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Come Holy Spirit - Help Us To Pray
by Benedict Heron OSB

Part 2

Chapter Three:

Our daily prayer should surely normally include repentance, offering, listening, asking and praising, not necessarily in that order. I think it can often be good to start and end with praise. So the following chapters will be on these aspects of prayer.

We all need to repent, for we are all sinners. We all need to say frequently with the tax collector in the Gospel, "God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13). In this life we shall never be so holy that we no longer need to repent. At the beginning of the Mass there is a prayer of repentance for everyone. Indeed, if anyone thinks they do not need to repent, they have a special need to repent of spiritual pride.

The special saints usually have a greater spirit of repentance than the rest of us. Being nearer to Jesus than we are, they can see more clearly than we the spiritual things in their lives which are not like the life of Jesus, the failings which are not in line with the teachings of Jesus. So we are all called not only to go on repenting, but also to go on growing in the grace and virtue of repentance.

As the years go by, I find new areas in my life where repentance is needed. I do not think I am more sinful than I used to be - thanks to the grace of God and the prayers of other people. But I am more aware of certain areas of my life where I need to repent, I am also sure that there are still further areas awaiting repentance
when I am ready. I think that sin goes so deep in each of us, that it is normally only little by little that we are able to face up to the necessity of repentance. For example, in my own life it is only in recent times that I am becoming more aware of my exaggerated seif-centredness, which cannot just be psychologically explained away - sin is involved. There is pride and selfishness there. Jesus said: "
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). So we need not worry that we shall run out of things for which we need to repent!

Some sins are fairly obvious, although it is surprising how successful we can be in explaining them away, in justifying our sinfulness. Adultery can be seen as kindness to another person. Stealing can be seen as restoring justice. Cruelty can be seen as teaching someone a necessary lesson. Pride can be seen as a rightful self-respect. Racism can be seen as loyalty to one's country. Alcohol abuse can be seen as necessary relaxation. Jealousy and envy can be seen as promoting truth. Laziness can be seen as a due regard for one's health. Greed can be seen as a just reward. Unforgiveness can be seen as not being soft. Lack of trust can be seen as prudent realism. The list could go on. Our minds can be wonderfully fertile when it comes to not recognising our sinfulness!

Let us, for example, look at our failures in not trusting God enough, which involves lack of faith and hope. In the picture of Jesus connected with the devotion to the Divine Mercy there are the words, "Jesus I trust in You". When I pray before that picture I am often painfully aware in how many areas I am not trusting Jesus: for example, questions of health, shortage of time and energy, relationships, my priestly ministry, intercessory prayer, the future. In the uncertainties of today's world, when there is often very little job security, when so many marriages are breaking up, when violence is on the increase, when children are getting involved with drugs, when so many people are living under pressure, there is often a great need to trust God. And if that is true for people living in England, what about those living in say many parts of Africa, where there is much less security at the human level?

So what do we do about our failure to trust God? I frequently need to repent of my lack of faith and hope, my failure to trust Jesus, and then I ask God for greater gifts of faith and hope. Then I try to step out in faith, however I am feeling.

Another area where many people need to repent is that of lack of love, charity - indeed, we surely all need to repent of our failing in love, and not infrequently, I quite often have to battle with feelings of wrong anger, indeed sometimes with thoughts of violence. The devil, playing on our weak spots, can put such thoughts in our minds. Repentance is part of the way of fighting such thoughts.

Lack of love can take so many forms, from the violence we read about in the newspapers to unloving thoughts and sins of omission. In one sense every sin is an expression of lack of love. If we loved God and our neighbour more there would be less injustices, jealousy, envy, greed, lust, laziness and all the other sins.

Our lack of love can be focused on this or that individual person or on a group. Some people tend to be angry and unloving towards members of the opposite sex. Some people focus their hatred on members of other races. One has only to think of the utterly appalling hatred which Christians have so often had for the Jews down the centuries! How right Pope John Paul II is to publicly repent of our sins in this area.
Unforgiveness is a very common expression of lack of love. Jesus taught us to pray: "
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us". As a priest I find that many of the people who come to me for help are struggling with a problem of forgiveness - indeed at times I am having to struggle myself! And some of the people who come to me are not struggling with this problem but ought to be. They have not yet faced up to the demands of the Christian gospel on this point.

When people have been very badly hurt by others in life, it is very understandable that they cannot easily forgive. Indeed, without a special grace from God they will not succeed in doing so. Think, for example, of the faithful wife whose husband has left her penniless with four young children to join up with another younger woman; or there is the person who has in old age been cheated of all their life's savings; or the person who has been deliberately blinded by muggers in order to take their handbag or wallet; or the priest who has been falsely accused of sexual misbehaviour. In all these cases someone's life can feel as if it has totally collapsed at the human level. The last thing they feel like is forgiving!

Yet even in circumstances like these we have to seek to follow the command of Jesus to forgive, and this means repenting of all unforgiveness and asking God for the grace to forgive. People will reply sometimes that they have tried to forgive but the unforgiving feelings simply keep coming up and overwhelming them. Yes, we cannot always control our feelings. But forgiveness is primarily a question of the will, not the feelings. So we can by the grace of God make an act of the will, forgiving and asking Jesus also to forgive the person who has wronged us, and praying for the offender: "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:43). (It may help us to forgive in difficult circumstances if we remember that we are the first victims of our own unforgiveness).

