Skip to content

True Prayer – Ken Leech

April 28, 2015

TPAnother book that I can mentally say ‘hooray’ to as I read each page, though the early chapters did go on a lot and I’d heard it all before, though maybe many of his readers hadn’t and so needed the biblical, especially the Old Testament themes spelling out. His diagnosis of contemporary theology as too academic and sterile and of contemporary religion in Britain being apathetic rather than dead: or atheistic is something I’d agree with; this makes the task of the church all that more difficult because the lines of conflict and of reconciliation are constantly shifting. It is hard to wage battle when you don’t know who your enemies are and when your allies knife you in the back. The first chapter is an excellent, brief and perceptive description of the state of religion and of theology in the Western world and sets the scene for the hopeful signs he mentions in the closing chapter: liberation theology, the women’s movement and the peace movement.

The chapter on the ‘God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ is a useful summary of Old Testament ideas and a corrective to those who would either spiritualize away the radical meaning of the gospel or who would politicise it and take a marxist stand. It is both holiness and politics, not either or.

Most of his stuff on the New Testament is familiar to me but I found his exegesis of the parables of the mustard seed and of leaven disturbing because I have justified the ‘softly softly’ gradualist approach myself. There is a danger that the prophet becomes the pastor in a false sense, by smothering over the emphasis on sin and taking away pain that should be felt, though I wonder whether the Church of England would be able to prick the conscience of the nation now had it been radical for a longer period of time.

I like Leech’s stress on the via negativa and of the impossibility of ‘catching God’ in intellectual definitions. This should not rule out the intellectual quest of theology but should remind theologians that their prayer life is something that needs to go on beside their reading. Western university theology has rightly protested against the closed-shop approach to theology adopted by the churches and has gone down the same road as secular disciplines – I have upheld this approach and still do, to an extent, about the status of R.E. in secular schools. What is really needed is for ALL academic subjects to transcend the informative and to challenge, sustain and change the person who studied it. Book-learning is important but it should not remain in the head. This is why we have so much to learn from the women’s movement and from the East. Brain and emotions, male and female, dominant and submissive, transcendent and immanent – both are needed for individuation.

It is good to see a positive appraisal of the charismatic movement which sees its potential in liberating us from over-intellectualising without removing the need for a sound basis in study or which goes in for different classes of Christians being perceived.

It is also good to see a positive approach to sexuality which is neither flesh-denying nor so positively ‘modern’ that it cashes in on the values of the permissive society, which was anything but liberated because of its obsession with genitality rather than with our bodies and ourselves as whole entities.

As always, I like his treatment of the eucharist as paradigm for the transformation of all matter. I enjoyed his treatment, albeit briefly, of the Good Friday liturgy in existential terms. I have never been able to celebrate a protestant Good Friday, bereft of the passion, veneration of the cross and communion because the rite, with the other Triduum ceremonies, is so much a paradigm of spiritual and political struggle. Churches which omit these liturgies must be greatly impoverished, though many churches which celebrate them have lost their significance under a welter of high church fussiness. The link between the crucifixion, the Good Friday liturgy and the wounded healer nature of ministry is one which I have perceived before in my own meditation and it is good to have it spelt out here.

I’ve read all the stuff on God as mother before in various books and leaflets and it is good to have much of it collected here in one volume.

All in all, a good read which reminded me of many of the positions upon which I’ve taken a stand, sometimes having forgotten the various arguments in favour of them which led me to espouse them. One anglo-catholic priest I know was frustrated reading this book because he said there wasn’t any theology in it as far as he had got in the book. I share his frustration with the earlier chapters taking a long time to spell out things which many of us take for granted, but the book has plenty of punchy theology in it after one third of the way through and this material relies heavily on the antecedent chapters.

