Anthony Bloom: On prayer

The writer has a spiritual belief and a regular meditation practice (although she does not self-describe as a Christian). She was struck by the resonances between her own practice and Anthony Bloom’s beautiful account – stilling the mind; touching our wordless, embodied experience; encountering this silence and in it a depth, a wisdom, a presence beyond our everyday experience (whether we call that the presence of God, or the divine in another sense, or nature, or our own higher self).

‘About 20 years ago, soon after my ordination, I was sent before Christmas to an old people’s home. There lived an old lady, who died some time later at the age of 102. She came to see me after my first celebration and said ‘Father, I would like to have advice about prayer.’ So I said ‘Oh yes, ask so-and-so.’ She said ‘All these years I’ve been asking people who are reputed to know about prayer, and they never given me a sensible reply, so I thought that as you probably know nothing, you may by chance blunder out the right thing’. That was a very encouraging situation! And so I said ‘what is your problem?’

The old lady said ‘These fourteen years I’ve been praying the Jesus Prayer almost continually, and never have I perceived God’s presence at all.’ So I blundered out what I thought. I said ‘If you speak all the time, you don’t give God a chance to place a word in.’ She said ‘what shall I do?’

I said ‘Go to your room after breakfast, put it right, place your armchair in a strategic position that will leave behind your back all the dark corners which are always in an old lady’s room into which things are pushed so as not to be seen. Light your little lamp before the ikon that you have and first of all take stock of your room. Just sit, look round, and try to see where you live, because I’m sure that if you have prayed all these fourteen years it is a long time since you’ve seen your room. And then take your knitting and for fifteen minutes knit before the face of God, but I forbid you to say one word of prayer. You just knit and try to enjoy the peace of your room.’

She didn’t think it was very wise advice but she took it. After a while she came to see me and said ‘You know, it works.’ I said ‘What works, what happens?’ Because I was very curious to know how my advice worked.

And she said ‘I just did what you advised me to do. I got up, washed, put my room right, had breakfast, came back, made sure that nothing was there that would worry me, and then I settled in my armchair and thought ‘Oh how nice, I have fifteen minutes during which I can do nothing without being guilty!’ And I looked around and for the first time after years I thought ‘Goodness what a nice room I live in– a window opening onto the garden, a nice shaped room, enough space for me, the things I have collected for years’. Then she said ‘I felt so quiet because the room was so peaceful. There was a clock ticking but it didn’t disturb the silence, its ticking just underlined the fact that everything was so still and after a while I remembered that I must knit before the face of God, and so I began to knit. And I became more and more aware of the silence. The needles hit the arm rest of my chair, the clock was ticking peacefully, there was nothing to bother about, I have no need of straining myself, and then I perceived that this silence was not simply an absence of noise, but that the silence had substance. It was not absence of something but presence of something. The silence had a density, and richness, and it began to pervade me. The silence around began to come and meet the silence in me.’

And then in the end she said something very beautiful which I found later in the French writer, Georges Bernanos. She said ‘All of a sudden I perceived that the silence was a presence. At the heart of the silence there was Him who is all stillness, all peace, all poise.’

from School for Prayer: Anthony Bloom

Palace Gate Counselling Service, Exeter

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