Liturgy of Ash Wednesday
Preacher: Catherine Staziker, Cathedral Reader (2006-2010)
6 February 2008, 20:00 (Ash Wednesday)
Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17, Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21
It is vital for the health of a marriage that couples learn to communicate with each other. This isn’t easy and needs time, commitment and practice over the years. So, a few tips on communication from a book on marriage and relationships:
Set time aside alone with each other.
Be prepared to talk and try to express exactly how you feel.
Be prepared to listen, and to really listen.
Think of the other person.
Accept that there are times of anger and learn how to express this.
- Be lovingly open and trust each other.
Communication is not easy but a relationship without it is like a brain starved of oxygen: there will be irreparable damage and it will die, or at least continue in a lifeless shell, brain dead, persistently vegetative and sustained artificially from habit. Poor communication is one of the main factors in most relationship breakdowns.
And so today, in the words of George Herbert: ‘Welcome, deare feast of Lent’, the season of spring, of new beginnings, of new life. Lent provides us with the perfect opportunity to examine our own relationship with God and the way in which we communicate with Him. Communication with God is through prayer or in other words the way in which we pray. And if that relationship is to flourish, exactly the same principals of communication are essential as in any human relationship. Interestingly Hosea gives the example of the relationship between a man and woman as being the closest thing we have to fully knowing God. The words our offertory hymn (Lord teach us how to pray aright) tell us that “We perish if we cease from prayer.”
We tend to live our daily lives doing the same things over and over again, fulfilling the same duties, meeting the same people. We often work under great pressure, rushing to get things finished and breathlessly trying to cope. Whether we enjoy this pressure – and I am sure some of us do – or whether we hate it, very often the effect is the same. No time to think, or to be creative, or to listen to what really matters. Without being aware of it, the time we devote to prayer and to God becomes irregular and perhaps non-existent. And even when we do manage to find some free time, we find it increasingly difficult to make the most of it; we are distracted.
We’re often are dominated by ourselves: by the thought of our responsibilities, our problems, our duties, and even, our importance. We may begin Lent weighed down by a sense of failure, disappointed with ourselves or with other people, or perhaps suffering from some hurt or sorrow which tends to blot out everything else.
Without being aware of it, we put ourselves in the centre, and then we then turn to God and ask Him to give us the help we need. We do this rather than beginning with God: His glory and His will. How do we know what He wants to say to us if we don’t spend time in listening? But God knows this is what we’re like and is always there waiting to speak and listen to us.
“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart . . . . . .Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful. . . abounding in steadfast love”
For our own health and the health of our relationship with God, we need to put God right back at the centre of our lives and spend time with Him in prayer. Without this, how will our relationship with Him, our brothers and sisters in Christ and the wider Church, flourish? It’s all about waiting for God to speak in the silence, something I’ve discovered in the monthly Taizé service here.
Benedict’s Rule offers us insights about Christian living, with practical suggestions about how to put those insights into practice. And although written over 1500 years ago, it is just as relevant today as it was then. He offers a simple framework for living which includes work, prayer and rest, both on one's own and with others. I don’t know how many of you saw the BBC Series “The Monastery” a couple of years ago? The cameras tracked five modern men living the monastic life for 40 days and nights with the Benedictine monks of Worth Abbey. The monks accepted them and responded thoughtfully and helpfully to their ordinary everyday struggles – a surprise to millions of viewers who presumed that monks were ‘out of touch’. The monks were able bring together the realities of modern life and the wisdom of the Rule into a new fusion born out of contemporary experience. The five men did not find the adjustment to their new lives easy, but after the 40 days found that the experience (of silence and profound listening to themselves and God), had reshaped their hearts and minds.
Abbot Christopher Jamison wrote a book following the series which I wholeheartedly recommend, which gives a very good summary of prayer. He says:
“I have never found praying easy, but what gets easier is accepting that fact.
So I worry less about technique and more about my fundamental, heartfelt attitude to God while I am praying. In simple faith, I offer myself into the hands of God, with no striving after effect and without worrying about the distractions that inevitably come. The result of this is that I find it easier to spend more time in prayer. While time is not the measure of quality in prayer, without giving the time, there is ultimately no prayer. Christian prayer is the simple act of addressing God, of communicating with God, in silence or in words”.
In the words of tonight’s Gospel:
“Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.”
Our Homilies at Evensong on Sundays during Lent, beginning this Sunday, will be centred on Prayer, which should help to support us through Lent, as should the exploration of Lent that will be on offer with Ralph.
So rather than being busy and frenetic about doing things during Lent, taking things on and giving things up, feeling guilty when we fail, let us commit to spending some time doing nothing, in silence, but in praying and resting with God. Let us spend time in unmasking the illusion that meaning and value can only be found in busyness and so-called productivity. God, we will discover, can often best be found in the silences between the notes.
As Benedict says in the opening words of his Rule: “Listen carefully, child of God, to the master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”
In the words of the offertory hymn:
“Thus, strengthened with all might, We, through thy Spirit and thy Son, Shall pray, and pray aright.”
The Rule of Benedict
Abbot Christopher Jamison: Finding Sanctuary
Stephen Cottrell: Do Nothing to Change Your Life: Discovering what happens when you stop