are odious and generalizations are dangerous. However, most readers
will probably identify with this experience. If you go to a family
run business you will be attended to fairly quickly and politely.
If an attendant does not look after you immediately, the family member
behind the cash register will either call somebody or come to you.
What a contrast when you go to a government office. With some notable
exceptions, the personnel would seem to have taken special training
on how to treat you as a non-person. You try to attract the attention
of someone who is in conversation with another employee, or whose
eyes are glued into a comic or some document. Eventually, you are
told that the one in charge is gone home, so come back tomorrow!
There is a big difference between people who are personally
committed and those who are just doing a job. For Jesus, the true
disciple was the good shepherd who was deeply committed to his sheep.
The contrast was with the pharisees who were just guardians of religion,
who were totally egotistical, who imposed burdens and applied laws
to others without a human touch. Their world was one of obligations
which were to be imposed strictly on others and whose spirit they
This contrast is one that touches me personally and
deeply. I was born into a catholic family and taught prayers early
by my mother and also had the example of a father who gave time each
day for prayer. At school and in my seminary and religious life training,
prayers were always part of the package. Those prayers were often
in Latin and done in a mechanical way but it was 'what you should
do' and so it was done. Sometimes a superior dispensed one from the
obligation to say certain prayers if he thought that there was sufficient
reason. I was ordained a priest and for almost fifteen years had this
understanding of prayer as obligation.
Anything that deserves the name of prayer at all will
tend to cleanse itself. A prayer that starts as a greedy seeking of
things from God may eventually, if there is some element of listening
in it, lead to seeking God's will and the transcending of self and
of one's selfishness. A prayer done out of obligation may grow to
become a prayer of openness to God. Gradually, I came to see that
prayer was not just a matter of obligation but it was a relationship
with my friend Jesus. This was a gradual growth.
Then my life became more of a relationship with a gentle loving shepherd
than with a boss for whom I had to toe the line. I knew that this
shepherd who knew his sheep had a personal interest in me. He knew
where the good pastures were and led me to them, often over rough
ground which at times made me doubt his presence or guidance. He was
a shepherd and guide who walked ahead and did not drive from behind.
In his humanity, shown in Jesus, he had walked the road that he asked
me to walk. He led me to the good pasture. Concretely for me this
meant that he led me to the teachings of John Main. Fr. John (1926-82)
discovered prayer by being still using a prayer word, first from a
Hindu Swami in Malaysia and then deep in our own Christian tradition.
According to him this is how to meditate: "You just sit still
and upright. Close your eyes lightly. Sit relaxed but alert. Silently,
interiorly begin to say a single word. We recommend the prayer-phrase
'MARANATHA.' Recite it as four syllables of equal length. Listen to
it as you say it gently but continuously. Do not think or imagine
anything - spiritual or otherwise. Thoughts and images will likely
come, but let them pass. Just keep returning your attention - with
humility and simplicity - to saying your word, from the beginning
to the end of your meditation.
Meditate each morning and evening for between twenty
and thirty minutes."
The discipline of meditation leads us gently but firmly to leave self
behind and to be open to the fullness of life to which the Good Shepherd
leads us. It frees us from a form of prayer that is a mere mechanical
or fearful fulfillment of obligations.