Saturday, February 13, 2016

"Sinners make the best contemplatives"

It seems strange to me sometimes how in the midst of a contented life, at last, I can find myself almost nostalgic for times when I had little, and with that little no security. Of course in fact I am not nostalgic for the anxiety, or for the lack of so many things that are commonly thought of as necessities; what I am nostalgic for is the extraordinarily conscious closeness of God.

It's interesting to note that Jesus didn't say, "Blessed are the poor," but "Blessed are the poor in spirit." (Matthew 5.3) I don't think for a minute that there is anything ennobling or even spiritually helpful about poverty or insecurity in themselves, even if freely chosen as in a monastic setting - still less when enforced by circumstances, or by social injustice; what is significant here is the inner poverty that accompanies the acceptance of poverty (or sickness, or injustice) as from the hand of God, rather than greeting adversity with anger or self pity. The mercy and blessing of God seem to fall especially on those who depend upon nothing but God, who have nothing in themselves to depend upon, or to rely upon as a source of pride or self-esteem. It was the tax collector at the temple in Luke 18, who, standing at a distance and praying "God, have mercy on me, a sinner" who went home at peace with God, not the self-righteous Pharisee.

Laurence Freeman once wrote that "sinners make the best contemplatives." The sense of being separated, marginalised, is in itself a grace, strangely. Jesus himself said that he came (Luke 5.32) not to call the righteous, but sinners. Perhaps it is in accepting this that we open ourselves to the grace and mercy of God in Christ, regardless of our external circumstances. It is no coincidence that the classical form of the Jesus Prayer ends with the words, "a sinner." To me it seems that knowing oneself as imperfect, fallible, poor in spirit is essential to living in that mercy.

Now that it is Lent, perhaps it is only our sense of self-reliance that we need to give up. Anything else is just a reflection of that need, or a means to it.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Friday, January 29, 2016

A Retired Life

Not for the first time I have been struck by the power of the Jesus Prayer as a form of intercession. Paul writes in Romans 8.26-27 of how "the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God." The heart filled with the Jesus Prayer will indeed be filled with these wordless groans, with "sighs to deep for words" (NRSV).

I have sometimes struggled with the temptation to suspect that by following this path into contemplative prayer, into a kind of lay mystical life, I am in some way dodging the difficult work of, on the one hand, traditional intercessory prayer, praying through lists of people and situations, describing them in detail to God, and asking him to bring about certain resolutions; or on the other hand, dodging the difficult work of activism, protest, demonstration, civil disobedience or whatever - or at least volunteering to do Useful Things.

In Quaker Faith & Practice we read:

Those of you who are kept by age or sickness from more active work, who are living retired lives, may in your very separation have the opportunity of liberating power for others. Your prayers and thoughts go out further than you think, and as you wait in patience and in communion with God, you may be made ministers of peace and healing and be kept young in soul.
London Yearly Meeting, 1923 - Quaker Faith & Practice 21.46
I would want to add the word “calling” to the first sentence here: “kept by age, sickness or calling…” Throughout history, even in times of great social need, the calling to a retired life of prayer and contemplation has been recognised. Julian of Norwich, for instance, lived during the time of the Black Death that swept Europe in the Middle Ages, yet seems to have lived out much of her life as an anchoress, devoted to prayer, contemplation, writing, and probably what we would call these days counselling, or spiritual direction.

Simon Barrington-Ward writes of St. Silouan:
...he began to recognise that [his sense of darkness and isolation] was in part the oppression of the absence of the sense of God and the alienation from his love over the whole face of the globe. He had been called to undergo this travail himself not on account of his own sin any more, but that he might enter into the darkness of separated humanity and tormented nature and, through his ceaseless prayer, be made by God's grace alone into a means of bringing that grace to bear on the tragic circumstances of his time. He was praying and living through the time of World War I and the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of all that led to the Holocaust [not to mention the Russian Revolution, and at the very end of his life, Stalin's Great Purge]. And with all this awareness of pain and sorrow, he was also given a great serenity and peacefulness and goodness about his, which profoundly impressed those who know him.

For all of us in our lesser ways, the Jesus Prayer, as well as bringing us into something of this kind of alternation which St. Silouan so strikingly experienced, also leads us on with him into an ever-deepening peace. You can understand how those who first taught and practiced this kind of prayer were first called "hesychasts": people of hesychia or stillness.
Of course all this is by grace, entirely by grace, God's life and presence given to us freely in Christ. We are called into this. I honestly don't think we could choose these things for ourselves. Even if we could, they would fall into disuse by our own inertia. We would become bored with the Prayer, terrified by the darkness and the identification with the pain and alienation of the world. Why would we choose such a path, hidden as it is too, mute and inglorious?

