Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Prayer and Wisdom in Ruth Burrows

On the 4th of April in the Carmelite Library, Philip Harvey gave the third in this year’s series of Carmelite Conversations on the spiritual writer Ruth Burrows. Here is the third of three short papers, which includes a meditation using lines from her meditations on the Lord’s Prayer.

Reading Ruth Burrows this year I have come to think that she is essentially writing the same book but in different ways. Each of her books is different, but their preoccupations and purposes are similar. They come together out of the same place of deep contemplation and their consistent attention is to relationship with God in prayer.

She writes: “I think that, in these days, we must have the courage, which can only flow from conviction that prayer has nothing to do with what is ‘experienced’, to shake ourselves free from the ideas almost uniformly presented by mystical writers of former days. Is there not one who does not speak as if some sort of ‘experience’ must crown a spiritual life, otherwise something has gone wrong? We need to turn back to the gospels and our Lord’s simple statements on prayer. We need to look around at people whom we know are leading dedicated lives, devoted to prayer. The common experience will be of ‘absence’, darkness, nothing. How foolish to conclude that this denotes something wrong, that we moderns have lost something, that God seems less concerned about us than about earlier generations. It seems to me we can trust that God, faithful to those he loves, longing only to give himself, is positively choosing to give himself in this dark way, this poor way.” (BLG 101)

This is the way into Ruth Burrows’ practice of prayer. It is the place she found herself not before but after many years of prayer life. Frequently in her writing she says there is no big secret going on here, that we start where we are and make ourselves open to God, just as happens in the opening of the Lord’s Prayer.  All I can do here in this time is present you with a few of the things Ruth says about prayer. On that same page of the biography she says, “True prayer is a giving of self to God, an opening of the self to God, not a seeking to feel God and his action.”

For her, “as soon as we would talk or write about prayer and growth in prayer we are faced with huge difficulties. We are talking and writing not merely about the deepest thing in human life but about its very essence – more, about the mystery of God himself.” She is insistent that our way to learn more about prayer is by reading the Scriptures. As she continues, “We are daring to use terms such as ‘intimacy’, ‘friendship’, for that we are called to such is beyond doubt for the believer. We find a breathing of it in the first pages of Genesis where, it is intimated, God was wont to walk with his man and woman through the garden in the cool of the day.” (OF 11)

At the same time, while reading Ruth Burrows this year I have noticed that prayer, and what she says about prayer, are only the beginning of what can be called, for want of any other word, wisdom. Her books are filled with sentences and paragraphs, meditations and digressions, that are expressions of a deep wisdom that seems to come out of the life of prayer, and that probably can only come out of such a lived experience. With this in mind, I am now going to quote from her book ‘Our Father’, a work in which each chapter gives meditations on the lines of the prayer. After I read each line of the prayer, I will read just one meditation of Ruth’s on that line. So let us treat this as a meditation in itself.

Our Father

Jesus’ revelation of the Father is unique, and its implications nor merely world-shaking but world-remaking. For Jesus, God’s name, his true being, is precisely Father and nothing else. He alone is Father, and human fatherhood is but a shadowy reflection of his. ‘Call no one on earth your father … you have only one Father and he is in heaven’; if only we could thrust our brand into the fire of this truth and receive its power!

Who art in heaven

The ‘world’, that does not and cannot know God is human pride and self-sufficiency, the enemy of the God that really is. This world chooses to stand on itself, in a way of existence within its own bounds and control, and refuses the invitation to be drawn beyond itself into God’s holy being. It resists with murderous panic the mystery that is Love. This world wants power over its god, wants to grasp him in the tentacles of knowledge, wants a puppet controlled by its own dictates – and this world is in us all.

Hallowed be thy name

It is within our own sinful context, not away from it, that we hallow God’s name; when in temptation and conflict, in the misery of our bad moods, ‘under’ not ‘on top’, it is then that we must struggle to love if only by a feeble smile, refusing a criticism, even an interior one, struggling to be sensitive to another’s feelings, to bite back a haughty rejoinder, allowing ourselves to be imposed upon. What priceless opportunities!

Thy kingdom come

‘Thy kingdom come!’ Let us pray it blindly, not knowing really what we are asking, and over and over again, several times a day, explicitly tell him we intend that he shall have everything, he shall be allowed to do all he wants to do. This basic intention we must keep before us and be always looking at him, seeing what he wants here and now and giving it. If we keep our inner eyes on him – and maintaining a sincere intention is precisely that – we shall not miss him. We shall be so busy with him that we shall forget our own ideas and plans. We cannot be taking our own initiatives at the same time as we are bent on waiting for his.

Thy will be done

Jesus knew what was in man. His parables show that: human craftiness and meanness, hypocrisy, complacency, worldly-mindedness, unforgivingness, apathy! When we read how he was surrounded by the crowd – the palsied, the lame, the blind, the deaf, those controlled by demons – then we see what his living knowledge of human beings, his fellow men, was like.

But it is in the midst of this terrible awareness that he points us to the Father: ‘Believe in God, believe also in me.’ Believe in me even though all I am affirming contradicts your sense of life.

On earth as in heaven

We can hardly overstress the gravity of time and the realism with which we must take this world as the place where God reveals and gives himself to us. He is nowhere else. He is not away in heaven. He is with us; and therefore we are in heaven in the measure in which we allow him to give himself.

Give us this day our daily bread

When it comes down to it the proof of faith lies in how we view our daily lives. Do we see all as the holy bread our Father gives us? His pure will coming to us in this unexpected event; this lowly service?

We have to accept him in the life and circumstances he has given us, and this we find so appallingly hard. We want another sort of life that is more interesting, circumstances that tune in more with what we think God’s coming should be like.

Forgive us our trespasses

Scripture assures us that Jesus comes to heal our blindness, and blindness in regard to sin is our chief blindness. To a great extent, perhaps wholly, we choose how much we see. We cannot have God unless we are prepared to see ourselves, our lives, our past and present as they are, and half-consciously we know this revelation would be terrible. Therefore we make a choice not to see, or not to see very much.

As we forgive others

To be unforgiving to my neighbour means in fact that I have no idea of my sinfulness, or at least that I refuse to admit that I am a sinner. Unforgivingness springs from the desire to feel better than another, to have an ascendancy, to have rights.

An acceptance of ourselves as sinners in the light of knowing that Jesus is for all sinners, that he is reconciliation, is incompatible with insisting on our rights, wanting power and control over others, wanting to feel better than they are.

Lead us not into temptation

This is the Christian attitude flowing from profound faith. God is always present, offering himself in one disguise or another. But we are not always on the watch and therefore we miss him, refuse to recognise him, and see only this inconvenience, that annoying person, and so forth.

But deliver us from evil 

There is only one evil – human selfishness. The basis of all sin is egocentricity. The whole movement of self-orientation has to be reversed.


Mysteriously significant is his unique habit of prefacing statements with amen. ‘Amen, amen I say to you’, stressing an authority which derives solely from the fact that he receives all from the Father, the supreme Amen. He does not initiate: he waits, listens, receives, obeys. 


Books by Ruth Burrows

Before the living God. New edition. Burns & Oates, 2008 (BLG)

Our Father : meditations on the Lord’s prayer. Darton, Longman and Todd, 1986 (OF)

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