On the eve of the Feast of the Transfiguration Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh – better known as Archbishop Anthony Bloom – answers questions on prayer and the spiritual life put to him on behalf of the “Church times” by the Rev. Brian Rice.
Brian Rice: It is a rare treat for an Anglican to talk with you about prayer, Bishop. Your are very generous in the time you give to the Church of England, and we are immensely grateful. From your sharing with us, what can you say about spirituality in our Church?
Metropolitan Anthony: If we define spirituality as the workings of the Holy Spirit in people and in communities great and small, then I can say that in the Anglican Communion at present – as in the Roman and Free Churches – I am impressed by the e a r n e s t n e s s of people to wait on God, to listen, to try to understand God’s way, instead of imposing on him their way, I am struck by the р о w e r with which God is at work and the new readiness people offer him in listening, asking searching questions, accepting the claims of God and the very exacting way in which he wants us to live.
Rice: In the seeking of new ways to pray, are there particular factors in modern life which demand drastic changes in the traditional Christian methods of prayer and spiritual life?
M.: Not really.
Rice: So the same forms of prayer are suitable for every generation?
M.: No forms will ever do justice to God’s life in us – nor can they create it. Nowadays there are people who feel that some forms have waxed old. But it is only a new outpouring of the life of the Spirit that can create new forms – not any attempt of ours at inventing ways more congenial for a given generation.
Rice: Are there basic forms of prayer?
M.: I have become increasingly convinced that we must become more aware of certain factors. Any personal or communal prayer must express the nature of the Church, which is the Body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit and also a crowd of people who need salvation and who are struggling with sin, repentance, conversion, renewal. But there is no place for a merily (?) lyrical selfexpression – when people, instead of expressing themselves as Christians, try to include in the whole act of worship all their secular self and experience.
Rice: You are uneasy about this?
I think it is completely wrong. I feel it has no place in Christian worship.
Rice: Do you think the permissive society is a temptation or danger to our spiritual life and progress?
M.: If this slogan means that there are no absolute moral standards and that the only criterion is my desire or my mood, obviously it will clash with the spiritual life, because the voice of the Spirit commands and forbids certain things – as does the Gospel, as does the Church – because certain things inevitably destroy the spiritual life.
Rice: Is there anything basically non-God or anti-God in modern man?
M.: There is a lot of non-God and anti-God in us. God is not a permissive God.
Rice: Many Christians need reassuring that prayer is worth-while, real and important. How do we know that when we pray, we are not deluding ourselves or talking into the thin air?
M.: At the root of prayer is our relationship with God. It is as fragile as any other relationship. In the process of talking and listening we discover points in common, harmony of mind and soul. The only way to test prayer is to experiment and see is it is real as an experience.
Rice: So would you call our talking together now prayer?
M.: No. Prayer is one’s relation with God. Yet our conversation has the same root in the “certainty of things unseen”.
Rice: My spiritual director told me recently that he found prayer became harder and harder. I wonder why this should be – is it your experience?
M.: This isn’t my experience, but this is probably because I do not try hard enough! But at times the use of formal prayer can become more difficult – when two become close to one another, the conventional forms of expression may become burdensome and tiresome.
Rice: But do you find prayer gets harder?
M.: No, I find prayer becomes on the contrary an easier, simpler, more joyful, more exacting experience than before.
Rice: Are there rules?
M.: The most basic rule is to seek God and never to seek any experience. Aim at him a l on e.
Rice: But, if I blank out my experience of God, I would be left with nothing. God revealing himself is an integral part of me and my experience.
M.: You can treat it in two ways. You can treat God as an occasion for experience; or you can say, my experience is a by-product of my meeting with God. The sum total is the same, but the attitude is quite different.
Rice: So we should not seek mystical experience?
M.: Seek nothing: make an attempt to stand before God just as you are, with all the earnestness and awe you can summon… Don’t try to put on a false personality . . . expect anything he chooses to give. Then every meeting becomes conversion, change, transformation – cleansing our heart, strengthening our will, increasing our readiness to obey.