Barrington-Ward again:
After all, the whole prayer becomes an intercession. Soon I find that I am on longer praying just for myself, but when I say "on me, a sinner" all the situations of grief and terror, of pain and suffering begin to be drawn into me and I into them. I begin to pray as a fragment of this wounded creation longing for its release into fulfillment... I am in those for whom I would pray and they are in me, as is the whole universe. Every petition of the prayer becomes a bringing of all into the presence and love of God...
What is required here has to be a retired life, given for the greater part to prayer and silence. How this will work out in each of our lives cannot be prescribed. It will have to be worked out with fear and trembling, in the mercy of the Prayer itself, and it will probably look quite different for each of us. I think we have, if we find ourselves called to the Jesus Prayer and the life that is lived within its practice, to be prepared to walk into the dark, as it were, unknowing, and see how things work out. The path may be quite straightforward; or it may be quite scandalously tangled and broken. That is not for us to choose. All we have to do is walk in it, I think.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Spring of Tears

Once we find ourselves on the way of the Jesus Prayer, we discover that it is not by any means a comfortable shortcut, a way out of confronting the pain and emptiness of the world. As we begin to travel this path, to pray the Prayer consistently, we find that we become more and more aware of our own pain, and the darkness that lies within our own hearts. To cry out continually, "have mercy on me, a sinner", as did the tax-collector in Luke 18.10-14, breaks down the defences we have built up against looking directly at ourselves in the clear mirror of repentance.

We in the West have generally grown up thinking of sin as committing acts contrary to some kind of code, or list, of Bad Things that must not be done. But the Desert Mothers and Fathers don't seem to have looked at sin like this at all. The Greek word used for sin, αμαρτία - amartia, apparently means something much more like "missing the mark" than "doing bad stuff", as does the equivalent Hebrew term, syn. Irma Zaleski says, "They were thinking of the condition of those who are... not centred rightly, who are not in the right relationship with God. The root of sin - the ground from which all individual sins spring - is our alienation from God. Repentance, then, should not be... viewed primarily... in terms of guilt - of punishment and repayment - but in terms of metanoia: a Greek word meaning "conversion"... turning away from ourselves and recentring ourselves on God."

If we can get past the musty atmosphere of "owning up" which we have come to associate with repentance, and see it as taking an accurate view of ourselves in relation to God, and in relation to what we ourselves could be were we only open to love God as God loves us, then we begin to see that there really is very little difference between us and anyone - anyone - else. The seeds of cruelty and selfishness are sown deeply in all our hearts, and we cannot stand in judgement over another, no matter what they have done. This is hard, not only to identify with the pain of the victims, but with the cruelty of the victors and the perpetrators of darkness.

Zaleski again:
The way of the Jesus Prayer has been called "white martyrdom." It is the way of the Cross, because there is no greater pain than to stand in the total poverty of our human weakness, to see clearly our misery, our inability to be good. The temptation to judge ourselves, to hate ourselves, would be irresistible if we did not know and had not experienced the merciful, healing power of Jesus. 
But, because we have met Christ and have experienced his compassionate, loving presence, we can surrender all judgement to him and be at peace. We can accept ourselves as we are. We can love ourselves and also love others. Because we have discovered that the judgement of Christ is not the judgement of an inquisitor or a tyrant but of a Good Physician, we are able to go to him and show him all the bleeding, cancerous places of our bodies and souls - not so he may punish us, but so he may heal us.
The longer we go on walking in the way of the Prayer, the more clearly we realise that the gulf we have discovered separating us from God is the same gulf that separates our neighbours from God, and the longing for God that leads us onwards is the same longing, the same sense of incompleteness, of - as the existentialists termed it - alienation, that drives the restless and destructive addictions of humanity.

Once realised, once seen for what it is in the bright Light that the Spirit shines into our deepest hearts, this sadness of separation - the core of true repentance - becomes a spring of tears, welling up for ourselves and for all people. It may be sadness, but it is what St John Climacus called "a bright sadness". And we see that our separation is not different from that separation of anyone, and that our prayer for mercy, for union, for reintegration with God, carries with it the love, and the pain, that God has somehow through all this given us for all who suffer, human or otherwise, pain and separation. Our praying of the Jesus Prayer has become in itself intercession: as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote: "[Christ] is able for all time to save completely those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them." (Hebrews 7.25)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Way of a Beggar

This blog, over the ten years or so it has been up, has been very much about the Jesus Prayer. Irma Zaleski wrote that the Jesus Prayer is not a means of discursive meditation on Christ, nor a path to some "higher" level of prayer or spirituality, but rather the way of a beggar.