Finally, in the matter of repenting of our lack of love, sometimes sins of omissions are the area where repentance is most needed. The support and help we have not given, the financial aid we have withheld when we could easily have given, the prayers we have not said, our lack of concern for our neighbour. Without becoming scrupulous, it can sometimes be good to examine our conscience on these omissions. And this can include our failure to praise and thank God which shows a lack of love.

Following Ezekiel (Chapter 36), we can repent of our "heart of stone" and ask God to find us "a new heart", "a heart of flesh".

Pride is another area where there is often much need for repentance. Once again, we all need to repent of our pride at times. Our pride can take so many forms, we can be proud in so many areas of our lives, and the devil is clever at hiding our pride from us. I find it difficult to know what to say when someone who has come to me for spiritual help solemnly assures me that they are a humble person and never have any trouble with pride. I feel like saying: "That is wonderful. I will write to the Vatican and arrange for your immediate canonisation". What I actually say is: "Perhaps there is some area of your life where you are not perfectly humble, and where therefore perhaps there is sometimes at least a little pride". Not many people are willing to say that they are always perfectly humble in every way! That can be the way in.

Yes, we can be proud of so many things. Our good looks - that has never been for me a particular source of temptation! (St Francis de Sales, so I am told, once replied to a woman who confessed that she spent too much time admiring her beauty in a mirror, that in her case that was primarily a matter of mistaken judgement). We can be proud of our family, our ancestry, our class, our relationships (I tend to name drop). I knew a woman now dead who was completely cut off by her family because she married beneath her, she married a man who was a mere medical doctor.

We can be proud of our possessions, money, career and income. Why drive around in a car costing £150,000 when a car costing so much less would be more than adequate? Surely the reason is largely so that other people may know you can afford such a car. It is not only the very wealthy who can have problems of that kind. There can be a one-upmanship in possessions right down to the very poor.

Then there are the many forms of intellectual and cultural pride. In some circles you can be made to feel rather out of it if you do not know about the philosophy of Sartre, or the music of Beethoven, or the paintings of Cezanne, or the poetry of T.S. Eliot, or the novels of Tolkien. People without university degrees can also be regarded as somewhat second class in academic circles.

There can be pride connected with sport and athletics. Some people spend much time and energy in keeping their muscles bulging, their golf handicap down, and in seeking to play for their county or town, in rugby or soccer, or snooker. How proud I was when I was first selected to play for my school's first fifteen in rugby!

Then there is masculine pride. If one looks at the long history of humanity, the normal thing has usually been for women to be largely regarded as second class human beings, to be dominated and pushed around by men. Thank God that has largely changed in some places, but many men still need to repent of the pride present in their attitudes towards women. Not a few men still find it difficult to work under the authority of a woman, however much the woman is the right person to be in the position of authority. However, the right solution is not to go to the opposite extreme of feminine superiority, which is sometimes happening today in certain circles.

Finally, there is spiritual pride and clerical pride. We can look down on people who have not read St Teresa, or who do not know what the divine office is, or who have never heard of Fatima, or who do not pray with the gift of tongues, or who have no Bible, or do not know where to find the letter of St James in the New Testament, or who do not know what a novena is, or who have never heard of Billy Graham or Mother Teresa. We can also look down on people who are single parents, or who have an alcoholic problem, or who have an addiction to gambling, or who have been in prison for theft, or who do not know what man is the father of their child, or
who have a homosexual orientation.

As to clerical pride, the clergy can easily feel they have got somewhere when they are ordained and can walk about in a clerical collar. It is not always good for the humility of the clergy when people treat them with exaggerated deference and tell them how very wonderful all their sermons are. Clerical pride causes much harm in some parishes where the clerical leader insists on taking nearly all important decisions on his own and fails to make use of the laity's gifts and experience. I personally have needed at times to repent of my clerical pride. There have been occasions when I have made some lay people feel that they were rather second class Christians.
So it should not be difficult to see that we at times need to repent of our pride. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you when and where you are being called to repent in this way, to give you the grace to do so at an ever deeper level. And ask the Holy Spirit to give you an ever greater gift of joyful authentic humility.

I write 'authentic' humility because we do not want false humility, Authentic humility is based on truth. So, - if God has given you an artistic or musical gift, do not deny it, but recognise it, use it and thank God for it. If God has used you to do something for His Kingdom, do not pretend that He has not. But thank Him and give Him the glory.

I do not think that in general people should seek humiliations in order to grow in humility. However, because pride goes so deep in each one of us, I do not think that most people will grow all that much in humility unless they experience humiliations.

Humiliations do not automatically lead to humility - they can turn people to drink or drugs or suicide. But humiliations are always a call and opportunity to grow in humility. So let us seek to use our humiliations in life positively. Things like physical handicaps, inability to pass exams, being unable to find a job or a spouse, being made redundant, the breaking up of a marriage, one's children taking to drugs, being falsely accused of a crime, becoming physically dependent on others through, for example, blindness, becoming incontinent or senile, can all be turned through the grace of God into greater humility. In all such situations pride will normally to some extent be present in our reactions and frustrations. Repentance for pride will be part of the true way forward of letting God bring good out of evil, of growing in holiness.

