From the Worldwide Faith News archives

ACNS - Dr. Rowan Williams on Prayer Life Today

From Worldwide Faith News <>
Date Thu, 13 Jun 2002 12:52:23 -0700

ACNS 3020 - AUSTRALIA - 12 June 2002

Rowan Williams on prayer, life today and September 11

[Anglican Media Melbourne] On his recent visit to Melbourne, Dr Rowan
Williams, the Primate of Wales and possible successor to Dr George Carey as
Archbishop of Canterbury, delivered two lectures at Trinity College
Theological School and was interviewed for The Melbourne Anglican by Roland
Ashby. An extract from the interview is below. Other issues he talked about
include September 11, modern society and stem cell research.

The full text, as well as a report on the lecture series, is available on
Anglican Media Melbourne's web site:

Q: Can you give some idea of your typical day and how you approach prayer in
your busy life. How do you integrate a life of prayer and contemplation into

A: Normally in the morning I have the children to worry about (two very
young children - getting them ready for school, spending some time with
them), but what I try to do is to take about half an hour to say the Jesus
Prayer which is what I use most regularly, the orthodox form of prayer. That
is simply repeating "O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a
sinner," using the prayer rope that eastern monks use. Then when my chaplain
arrives we say Morning Prayer together.

Q: Is the prayer rope something like rosary beads?

A: Yes. There are a hundred knots on the rope and you simply say the Jesus
Prayer once for each knot. And there are various ways of punctuating it -
you could pause at 25 and say the Gloria or something like that, which is
what I normally do.

By repeating the Jesus Prayer the mind is stilled and the heart beat and the
breath slow down, and you become more present to the place you are in. It's
really an anchorage in time.

Q: Is there a sense in which you become aware of the presence of the Spirit?

A: It's very hard to answer that. I think you can only say there can be an
awareness of a presence. Maybe you can't say any more than that - that you
are held or attended to. The way I most often express it is that there comes
a level of prayer where it is no longer a question of, "Are you seeing
something?" Rather, "Are you aware of being seen?" If you like, sitting in
the light and of just being and becoming aware of who you really are.

What a lot of the literature talks about is a sort of gathering in of
awareness into yourself, which sounds a strange way of putting it but it
simply means our thoughts and fantasies are usually all over the place and
running off after this, that and the other, and part of the process that is
going on is the sort of steady and quiet drawing in and settling of all
these tentacles that are wriggling out to lay hold of the world - you gather
them back in and that's a gathering into the heart which the orthodox
writers talk about, and what western writers mean by the simplification of
heart in prayer. By this we simply become what we are and just sit there
being a creature in the hand of God.

Q: Who have been some of the key influences in your spiritual and
contemplative formation? You have written extensively on St John of the

A: With St John of the Cross I think what went deep was precisely an
understanding of prayer as more than feelings. Now you can misunderstand
that - you can say that prayer is nothing to do with feelings, it is all a
matter of will and practice, but that I think is not what he is saying.
Prayer is a habit of being. It is a sinking of your own identity into
something deeper which goes on whether or not you think you are consciously
praying, which means that how you feel is not unimportant but it doesn't
tell you all you need to know about prayer. You may be feeling terrible and
God may be active; you may be feeling nothing in particular, but God may be
very active; you may be feeling wonderful, and that may have nothing at all
to do with God's doing.

So a little bit of distance from your feelings, not hostility to them, but a
realism about them, and an ability to tell the difference between what God
is doing and how you are feeling - that is, I think, fundamental in St John
of the Cross.

He helped me a great deal to make sense of my own life and he also helped me
make sense of a period in my own life when I wasn't very conscious of God
doing anything and felt a lot of doubts and darkness in my life, and yet
couldn't stop believing or hoping for something. This was before I was a
priest in my years as a graduate student.

He was simply one of the people who always made sense whenever I picked him
up, and two modern interpreters of St John of the Cross have also helped.
One was John Chapman, another Abbot of Downside, whose spiritual letters I
think were probably the single most influential book for me in my twenties,
and still are to some extent. The two axioms which he wrote throughout his
correspondence - pray as you can and don't try to pray as you can't, and the
less you pray the worse it gets - does tell you a great deal. He was a
terrific influence.

The other one is an English Carmelite nun called Ruth Burrows, who in the
seventies published a number of short books on the Carmelite tradition,
including one called Guidelines to Mystical Prayer which for me made the
same kind of sense as Abbot Chapman. She also wrote a very striking little
autobiography called Before the Living God which gave a quite harrowing
account of her own spiritual journey, but it had the same quality of honesty
about feelings, honesty about the doubts in the darkness and how she had
discovered through St John of the Cross a way of surviving that was truthful
to what she was experiencing.

Q: How do you see yourself in relation to the reformed and evangelical side
of our tradition?

A: It is something that I think became very important to me at one or two
points when I needed it as a kind of corrective to what can be a slightly
precious and elitist anglo-Catholicism. Sometimes you just need to sing
Blessed Assurance and hit a tambourine. You just need to know that there is
something profoundly simple about what an evangelical would rightly call a
personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and that nothing substitutes for

So I have never been inclined to look down on that kind of piety - I think
it is an absolutely essential strand, and for those of us who are inclined
to be over subtle or over complex about things it is a necessary bit of
medicine. It is also a joy and liberation.

Particularly in the last ten years, having more and more contact with
charismatic renewal in Wales, I find it's a liberation. I've got some
questions of course, some reservations, but again it is a real freeing of
the Spirit.

The ACNSlist is published by the Anglican Communion Office, London.

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