by Bruce Gilberd

(Based on Matt 6:5-15)

Fore-prayer on Parihaka: God of history, God of grace, we give thanks for the faith, aroha and vision of Tewhiti and Tohu.  As leaders of the Christian village of Parihaka, in Taranaki, NZ, they peaceably sought justice.  May we, and all peoples, do the same in our time and place.  Amen.

I’ve invented a new word: “Praction”: Prayer <—> Action.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus leads into giving his prayer – the Lord’s Prayer – with these words of guidance:

  • “when you pray go to your room; shut the door quietly.”
    I add: switch off all sounds, devices and distractions, and sit in a receptive position.
  • Jesus then says: “Pray to your Father, who is in this secret place.”
    I add: He is beyond us, beside us, and within us.
  • Jesus says: “And your Father who sees you in secret will reward you openly.”

So, I ask two questions:

  • What might be the essential nature of our prayer in secret solitude?
  • What might the public rewards be of our secret prayer?

To help us with these questions, I refer to this little book: Twentieth Century Men [People] of Prayer.  The author, Mark Gibbard, was an Anglican monk – I heard him speak fifty years ago.  I am still incorporating into my prayer the many insights in his pages.

The key insights for all the people covered form a three-fold trinity. They

  • stay connected to life and have broad interests
  • exercise and develop their capacity to gaze on God – contemplate
  • take costly, loving action every day

So … be widely involved in life; pray and act: Praction!

I will now illustrate, from four people in Gibbard’s book, how each lived this way in their varying contexts.

  1. Fredrich Von Hugel:

Von Hugel was the son of an Austrian Baron and a Scottish mother, born in 1852.  The family settled in Devon, England.  He was a scholar, a geologist, and a deep man of prayer, who guided many others.  His guidance could be very direct!
He was convinced followers of Jesus need to have broad and non-religious interests if they, by prayer and action – in praction, were to become mature and integrated human beings.  We must, he said, face our intellectual problems and anchor our faith in community and history.
“When I cease to take in new ideas,” he said, “call the undertaker!”

2. Simone Weil:

Weil was born into an affluent medical family in Paris in 1909.  They were agnostic Jews.  She was a seeker of truth and a woman of prayer.  She incensed her parents by giving her rations to soldiers, working in factories for low pay, and refusing to wear stockings.  She committed herself to share the hardships of those unjustly treated.
Weil fought in the Spanish Civil War for the democratically elected Socialist party, against Franco.
She died, exhausted, at 34.

Prayer led her to just action.  A complex personality who came, in her words, “to adore Christ”.

3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

He was born in Berlin in 1905, and executed after two years in prison in 1945.
A Lutheran by upbringing, and with a desire to be a theologian, from fourteen years of age.  Yet … he had yet to be encountered by Christ, and there were years of build-up to that.  Later Bonhoeffer asks the haunting and contemporary question, “Who is Christ for us, today?”
In 1937, when he could have pursued a scholarly career in America, and Hitler’s star was rising, and Germany re-arming, he returned to Germany and led the small “Confessing Church” – the established church had capitulated to Hitler.  This, and being implicated in an attempt on Hitler’s life, cost him his life.

But before this, he, Bonhoeffer, who also liked to dance, hike, play the piano and go to the opera – he wrote key texts for us, not least The Cost of Discipleship, and Letters and Papers from Prison.  Here we discover the essence of this man of prayer: of broad interests, of love, and of prayer, the Psalms his constant companion.

I am tempted to tell you about all the twelve people in this text – but I’ll complete with just one more – our fourth.

4. Dag Hammarskjold:

Was born in a sixteenth century castle in Uppsala, Sweden.  Died in a plane crash in 1961, on his way to try and end the war in the Congo.
He was General Secretary of the United Nations.  Politics and prayer were central to his holy and efficient life.  He was a quiet man, with incredible energy.
After his death, his journal of thirty one years was found in his New York home.  It was published as Markings.  There are one or two insights.

  • Again, the Psalms were very important to him.
  • He wrote, “We need to begin to live in self-forgetfulness.”
  • “The greater the political responsibilities, the greater the need of prayer.”
  • “I don’t know who – or what – put the question.  I don’t know when it was put.  I don’t even remember answering.  But at some moment I did answer Yes to someone, … and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that therefore my life in self-surrender had a goal.”
  • And finally from Hammarskjold, “For many of us in this era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action.”


These four, along with Tewhiti and Tohu of Parihaka, and millions down the centuries, have been committed to

  • anchorage in the community of faith
  • broad interests in God’s world: in nature and history …. in society and politics …. in justice and mercy
  • silent, receiving, reflective prayer
  • right, loving action in society

These have been their calling, and the source of their maturing.
Which of these – wider interests, reflective prayer, right action – are you – am I – now called to develop?  I hope you will believe me, that this is possible for all of us – proceeding in a way that is true to who we are.

Let us all live this way, all the time.

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