Fr Peter CSWG on this priest, teacher of prayer, and prophet for the Church
What importance for our divided world, has a priest who died 50 years ago this coming August? Perhaps only, that which concerns us all as Christians: the significance of holiness, a putting on of Christ’s new nature, the goal set for us all and a task we all begin here and now.
Computers were still in their infancy when Fr Gilbert Shaw died on August 18th 1967: the IT revolution of the last 30 years still lay in the future. Even so, his ministry was lived out amidst the rigorous and testing conditions of modern contemporary Western life: his life is definitely not merely one of antiquarian interest. His contribution as a teacher of prayer, consecrated as he was ‘to pray and suffer for holiness’, through the exacting vicissitudes of his life, has wide applicability in our confused and troubled times.
Gilbert Shuldham Shaw was born July 10th 1886. His father was an eminent lawyer; his mother’s family had several respected physicians and lawyers amongst her forebears. Gilbert’s mother died when he was 9 years of age, a traumatic event that was to affect his health as a child. In particular, it would later lead to the development in Gilbert of a strongly marked Christian social conscience, with compassion for all who suffer.
That compassion was first given visible, tangible expression through a school mission to the East End, where he encountered ‘grinding poverty’ for the first time – the sight of countless families, almost every one suffering from TB, and men and women dressed in clothes ‘made from old sacks sown together’i – it was stay with him throughout his life, rooting his faith in a profound social concern.
With regard to religion up to that time expressed in a purely formal way, he was to change dramatically through the preaching and teaching of Fr Figgis CR, which first spoke directly to his heart, inspiring a fervent, lifelong faith.
Gilbert’s married family life began shortly before the beginning of the Great World (there were three children), and certainly became affected later by the demands of his varying ministry with its commitments, yet the family remained always a united one. He was destined for the Bar and legal profession, following in his father’s footsteps, but a series of incidents that included being invalided out of the Great War, led to a change of course and rather late (for those days) ordination as deacon and priest (he was 38 and 39 years old respectively), whilst serving as Vice Principal of S Paul’s Missionary College, at Burgh in Lincolnshire.
Between 1927 and 1931, Fr Gilbert became full-time secretary of the Association for Promoting Retreats, and gained wide experience as a retreat conductor and teacher of prayer, whilst ‘building an extensive ministry of confession and spiritual direction.’ii
During the Depression years, a friendship already established with Fr William at Glasshampton, led to their mutual agreement for him to undertake work in Poplar as a way of being a Christian presence – ‘the face of the Church’ – among huge numbers of unemployed. He occupied a dis-used pub The Sydney, to enable men there to be clothed and fed, and to leave them fit for work should that become available. He was also politically active in the area, securing fair rents and housing and helping to raising standards of education.
For the duration of World War II and in the years following up until 1957, the times were difficult and ‘dark’ ones for Gilbert. His experience with the ‘paranormal’, first experienced in the earlier years, led to his serving on a sub-committee of the Church’s Commission on Healing. He had experience of an extensive ministry to people and situations where the ‘dark powers’ had been operating, and much of this aspect of his ministry would be mis-understood
It was only later to be vindicated: today, when the Church’s Ministry of Deliverance is markedly under the authority of the local bishop, Fr Gilbert’s papers on these subjects are still consulted in contemporary ministrations in this field.
He also became at this time one of the members of ‘the Moot’, an intellectual ‘think-tank’ that met during the years between 1938 -1947, which was to inspire much of the thinking behind the social and political reforms that came once the war had ended.
However, it was the meeting with Mother Mary Clare, the Superior of the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford, that proved a watershed in the unfolding of his ministry: in a characteristically ‘Gilbertian’ event, a meeting intended as a brief formal introduction on Waterloo station, went on for four hours, with Reverend Mother finally catching an early evening train to Sussex! His entire life up until then had become a preparation for these final 10 years, when he would become first, the Sisters’ retreat conductor and teacher, and finally their Warden in 1963.
Gilbert – priest, man of prayer, prophet
The Sisters of the Love of God would be the Community context in which that earlier spiritual formation came to be poured out in his teaching: through homilies, Conferences and retreats. This remarkable priest did not just teach about prayer, but lived prayer; his life became prayer. The well-known aphorism of Evagrius Ponticus – ‘A theologian is one who truly prays and one who truly prays is a theologian’ – helps further shed light on this prolific output of teaching, rich in spiritual theology, given during these years.
