Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Prayers of connection and disconnection



Novelist E. M. Forster famously instructed people to 'only connect'. These days most of us spend large parts of our lives in an effort to obey him, but in ways he never dreamed of. He would be mightily amazed to know that many people have to make a conscious and disciplined effort to do without their iPhones for a day, let alone for a longer period.

Chris Johnston cartoonI've recently been reading, however, about people who disconnect in radical ways, or else manage a balancing act between connection with society and disconnection. The recently deceased Sister Wendy Beckett was one such. From 1970 onwards, she lived in a caravan at the enclosed Carmelite monastery at Quidenham in Norfolk. Solitude and contemplation were the main focuses of her life, but she was also possessed of a formidable intellect and a passionate interest in art.

It was super-cook and devout Catholic Delia Smith who discovered her art notes and made sure the Catholic Herald knew about them. From there the BBC took an interest, and Sister Wendy became a star presenter of masterpieces and lesser-known works. She was also a natural for the telly: One-take Wendy, they called her.

But she always believed her time was for God, so her usual routine consisted of a 6pm bedtime, so she could wake at 1am, which she considered the best time for prayer and contemplation. She also believed that God is 'a total mystery'.

Contemporary with Sister Wendy is Brother Harold Palmer, who has lived on a hill in Northumberland, known as Shepherd's Law, since 1971. Like Sister Wendy, Brother Harold began his seclusion in a caravan; since then, however, donations have enabled the building of four monastic cells and a church. Nor has Brother Harold completely withdrawn from society, as he has visitors every couple of weeks and also possesses a mobile phone.

But it is a hard life, contending with the bitter winters and engaging in spiritual warfare, which he says he often feels as a heavy weight that he simply keeps carrying.

Brother Harold began his formal religious life as an Anglican friar, but converted to Catholicism in the 1990s. For many years his aim has been to heal the divisions in Christianity: he sees himself as sitting on the divide between Catholic and Anglican. Healing can take place, he believes, through prayer, and so he spends many hours both by day and by night in the recitation of offices, which are a combination of Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox prayers.


"Sometimes just listening is a discipline as well."


This dedicated man has influenced many people, including Father George Guivre, for 15 years Superior of the Anglican Community of the Resurrection, which was established in West Yorkshire in 1892. He says he owes the writing of his book, Company of Voices, to the example of Brother Harold, who taught him that prayer didn't necessarily have to be a personal, emotional experience: it is simply work, in that you keep on at the daily services regardless of your inclination. The discipline, he argues, eventually sets you free.

Sometimes just listening is a discipline as well. 'A Prayer of Intercession that lasts 35 minutes is simply too much for flesh and blood to endure,' complained my paternal grandfather of an enthusiastic Presbyterian minister; much later I heard a devout Anglican thank God that her flock was spared the practice of extemporaneous prayer. My radically evangelical maternal grandmother attended a prayer meeting twice a week for many years, little caring that my mother writhed with embarrassment every time Nana prayed aloud.

As well as intercession there are other kinds of prayer, of course: praise, blessing, thanksgiving, and petition. And I suppose prayer means different things to different people. Although I was brought up to say my prayers at bedtime, I no longer do this in any formal way. Instead I go through a kind of mental checklist: children, grandchildren, other family, friends, especially those with problems of any kind, the world.

Recently certain politicians have joined this list, for I devoutly wish they would mend their ways. The irony is that several of them claim to be practising Christians, but their actions and their lack of compassion suggest they have become disconnected from both God and humanity. They, of all people, need to think on the examples of Sister Wendy and Brother Harold.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, E. M. Forster, Sister Wendy Beckett, Brother Harold Palmer



submit a comment

Existing comments

For anyone interested - may I recommend the wording of the 11th step of the Alcoholics Anonymous program of Recovery? "Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these (the previous ten) steps we tried through prayer & meditation to improve our conscious contact with God (as we understand God) praying only for knowledge of His will for us & the power to carry that out." Prayer presupposes a being of some power superior to ourselves, who is interested in us. Hence the power of the simple prayer that led to a miraculous cure. "Lord, I believe. Help, Thou, my unbelief." The secret to progress in prayer is the continuos effort to maintain that level of humility, of admitting one"s dependence & needs. To do this on a regular basis is to make acts of faith, of hope and, over time, of gratitude & love. In the end, quite often, words are superfluous.

Uncle Pat | 07 March 2019  

Thanks for the article Gillian. I believe we have to disconnect to connect! Opposite in fact to the world of IT. I remember once reading some writings by a (from memory) 13th century Western Mystic in a book entitled ‘The Cloud of Unknowing.’ It is believed the writer was an English Dominican I think, but certainly a master at meditation and letting go. He advocated that when we search for ‘God’ or whatever we wish to call it, ‘the essential essence and oneness of what is’ perhaps, that we must let go everything, our creeds, our iconologies, everything that is known to us. That we must loose ourselves first before ‘knocking on heavens door’ so to speak. That in fact we don’t achieve this ‘oneness with divine love’ through our own endeavours, but rather make ourselves available to it. That it comes to us; not the other way round.

