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The Archbishop on Understanding Prayer

Sunday 13th September 2009

Mark Tully talks to the Archbishop of Canterbury about understanding Prayer for 'Something Understood' on Radio 4.

Read a transcript of the programme below, or click download on the right to listen [26Mb]

  • [Music 1: 'Let my Prayer Arise' composed by Chesnokov and performed by Gennadi Martemianov and the Soglasie Male Voice Choir of St Petersburg. Available on the CD Authentic Russian Sacred Music, released by IMP Classics.]

Mark Tully:

The Russian Orthodox hymn Let my prayer arise, introducing an Anglican prelate much influenced also by Orthodox Christianity: a poet and a scholar, the Most Reverend and Right Honourable Rowan Williams who was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2003. We spoke together in the crypt chapel of his official London residence, Lambeth Palace on the South Bank of the Thames.

During the stormy six years he's been the most senior clergyman in the Church of England Rowan Williams has faced criticism on many fronts. He's been accused of vacillating on the question of homosexuality, of holding dangerous views on sharia law, and naive opinions on economic issues. But the Archbishop confounded those who criticized him for weak leadership of the Anglican Communion when at the end of last summer's Lambeth Conference of Bishops from around the world he received a spontaneous standing ovation. And he's won almost universal respect for his courage and calm in facing criticism, for his profound learning and his deep faith. In an article in the New Statesman, James Macintyre said, 'Rowan Williams is marked by a rare humility and even that most elusive of qualities, holiness.' Prayer is at the centre of his life and at the end of his book Tokens of Trust the Archbishop quotes from the Sonnet Prayer; written by the seventeenth-century Welsh Anglican priest, George Herbert:

... God's breath in man returning to his birth,

... the soul's blood,

The land of spices, something understood.

And those words - says Rowan Williams - tell him what he is secretly and slowly acclimatizing himself to. They're also the words our title was derived from when these programmes started fourteen years ago. So I thought I should talk to the Archbishop about prayer, and asked him first what traditions nurtured his prayer life?

The Archbishop:

I suppose that it began really with a fairly traditional Book of Common Prayer–Anglican identity which I was learning as a teenager, although I'd grown up in another atmosphere, that was what I was familiar with in my early 'teens.

Mark Tully:

Was there anything particularly Welsh in it?

The Archbishop:

The tradition of Welsh hymn singing of course I could say was almost part of my mother's milk. It was something I absorbed when I was very young and that's always meant a lot. Music as part of worship certainly started there and that's always been something central for me. And both in the way I approach music and the way I approach worship, there's a crossover.

  • [Music 2: 'Lausanne (Iesu, Iesu Rwyt Ti'n Ddigon)' performed by D. Eifion Thomas. Available on the CD Can Y Tenoriaid - Great Welsh Tenor Solos.]

Mark Tully:

That was one of the Archbishop's favourite Welsh hymns: 'Jesus, Jesus all-sufficient'.

When Rowan Williams was at Oxford he was much influenced by Eastern Orthodox Christianity – an influence which grew from attending his first Orthodox service when he was a teenager.

The Archbishop:

There was something rather different, a bigger dimension. And the evening after I'd been to that liturgy I can remember saying my evening prayers as usual and suddenly knowing that I wanted to spend longer with it and be more quiet and just absorb what I'd received. And then a bit later on I read some very good books by a couple modern Roman Catholic writers like Christopher Butler. So that's where the groundwork was laid in those years.

Mark Tully:

So how did you understand what you're actually doing when you're praying?

The Archbishop:

As a Christian, my understanding is that what I'm doing is allowing the life of Jesus to come alive in me with the Holy Spirit, which means that from the depth of my being as a believer there rises up a kind of welling-up of life and love directed towards that mysterious source of Jesus' being, which we call God the Father. So when I pray I'm trying to make room for that. I'm not trying to fill up the space, I'm not trying to do something, but I'm trying almost to be carried on that 'rising water'. There is a line from T S Eliot's Four Quartets: 'And the pool wasfilled with water out of sunlight' (No 1 Burnt Norton) whichis a beautiful image of something rising up; but for that to happen you have to let go of a lot. You have to still your body and your imagination and let something flower, let something happen, and sooner or later your mind and your feelings have to get out of the way. So prayer is communion, it's that allowing the depth within and the depth outside to come together.

