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.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

An Odd Occupation

Contemplative prayer is an odd occupation. Thomas Merton described it as a sinking down into the depths of one's being, into the "hidden ground of love". In those who find themselves called to contemplative prayer, there appears to be a sort of magnetic pull towards this: not to some kind of personal improvement, a sort of perfected selfhood, but to the Ground of Being itself - to God.

Compared, too, with "utilitarian" concepts of social justice or of evangelism - the greatest numbers of hungry fed, poor clothed, ears filled with the Gospel - the contemplative life seems an unlikely calling. But we must not forget that all through the years of World War II exiled Russian monks (among them Archimandrite Sophrony) prayed in the monasteries and caves of Mount Athos, and during her years in a Soviet labour camp Irina Ratushinskaya wrote poems on bars of soap with the burnt end of a matchstick, committing them to memory before she washed away the evidence.

The closer we find ourselves drawn to God, to the inexhaustible mercy that is at the heart of being itself, in-ness (Eckhart's istigkeit), the more that love comes to fill us, setting gently aside our self-concern, till we come to "[be] with God, putting ourselves in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart" (Michael Ramsey). That is the intercessory dimension of our contemplative prayer, not intercession in the sense of asking for things, but in the sense of being with.

In prayer, time flattens out into presence. It is as though we could stand on a high place watching someone complete a journey on the plain below: we can see the place where their trip began; we can see their destination; and we can see the dot of their vehicle, a tiny model travelling that dusty road across the open land. For them, there is a succession of times: departure; driving; arrival. But for us there is only now, containing the journey whole and present, time realised as space, complete in itself. Within this space that is Mercy itself, all our histories, as Cynthia Bourgeault points out, "past, present and future, all our hopes and dreams, are already contained and, mysteriously, already fulfilled." She goes on:
The great mystics have named this as the heart of the Mercy of God: the intuition that the entire rainbow of times and colours, of past and future, of individual paths through history, is all contained - flows out of and back into - that great white light of the simple loving presence of God. Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. And in that Mercy all our history - our possible pasts and possible futures, our lost loved ones and children never born - is contained and fulfilled in a wholeness of love from which nothing can ever possibly be lost.
To hold such a vision in our hearts, together with those for whom our hearts are simultaneously broken - the poor, the lost, the weary and the sick, the victims and the perpetrators of cruelty, human or otherwise - is surely a calling to be grateful for, even if it is a hidden and a little-known vocation. For me at any rate, it is the best definition of prayer I know.

Sailing in the Fog (a reblog)

In her small book Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God, Cynthia Bourgeault quotes Dom Bede Griffiths as saying that there are three "pathways to the centre" the "innermost ground of our being where we meet and are met by God": near-death experience, falling desperately in love, and meditation. She speaks of the "visceral remembrance of how vivid and abundant life is when the sense of separateness has dropped away”, but goes on to describe meditation as "go[ing] down to the same place, but by a back staircase deep within [our] own being."

Bourgeault, a little further on in her book than the Bede Griffiths quote, mentions the experience of sailing in the fog off the coast of Maine, and realising (as I have myself when I was young and spent time messing about in boats) that in the absence of a clear sight of one's landfall other senses develop: the smell of land, the sound, and the feel beneath one's feet, of the waves' shortening and quickening near the shore. She draws a parallel with the spiritual life:

If egoic thinking [normal, everyday consciousness] is like sailing by reference to where you are not—by what is out there and up ahead—spiritual awareness is like sailing by reference to where you are. It is a way of "thinking" at a much more visceral level of yourself—responding to subtle intimations of presence too delicate to to pick up at your normal level of awareness, but which emerge like a sea swell from the ground of your being once you relax and allow yourself to belong deeply to the picture.

Bourgeault goes on to describe meditation (she is using the word to describe Christian contemplation, whether by centring prayer, the Jesus Prayer, or another similar method) as, once it is driven by "the yearning for truth [having] become… overwhelming in us, and we have the sense that everything done in the ordinary way of consciousness merely ends in lies and disillusionment", wagering everything on the trust that there is this other sense in us, "that knows how to sail in the fog, see in the dark."

We are so used, especially in our goal-oriented society, even among Friends all too often, to knowing, with our surface reasoning, where we are going and why, that sailing in the fog can seem like a fruitless, even foolhardy endeavour. But where we are going, if we truly are "yearning for truth", cannot be found with binoculars, in the sunlight. There are so-called charts, but they are scribbles, like The Cloud of Unknowing, on the backs of envelopes, 'x' marks the spot on a scrap of salt-stained parchment, and in any case the sands have shifted over the long years and their tides. (I was amused to see, on Thesaurus.com, that one the antonyms listed for "reasoning" was "truth"!)