There is no space here for going into all the other areas of sinfulness which call for repentance. However, it is, I think, right to mention the importance of persevering in repentance. By this I do not mean going on repenting endlessly for sins that have been forgiven. That can often be spiritually unhealthy, it can show a lack of faith in God's forgiveness. What I mean is that we can easily become discouraged when we have gone on repenting for a particular sin and yet have continued to go on repeating that sin. It may, for example, be a sin of alcohol abuse or a sexual sin liSDSke indulging in pornography or visiting prostitutes. Having tried to give up the habit, perhaps even for a long time, and failed, people can easily come to the conclusion that they are a hopeless case and there is no point in repenting and trying any more. "Love hopes all things (I CorinthianS 13)." Without becoming obsessed by the problems they should never give up repenting and trying to overcome the difficulty. There are many people who have been gloriously liberated from a habitual sin after years of trying, and their lives have been wonderfully transformed.

Then there is the question of collective sin and repentance. I mentioned earlier the absolutely horrific way in which Christians so often treated Jews for many centuries. One could mention also England's treatment of Ireland in the past, and the slave trade in which vast numbers of Africans were shipped to America. There are many other examples in history. Even though we may not have personally sinned in such cases, yet we have a certain human solidarity with the past and present of our own people, and it is right that we should repent and tell God and other people that we are sorry for these sins, that we apologise to God and other people for them.

Obviously collective repentance for the past or present is something very different from repenting of our own personal sins. When we meet Jesus after this life, we shall have to answer for our own personal sins and not those of our ancestors or contemporaries. But we are right to feel sorry for these collective sins, past or present, and to tell God and others so, and to make amends when possible or appropriate.

Repentance can be regarded as something rather negative and grim. Let us, some Christians may think, concentrate uniquely on joyful praise and thanksgiving, On the positive side of things. But we cannot cut out repentance - not until we get to heaven.
There is no authentic, joyful praise unless we have been through repentance.

Sometimes in a prayer meeting we are trying to praise joyfully, but somehow it is not authentic. But if we turn to true repentance and then return to praise, the praise will really be joyful and take off. The same applies at the individual level. My praise and thanksgiving will be largely dead if what God is calling me to do at this moment is to repent.

Something similar can be said about the sacrament of reconciliation or confession. It is basically a truly joyful, cleansing, healing sacrament, not a negative concentration on guilt and sin. At times this sacrament can be used by Jesus to lift heavy burdens of guilt and sin off people's backs. At other times it can be rather like taking a bath when you are beginning to feel sticky - we emerge feeling cleaner and more joyful. I personally find that confession more or less monthly is for me a source of grace and makes me feel better, happier, and more peaceful. I am not saying that everyone should go to confession monthly, but I do think that many people who have more or less dropped this sacrament have spiritually lost something by doing so. I also think that confessing one's sins to another individual can have spiritual advantages at the level of humility and guidance - I note that many evangelicals who would not talk about confession as a sacrament nevertheless encourage this individual sharing.
So we should see the gift of repentance as a truly liberating, healing, cleansing, joyful grace, without which we will not grow as we should in true fruitfulness and holiness in our lives. We should ask God for a true and greater gift of repentance, ask the Holy Spirit to show us where we need to repent and to give us the grace to do so.

Then there is the need for collective repentance in our society and our world. There are so many things going on in our country and our world which are an abomination to God. War, violence, terrorism, torture, cruelty, oppression, slavery, persecution, murder, the killing of the innocent by abortion, the sexual abuse of children, sexual immorality in general, great luxury alongside destitution and starvation, economic injustice and exploitation, the rape of the environment, gross cruelty to animals, the list could go on. Surely we Christians should be repenting not only on our own behalf but also in a sense on behalf of humanity as a whole. Let us remember the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14:

"If my people who are called by my name humble themselves pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land." It is not only the Christians who will be healed, but also our 'land'.

We Christians have the task not only of repenting for our own sins, but also in a sense of repenting for the world around us and for the many people who have little or no understanding of what true repentance is about. Like Moses we can repent and plead for God's erring children.

Obviously, repenting for the sins of the world and apologising to God for them is something different from repenting for our own personal sins. At the end of this life I shall have to answer to God for my own sins but not those of other people. However, because of our human solidarity with others it is right that we tell God how sorry we are for their sins. For example, if Himmler, who played an important role in the murder of six million Jews, had been my father, surely I would be right to apologise to God for his sins, to be deeply sorry about them, and to tell God so. The same could be said about England's past treatment of Ireland.

When Jesus started preaching, he said, "Repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 11:5). He is still saying that to each of us today. Let us get on with it: we will find it is the way to true healing, fruitfulness, peace and joy.

Chapter Four: Offering

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:9). We probably say the Our Father fairly frequently, but how far do we really mean it, how far do I mean it? Because if I fully mean it I am asking that God's perfect will may be done in me always, and in everything connected with me. Not God's second best, tenth best, hundredth best, but his perfect will in every aspect of my life. Of course nothing happens in this world which God does not permit, but we are not talking here about God's permissive will - he permitted Hitler to kill six million Jews - but about God's perfect will. (God did not want Hitler to kill the Jews but He allowed it to happen).

