Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”


We post here two papers which were given by the Chaplain of the Grand Priory, Msgr Antony Conlon, at the Annual Order retreat for men, held last week at Douai Abbey, Berkshire.  These papers are offered to our readers as spiritual reading for Holy Week, as indeed they merit much further consideration by those who were privileged to hear them when first delivered.

They are accompanied by good wishes and prayers for a holy and blessed Triduum and Easter from the Grand Priory. The intentions of all the readers of this blog will be prayed for during the Masses of the Holy Triduum in the Conventual Church.

Click on the READ MORE link below for the texts of the two talks.

I have never been to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Among its many treasures
is a painting by Rembrandt of the Return of the Prodigal Son. The artist painted it in old
age and it is believed by some to reveal traces of his own spiritual journey, with figures
on the canvas reflecting himself at different stages in his life. The central figure is not so
much the shaven-headed and ragged youth being embraced but the father who embraces
him. The young man’s face is scarcely visible as it leans towards the forgiving parent. The
father is shown mysteriously as a blind man and with two different shaped hands; one
definitely female.

Three other figures look on; the elder son, impassive and distant; a seated elderly man and in the shadows a woman who is smiling. The Gospel episode
behind this painting has been described as the greatest story ever told. It certainly is
unique in religious story-telling. How utterly different a view of traditional biblical stories
related to a father and two sons it is, only reveals itself upon comparison with them.
Both their actions and their attitudes are the opposite of what might be expected from
previous such stories.

From the Genesis accounts of Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, and going forward, the
elder son was ever a figure of suspicion and betrayal: the younger, the more enterprising
and successful. The Prodigal Son is different. It charts a whole new approach to the
question of inheritance, loyalty, compassion and forgiveness. Pope Benedict, in his own
commentary on this parable, written more than twenty years ago, sees in the two
brothers symbols of Israel and of paganism. The elder is faithful only in outward
appearance but inwardly resentful and cold-hearted. The younger is guilty of all the sins
of sensuality and selfishness which St Paul condemns in the first chapter of his Epistle to
the Romans. But it is this son who recognises his degradation, finds himself and returns
to the only source from which he can derive life, love and dignity. It is a parable of
contrasting yet comparable attitudes to the generosity of God.

Most of us when we have read or heard this parable in the past –especially when we were
younger and full of eagerness for independence and a desire to go our own way in most
things, would have thought of ourselves as the younger son. His careless abandon and
love of excitement might have reflected how we once saw life. Yet, the gift of faith
helped us to somehow find stability and to seek the security of the sacraments rather
than secular solutions to human waywardness. As we get older, the image of the elder
son might reflect more generally the reality of our spiritual journey. Through the years,
we mostly stuck with the task in hand but at times it may be a joyless experience. Pope
Benedict sees in the elder son the image of the devout person, who has never
transgressed seriously yet whose heart is still not wholly given to God. At the moment
when the joy of a repenting brother has brought gaiety and celebration to his home, only
sullen resentment fills his heart. Perhaps even though he has stayed at home and worked
hard, he has nevertheless always secretly cherished a desire to break free, to experience
those forbidden and dangerous delights that his younger brother enjoyed. How galling
for the elder son that his wasteful brother can be restored so easily to that which he had
previously thrown away. Perhaps the beauty of what the elder son possessed had never
really taken hold of him even though he had remained loyal and carried out all that was
expected of him. There are times when all of us who have borne the heat of the day can
be envious of others who have toiled less and yet have received greater recognition. Zeal
gives way to boredom or discouragement. At such times do we sometimes resent the
yoke of restraint that has gradually imposed itself upon us and wish we were less reticent
of earthly joys?

There is always a danger that our hearts are far from where they ought to be, slightly
envious of those who have less regard for virtue and yet seem to prosper and be wellregarded.
Though we stay this side of outright wickedness and carry out what is expected
of us, our loyalty may be tainted with suspicion and some regret as the years go by. Does
God notice what we do and allow us to feel good about it or, like the father in the story
show no indication of His love despite our daily attempts at faithful service? The
apparent silence of God about so many things that perplex and annoy us can result in
our spiritual life becoming a routine of ritual engagements rather than a filial relationship
with a Father who loves us and has given us everything When fervour and joy are absent
from our service, as in the example of the elder son, we all too easily fall into the state of
detached formality. This in turn can deprive us of charity towards others and a
heightened sense of awareness of their faults in comparison to our own imagined virtue.

