Forty years ago I was challenged by a Canoness. I had just finished a weekend course on personal prayer at the retreat centre that I ran in North London when the Canoness struck. Her dedication to liturgical prayer had made her somewhat dismissive of personal prayer which she felt was all well and good for the laity, but not for a semi-contemplative nun like her, whose spiritual meat and drink was primarily and almost exclusively ‘the prayer of the Church’, the corporate expression of the faith of the community.
“If The Heart Does Not Pray, Then The Tongue Labours In Vain.”
Shortly after this episode I went to Franciscan Italy and spent some time in the hermitage of Fonte Colombo high up on the hillside overlooking the Rieti Valley where St Francis had completed his rule in 1223. It was here that I first came across the words of the great Franciscan reformer, St Bernadine of Siena. So that nobody would ever forget them, he had written these words in capital letters around the sanctuary where the liturgy was celebrated each day. They were meant to remind his friars of an important spiritual truth. The words were written in Latin but anyone with a smattering of the Romance languages would be able to understand them. “Si Cor non orat, in vanum lingua laborat.” – “If the heart does not pray, then the tongue labours in vain.” These words were a constant reminder for his followers for generations to come, and not just for Franciscans, but for Jesuits and for Carmelites like St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, and for other orders too and for all who looked to them for inspiration and guidance.
The simple but profound meaning of these words was well known to the first Christians in the immediate aftermath of the Resurrection. They not only knew their profound meaning, but they prayed privately and personally at least five times a day as Jesus himself had been taught to do by Mary and Joseph, according to the ancient Jewish custom. It was here, like Jesus before them, their hearts were set afire with the love of the Father that they expressed together when they came to celebrate what later came to be called the ‘Divine Liturgy’, most especially in what we call today the Mass. The Mass is the peak of the holy mountain which is the liturgy, but there is no peak without the mountainous work of offering our daily love to God through personal prayer and the service of others that is its fruit.
True Catholic Spirituality
No matter what I said, I know that I didn’t convince the Canoness because she had fixed ideas in her head that reason could not remove. Let me explain what I tried and failed to explain to her, because our spiritual life and well-being depend on it. If you love good food you will undoubtedly be a devotee of Delia Smith, Mary Berry, Nigella Lawson, Gary Rhodes, Rick Stein or some other master chef. No matter whether you read their books, listen to them on the Radio or watch them on television, they all make an understandable assumption about their fans. They not only assume that they have ovens, but that they know how to use them, and that they use them often, perhaps many times a day. In short they assume that they know how to cook. It was exactly the same with all the writers of the New Testament.
Scriptures and Tradition
They assumed that their all readers prayed regularly every day, as they did themselves. They did not, therefore, detail when they should pray because everybody knew. Nor did they detail how everyone should pray or the prayers that they should use because they all knew that too. It would be stating the obvious. Nor did they have to describe endlessly how the love that they received in prayer would enable them to love others as Jesus had done before them. Nor, for that matter, did they have to keep underlining how these, their daily efforts, would become the offering that they made with their brothers and sisters at the weekly Mass. This is why for Catholics it is not just the scriptures, but the scriptures and tradition that conveys the teaching of Christ to successive generations.
You don’t have to tell fish how to swim, it’s what they do. You didn’t have to explain how to pray to the first Christians, it was what they did. It was the living environment in which they lived and moved and had their very being. The essence of the ancient Jewish prayers used by Jesus and his disciples before the Resurrection were still used by the first Christians after the resurrection, but they were transformed. The prayers that had once been said with Jesus before, were now prayed in, with and through Jesus, into whose mystical body they now lived and moved and had their very being. The inner dynamic power and vitality on which the early liturgy depended was the quality of the daily prayer and service of others during the previous week. It was this that was offered at Mass in, with and through Jesus to their common Father.
A Liturgical Climax Or An Anti-Climax?
However, what is supposed to be a liturgical climax, can turn out to be an anti-climax if those who come to Mass bring nothing to be offered because their previous week has been barren and bereft of trying to practise the two new Commandments that Jesus gave us. Our daily endeavour to implement them is the offering that we bring with us to offer, through Jesus at the weekly Mass. If we come with nothing, then we receive nothing, and the Mass becomes meaningless, not in itself, but for those who bring nothing to offer when they enter the church.
Renewal in the Church does not primarily depend on a perfectly designed liturgy, but on the quality of the spiritual lives of those who participate in it. Let us suppose that I had a magic wand and I could wave it to give everyone the liturgy of their choice each time they went to Mass. It might be the new liturgy as introduced by the Second Vatican Council, with a perfect translation of the text and with all the rites and rituals perfectly designed to satisfy everyone. On the other hand, it might be the old Tridentine Mass in Latin that so many of us were brought up on, or a grand sung high Mass with music by Perosi, Palestrina and Purcell, or the mediaeval Mass that was so loved by some of the greatest saints that have ever lived, or the ancient Mass known to the Fathers of the Church, which was said in Greek long before the introduction of Latin. Or it could be Mass according to the Chaldean rite said in Aramaic, the language that Jesus himself would have used at the Last Supper.
A Daily Liturgy of Spiritual Endeavour
The introduction of any or all of these rites in themselves would do nothing, in the long run, to change us personally, or the Church to which we belong, unless they were animated and inspired by the same profound daily liturgy of spiritual endeavour as practised by the first Christians, in imitation of how Jesus prayed and served the neighbour in need throughout his life on earth.
The famous Jewish Philosopher and mystic, Simone Weil said, ‘a person is no more than the quality of their endeavour’. It is this spirit-filled endeavour demonstrated in the personal prayer that we have made, and in the good works that we have performed, that we offer through Jesus to the Father when we take part in the Mass. Many years ago I failed to convince a Canoness about the absolute importance of personal daily prayer. Without it we cannot practise the first commandment properly, nor therefore, receive the grace to practise the second.
The fullness of our faith can only be seen and understood, not by the scriptures alone, but by the tradition that we have inherited too. The first Protestants derided good works, and that included personal prayer because they couldn’t see this. Both the scriptures and tradition are important for they both illuminate each other. Our total commitment to both makes us what we are, not just Christians but Catholics, the true living descendants of those who lived, prayed, suffered and died with Christ in the immediate aftermath of the Resurrection. To dismiss or to belittle the importance of daily personal prayer is to be Protestant, to proclaim and live it is to be Catholic.