So when I pray "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" I am saying to God, if I truly mean it: "My bank account is yours, my car, my house, my books, my jewellery. I am only your steward. Tell me what you want me to. do with my property and give me the grace to do it". The same applies to my time, my energy, my marriage, my family, my relationships, my sexuality, my job, my talents, my opportunities, my health, my present, and my future. I have to hand over everything to God, to Jesus, including my sinfulness, weakness, and brokenness, for I cannot cope with these on my own without the help and grace and mercy of Jesus.

At times there has been a tendency among some Catholics to think that the clergy, the religious and a few other devout people are called to seek perfection but not 'ordinary' Catholics, who are seeking salvation rather than sanctification and perfection. However, this two-tier view is not that of the New Testament. Jesus is saying to each one of us, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). Perhaps some members of the historic churches can at times learn something here from the new charismatic churches, who often seem to stress more than we do that Christianity is a call to give absolutely everything to God.

Having written the above I feel rather nervous lest some readers may go to extremes and do something God does not want them to do. For example, the fact that our bank account belongs to God does not normally mean that He wants us to give all our savings immediately to the Third World. I once heard of a lady who gave all her money to the poor and was a financial burden on her family and friends afterwards. It is very probable that some of my readers are giving more to charity than they should, and that God wants them to spend more money on healthy food, heating and an occasional holiday for themselves. It is also probable however that others of my readers are not giving away as much as God wants. The important thing is to try to give away as much as God wants, not the more the better. For some people in very difficult financial circumstances the right thing may be to give away nothing to charity, at least for the time being, although not a few people have found that as they gave, God provided.

Giving God one's time and energy will normally involve sacrifices at times, perhaps big ones. I have written earlier about the time given to prayer. What about work, hobbies, leisure, time given to family and friends? I met a man who had been pursuing a successful business career, who after prayer and reflection with his wife decided to give it up and go and work for a charity, where he remained until he retired. This involved having a considerably lower standard of living. I am sure God is calling some other Christians to make similar changes.

Then there is the university lecturer whom I know who used to enjoy playing chess for his university. Apparently, playing chess at that level involves spending quite a lot of time on chess. After prayer, he came to the conclusion that he was spending time on chess which he ought to give to his family and helping needy people, so he gave up playing chess for his university. Now, there is nothing wrong with playing chess, but the good can be the enemy of the better, and the better of the best so when we seek to spend our time and energy as God wifis, when we seek to follow His perfect will, it is not enough to ask whether what I am doing is useful, bearing fruit, and helping others. We also have to ask is this the fruit God wants me to bear, or has He something different and better in mind. For example, a medical doctor may be doing a very good job helping the sick in England, but perhaps God would prefer him to go to a part of Africa where there is a much greater need for doctors.

Then there is the question of celibacy and marriage. Marriage is a good thing, indeed it is a sacrament. God is surely calling most people to marriage. However, Jesus is, I am convinced, calling some people to follow Him in the way of celibacy
(Matthew 19:12) perhaps as a celibate priest or a religious. So the question people have to ask themselves is not whether marriage is a good thing, nor whether I would like to get married, but whether God is calling me to marriage. I know a woman who as she came out of the shop carrying her wedding dress was told by the Lord He wanted her to become a religious sister. After a difficult struggle she said Yes. And for some years now she has been living a very outstandingly fruitful life as a religious sister.
There is also the whole area of fasting, eating and drinking. Obviously we should seek to eat and drink all that God wants us to do and only that. Jesus not only gave us the example of fasting - "
He fasted forty days and forty nights" (Matthew 4:2) but He also assumed that we ourselves would fast He did not say if you fast, but "whenever you fast" (Matthew 6:16). So some fasting from food should normally be a part of the Christian way of life, although of course there are people who for reasons of health should not fast from food, or should do so only very little.

In the matter of food and drink there is also the question of people eating and drinking unwisely when they should avoid doing so. Some people are ruining their health and shortening their lives by eating and drinking too much, or the wrong things, while, alas, millions of others in the world are more or less dying of starvation.

Again, I feel rather nervous that what I have written above may lead some Christians into excesses or fill them wrongly with feelings of guilt. St Anthony of Egypt gave away all his money to the poor, it is highly improbable that you are called to do the same. I know well a lady who fasted on a little weak tea and coffee for forty two days for the sake of a sick relative whose health improved most remarkably. She continued to cook for the family and drive the car around whilst fasting. Her husband, who is a medical consultant, checked her health regularly. It is most unlikely that God is calling you to fast for forty two days. If you are not already married and are a young person God is probably calling you to marriage, so do not start thinking that giving your life entirely to God will probably mean that He wants you to become a celibate priest or nun. Giving your life entirely to Jesus will also probably not mean giving up chess or tennis for good. Nor are most English doctors called to live in the Third World.