Seeing his younger sibling return from fruitless dissipation and yet welcomed
unreservedly, the elder son perceived the mercy and compassion shown to him as
injustice, and the celebration of his conversion as a waste of time and effort. Our own
version of this attitude might be rash judgement of those who appear foolish or sense of
superiority over the weak disposition of others. If this is so, it makes our own conversion
less likely. A devout soul can, by dwelling too much with disgust on the wrongs of
others, lose the power to see where he himself has gone wrong and is too convinced of
his own sense of grievance to be aware of his distance from charity and humility. We
who clothe ourselves with the mantle of religion have to be on our guard that it is not a
pretext for self-righteousness in any of its forms.

The fact that we are here, withdrawing ourselves for some days from our usual
occupations and amusements, indicates that we are actively seeking to acknowledge our
need for self-examination and seeking to purify the motive of our religious vocation.
Lent has gives us an opportunity to check our progress and contemplate our need for
penance and pardon. We want to do something more than the minimum expected of us
as Catholics. We all admit the binding force of the Commandments of God, and –one
hopes at least- the Church. That is but the minimum required of any of us. To live the
vocation demanded of us by the promises of obedience, charity and chastity we have
made, a retreat is an essential aid to this end. The daily prayer of the Order recommends
“learning ever from thy Holy Gospels a spirit of deep and generous Christian devotion”.
Time spent here in reflection and prayer is an important aspect of this process of
learning. If we permit ourselves to be challenged sufficiently by God’s holy word, we
shall admit with regret that imperfection dogs our steps, however firmly they are set on
the road to goodness. Should that be the cause of hand-wringing or breast-beating in us?
Only to the extent that such a reaction is a response to the recognition of our limitations
and our weakness and refuses to be content to remain in that condition. These few days
away from other pressures and concerns, however important or legitimate, give us a
welcome opportunity of finding a way out of the inertia that supine spirituality imposes
upon us and a way forward to a more positive approach to our religious vocation and
our lives as servants of the Gospel. The way out of lassitude is first, to acknowledge that
we do at times serve God grudgingly, with a degree of stoic detachment, unbecoming to
a Christian; accepting the burdens imposed upon us by circumstances, but annoyed that
they are not more advantageous to our purpose. Duty is not a bad motivation for action
but it is a poor substitute for devotion. Our true vocation is to serve God devotedly,
without expectation of any reward or even comfort. Few of us can manage that
consistently. That is why God has given us the sacraments. The way forward therefore is
to seek more diligently after the means to purify our motives and to pacify our appetite
for personal satisfaction. There is no more certain or effective way of embracing the
humility of self-examination than to make a good confession, not sparing ourselves in
the revelation of our inner core of pride, self-centredness and lack of charity. It is only
when we strip away the gaudiness of our self-importance and rid ourselves of the
delusion that multiple choices bring happiness that we begin to recognise how little we
measure up to perfection. Like the young prodigal, we have to make the journey, bareheaded
and covered with the rags of repentance towards our Father’s house, to
appreciate why our Faith –alone of all the religions that are sought for man’s
redemption- is the one that remedies powerfully the natural wretchedness of the human
condition. Where there was squalor and despair it provides security, sanity and dignity.
Like the elder son, we must learn that God loves and forgives all sinners who repent,
both those who have been furthest away from him and those less obviously distant in
their outward show of filial piety. But for the grace of God, we might easily belong to
either category.

Rembrandt’s painting is the work of an artist who travelled the full distance of the
Prodigal Son and hoped by painting the scene to exorcise his own demons. Perhaps he
did. Our last but one reflection on this painting and this story is focused on the figure of
the Father. Blind to the sins of both His sons He embraces one who has squandered
everything he was given and is so gentle and indulgent to the coldness and ingratitude of
the other. He is both a figure of Christ and of His heavenly Father. He is at once
compassionate, tender, utterly consistent in his love for his sons and ready at all times to
forgive their every transgression. He is an image of what, in time, we might hope to
become: utterly indifferent to our own inconvenience and totally forgiving of any wrong
done to us. The cost to Him of His generosity was the terrible price of the death in His
humanity of His Son. Through the Mass and the Holy Eucharist we are privileged to
share in and benefit from that sacrifice. By participating worthily in it and the other
sacraments which flow from it, we gradually become like unto Him and begin to
assimilate those attributes of mercy and love manifested in the words and gestures of
Christ. Our religion calls each one of us to that perfection but we respond often with
some reservations. We need to check those and be less calculating towards God’s many

