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Helps on the Journey

By Margaret Bowker.

My journey has been long and accident prone! Whether it is of 'help' to anyone else, only God can tell. I believe profoundly that he uses us in our eccentricity and particularity. The Holy Spirit prays through each one of us, so while it all may be 'eccentric' and 'particular', that is to the glory of God who delights in making each transient snowflake different.

I think the process of my 'owning' prayer as something I wanted to deepen and give time to began after my father died, but much had happened before. I went to schools in the War where the Anglican Communion service each Sunday, the Litany each Tuesday, Evensong on Sunday, as well as formal Morning and Evening Prayer each day, were as much a part of the timetable as maths or Latin. We might get bombed or go hungry, but Chapel was a fixture. God used this to form me, but it did not teach me about personal prayer, That, I learned to look at when my father died. I was fifteen.

I did not know how you started, and no one I had ever heard preach had told me. So I thought, 'I will start with whatever comes to mind'. It was of course the hymns that I had heard and sung twice a day throughout my schooling. I had access to Hymns Ancient and Modern only, but many of them, based as they were on psalms and Scripture - and many of them also being great poetry (Herbert, Ken and others) - kept me going for some time.

Transitions in life have to be matched with transitions in prayer, and my undergraduate experience was formative. I had seen Trevor Huddleston at work in South Africa. Each Sunday I could hear sermons from the likes of Eric Abbott, Austin Farrer, Christopher Evans. There were missions. But always there was an urgency: you had to pray and then take it out into the world in action (in my case, for example, taking East-enders camping).

Through all this, my personal prayer was shaped by a number of things which again reflected not only an external influence in my life, but also the reality of life as it became shot through with a lot of personal pain and loss. What, looking back, do I see as the major helps on this journey?

1. The necessity to take Scripture seriously became fundamental, so I began to pray with an academic Bible commentary: it took ages, because study time was not the same as prayer time. I used to do this in places where I was unavailable to anyone - with bizarre results: once I was asked by an Anglican priest if I had arrived in order 'to be churched'; and from time to time I got locked into churches, or was mistaken for a faithful follower when I was nothing of the kind.

2. I learned, as my personal pain increased (I lost a very close friend aged 22) that prayer can be so hi-jacked by feeling, that you cannot pray at all. In these circumstances, I relied on Anglican Evensong and usually joined a daily congregation of people helped by the same commitment.

3. Research and university lecturing took me, both personally and in prayer, to pastures new. Research in Lincoln in the 1960's meant that I could go to Communion every day and to Choral Evensong on some days. I learned in the Close to listen for the bells, and to pray at work as the ancient bidding of the Angelus came over the city. But how was I to return to personal prayer? Oddly, by simply doing so, with an assortment of devotional literature to spark me off. What this might be depended on personal contact.

4. For most of my life, what has been happening to me in life and in prayer has been open to the guidance of a 'director' or soul-friend. She or he would keep me in touch with resources of books, and would stop me from following my personal preferences alone. I have prayed from such spiritual classics as Grou's Manual for Interior Souls, or de Caussade's Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence, and I gained greatly from the Little Brothers and from Rene Voillaume's Seeds of the Desert, exemplified in moving meetings with Jacques Maritain in his last years.

5. All that reinforced what I had learnt from undergraduate days, the importance of retreats - of times away for a number of days in which to look and to seek for God who (I hoped, and came increasingly to know and trust) was looking and seeking for me. There used to be occasions when some gifted person would give addresses which 'uplifted' me. I learned in 1981 that God alone does that. And that he will indeed come if I will watch and wait.

6. On one such quest, I discovered St Beuno's in North Wales, where there was a chance during a sabbatical, to go, for thirty days, praying with Scripture alone, with the insights of St Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises (in their entirety, and not in some more palatable and tamed version!). This changed not only my life, but also the way in which I used Scripture for prayer. Most people think that it is 'Ignatian' to be imaginative. Yes, it is, but that is only a small part of a much deeper process of learning to know how closed we can become to God. I was invited, during those thirty days, to address my sinful unfreedom, and to know the mind-blowing reality of redemption. I need to return to this at least once a decade.

7. As a pensioner and disabled citizen, where is God taking me now? What are the resources now? They are my very disabilities. Now I am learning to wait, as a chipped pot at the marriage feast, to be filled with new wine. The resource of silence is, I think, the gift that God is giving me.

So my helps for the journey have been:

1. God, or to be more exact, 'God in three persons, blessed Trinity'

2. The liturgy of the Church of England

3. Hymns

4. Scripture, with and without commentaries

5. Devotional books

6. A 'soul-friend'

7. Retreats

8. Silence

Margaret Bowker, now retired, was formerly University Lecturer in History and Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, Reader in History and Educational Research, University of Lancaster, and most recently Tutor in Prayer and Spirituality at Ridley Hall Cambrige.

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You are reading Helps on the Journey by Margaret Bowker, part of Issue 11 of Ministry Today, published in October 1997.

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