When Jesus is calling us to do something special he will normally in his time give us a particular attraction for it, and he will also give us the grace to see it through whatever the difficulties. In my own case, as a teenager, I had a number of girlfriends and never dreamed of the possibility of not getting married. However, after my conversion at the age of about 21, I felt strongly attracted to consecrated celibacy and was no longer interested in girlfriends.. I was also no longer interested in the prospects of a successful business career. I remember Nicky Gumbel saying that earlier as a barrister the idea of being an Anglican priest would have appalled him, yet when the time came there was nothing he wanted more than ordination.

So if after prayer the idea of working with Aids patients, or becoming a missionary in Africa, or marrying that particular person, or joining a particular Christian community continues to fill you with dread or deep disquiet, then it is almost certain that God is not calling you in that direction, or at least not yet. We are all called to bear the Cross, to make sacrifices, even sometimes big sacrifices. But we are not called to carry every cross, only the one God chooses for us.

Jesus will give us the strength and grace and anointing we need for the cross He has chosen for us, but not for any other cross. It can be pride to think that because someone else fasts like that, spends nights in prayer like that, preaches like that, works late into the night like that, gives their money away like that, therefore I can or should be doing the same. We see in 1 Corinthians 12 that we are all different parts of the body. Disasters can happen if we seek to be a different part of the body than the one Jesus has chosen for us. Things will also go wrong if other people try to force me into a mould which is not God's will for me.

Jesus said to his Father in Gethsemanie, "
My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want" (Matthew 26:39). He also said that "I have come down from heaven, not to do my will, but the will of him who sent me" (John 6:38).

Our Lady said, "
Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). We are all called to seek to follow the examples of Jesus and Mary and say Yes to God's perfect will for us. However, because we are sinners we tend to say, "Yes, but" rather than simply "Yes". "Yes, Lord, but do not touch my health, my bank account, my possessions, my career, my ministry, my reputation, this relationship, that hobby, my wife, my son, my daughter". Doubtless we do not normally say our "but" explicitly when we pray, but it can be there under the surface, sometimes very much so. We need to remember that everything we give to Jesus is pure gain, and everything we withhold from him is loss.

Our withholding from Jesus is not only sinful, it is also against our true self interest, indeed it is pathetic and stupid. If I have given everything to Jesus I am wonderfully secure, even if at the human level my position is very insecure. Insofar as I am outside the perfect will of Jesus through my own fault, I am insecure, however secure I may appear to be at the purely human level.

One very important event in our life to which it is especially important to try to say a complete "
Yes" is our death. No one knows when we shall leave this life. Illnesses, accidents, violence, can and quite often do unexpectedly shorten people's lives. So we should be ready for death whenever it comes. It is good, I think, in advance to offer up our death to God and everything connected with it. And I also think it is or can be good to ask the Holy Spirit to show us for what intentions God wants us to offer up our death, indeed to offer up our life also. It might be, for example, for my family and for the peace of the world. In this way our death can be a moment of great fruitfulness, perhaps the most fruitful and meaningful moment of our life, as was the case with Jesus. (I believe very much in praying for healing and protection, but this will not, thank God, keep us alive on this earth for ever!). So if beforehand we have accepted and offered up our death, then if we are knocked over by a car or are hit by a heart attack, it has already been accepted and given to God.

I must admit that I sometimes feel fearful at the thought of what Jesus may call me to do or suffer - I am temperamentally a rather fearful person. However, saying "
Yes" is not only the right thing to do, it is also the safest. Jesus is still saying, "Follow me". If by the grace of God I do that, then there is nothing to fear. He has seen me through the trials and sufferings of the past, and he will, I trust, continue to do so until one day I am with Him in the glorious heavenly banquet.

Alleluia, Alleluia, AlleIuia!

Chapter Five:
Listening to God

Of the five areas of prayer which I mentioned earlier, listening to God is normally by a long way the one which is most neglected. Prayer is meant to be a dialogue with God, but so often prayer is just a monologue or nearly so, and poor God can hardly get a word in edgeways! When the Lord called Samuel, he replied: "
Speak, for your servant is listening" (I Samuel 3:10). So often we simply say, "Listen, Lord your servant is speaking".

Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). In our prayer life we should deliberately set enough time aside to be still, to listen to God. I confess that I quite often neglect this side of prayer, but when I manage to do it, it is so often fruitful.

We should listen to God about our agenda, but also about His. We might be asking God to show us whether we should read a particular book, visit a person in need, volunteer for a task, resign from our job - and it is right that we should try to listen to God on such things. However, God may have something more important to say to us: "Forgive and love that person", "fast more", 'Be financially more generous", "Get up earlier to pray", 'Stop flirting with that person". I have found that when I have asked God to speak His word to me, quite often what came to me was not something I particularly wanted to hear! Indeed, sometimes over quite a period God has gone on saying something which I was finding difficult That made me think all the more that it almost certainly did come from God.

Before I go any further, I must reassure readers that I do not think that I have an infallible hot line to God! Often I pray about a problem and seem to get no reply from God. At other times I am doubting whether what I seem to be hearing really is from God - perhaps it is simply my wishful thinking. And even if I feel confident that something has come from God, I have to remember that I can be mistaken. Once I felt strongly that God was saying to me that a seriously ill elderly person with whom we were praying for healing was going to die soon. Now, several years later, that person is still running around and living a fruitful life!

