A transcript of a retreat talk given by Trevor Miller.
Some years ago now I spent almost nine years in prison. I might add that I was a member of staff. One of the key areas always being emphasised was that of knowing the contingency plans. That is, to know what to do in the event of an escape, a hostage situation, a fire or an assault. Staff were not only encouraged to read, mark and learn the plans but to have frequent practise runs. So we had alarm bell tests, fire drills in the hope that when the real thing occurred, there was no panic but an automatic response already well practised. If you had not read them, kept up to date or neglected the practise then at best it could be embarrassing and at worst, highly dangerous.
Scripture is full of exhortation to know God’s contingency plans well summarised by Proverbs 4:23 ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.’ And Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount concluded that wise people who build their lives on solid rock are those who not only hear his words but also ‘put them into practise.’
The monastic movement teaches us to ‘build up habits of virtue’ by memorising Scripture, cultivating inner resources and spiritual disciplines so that when unforeseen circumstances come, we are not caught out or overwhelmed. We act and react in a righteous way because we have had practise runs. It’s a bit like learning to drive – what is very difficult for us at first, like changing gear or reversing – with practise almost becomes second nature to us.
We can lay a good foundation by building up our Christian memory and the principal means is through meditation, the basic meaning of which is rehearsal. All we learn and apply through meditation on nature and human nature, theology and life, is a rehearsal for those unforeseen circumstances we meet on the road of life.
Our Community ethos with its emphasis on contemplative awareness, daily liturgy, going to your cell, reading and reflecting on Scripture and books that nourish the heart as well as stretch the mind, all help build up Christian memory. These ‘habits of virtue’ become a resource bank from which we can draw daily as well as in the emergencies of life.
We can all do this in some measure because it isn’t quantity that matters but quality, although we do need to know more than the basics. A driver who only knows how to turn left will not get very far. Most of us know there is a world of difference between knowing how to pass a driving test and the day-by-day growth in confidence that is only learned through the actual experience and constant practise in driving in all conditions. This is why Scripture exhorts us to ‘Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity’.