Rowan Williams’ Holy Week lectures this year were on the subject of prayer, and I can strongly recommend checking them out. Per Caritatem has links to the MP3s. The three lectures look at prayer in the early church, in the Reformation era, and in the 20th century, and are full of fascinating insights into prayer drawn from figures of each of those eras (including the likes of St John Cassian, St Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther and Thomas Merton).
In the third lecture (MP3), on “the quest for God in the modern age”, Dr Williams devotes some time (from 27’00” onwards) to the early 20th century Benedictine abbot, Dom John Chapman. He recommends getting hold of a copy of Abbot Chapman’s Spiritual Letters (currently out of print, alas, though I’ve managed to order a reasonably-priced copy today), which he describes as “absolutely packed with radiant common-sense on the subject of prayer”.
For example, Dr Williams quotes what Abbot Chapman described as his “two axioms” on prayer:
- “Pray as you can; don’t try to pray as you can’t.”
- “The less you do it, the worse it gets.”
But the section that particularly struck me was when Dr Williams described Abbot Chapman’s comparison of 17th and 20th century responses to spiritual problems. Dr Williams summarises this as follows:
In the seventeenth century, everyone believed in God. So if you had a spiritual problem, you were quite likely to be worried that God didn’t like you. You knew that God was there, but he wasn’t obviously doing anything for you, so God must dislike you. So you worried about whether you were going to hell.
Now, says Chapman, in the 20th century, not many people believe in God in Europe. So the characteristic worry in the 20th century is not that God’s going to send you to hell, but that he’s not there at all.
Those may seem very different situations, but Chapman (as mediated by Williams) observes that “basically it’s the same sort of problem”:
It’s a problem about how you come to terms with the fact that God is not performing in the way you’d like him to. You’ve put your money in the slot, you’ve pressed the button, and nothing’s happening.
Hence the problem is “fundamentally the same” whether you’re in the 17th or the 21st century, and (Dr Williams continues):
…the answer is the same, which is simply getting used the fact that God does what God does, not what you want God to do. And the good thing about that is that part of what he does is love you.