Mark Tully:

How do you feel about intercessory prayer? Yours is very much internal prayer, isn't it?

The Archbishop:

There's no huge difference really. A great Church of England writer of the twentieth century writing to a friend said, 'I'm going to spend ten minutes just thinking about you and Jesus', and I think that's a brilliant definition of intercessory prayer. You don't send in your list of requests or bombard God with your demands. You just hold the image and sense of a person or situation in the presence of God as if you want to let the one seep into the other. The bringing together of those two realities in your mind and heart is very much how I find intercession works.

Mark Tully:

So isn't there any element really of saying to God, 'Please help this person' or whatever?

The Archbishop:

Well, of course there is because your emotions are involved here, and in particularly intense circumstances of need of course I say sometimes, 'God please make a difference to this'. Your emotions push you towards saying these kinds of things, and there's no need to be ashamed of that. But the reality is just to let God into the situation to hold it there. That's the bottom line.

Mark Tully:

You've tucked this interview into a very busy schedule. How do you find time to pray and be quiet in this life that you're living?

The Archbishop:

One of the most sobering things I've ever heard on this is Archbishop Desmond Tutu saying to somebody once, 'I'm too busy to pray for less than two hours a day'. I'm still thinking about that ... But clearly what he meant was that the busier it gets the more essential it is to make the space, because simply going from one thing to the next, if you haven't tried to put down an anchor somewhere then you'll really be exhausted and distracted -- it's bad enough as it is. It's a matter of trying to make time early in the morning to put the whole day in perspective and have enough space then to frame the rest of the day. And also it's simply making the most of those rare moments when nothing much is going on, to settle physically, breathe from the pit of your stomach for a few minutes, perhaps let a word or two – come Jesus, or God – just be there. Because you'll know as well as I, the great temptation is simply not being there and having your energies and imagination always somewhere where you're not actually present. So being with God is 'settling in the moment' and when people talk about the absence of God in prayer I've occasionally said to them, 'the problem isn't the absence of God, it's the absence of you'.

R S Thomas wrote a number of poems about prayer, and they're mostly to do with waiting and silence and a sense of the absence of God, and yet in the middle of that awareness of absence there is the realization that you have arrived: there is a reality and it's beyond the words you could find and you've got to wait, you've got to stay with it.

  • [Reading 1: 'The Prayer' written by R S Thomas. Available in the book, The Collected Poems '45 – 90. Published by J.M. Dent]

He kneeled down

dismissing his orisons

as inappropriate; one by one

they came to his lips and were swallowed

but without bile.

He fell back

on an old prayer: Teach me to know

what to pray for. He

listened; after the weather of

his asking, no still, small

voice, only the parade

of ghosts, casualties

of his past intercessions. He

Held out his hands, cupped

as though to receive blood, leaking

from life's side. They

remained dry, as his mouth

did. But the prayer formed:

Deliver me from the long drought

of the mind. Let leaves

from the deciduous Cross

fall on us, washing

us clean, turning our autumn

to gold by the affluence of their fountain.

Mark Tully:

That was another Welsh Anglican priest R S Thomas's poem The Prayer. The Archbishop himself stands in a long line of poet-priests. So is there a particular relationship between poetry and prayer?

The Archbishop:

I'm sure that there is, and I think it's very much to do with this business of trying to get out of the way with what's happening, trying to get the managing, fussy mind out of the way. Poetry happens in some ways unexpectedly, something clicks and comes together – there's a convergence that you weren't looking for. And then the writing of the poem is exploring that sudden coming-together that you hadn't expected. But to be in the frame of mind where these little 'comings-together' happen, you need a bit of a habit of quiet, and listening, and letting things happen and I find that the kind of inner disposition that helps poetry happen is not a million miles from that which helps prayer happen.

