Archbishop John Wilson released a letter to clergy on Maundy Thursday, 6th April 2023. The letter can be read below.
From The Archbishop of Southwark
Letter to Priests
Maundy Thursday 2023
‘Lord, teach us to pray. ’ (Lk 11:1)
Dear Brothers in Christ
Today, this Maundy Thursday, we commemorate the gifts of the Holy Eucharist, the Office of the Priesthood, and the universal call to loving and charitable service after the example given to us by the Lord Jesus. The liturgies of the Triduum are powerful, each in their own way inviting us to enter the mysteries of Our Lord’s dying and rising; each bringing us to stillness and to prayer.
It was the subject of prayer that we took at our most recent clergy spiritual reading group. The books we read about prayer were merely the springboard to a beautiful depth of reflection and sharing on what it means for us, as bishops, priests and deacons, to be men of prayer.
The desire to pray is rooted deeply within the human heart, even, if sometimes, it might be difficult to witness its fruit. As disciples of the Lord Jesus we long to spend time with him: to open our hearts to him; to share our thanksgivings and our hopes, our requests and our struggles. In faith, we take the Lord at his word: he is ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (Jn 14:6), and, through him, we come to the Father, strengthened by the active presence of the Holy Spirit.
Very many words have been written about prayer by people far more qualified than I am. In a fundamental way, prayer shares, but also transcends, something of the nature and characteristics of human conversation, where listening and silence can be as important, even more important, than speech. The Catechism defines prayer as ‘…the raising of one’s mind and heart to God.’ [i] The Jesuit Thomas H. Green suggests prayer is ‘an opening of the mind and heart to God.’ [ii] In whatever way we describe prayer, we cannot lead others authentically in prayer without, ourselves, being people of prayer. The maxim that one cannot give what one does not have translates into the spiritual life. Put more positively, the encounter with someone who is self-evidently a person of prayer is inspiring and intriguing. There is something attractive about people who pray. Someone said to me recently that it makes all difference to a sermon if the preacher has prayed the Scriptures and not just studied them.
As priests, we aspire to help others raise and open their minds and hearts to God, and, therefore, we too must be seeking a personal relationship with God in prayer. Would I really want cookery lessons from a chef whose food has never been tasted? Probably not. But even an imperfect chef who knew just some of the basics of cookery, who had some experience of ingredients and technique, and who was committed to cooking, could probably teach most of us something, if only by sharing some of the pitfalls.
The prayerful plea of the disciples on the road to Emmaus was ‘Stay with us Lord.’ (Lk 24:29) This is the gentle, heartfelt desire of every disciple: be present to us Lord, we say; do not abandon us; remain here with us, especially when night is falling. Wanting to stay with the Lord in conscious prayerfulness authenticates our discipleship. Prayer is the foundation from which every Christian vocation is lived. It has no alternative or substitute. People can certainly pray for me and with me; but no one can fulfil on my behalf the personal life of prayer that I am uniquely called to offer to the Lord, rising from my heart like fragrant incense.
To make a little confession, I have often found it easier to read books about prayer than to set aside time and pray. At the beginning of a seminary summer holiday, I once took home Bernard Basset’s book Let’s Start Praying Again.[iii] I brought it back in the September unopened, not even having read much about prayer, let alone having seriously considered doing any. It is vital that we learn to pray, that we are taught the basics of how to raise and open our hearts and minds to God. But the danger is that we spend more time reading and talking about prayer than we actually do praying. John Dalrymple writes: ‘The only way to get out of bed in the morning is to do it! The only way to pray is to pray.... The time for discussion of techniques and schools of prayer is after, not before, we are regularly giving time to it.’ [iv] Prayer has no substitute in our lives. As we learn to ride a bicycle by peddling, we actually learn to pray by praying.
One of the great challenges to a regular life of prayer is making the time. They say that if you want to find out a person’s priorities, look at their diary and their credit card statements. If something is important to me, I will find and make time for it. I certainly manage to do it for all kinds of other things.
Reviewing the importance and priorities of our inner life, of our personal relationship with the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, is not a chapter of faults. It is little help to beat ourselves up because of our supposed inadequacies in prayer. Rather, we need to hear and receive again the invitation to greatness in the spiritual life. We can each, over and again, each day, recall and affirm the central importance God has for our life and our ministry, and be encouraged to make time with God in prayer.
As Abbot of Ampleforth, Cardinal Hume addressed the monks on what he called the ‘Prayer of Incompetence,’ continuing to pray when not much seems to be happening. He concludes: ‘We may wonder sometimes what is the result of our fidelity to prayer. From day to day there is little result that we can see or assess. Only when one looks back over the years does one come to realise that our convictions concerning the things of God are, despite all, clearer than they were. And I think, finally, that the most important result of fidelity to prayer is that, despite everything, we want to go on praying.’ [v]‘Trying to pray,’ he said,’ is prayer and it is very good prayer.’ [vi]
Abbot John Chapman, who died in 1933 after many years as a Benedictine monk and Abbot of Downside, had two favourite teachings on prayer: ‘First, ‘Pray as you can, and don’t try to pray as you can’t!’ and secondly, ‘The less you pray, the worse it goes.’’ [vii] Hopefully, we can all say Amen to that.
Dear brothers in the priesthood, I thank you sincerely for your priestly life and ministry. Be of good heart and encouraged by the words of the Apostle St Paul: ‘Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks.’ (I Thess 5:17)
Be sure of the Lord’s love for you, and of mine in Him.
With every blessing for Sacred Triduum and Easter
Your devoted brother in Christ
The Most Reverend John Wilson
Archbishop of Southwark
[i] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2559.
[ii] Thomas H. Green, Experiencing God: Three Stages of Prayer (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2010): 3.
[iii] See: Bernard Basset, Let’s Start Praying Again (London: Sheed and Ward, 1972).
[iv] John Dalrymple, Simple Prayer (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1984): 40-41.
[v] Basil Hume, Searching for God (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977): 123.
[vi] Basil Hume, To Be a Pilgrim (London: St Pauls/SPCK, 1984): 126.
[vii] John Chapman, Spiritual Letters (London: Burns and Oates, 2003): 24.
Photograph above by Marcin Mazur