Story: In the early 60’s, a young Church of England ordinand went on a week’s silent retreat at Ampleforth.
In those days the rules were strict – and between meals and services (which started at 4 am in the morning) the ordinands on the retreat were expected to be in their rooms praying.
All went well until the Wednesday of the week, when the young man felt hungry. And so early in the afternoon after noon prayers, he decided to sneak out down to the village to buy a Mars Bar.
As good fortune would have it, he bumped into the Abbot of the monastery as he was slipping out of the gate. “Where are you going, my son” the Abbot asked
The young man with commendable presence of mind replied ”As I was praying this afternoon, The Holy Spirit commanded me to go down to the shops this afternoon”. “Very good” the Abbot replied, “If the Holy Spirit has sent you, who am I to say no.”
And as the young man departed, the abbot called
after him “ I hope you and the Holy Spirit know that it is half day closing in town today!”
Which brings me very nicely into my first subject this week, the ”Prayer of Relinquishment”
Last week we looked at
1. Simple Prayer and
2. Praying the Ordinary
This week I’d like to progress and look at
1. The Prayer of Relinquishment and
2. Formation Prayer
Let us start with
1. The Prayer of Relinquishment
Andrew Murray the great South African 19th Century preacher put it like this:
The Spirit teaches me to yield my will entirely to the Will of the Father. He opens my ear to wait in great gentleness and teachableness of soul for what the Father has day by day to speak and teach. He discovers to me how union with God’s will is union with God himself; how entire surrender to God’s will is the Father’s claim, the son’s example and the true blessedness of soul.”
Last week we looked at Simple Prayer that encompassed our own selfish prayers – and we concluded that that was ok.
However as we learn to pray we discover an interesting progression
In the beginning our will struggles with God’s will.
And it is a difficult struggle – we want instant solutions – and we want our solutions.
And that is OK
However with time, God touches us and we reach – as Richard Foster puts it a “grace-filled releasing of our will and a flowing into the will of the Father”
Story: When I first went forward for the ministry, I wanted to keep my job and become an NSM.
I wanted to keep the security of my job – which 8 years ago was worth about £70 K but I wanted to serve God in the Church too.
And I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to trust the Church of England for my salary.
I loved my job – I was at the top of the profession. One former Head of the European Patent Institute, Jan D’haemer wrote for my 50th Birthday party:
“Martin was one of the best patent attorneys I have met – unfortunately he knew it!!”
And just as God called me into the Church, I faced two exciting worldly opportunities
i) I was asked ICI - at Chartered Patent Agent Dinner and Dance - to come for a chat by the retiring ICI Head of Patents for the top patents job at ICI – the crème de la crème for a patent agent who is a chemist and
ii) later I was asked if I wanted the Unilever top patents job in the UK by the retiring Unilever head of patents.
I had to turn both opportunities down because of God’s call in my life to become a priest in the Church.
Of course there was no guarantee I would have got either job
But not only did I have to turn both down but when I got through ABM selection, my DDO called me up and said.
“Good news - You’re through - but the Archbishop of York wants you to go to theological college!!”
- a shock as I had gone to ABM offering myself as an NSM
I think my reply was “Mike, is he nuts!!”
And Mike’s wise reply was : “Why don’t you pray about it while you are away on business next week in America.”
I did and you decide if Mike and the archbishop were right!!!
But it was a prayer of relinquishment for me
And you can ask Maddy how much I loved being a patent lawyer – the cut and thrust of it all.
Richard Foster puts the matter very well when he says:
We learn the Prayer of Relinquishment in the school of Gethsemane
And it’s worth revisiting then scene we know so well.
Jesus is standing at the zenith of his ministry – the Cross and Resurrection and he is in the Garden.
Let me read the story to you in LK 22
39 Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him.
40 On reaching the place, he said to them, "Pray that you will not fall into temptation."
41 He withdrew about a stone's throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed,
42 "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done."
43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.
44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
45 When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples,
The Church should not be about democracy – that is “will.”
Rather it is all about obedience to the will of the Father – and that often means a struggle.
Richard Foster writes:
“Struggle is an essential feature of the Prayer of Relinquishment”
Even Jesus had problems with his own will – he struggled too
He could have avoided the Cross – it wasn’t a quick fix – it was a prayer struggle that lasted long into the night.