John Whitehead | 07 March 2019  

enjoyed this immensely as i live a solitary life of an Anglican religious Friar in Sydney and write poetry as well and recently starred in a video of the city of Sydney http://vimeo.com/315334382 the link does have a use by date please watch it soon. kind regards Noel

Noel Jeffs | 08 March 2019  

Yes! Uncle Pat “The secret to progress in prayer is the continuous effort to maintain that level of humility, of admitting one’s dependence & needs” …Sincerity of heart is the state of being from where we all must start, as it could be said that for true emotional inter-dependence to come about with God, we need to tell/ show /own our vulnerability in humility, for when we do so, it confers authenticity, a place from where we can truly share the communal meal and our life with others...As a comparison to authenticity we/mankind could describe some Christians as unbonded or ‘counterfeit’ goods, on display in a supermarket. But we are not in the comfort of a supermarket with it ‘rows’ of neatly stacked shelfs, rather we are in an open market, where all types of products (People) are to be found. The reality is, that many products do not live up to expectation, the branded (Christian) image of a perfect pizza on display, is rarely matched by what is found within the box, so we are confronted with a subtle deception, we accept this lie because our expectations have gradually been eroded to accept “Seconds” and we collude with this deception, as it could be said that the ‘Image’ supersedes the reality of our inability to confront the “Truth” of this ongoing situation. Only when we dress in humility can we show our vulnerability. This inability to confront a perfect brand image could describe the reality of inauthenticity within the Church today. Please consider continuing via the link kevin your brother In Christ http://www.catholicethos.net/god-old-testament-hateful-wrathful/#comment-224

Kevin Walters | 08 March 2019  

I found this article and some of the comments on it little gems Gillian. Prayer is something which I believe is inherent within all human beings. As far as exemplars go, someone like the late Sister Wendy Beckett may ring some people's bells but not other's. That's natural, we are all attracted to someone whose temperament is similar to ours and whose work seems to speak to us directly. As far as my own exemplars go, I would name the late Thomas Merton; the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom and the late Fr Michel Quoist. They are all what I would class as being within the genuine Christian mystic tradition. Each of them was what I would term 'grounded'. Prayer does not remove you from life, it is an attempt to connect with Almighty God. I believe our words and attention are akin to turning on the switch, the electricity comes from above. Genuine prayer transforms lives. As Matthew 7: 16 says: 'By their fruits you will know them'.

Edward Fido | 08 March 2019  

A fascinating article especially for those of us who had no idea of the biography of the wonderful Sister Wendy

Juliet | 08 March 2019  

Thank you Gillian. An interesting article as usual. A friend who finds the constant chatter unbearable is off on a retreat and I can appreciate the need to withdraw and reflect. Meditation and mindfulness are a rediscovered modern focus for reaching what prayer taught us to practice .

Maggie | 09 March 2019  

For some years I had the privilege of working with Sister Veronica Brady, IBVM, PhD. Dr Brady delivered one Sunday Homily (Sermon) at Perth's St George's Cathedral, Anglican. Sr Veronica believed that Mysticism would play a vital role in Theology's and Liturgy's futures. Mysticism, Oecumenism, so relevant here. Perhaps the finest Poet to grace and hone the English language, Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J., whose conversion followed the Oxford Movement, and John Henry Newman, one of its founders, later Cardinal, significant Educational Philosopher, came to the Roman from the Anglican Catholic Church.

James Marchment | 09 March 2019  

For me a long walk by myself on a lonely beach if possible seems to connect me to something. Cold air, crashing waves, the smell of sea weed and the occasional sight of a sea gull seems to free my mind. I can't say I believe and I don't pray but I am glad I'm alive and it's true that I feel a connection to something wonderful and amazing when contemplating just how wonderful the universe is. Thanks Gillian, you've made me stop and think again.

Stephen | 10 March 2019  

The purpose of prayer is not to manipulate God into changing the world to suit our ideas, but to seek to change ourselves and our ideas so as to become more in tune with God. Once we realise this, prayer becomes more meaningful.

Robert Liddy | 17 March 2019  

Gillian your gentle words are a reminder I treazure

Nigelle de Visme | 18 March 2019  

Lovely piece, Gillian. Let me respond to the lavish kindness of so many Anglicans on this site by mentioning the wonderful mystical and poetic prayers of the gay Anglican priest and poet, Jim Cotter. I find that his 'Prayers at Night's Approach' (Mowbray, 1997) settles the unfinished business and appetites of the day for me and regulates mind-chatter. To me he is an English Michel Quoist. Another wonderful liturgist is Michael Hollings, who with Etta Gullick, gave us 'You must be Joking, Lord' with, from memory, a reproduction of B S Lowry's 'Salford' on the cover.

Michael Furtado | 10 April 2019  

Similar Articles

Australian Catholics take stock as Pell falls

  • John Warhurst
  • 06 March 2019

A conservative within a conservative church he was a divisive figure, not just because of his orthodox views but because of the unbending and assertive style with which he promulgated them. Something died in Australian Catholicism with this verdict and Australian Catholics will have to live with that whatever the future turns out to be.


Can the Church survive its terminal self harm?

  • Stephanie Dowrick
  • 06 March 2019

My relationship to Catholicism can be summed up as: I am on the outskirts, yet close and invested enough to care how the Church evolves. Because, it seems to me, how it evolves and the speed at which those urgent and essential changes take place will significantly determine whether it will survive — and whether it deserves to survive.