I have been growing used to sailing in the fog, sneaking down the back stairs of my mind. Sometimes I find it hard to start writing prose when I have been drifting like a seabird in the haar. Listen, the waves do change near landfall. Listen, you can smell the trees, the damp earth. But you must be very quiet, and stop straining your eyes in the mist.


[Reblogged, slightly edited, from a post a year ago, on my blog Silent Assemblies]

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Hope against Hope?

In her luminous little book Mystical Hope, Cynthia Bourgeault writes of the difference between the mystical hope of her title and the standard, upbeat product that is tied to outcome: "I hope I get the job." "I hope they have a good time on holiday." "I hope Jill finds her cat." "I hope the biopsy is clear..." If we are dependent on "regular hope", she asks, where does that leave us when it turns out to be cancer, when our friends disappear on their holiday in the Andes?

Bourgeault goes on point out that there seems to be quite another kind of hope "that is a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at things. Beneath the 'upbeat' kind of hope that parts the sea and pulls rabbits out of hats, this other hope weaves its way as a quiet, even ironic counterpoint." She goes on to quote the prophet Habakkuk, who at the end of a long passage of calamity and grief, suddenly breaks into song:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
   and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
   and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
   and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
   he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
   and makes me tread upon the heights. 
(Habakkuk 3.17-19)

Here is a hope that in no way depends upon outcomes; a hope that lifts us up in spite of the worst, that leads us, with Job, closer to God the more "hopeless" the circumstances. It can be found too in the writings of William Leddra, Corrie ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Irina Ratushinskaya... But how? Where could such a hope come from, that sings even in the mouth of the furnace?

Cynthia Bourgeault suggests three observations we might make about this seemingly indestructible hope, which she calls mystical hope:


  1. Mystical hope is not tied to a good outcome, to the future. It lives a life of its own, seemingly without reference to external circumstances and conditions.
  2. It has something to do with presence - not a future good outcome, but the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by something intimately at hand.
  3. It bears fruit within us at the psychological level in the sensations of strength, joy, and satisfaction: an "unbearable lightness of being." But mysteriously, rather than deriving these gifts from outward expectations being met, it seems to produce them from within.
Bourgeault remarks that one more quality might be added to the characteristics of mystical hope: that it is in some sense atemporal - out of time. "For some reason or another," she says, "the experience pulls us out of the linear stream of hours and days... and imbues the moment we are actually in with an unexpected vividness and fullness. It is as if we had been transported, for the duration, into a wider field of presence, a direct encounter with Being itself."

Thomas Merton (whom Cynthia Bourgeault also quotes here) writes:

At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.
As Cynthia Bourgeault recognises, this awareness, whether sudden or gradual, of the "last, irreducible, secret center of the heart where God alone penetrates" (Mansur al-Hallaj) may come out of a clear blue sky as well as out of the storm. But perhaps I might be permitted to make a small observation from my own experience: it seems to be in times of absolute inner poverty, when almost all worldly satisfactions and securities have been withdrawn by pain and circumstance, when realistically there is no hope at all of the upbeat variety left, that these moments of clarity and presence most often manifest. Perhaps this is the sheer mercy of God coming to us when there is nothing else left to us, but there does seem to be one other factor involved here, and to me it seems to be crucial to understand this. Regular, faithful practice appears to be in some way essential. Now please hear me: I am not saying that practice will put us in control these moments of illumination - they are pure grace - nor that practice will somehow bring them about. But practice will open our hearts to their possibility; it will dim the incessant clamour of thought and grasping, to the point where we can glimpse the initial glimmer of that inner light, and stand still and watch.

Another point occurs to me. If we look at what I have just written about inner poverty, and the lack of satisfaction and security, and about pain and straitened circumstances, one has almost a recipe for classical asceticism, for hair shirts, hunger and scourging, for enforced celibacy and for the enclosed life. This is, it seems to me, to misunderstand the mercy of God. It may very well be that God grants to those who have nothing else to look forward to but pain and lack, these radiant glimpses of glory, but to attempt to force God's hand by artificially producing the external conditions of divorce, disability or the concentration camp seems to me to be foolishness, to put it as charitably as I am able. But practice, the "white martyrdom" of faithful and unremitting prayer, is another matter entirely, one where the Jesus Prayer, "hallowed by two millennia of Christian practice... consistently singled out... as the most powerful prayer a Christian can pray" (Bourgeault, op cit.), seems perfectly fitted to our path, not only as a means of hesychasm, of stilling the heart, but simply as a prayer:

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