Homily preached by Bishop Emeritus Thomas McMahon on 9th June 2007
The occasion of the 20th Anniversary of Diocesan House of Prayer
Thanksgiving, Silence, Prayer
“The Old Testament and New Testament Lessons speak very much of Thanksgiving. In Isaiah we read ‘Let me sing the praises of Yahweh’s goodness, and of His marvellous deeds, in return for all that He has done for us and for the great kindness He has shown us in His mercy and in His boundless goodness’. And in 1 Corinthians ‘I never stop thanking God for all the graces you have received through Jesus Christ’. I have been thinking a lot about the word ‘grace’ recently. I have to confess that I am not very good at New Year resolutions and so I take a ‘word’ for the year and this year it is the word ‘grace’. We use it frequently in the liturgy. How do we understand it? It can be translated as God’s favour, love, life. St. Thomas Aquinas defined it beautifully as: ‘the beginning of God’s glory in us’. He said that grace has five effects in us: first our soul is healed; second, we will what is good; third, we work effectively for it; fourth, we persevere in faith and fifth, we break through to glory.
Abbotswick has certainly been for many a place of grace and healing. Today we come with hearts full of thanksgiving. It came about, through the Lord’s providence in two ways. First, through Sr. Agatha coming to me and saying that she felt called to found such a house. Secondly, as I reflected I became aware that, unlike other dioceses, we had no monastery or the like, where priests and people could withdraw for quite retreat, reflection and prayer. The House of Prayer started in a small way in Chadwell Heath through the kindness of the Sisters of Mercy lending us their convent. We then looked for a large house in the centre of the diocese and providence led us to Abbotswick because the very name refers to an earlier house on the site which could possibly have served as the Abbot’s lodging place on the way from Bury St. Edmunds to Canterbury. It was mainly through the generosity of the Franciscan Sisters that we were able to buy the property, with the diocese contributing part of it. A few years ago, the diocese purchased the house and grounds from the Sisters. How blest we have been to have had Sr. Agatha for 18 years in charge of the House. Today I wish to pay high tribute to her for her selfless giving, unfailing kindness and generous hospitality and welcome to all who came. Some would come for a quiet time away, others to find solace in a time of difficulty. With Sr.Agatha we remember today Sister Bernadette and Sister Lucy and their many lay helpers and friends assisting either in the house or grounds. You are the ones who have made it possible to have this House of Prayer. It was providence too that guided us to the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham. You have continued and developed the ministry here bringing your own charism and gifts and we are deeply grateful for your presence, your witness and your ministry.
Let me speak about the value of Silence. It is rare to come across it in our world of loud music and mobile telephones. And yet, silence is essential for spiritual growth and healing. For many, in our society, silence is often considered awkward; witness the embarrassed silence in a small group not sure what to say next or strangers stuck in a lift. These awkward silences disturb us. On the other hand, there is a silence that consoles us: the silence of a sleeping child, the stillness of mountains or the tranquillity of a church. It is that kind of silence that people seek here at Abbotswick. Meister Eckhart the medieval mystic said: ‘nothing in the whole of creation so resembles God as stillness’. And St. John of the Cross, Spanish mystic said, ‘Silence is the way God speaks to us’. There is nothing divine about hurry and nothing hurried about the divine. As Mother Teresa said: ‘We need silence to touch souls’. The Psalmist expressed it beautifully: ‘The Lord delights in the peace of his servant’. (Psalm 34). We need solitude to encounter God and not only God, but our true self.
The Gospel from Matthew 7 spoke about perseverance in Prayer. There are many definitions of prayer. My favourite is the one which says that prayer means making ourselves present to the presence of God. It can be for a moment or for a much longer period of time. Mother Teresa defined it as ‘thinking of God with love’ and said how it enlarges the heart. I once heard a priest describe it as sitting in the sun. If you sit in the sun you cannot help but be changed by it – you may not notice but other people will. It is the same when we put ourselves in God’s presence each day for a long or short time, whatever is possible. We will notice over the course of years that our insights are different – our way of judging – our attitudes, choices, priorities, values. The more we pray the more we want to pray and the less we pray the less we desire to pray. Cardinal Hume described it as ‘God’s thirst meeting our thirst, His silence meeting our silence. No need for thoughts and words to get in the way’.
A friend of mine was returning from Rome and contacted a friend to suggest that they meet for a meal. The friend came to see him off at the Station, since he was travelling North, just before getting on the train he turned to his friend and said ‘I feel I must apologise, but I haven’t been very good company this evening’. His friend replied:‘That doesn’t matter, what matters is that we wanted to meet’. It is the same in prayer. On certain days we may feel arid, distracted, very taken up with various concerns – none of that matters, what really matters is that we want to be there with the Lord. I often think of a certain line in Shakespeare’s Henry Vth, when the French herald came into the presence of the King, Henry asked of him; ‘What do I learn of thee?’. The herald replied: ‘My master’s mind’. It is in prayer and through prayer that we become attuned to the things of God and when so attuned have that instinct of what it is that pleases Him and the courage to carry it out.
As a memento of this occasion, I have brought a slate plaque to present to the House of Prayer and I have asked that it is put up in the entrance hall. The inscription reads: ‘Bidden or not bidden, God is present’. May it serve as an inspiration to all who come here.”