Prayer and Presence

I want to speak in this talk about two much more recent masters of the spiritual life - very much individuals and people who have had enormous influence, namely Charles de Foucauld and Thomas Merton. Charles de Foucauld lived from 1858 until 1916, and Merton from 1915 to 1968. so they cover the period from the mid nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century. They were very different from each other of course and obviously very different from the medieval mystics I have spoken about .They lived in specifically Christian and a specifically Catholic culture. Charles de Foucauld lived by his own choice among Muslims in the desert of North Africa. He hoped to begin a community there but none ever joined him. He never made any converts and was actually killed in his own home. Ostensibly misguided and a failure? But no. Thomas Merton was of course a trappist monk and one of the most popular spiritual writers of the twentieth century. He too had contacts with other religions, especially Buddhism and died tragically in Thailand while attending an inter-religious monastic conference. But he was also a man of his times living through a century in which the world was torn apart by two world wars and religion was not taken for granted. The West was becoming ever more secular. He is seen by some as a flawed person but then aren’t we all? Like de Foucauld his subsequent influence has been enormous and positive.I think they both have things to teach us about the inner life, the life of the soul in an environment of religious otherness, religious indifference, hostility and secularism. They have things to say especially about being present to others as Christians in the world in which we live.

Certainly their ideas spoke to my own exprience and in particular to my all-too-short experience of being a parish priest. I don't want to compare myself with Charles de Foucauld but after eight years working in the Vatican, I found myself living among Muslims in Sparkhill a mostly Asian part of Birmingham and for five years my neighbours were almost all Muslims from Pakistan and so were many of the children in the school. Together with several local Anglican clergy I went once a month to Sparkbrook Islamic Centre for discussions with the Imams, followed by Coca Cola and samosas. The Muslim neighbourhood was my context and it posed question to me.

Now what I came to understand more deeply from Brother Charles and from reading about him - and this is the heart of the matter - is that wherever you are the important thing is what goes on in your inner life. If the soul is alive to the presence and the reality of God then that will inevitably bear fruit whatever context you are in. And you shouldn’t try to preempt or try to be in control of what your role and profile in any situation is to be. Its not about you and your preferred projects, its about what God may do in you and through you in the very particular and specific context in which you live.

There is a great quotation from Charles which expresses this better than I can. Its his letter to a Trappist who is about to be ordained, but the wisdom isn't just for Trappists.

“Your business is to live alone with God and to be, until your ordination, as though you and God were alone in the universe. One must cross the desert and dwell in it to receive the grace of God. It is here one drives out everything that is not God. Your soul needs to enter into this silence, this recollection, this forgetfulness of all created things by which God establishes his rule in it and forms within it the life of the soul with God in faith hope and charity” - and the important bit - “ Later the soul will bring forth fruit exactly in the measure in which the inner life is developed within it. If there is no inner life, then however great the zeal, the high intention, the hard work, no fruit will come forth…one can only give what one has

So God provides. He is the source.I found myself thinking about evangelisation programmes like Alpha, Cafe, Divine Renovation which are all very positive but you have to be careful that you are not trying to preempt or short-circuit the process and the dynamic that Charles is talking about. Use of those programmes can never prescind from the fact that your efforts will only be good or useful to the extent that they issue from the way in which your soul is being formed, guided and empowered by the unique and ongoing action of the Holy Spirit in you and in your unique circumstances. That is the source of wisdom and energy.

And you must be open to the whole of the human and cultural reality in which you live. One of Brother Charles’s key ideas was that of universal brotherhood. We have a relationship with everyone which issues from our inner life. That will determine how we relate to those we find ourselves among whoever they are. With Charles it was the Tuareg people in the remote desert of North Africa. For us, as well as the Catholic community it will include other Christians, it may include other religions and crucially it will involve engagement with a highly secular social reality whose assumptions and language have moved far away from the Church and there is little understanding and little natural curiosity about the Church and maybe suspicion and antipathy. That is the social reality in which the Spirit guides, empowers and enables us.

But everyone matters and everyone matters to us. That brings me to Thomas Merton who I think more than anyone articulated the wisdom of the Christian mystical tradition in the language and culture of the twentieth century.There was the famous occasion on which he had to leave the monastery to go into town and found himself among a huge number of people-all sorts of people - and felt a connectedness with all of them. He writes that it was “as if I suddenly saw the beauty of their hearts which neither sin nor self knowledge can reach. - the core of their reality, the person that each one is”

He calls that core, the "point vierge” - the virgin point - the centre of their persons where they are being created by God.. Really what I think he is saying is that if we believe that all humanity is made in the image and likeness of God and if we believe that God saw what he had made and saw that it was good, then we - from the vantage point of our faith - must see that good. That must be the starting point for our outreach to them - that rather than an instinctive desire to adapt them to ourselves. Its not about us. Merton says that on that day he saw the secret beauty in peoples’ hearts.

