Aelred's September Letter, 2006

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in the City

Well, the photographs, taken from earlier months of this year, tell their own story in an August redolent of October! The roses haven't yet made a second flush. The right hand photograph is of the purple lilac planted in July 2004, and this has done really well at the side of the bike shed.

The title of this letter is of course ambivalent. Prayer is 'prayer' anywhere. But I make no apology for a certain amount of recent autobiographical history in order to write about prayer in the city, and as a result this letter may be a trifle longer than usual. A monk coming from 40 odd years in the 'desert' of a cistercian monastery situated in country surroundings, if not actually in the desert, to live in the suburbs of a thriving city, would inevitably feel, after a while, a little bit like a fish out of water. So I have been thinking quite a lot about prayer - prayer of all kinds - since after my arrival here in Cambridge.

The early monks in Egypt and Syria went out of the cities to places where there was the real feel of the solitude of the actual deserts of those places. While they took with them in their 'flight' from civilisation the noise of their own thoughts and feelings, at least they were able to pray uninterruptedly both in corporate gatherings and in the solitude of their own cells. The external silence favoured prayer, as most have seen it since, as the prayer of the soul in touch with the divine. Certainly, the sixth century expansion of the monastic movement saw the establishment of urban monasteries back in the cities of the Mediterranean, especially in Rome and Constantinople, but one could in those days make an effective 'desert' in the city behind high walls.

Today, prayer in the country surroundings such as we had at Ewell Monastery, can still be in traditional mode, unaffected to a large extent by the crises and travails of the wider world outside. But in the city? There lurks in that simple question a larger concern. Maybe in the country, surrounded by the beauty of the natural surroundings, one can think of ourselves as having 'soulful' contact with the divine - unless, as in some pictures of rural life such as in Hardy's novels, there is, in the country a harshness and a certain tragedy as one can find in the city.

The point I am making here has to do with the familiar idea of prayer as being a matter of our souls. So certain people, it has always been said, have the capacity of being spiritual, more than others who are not conscious of having a 'soulful' make up.

But the idea of the human person as being composed of 'body, soul and spirit', or some such phrase, depends upon mistranslations in the Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek, and then into English in the sixteenth century. So the King James version of Genesis 2:7,' And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul' should read, as in the modern versions, '... man became a living being.' Soul and body, as we so often think of ourselves, is dualist and is not a part of the Old Testament Hebrew idea of a person - except as we have had it mistranslated in our Scriptures.

So, if we do not have souls - and of course no one can actually prove scientifically that we haven't! - we are driven back to the more realistic understanding that it is we, as whole persons, who pray. For Christians, whose life is centred on a commitment to Christ as Lord, our whole response comes from us as persons in body and mind in relationship with Christ. The recent 'spirituality' movement, trying to recover wholeness in worship, has certainly tried to recover the 'body' as being important in prayer but only as an 'add on' to 'spirit'. That is not what I mean. We pray, if at all, wholely as 'spirited bodies' as one person has put it.

I am hoping to write more fully about this in due course, but just for now I would like to note that praying as whole persons makes it at least possible that outside the Christian understanding of religion (and also of Judaism and Islam) there is the possibility of allowing that the life of other people - the 90% majority - can also be marked by realistic prayer in the daily relationships of life.

Many people have a quietness and an 'inner life' not paraded before us except in their attitudes towards others. The possibility of this much wider 'praying' community, mirroring the activity of God in his outreach of the kingdom in the world of men and nations can enrich our understanding as Christians seeking to live out their witness in the City. Inevitably, over the centuries, Christianity has, as it were, raised walls around itself to exclude others who do not 'belong' to God. But if we are members of Christ today it is an outlook of acceptance of others, rather than of 'separatism', which cannot but affect our own understanding of worship and prayer. It is wider and more embracing than the way of Christian life traditionally seen in the West. It deserves thoughtful consideration - I almost said 'prayerful thought'!

© Aelred Arnesen

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