Prayer From the Heart

The Virgin and Child c.1488-90  Ambrogio Bergognone National Gallery London

Recently I heard a priest talking about a list of prayer requests that he keeps in his missal. He is often asked to pray for people and situations so he adds the requests to the list, prays them from time to time – the list is too long to pray them all every day – and every so often he reviews the list. I thought about this and there was something that didn’t seem right.

My experience is that God hears and answers prayers if they come directly from our heart, out of need, or compassion, inspiration or real necessity. Prayer isn’t about numbers – the more people praying the better – it is about clean, disinterested motives and fervour. Those are the prayers that go straight to Him and you only need one ordinary person who really cares about something to make a difference.

No matter how holy the person is who is praying, if he is praying from a list about people and situations he does not personally know, how are those prayers going to be anything other than lukewarm in reality?

A friend once told me an amazing story. She was a young nurse with two small children. One day she was on duty at the local hospital and she was giving a bed bath to a young mother who was in hospital with advanced breast cancer. As my friend was washing this woman she was suddenly overcome with compassion and sadness. She identified so strongly with her and her heart was sorrowful for the husband who was about to be widowed and the motherless children. It occurred to her that as she was washing the woman she was sort of laying her hands on her so, as she washed and touched her, she sent a little heartfelt prayer asking if it was possible that the woman could get better. She finished the bath and carried on with her tasks.

When she was next on shift she heard that the doctors had been mystified by a certain event. Apparently the latest tests on the woman with breast cancer had shown that the cancer had gone – completely – it just wasn’t there. The doctors were scratching their heads but put it down to one of those unexplained recoveries that sometimes happen.

But this is the amazing thing – my friend told me that she had been so happy to hear the news about the woman but that it was only several days later that she even remembered her prayer!

Her motives had been pure, heartfelt and disinteresed. She hadn’t needed a group of holy people praying from a list. All she needed was, at that moment, to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It may be that God had wanted to heal that woman but needed the right person in the right place at the right time.

We have to be that right person in the right place at the right time – whenever or wherever we are.

Then we become the prayer.


The Virgin and Child c.1488-90  Ambrogio Bergognone National Gallery London

The Christ child holds a rosary. The open prayer book is inscribed with verses in Latin from the psalms. The Virgin’s halo is inscribed with the prayer ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord (is with thee)’. In the background, Carthusian monks oversee the construction of the Charterhouse at Pavia


Lessons in Love from the Unloved



A Lovely Saint Joseph in Corpus Christ london

I used to help with a club for people with learning disabilities. It met once a week in a room belonging to a Baptist church. The club was founded and run by a lovely man whose son had Downes Syndrome although his son didn’t live at home and only rarely visited. However, week after week, a small group of us met and, I can tell you, that the  helpers got as much out of it and perhaps more than the club members.

I originally decided to help because I felt called to do so but also because I thought it would be a good service. What a joke! The blessings I received from the club members far outweighed anything I contributed. The helpers took turns running the meeting and I’ll never forget one in particular. I realised that people with learning disabilities often have concrete thinking and abstract ideas can be difficult. We often talked about Jesus but how could he become real to our club members? So, I found lots of different images of Jesus from art on the internet, downloaded them, printed and laminated them. They were only small pictures but I had quite a pile of them. I spread them over a table and I remember the look of joy on faces as we looked at them and as each person got to choose their favourite to take home.

A simple example of a blessing I received. One of the club members came up to me at the end of a meeting, stood in front of me and said “I really like you!” I was so moved and it took me a while to work out why. I realised that it was something we never say. I would never think of going up to a friend and simply saying “I really like you!” I would just assume that the friend knows that and, anyway, it would feel strange to do it –  but the way this kind and genuine compliment made me feel was such a lovely lesson. I realised that I was learning how to love and appreciate others from our club members and that I was a novice compared to them.

There was no other support from the church although we were grateful for the room. However, once a year, some of the ladies organised a Christmas party. They decorated the church hall and we all brought in cakes and biscuits and mince pies as well as organising some games. It was always a lovely occasion.

During one particular Christmas party, one-by-one, individuals started to come into the hall, help themselves to chairs and then go out without acknowledging us or telling us what was happening. One of the helpers ascertained that there was a carol concert rehearsal in the church upstairs and that they were short of chairs. This went on for some time. People trooped in and out but not one of them acknowledged us. It was as if we weren’t there.

I felt very uneasy about this but couldn’t put my finger on why. Then it came to me why no one came up to explain or apologise or even to wish our club members a Happy Christmas – it was because they were learning disabled. For any other party or meeting, permission would have been asked and apologies given but, it seemed, that people with learning disabilities were not offered that common courtesy.

I have seen it over and over again, especially when I went on to work in learning disabilities. These lovely and special people are often not treated with even basic dignity. I thought Christian people would be different but I was wrong. What is wrong with us?

One last word. Whenever there was an open day or outreach at the church and a board of activities was put on display, which club do you think had pride of place? You guessed it and I use the word ‘pride’ on purpose. Our club members were ignored and forgotten by the church for 99% of the time but picked up when they were useful.

Don’t be like this.

“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”

Mother Teresa

Jesus is the Way

Giovanni Battista Cima Da Conegliano c1510 National Gallery London


The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up and the Lord said to him, ‘Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them.’

 Moses said to the Lord, ‘The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, “Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.”’

The Lord replied, ‘Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the Lord, or he will break out against them.’ So Moses went down to the people and told them. Exodus 19: 20 -25

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorised fire before the Lord, contrary to his command.  So fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Moses then said to Aaron, ‘This is what the Lord spoke of when he said:

‘“Among those who approach me
    I will be proved holy;
in the sight of all the people
    I will be honoured.”’

