The following is a ‘guest’ piece by Father Jonah Bruce. This was a banquet address he gave in 2015. It is prefaced by my introduction of the speaker….
Father Gerald Wells Jonah Bruce is a native of Louisiana. He received his bachelor’s degree at the University of Arkansas, then an M.A. in English, concentrating on Anglo-Saxon, at Louisiana State University. He joined the ACC while a law student at the University of Georgia. His legal career has included a judicial clerkship, solo practice in civil and criminal law, work as an assistant district attorney and city attorney, service as a Special Assistant Attorney General, and a term as a juvenile court judge. He now to his great joy has escaped the practice of law and works as a consultant for clients including the Office of the State Judicial Branch, the state Office of the Child Advocate, and Emory University in matters relating to juvenile justice and child welfare.
I prepared and presented the young law student for confirmation by the late Archbishop Lewis. Being anxious as law school ended to marry a nice young woman and therefore, as I pointed out to him, needing first to meet nice young women, he adopted the rather unorthodox method of taking undergraduate German. To my surprise, his plan worked. He began dating one of the teaching assistants, Michele Thompson, whom in due course, also at Saint Stephen’s, he married. Father Bruce and Michele are the parents of Mary Margaret and Isabella Claire Bruce, who were two of the trio of girls who sang for us last night. The Bruce family were active in the founding of Saint Francis’ Church, Gainesville, GA, when Father Bruce was still a layman. He was ordained priest just over three years ago. Father Bruce now is the locum tenens at S. Francis’. He has served our Church in past years even prior to ordination as Clerk of the College of Bishops and President and Ponens of the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal. In his copious spare time he is a triathlete and a good friend.
I have not the slightest idea what Father Bruce will have to say to us this evening, but I am all ears. The floor, Jerry, is yours.
Banquet Address, ACC Provincial Synod
Athens, Georgia October 29th, 2015
By J. Bruce, priest-in-charge, St. Francis of Assisi ACC, Gainesville, Ga.
Your Grace, Right Reverend, Very Reverend, Venerable and Reverend Fathers, brothers and sisters in Christ –
I’ve never been a banquet speaker before – I’ve been at banquets, and I’ve spoken, usually while the banquet speaker is speaking. But usually I leave when the speaker begins, or I check my email or play one of those really absorbing games that are now available for the phone. So I’m not sure about what’s proper at such an occasion. St. Paul tells us to be imitators of him, but I’m fairly sure he did not mean that we were to talk so long (as St. Paul did on one occasion) that members of the audience fall asleep and then fall to their deaths. So I’ll try to avoid that, but I do feel an unfortunate obligation to speak about something that I believe to be important.
I will try, however, to do, if not no harm, then very little harm, and anyway I can always hope that everyone is well-fed and well-drunk enough that no one will notice if I do. I always find myself to be much a much more interesting person after a few drinks (not to mention better looking, smarter, and a master of manual dexterity); perhaps you will, too. So drink up. In the meantime, if you need to blame someone, please blame the Archbishop.
The story is told that St. Athanasius (in one of those intervals where he wasn’t banished or on the run) went about his diocese, and that everywhere he went, he asked the question, “How do you pray?”. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been asked a question like that, but I can tell you from personal experience that it’s not always a welcome question. And I gather from talking with laymen and clergymen that it’s a question which many Christians have never had to answer. Maybe that’s not your experience, and maybe your parish is a haven of competent spiritual direction. If so, you can always check your email for the next few minutes, but I don’t really think it’s the rule in our Church.
Secularization means that we really cannot assume that people who come to us, or even those who’ve been around a while, know how to pray. But it’s not just secularization that’s to blame: I remember the Archbishop saying that when he was growing up in the Episcopal Church, no one ever told him he needed to have a personal relationship with Christ. I grew up as a Southern Baptist, and I heard quite a lot about having a personal relationship with Christ, and I was told that prayer was an important aspect of that relationship, but it was assumed that the life of prayer was something that proceeded more or less automatically, and though on my way to the Catholic Faith I spent time in the non-denominational Bible-Church movement, in PCUSA and PCA Presbyterianism, and in so-called parachurch organizations, I never heard anything about how to go about the life of prayer. I came to the Catholic Church not knowing how to pray.
Of course, I talked to God a lot – quite a lot, really. But I spent most of my time telling God what He needed to do, how things needed to work out, and pointing out things that I was sure He’d overlooked. Then I heard Archbishop John-Charles say, “Prayer is not an easy way of getting what I want, but the only way of becoming what God wants me to be”.
