Opinion & Features

How Herbert McCabe taught me to pray

We suffer ‘distractions’ during prayer because we don’t pray for what we want (AP)

There are some people, lucky things, whose prayers are nearly always heard. A friend of mine, Herbert McCabe, a distinguished Dominican theologian at Blackfriars Oxford, was one of them, and he made the mistake of telling me so. This was brilliant: a hotline to heaven. So whenever things were really tricky, I would get on his case.

Just to prove what you might call his bedesmanship, I challenged him to do something that I knew was really hard: to get the paper for which I worked to publish a piece by me about foreign policy: an attack on the foreign secretary of the time. It was the most unpropitious subject at the most unpropitious time, but I wanted desperately to make my point. And, by God, the article went in.

This may sound like an undramatic miracle for those not involved, but it threw me completely; from that point on, I would badger him to pray for me about this, that and the other. It worked.

The other day I found a letter from Herbert in response to yet another plea for his intercession in which he recalled his most famous sermon on prayer, where he declared that we should always pray for what we really want. And that reflection on prayer was utterly typical of him: it was contrary to everything you’d been taught, but entirely true.

Herbert’s point, as I say – see his perfectly brilliant collection of essays, God Matters – is that we should always pray for what we want, and most of what we call “distractions” during prayer are because we are not praying for what we want. So, we pray for world peace when what we really want is a short holiday in Wales.

As Herbert observed, people in danger of drowning at sea rarely complain of distractions during prayer. Of course, we shall start by praying for childish things like promotion or success. But eventually, we shall put aside childish things and pray for real goods – but it would be silly to do it before we are ready.

The principle worked for him. Once, during the war, he was playing chess with his father and, in a fit of absence of mind, he made a silly move, which his father would be cross about. “Please, God,” he prayed, “let him not notice.” He didn’t: a bomb fell on the house next door and the rubble from the ceiling buried his mistake.

Life isn’t the same without Herbert. He died 15 years ago and there’s still no one who fills the McCabe-shaped gap in the world. One of his best known protégés is Terry Eagleton, the Marxist literary critic; reading him is oddly reminiscent of reading Herbert – only he falls short of the witty acerbity of his mentor, though he still remains one of the vanishingly few theologically literate academics in the public domain.

Actually, “mentor” isn’t quite the word for Herbert’s influence. The impress of a seal on hot wax would be more like it in my case. In theory, he engaged in dialogue – call it Socratic, if you like – with his friends and devotees. In practice, he steamrollered any opposition and could be terrifying to those who were intellectually insecure.

And the annoying thing was how rarely he was pitted against the large figures on the other side of the big arguments with whom he might have engaged to good effect. He was contemptuous of Richard Dawkins for instance, for setting up false gods to knock down in place of the real God. He himself had absolutely no problem with the cruelty of nature and the workings of evolution. It’s one of the tragic proofs of the want of imagination of our public service broadcasters that he was never put in a public setting to dispute with the best-known atheists.

The other problem with Herbert and his generation – he would be 90 if he had lived – is that their preoccupations, of a 1970s vintage, were increasingly remote from contemporary ones. He was for instance, slightly baffled by the gay rights issue, which he found a genuine novelty, intellectually and historically, and he would, I fancy, have been utterly thrown by the latest obsession with transgender sexuality. His own obsession was with nuclear weapons. It’s now hard to recreate the sheer moral passion that the issue generated, and we’ve moved on.

Yet on the thing that really matters – God – he is as wonderfully pertinent as ever. Herbert’s sermons and essays on Marxism and the coming revolution now read as period curiosities from a time when people believed in such things; his observations about prayer and God still have the power to throw you completely. Please, please, read him: his sermon on the genealogy of Christ (in God Matters) will make you laugh out loud.