Isaiah 58:1-9a; Mark 1:29-39
4th Sunday before Lent
St Barbara’s; 5.2.17
Rev Tulo Raistrick
We begin a series today for four weeks up to the beginning of Lent. It is a series that I hope will inspire you and give you practical suggestions of how to pray and read the Bible in fresh ways. The series will lead us into a Prayer Week that we will be holding in church from Ash Wednesday for eight days. During that week the church will be open all day every day for prayer and there will be prayer stations and resources to help us pray.
Each week we will be guided by someone from the history of the church, who provided incredible insight and a wonderful example of a life of prayer and Bible study. Next week we will be thinking about St Ignatius of Loyola, but today we will be thinking about St Benedict.
St Benedict was born in Italy in about 480AD. He lived at a time when society was in turmoil and chaos. The Roman Empire had collapsed, Italy was the subject of repeated invasions by Huns, Gauls and other barbarian tribes from the north, and the Christian faith was having to adapt to a whole new context.
Benedict established a monastery at Monte Cassino in Italy, but it was the first monastery of its kind where the emphasis was on community, rather than on just learning from a religious teacher. For Benedict the Christian life had to be lived out in community; the test of the Christian life was how we loved God and loved one another. His monastery, and all those that followed after, placed an emphasis on monks living together, supporting one another and praying together.
Unlike other great religious teachers and leaders of the church, very little is known about Benedict himself. He lived a very simple, un-showy life, and stayed in the same place for pretty much all his adult life. However, he wrote a book of guidance for Christian living, which has become known as the Rule of Saint Benedict, that has become one of the most influential Christian books ever written. It provides a guide to relationships, money, authority, community, work, lifestyle and prayer that has shaped Christian understanding ever since.
Two things that Benedict spoke about that we are going to focus on this morning are prayer and reading the Bible.
Prayer for Benedict was immensely important. It was the foundation of the Christian life. He looked at the life of Christ and saw the priority that Christ gave to prayer. As we saw in our gospel reading, Jesus would heal the sick and preach the gospel, and yet early the next morning, before sunrise, he would be off to a place of prayer. For Benedict, no work was too important, no life too busy, no demands so urgent, as to override the need to spend time in prayer. And so he built into the pattern of life of his monastery a regular habit of prayer, called the Daily Office. 7-8 times a day the monks would be required to meet together to pray, starting shortly after mid-night, then again just before dawn, and then a further four-five times during the day, before finishing the day last thing in the evening with the service of compline. The bell would ring out and whatever the monks were doing, whether working in the fields, cooking food, attending to the sick, relaxing in the sun, they would stop their activity and gather together for prayer. What started for many of them as irksome duty began to provide in time the rhythm of prayer and encounter with God that would shape their daily life.
We can all learn something from that. Few of us I imagine would find it easy to set aside the eight-fold time of prayer of Benedictine monasteries, but the encouragement to set aside a disciplined time of prayer each day is a valuable one.
A personal digression. I am incredibly fortunate to do a job where I am allowed to create space during my working day to pray, indeed where it is expected of me to do so. And yet, left to my own devices, I confess I have found it incredibly easy to let slip regular times of prayer. There is always something that just needs to be done first, a sermon to write, a person to visit, an email to write. It is only by having certain times in my day which I try and treat as untouchable, which I try to preserve at all costs, that I find regular prayer happens. I am nowhere near an eight-fold pattern of prayer, but I know the difference having a set-aside time of prayer has made.
For each of us that time may be different. For some it may be a time that we can put aside daily, the pattern of our days being sufficiently reliable to enable this. For others, it may be first finding a time once a week and gradually building on this. The time of day may differ for each of us too. Some may find like Jesus, that the early morning is best, before our minds get cluttered by the activities of the day. For others, time before bed in the evening. For others, it maybe finding a park bench or an open church during our lunch hour. Or during our bus or train journey commute. For others it may be that mid-morning tea break. Have a think. When are the times in your day when you could begin to develop a pattern, a habit, of prayer, a time you consistently use. Once we get into the habit of praying at a certain time it becomes so much easier to maintain it. It doesn’t need to be for long – five minutes maybe – but once we begin to get into the habit, we may find we begin creating more time to do so.
If you feel you need help there are some excellent resources and prayer books.
The Church of England has a simple service of prayer for morning, afternoon and evening prayer every day of the week, that you can buy as a book or access online.
There are Celtic Daily Prayer books which do the same thing.
There are a number of apps that you can get for your phone or tablet. Two highly recommended ones are: www.pray-as-you-go.org and www.sacredspace.ie.
Another very significant thing that Benedict left as a legacy to the church was a way of reading the Bible. Up to this point, the Scriptures had very much been seen as something that only experts could read and understand. For ordinary Christians, they were regarded as much too complicated.
Benedict began with the assumption that as the Scriptures were God’s Word to us, God was wanting to speak to each one of us through them, no matter our levels of theological knowledge or education. So he encouraged a very simple approach to reading the bible called Lectio Divina (meaning divine or godly reading).
It simply involves reading a passage of Scripture slowly several times, paying attention and listening to what God may be saying through it. As we do so, we may find a thought or a word or a particular phrase stands out for us. Take time to mull on this, reflect on this. Then re-read the passage with this thought as the lens through which you read. And ask, “what may God be saying to me through His word?” You may find this leads you into a time of prayer. You may also want to write the thought or word down, and return to it at different points throughout the day.
I’m going to read part of our Gospel reading again, and I want to give you the opportunity to do this prayerful listening. As I read, you may find a word or a thought resonates or stands out for you. Reflect on it, mull on it, as I read the passage for a second time.
Read Mark 1:35-39 twice.
What may God be saying to you? Sometimes we need read only one verse to be struck by something; other times we may need to read for a bit longer. But the key is to read slowly and to listen.
If you haven’t done this type of reading before you may find it best to start with the gospels, either using the Sunday morning readings that we use, or working your way through Mark or Luke’s gospel.
May God inspire us and speak to us as we pray and read his Word.