And I soon discovered that while what Brother John-Charles said was entirely true, the first phrases of each part of the sentence are true in themselves: “Prayer is not an easy way… Prayer is the only way…”. Prayer, however easy it may seem in its vocal and formal components, is not an easy way. It requires direction and advice, because we are none of us the best judges of our own spiritual condition, and that includes our life of prayer. And it’s this aspect of prayer – its development in an environment of spiritual direction – that I want to address. I know enough about banquet speeches to know I can’t do justice to the topic of spiritual direction without you all falling asleep and possibly injuring yourselves. But I can give a general starting-point for further discussion. Let me use a true story as an analogy.
When I was in college I decided to start exercising. I’d been a competitive swimmer for a while some years before, so I thought I’d go back to that. So one day I showed up at the campus natatorium, confident that the technique I’d acquired years before would naturally carry me through. After all, I’d been swimming since I was a very small child. It seemed to come naturally. So there I was at the natatorium.
Now there is one thing that is of overwhelming significance in the life of most undergraduate males, and that is undergraduate females. It happened that on the day I stepped out onto the deck of a pool for the first time in years, confident in my innate abilities, the girls’ swim team was there. They weren’t just in the pool, minding their own business; they were all sitting in a line against the wall, looking out over the pool, waiting for their coach to come and address them. There was no one else for miles around. The pool was empty. Other than the girls’ fairly quiet chatter, the place was still.
I leapt fairly nonchalantly into the pool, which to my mind created a sound like an explosion and which seemed to draw the attention of the girls’ swim team. I was mindful of the eighteen or so pairs of eyes on me as I broke the surface and clung uncertainly to the side. I stayed there for a minute or two, and then stuck boldly out down the lane, trying my best to remember what it was like to swim freestyle.
After what seemed like a long time in the water, and with my chest bursting and my arms feeling like spaghetti, I decided it was safe to stop and catch my breath. I hadn’t quite made it one length of the pool. I got to the wall and discovered in a flash of insight that pretending to adjust your goggles can buy you a lot of time and cover a multitude of sins. After studiously fiddling with my goggles, I pushed off back in the direction of the girls’ swim team who were still seated implacably at poolside. I managed to get back down the lane, doing a good deal of damage to the water along the way, and spent some more time adjusting my goggles.
By some miracle of sheer determination, I swam for about ten minutes, not including lots of goggle adjustments, and figured I’d made a good show of it. But that’s when the real problem arose. I was on the wall in the deep end of the pool. I realized that I really couldn’t lift my arms anymore. I was afraid that this might be dangerous in a swimming pool, so I clung to the side where I’d stopped. This was the deep end of the pool. I figured that the thing to do would be to adjust my goggles for a bit.
After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to leap gracefully out of the pool, I found myself with one arm and one leg out, and one arm and one leg in. My arms were too shaky to pull myself all the way out. So I hung there for a bit, and that’s when I first heard the sound of girls laughing. This added a keen sense of urgency. I was able to get out and get away, but it wasn’t pretty. That was 1985. I didn’t swim a lap again until 2010, and when I did, I asked for some advice. I had someone watch me swim and give me pointers. It seemed like an obvious thing to do. I could swim, but wanted to learn to swim well. With help, I learned to swim long distances in preparation for triathlons, and I continually seek advice on how to run, bicycle, and swim so that I can compete more effectively.
If training and coaching make sense in other areas of life, they make more sense in the life of prayer. The more important the task, the more important it is to seek advice and help along the way. Of course, we talk about prayer in general ways, and everyone who learns his prayers in childhood and who worships at the Eucharist has an entry into the life of prayer. We may even outline for folks the normal stages of prayer. But do we tell our people what advancing prayer looks like? What pitfalls to avoid? Which experiences are healthy and salutary? Which experiences to ignore or reject? Of course, these questions can’t be answered without a good deal of knowledge about concrete circumstances – without, in fact, a pastoral relationship.
People often think that the pastoral office of the clergy consists chiefly in helping people to deal with grief, suffering, perplexity, anxiety, and fear. And of course, it does deal with these things, but not chiefly. The pastoral office consists chiefly in the cure of souls – both corporately in worship, in preaching, and in teaching, and individually in leading persons one by one into the ways of deepening prayer. Without this, answering theological questions and addressing the concerns of life in a world of suffering and anxiety is of limited use. When my parishioners ask me about their marriages or other relationships, we talk chiefly about the life of prayer. We talk about other things germane to their issues, but mostly we talk about prayer, in its corporate and personal aspects. When they ask about personal issues, worries, and concerns, we talk mostly about prayer. I’m not a marriage counselor, or a psychologist, or a therapist of any kind, but even if I were, my worldly expertise would be of limited use. Prayer is the heart of the matter.
