Thursday, August 13, 2009


Cardinal Basil Hume died a decade ago. As Archbishop of Westminster he was an admired and influential public figure. The anniversary of his death has been marked with a volume of essays by friends, family and former colleagues celebrating the more personal and private sides of a great priest and a much loved man. Here William Charles, the Cardinal's nephew and editor of the book, considers the central place of prayer in his uncle's life.

Throughout his life, from the remote North Yorkshire valley of Ampleforth to the bigger stage of Westminster and beyond, Basil Hume never lost sight of the importance of prayer and that fundmental division between the desert and the marketplace which is at the heart of monastic existence. He explained once what these words meant to him. His remarks are addressed to God.

"I am caught between the desert and the marketplace - in the desert there is space, solitude, silence, stillness - a sense of your presence, nothing between You and me, just You and me - as indeed is the case now in this half hour, just You and me - sometimes a Gethsemane experience, a struggle with anxieties, fears, the sense of being overwhelmed by the problems of life, or just bored or distracted - sometimes a Mount Tabor experience when we can say: "It is good, Lord, to be here." I love that desert. In the marketplace the world is present . . . Distractions abound and temptations too. Must I flee from the marketplace and go to the desert. . . and yet all those people are made to Your image and likeness - drawn to them, I am drawn to You, admiring them, I admire You, fond of them, I am fond of You."

Mount Tabor is thought to have been the mountain which Christ climbed with some of the Apostles. At the top He was transformed and seen talking with the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah, thus revealing His true nature to His followers.

For Basil Hume, the desert represented the place where he could be alone with God and pray; the market-place was the world in which he had to act in response to God's command to love others. The relationship between the two places lay at the heart of his life. He prayed to God, whom he loved above all others, and was impelled by that prayer to go out to the world, for, as he said, "prayer leads to love".

"If I don't go into the desert, to meet God," Hume said, "then I have nothing to say when I go into the market-place. That's very important. I could only survive my work as Archbishop . . . if I have allocated so much of the day to prayer. That has to be done, in my case, early in the morning. I don't think I could survive in my job unless I had that half hour. It has become very important to me."

Many of those who met the Cardinal considered they had met a genuine man of prayer, a man of God who communicated an inner strength, a powerful and affirming sense of prayerfulness. Those who met him casually would not have guessed it, but a life of prayer was not often an easy one for him. He often described his most usual form of prayer as being "a prayer of incompetence" and it was rare for him to experience a deeply satisfying moment of prayer. He once said to one of his private secretaries: "I have not been successful in my prayers but I have been faithful."

There were exceptions to his sense that his prayers had not been successful. In 1977 he recalled that in his past experience he had found that "twice the beatific vision caught up unexpectedly". It is worth remembering that a truly successful moment of prayer will have a lifelong effect.

But there were also times of doubt, although he never doubted the existence of God. Principally, he did sometimes wonder whether God was loving. From what he said on other occasions it is clear that his response to these doubts was to turn to prayer: "I have often prayed . . . 'Lord, I do believe, help thou my unbelief'."

Particular passages from the gospel had a special importance in his heart. Several of these related to instances where Christ healed people: the story of the blind man asking to be given his sight, a deaf man seeking to have his hearing restored, a leper asking to be made clean, a lame man asking for healing. When troubled, he would put himself in the position of the blind, the deaf, the leper and the lame and ask God to help him to see, to help him to hear what God wanted of him, to cleanse him of his sin and to enable him to act. He learnt to treat doubt as a friend.

He encountered other problems in his spiritual life. One, he felt, was a tendency to rely on his own efforts rather than God. He said: "Nothing in my spiritual life do I find harder than to trust . . . I don't trust God enough. I do fret. I do fall into the trap of thinking that it all depends on 'me'."

In addition he had feelings of personal inadequacy. When talking to some of his fellow priests he observed: "Deep down in every priest there is always a slight sense of unease . . . we discover we are in fact too fragile to carry the hopes of those we serve . . . I too have been less than adequate in my task, which is to bring the good news." As he aged, this may have become more marked. "As we grow older we become more conscious of our failings and guilt and can very easily lose faith in ourselves . . . as you grow in self-knowledge the gap between what you are and what you know you should be will become greater."

He sometimes questioned whether he deserved to hold a position of power, saying: "I am increasingly of the opinion that no one is ever really worthy enough to exercise authority over others. As I say this, I am thinking in the first place of myself." At times he was concerned that he had not been a good bishop, writing in a letter in 1997: "I have been constantly anxious about the fact that I gave far too little time to our priests." He may have been unduly harsh on himself, but he thought himself overrated.

Given his ability to identify with others and take an interest in them, we should not be surprised that he thought "rejection, failure, fear and others such as these are the inner wounds from which we all in some measure suffer."

Once, quite late in his life, a friend asked him if he had any regrets. After a brief pause for reflection, he answered: "Time unspent. Love not given." The many people who had benefited from his loving, pastoral approach to life would have disagreed.

It was probably, however, partly his willingness to be honest about his difficulties with prayer that made him a powerful speaker on the subject. For others, who also often found their prayer life hard, doubtless felt that he had experienced similar difficulties and, given his evident holiness, were encouraged to persevere. When he went on pilgrimage to Lourdes he would give one or two talks on prayer in the evenings. Fellow pilgrims were keenly interested to know: "Is the Cardinal speaking tonight?" He was spellbinding when talking on these occasions.

If he sometimes felt a failure in his prayer life and at times in other respects, it is worth remembering that he himself considered that the test of a truly successful prayer life is whether the person concerned becomes more loving. He said: "If you want to apply my tests as to whether your prayer is going well, then judge it according to the answers to these questions: Am I becoming more generous? Am I growing in charity? Kinder? More considerate? More tolerant and understanding? Less self-opinionated?"

He would doubtless have asked for that test to be applied to himself.


In his prayer life Father Basil had a number of rules, for as he said: "I have to be disciplined and ordered and stick at it," even though he accepted that "the best way to pray is the way that suits you". His rules were: do it, make up your mind; make space in the day for a quarter to half an hour; decide what to do the next day - like a lover waiting for the beloved, preparing what to say, thinking of a word to describe her, repeating a phrase he wants to say, just thinking about her. He recalled that "in monastic life you were always supposed after Compline in the evening to prepare your meditation for the next day".

Other rules were: don't look for success, don't give up; do spiritual reading, for "the mind needs to be fed in order to stimulate prayer"; start with the New Testament and the Psalms - read the Gospels as being addressed to you personally. His final rules were: give thought to what we say because through the thoughts we discover the God about whom the thoughts are; make distractions part of your prayer; plan it!

He said: "The effect of prayer is to interiorise religion, open us up to the values of another world and at the same time and profoundly open us up to each other. . . Through perseverance in prayer we are gently led to see more clearly that we are not the centre of everything but God is."

This article appeared in THE TIMES
(c) William Charles 2009. Extracted from Basil Hume, Ten Years On, published by Continuum, June 15. Available from Times BooksFirst (0845 271 2134) at £11.69


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