Making connections

Probably the greatest ever American College basketball coach was a man called John Wooden. After a great playing career he was for twenty-seven years head coach of the UCLA – the University of California Los Angeles – basket ball team and in a period of twelve years he won the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship ten times, seven of them consecutively. Over his life-time he won every basketball honour possible. He is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, both as a player and a coach and was finally awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The first coaching session of each new school year was the same every time. He gathered together all the players and all his assistant coaches. And he arranged them so that the assistant coaches and the seniors were at the front and then ranged in seniority back to the freshers. Then he took a pair of basketball boots and a set of laces and showed them all how to lace up the boot, put it on and tie it. The freshers were flabbergasted not only by the behaviour of this legendary coach, but also by the behaviour of the assistant coaches and their seniors, who were both watching and obeying and not only watching and obeying, but deeply concentrating as they followed the instructions. They thought that they were the butt of some joke, but it was deadly serious.

At a purely practical level it meant the John Wooden never lost a game because one of his players lost a boot, they didn’t; and equally he never lost a player because they got injured because their boots didn’t fit or weren’t tied correctly or they tripped themselves up. But more important it reminded everyone that it was the most basic things that were important and that needed to be returned to time and time again.

Michael Ramsey when Archbishop of Canterbury was asked by a cub reporter from one of the Canterbury papers, how long he prayed each day. And the Archbishop replied about two or three minutes. The heart of the cub reporter leapt he thought that he has a scoop on his hands, the headlines flashed across his eyes, but the Archbishop went on, but it takes me a couple of hours to prepare for those two or three minutes. So last night was not just a ruse to get you to relax and turn off your electronic machines, it was what needs to happen every time we settle down to pray. Rowan Williams said ‘my body is my hermitage and when I return to my hermitage I find God.’ If you go to the Hazy Moon website – it is a strange Californian Zen web-site – don’t even both to ask how I found it, it will teach you how to meditate in five minutes and the whole five minutes is taken up with being shown how to get comfortable and get in touch with your breathing. Much of doing this will happen rather more speedily than it happened last night we will have, we ought to have, a place that is holy to us that is comfortable to us, whereby just in getting to the place the process has started. All the information that our senses are receiving is so familiar to us that we can easily turn it off. We just need to have that space that we can get to every day and there might, of course, be other places that we can only get to occasionally, places that George McCloud, the founder of the Iona Community, called ‘thin places’ places, where God seems very close, Iona itself, here [Walsingham] perhaps.

But the hermitage which is my body: I saw a billboard in America last month which said prayer is not giving instructions to Go: it is saying to God, here I am ready: ready principally to receive information and we need to remember that we receive and transmit information in each one of our senses, just in the same way that we receive and transmit information – we communicate with each other – with all our senses, you know, or you will soon find out that a touch, a hug, might well be the only thing that we can do with someone who is newly bereaved, or who has just received horrendous news or just needs affirming: try going with a gay friend or a friend of a different ethnic grouping into a football crowd and you could well smell fear, if you have never smelt it before: and bitterness has a very definite taste. In fact many is the occasion where words are just totally inadequate – we can only communicate with others via other senses. So as we communicate with each other with all our senses we must expect that communication both to and from God uses all our senses. It is fascinating how when we enter a church where there is still the smell of incense or votive candles flickering that our noses and our eyes tell us that here is a place where prayer has happened or is happening. And the corollary, no smells, no candles, no pictures on the wall or in the windows makes us pause and wonder whether we are in the right place. There are two almost identical churches, built in some architectural competition just after the Second World War in what was then West Berlin, one Lutheran, one Roman Catholic, both quite dark in the twilight, but one smelling of beeswax polish and the other of incense. Not hard to work out which was which. And in our preparation to say that we are here, ready, we very often have to turn off our senses, one by one, by identifying what it is that they are telling us and just putting it by. The easiest sense is probably our hearing because that is the one we have to turn off most often; silence is seldom to be found and even in the quietest places, we need to start by listening for the background noise and identifying it and putting it by, the sounds of wind and waves and birds, the rain on the roof or against the window, the wonders of creation. Some senses are impossible to turn off, frying bacon for example when you are hungry. And sometimes as soon as one settles one goes to sleep. Theresa of Avila saw this as a great blessing; it could of course be that God is telling us to look after ourselves, rather more carefully.

