Monday, May 13, 2024

Faithfulness

The first thing that we begin to grasp, if we are listening to this teaching, is that meditation is a discipline, a learning process, something we must be faithful to, because in our meditation we are entering into the deepest relationship of our life. We must come to our meditation as if we are approaching the person we love most in the world, and what is needed in all relationships is fidelity. So we enter into meditation with fidelity knowing that in the discipline of it, we are becoming true disciples, true learners.

(from Aspects of Love 1 by Laurence Freeman OSB)

Meditation, any form of contemplative practice, is an odd, sometimes paradoxical kind of a thing in some ways; not least of which is the fact that despite its being so clearly a beginner's activity (see the last post here) it only reveals itself for what it is after long faithfulness. None of the contemplative disciplines is a practice for anyone looking for instant results: only after uncounted repetitions can you begin to see what is going on, and like a human relationship, only after long faithfulness can you truly touch the heart of it, and even then it's not a thing you find, but a place you find yourself in.

Hanging in there is sometimes difficult. It's so easy to think that if I only changed to some alternative practice my difficulties would be resolved, or I'd be able to step up to another level... But there it is again: this isn't about levels, it's about turning up, day after day, just quietly, not looking for any result, but letting go of the whole idea of results.

Meditation is also non-acquisitive. We are not trying to acquire anything; there is nothing to acquire. The dynamic of meditation is not trying to get anything but to lose, to let go. It is in the losing and the letting go that we will find everything that we have, everything that we are given.

(Freeman, ibid.)

Thursday, May 09, 2024

Always beginning again

We are always learning; we are always in the learning mode; we are always open to experience. We are not judging our meditation; we are not comparing it. We are allowing it to be integrated into our daily life so that it becomes a normal and natural part of our life. The simplicity of that commitment, the simplicity of that discipline, opens up a path in which everything in our life can be channelled.

 (from Aspects of Love 1 by Laurence Freeman OSB)

I think this is one of the fundamental things to grasp about the contemplative life: that we are always beginning again, always beginners on a path we have trodden countless times already. It ought to be one of the first things we learn, but somehow it never is - the penny only seems to drop after years of practice, years of expecting to "get somewhere".

Of course, God being infinite, he is always infinitely beyond our understanding, however long we keep up this odd way of life; and so we can never really make progress in the practice of prayer. We can only begin again, each time we sit. 

Once again, I have to say that this is one of the things I most like about the Jesus Prayer, that it quite explicitly eschews the idea of progress, of levels of attainment and things like that. It is such a simple practice, open to anyone. You don't need to be ordained, or theologically educated, or have made a certain number of retreats, or have studied the right books: you just sit down and say, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." That's all. It takes about 12 seconds, and the rest of one's life, to pray that little prayer.

Sunday, May 05, 2024

The edge of things

To live on the edge of the inside is different than being an insider, a "company man" or a dues paying member. Yes, you have learned the rules and you understand and honor the system as far as it goes, but you do not need to protect it, defend it or promote it. It has served its initial and helpful function. You have learned the rules well enough to know how to "break the rules" without really breaking them at all. "Not to abolish the law but to complete it" as Jesus rightly puts it (Matthew 5:17). A doorkeeper must love both the inside and the outside of his or her group, and know how to move between these two loves.


I am coming, gradually, to see that the edge is the inevitable place for anyone called to the kind of quasi-solitary prayer that this blog describes. There is that in me, as there is in a lot of people, which grasps at belonging. It's a way of self-validation I suppose, of identifying with something more than myself, but it is profoundly unhelpful. To get caught up in the politics, in the identity mechanisms, of any organisation - however "holy" - risks damage not only to the solitary pilgrim, but to the church that comes to believe they can be relied upon. 

This is a painful admission. Rohr goes on: 

I am convinced that when Jesus sent his first disciples on the road to preach to "all the nations" (Matthew and Luke) and to "all creation" (Mark), he was also training them to risk leaving their own security systems and yet to be gatekeepers for them. He told them to leave the home office and connect with other worlds. This becomes even clearer in his instruction for them "not to take any baggage" and to submit to the hospitality and even the hostility of others. Jesus says the same of himself in John's Gospel (10:7), where he calls himself "the gate" where people "will go freely in and out, and be sure of finding pasture" (10:9). What an amazing permission! He sees himself more as a place of entrance and exit than a place of settlement. Funny that we always noticed the "in" but never the "out"! 