(On an earlier reading, I wrote: As I am suspicious of ‘spirituality’, thinking that it can be an escape from the problems of the real world which ought to be concerning Christians, a book by Ken Leech, who is manifestly not an escapist, is important reading material. I am pleased that he says that prayer must be a quest in self-knowledge and that it must issue in social concern, though I still don’t see why the best prayers are the best theologians, because, being brought up in the Western tradition, I see theology as an objective exercise which may be studied by atheists and Christians alike; many would say that I am really talking about Religious Studies, not theology, but I’m’ not sure about that because a study of theology is bound to raise important question: about the way people intepret meaning and purpose in life and an atheist can be just as much involved in a quest for meaning as can a theist. His stress on the importance of a balanced life, which a rule might help to achieve provided that the rule doesn’t become an end in itself, is very helpful. Setting aside at least an hour of prayer, however, is somewhat of a luxury that very few people will be able to afford time for. I know that people who take sport seriously would think nothing of an hour’s exercise a day, similarly a pianist with an hour’s daily practice, but I wonder how many Christians could give an hour a day to prayer, given that all Christian activity is prayer. Are all called to be mystics?

I like his stress on the importance of the use of the body in prayer, especially of speaking in tongues; there must have been millions of Christians who have used the gift of tongues long before the present charismatic movement became famous. It is good to see an acknowledgement of glossalalia in a ‘mainstream’ writer.

The chapter on ‘prayer and politics’ which stresses the historical nature of the Christian faith is a chapter I would wish several people I know would read, giving as it does, quotations from ‘sound’ spiritual writers who these people quote avidly and yet selectively, thinking that politics and religion don’t mix.

The chapter on the eucharist is one of the best I’ve read for a long time, carrying as it does, many of the ideas of Conrad Noel and other Christian socialists, who saw the mass as a symbolic model of the taking up off all matter into God. The ceremonial with which they vested the mass was of great importance and yet, sadly, is not the preserve of middle-class ghetto churches who cry ‘The Temple of the Lord’ and do seemingly nothing to advance the kingdom of God beyond private piety. The more I read catholics like Leech, the more ‘sick’ I feel the church I used to attend to be, yet I don’t know what to do about it as it is merely sharing in the spirit of the age and in the general sickness of Western European Christianity, be it catholic, protestant of liberal. Leech’s section on Benediction is one of the best rationales I’ve read for a service which I love but which, theologically, I find it impossible to justify. I would like to scale this section down, modify it and use it as a sermon.

His section for self-examination, based on the beatitudes, is extremely perceptive, and it makes me feel much more of a sinner than the traditional ‘Have I…. How many times?’ and there is much scope for self-knowledge here.

I still do not really understand the ‘dark night of the soul’ stuff and am tempted to wonder whether, at root, it is about a faith which is gone off because there isn’t really a god after all and people are justifying existential despair in terms which enable them to hang on the a faith which they have really lost. The writings of the mystics on this subject seem a far cry from the assurance of the early Christians and I cannot see that such a belief could ‘win’ many souls. Perhaps some are called to ‘identify with Christ in his dereliction’ but it doesn’t seem to convey the sort of wholeness, rather a world-denying depressive state, which Christianity is supposed to be about.

The last chapter seems to ramble, but its insights into the daily office, the sacrament of anointing and the figure of Mary are good as foils to the piety beloved of many catholics.

I enjoyed this book and hope to use it again in thinking out teaching and preaching as it has stimulated several thoughts which could each be projects in themselves.)


“Christian prayer is living prayer, prayer which is a sharing in the risen life of Christ. But that experience of being risen in Christ comes only through the experience of dying: light comes through the sharing of the darkness. That is the meaning of dying daily: every day we do ‘die a little’ and so prepare for the final conflict. True prayer should help us face, and not evade, that conflict, by enabling us to live as we shall eventually die.” It speaks to something deep in me, but it looks so different than what has been modelled for me that I can hardly conceive of it as intercession.

‘Habitual prayer does not mean word-centred prayer, but the integration of prayer with life. “This is how you pray continually – not by offering prayer in words, but by joining yourself to God through your whole way of life, so that your life becomes one continuous and uninterrupted prayer”.

“Idolatry is, in its essence, a narrowing of vision, a distorted perception. In William Blake’s words, “The Visions of eternity, by reason of narrowed perception are become weak visions of Time and Space, fix’d into furrows of death.”
This narrowing of perception brings us to a condition where vision ends and the sun goes down on prophecy. We become imprisoned in what St. Paul calls the “carnal mind.” For the essential feature of an idol is that it can be seen, unlike the true God, whom no one has seen at any time.”