Struggle is integral to relinquishment
Abraham had to relinquish his son Isaac
David relinquished the son born in adultery by Bathsheba
Mary relinquished control of her future when she agreed to give birth to the Messiah
Paul relinquished his claim to be free from that debilitating “thorn in the flesh”
If we want to see growth in our lives and in our church, we need to relinquish our hold on our wills – and ask the Father what HE wants!
Giving up my job at R&C was a struggle – it did not come easily.
It meant giving up our beautiful house and small holding in Yorkshire.
It meant selling my family home in Austria (the house that I had been hooked on for so long) Ask Maddy
As Richard Foster puts it: It is “severing precious roots”
It is a bona fide letting go
It is not a fatalist resignation however, it is putting our confidence in the character of God.
It is as Foster calls it a crucifixion of the will
And he suggests five ways to practise the prayer of relinquishment
1. Learn the prayer of self emptying.
Richard Foster suggests praying through Philippians 2 which speaks of the self emptying of Christ (Phil 2:5-11)
Invite the Holy Spirit to apply this to the specifics of your life
2. Learn the prayer of surrender
Meditate on Jesus’ time in the Garden of Gethsemane form Luke 22 and especially verse 42.
3. Learn the prayer of abandonment.
The words of Charles de Foucauld are quite apposite:
Father I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me and, in all your creatures – I wish no more than this O Lord.
4 Learn the prayer of release
Lift up friends and family to God and place them into his loving hands – and your dreams and aspirations too.
5. Learn the prayer of resurrection
Richard Foster puts it like this:
Lord bring back to life what will please you and advance your kingdom. Let it come in whatever form you desire. Let it be in your time and in your way. Thank you Lord for resurrection
Some things will remain dead - and it is better they do
Others will spring forth into new life.
I make no bones about it – the prayer of relinquishment is hard – but it is the KEY through which we can move forward in prayer
The Prayer of Relinquishment goes well with our next topic “Formation Prayer” for without relinquishing our will, we cannot be formed into the image of Jesus
2. Formation Prayer
William Carey, the great Baptist missionary who was known as the “Father of modern Missions“ wrote:
Prayer – secret, fervent, believing prayer – lies at the root of all personal godliness
The primary purpose of prayer Foster suggests is to “bring us into such a life of communion with the Father that by the power of the Spirit, we are increasingly conformed to the image of the Son”
None of us will keep up a life of prayer unless we are prepared to change.
Again it is that word we don’t like CHANGE
Our prayer life (i.e. simple prayer) starts off with God by his gracious answering of our ego centric prayers but with time, he starts to say no – you need to change.
We need to learn holy obedience
The writers of old called it "conservatio morum" which in one sense means the death of the status quo and in another sense means constant change – constant conversion if you like
We need to be open to the move of the Spirit
Prayer changes ingrained bad habits
It is this prayer that allows us to throttle egotism and shed the burden of self importance – to use Richard Foster’s own phraseology
Richard Foster warns us that prayer is not the only way that God forms us into his followers
There are three areas – the golden triangle of spiritual formation:
1. The classical area of the spiritual life: solitude, fasting, worship, celebration etc.
2. Our continual interaction – or reaction! To the promptings of the Holy Spirit – e.g. our struggles in the spirit – i.e. resistance, disobedience, repentance, submission faith and obedience
3. Patient Endurance formed by various frustrations, trials and temptations
As my Dad used to say – there is no royal road to learning.
Formation prayer will also not bring us to perfection this side of eternity – let’s be clear about that.
Rather it is PROGRESS in the Christian life
Progress however small is important in the Christian life because as St Paul tells us in Rom 8:29-30
God knew what he was doing from the very beginning.
He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son.
The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored.
We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him.
After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name.
After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself.
And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun.
There are two sides to FORMATION Prayer:
One we are actively pursuing God. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling
The other is that God pursues us.
And we need to remember BOTH
Proactive and Passive Prayer
1. THE FIRST PROACTIVE FORMATION PRAYER IS THAT OF STRETCHING OUT TO GOD
Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises designed a regimen of four sections of four weeks of Spiritual exercises
The first of these four weeks is a focus on our sins in the light of God’s love
The second centres on the life of Christ
The third on the Passion of Christ and
Finally the fourth on the Resurrection of Christ
Each of these four week regimens is accompanied by a generous supply of meditation exercises, often taken from the Gospels
Ignatius get is to “live” the story – using all our senses. He gets us to put ourselves into the sin of each character – how does he/she feel.