Rice: This disposition of God – does one make a conscious, supreme effort to capture it, or does one sit down, relax and just let it creep up?
M.: I think it must be an effort.
Rice: I notice in your latest book you call it strenuous effort. When you finish praying, are you conscious of having been involved in strenuous exercise, somewhat exhausted, you feel tired?
M.: No, it is a life-giving experience really; you emerge from prayer more alive.
Rice: You don’t find strenuous effort in prayer (which you advocate) spiritually exhausting?
Rice: Are fixed times of prayer essential for busy people?
M.: Yes – the busier you are, the more essential it is to have fixed times.
Rice: Does the time factor enter into prayer life, Bishop – can we be equally long or short?
M.: We don’t emerge from turmoil and establish ourselves in God’s presence instantaneously and easily. This varies with individuals – anyone who gives half-an-hour stands a chance. Five minutes is risky: you could be lucky! An hour a day ideal.
Rice: Are fixed forms of prayer helpful as well as fixed times?
M.: Very few people can start praying without some familiar forms – perhaps then taking these prayers sentence by sentence, enlarging and commenting on them, dwelling and developing.
Rice: So what about mental prayer and meditation – is this for ordinary Christians or best left to saints and experts?
M.: The real question is: should a Christian give earnest and attentive thought to certain things? Of course he should. Take the Lord’s Prayer or the collects – we should often be asked: what does this prayer say?
Rice: We ought to sit and think in a prayerful way?
M.: Yes. Also think out prayer in terms of action. Don’t leave it to God: his job is to give us the power to do things. But it is for us to act, and we have to do this intelligently.
Rice: Is silence important?
M.: Silence is an essential part of our prayers. As in every relationship, one is close to a person when one can be silent together, not always having to say something: real, warm, intimate, happy silence.
Rice: Are your own prayers mainly silence?
M.: There must be as much silence as possible – provided it does not degenerate into day-dreaming or vagueness. It must be the positive silence of a sentry on the alert, alive, vibrating with a sense of God and life. We should aim at inner stillness whether we are outwardly silent or not.
Rice: What about speaking and praying with tongues? Is this part of your spiritual diet?
Rice: Could you do this spiritual exercise?
M.: No, haven’t a clue. I have seen it and had contact with the Pentecostal Movement. Some have told me it is a liberating experience. I have attended meetings with an indifferent reaction. There is always a risk when a person lays himself open to influences he can neither discern nor check. There is no guarantee that it is the H o l y Spirit speaking; it may be the spirit of darkness.
Rice: Though in other contexts you are quite often a risk man, urging us to be adventurous and take risks. Surely, if we are afraid to take risks for Christ, we are very inadequate?
M.: The risk here is allowing the power of darkness to act freely on our soul.
Rice: How about church-going? Is this an essential part of prayer, or can you be a prayerful Christian without going anywhere near places of worship?
M.: I think you can be as prayerful but not as f u l f i l l e d a Christian. To be a Christian is to be a member of the Body of Christ: there are bonds of love, a community of faith, a harmony of hearts which should find expression in communal worship.
Rice: So where do the sacraments fit in? Are they essential? And if so which?
M.: To an Orthodox the sacraments are absolutely essential. They are acts of God which communicate to us God’s own life. Apart from the sacraments, there is no normal means of receiving what they give – “they are the gate to the knowledge of God”. The Orthodox Church has been careful not to define too strictly the limits of the sacraments. Any miracle is an “irregular sacrament”.
Rice: What about traditional practices like fasting? Are these important in Christian life today?
M.: I think they are: on two levels, the moral and the physical. We overlook that we are made of soul and body. In the Bible it is so clear that the body is a partner on equal terms with the spirit. We are called to glorify God in our bodies as in our souls, entering into real communion. God reaches us through our bodies, and our bodies are as significant as our souls in the process of salvation. Asceticism applies to body and soul in spiritual harmony.
