Piety and prayer Michael Ramsey

Bishop Michael Ramsey explains that to be pious is not necessarily to be near to heaven.

As with works, so with piety. There can be good works done with zeal and energy, and yet there can be in them a self-conscious busyness or a possessiveness and patronage which leaves the doer in the bondage of self, and far indeed from heaven. There can be piety which dwells upon the man’s own spiritual state and his self-conscious enjoyment of it, a piety concerned with its own exterior techniques or its own interior feelings, and the devout man can be far indeed from heaven. Philanthropy and piety alike may be nearer to hell than to heaven.

But wherever there are works in which God is present through the humility and charity of the doer, heaven is not far of. And wherever there is the prayer of a soul hungry for God, and ready in the middle of its own weakness and failure to be filled with God’s own charity – the vacare (to be empty) being the gate to the amare (to love) – heaven is very near.

So not only among the conflicts of the world, but within the soul of the Christian as he prays, heaven and hell struggle

together like the twins in the womb of Rebekah, and both are near to us at every moment.

Utter sincerity

Well, leave out any idea of feeling pious; no one wants you to feel pious. Leave out the word God if you like. It is you, and the realities you know. Deep down in you there is a sense perhaps of tremendous obligation, things which are a ‘must’ for you because they are right. So, too, in the lives of others there are things which you admire tremendously, with reverence and awe. Then from time to time there is the horrid sense of guilt: something I am meant to be and I have wilfully failed to be. Then, in some of the crises of the world you remember a conviction in you that something is right and is therefore meant to prevail. And with all these experiences there is often a sense of wonder, wonder at something, someone, intimate with you in the depths of your being, and yet beyond, far beyond. It is all this which, for me, adds up to the word God, especially when I consider the person of Jesus as gather ing up the whole. But perhaps for you, though it all means so much to you, and the heart of the matter is in you, there is a kind of emptiness, a blank, a hunger.

Now, it is just this emptiness, blank, hunger which can find any of us nearer to God than a spate of consciously religious feelings. No one is nearer to God than the man who has a hunger, a want – however tiny and inarticulate. And that is where prayer can begin, the prayer of simply being oneself in utter sincerity. ND

From Canterbury Essays and Addresses,
edited by Arthur Middleton