Let me give an example – as we consider Jesus on trial for his life - can we hear the braying of the crowds, can we feel the sting of the whip, or hear the accusations. How does Jesus feel – what did Pilate think …
We ENTER into the story with our senses.
How did the Prodigal Son feel – the elder brother feel, the Father feel etc.
But this isn’t something we do in a vacuum -otherwise it would be too much
In regimen 1 we need to continually seek the grace of being loved by God
In regimen 2 we ask for grace to be formed into the image of Christ
In regimen 3 we ask for grace to die to the pull of this world and
In regimen 4 we ask for the power of the Spirit to always choose God and his way.
2. A SECOND PROACTIVE APPROACH TO FORMATION PRAYER is the 12 STEPS OF THE PRAYER OF ST BENEDICT.
It is also known as the 12 Steps of humility – but we aren’t talking of Uriah Heep humility!!!
As Richard Foster points out humility needs redefining and means “to live as close to the truth as possible – the truth about ourselves, the truth about others, the truth about the world in which we live
Humility comes from the Latin humus meaning earth.
I like the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom's comment that " the earth is the place where we dump our refuse"
He says: ”It’s there, silent accepting everything and in a miraculous way making out of all the refuse new richness transforming corruption itself into a power of life and a new possibility of creativeness, open to the sunshine, open to the rain, ready to receive any new seed we sow and capable of bringing thirtyfold, sixtyfold and one hundredfold out of every seed.
Benedict’s rules focus on our relationship with God.
He says: Have a constant reverence for God before our eyes; reject our own will and desires and instead do God’s will; confess all our evil thoughts and all our evil actions to the Lord
3. THE FINAL PROACTIVE APPROACH TO FORMATIONAL PRAYER IS “THE LITTLE WAY“ OF THERESE OF LISIEUX.
In short this is to seek out the menial job, welcome unjust criticisms, befriend those who annoy us, to help those who are ungrateful.
Let us move on from the three forms of Proactive Formation Prayer to the three forms of Passive Formation Prayer.
1. THE FIRST OF THESE PASSIVE NON STRIVING WAYS IS SOLITUDE
Henri Nouwen said that “without solitude it is virtually impossible to live a spiritual life”
It frees us from the bondage to people – how often does the phone disturb us when we want to pray and the bondage of things
This way of Formation Prayer isn’t self centred or a waste of time.
Jesus took time off to spend with his heavenly Father
Solitude gives us time to listen to our heavenly Father
My four days at Mariastein last November (2007) were wonderful – no e-mails, no phone – just time to spend quietly and in solitude.
But as St Jerome said we are “never less alone than when alone”
Worth thinking about!
2. THE SECOND PASSIVE APPROACH TO FORMATION PRAYER IS WHAT RICHARD FOSTER CALLED PEERING INTO THE ABYSS
This is the contemplation of our own death. A bit morbid but a time honoured approach to personal transformation.
What would happen if I was to die today – would the world go on without me?
It is quite hard to accept isn’t it?
So often we are like the fly on the chariot wheel of Aesop’s Fable “my what a dust storm I am causing”
Richard Foster tells the story of a Lutheran pastor friend over whom Richard Foster prayed Gal 2:19 – about being crucified with Christ
The Lutheran had a vision of his own funeral, the coffin lid was open, the church – he could see all of it from inside the coffin – for it was his won funeral
As people filed past his coffin they were all crying – and he tried to comfort them but couldn’t – they couldn’t hear him because he was a corpse – yet the Lutheran friend said: He was fine and what was happening was good.
This isn’t something that I have had experience of myself!!
3. THE THIRD AND FINAL PASSIVE FORMATIONAL PRAYER IS THE PRAYER OF DOCILITY
It is the experience of being putty in the hands of God
Foster describes it like this
Picture a child with a pencil in hand making indecipherable scribbles. Now watch his mother place her hand over his and guide it to make big beautiful letters.
Or picture a sailing boat pick up the wind and then when the helmsman tack see how pliably the sail moves to the other side. If you used a board rather than a sail you would get a different result.
Yield yourself to the master potter (Jer 19)
God does not - as Jesus said in Mt 12:20 - break a bruised reed or quenched a smouldering wick
Richard Foster finishes this section on Formational prayer by likening formational prayer to a tree in winter.