How does God guide us, speak to us? In the Bible there are of course many examples of God speaking very directly to people. For example, there is the call of Abram in
Genesis 12, and Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3). Indeed, the Lord spoke frequently to the Old Testament patriarchs and prophets.

In the New Testament the angel Gabriel foretells the births of St John the Baptist and Jesus
(Luke 2), St Joseph is told in dreams to accept Mary as his wife (Matthew 1), to flee to Egypt and to return from Egypt (Matthew 2). Indeed, in the New Testament events are continually guided by the Holy Spirit, sometimes dramatically so. One has only to think of the conversion (Acts 9) and life of St Paul, in which there are quite a number of direct divine interventions, for example, St Paul and St Barnabas sent out on a mission (Acts 13), the vision calling them to Macedonia (Acts 16), and the message of the angel during the storm at sea (Acts 27).

There is also in the New Testament the key event for the future of Christianity of the acceptance of pagans as Christians, linked with revelations to Cornelius and St Peter (Acts 10). Then there is St Peter's liberation from prison (Acts 12). In the New Testament God so often intervenes and guides clearly.

In the lives of the Saints we also frequently see examples of direct and explicit guidance, as when St Anthony of Egypt was told to sell all his property and give the money to the poor, or when St Bernadette of Lourdes was given messages for the parish priest. This sort of guidance is not only something of the past. Sr Breige McKenna was praying in the chapel alone one day when she heard an audible voice saying that she had a gift of healing. She turned round to see who had spoken and was surprised to see no one there. Then more than one person came up to her and said that they thought God was saying that she had a gift of healing. She resisted the vocation to the healing ministry for quite a time, but eventually gave in. Since then she has travelled in many countries of the world exercising a very fruitful and powerful healing and evangelistic ministry.

One can also mention the prophetic word spoken to Nicky Gumbel of Holy Trinity, Brompton and Alpha by John Wimber, saying that God was giving Nicky a special gift as an evangelist, a word which has been wonderfully confirmed by events.

However, it needs to be said very clearly that divine guidance is not normally something dramatic involving - things like special messages or visions. Indeed, God usually speaks to us and guides us in much more ordinary ways. Perhaps we are wondering which of two courses of action we should take, and after prayer we may simply and peacefully feel that one is right and the other not. Sometimes God's guidance comes to us through the decisions of others in authority, or through external circumstances. A parent may be wondering whether God wants them to take a holiday abroad, and then one of the children becomes seriously ill and there is no question of taking such a holiday. God also guides us very often through the right use of that wonderful faculty, the gift of reason. Someone may be wondering whether to buy a house, but a more careful consideration of all the financial factors involved may clearly show that buying the house is not possible.

Obviously, decisions of greater importance require more careful discernment. One should not spend too long on deciding whether to go shopping this afternoon or reply to letters. However, if it is a question of deciding whether to study medicine or classics at the university, of entering a seminary, of marrying someone, of emigrating to America, of volunteering for missionary work in Africa, of buying a house, then clearly much more time and attention normally needs to be given to discernment. In important matters we should normally when possible consult other suitable people and also get others to pray about the decision. In that way we are less likely to be deceived by our own imagination, muddle-headedness, prejudices, or the devil. In important decisions we should normally expect to get confirmations from other suitable people.

I remember when some years ago a particular group of Christians were planning to smuggle Bibles into Russia by car. They had to choose which of many routes to take, and they prayed much about this, for if things went wrong they would not only lose the Bibles, but it could be very dangerous for the Russians who received the Bibles - they could end up in Siberia. So having decided on a particular route they said that they would not go unless they received five independent confirmations as to the rightness of the route. They received their confirmations, and all went well with the smuggling operation.

If we are seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit on a particular question, we should place the matter in God's hands, be willing to obey whatever guidance may be given - sometimes easier said than done - and try to listen to God, noting any signs which may come along. It can also be good to ask God to close the doors He wishes to close and open those He wishes to open. One good friend of mine had been asked by this wife to attend an Alpha course with her at Holy Trinity Brompton. He replied, "Certainly not". A day or so later a friend with whom he was playing tennis suggested he might like to attend an Alpha course, and then very soon after another person made the same suggestion. He realised that God might be saying something to him through these 'coincidences', so he decided to go to Alpha with his wife and it profoundly changed his life. He now runs Alpha courses very effectively for others.

I personally tend quite often to get a sort of interior word which comes into my mind. It is frequently "
Yes" or "No" to a question I have asked God. It might also be for example, "now", or "wait", or "soon", or "beware", or "speak to him", or "enough", or "buy it", or "stop", or "courage". Indeed such words may come into my mind when I am not specially listening. People who are more gifted than myself in this field - and there are many of them - often receive much more developed words of knowledge, such as "there is someone here who God is wanting to heal of heart sickness, and this person's work is involved with legal documents". (This was an actual case in our prayer group which was confirmed by the healing which took place on a man who worked with legal documents). Or, it could be, "there is someone here who had an accident when they were ten, and God wants to heal their leg". Needless to say, it is normally very important that only people whose gifts have been tested should be allowed to give out publicly such words of knowledge, otherwise harm can be done. And it is always necessary to remember that such words of knowledge are never infallible - no one is so gifted that they could never be mistaken.

