s face it, you don’t even ask your best friend, “How did you pray this morning?”
He’d every right to say, “Very well, thank you.”
Though, if he was holy, he’d probably say, “as badly as ever!”
For all you know, the man on your left at prayer yesterday morning spent half an hour saying to God, “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping and unjust like all these other students; and particularly that I’m not like this man on my right whom I find so difficult.”
While the shy man who always sits at the back may simply have been saying to God, over and over again, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
There are so many different way of praying. Doesn’t the Catechism of the Catholic Church say there are as many different ways of praying as there are people who pray?
Dear Laurence, Mark and Mauro, by this stage of your formation, you will have tried many different ways of praying; of that I’m sure. St John Paul II famously said seminary formation is, at heart, a self-formation. I think we experience this in the spiritual sphere more than in any other. Because we come to realise that no one can take responsibility for our prayer-life - other than ourselves.
If you want to leave seminary a man of prayer, it’s down to you, and the Holy Spirit, of course. You realize the Holy Spirit is forming you when it suddenly occurs to you, “maybe I should try praying in this way or that”.
When you pause to ask, “Now, where did that idea come from?” you realize this is perhaps a little sign of God’s closeness to you. For years you may have prayed in one particular way, perhaps using just the Jesus prayer or saying, simply, “Come, Lord Jesus”, when suddenly it occurs to you that you might like to pray many more phrases of Scripture.
Institution as a Reader is an invitation to do just that. This ministry comes relatively early on in a seminarian’s formation.
Coming early, it acts to remind us that every seminarian should have sought to mine the rich seam of the Scriptures for prayer. Blessed Paul VI says to those who are to be instituted to this ministry, “Let them meditate assiduously on sacred Scripture.”
“Let the Reader employ suitable means,” he continues, “to acquire that increasingly warm and living love and knowledge of Scripture that will make him a more perfect disciple of the Lord.”
You can see these words reproduced at the front of our Orders of Service. Pope Paul’s words should serve as an encouragement to every one of us, whatever our state of life, to try and meet the Lord in the praying of Scripture: to “set ourselves to know the Lord,” as Hosea puts it.
Going to meet the Lord in sacred Scripture is a time-honoured way of doing just that: setting ourselves close to the Living God. Each in his or her own way.
I have a friend who told me he was feeling moved by the Spirit to pray the Scriptures more. And it occurred to him that, since it was the Year of St Paul, he might begin by reading all of Paul’s writings. He did so with a pencil in his hand, marking the sentences or phrases which touched him most deeply. Then he prayed each passage. It took him a year.
Next he felt the Spirit calling him to do the same with the Psalms. He found such richness there that it took him well over a year to pray the passages he’d picked out.
But the way he describes the experience is striking: he says that it felt as if he really inhabited those passages of Scripture. He felt he was inhabiting God’s Word.
His description calls to mind one of the more mysterious sayings of Jesus, as recorded by John, where Jesus says something precisely to do with this, habiting, inhabiting, when he says, “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.”
“Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.” I think we all of us readily grasp the second part of that statement, “as I make mine in you”: as Christians, we ask Jesus almost instinctively to dwell in us.
But for us to make our home in him? Now, that is more mysterious.
As I reflect on it, I’m convinced that part of it is about inhabiting the Word we meet in Scripture; making ourselves at home there. Taking to prayer certain phrases, imagining particular passages, of Scripture is a well-trodden path towards this goal.
And we shouldn’t be surprised if we find it a hard grind. Almost everyone does.
Revisiting the same Scripture passage can seem so hard. Especially if you’re following an Ignatian meditation and you’ve sweated it out to the end, only to find the book then says, “Repeat”.
I was touched when a priest who’d struggled like this for decades but is now in his late 60s told me, when we were talking about prayer: “I used to ask myself, when the book said ‘Repeat’, ‘How much blood can you be expected to squeeze out of a stone?’ But now I love repeats.”
He finds he’s excited at the prospect of doing the repeats; returning to these time-worn texts: the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the road to Emmaus, and so many others, and savouring them.
We’re charged, as Readers, to “be faithful in handing on the Word of God so that it may grow strong in the hearts of his people.”
We’re charged to enthuse them with this Word which is Life.
It’s by inhabiting God’s Word ourselves that we discover joy in opening up the Scriptures; it’s by inhabiting the Word that it takes root in our hearts.
And we find the words of Paul begin to echo within us, those words we hear on Maundy Thursday night: “This is what I received and in turn pass on to you.”
Those words of the Lord which we hear spoken on the lips of Isaiah begin to be realised in us: “the Word that goes from my mouth does not return to me empty without succeeding in what it was sent to do.”
Bernanos, in his Diary of a Country Priest, says that, at the end of life, God will tell us, “Give me back my Word”.
“Give me back my Word”.
Praying the Scriptures is a way of anticipating just that; giving back to God here and now in this life the Word which we shall contemplate, please God, all together for all eternity.