How Place Shapes Prayer

Clare Bryden. How Place Shapes Prayer. Reform Magazine, November 2013. Extract available on Reform website.

Mucknell Abbey in Worcestershire has been the home of an Anglican Benedictine community of monks and nuns since 2010. Derelict farm buildings set in 40 acres of former agricultural land low in biodiversity have been transformed into an eco-monastery with evolving habitats for plant and animal life.

The theologian Walter Brueggemann wrote about space as “an arena of freedom, without coercion or accountability, free of pressure and void of authority”; and place as “space which has historical meanings, where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations”. Mucknell had been a place to generations of farmers back beyond the Domesday Book, but was starting again as a space, and it was exciting to be faced with a blank sheet of paper.

I began living alongside the community just before the move into the new monastery, pondering a possible vocation to join them. I started writing a daily blog, partly as a scrapbook of things that interested me as we moved and settled in, and partly as a prompt to become more observant of nature. Being a product of suburbia with more of an intuitive approach to my surroundings, I tend to see the big picture of a landscape or the patterns in rocks and clouds, rather than to notice the details of a plant, bird or insect, if I see it at all.

My need for daily subject matter gave me a useful discipline. But I found that other things were happening. Other people were reading the blog, and for a short time it became one of the ways the identity of the place started to develop. Also, in observing and writing about the environment, I was putting down some tentative roots, and enacting a ritual of entry into Mucknell as a place. It became apparent to me that this practice of attentiveness was prayer. And that it was hard work.

Simone Weil viewed prayer as the direction towards God of all the attention of which the soul is capable. So any practice of real attention, even addressing a geometry problem, will be spiritually effective, because it will help to overcome something in our soul that resists it.

Stanley Spencer’s wonderful painting Consider the Lilies, in the series “Christ in the Wilderness”, shows an ample Christ paying real attention to a group of lawn daisies. He is on his hands and knees, face close to the upturned eyes, almost ready to scoop them up in a joyous embrace. Even the humble daisy deserves as much attention as the more showy lily.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins felt that every object has an individual stamp of divine creation on it (its “inscape”), and therefore that attending to the object to realise its specific distinctiveness (the act of “instress”) leads one to Christ. Hopkins was influenced by the Franciscan philosopher-theologian Duns Scotus, who in turn drew on St Francis. In “The Canticle of Creation”, Francis expresses his experience of each particular element of creation, not just creation as an abstract whole, and Scotus’ concept of haecceitas (“thisness”) suggests that all things in their particularity take part in the life of the Creator. So creation demands our attention, and that we become engaged with particularity, with specific places. In this way, Mucknell showed me how a place can shape my prayer.

About eight months into my year at Mucknell, I experienced a second way of shaping. I joined a group of alongsiders and novices from other communities for a few days at Malling Abbey in Kent. We were there for some teaching on contemplative prayer, and were privileged to have access to the community chapel and the cloisters within the enclosure. The cloisters enclose a square of grass and a fountain playing among water lilies, the bubbling seeming to deepen the underlying silence; the chapel is modern, concrete and more of an acquired taste. But both places felt saturated with the presence of God, and I spent time in both trying to be open to that presence.

Some places, like Iona or Lindisfarne, or church buildings, are described as “thin places” – places where the veil between heaven and earth is thin. Modern theologians of place suggest that this is not because they are intrinsically holy, but because they were the location of a past disclosure of God. God, place, person – all are vitally important. The disclosure may be: a one-off theophany, such as Jacob’s dream of the ladder of angels at Bethel; a person’s response to the “thisness” of a place; or a building may be hallowed through years of individual or community prayer. Such places retain their identity across time. Bethel became one of the holy places of Israel. St Francis was drawn to the Portiuncula near Assisi by the light and the landscape of Umbria, and found himself returning all his life. Many others have since found inspiration there.

St Peter discovered on the Mount of Transfiguration that the experience of revelation cannot be prolonged. However, as David Adam said: “If you found a holy place, the presence of God goes with you and all places are holy.” My experience at Malling was a turning point, and God had begun to lead me away from Mucknell. I stopped writing the daily blog, and though I still maintained a practice of attentiveness, I began to focus more on a third aspect of place and prayer: going into my room, shutting the door and praying to God in secret (Matt 6:6).

The Desert Father Abba Moses taught: “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” I interpret this as both an exterior and an interior shaping. It is important to have a routine of prayer, and to find a familiar place to pray that helps to settle the unruly mind. For me also, contemplative prayer is about seeking God in an inner sanctuary. The apophatic tradition teaches that God cannot be known; we can speak only of what God is not. God is no-thing and no-where, and apophatic prayer seeks the divine reality beyond ordinary perception. Yet many writers on such prayer still use place metaphors to clarify their thoughts: St John of the Cross uses the ascent of Mt Carmel; recently Ruth Burrows describes “a vast sea in which are set three islands”.

Now that I have returned from Mucknell to Exeter, I am continuing to practise this third aspect, which is most natural to me. But it is good to have tried different ways of praying and to have those practices still available to me. And it is good to be attentive to my local neighbourhood and the Devon countryside, to discover new holy places and revisit old friends, and to let all these places shape my relationship with the incarnate and transcendent God.