Rice: May I close with a few quick questions of special interest to readers of the Church Times. First about the Jesus Revolution. In what way is this spiritual renewal a breakthrough? Are you and I missing this spiritual vitality because we are orthodox and institutionalised?
M.: I can only speak of these movements from hearsay; I have no direct personal experience. I think that there may be sincerity, honest striving and commitment to what they see. In everything which is good, God is at work.
Rice: But are they seeing Jesus in a way that you and I can’t because our Church structures hinder our vision, and they are making a spiritual breakthrough which we are not in a position to follow?
M.: No. What impresses me is that they have a one-sided, romanticised vision of Jesus and of the spiritual.
Rice: So you don’t think that all the signs of spiritual vitality are outside institutional Christianity, and that all vitality and life are with the Jesus People who are manifesting it to the world?
M.: Indeed not! There is one-sidedness and impoverishment in them for which they compensate by the heart and passion they put into it.
Rice: In what ways are your patterns of mission and discipleship different from those of the leaders of the Jesus People?
M.: We should call all men to the discovery of Christ discipleship is arduous, exacting, challenging. We should warn people not to join unless they are prepared to pay the cost. We should discourage vocations, and not aim at enlisting as many as possible into the Christian Church. Put the challenge sharply.
Rice: In your latest book you seem to be developing Christian aggression rather than patient expectation – the Kingdom is to be conquered, not awaited. God’s love seems ruthless. Yet you also continually assert that all this spiritual renewal is at some future day, almost contradicting the eschatological “now” of the Gospels. Have I misunderstood you?
M.: I believe it is wrong to sit down waiting for the Kingdom to come -it won’t just fall into your lap. But you cannot manufacture it: it is God’s gift and God’s presence.
Rice: Yet you keep saying we should patiently abide till this future day?
M.: Yes, I do believe that one day the Kingdom of God will be revealed in full. But the Incarnation and the Gift of Pentecost has made the future already present in our midst and within us. To conquer the Kingdom we must defeat and conquer our own selves. The walls of Jericho need pulling down.
Rice: What did you mean in your book, praying in the absence of God and being grateful for his absence?
M.: I wrote a lot about this in School for prayer. I believe that every meeting with God is judgement. So there are moments when meeting God would be condemnation for us – not because we are sinners, but because we are unrepentant, rejecting the real and true God for idols and not prepared to give them up. God would then appear as judge, not as our Saviour.
Rice: You used the expression “pagan dressed up in evangelic garments”. Do you suspect that this describes most Christians?
M.: Many of us are still largely pagan; the Gospel has not reached us sufficiently.
Rice: You wouldn’t describe yourself, as more pagan than Christian, would you?
M.: In intention I am Christian, but I see in myself a lot of things which are not redeemed.
Rice: In your study you have a number of books on Eastern religions and Yoga. Do Eastern religions and Yoga help you?
M.: I have learned valuable things from Indian religions, and I was interested in Yoga when I was a physician. I haven’t continued to study them systematically, but I try to keep aware of them because people ask me about them.
Rice: In today’s instant culture the kingdom of pop seems to satisfy and arrest young adults. This pop kingdom responds to everything and everyone: it reaches into their depth, tells them they belong. Pop music has been called the rock of salvation. In this youth world this is their kingdom: our kingdom is nowhere. Their kingdom of pop and the downtown world is more real than ours. We look for that distant day in the future: they live for now.
Metropolitan Anthony: The pop culture is drunkenness by sound and movement. Christ’s kingdom is within, a kingdom of stillness and of deep and committed relationships; it is there, often unrecognised, in the world. Pop claims attention through noise. Where we go wrong is to promise instead of claim. Many young people would respond to challenge – we are not challenging and demanding enough – and it is our duty to offer it – not in mere words, indeed, but by the uncompromising otherness of our thought and our life.