Winter preserves and strengthens a tree.
Its sap is forced deeper and deeper into its interior.
Winter is needed to the tree to survive.
A tough resilient life is more firmly established
As Richard Foster so beautifully puts it: So often we hide our true condition with surface virtues of pious activity but once the leaves of our frantic pace drop away, the transforming power of a wintry spirituality can have effect
The Twelve Steps to Humility of St Benedict:
Holy Scripture proclaims to us brothers: "Everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted" (Lk 14:11).
The first step of humility is taken when a man obeys all of God’s commandments–never ignoring them, and fearing God in his heart.
The second step of humility is reached when a man, not loving his own will, does not bother to please himself, but follows the injunction of the Lord: "I came not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me" (Jn 6:38).
The third step of humility is attained when a man, from love of God obediently submits to a superior in imitation of the Lord. As the apostle says, "He was made obedient unto death" (Phil 2:8).
The fourth step of humility is reached when a man, in obedience, patiently and quietly puts up with everything inflicted upon him.
The fifth step of humility is achieved when a monk, by humble confession, discloses to his abbot all the evil thoughts in his heart and evil acts he has carried out. The Scripture tells us to do this: "Reveal your way to the Lord and hope in Him" (Ps 37:5). Also, "Confess to the Lord because He is good, because His mercy endures forever" (Ps 106:1). ...
The sixth step of humility is reached when a monk contentedly accepts all that is crude and harsh and thinks himself a poor and worthless workman in his appointed tasks.
He must say with the prophet, "I have been brought to nothing, and did not know it. I have become like a beast before You, and I am always with You" (Ps 73:22-23).
The seventh step of humility is attained when a man not only confesses that he is an inferior and common wretch but believes it in the depths of his heart. He will humble himself and say, with the prophet, "I am a worm and no man, the reproach of men and the outcast of the people" (Ps 22:6). ...And, "It is good for me that You have humbled me, so I may learn Your commandments" (Ps 119:71).
The eighth step of humility is reached when a monk only does that which the common rule of the monastery and the examples of his Elders demands.
The ninth step of humility is achieved when a monk, practicing silence, only speaks when asked a question, for, "In many words you shall not avoid sin" (Prv 10:19). And, "A talkative man shall not prosper upon the earth" (Ps 140:11).
The tenth step of humility is reached when a man restrains himself from laughter and frivolity, for "The fool lifts his voice in laughter" (Eccl 21:23).
The eleventh step of humility is arrived at when a monk speaks gently, without jests, simply, seriously, tersely, rationally and softly. "A man is known by few words" (Pv 10:14).
The twelfth step of humility is reached when a monk shows humility in his heart and in his appearance and actions. Whether he is in the oratory, at the "work of God," in the monastery or garden, on a trip, in the fields; whether sitting, standing or walking — he must think of his sins, head down, eyes on the ground and imagine he is on trial before God. He must always repeat to himself, "Lord, I a sinner am not worthy to lift my eyes to heaven" (Lk 18:13). And, "I am bowed down and totally humbled" (Ps 38:8).
When a monk has climbed all twelve steps, he will find that perfect love of God which casts out fear, by means of which everything he had observed anxiously before will now appear simple and natural.
He will no longer act out of the fear of Hell, but for the love of Christ, out of good habits and with a pleasure derived of virtue. The Lord, through the Holy Spirit, will show this to His servant, cleansed of sin and vice.
Questions on Prayer of Reliquishment & Formation prayer
1. It seems to me that Luke 22:42 : “Father if you are willing take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” is the key to understanding the prayer of relinquishment
Do you agree?
Can you think of any instances in your life where you have been able to do this?
2. How do you respond to Richard Foster’s idea that “Struggle is an essential feature of the Prayer of Relinquishment”
Why is struggle necessary?
3. In formation prayer, William Carey said: Prayer- secret, fervent, believing prayer lies at the root of all personal godliness.
If that is so why doesn’t the Church focus more on this?
4. Is it right that we need to be prepared to change if we are going to live a life of prayer. Why?
5. Can prayer change bad habits – if so, what evidence do you have personally for that?
6. Is humility really living as close to the truth as possible – the truth about ourselves, the truth about others, the truth about the world in which we live