St Ignatius of Loyola, who is regarded as a special authority on the subject of discernment, stressed in discernment the importance of deep peace. If someone is wondering whether or not God wants them to follow a certain course of action, they should pray seriously about it and then see if they experience a deep inner peace when they reflect on that course of action. This deep inner peace can be seen as God's confirmation. In his famous
Spiritual Exercises (54) St Ignatius wrote: "I will find that I speak or listen as God's Spirit moves me".

When having a counselling or healing session with someone I normally suggest that after we have prayed and talked we should listen to God in silence for a time. Quite often a word then comes into my mind. Once, at a time when I was Prior of our community, I was seeing a guest who wanted to stay in the monastery for quite a long time. I got the word "
beware". I could not think what I had to beware of. This guest had a rather refined accent and said that he had received a first class honours degree in Oxford - later I discovered that the last point was true. He also said that he had a cancer operation, which was also true. However, because of the word "beware" I was being more vigilant than I would otherwise have been, and I discovered that some of the things he was saying about his cancer treatment clearly were not true. We had to ask him to leave. Soon after he was back in prison once more, this time for stealing works of art from an Oxford College. Some years later I read in a newspaper that he had just been given a prison sentence of over twenty years. Say a prayer for him. I burned my fingers a little with this man, but I would probably have done so much more without the warning "beware".

Normally I pray before buying things like clothes and books, and on the whole over the years this seems to have been truly fruitful. I once went off to London to buy a pair of shoes. I went into Selfridges, found a very suitable pair, except that they were, I thought, too expensive for a monk. So I decided to look elsewhere. I passed a shop, thought from the contents of the shop Window that it did not look promising, and was passing on to the next shop, when I seemed to get a clear inner nudge to go back to the one I had rejected. I went in and Saw that manager, who tried to sell me some shoes which were too expensive and uncomfortable. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed some solid, broad shoes which looked the right sort of thing for me. The manager said they were just casual shoes from Poland, and in disgust left me to an assistant. The shoes were just what I wanted and were incredibly cheap. So I bought two pairs, and a third pair a week later. These shoes lasted me for years. Just chance? I do not think so.

However, shopping expeditions do not always end as expected. My warm heavy coat needed mending and both friends and a dry cleaner said it was not mendable. So I thought I must go and buy a new heavy coat - and I thought that I had prayed sufficiently about it. I arrived at the top of the underground escalators near the shop, I said a prayer to the Lord, "You do want me to buy that warm coat, don't you?" And I got a resounding inner "No", so I returned to the bottom of the escalator and prayed again. The answer was still "No", so I returned back to the monastery without the coat. A short time afterwards I tried another dry cleaning shop, and they happily mended the coat without too much difficulty.

Some people might object that in a world where there is so much suffering and so many needy people, a priest should have more important things to do than seek God's guidance about buying shoes or coats. However, I think God has a loving plan for each one of us, and that this plan includes details, even such things as parking meters. Jesus said, "
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are numbered". (Most obviously so in my case at the age of 78!). "So do not be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows" (Matthew 10:29). So I think that God's loving Providence covers the small things as well as the big. When we experience His loving care in small things that can increase our trust in Him for the big ones, which may often seem hopeless or very difficult at the human level.

However, a warning needs to be given here. Some people can go over the top about '
guidance from the Holy Spirit'. Some years ago a priest asked me to see a man whom he was worried about. The man had previously had a kind of conversion experience and was convinced that the Holy Spirit was guiding him in almost every detail of his life. It was soon clear to us that he was imagining lots of things, including details about how and where he was to sit and when and what he was to eat. We suggested that he see a doctor, but he would not. We told him clearly that we were convinced that he was suffering from delusions, but he would not or could not listen to us. When he left us he agreed to see a sister involved in counselling. I hope that she succeeded better than we did! There are times when some people need to be discouraged from too much listening to the Holy Spirit.

We all need at times to seek confirmation from others, to be willing to be checked out by one or more other suitable people, perhaps a doctor, a confessor, or a Spiritual friend. If we are not wise and humble enough to accept the judgement of other suitable people when necessary, then our own fantasies and the devil can play havoc with our lives.

Some people may think that trying to listen to God is too hazardous because of the danger of mistakes and of going over the top Is it not better just to rely on reason and Christian common sense? Definitely not, at least in general. The saints are, I think, the right example for us to try to follow in this matter. Many of the saints were led in ways more or less similar to St Paul in the New Testament. Let us consider, for example, the lives of St Teresa of Avila, the Cure d'Ars, and Padre Pio. How much less fruitful they would have been if they had not received remarkable divine guidance. Think of Padre Pio. Because of his supernatural words of knowledge (revelations) Padre Pio was able to greatly help and enlighten large numbers of people in a relatively short time. Not that we should think that we are another Padre Pio or St Teresa of Avila - that indeed would be spiritual pride and dangerous. But inspired and encouraged by their example we can seek to move in their direction.

As for myself, being something of a lame duck, would I not be better in giving up my quest for divine guidance and leaving that to holy people? No! Despite the mistakes I make, I am sure that my life would be less fruitful for Jesus if I stopped trying to listen to Him. Indeed, as calls on time and energy have multiplied, I am finding it more and more desirable and necessary to try to listen increasingly to him. Certainly I need at times to check the guidance I think I am receiving with other suitable people, including my monastic superior, the leaders of our prayer group, and my doctor. However, if there are dangers in trying to listen to the Lord, there are far bigger ones in not doing so.