To accept that permission, though, while remaining aware of one's own incompleteness (sinfulness), is an extraordinary freedom, despite the social and psychological risk inherent in such a position. As Rohr says, earlier in this same essay:

The edge of things is a liminal space -- a very sacred place where guardian angels are especially available and needed. The edge is a holy place, or as the Celts called it, "a thin place" and you have to be taught how to live there. To take your position on the spiritual edge of things is to learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return. It is a prophetic position, not a rebellious or antisocial one. When you live on the edge of anything with respect and honor, you are in a very auspicious position. 

It doesn't, I have to say, feel very auspicious. But perhaps that's as well: it would be fatally easy to mistake such liminality for heroism, as Colin Wilson pointed out in The Outsider many years ago. Nevertheless it seems inescapable; it appears that, to the extent one fails to recognise or accept the gift for what it is, one is doomed to reenact one's old mistakes. "Don't pay the ferryman," sang Chris de Burgh; it may be good advice, out on the edge.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

The Human Condition

The contemplative journey, because it involves the purification of the unconscious, is not a magic carpet to bliss. It is an exercise of letting go of the false self, a humbling process, because it is the only self we know. God approaches us from many different perspectives: illness, misfortune, bankruptcy, divorce proceedings, rejection, inner trials. God has not promised to take away our trial, but to help us to change our attitudes toward them. That is what holiness really is. In this life, happiness is rooted in our basic attitude toward reality.

One of the most common objections to the story-book conception of God is the often-heard, "If evil exists, then God must be evil, or incompetent, or else non-existent." I am not going to attempt to rehash all the many and complex arguments of theodicy; they don't convince anyone, anyway. Keating's comment speaks to my own experience precisely. 

Contemplative faith is, as the Quakers say, an experiential faith (see Quaker faith  & practice 19.02) - explanations and arguments appropriate to the rational, discursive mind so often skip over the surface of our deep selves, over the waves of grief and longing, the currents of desire, like stones over the sea; it is only when they have worn themselves out with bouncing that they will sink out of sight. 

It was Karl Rahner who wrote, "The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all." I have written of this before, often enough, but it bears repeating: the human condition is contemplative (whatever name you choose for that) or it has nothing whatever to say to the "fathomless ocean of pain" we are born into. Only love, the love that bore the Cross, can plumb that ocean's depth.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Praying in faith

Practices such as the Jesus Prayer, and the WCCM's "Maranatha", seem to me truly to be prayers, despite the latter's use of the term "mantra" for their repetitive formula.

The Jesus Prayer, as I have so often mentioned in this blog, derives from the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) and the accounts of Bartimaeus' healing (Mark 10:46-52) and the blind men on the road from Jericho (Matthew 20:29-34).

Terry Hinks, writing (on 1 Corinthians 16:19-24) in New Daylight:

Finally, [Paul] takes up the pen from the scribe to authenticate the letter in his own hand and with his own personal greeting. These are not just words – they are a blessing and not to be given glibly, far less carelessly. Without love we are nothing, as he said earlier in the letter. The gift becomes a curse if there is no love – either for the Lord or each other. The Lord of love remains the heart of the matter, hence Paul’s prayer and the prayer of the early church: ‘Our Lord, come!’ (v. 22) – in Aramaic, Maranatha.

Love is the final word – the grace of our Lord Jesus and the love Paul has for his difficult church in Corinth – not just any love, but a love for all and a love that we see in Jesus.

These are prayers, addressed in all humility to a God whose grace and mercy are present to us, and to all that is, in Christ Jesus. They are not intended to generate an experience, or even primarily to give rise to a state of mind, in the one praying. They are more like an opening of the heart to that presence as the gift of the Holy Spirit; the prayer itself is then a cleansing and a penitent thing, and its effects, if we need to look for effects, are more peace and stillness than anything else.

Increasingly I am convinced that much of the literature associated with the practice of Christian Meditation, especially those works by Laurence Freeman and Sarah Bachelard, is applicable almost equally to the Jesus Prayer; just as conversely, there is much that WCCM practitioners could learn from authors like Kallistos Ware and Frederica Matthews-Green! One hopeful contemporary sign is the openness in much of the Church to ideas from other streams of Christianity; in contemplative prayer, since the middle of the last century, we appear to be learning to pray together and to trust each other in the way that people like Thomas Merton and Thomas R Kelly seem to have dreamed of.  

It is the latter who seems to me to have summed up the source of the impulse to this kind of prayer in the fewest words:

In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.