It also enables us to grasp Gilbert’s understanding of what undergirds the life of prayer: the ability to articulate the life of the gospel in the language of the Church’s theological Tradition. The encounter with God in prayer brings the capacity to speak ‘out of knowledge’ (i.e. experience), one of his favoured terms. It also gives a prophetic stance in relation to the institutional Church, with concern for its being over-influenced by the surrounding social and political norms.
However, most of this teaching material remains unpublished; it is archived in manuscript form with the Sisters at Fairacres in Oxford. Earlier works: The Pilgrim’s Book of Prayers and Face of Love (some meditations on the Stations of the Cross) are still both sold and in use today, had originally been published by Mowbrays.
The One Great Tradition
Fr Gilbert became profoundly convinced of the fundamental unity of the spiritual Traditions of East and West, in their most mature exponents. This unity was real despite different theological terminology and varying emphases. His own growth was formed in the Western tradition, with the influence of St Catherine of Siena, the Imitatio, the Flemish mystic Jan Ruysbroek, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross being especially prominent.
However during the late 50’s and early 60’s a number of Orthodox theologians and writers published their works in the West: Vladimir Lossky, Nicholas Zernov, Fr Sofrony and Archbishop Antony Bloom, to name the most illustrious. Fr Gilbert rejoiced in this wider theological and spiritual development, since Orthodox theology was able to articulate more accurately his own experience in prayer and contemplation.
Fr Gilbert had a wide and extensive ministry of spiritual direction, largely through the confessional. For him, the foundation of any life of prayer required a disposition of ‘penitent dependence’, and sacramental confession was therefore the normal channel for directing souls. Whether the figure of two thousand penitents quoted in his biographyiii is accurate, he was always in great demand for counsel and instruction.
His celebration of Mass might perhaps today raise some eyebrows. His praying of the Mass on occasions was known to take as long as an hour and a half! He prepared for every mass with great care, and always carried his intentions with him. Fr Gregory speaks about this in the booklet produced to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his death:
‘Father Gilbert had a wonderful capacity as celebrant of the Eucharist to draw the whole assembly into a unified offering by means of his own recollection and unity of self-giving by, with, and in Christ. He always took to the altar with him a little prayer book, in which were written his principal Mass intentions. They were also the intent ions of his life:
- To be in our Lord’s drawing, of all things to the Divine Unity.
- To pray for and teach the recovery of the great tradition of prayer, and especially to support and instruct the contemplatives in the world and the religious life.
- To pray for the increase of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, especially CSWG and SLG
- To pray and suffer for holiness for all men everywhere, but especially for the priesthood.
- To stand and go on standing in our Lord’s overcoming and in his reversal of evil.
Perhaps it is these Mass intentions, which give us the clearest insight into the life of this great priest. His whole life had become one offering with Christ in the Eucharist; and the same light and power of healing as is manifested and communicated in the Eucharist, was operative in his teaching and spiritual direction.’iv
Perhaps the most enduring witness Fr Gilbert leaves with us is one passed on by the Sisters who were with him before and after he died. The present writer recalls visiting Fairacres as a novice in the early 80’s, and hearing this first-hand from Mother Mary Clare. A more recent account by a former SLG sister speaks of how Gilbert’s body, ‘clothed in white priest’s vestments, with a small chalice and paten in his hands’, was ‘radiant’ in the light of transfiguration.v
This recollection remains a powerful reminder of how Fr Gilbert understood Christian life as a work of transforming our natures into the new nature of Christ. Yet speaking on that very theme in a homily on the Feast of the Transfiguration only 12 days before he died, he quoted some words of Pope Leo: ‘yet among the trials of this present life, we must ask for endurance before glory’ [Sermon 51]. That would appear to have been precisely what Fr Gilbert did:
Our call is to die to self, to live for Christ in his reconciliation of all things. We must learn from the Transfiguration that the whole of our body and soul is to be sanctified. The moment of vision passes…that we may listen to the voice of Jesus, that being faithful to our call we may be transfigured.’vi
Fr Gilbert pray for us!
i Such a Long Journey Rodney Hacking p.10 (Mowbrays 1988)
ii Fr Gilbert Shaw (1886-1967) A Memoir (A Further Study) Fr Gregory CSWG OTS No 22, page 4
iii Hacking op cit. p.5
iv Fr Gilbert Shaw Fr Gregory CSWG OTS No 20 a booklet to mark the 25th anniversary of his death
v An article on The Transfiguration: August 2016 Monthly Bulletin of the Orthodox Parish of St John of Kronstadt, Bath