Lastly, in the painting mentioned earlier, there is the mysterious smiling woman in the
shadows. Who is she? She is not part of the original story. I venture to suggest that
Rembrandt has included in this homecoming an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Looking on with approval and pleasure, she is witnessing the return of a son. As at the
Cross, she accepted responsibility for all the brothers of Christ, so she rejoices in one
who having left home a prodigal, now returns a penitent. But, much more so that he is
again a part of the family. As in the Gospels, she remains in the background,
encouraging and witnessing, but she is always there. May she be always there for you and
for me.


None of you will be surprised to hear the definition of prayer as “a raising - up of the
mind and the heart to God”. Those of us over 40 grew up with that catechism answer.
It’s easy to define; not so easy to practice. Since we are made “in the image and likeness
of God”, prayer ought to come naturally. The fact is; it does not. Why is that?
Just as the Bible reveals the truth of creation it also reveals the rebellion against the Creator that
followed it. Original sin damaged the intimacy of our relationship to God. Adam and
Eve “hid” from God once they realised the gravity of what they had done. In so many
different ways, human beings have been hiding from God ever since. We are sometimes
less than comfortable in His presence. He, on the other hand actively looks for us. This
time, not to ask the accusing question addressed to our first parents, “what is this that
you have done?” but rather to ask the question that preceded it “Where are you”? God’s
whole strategy and the intention that motivated it is to draw us back to Him and break
down the barriers that we build to keep Him at arms length. Prayer keeps the dialogue
going and is essential to the relationship as interaction and conversation is to friendship.
But even more than that, prayer can be described as the heartbeat of the soul. It keeps
the oxygen of grace moving at the times and in the places where it is most urgently
needed. It also stimulates the will and the appetite to acts of love and sacrifice. Moreover,
it puts us in our place in relation to God and reminds just what we owe Him.

So much for the theory of prayer. What about the practice? We all try to engage in it at
different levels and for a variety of reasons. If we are truthful it often appears to us a
one-way exercise. We send up signals of anticipation to God which we hope He will
recognise and respond to. Maybe at times our signals are ambiguous or erratic. Our Lord
has told us that our heavenly Father knows all that we need before we ask Him, so
maybe we think that there is not point much at times in pressing the bell too loudly.

Nonetheless, God still likes to hear from us, even if its only a brief message from time to
time, thought that would seem disrespectful and discourteous. A spiritual director in the
old days at St Edmund’s Seminary, Ware, once described short aspirations as “spiritual
darts” aimed randomly which occasionally hit the target! Apart from the memorised
prayers or the Office, common to all of us as the spiritual heritage of the ages, short
aspirations may be all that many can manage in a busy environment. Few of us are
contemplatives and all of us rely on learnt or acquired habits of prayer to fuel or piety
and keep contact with God going.

The greatest masters of the spiritual life all agree that apart from the official and
regulated worship of the Church and its setting of the prayers common to all of us, there
is no one system or mode of prayer that suits everyone. The structured austerity of the
Carthusian is not designed for the busy professional. Prayers learnt as child may not
always seem appropriate later in life. The essential feature of prayer is that we are free to
choose the ways to pray that appeal to us and we learn to pray by praying. That seems so
obvious –as it is a rule that can be applied to any discipline in life – and yet how often
the effort is what defeats many people. Most of us began praying with memorised
prayers as children. Then as time went, we learned to ask for things and to pray for other
people. Mature personal prayer should be less about asking for things and more about
expressing trust and confidence in God. John Henry Newman had a very strict and
decidedly awesome approach to prayer. For him, it was entirely related to God and the
recognition that in His presence, the creature should remember that he is only kept in
being by God’s power and should never approach the Almighty with any base notion of
equality. Other saints, like St Francis, are content to discover God and address Him
manifested in the simplicity of nature.

