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Rowan Williams on prayer, life today and September 11

Posted on: June 12, 2002 4:23 PM
Related Categories: Australia

On his recent visit to Melbourne, Dr Rowan Williams, the Primate of Wales and possible successor to Dr George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury, delivered two lectures at Trinity College Theological School and was interviewed for The Melbourne Anglican by Roland Ashby. An extract from the interview is below. Other issues he talked about include September 11, modern society and stem cell research.

The full text, as well as a report on the lecture series, is available on Anglican Media Melbourne's web site: http://www.media.anglican.com.au/tma/

Q: Can you give some idea of your typical day and how you approach prayer in your busy life. How do you integrate a life of prayer and contemplation into that?

A: Normally in the morning I have the children to worry about (two very young children - getting them ready for school, spending some time with them), but what I try to do is to take about half an hour to say the Jesus Prayer which is what I use most regularly, the orthodox form of prayer. That is simply repeating "O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner," using the prayer rope that eastern monks use. Then when my chaplain arrives we say Morning Prayer together.

Q: Is the prayer rope something like rosary beads?

A: Yes. There are a hundred knots on the rope and you simply say the Jesus Prayer once for each knot. And there are various ways of punctuating it - you could pause at 25 and say the Gloria or something like that, which is what I normally do.

By repeating the Jesus Prayer the mind is stilled and the heart beat and the breath slow down, and you become more present to the place you are in. It's really an anchorage in time.

Q: Is there a sense in which you become aware of the presence of the Spirit?

A: It's very hard to answer that. I think you can only say there can be an awareness of a presence. Maybe you can't say any more than that - that you are held or attended to. The way I most often express it is that there comes a level of prayer where it is no longer a question of, "Are you seeing something?" Rather, "Are you aware of being seen?" If you like, sitting in the light and of just being and becoming aware of who you really are.

What a lot of the literature talks about is a sort of gathering in of awareness into yourself, which sounds a strange way of putting it but it simply means our thoughts and fantasies are usually all over the place and running off after this, that and the other, and part of the process that is going on is the sort of steady and quiet drawing in and settling of all these tentacles that are wriggling out to lay hold of the world - you gather them back in and that's a gathering into the heart which the orthodox writers talk about, and what western writers mean by the simplification of heart in prayer. By this we simply become what we are and just sit there being a creature in the hand of God.

Q: Who have been some of the key influences in your spiritual and contemplative formation? You have written extensively on St John of the Cross.

A: With St John of the Cross I think what went deep was precisely an understanding of prayer as more than feelings. Now you can misunderstand that - you can say that prayer is nothing to do with feelings, it is all a matter of will and practice, but that I think is not what he is saying. Prayer is a habit of being. It is a sinking of your own identity into something deeper which goes on whether or not you think you are consciously praying, which means that how you feel is not unimportant but it doesn't tell you all you need to know about prayer. You may be feeling terrible and God may be active; you may be feeling nothing in particular, but God may be very active; you may be feeling wonderful, and that may have nothing at all to do with God's doing.

So a little bit of distance from your feelings, not hostility to them, but a realism about them, and an ability to tell the difference between what God is doing and how you are feeling - that is, I think, fundamental in St John of the Cross.

He helped me a great deal to make sense of my own life and he also helped me make sense of a period in my own life when I wasn't very conscious of God doing anything and felt a lot of doubts and darkness in my life, and yet couldn't stop believing or hoping for something. This was before I was a priest in my years as a graduate student.

He was simply one of the people who always made sense whenever I picked him up, and two modern interpreters of St John of the Cross have also helped. One was John Chapman, another Abbot of Downside, whose spiritual letters I think were probably the single most influential book for me in my twenties, and still are to some extent. The two axioms which he wrote throughout his correspondence - pray as you can and don't try to pray as you can't, and the less you pray the worse it gets - does tell you a great deal. He was a terrific influence.

The other one is an English Carmelite nun called Ruth Burrows, who in the seventies published a number of short books on the Carmelite tradition, including one called Guidelines to Mystical Prayer which for me made the same kind of sense as Abbot Chapman. She also wrote a very striking little autobiography called Before the Living God which gave a quite harrowing account of her own spiritual journey, but it had the same quality of honesty about feelings, honesty about the doubts in the darkness and how she had discovered through St John of the Cross a way of surviving that was truthful to what she was experiencing.

Q: How do you see yourself in relation to the reformed and evangelical side of our tradition?

A: It is something that I think became very important to me at one or two points when I needed it as a kind of corrective to what can be a slightly precious and elitist anglo-catholocism. Sometimes you just need to sing Blessed Assurance and hit a tambourine. You just need to know that there is something profoundly simple about what an evangelical would rightly call a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and that nothing substitutes for that.

So I have never been inclined to look down on that kind of piety - I think it is an absolutely essential strand, and for those of us who are inclined to be over subtle or over complex about things it is a necessary bit of medicine. It is also a joy and liberation.

Particularly in the last ten years, having more and more contact with charismatic renewal in Wales, I find it's a liberation. I've got some questions of course, some reservations, but again it is a real freeing of the Spirit.

Article from: Anglican Media Melbourne