De Foucauld was very close to the French spiritual writer and Islamic scholar Louis Massignon who developed the idea of “sacred hospitality” as the characteristic outreach of the Christian soul - “ to accept everyone and to serve him without wishing to change him or wishing him to be different.” I suppose the point is that change, growth and conversion must the the fruit of God’s action within them and it can never be something we can impose or engineer. Its not about me or making them part of my system.

This way of thinking reminded me of a famous article by another important spiritual writer, Fr Hugh Lavery who was a great retreat giver. The article is called The Priest as Presence. In that article he notes that when the Lord ascended into heaven what the disciples missed was his presence. We should never underestimate the importance of just being present to people and for people (special word to deacons even though Lavery is writing about priests).He says ”the pastoral priest animates by his presence. What he does is secondary.” Avery's writings are full of bon mots. He says that Christian vocabulary cannot accommodate the word “success’. Priests are always sowing, never reaping.

You must never doubt the value of your presence - and remember that preaching is crucially all about being present to and for your people.

I also find a connection here with a word frequently used by Pope Francis. Referring to pastoral situations he often speaks about “accompaniment” I think that in the Latin languages “accompagnare” and “acompagnar” have a rather deeper and stronger resonance than the English word “accompaniment”. It seems to mean being there for people rather than doing things for people. This is God’s way - Emmanuel - God with us. And remember again this is also about engaging the human experience of isolation through presence, hospitality fraternity and “being with.”
Let me turn now to what I might call the broader theological underpinnings and implications of this vision and to de Lubac and I am thinking particularly of our relationship with people outside the Church. We need a creative perception of people outside the Church and we find that in Lumen Gentium which was very much shaped by de Lubac’s work.

He showed in his writings that a very open attitude to other religions is actually part of the Christian tradition. He believed that the Church already existed and already exists in an inchoate or embryonic way in the natural order. He said that human life on our planet was created to be Church. Humanity is created for eucharist and ultimately for glory. That is the object of the exercise. De Lubac was of course steeped in the Fathers of the Church and was always quoting them. On this topic he quotes Origen:

“Do not believe that the Bride - that is the Church - has only existed since the Saviour’s coming in the flesh; she exists since the beginning of the human race, and even since the creation of the world”

and St Irenaeus spells out what that means here and now:

“ where the Church is , there is the Spirit of God” - and crucially- “where the Spirit is there is the Church and all grace”

So what about non believers and people of other religions ? De Lubac again:

“As unbelievers are in the design of providence indispensable for the building of the body of Christ, they must in their own way profit from their vital connection with the same Body. By an extension of the dogma of the Communion of saints, it seems right to think that though they themselves are not in the normal way of salvation, they will be able nevertheless to obtain this salvation by virtue of those mysterious bonds which unite them to the faithful” - then the key sentence - ”In short they can be saved because they are an integral part of the humanity that is to be saved”

That, it seems to me is the background and underpinning of what Vatican II says about other religions and also to some of the remarkable things St John Paul II said.

Lumen Gentium famously said that all humanity is ordered to the one people of God. It seems obvious to me that If you believe in a loving Creator God you have to have a language or framework that can embrace the fact that so many of the human race are not or were not and could never have been in the Church.. Hence the Council’s statement that the Church is a sacrament or instrumental sign of intimate union with God and of unity for the whole human race. The Church is a sign of what God is doing in the world and so is a sign of what all humanity is called to be.(eucharist)

In Pope John Paul’s address to the Roman Curia in December 1986, he reflected on the Assisi Day of Prayer for Peace which had taken place earlier in the year. I was working in the Vatican at that time and both the event itself and the Pope’s reflections on it caused quite a stir. Speaking of the Assisi Day the Pope said:

“ Indeed on that day and in the prayer that was its motivation and its entire content there seemed for a moment to be a visible expression of the hidden but radical unity which the Divine Word in whom everything was created and in whom everything exists (Col 1,16 Jn 1,3) has established among the men and women of this world. This includes both those who share together the anxieties and joys of this portion of the twentieth century and those who have gone before us in history and also those who will take our places ‘until the Lord comes’(cf 1 Cor, 11, 26)

and he went further in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio:

Speaking of those outside the Church he said:

“ for such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of the grace which while having a mysterious relationship to the Church does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation” (RM 10)

So what I think all this amounts to is an open, receptive and creative relationship with those who are not Catholics, not Christians, and indeed not religious. The Christian soul experiences its connectedness with all humanity and will be led by the Spirit toward appropriate fraternity and hospitality. That i think is the context of ministry and evangelisation today.
Presence, hospitality,fraternity, “being with: are all vital in our parishes and in our world.This is God’s work. This is how God works and it works in and through us - through our prayer, our silence and all that goes on within us including all our conflicts and contradictions. They are a vital part of the mix. They are the field in which the Lord sows seeds that will bear fruit in the lives of others.The life of Charles de Foucauld seems to me to take this to the most radial level. Few of us are called to that. But for all of us his idea of “being with’ relates closely to the idea of presence - just living where we are called to live and being with the people we have been planted among and being with them in a spirit of interest, wonder and hospitality.