O Lord, open thou our lips - Mucknell Abbey
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bird singing

O Lord, open thou our lips

A friend of mine was recently telling me about the abundance of grace in his life. Since his retirement in October he has experienced an overflowing of goodness and gifts for which he feels deep gratitude. He’s written a psalm, abounding in love for the natural world – landscapes, weather, wildlife – and for the blessings of food, wine, and relationship. I felt the pleasure of his praise as he read it to me. ‘Why me?’ he asked when he had finished. ‘Why not?’ I replied.

‘Why me?’ is not an unreasonable question (though my reply ‘Why not?’ is in a sense the only response), and it is certainly a good one. My friend’s question suggests that even though his cup of life is overflowing he is holding hands with humility. Then he went on to tell me that he when he prays and contemplates, he cannot escape from restless thoughts, crowding him in. ‘I long to go deeper into my relationship with God but don’t know how. Being only grateful seems very surface, superficial.’

‘Only grateful’?

Thanksgiving is perhaps the best prayer we might pray. There are times when it might not seem like enough (as for my friend), but in giving thanks we acknowledge that we not in control, that we are reliant on the goodness of God, and that we are creatures with feet of clay with a great capacity for wonder.

In Chapter 9 of his Rule, St. Benedict writes about the structure of prayer for the night office of Vigils during winter. Most of us are asleep while Benedict’s own community would have been up in the small hours praying; their days were ordered differently around sunrise and sunset. They went to bed when the sun went down and arose (during winter) after eight hours sleep while it was still dark – at 2.00am – to pray, making the most of the hours before sunrise. And the first thing they said was ‘O Lord, open thou our lips; and our mouth shall show forth thy praise.’ (Psalm 51:17).

‘All life is in the hands of God’, writes Joan Chittister in her commentary on this chapter of the Rule. ‘Even the desire to pray is the grace to pray. The movement to pray is the movement of God in our souls. Our ability to pray depends on the power and place of God in our life.’ In other words, however the quality of our prayer might seem to us, our rock and our anchor is our seeking to pray at all. I said this to my friend when he told me about his restless thoughts during times of contemplative prayer. ‘Just going towards prayer is an expression of our relationship with God’, I said.

But then I added three short suggestions. The first two are about the restless thoughts that crowd in on us all when we try to be still. We might try imagining ourselves in the position of Jesus on the boat, asleep, during the storm on Galilee. He won’t be woken easily. The bad weather continues but he remains in a place of calm. Or, we might try and see our restless thoughts themselves like characters in play, objectified, and at arm’s length. We can acknowledge that they are there, even nod at them, but understand that they are just passing by.

The third suggestion relates to how we respond to words. Some of us are better made for contemplative prayer than others. I’ve never found it easy, though I know I like the silence and the stillness. I learned recently that St Teresa of Avila always needed words in front of her when she prayed; in fact, they were essential to her: that’s how she prayed. I imagine St Benedict felt the same, which is why his spiritual practice is based on speaking or chanting the psalms and scripture for the Offices. He knew that we become the scripture in which we are immersing ourselves, day in, day out, and the psalms are his cornerstone. The stillness is to be found in our focus on the words.

Our lives are abundant whether we are given the grace to perceive that or not. All we can do is to open our lips and trust that, in the presence of scripture, or indeed in the presence of another person, we are making ourselves available to God. ‘O Lord, open thou our lips; and our mouth shall show forth thy praise’ – and then comes our trust – that God will sound God’s music in us and through us.

Paul Edmondson

Paul Edmondson is Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 2011 and is a long-standing friend of SSMV.