But what if your clergyman isn’t a Saint? Should you look elsewhere? And if you’re a clergyman and have no experience of advancing prayer, should you avoid offering direction? St. Theresa of Avila is certainly of the opinion that no direction at all is better than bad direction, but there is no reason for any clergyman to be a bad spiritual director. For one thing, you can learn from books – and especially from the lives and writings of the Saints, and from talking to folks you know who seem to you to pray well. Martin Thornton was of the opinion that, at least in the beginning, study is more important in a good director than is experience. For one thing, sanctity in itself doesn’t guarantee an ability to communicate effectively. And intensive, prayerful study itself tends to create conditions for a growth in experience.
But advancing prayer isn’t the exclusive province of the Saints – every one of us is called to a deepening and advancing life of prayer. Ultimately, prayer is designed to move from being something we do to something God does in us. This is what the ascetical writers call “contemplative prayer”, or more properly, “infused prayer”. There are many stages and pitfalls along this road, but it is the only road: Prayer is not an easy way; but prayer is the only way.
The lives of the Saints demonstrate to us amply that the normal way in which prayer grows and deepens is in the relationship of spiritual direction. And there are great benefits to be had, benefits which the Anglican Catholic Church and all churches need.
First, learning to pray within the context of spiritual direction prevents us from being atomized individuals who just happen to belong to the same civic organization – the Church as Rotary club. Once, in a class I was teaching, someone objected to the idea of spiritual direction by saying, “God is my spiritual director”. I pointed out that God is the health of body, but that probably didn’t prevent this person seeking medical care. The Lord is our shepherd and guide, but that didn’t prevent this person from using maps. For reasons which are ultimately mysterious to us, God normally works in us through the agency of created beings. This is the foundation of sacramental theology, after all. Our relationship with God is personal, but never private. We live and are saved in communion with others.
Second, learning prayer with a spiritual director protects against delusion. As great a saint as Theresa of Avila subjected her every spiritual experience to her director and confessor. St. Theresa had astounding and miraculous experiences; her director didn’t have these things, but he did have the office of ministry in the Church, and the gift of the Spirit to exercise this ministry, and St. Theresa knew that subjective experience should always bow to the objective ministry of the Church. And there’s a consensus in the Saints that those who think they’re praying very well are often not, while those who don’t think they’re praying is worth anything may well be praying very effectively. This requires an objective view.
Third – the relationship of spiritual direction is the best way for the discernment of spiritual gifts. We will find – have already found – laymen and women who are also gifted in spiritual direction and who can assist in this work. We will make the best use of our spiritual resources and help our parishioners to find their own vocations within the Body of Christ
Fourth – A deepening life of prayer is the real key to the growth of the Church. Evangelism is natural and highly convincing when it comes from a heart which is growing in prayer, and that heart cannot help but speak of the things it has seen and heard. If we want to encourage evangelism, then we must encourage disciplined, growing prayer.
Finally – as I said before, the lives of the Saints demonstrate that this path of prayer creates the best conditions for the growth in sanctity – it is the garden-bed of sanctity. And sanctity is our calling, our destiny, and the path to true personhood.
So I pray that our clergy will speak to people about their life of prayer in the context of a relationship of spiritual guidance and direction, encouraging its growth and development along the lines demarcated in the central tradition of the Catholic Faith. I pray that the laity of our Church will be open and receptive to this direction, and will speak to one another about the life of prayer. Like it or not, the experience of the Church shows that, absent competent direction, the life of prayer tends not to develop. This pastoral relationship, along with the worship of the Church in the Eucharist, is the true way to the cure of souls.
After all, we mustn’t forget that the way of prayer is the way of joy, and the way of life – the way of our return to God. People will not get out of bed on Sunday morning to come to a museum of the Prayer Book. They may get out of bed for a while to go to a coffee-bar and rock-n-roll congregation, but they won’t get out of bed every Sunday for the rest of their lives for that. But they will get out of bed for love, for joy, for life. Picture for a moment a group of people living the life of prayer as it has been revealed in the Catholic Faith, the Faith once delivered to the Saints, gathered with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven around a tabernacle and an altar where the Lord of Life, the King of Joy, the Lover of men’s souls, is really present. Picture a place where the life within these people and the communion they share is quickened and strengthened by partaking of the Lord’s Body and Blood, and where the prayer of the hearts of these lovers of God ascends like incense to heaven. Who could keep quiet about such a place, and who could stay away?
Thank you, and God bless you.