One thing that all spiritual masters warn about is excessive reliance on feelings in prayer.
Do we believe that if we feel good about our prayer then it must be working, and if we
feel bad about our prayer then it must be without effect? Perhaps the clearest warning
given about such feelings is that of the prayer of the Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel (18:10).
The Pharisee felt good about himself but did not see the truth about his spiritual
condition before God. The tax collector felt bad about himself, but faced the truth
regarding his need for mercy from God. Our feelings are not the best indicators of
spiritual health, nor are they a reliable way to assess spiritual experiences. Emotional
prayer might accompany a sense of loss or grief, or even a feeling of gratitude for success
where it was least expected but these are the comforting signs that we are beginning a
spiritual journey, not indications that we have reached our ultimate goal.

Faith teaches us that prayer before God is what dignifies our humanity. Kneeling before
Him is the very opposite to how it might be perceived by an atheist. It raises us above
the level of the purely animal within us and creates potential for undreamt of and often
seemingly impossible results. Teresa of Avila wrote that “It is one grace to receive the
Lord’s favour, another to understand which favour and grace it is”. One thing that she
and other writers are certain of; true prayer makes one docile to the promptings of the
Holy Spirit and instils an attitude of obedience, fidelity to the teachings of the Church
and a willingness to accept what is beyond our comprehension and experience. St
Ignatius of Loyola is also clear that prayer which induces discontent with articles of faith
and the advance of personal preference over magisterial doctrine is not prayer at all. It is
merely a diabolical trick to seduce the soul into error and rebellion.

What helps prayer? Undoubtedly it will be facilitated in the long term by regular and
specific time given over to it, accompanied by silence to avoid distraction as much as
possible. Teresa of Avila also recommends a good book close by, to aid us if the mind
should wander. Only the most practiced and spiritually advanced of us will be able to
successfully chase away distractions the moment they appear. Techniques of prayer are
regularly taught by practitioners of self-awareness and self-analysis. They are not prayer if
directed solely at the inducement of heightened states of consciousness or the
elimination of bodily sensations. Calm is needed to pray unaffectedly but the focus of the
prayer and serenity that accompanies it must be to allow the Spirit of God gentle access
to our thoughts and aspirations. We do not pray to release tension but to express our
dependence upon and intimacy with the Lord of creation.

The most exalted form of prayer is that which simply seeks to address it -self to God for
His own sake. This purity of intention finds its most perfect expression in the devout
assistance at Mass. Since the Mass is of itself the most sublime and perfect act of
worship, owing nothing to human invention and device, it has no equal in terms of what
is most pleasing to the Most Holy Trinity. The humanity of Christ represented in every
sense our created species and assumed its defects, not of sin directly, but of its terrible
consequences of suffering and death. Therefore there is not anywhere in the world or in
any other form of Christianity which lacks it, anything comparable to the Mass as prayer
par excellence. The number of holy men and women who have borne witness to the power
of the Mass to alter situations and conditions of evil and convert the most hostile should
make us anxious never to neglect it or regard it casually. Devoutly attended and followed
by faithfully seeking to fulfil its mandate of charity to others, it creates a fertile ground
for fervent prayer at other times and is a channel of unlimited grace from God.

Lastly, we possess within the Catholic tradition multiple forms of devotions established
and blessed by the Church over the centuries. It would be a hard heart indeed that could
not find at least one of these many alternative byways leading to the central highway of
the Lord, attractive and helpful. They enhance our prayer life and offer numerous
benefits and moments of real devotion. They also make up so much in their richlyindulgenced
prayers for the remission of the negative after-affects of sins, which, though
repented and forgiven still need purification. We all too easily forget this obligation and
this necessity of atonement to aid the clearance of the detritus of sinful after-effect that
remain as a consequence of the breakdown of harmony and the challenge to God’s
infinite goodness. The emphasis which the Church places on “making up” for sin is a
serious one and it should not be relegated to the realms of the optional or considered a
throw-back to a less enlightened age. Lastly, in terms of results to prayer –though they
should never be demanded unconditionally- The famous dictum of St Augustine (of
Hippo Regis) in regard to prayer and human effort is one that should recommend itself
to us all: “Pray as though everything depended on God and work as though everything
depended upon you”.

No comments:

Post a Comment