The Fathers and Mothers of the Desert spent much of their time in prayer. The believed that prayer was as much a form of action as, for example, more visible works of charity. They did not need to be in the midst of those in need to offer fervent prayers for them. In their prayers they lifted up those in need – whether known to them or unknown – to the Throne of God.
In the desert of the city we all too often assume that prayer is not action, that our private prayers achieve nothing. Yet a person sitting quietly at home in the city, lifting up those in need before the Throne of God, surely labours against darkness and for the Light.
An elderly and inform priest, unable (as he saw it) to carry out an active ministry, lived in a flat on top of a busy shop. He told me, with a clear sense of inadequacy, that all he could do was to pray, and to pray especially for those who worked in the building. The image of the priest living “above the shop” and praying daily for those working below is one that will remain with me for a long time. Not the priest putting on robes and processing down into the shop (with incense and holy water!) to bless the workers (who would, in all probability, be either horrified or hysterical with laughter), but quietly, and unknown and unseen, praying for those who needed prayer, but didn’t know they needed prayer and didn’t know anyone was praying for them.
There is a remarkable (and, to me, deeply moving) story written by the English Roman Catholic Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914). Originally an Anglican he converted to Roman Catholicism and became a priest, and subsequently wrote a number of what might be thought of as (don’t let this put you off!) spiritual stories. His story, “In The Convent Chapel” [published in a collection called Light Invisible] describes the experience of a busy parish priest who goes on holiday, and stays in an ancient convent. He is rather dismissive of the old nuns who spend their days in prayer, unseen by and unknown to the external world, until, one night, he visits the chapel to pray, and observes a very old nun kneeling before the altar. As he watches her he is given a vision of what is really happening. In Benson’s story the old priest offers an account of his experience to a young friend (obviously Benson himself). I am adding part of the story as Benson wrote it, although the language may be a little old-fashioned now:
“And so,” said the priest, turning to me again, “I went on—poor ignorant fool!— thinking that the woman who knelt in front of me was less useful than myself, and that my words and actions and sermons and life did more to advance God’s kingdom than her prayers! And then—then—at the moment when I reached that climax of folly and pride, God was good to me and gave me a little light.
“Now, I do not know how to put it—I have never put it into words before except to myself—but I became aware, in my intellect alone, of one or two clear facts. In order to tell you what those facts were I must use picture language; but remember they are only translations or paraphrases of what I perceived.
“First I became aware suddenly that there ran a vital connection from the Tabernacle [in which the Sacrament was reserved] to the woman. You may think of it as one of those bands you see in machinery connecting two wheels, so that when either wheel moves the other moves too. Or you may think of it as an electric wire, joining the instrument the telegraph operator uses with the pointer at the other end. At any rate, there was this vital band or wire of life. Now in the Tabernacle I became aware that there was a mighty stirring and movement. Something within it beat like a vast Heart, and the vibrations of each pulse seemed to quiver through all the ground. Or you may picture it as the movement of a clear deep pool when the basin that contains it is jarred—it seemed like the movement of circular ripples crossing and recrossing in swift thrills. Or you may think of it as that faint movement of light and shade that may be seen in the heart of a white-hot furnace. Or again you may picture it as sound—as the sound of a high ship-mast with the rigging, in a steady wind; or the sound of deep woods in a July noon.”
The priest’s face was working, and his hands moved nervously.
“How hopeless it is,” he said, “to express all this! Remember that all these pictures are not in the least what I perceived. They are only grotesque paraphrases of a spiritual fact that was shown me.
“Now I was aware that there was something of the same activity in the heart of the woman, but I did not know which was the controlling power. I did not know whether the initiative sprang from the Tabernacle and communicated itself to the nun’s will; or whether she, by bending herself upon the Tabernacle, set in motion a huge dormant power. It appeared to me possible that the solution lay in the fact that two wills co-operated, each reacting upon the other. This, in a kind of way, appears to me now true as regards the whole mystery of free-will and prayer and grace. “At any rate, the union of these two represented itself to me, as I have said, as forming a kind of engine that radiated an immense light or sound or movement. And then I perceived something else too.
“I once fell asleep in one of those fast trains from the north, and did not awake until we had reached the terminus. The last thing I had seen before falling asleep had been the quiet darkening woods and fields through which we were sliding, and it was a shock to awake in the bright humming terminus and to drive through the crowded streets, under the electric glare from the lamps and windows. Now I felt something of that sort now. A moment ago I had fancied myself apart from movement and activity in this quiet convent; but I seemed somehow to have stepped into a centre of busy, rushing life. I can scarcely put the sensation more clearly than that. I was aware that the atmosphere was charged with energy; great powers seemed to be astir, and I to be close to the whirling centre of it all.
“Or think of it like this: Have you ever had to wait in a City office? If you have done that you will know how intense quiet can co-exist with intense activity. There are quiet figures here and there round the room. Or it may be there is only one such figure—a great financier—and he sitting there almost motionless. Yet you know that every movement tingles, as it were, out from that still room all over the world. You can picture to yourself how people leap to obey or to resist—how lives rise and fall, and fortunes are made and lost, at the gentle movements of this lonely quiet man in his office. Well, so it was here. I perceived that this black figure knelt at the centre of reality and force, and with the movements of her will and lips controlled spiritual destinies for eternity. There ran out from this peaceful chapel lines of spiritual power that lost themselves in the distance, bewildering in their profusion and terrible in the intensity of their hidden fire. Souls leaped up and renewed the conflict as this tense will strove for them. Souls even at that moment leaving the body struggled from death into spiritual life, and fell panting and saved at the feet of the Redeemer on the other side of death. Others, acquiescent and swooning in sin, woke and snarled at the merciful stab of this poor nun’s prayers.”
The priest was trembling now with excitement.
“Yes,” he said; “yes, and I in my stupid arrogance had thought that my life was more active in God’s world than hers. So a small provincial shopkeeper, bustling to and fro behind the counter, might think, if only he were mad enough, that his life was more active and alive, than the life of a director who sits at his table in the City. Yes, that is a vulgar simile; but the only one that I can think of which in the least expresses what I knew to be true. There lay my little foolish narrow life behind me, made up of spiritless prayers and efforts and feeble dealings with souls; and how complacent I had been with it all, how self- centred, how out of the real tide of spiritual movement! And meanwhile, for years probably, this nun had toiled behind these walls in the silence of grace, with the hum of the world coming faintly to her ears, and the cries of peoples and nations, and of persons whom the world accounts important, sounding like the voices of children at play in the muddy street outside; and, indeed, that is all that they are, compared to her—children making mud-pies or playing at shop outside the financier’s office.”