I love the stillness of August. So many of the activities of a priest are in abeyance during this fallow month, as schools are closed and parish groups enjoy a break for the summer.
It is time to catch our breath, pray, read and undertake many of the things that our usually hectic schedules cannot afford us.
I find I can spend longer with my home communicants and get to know the corners of the parish a little better. In a way August allows me to be the priest that I would like to be, if it were not for all the appointments and competing demands that are such a feature of modern priesthood.
The busyness of September, with its new school term and renewed parish activities, looms large, but the pace of August can become a sort of second Advent, pregnant with anticipation and abiding in hope.
Contemplation should be at the centre of a priest’s life and ministry, and each August I resolve to create something of the essence and spirit of this month in my daily routine for the rest of the year – although not always with success.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen strived to achieve something similar throughout his life. It would be hard to find anyone who is busier or more productive than he was. Yet creating breathing space was a discipline which gave him his vitality.
Despite his numerous achievements, he always retained a humble awareness that he could not function without the grace and power of God behind and before him. At his ordination, Archbishop Sheen resolved to spend a continuous hour each day in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and he kept this resolution for well over 60 years. Even during his busiest periods he would always find a church within which to maintain this commitment. On a few occasions the church would be locked and he would continue the holy hour from the outside steps.
Archbishop Sheen’s holy hour was not a passive time for him. He believed that this quiet time with Jesus was similar to that which happened to the disciples at Emmaus.
When Jesus met his disciples on that first Easter Sunday he asked them why they were so gloomy. Following time spent in his presence they left with “hearts on fire”, renewed and ready for the challenges that faced them. There were times when it was challenging for Sheen and his sacrificial time commitment was not always understood by those around him. Yet he persevered. His many fruits remain today for all to see.
The difficulty in building an August spirituality in our lives comes from our tendency to perceive our value and worth solely in terms of frenetic activity. There is sometimes pride attached to having a stacked schedule and being seen to be the busiest – a trap I often fall into as I flit between different roles and responsibilities. This is something which Henri Nouwen fought against as he sought to develop a more contemplative heart:
This stillness is purifying. Strange as it may seem, the outer quietude quickly reveals the inner restlessness. What am I going to do when there is nothing to do? What am I going to do when there is no one demanding my attention or inviting me to do something? Or making me feel valuable? … Silence and solitude call me to detach myself from the scaffolding of daily life and to discover if anything there can stand on its own when the traditional support systems have been pulled away.
A few weeks ago, saying Mass in a neighbouring parish, I discovered the following prayer in their bulletin; it wonderfully captures the spiritual nature of the holiday season:
Lord, slow me down: allow me to notice you in your creation and in the people that I meet. Help me to remember that rest is part of your plan for all people and that nothing lasting is created without wisdom, patience and time. Keep me from hurrying past what matters and do not let me be so busy that I use your gift of time without remembering you who gave it to me. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Fr Matthew Pittam is the parish priest of Monks Kirby, Warwickshire. Fr Dominic Allain returns next week