Concentrated as it was in this fervent cult of Jesus’ presence in the Host, his piety contained in germ a completely Eucharistic life. Meanwhile the beloved presence of Jesus was not only the starting point of his prayer life, it was in this attitude that he always prayed. (Seeds of the Desert, 1972 edn, p. 35)

So the presence of Jesus in the sacrament, and the love which he excites in us there, overflows into a presence in the world through his body and through his people, and into a love which reaches out to all. From the experience of Charles de Foucauld in his prayer before the sacrament grew a whole movement of Christian people, the Little Brothers and Little Sisters and those linked with them, which has placed adoration of Jesus in the sacrament at the centre of its life. Pere Voillaume stresses the place of exposition of the sacrament, silent adoration at night, and the creation of Adoration Fraternities. It is Jesus’ own adoration of God which must flow into us through the Eucharist. For all prayer is not only to God but originates with God and in God. To pray before the sacrament is therefore to open oneself up to the possibility of renewal, to open oneself up to the prayerfulness of God. ‘Adoration’, says Voillaume, ‘is admiration of the supreme mystery of the Divinity, hidden in eternity’ (ibid., p. 66). We adore in order to love, to absorb into our own beings the being of God.

The second practice associated with the reserved sacrament is called Benediction. This is a simple and deeply moving rite in which the sacrament reserved is exposed on the altar in a vessel called a monstrance, a round container for the host with a design like the rays of the sun. Hymns are sung to the sacrament exposed, there is time for silent worship, and the climax of the rite is the lifting up of the Eucharistic Christ in silent blessing of the people. It is surprising how much controversy has raged in the Church of ) England over this simple act of blessing. Of course, if one does not believe that Christ is present in the consecrated bread, such an act is blasphemous and idolatrous. But we do believe that Christ is both present and present to bless. To stress our dependence upon God and upon his blessing and empowering of us is very important, and can help to correct the tendency to become centred on our­selves. In our worship and life, when all has been said—and rightly said—about our co-operation with God and each other, about solidarity, fellowship, sharing and so on, there remains a vital element of passivity, of waiting upon God, of simple abiding.

Nothing in my hands I bring, Simply to thy Cross I cling. Naked come to thee for dress, Helpless, come to thee for grace. Foul, I to the Fountain fly. Wash me, Saviour, or I die.

It is this state of abandonment to God, waiting for his blessing, which is stressed in Benediction. This is perhaps why Benediction often appeals to the poor, the simple, those on the fringes of the church to whom God in the sacrament reaches out long before they consciously come to receive him, and who can receive his blessing before they are sure of who it is they are adoring. One writer has compared the monstrance at Benediction to the Statue of Liberty which dominates New York harbour with its great torch. At the base of the statue are the words ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free’. Similarly in Benediction God calls us from our poverty and our tiredness to experience, if only for a few moments, the silence of eternity and the depths of his own being.

The eucharistic life should flow out from the central offering of the church into smaller eucharists and eucharist-based prayer cells and groups. For all prayer is eucharistic in that it flows out from this shared life which the Eucharist both expresses and creates

Many years ago Conrad Noel used them very effectively in his pamphlet Sins and Their Cure. Here Noel provided questions based on the Seven Deadly Sins. For example:

Have I been sluggish and indifferent to wrongs done to God and my neighbour, content that men, women and children should live stunted lives?

Have I been so busy putting the world to rights that I have neglected my wife or husband or child:

Do I believe that God wills beauty in nature and in man’s work? Have I tried to apply this standard to live?

Have I allowed thoughts about the evils of ther world t make me depressed or neurotic, instead of stirring action against these evils?

Have I through cowardice or false charity failed to make public another’s bad deeds when it has been necessary to do so in the public interest?

Have I taken pleasure in telling my neighbour of his bad deeds, or or talked about them when it has not been necessary to do so?

Have I been a popularity hunter?

Have I through pride sought unpopularity?