Thomas R Kelly, 1941 (Quaker faith & practice 2.10)

Saturday, April 13, 2024

The unseen condition of faith

On a... profound level we can think of faith as an existential condition that brings us closer to God in an experiential way. Faith, on this level, is not an answer to a question (such as the question, "Does God exist?"); rather, faith is the establishment of a living relationship with God that renders abstract questions meaningless in the face of living faith. However, a life of faith as an existential condition, if one begins with the question of God’s existence, needs to be nourished by an experiential connection with God. This does not mean a solitary, mystical experience. What the desert Fathers called the ascent towards God may not be found only in the life of the ascetic, but also in the life of any person who lives in faith. The sign of the cross... [for instance], has the same significance of spiritual introspection for any believer as it did for the desert monks of the fourth century.

The spiritual realm is not experienced in the solitude of the desert only. Ordinary people experience it in community. Although Scripture and the history of the church have shown several saints and prophets in direct personal encounters with God (as direct as an encounter between God and humans could be), the way God meets with most people is often subtle: A life in Christ is a sacramental life. This life radiates to the people with which it is shared. This sharing makes evident the presence of Jesus in the church and makes evident the image of God in all of us.

Andreas Andreopoulos, The Sign of the Cross

One of the essential functions of contemplative Prayer of whatever kind, it seems to me, is to maintain that stream of nourishment flowing from "an experiential connection with God". Now, it's important to make what might seem a rather subtle distinction here: an experiential connection is not the same thing as a succession of experiences. A contemplative practice is not a means to peak experiences or exalted states of mind - or it shouldn't be - so much as an often unconscious connectivity. From the practitioner's point of view, it may look as though nothing is going on, and our long-repeated and regular times of prayer are achieving little - but under the surface the Spirit may imperceptibly be bringing about profound changes, and one's prayer may be achieving, out of sight, things undreamed-of in terms of everyday causality. A long and gentle rain will heal and renew the land as a torrential downpour never could, and beneath the all too obvious helplessness and sorrow of the world strange and holy things may be taking shape.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of…
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God… 

Tuesday, April 09, 2024

Homewards

Most of us in the West have not grown up with the Jesus Prayer as part of our spiritual landscape, as so many seem to in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Consequently we have difficulty in finding examplars, let alone teachers (staretsy) of the way of the Prayer. And yet we are often advised to "always seek to find an experienced spiritual guide for our practice of the Jesus Prayer. Such a person is important in providing support, encouragement, insight and help on the spiritual path and in managing difficulties that arise in our prayer practice."

Many of the readers of the blog, I imagine, will find themselves in this predicament. Somewhere along the path we have encountered the Jesus Prayer, and something in our hearts has resonated to its simple words. We pick up a book, or visit a website, to find out more - only to meet with this impossible requirement. 

Or is it a requirement? Frederica Matthews Green:

Look for a spiritual mother or father. Many Orthodox Christians turn to their parish priest for this, while others seek one at a men’s or women’s monastery. If you can’t find one, embark on the Jesus Prayer with whatever resources you can gather, but retain an extra measure of caution about your own capacity for spiritual pride. You’re still bound to make some mistakes, but at least you won’t be surprised when you do. Attend worship; be part of a worshiping community. Receive the sacraments (in Orthodoxy, called “Holy Mysteries”). Go to confession, if that is part of your spiritual heritage.

Kallistos Ware went further: 

Yet today, in this present epoch of restless curiosity and ecclesiastical disintegration, there are in fact many who use the Jesus Prayer without belonging to any Church, possibly without having a clear faith either in the Lord Jesus or in anything else. Are we to condemn them? Are we to forbid them the use of the Prayer? Surely not, so long as they are sincerely searching for the Fountain of Life. Jesus condemned no one except hypocrites...

I've found, over the years since I was first introduced to the Jesus Prayer at the end of the 1970s, that there is that in the Prayer which is profoundly healing and, for want of a better phrase, inwardly stabilising. Even when I have been thoroughly lost and without bearings the Prayer has found me and brought me back; not only to its practice, but to the fellowship of the Church, and to the Eucharistic community itself. For me it has been the safest of havens, and a beacon in the shadows where I have found no other light.

Not everyone of course, will share this call - there are many paths up the Mountain, and none is better of itself. But I don't think, if you are one who finds the Prayer tugs at something in you far deeper than words or ideas, an inexplicable yearning when you read Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me... that you need fear slipping out on the running tide of those words. There is there, to repurpose Hopkins' words, "the dearest freshness deep down things", like the scent of the sea wind that will lead you home.