Bach's 'Cello Suites are for me the supreme example of contemplation in music. They don't deal with the emotions very much, there is nothing spectacular but just a single line unfolding itself. And I always see it as a kind of silver line in the middle of darkness and its effect is just to bring you into that darkness with a sense of self-awareness and being drawn into an unfolding pattern that just is itself. And that for me is the contemplative mystery. That you are drawn into something that is that is itself

  • [Music 3: 'Suite No. 1' composed by JS Bach and performed by Janos Starker. Available on the CD Bach: Cello Suites, released by RCA.]

Mark Tully:

That was the opening movement of Bach's first 'Cello Suite.

For his Lent reading this year, the Archbishop chose a book written by Timothy Radcliffe the former master of the worldwide Roman Catholic Dominican order. The book was called Why go to Church? And I wondered what answer the Archbishop would give to that question.

The Archbishop:

Organized, traditional church gives you a framework of understanding and it gives you a vocabulary. It tells you what kind of God you're involved with; a God who is not distant and to be shouted, at but a God who has made himself utterly accessible. It tells you that you have the possibility of standing in God's presence and addressing God as Jesus did – that is intimately and directly – from within God's own life. And it also gives you this sort of repertoire of phrases and rhythms which, when things are difficult or dry in your prayer, you can turn to. Are you finding it hard to concentrate or focus? Well, find a phrase or form of words and 'hang' the silence on that peg. Because words that are familiar and don't have to be thought about intensely help you settle down.

When I was a teenager I remember one of the little books of prayer I was given by my vicar had the words of the General Thanksgiving from the Prayer Book:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us, and to all men; We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life;

And I learnt that by heart as a boy, and it's still there, and at moments it's the peg to hang things on. And whether it's hymns or words of a prayer it really helps to have those little formulae that sometimes just quiet your mind. So all of that is part of what you derive as an individual from going to church, but also (and this is rather bluntly put) as a Christian you are always praying with other Christians whether you realize it or not. You go to church in order to immerse yourself in something, to absorb something and be absorbed, to pray as the Body of Christ that community which together articulates Christ's love and longing for the Father.

Mark Tully:

You must hear a lot of people criticizing the Church and saying that it doesn't do anything to help you pray: how do you answer that criticism? You must get fed-up with it.

The Archbishop:

Well I do in one sense, but I also recognize how true it is; because a lot of churches I find myself in, make me think, 'Oh, for goodness sake just shut up for a moment, let God in. This is so noisy, so confident and busy that nobody's really going to have space to grow in this'. And I think we ought to be working much more carefully on how we structure our prayer around quiet, how the rhythms, again, bring people to where they are, instead of just pushing them into a hectic pattern of feeling and chattering. We're not good at it. And unless we can somehow imagine afresh our shared worship, well then it won't be surprising if individuals go away feeling they've not really been helped to grow, to move into something deeper, more silent or more real.

  • [Music 4: 'Agnus Dei' composed by Herbert Howells and performed by King's College Choir. Available on the CD, A Celebration of Herbert Howells released by Argo.]

Mark Tully:

That was Herbert Howells' setting of the Agnus Dei (or Lamb of God) from his setting of the Anglican Office of Holy Communion.

Rowan Williams was on the twenty-first floor of a building just south of the World Trade Centre on 9/11. The building was so near the Twin Towers that it rocked when the first tower disintegrated. The group he was with only escaped with the greatest difficulty, almost suffocating on smoke and soot. Facing what was a very real threat of death, how did the Archbishop pray?

The Archbishop:

In the middle of it all I have a couple of memories that have stuck with me. One is of gathering the people who were in the building I was in when we thought it might go down with the others. Just thirty or so of us were in a darkened room -- because the lights had gone out -- listening to the noise of one of the towers coming down and all of us were trying to focus our prayers by just holding hands and breathing, and they asked me to lead them in prayer. It was the challenge of holding that stillness in the middle of real panic which I think was a reminder that in the most extreme of situations human beings still have some capacity to arrive - to be where they are. And then the unforgettable second experience that day was when we were trying to get away from the rush of debris as the second tower came down, and we took refuge in a little portakabin. A group of us had come out, and we had with us some very distressed pre-school children who'd been at a crèche in the same building (we were getting them away with us) and in the portakabin there was a workman. He didn't know who we were, and he just said, 'Hey, I'm a Christian and I think we ought to pray' and just put his arms round some of us and gathered us into a big football scrum and prayed very directly and honestly and intently. Again, looking back on that, I felt that out of all the fear and the panic come these very plain words. That workman wouldn't have known about it, but I thought of what the writer of The Cloud of Unknowing in the middle Ages says, 'When you're in a burning house, you say Fire!' When you're in the middle of darkness and difficulty, you say God!'