Since I was introduced to the Prayer by Fr Francis Horner SSM back in 1978, it has proved to be so for me. Not having been brought up a Christian, but in fact to distrust and avoid the church, it took me a long time to surrender to the insistence of the Holy Spirit. Fr Francis had the inspired - literally, I think - idea not so much to teach me the Jesus Prayer, but merely to give me a copy Per Olof Sjögren's little book on the Prayer, and to answer the questions I raised on reading it during the time I stayed at Willen Priory.

In the years since that summer at Willen I have rattled about the church a bit, finding it difficult to settle down, despite the trust that has too often been placed in me, but by God's grace the Prayer has kept hold of me, and I have practiced it more or less (often less) faithfully all that time. The Prayer is the way of a beggar indeed. It lays no claim to anything, but merely asks for mercy, as did the tax collector at the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 18:9-14). Nothing more. Unlike the Pharisee, who runs through his spiritual resumé as he stands before the Lord, the tax collector won't even raise his eyes to heaven, but simply prays, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" By the time the Jesus Prayer had become a regular form of prayer in the Egyptian desert in the early Christian centuries, it had become, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Irma Zaleski continues:
To call upon the name of Jesus so often, so insistently, is to knock again and again at the door of our own hearts: "the room within." This is the deepest centre of our being, where Christ lives, an essential fact of our faith that we often forget. In praying this prayer, we remember that Christ has always been there and will never leave us, no matter what we have done, no matter how greatly we have sinned. The Jesus Prayer is, for those who embrace it, a true, healing expression of our relationship with Christ.
"That of God" within us each, the indwelling Christ, reminds me of the way that the sun strikes a blade of grass very early in the morning, and each dew-drop sparkles with the purest light. That light is really sunlight, no matter how tiny the dew-drop; small as it is, fragile, imperfect and soon to evaporate, yet it holds for a moment the true light; to return it, as best it can, faithfully to the watching eye.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Field Theory

I have written often enough on my struggle with wanting to know "how things work"; and, Christian theology being replete with explanations of how, and why, prayer is supposed to work, I have sometimes struggled with how such often mechanistic views might mesh with my actual experience of prayer - which is, as far as it goes, anything but mechanistic.

Cynthia Bourgeault comes closer than anyone I've read to offering an explanation which might be both intellectually credible and sufficiently close to anything I've actually encountered in prayer to begin to make sense to me. She writes:
Only recently have we Christians begun to feel even vaguely comfortable talking about things... at the level of spiritual energy. The problem, essentially, as we approach this important issue of contemplative prayer and compassionate action is that we are working with an outgrown metaphysics. You could say that we are still using a Newtonian theology in a quantum universe. While science has long since acclimated to thinking of matter and energy as one continuous field, in out older theological categories we still keep matter and energy rigidly separate - and God the most separate of all. Body and spirit are different. Creator and creature are different. We still do not know, apart from calling it pantheism, how to talk about God being in all things; how to speak of the substance (not merely the image) of divine life coursing through both the visible and the invisible in one continuous revelation of divine love. We keep trying to express a vision of unity within a metaphysics of separateness. What is needed is a "quantum" leap forward into a new way of seeing... so that we no longer focus on the separate things, but stare directly into the energy field that contains them all - that great "electromagnetic field of love" as Kabir Helminski called it...
...I have tried to suggest a new way of picturing hope. In this new positioning, the underlying sense of corporateness is physically real, for that "electromagnetic field of love" is the Mercy - and the Mercy is the body of Christ. Through this body hope circulates as a lifeblood. It warms, it fills, it connects, it directs. It is the heart of our own life and the heart of all that lives.
Hope's home is at the innermost point in us, and in all things. It is a quality of aliveness. It does not come at the end, as the feeling that results from a happy outcome. Rather, it lies at the beginning, as a pulse of truth that sends us forth... It is entered always and only through surrender...

Anything, it seems, that acts within this field has the possibility - perhaps the inevitability - to affect all that lives and moves and has its being within that same field. Our prayer, then, is not a request to some distant, separated ruler for his magical intervention, nor an act of mere self-hypnosis in order to give us the impulse to behave as we believe to be right, but a real and effective ripple in the conjoined skein of all that is, the membrane of "all that is made", as the hazelnut rests at peace in the hand of Christ.