Aaron remained silent.  Leviticus 10: 1-3

The Trinity with Christ Crucified c1410 National Gallery London

Those who say they know God or have God are kidding themselves. God is so holy, so ‘other’ that we could not stand in His presence and survive. Our sin would destroy us. That is why Jesus came – to take our sin on himself so that we can stand in the presence of God and live.  Jesus explains this himself.   ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6

When Jesus takes our sin onto himself it is so that we can approach our Holy Father and so that He can commune with us. God loves us but He also feels the burden and responsibility of our estrangement. Pure love in the form of Jesus was his answer – and what an answer!


Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might:
thy justice, like mountains high soaring above,
thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all, life thou givest, to both great and small;
in all life thou livest, the true life of all;
we blossom and flourish like leaves on the tree,
then wither and perish, but naught changeth thee.

Thou reignest in glory, thou dwellest in light,
thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
all praise we would render; O help us to see
’tis only the splendor of light hideth thee!

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.


 Saint Veronica with the Sudarium, c1420, National Gallery London


If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Matthew 5:41

A brother in South China had a rice field in the middle of the hill. In time of drought he used the water-wheel worked by a treadmill to lift water from the irrigation stream into his field. His neighbour had two fields below his, and one night he made a breach in the dividing bank and drained of all his water. When the brother repaired the breach and pumped in more water his neighbour did the same thing again, and this happened three or four times. So he consulted his brethren. “I have tried to be patient and not to retaliate,” he said, “but is it right?” After they had prayed together about it one of them observed, “if we only try to do the right thing, surely we are very poor Christians. We have to do something more than what is right.” The brother was much impressed. Next morning he pumped water for the two fields below and in the afternoon pumped water for his own field. After that the water stayed in his field. His neighbour was so amazed at his action that he began to enquire the reason, until in due course he too found Christ.

“Right or wrong” is the principle of the Gentiles and tax gatherers (verse 46). Not that, but conformity to Him, must govern my life.

Watchman Nee from ‘A Table in the Wilderness’ Daily Meditations from the ministry of Watchman Nee, March 22nd.

The Magnificat – A Revolutionary Hymn

 From the Wilton Diptych c1395 -1399 National Gallery London

My soul glorifies the Lord
 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
   for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
 He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
 He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.


Here we have a passage which has become one of the great hymns of the church – the Magnificat. It is a passage which is saturated in the Old Testament. It is specially kin to Hannah’s song of praise in 1 Samuel 2: 1-10. It has been said that religion is dope, the opiate of the people; but the Magnificat is the most revolutionary document in the world. The Magnificat speaks of three of the revolutions of God.

He scatters the proud in the plans of their hearts. That is a moral revolution. Christianity is the death of Pride. Why? Because if a man sets his life beside the life of Christ it turns the last vestiges of pride from him… Christ enables a man to see himself as he really is. It is the deathblow to Pride. The moral Revolution has begun.

He casts down the mighty – he exalts the humble. That is a social revolution.  Christianity puts an end to the world’s labels and prestige. When we realise what Christ did for all men it is impossible to talk about the Common Man. The social ranks and grades are gone.

He has filled thos who are hungry those who are rich are sent empty away. This is an economic revolution. A non-Christian society is an acquisitive society where each man is out to amass as much as he can get. A Christian society is a society where no man dares to have too much when others have too little. There is loveliness in the Magnificat but in that loveliness there is dynamite. Christianity begets a revolution in each man and a revolution in the world.

From Wiliam Barclay Study Bible, Gospel of Luke

God Pours Out the Spirit

Aachen Cathedral

For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit. The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.  John 3: 34-36

We can believe what Jesus says, because on Jesus, God poured out the spirit in full measure keeping nothing back. Even the Jews themselves said that the Prophet’s received​ from God a certain measure of the spirit. The full measure of the Spirit was reserved for God’s own chosen one. Now, in Hebrew thought, the Spirit of God has two functions – first, the Spirit revealed God’s truths to men; and, second, the Spirit enabled men to recognise and understand that truth when it came to them. So to say that the spirit was on Jesus in the completest possible way is to say that he perfectly knows and perfectly understand the truth of God. To put that in another way – to listen to Jesus is to listen to the very voice of God.

The Friars, Maidstone, England.

Finally, John again sets before men the eternal choice. That choice is life or death. All through history this choice has been set before Israel. Deuteronomy records the words of Moses .: “see I have set before thee this day life and good, death and evil… I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that’s both thou and thy seed may live” (Deuteronomy 30: 15-20). This challenge was reiterated by Joshua: “ choose ye this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24: 15).

It has been said that all life concentrates upon a man at the crossroads. Once again John returns to his favourite thought. What matters is a man’s reaction to Christ. If that reaction be love and longing, that man will know life. If it be indifference or hostility, that man will know death. God offered him love; by his rejection of it he has condemned himself. It is not that God sent his wrath upon him, it is that he has brought that wrath upon himself.

William Barclay, Study Bible John Volume 1

For God so Loved the World…

Aachen Cathedral

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. John 3:16,17

These verses are considered to be the heart of our faith that is Christ’s mission.

The composer John Stainer was born in Southwark, London in 1840. He was the son of a cabinet maker but became a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral aged ten. He became organist at Magdalen College Oxford and subsequently organist at St Paul’s Cathedral. When he retired due to his poor eyesight and deteriorating health, he returned to Oxford to become Professor of Music at the university. In 1887 he composed his oratorio ‘The Chrucifixion’ from which his sublime setting of John 3:16,17 has become much loved. There are many version on YouTube including a version by St Paul’s Cathedral choir. It is as efficacious as piece of music as any to use to quieten the mind in preparation for prayer. For God so loved the world…




From Stainer The Crucifixion