Mark Tully:

How important do you think it is that believers in different faiths should pray together?

The Archbishop:

I find myself quite often sharing silence with people from other faith traditions. Because as soon as you start trying to find words that you can share, you're into the conflict area. David Scott's poem about three figures, one Christian one Jewish and one Muslim, is a beautiful little image of how somehow in the attempt to be open to God you can arrive at a place where all of you together are – in his image – served by the reality. And he has this picture of the little Nazarene -- the unobtrusive little figure of Jesus who some how belongs in all these worlds -- coming and serving each one together. And when I think of the tensions and struggles between the three traditions I find an image like that really helps. Are we ready to be served by the reality we talk about?

  • [Reading 2: 'Ibn Abbad Woke Early' written by David Scott. Available in the book, Piecing Together published by Bloodaxe.]

All three went to Paradise,

Ibn Abbad, Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg,

and Father Louis, and sat to eat

at the same table. They drank the water of life

and ate the meat of friendship. Whenever

their cups ran dry or their plates were empty

a little Nazarene came by and filled them up.

Who are you? they said.

I am Jesus, son of Mary. Can I sit awhile?

Be our guest, they said.

As they sat, the ground beneath them shook,

their faces paled and their eyes were filled

with knowledge, and with grief. Today,

said Jesus, they will hate more and

love more, than on any other day since

the world began. Hold hands,

and ask our God to speak to us

in Spirit. And there they sat

in love and prayer, all day, all day,

Ibn Abbad, Rabbi Schmelke of Nikolsburg,

Father Louis, and Jesus, Mary's son.

and their silence was more profound than words

and their communion was most eloquent

and they willed the world to peace

Mark Tully:

Ibn Abbad Woke Early: a poem written following 9/11 by the poet and priest David Scott.

And now from the events of 9/11 – which reverberated around the world and are still reverberating – to a purely personal question, and one I wasn't quite sure I should ask.

What would you say to someone like me who has to admit that I'm not very good at saying my prayers?

The Archbishop:

First, I'd say that I would be very suspicious of anyone who said that there were very good at saying their prayers! Because speaking as someone else who's not very good at saying their prayers, I'd say that the point of it all is that prayer is allowing truth and reality to flower in you, and therefore it's part of becoming more human and more yourself. The point of it is not to get easily tabulated results, but to grow into truth. Even the smallest bit of openness, silence and welcome to God is part of that. One great writer of the twentieth century said that the less you pray, the worse it goes – and that's certainly true. At the same time if you have five minutes then you have five minutes and you give that to God and you say, 'Make me truer, more real and more loving'. And God does astonishing things with the small opportunities we give him.

Mark Tully:

Thank you very much Archbishop.

The Archbishop has said that when he prays he's not trying to do something – and he's certainly not telling God what to do or what he wants him to do – he's trying to be with God to let things happen. Although with the humility that he's known for, Rowan Williams says he's not very good at praying, prayer has given him the strength to survive the criticism, the lack of understanding and at times the downright hostility which has assailed him. And he hasn't just survived, he's avoided anger and bitterness and remained at peace with himself and his critics. So perhaps it's not surprising that he chose to end our conversation with a composition which tells him that beyond loss, there is truth and life.

The Archbishop:

This little lute piece Tarleton's Resurrection I've always loved, because it's a profoundly simply little tune that somehow expresses in a very short space; pathos and loss and hope. It deals with that sense of a death, a sorrow (it's a lament for a dead clown who was a great theatrical performer in the Elizabethan age) and then rises very simply into a resolution which says that beyond loss, there is truth and life.

  • [Music 5: 'Tarleton's Resurrection' composed by John Dowland and performed by Ronn McFarlane. Available on the CD, Lute Music of John Dowland.]

[End of programme]

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