And then, prepared, what do we do? I have been sorely tempted to write a long list of wondrous books on prayer. It wouldn’t be hard, and most priests’ libraries are full of them. But, first, prayer is above all something we have to do, not read about. The great expert is not the one who has worn out the seat of their trousers sitting down reading books, but the one who has worn out the knees of their trousers actually praying. Books do feed the doing, what is most important is do not struggle on with any of the great classics. If they don’t help, or they don’t seem to mean anything fairly quickly, don’t bother. Maybe in ten or twenty years, they will reflect exactly where you will be then – maybe they are where you were five years ago. There is no magic ladder up which all of us travel in orderly procession, God meets us where we are and takes us where he wants. And if we are ever asked to walk beside another on this pilgrimage of prayer we might well find that we cannot help because we are on different roads altogether, at that moment. It is not a higher road, or a lower road, or a better road, it is a different road, because we are all different.

I have just been looking at my own treasured spiritual classics that I need close to hand always and apart from Anthony de Melo, the Song of the Bird and Dag Hammarskjold’s Markings, I notice both the Constance Spry cookery book and a complete set of Elizabeth David have crept onto the shelf. I am surprised that they have not been joined by a novel or two, because although for me, cookery books and cooking are a great aid to prayer, it is novels that have always taught me my pastoral theology and illuminated my intercessions, in the most unexpected ways. It started with a novel I read when I was about 17 was a book called the Woman of Rome, by the great Italian novelist, Alberto Moravia. I read it for entirely the wrong reasons. It had been banned by the Pope. I thought that it had been banned because it was pornographic – hence my desire to read it – there wasn’t much around in the sixties it was even before Lady Chatterley’s lover – actually it had been banned because its doctrine of sacramental confession was deficient – a weakness that didn’t exactly spring to my mind at the time. Much of the dialogue in the book was between the woman and her confessor, and he asked her too many questions, that was the error. All this was lost on me, but the conversations were fascinating and at one point, the woman, who was, of course a prostitute, said she could only pursue her trade, because every person in the world has something attractive about them and you just look for that attractive something and work on it. The novel was a book of ideas and if you are going to be a parish priest, that is an extraordinary thought, that has saved me on countless occasions when I have been faced with parishioners, who seem to have nothing to commend them, there must be something about them, some tiny hint of the God in whose image they were created, if only I could see it. Even when I find it, they might not end up best friends ever, but at least they become tolerable to live with and on occasion, your relationship with them and your prayers will transform them beyond recognition. Before I was ordained, I worked for a year in the Bristol University Settlement. One of the works there was with old people and we had an enormous number of activities for them and over eight hundred of them on our books. One of them who came every day was Miss Bodycote. And Miss Bodycote was a sad unpleasant woman. She had no friends, a tongue like a razor and sadness and loneliness and disappointment and frustration were deeply etched on her unlovely face. She was so unpleasant that the Members’ Committee wanted to throw her out of the Club. This had never been done before and it felt totally wrong, totally against the ethos of what had been a Quaker foundation. So we decided that instead of expelling her we would love her. But we needed a reason to love her – and we found it in her lemon drizzle cake. It was divine, but it was still very hard to turn the memory of that taste into the reality of love. Even smiling warmly when she entered the room or when we met her in the street needed positive, not to say determined effort. But it gradually grew easier because she changed. Probably for the first time in her life she felt accepted, loved. And as she changed, the unpleasant externals gently faded away. Her eyes became warm and even occasionally sparkled. The line of her jaw became softer. Her whole body language altered. And when I called her ‘Gertie’ for the first time – at her invitation – she wept, because no-one had called her that – probably no one had known that that was her name – since her mother had died sixty years before. And when she herself died the Church was packed for the funeral. Dear Gertie Bodycote, living on in my heart, and if that can happen to her, just because her lemon drizzle cake was divine, what an advertisement for love.

So actually making connections between what we are reading and prayer is not to confine our reading to spiritual classics but rather to expect everything we read and everyone we meet to increase our wonder at the greatness of God. We feed our prayer of course with spiritual classics, but more often with novels and magazines and the newspapers all of them showing what is happening in God’s world and how people behave with each other. And we can read and re-read, or if it is film or television watch and re-watch. And all of the time we are being challenged to find where God is expecting us to be ready to be his hands and his feet and his ears and his voice in his world. All he needs to do is to point us in the right direction. We are probably not being called to solve the problems of Syria, we pray that someone will come forward who is called, but we ourselves respond to that prayer by being more considerate more like peacemakers in our own patch.

And it is not only words and sights that feed us. Personally I find music also overwhelms me. Not only its beauty but also its pain: listen to – but no music is so very personal and you must find your own, just don’t be surprised when the third act of La Boheme drives you to prayer or Judy Collins – ask your father – drives you to penance, maybe for you its Back to black anyway. But every single way that humankind has found to express itself in art and culture is also a way that can show us God and enrich our prayer. All we have to do is to make the connections.