Monday, June 15, 2009

A Decade On, "Father Basil" on Prayer

The man credited with having brought English Catholicism "out of the closet" four and a half centuries after the Reformation, Wednesday sees a decade since the death of Cardinal Basil Hume, the Ampleforth man whose grace and piety on the national stage rocketed the archbishopric of Westminster to a Canterbury-esque prominence in Britain's public life.

His favored protege now freshly on the throne Hume held for 23 years, remembrances of the "monk cardinal" -- who died aged 76 after a yearlong, public struggle with abdominal cancer -- are taking place across Britain this week, including calls for his canonization and a new book of tributes, the preface of which ran yesterday in the Sunday Times...
“If I don’t go into the desert, to meet God,” Hume said, “then I have nothing to say when I go into the market-place. That’s very important. I could only survive my work as Archbishop . . . if I have allocated so much of the day to prayer. That has to be done, in my case, early in the morning. I don’t think I could survive in my job unless I had that half hour. It has become very important to me.”

Many of those who met the Cardinal considered they had met a genuine man of prayer, a man of God who communicated an inner strength, a powerful and affirming sense of prayerfulness. Those who met him casually would not have guessed it, but a life of prayer was not often an easy one for him. He often described his most usual form of prayer as being “a prayer of incompetence” and it was rare for him to experience a deeply satisfying moment of prayer. He once said to one of his private secretaries: “I have not been successful in my prayers but I have been faithful.”...

Particular passages from the gospel had a special importance in his heart. Several of these related to instances where Christ healed people: the story of the blind man asking to be given his sight, a deaf man seeking to have his hearing restored, a leper asking to be made clean, a lame man asking for healing. When troubled, he would put himself in the position of the blind, the deaf, the leper and the lame and ask God to help him to see, to help him to hear what God wanted of him, to cleanse him of his sin and to enable him to act. He learnt to treat doubt as a friend.

He encountered other problems in his spiritual life. One, he felt, was a tendency to rely on his own efforts rather than God. He said: “Nothing in my spiritual life do I find harder than to trust . . . I don’t trust God enough. I do fret. I do fall into the trap of thinking that it all depends on ‘me’.”

In addition he had feelings of personal inadequacy. When talking to some of his fellow priests he observed: “Deep down in every priest there is always a slight sense of unease . . . we discover we are in fact too fragile to carry the hopes of those we serve . . . I too have been less than adequate in my task, which is to bring the good news.” As he aged, this may have become more marked. “As we grow older we become more conscious of our failings and guilt and can very easily lose faith in ourselves . . . as you grow in self-knowledge the gap between what you are and what you know you should be will become greater.”

He sometimes questioned whether he deserved to hold a position of power, saying: “I am increasingly of the opinion that no one is ever really worthy enough to exercise authority over others. As I say this, I am thinking in the first place of myself.” At times he was concerned that he had not been a good bishop, writing in a letter in 1997: “I have been constantly anxious about the fact that I gave far too little time to our priests.” He may have been unduly harsh on himself, but he thought himself overrated.

Once, quite late in his life, a friend asked him if he had any regrets. After a brief pause for reflection, he answered: “Time unspent. Love not given.” The many people who had benefited from his loving, pastoral approach to life would have disagreed.

It was probably, however, partly his willingness to be honest about his difficulties with prayer that made him a powerful speaker on the subject. For others, who also often found their prayer life hard, doubtless felt that he had experienced similar difficulties and, given his evident holiness, were encouraged to persevere. When he went on pilgrimage to Lourdes he would give one or two talks on prayer in the evenings. Fellow pilgrims were keenly interested to know: “Is the Cardinal speaking tonight?” He was spellbinding when talking on these occasions.

If he sometimes felt a failure in his prayer life and at times in other respects, it is worth remembering that he himself considered that the test of a truly successful prayer life is whether the person concerned becomes more loving. He said: “If you want to apply my tests as to whether your prayer is going well, then judge it according to the answers to these questions: Am I becoming more generous? Am I growing in charity? Kinder? More considerate? More tolerant and understanding? Less self-opinionated?”

He would doubtless have asked for that test to be applied to himself.

In his prayer life Father Basil had a number of rules, for as he said: “I have to be disciplined and ordered and stick at it,” even though he accepted that “the best way to pray is the way that suits you”. His rules were: do it, make up your mind; make space in the day for a quarter to half an hour; decide what to do the next day — like a lover waiting for the beloved, preparing what to say, thinking of a word to describe her, repeating a phrase he wants to say, just thinking about her. He recalled that “in monastic life you were always supposed after Compline in the evening to prepare your meditation for the next day”.

Other rules were: don’t look for success, don’t give up; do spiritual reading, for “the mind needs to be fed in order to stimulate prayer”; start with the New Testament and the Psalms — read the Gospels as being addressed to you personally. His final rules were: give thought to what we say because through the thoughts we discover the God about whom the thoughts are; make distractions part of your prayer; plan it!

He said: “The effect of prayer is to interiorise religion, open us up to the values of another world and at the same time and profoundly open us up to each other. . . Through perseverance in prayer we are gently led to see more clearly that we are not the centre of everything but God is.”
At Hume's funeral in Westminster Cathedral, the day's memorable homily began with these words....
Dear sisters, dear brothers, two short months ago when told of his terminal cancer, the Cardinal was, at first, tempted to feel 'if only... if only I could start all over again, I would be a much better monk, a much better abbot, a much better bishop.

'But then I thought' - these are now his own words - 'then I thought how much better if I can come before God when I die, not to say thank you that I was such a good monk, good abbot, good bishop, but rather God be merciful to me a sinner. For if I come empty handed then I will be ready to receive God's gift.

'God, be merciful to me a sinner'.