Arthur Middleton on the crucial importance of a disciplined interior life for clergy and laity

As far back as 1916, Neville Figgis saw a creeping secularization, rather than idleness, as the principal danger facing the Church. Preaching in Salisbury Cathedral on Trinity Sunday 1916, he pointed out that the evil of the Church is: ‘the doing of Church work in a spirit of mere business, something to be got through. The only way to avoid this is for the priest to be instant in prayer. If he does not he will lose that touch of the supernatural without which he has no right to be a priest at all’ [Defects in English Religion, p. 60].

Among disqualifications for the pastoral office Gregory the Great names ‘ignorance of the light of heavenly contemplation’. In The PaStoral Rule [bk II, vii] he writes: ‘Let not the pastor diminish his care of things within through his occupation about things without; nor forsake the oversight of things without through his anxiety about things within; lest either being given up to things external he fall away within; or being occupied solely with internal matters he fail to pay that which is due to his neighbours abroad.’

He considers an admixture of the contemplative life to be a condition of the fruitful performance of the pastoral office, and he took it for granted that all pastors of souls may, and should, exercise contemplation. He warns about rejoicing in the pressure of ‘worldly commotions’ so that one becomes ignorant of those inward things which one ought to have taught others. ‘For when the head languishes, the members have no vigour. It is in vain that an army, seeking contact with the enemy, hurries behind its leader, if he has lost the way. No exhortation then uplifts the minds of subjects, no reproof castigates their faults…’

Around 1931 Evelyn Underhill wrote to Archbishop Lang about the inner life of the clergy. Her concern was that the multiplicity of the clergy’s duties had diminished some priests’ grounding in a life of prayer. Her concerns are as relevant today, perhaps even more so in this computerized age, and apply equally to the laity as well as the clergy. As Gregory and Fr Figgis cR pointed out the life of the Church and the life of humanity, priests and laity must be rooted in a life of prayer.

Underhill’s letter is a call to the clergy as a whole to a greater interiority and cultivation of the personal life of prayer. She points out that the real failures, difficulties and weaknesses of the Church are spiritual and can only be remedied by spiritual effort and sacrifice, and that the Church’s deepest need is a renewal, first in the clergy and through them in the laity, of the great Christian tradition of the inner life. As Gregory wrote, ‘… when earthly cares occupy the pastor’s mind, dust, driven by the winds of temptation blinds the eyes of the Church.’

As a layperson she points out, ‘We look to the clergy to help and direct our spiritual growth. We are seldom satisfied because with a few noble exceptions they are so lacking in spiritual realism, so ignorant of the laws and experiences of the life of prayer. Their Christianity as a whole is humanitarian rather than theocentric.’

God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God but as F. D. Maurice said we dose them with religion rather than God. Her point is that only a priest whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice, and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend him. It may seem difficult and apparently unrewarding, but care for the interior spirit is the first duty of every priest, otherwise, as Figgis says, ‘without it he loses that touch of the supernatural life without which he has no right to be a priest at all.’

Underhill points out that laity instantly recognize those services and sermons that are the outward expression of the priest’s interior adherence to God and the selfless love of souls. She acknowledges that recovering the ordered interior life of prayer and meditation will be very difficult for priests immersed increasingly in routine work. It will mean for many a complete rearrangement of values and a reduction of social activities. They will not do it unless they are made to feel its crucial importance. ND