The practical circumstances in which we find ourselves in life are frequently very complex. So many factors concerning the present and the future are uncertain. For example, one's health and the health of others, the uncertainty of how other people are going to react to situations, the economic and political climate in our country and the world. So however intelligent we are, however learned, very often our reason cannot take us far in foreseeing what is going to happen, and in knowing what is the best course of action. That is why, alas, increasing numbers of people are turning to fortune tellers and clairvoyants, which can be very dangerous. Jesus however, knows the future and all its circumstances. His plan for us takes into account our future circumstances. So if we can learn to listen to Him, that can protect us from going down blind alleys and making many mistakes.

Doubtless there will be people who will criticise me for being personal in this chapter, as elsewhere in this book. Writers on prayer, it will be said, do not usually say so much about their own life of prayer. However, I think that by being personal this book is likely to help some readers more. I myself have benefited from the testimony tradition in the Charismatic Renewal and elsewhere. Of course the testimony aspect can be overdone. Whether or not I have overdone it readers will have to decide for themselves. What I can say, however, is very much in line with the words of Our Lord to St Paul: "
My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12 9)

Listening To God Through Holy Scripture

In this book on prayer obviously something needs to be written about the prayerful reading of the Bible, and the chapter on listening to God seems to be the best place for that, since the Holy Spirit often speaks to us through Holy Scripture. This is in part an embarrassing subject for me, since I am only too aware that I do not know the Bible as well as I should and I do not spend enough time reading it, given the opportunities I have long had.

Of course as a priest and a monk I hear much of the Bible read in the liturgy. However, for me the biblical readings in the liturgy do not usually sink in as much as when I am reading the Bible on my own and am able to take my time over it, perhaps reading a particular passage several times. Indeed to be truthful, by the end of Mass I have very often forgotten what was the first reading.

I try to spend time daily on spiritual reading (
lectio divina) of the Bible, which is something different from an academic study of the Bible, which study also has a real value and place, but that is outside the scope of this book. Spiritual reading of the Bible is very much part of the monastic Benedictine tradition and St Benedict in his Rule sets aside time daily for it. Alas, sometimes the pressures of other things and my own lack of discipline cause me to drop my daily Bible reading. When this happens too often I feel that my spiritual life suffers. There is, I think, normally no substitute for a prayerful reading of the Bible and letting God speak to us and free us through His Word - at least that is my experience.

Before reading we should surely say a prayer to the Holy Spirit and ask Him to illuminate our minds and touch our hearts, ask Him to feed us and speak to us through God's Word. We might, for example, read a passage of the New Testament on forgiveness and this may bring to mind someone we have not fully forgiven. Or we might be reading a passage about trusting God, those who know the Bible much better than I do!

Two other things can help us to know the Bible. The first is to mark passages, perhaps in different colours. This certainly helps me to find passages I am looking for. The second is the practice of normally reading the same translation of the Bible. I think it can be good sometimes to read a text in another translation, but if we normally stick to the same translation that will enable us to remember texts better. It is good to ask the Holy Spirit to lead us in our choice of translation. Finally, many Christians find it helpful to have written Bible texts on their walls or elsewhere. I have three beautiful tiles with "
Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 45), "Be filled with the Holy Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18), and "Alleluia". These tiles certainly help my life of prayer at times as I look upon them on the wall in my room.

At the end of this section I am concerned lest some readers may feel that their cultural limitations and busy lives will mean that they will always be very much second class Christians when it comes to being fed by the Word of God through the Bible. A mother with young children, a sick husband, and a job may well feel that my recommendations to read the Bible daily and learn texts by heart is utopian for someone like her. To which I reply, "
Do what you can and be at peace. God does not expect the impossible."

However, there is another important point which is relevant here. The blessings we receive from a prayerful reading of the Bible are not in proportion to the amount we read or to our knowledge of the Bible. Indeed the learned Biblical professor who may sometimes have largely forgotten that the Bible is the Word of God, may in fact receive less spiritual nourishment from the Bible than the busy housewife who cannot remember whether the gospel of Luke comes after or before John's gospel. It can be good to learn Hebrew and Greek and read commentaries - thank God for sound learning - but the prayerfulness and faith with which we read or listen to God's Word in the Bible are the key factors when it comes to being spiritually nourished and blessed through the Bible.

A last point. Given the importance of reading God's Word in the Bible, I am frequently surprised to find how some Christians who think nothing about spending money on an expensive meal in a restaurant or on a distant foreign holiday seem to think that they cannot afford to buy a decent Bible or a bible commentary. Priorities? Perhaps some readers of this chapter should go out and treat themselves to a new and expensive Bible! And having bought this new Bible, let them put it in a place of honour in their homes and not just leave it to gather dust or lie at the bottom of a pile of books. I think many Catholics could often learn from our evangelical brothers and sisters when it comes to respect for and knowledge of God's Word in the Bible.

Copyright © 2000 Benedict M. Heron OSB

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This Version: 26th October 2001


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