Listening in the School of Love

19th March 

St. Joseph’s Feast Day

Silent prayer is a distinctive characteristic of Cistercian spirituality. It’s a way of praying that uses the Centering Prayer method, which is all about listening in silent prayer. This practice is part of our spiritual heritage here in the Bro Celynnin Ministry Area.

Silent Prayer 2

The role of silent prayer is to provide a counter-balance to the usual wordiness of intercessions, which tend to be part of our Anglican worship today. A relationship where we are always asking, and not really giving back or listening, becomes unsustainable. God always wants our relationship to be a two-way thing.

The Cistercian monks, who worshipped and worked in some of the places where we live and work today, had a strict discipline of silence. We might think of it as being restrictive, but the monks would have disagreed! The discipline of silence wasn’t about a prohibition to talk, and it still isn’t. It’s about a positive invitation to develop an inner disposition of listening attentively for the loving voice of God. It’s something you can do throughout your daily activities. By having this ability to listen more deeply, you can develop a depth of wisdom in the School of Love, as well as an everyday kind of holiness.

So, what is all this listening about? Guerric of Igny, an early Cistercian scholar and master at the school in Tournai, said it was twofold:

First, we are being listened to:-

Friends, that is, angels, are listening to us as we pray or sing psalms … In this let us consider with what discipline of heart and body we ought to sing psalms or pray in the sight of the angels lest they be sent away empty and send us away empty, they who had come to carry our prayers up and bring back gifts … The Bridegroom himself, who stands at the door and knocks, if no worthy devotion answers him from within and opens the door, will go away complaining …’

Second, we are to be listeners when we pray:-

‘For it is the mark of a friend to listen devotedly to the Bridegroom’s voice, as John says: the Bridegroom’s friend is he who stands by, not wandering in mind or prostrated by sleep, and listens, rejoices too, rejoices at hearing the Bridegroom’s voice which he recognises even in his servants. Let us then also, whether the Bridegroom’s voice sounds through the mouth of one speaking or reading or singing, prove ourselves to be friends by so standing and listening that it may give joy and gladness to our hearing and we may not only receive the word with joy but also bear fruit in patience.’

Today is the Feast Day of St. Joseph, and life was not at all straightforward for him. He thought his future was clearly mapped out, until he discovered that Mary was pregnant, and she told him it was a divine conception!

Joseph’s emotions would have been somewhat stirred. His world would have been turned upside down in just those few moments, and a range of emotions must surely have evoked feelings of anger, betrayal, confusion and doubt. In the midst of the resulting turmoil, Joseph needed discernment to find a respectable way out of the crisis.

The Birth of Jesus the Messiah

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Matthew 1: 18-25

In the Gospel passage according to Saint Matthew, we can see how important it is to take the time to listen for God’s voice. On that occasion, it came through the message of an angel. We may notice a similar turmoil of emotion today, when all our lives are irreversibly changed by the impact of the coronavirus. We need to bring those thoughts and feelings to prayer, to acknowledge them, and to gain assurance that our loving God has listened to them.

Read the Bible passage again, and note the word, or phrase, that catches your attention.  Let that be your prayer word, then go through the steps of the Centering Prayer process:-

Centering Prayer

As you start to pray, you need to be sitting comfortably, usually with your feet flat on the ground, hands resting on your lap, eyes closed, or half open with a soft gaze. Be attentive to your breathing. On your in-breath, breath in the life of God, and on your out-breath, exhale your own thoughts or feelings, which are less than the fullness of Christ’s love. Don’t change your breathing pattern, just notice it. You are seeking a place of listening silence. 

As your breathing starts to find its own rhythm, be still for long enough in God’s presence to know that God is listening to you, and then listen for God speaking to you. The Centering Prayer then continues with the prayer word spoken silently by you on your in-breath. If your thoughts or feelings start to distract you, simply notice them, and then let them go. Use your prayer word to help you anchor your mind, so that you’re not distracted. Settle into a place of listening. Be aware of being listened to, of being held in love in the silence, and resting in that loving place with the Bridegroom. What are you hearing?

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Don’t despair if you find it difficult. Even Archbishop Ramsey was alleged to put an hour aside each day for prayer, and he usually spent 58 minutes preparing and 2 minutes praying! It takes practice to listen in the School of Love, and it will become a way of life for you, as it was for the Cistercians. They wanted all their daily work to be done with this depth of listening to God, so prayer wasn’t just confined to set times of the day (their Offices). The result, as Guerric of Igny said, was seen in a joyful life, and a distinguishing characteristic of Cistercian life. May it be increasingly true for each one of us today.

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