Remembering… Fr Vincent McNabb, O.P. (1868-1943)
By Br John Bernard Church, O.P. | Br John Bernard considers Fr Vincent McNabb’s understanding of prayer, and what might have drawn the crowds to listen to him at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.
“Nobody who ever met or saw or heard Fr McNabb has ever forgotten him.” So wrote G K Chesterton in his introduction to a collection of essays published for Fr Vincent’s Golden Jubilee of profession. The English Dominican, born in Ireland towards the end of the 19th century, was no doubt a memorable character, known for walking across London each Sunday to preach at Speakers’ Corner. Thanks to the sheer volume of homilies, books, and retreat notes he has left behind we can to some degree uncover what it was that drew the crowds to Hyde Park to listen.
Fr Vincent’s areas of interest were wide-ranging, including his work among the early Catholic ecumenists, and his contributions to the economic Distributism movement. However, I’d like to focus on a single topic within Vincent’s spiritual writing: prayer. Although in the same article Chesterton said his writing “could never be a substitute” for meeting the man himself, I think we can get quite close if we can understand what it meant to Fr Vincent to pray.
Taking his lead from Christ’s priestly prayer at the end of the Last Supper Discourse in John, Fr Vincent frames his understanding of prayer in terms of petition. In John 17 we have “a Prayer of Petition, for the great ends of the Incarnation itself”, and so “our prayers as such must be mainly petition.” While there are other great forms of prayer, of praise, of thanksgiving, of wonder, the most fitting for “us poor wayfarers in this valley of tears” is the prayer of petition.
Prayer is primarily an act of petition, of asking, because it is how we put ourselves in right relation with God: how we express the way God relates to our life. This approach to prayer strikes a very Augustinian note, echoing those beautiful words of the Confessions: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” In God we find the fulfilment of our desire, and prayer is our means of giving voice to that realisation. In prayer we seek our every need, our ultimate need. And so, in Fr Vincent’s words, prayer is the “offspring of desire”.
A great deal of Fr Vincent’s preaching on prayer was spent meditating on the Our Father. This is Christ’s response to our first and most important petition: “Lord, teach us to pray.” Most of our desires, our deepest longings and unknown tensions, remain inarticulable. In the Our Father, Christ gives us the means to articulate them.
Again we can find the trace of St Augustine in Fr Vincent’s preaching. In his letter to Proba, a treatise on prayer, St Augustine writes: “if we pray rightly, we say nothing that has not already a place in the Lord’s prayer.” Fr Vincent takes on this all encompassing nature of the Our Father, suggesting that in it we find “everything that should be in any prayer. It contains all.”
He compares the Our Father to a spiritual tuning fork: it is a prayer not only containing our every desire, but also one that puts them in the right order. “Very few desires in our life are wrong in themselves. It is only that they are out of place.” The distortion of sin is not that we that we seek what is bad, but that we seek what is not good enough. We seek only what is good, but we seek it in the wrong place and in the wrong order. This is the reality of our human nature, and so a nature whose fulfilment lies in a right ordering of desire.
This is why, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he responded with the Our Father. It is the prayer given to us to purify our search for Him, to purify and order our desires, so that we can express what is deepest in our heart in a way that is truest to who we are. In Fr Vincent’s words, the Our Father was “given by Him to teach us the way to Him.”
This was the journey of Fr Vincent McNabb’s life. Perhaps what drew all those crowds to Hyde Park was the opportunity to listen to a man who knew what he wanted, because he knew how to pray.
Other posts in the series:
- Fr Geoffrey Preston, O.P., by Br Bede Mullens, O.P.
- Fr Laurentius Siemer, O.P., by Br Gabriel Theis, O.P.
- Fr Bruno Hussar, O.P., by Br Joseph Bailham, O.P.
- Fr Victor White, O.P., by Br Pablo Rodríguez Jordá, O.P.
- Fr Yves Congar, O.P., by Br Vincent Antony Löning, O.P.
- Fr John Malachy Clune, O.P., by Br Albert Elias Robertson, O.P.
- Fr Conrad Pepler, O.P., by Br Daniel Benedict Rowlands, O.P.