Have I thanked God for his gifts of food and drink by real enjoyment of them—using them in comradeship and apprecition to keep health and gaiety, not dulling by vigour buy excess either in eating or drinking?

If I gamble, in what spirit have I done so? As a Christian sport or in deadly earnest for the sake of gain? Have I gambled to the hurt of my family, or with anyone who cannot afford to lose?

Have I been prudish about God’s gift of sex, calling unclean what God has made clean?

One neglected aspect of the hidden life in the world is that of prayer during the night, or ‘keeping vigil’. The night is often a time of silence, one of the few times in many people’s lives when uninterrupted silence is possible. The night is not always the right time for prayer, and for some it is emphatically the wrong time: if one is exhausted with the work of the day, the night time should be used for sleep and relaxation. But there are many for whom the night hours are ideally suited to prayer, and this might include prayer in church where a group might undertake a time of night adoration, or intercession. The night is for many a time of despair, of violence, of temptation, of sin, of suicide, and of broken hearts. It is all the more urgent that there are Christian people who see prayer in the night as part of their pastoral responsibility. But for many, the time when lengthy and sustained solitude is possible is the time of retreat, and a rule of disciplined prayer I should find time and room for a retreat, if possible, at least annually.

To go into retreat is not to ‘opt out’ of one’s social responsibility, or to treat the life of the monastery or enclosed order as superior to that of the city streets. But at a time when many of us are, rightly, very active and busy, retreats are more, not less, necessary, so that we can balance our activity by contemplative insight and i clear perception. Retreats are a sharpening of our perception, a purifying of vision, a training programme for the spirit. In retreat we seek to be able to go on serving the world with renewed strength without being dominated or swallowed up by it. So rest and activity both have a place there: rest, because we are tired, and rest is good and necessary for us; activity, because a retreat is more than a rest, it is an exercise, a discipline. If we are to grow in prayer we need that intense concentrated time of discipline.

However, the purpose of prayer in the solitary place is to enable us to pray in the streets. St Symeon the New Theologian, in the tenth century, was one of the first of the eastern saints to emphasize strongly that the fullness of the mystical life was accessible to those living in the midst of cities. Today the urban contemplative is more and more evident. St Anthony is coming back from his desert, for the age of Constantine is ended. Again, as in the early years, the church is a minority movement, a movement in growing conflict with the pagan world, and it needs all the contemplatives it can get. The desert is now in the midst of the city. So many Christians are struggling to find ways of living lives of contemplative prayer in the urban context. The example of the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus, the family formed by Charles de Foucauld which reference was made earlier, has been followed by many

have sought this way of living the Gospel. The central task “th which these Christians are concerned is the discovery of an urban spirituality, a form of Christian life-style which is viable and enriching for those living and working in the ‘urban cores’.

The problems of urbanization which raise so many issues for pastoral action present the back-street church with questions about its ascesis, its inner spiritual discipline. In fact the French theo­logian Jacques Ellul has argued that because the city is a place of non-communication, we are not asked to preach but rather to pray (The Meaning of the City, Eerdmans, 1971, p. 124). Christians in Latin America have responded to the problem of size and lack of community in cities by creating `communidades de base’ or basic communities which read the Gospel together, celebrate their faith, and deepen their spirituality. In the churches of the United States and Britain too the challenge of urban crisis is increasingly being seen in the context of prayer and spiritual struggle. As a recent document from the Roman Catholic Church in the USA has ex­pressed it: It is here, at the core, that one discovers that history is created, if not by the spiritually mature, then by the spiritually deformed and degenerate. It is here, at the core, where prayerful hands become clenched and the presence of God is most discernible in rage. (Hear the Cry of Jerusalem, National Urban Pastoral Statement, 1978)

These writers argue strongly that the modern city is the new desert, = the place where human life is not sustained but only preyed upon. The city has been abandoned, and only the wretched and the weak are its inhabitants. In the city one sees a conspiracy against God’s poor, and ‘there are no angels to weep with its people’. The city, marked everywhere by the sense of powerlessness of most of its occupants, has become a culture enchanted with the demonic, a culture with the classic desert temptations to idolatry.

To return to the home page, click on the header at the top of this page.


From → Spirituality

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: