Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Guide Star

Laser Guide Star - By ESO/M. Kornmesser -, CC BY-SA 3.0,

It is fatally easy to make God in one's own image, or at least to accept a god made in someone else's. So we have angry gods, gods concerned almost exclusively with sexual mores and private morals, political gods (both of the right and of the left), harsh forbidding gods of judgement and predestination, soft warm micromanaging nanny gods, and as many other varieties as there are people prepared to promote them. (Vance G Morgan has a more extensive and detailed list of delusions in his book Freelance Christianity for anyone interested!)

But God is far stranger than any of these. The God of the Bible, especially of the New Testament, is not like any of our imaginings. This God is nearer to us than our own breathing, so close that Catherine of Genoa could say of him, "In God is my being, my I, my strength, my bliss, my desire. But this I that I often call so... in truth I no longer know what the I is, or the Mine, or desire, or the good, or bliss." He is the God "in whom we live and move and have our being." (Acts 17.28) He is the God of Jesus, through whom "all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." (John 1.3)
We believe in progress – it is written into the DNA of the modern world. If things are bad, they’ll get better... 
...our philosophy of progress colors everything we consider. 19th century Darwinian theory wrote a scientific version of progress into [the] theory of evolution. Of course, using "survival" as the mechanism of change gave cover to a number of political projects who justified their brutality and callousness as an extension of the natural order.  
The metaphor of improvement remains a dominant theme within our culture. A few years ago a survey of young Americans revealed the utterly shocking conclusion that for the first time in recorded history, the young did not expect to be as well off as their parents. It was a paradigm shift in American progressive thought. It remains to be seen how that will play out. 
Fr Stephen Freeman, St Anne's Orthodox Church, Oak Ridge, Tennessee
But the Bible does not seem to believe in progress, not in the way we understand the word. "Every day, in every way, things are getting better and better," to paraphrase Émile Coué, is not the teaching of Jesus. Luke quotes him, "'When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.’ Then he said to them: ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven..." (Luke 21.9-11) We have tended to collapse the timescale of Jesus' prophecies, and assume that since they did not happen there and then, it was business as usual, despite the fact that the great and progressive Roman Empire under which they were made went, not from strength to strength as it happily became a Christian state under Constantine, but down the tubes within a few centuries. Surely there have been wars and uprisings since then enough to satisfy the most pessimistic of us?

In modern astronomy we find a concept known as a guide star. Though the term has other uses in astronomy, I am thinking of its use in adaptive optics, where it is used as a reference point for correcting the wavefront errors introduced by atmospheric turbulence which distort our view of the distant universe. We can ourselves create a guide star if there is no convenient "steadfast star" we can use, by using the light from a powerful laser to excite atoms in the upper atmosphere  We too, gazing into the dark sky of what is not yet, have a guide star.

In the last chapter of the Bible we read, "Look, I am coming soon! ... I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End... I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star." (Revelation 22.12-13,16)

The Jesus of Revelation is the Lamb who was slain (5.12); the victory of Christ is through the cross, not in spite of it, and the glory of God is in the wounds of Christ. The cross extends throughout all time, and it is only through the cross we are brought home to Christ (1 Corinthians 1.18) This is the good news, and our prayer in the name of Jesus is our guide star in even the darkest of nights.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Open my eyes...

Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.
I am a stranger on earth; do not hide your commands from me...  
(Psalm 119.18-19)
It sometimes seems too easy to let Scripture slip into the background, especially if we normally read it  in our personal devotion as part of a daily office, where it can be a temptation to scamper through the office readings in order to get on to the more "interesting" times of intercessory or contemplative prayer.

A passage like this, from Psalm 119 - the longest Psalm, and the one most explicitly concerned with Scripture itself - reminds me that not only are there endless treasures concealed among the verses of the entire Bible, but that it is the Spirit that opens our eyes and hearts to them. Unless we read in the Spirit, the Bible will be nothing more to us than an ancient, obscure, contradictory and at times objectionable collection of texts. (See e.g. Peter Enns' How the Bible Actually Works Ch.1) To open the book quietly, in expectation, with such a prayer as the psalmist's for our eyes to be opened and our hearts prepared to encounter "wonderful things" is quite different.

Jean Khoury writes,
"...the less serious our conversion to God is, the less clear the Scriptures are to us." This is why the person who accomplishes and searches for the truth comes to the light (cf. Jn 3.21)... The more we do lectio, the more we dig deep, going down within ourselves and allowing God to descend within us. In fact, we are the ones who let God descend - or not - into our depths. This depends on the quality of our listening. Digging deep means descending into ourselves, letting the light penetrate our dark regions, at our deepest roots and our shadows. This depends on whether we open our door to him or not; our freedom decides this.
Scripture and prayer are indivisible in the life of faith, it seems to me. While of course it is possible to read the Bible prayerlessly, and to pray (perhaps!) without even unconscious involvement with Scripture, I don't think that's how either was ever intended to work. Another name, perhaps, for this intimate amalgam of word and prayer in the Spirit is Wisdom. Peter Enns again, op. cit.:
Wisdom isn't about flipping to a topical index so we can see what we are to do or think - as if the Bible were a teacher's edition textbook with the answers supplied in the back. Wisdom is about the lifelong process of being formed into mature disciples, who wander well along the unscripted pilgrimage of faith, in tune to the all-surrounding thick presence of the Spirit of God in us and in the creation around us.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

A Little Way

Practice - one's practice, a good practice, adopting a practice - is a word more usually associated, in my experience, with Buddhist than with Christian life. But is is an essential concept. In a sense, everyone involved with a religious path in any way has a practice, even if it is to do nothing more than "go to church" once a week or so.

In the contemplative life, the concept of practice becomes central. Whatever one finds called to do, be it Lectio Divina, Centering Prayer, Christian Meditation as defined by WCCM, the Jesus Prayer or anything else, needs to be done regularly. It usually helps to have at least the bare bones of a framework (an opening and a closing prayer, maybe a psalm or other passage from Scripture, if not an actual Office), a place to pray, and a time. Contemplative Outreach, the centering prayer people, have this to say:
Contemplative practices facilitate and deepen our relationship with God. The more we practice and allow the transformation process to happen, the more we are able to experience the Indwelling Presence in everything we do. Contemplative practices give us the eyes to see and the ears to hear God calling us to the banquet that is our lives, as they are.
For some time now I have been actively and critically considering my own practice, and trying, with the help of some wise and prayerful friends here and there, honestly to understand where my path is taking me. In order to understand this, I've had to try to think where it has taken me up till now, and it occurred to me that not only might it be helpful to me to write it down, it might just prove helpful to anyone reading this blog to see what has worked and what has not, and, perhaps most importantly, how hidden my own path has been much of the time, from others perhaps, but mostly from myself.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I have been praying the Jesus Prayer for at least 40 years, off and on, fairly faithfully for the last thirtyish of those; but the real foundation of where I find myself today was laid when I returned to full-time farming in 1989 or 90. Now dairy farming, especially modern large-scale dairy farming, is about as time-bound an occupation as you are likely to encounter. Everything revolves around the daily (often mid-morning) visit of the wholesaler's milk tanker, which largely determines the (normally twice-daily) times of milking, in order that the morning's milk may be cooled and ready for collection by the time the tanker arrives. Everything else - routine work, vet visits, sleep, eating, and prayer - fits around milking times. I found that the only way to work in a daily practice was to get up early enough for a time of Bible reading and prayer before morning milking. (In the winter at least, this was in the middle of the night for most people!)

Any practice built up like this has to be simple, flexible, and strong. There just wasn't time for a conventional office, with books and multi-coloured ribbon markers and ring-binders; I had to come down to something that worked with a Bible, a holding cross, and possibly a notebook, that I could use with a mug of hot coffee in my hand, and a cat on my lap, next to the warm kitchen range. My practice came down to reading a passage from the New Testament or the prophets, and a Psalm, often one of the 8-verse sections of Psalm 119, and a brief meditation on that, followed by 20 minutes of the Jesus Prayer, ending with the Grace. Since then, I have kept coming back to this strong, simple outline; I have had various attempts at a daily office, now that I have time for such things, but it has never "taken", and I have always found that I returned to my simple routine, enhanced sometimes my another such period in the early afternoon.

For a long time this worried me. I should, I thought, follow a daily office of some kind. I ought, I felt, to have a more liturgical routine, a proper rule. But it just doesn't work for me, somehow.

One of the passages from Psalm 119 I have kept returning to over the years has been vv 65-72:
Do good to your servant
    according to your word, Lord.
Teach me knowledge and good judgment,
    for I trust your commands.
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
    but now I obey your word.
You are good, and what you do is good;
    teach me your decrees.
Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies,
    I keep your precepts with all my heart.
Their hearts are callous and unfeeling,
    but I delight in your law.
It was good for me to be afflicted
    so that I might learn your decrees.
The law from your mouth is more precious to me
    than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.
A first glance this talk of affliction being good for one might seem to be redolent of hair shirts and things like that, but there is another way altogether of reading this passage. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." (Matthew 5.4) The psalmist here is just telling the truth: through any honest attempt at faithfulness under any, I imagine, kind of affliction, but especially through the deprivation of many of the usual channels of following one's faith, we are blessed, whether it feels like that at the time or not. (Is this perhaps some small part of why faith seems to grow, or to be potentiated, under persecution?)

Craig Barnett writes:
The religious path is often presented as a way to achieve inner peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering. Much popular spirituality claims that life is meant to be filled with peace and contentment; that pain and anguish are problems that can be overcome by the right attitude or technique. The promise of perfect contentment is seductive, but it can never be fulfilled, because it is based on the illusion that suffering is a mistake. 
Suffering, ageing, sickness and loss are not regrettable failures to realise our true nature. They are inherent in the nature of embodied human life and our often-incompatible needs and desires. Any spirituality, therapy or ideology that promises an escape from these limitations neglects the truth that suffering is an essential dimension of human life. Growth in spiritual maturity does not mean escaping or transcending these experiences, but becoming more able to accept and learn from them; to receive the painful gifts that they have to offer.
It feels slightly odd, after so long, to find myself - not arrived, but - content with the path God has set me on. It has taken a long time, and all the while I have tended to feel that anything I had done was provisional, that it might do until something better came along. Of course while I was actively farming it was different - there wasn't much I could do except accept my little practice as good enough. Of course that's it. It is good enough. Any practice of ours cannot be more than that. It was only when I was injured, and had to give up farming, that I thought I ought to be "doing more" in the way of a practice, a rule. And in any case dairy farming is not an elderly man's occupation; I'd have had to retire, or change career, sooner rather than later. I suppose in some dim recess I was aware of this, and thought of my little practice as provisional. Well, in a sense it still is. All the work of faith in our present life is provisional - this strange contentment lies in the realisation of that, and in the acceptance that, in very truth, "All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?" (Proverbs 20.24)

Thursday, September 05, 2019


I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d. 
Henry Vaughan, from 'The World'
Time and eternity are not the same thing at all, which may seem like an obvious kind of a thing to say, except that we are too often tempted to imagine eternity as an endless progression of time; rather than, as Vaughan, I think rightly, pictures it, endless, resting light.

Like Vaughan, too, I have caught glimpses, at times especially when death has seemed closer than otherwise, of a state where time has no longer any dominion, any more than what we commonly imagine as death: a state of peace and limitless love, which seemed the same thing as light, for all was light. This is a condition more to be longed for than feared, and profoundly welcoming, accepting, healing.

We sometimes seem to worry, to wonder about judgement, and about Christ as our "advocate in Heaven" (1 John 2.1), and yet Paul's words in the first chapter of his letter to the Colossians seem closer to my own heart:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together... through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. 
Colossians 1.15-17,20
Christ is our peace, and he is himself the love and mercy of God (that aspect of the triune God that is all love and mercy). Perhaps the very pain of prayer is the means of that mercy in us for those for whom we pray, our own small participation in the work of the cross. But we are at the edge here of what human language can do, and I am no apostle. All I do know, and that for certain, is that his love and mercy are in all and through all, and that we can never fall out of that love - and that through that love we cannot be other than loved into eternity itself.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

On the edge...

Limen is the Latin word for threshold. A “liminal space” is the crucial in-between time—when everything actually happens and yet nothing appears to be happening. It is the waiting period when the cake bakes, the movement is made, the transformation takes place. One cannot just jump from Friday to Sunday in this case, there must be Saturday! This, of course, was always the holy day for the Jewish tradition. The Sabbath rest was the pivotal day for the Jews, and even the dead body of Jesus rests on Saturday, waiting for God to do whatever God plans to do. It is our great act of trust and surrender, both together. A new “creation ex nihilo” is about to happen, but first it must be desired. . . . 
Remember, hope is not some vague belief that “all will work out well,” but biblical hope is the certainty that things finally have a victorious meaning no matter how they turn out. We learned that from Jesus, which gives us now the courage to live our lives forward from here. Maybe that is the full purpose of Lent. 
Richard Rohr, Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent, Saint Anthony Messenger Press, 2010
...the post-liminal is the changed state. The re-emergence, blinking, into the daylight from the shadows. The postliminal is a transformed state, it is the time when we come down from the mountain with our faces bright. When we walk among our friends, unrecognisable. When we return to the tribe as an adult, having left as a child. When we arrive at our destination unknown, amid the acrid stench of whale vomit. Because the liminal state cannot last, it cannot be properly sustained over a very long period of time, except perhaps by cats. The intensity is too much, it is too draining. 
One of the keys to surviving the liminal stage, despite its troubling lack of ritualised rites of passage, is to look for someone who has passed this way before: a guide, a supporter, a teacher, coach or midwife. Someone with the ability to understand the difficulties of the liminal stage, and to help us through them. They help us not to rush the process, a child is should be born only when it is ready, and a key Christian metaphor has long been that of being ‘born again’. While this has been taken to mean many things, it’s worth consciously reflecting on in the context of liminality. Those of us who dwell on the threshold, slipping and winding like black cats through the shadows of the in-between-time, must be looking for the way through, that moment of re-birth. That point when we come out of the darkness, and out in to the light. The process of birth is markedly helped by the presence of a midwife, and/or a doula, just as so many of the rites of passage in our lives are helped by those with the subtle skill and experience to help us navigate them. If you find yourself in a liminal space, as you will inevitably do at various times in your life: dwelling on another threshold, look for help from those who have already passed that way, you may recognise them from their shining faces, their rough desert clothes, or from the overpowering smell of whale vomit, or maybe even sometimes from the holes in their hands and feet.
Simon Cross, Dwellers on the threshold. (August 2019)
This passage from Simon Cross' essay (do click through and read the whole thing) reminds me how I have often thought that the cross is the final liminal place, the very edge between heaven and earth, death and the endless life of God. I say, "the cross is" intentionally: for, as Thibault explained to Peter Abelard, the cross goes on through all time, like the grain in a tree. It is there in the grief of those who have completely lost their way, in the death of the innocent, in the tears of the betrayed.

Paul the Apostle wrote, "for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (Colossians 3.3) The liminal space is a kind of death, and the dead are our companions there, which is perhaps why we pray along with "angels and archangels and all the company of heaven", amongst "so great a cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12.1). Our own dying will be into liminality again, into the still cross-shadowed presence of our Saviour, and accompanied by the prayers of those who have gone before. And even though all these crossings of the in-between time are necessarily made in solitude, we are not alone.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Only begin...

Christian contemplative prayer of any kind is a vocation. It has to be. It is no good deciding to take it up because we feel that it is something we ought to have included in our spiritual CV, or because we are stressed out, and feel it might help us calm down. It won't help as a cure for insomnia, or indigestion. It isn't even a tool for self-improvement, or growth in mindfulness, or inducing unusual modes of consciousness. It isn't, as some of our evangelical brothers and sisters worry, a method of emptying the mind. It is a vocation, just as much as a vocation to the priesthood, or to teaching or music.

Contemplative prayer is as much as anything a call to a life of interior solitude. It is solitude with God, of course - how could it be otherwise? - but it is solitude for God: an openness within which he can find us, a door closed (Matthew 6.6) against, at least for a moment, the world, our human appetites, and against enemy interference. It is not an easy way, really, though it is so simple.

What Karen and Paul Fredette write of the solitary life is true of a contemplative life lived in community, too, whether formally or informally:
Anyone taking the eremitic vocation seriously is bound to feel helpless, quite impotent, in fact. Hermits are determined to help, to make a positive difference, but how? What can one person do, hidden and alone? Sometimes, solitaries may feel blameworthy because they live lives which shelter them from much of the suffering that so harshly mars the existence of their brothers and sisters. Love and compassion well up in them... but is it enough? What should one do and how? This is where passionate intercessory prayer and supplication spontaneously arises. The challenge is to live a life given over to praying for others while accepting that one will seldom, if ever, see any results. No one will be able to ascertain how, or even if, their devoted prayers are efficacious for others. It is a terrible kind of poverty - to live dedicated to helping others, yet never know what good one may be doing. All that hermits can do is hope that they are doing no harm. Believers leave all results to the mercy of their God. Others rely on the interconnectedness of all humanity, trusting that what affects one, affects all. This is a form of intercession expressed less by words than by a way of life. A Camaldolese monk once wrote: "Prayer is not only speaking to God on behalf of humanity, it is also 'paying' for humanity." Suffering is part of the hermit's vocation. One of the most acute forms is to never know whether one's chosen lifestyle is worthwhile or has any value for others. Hermits enter into the darkness, the dusky cloud of unknowing, and walk without any light beyond that which is in their own hearts. Often, unbeknownst even to themselves, they have become beacons for others.  
Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life
Our question may be, though, how can we be sure that this is a vocation, that it is God who is calling us to this odd way of life? I don't think we can be certain, really, at least not before we begin. In John's Gospel Jesus says to his first disciples, "Come and see!" (John. 1.28-29) and later on in the same Gospel, the Samaritan woman Jesus meets at the well uses the same phrase, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" (John 4.29) It's all we can do, ourselves. Just begin. A year, twenty years, down the line you'll still be beginning. Each day, the sun rises, always beginning again. It always does. And so the heart opens, always from the beginning again. There is nothing else it can do, in prayer. Only God is the constant ground of our being, and his mercy is everlasting (Psalm 100.5).

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Loop-Dance of the Three-in-One

Praying the Word means reading (or reciting) Scripture in a spirit of prayer and letting the meaning of the verses inspire our thoughts and become our prayer. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we find instances of God’s people "praying the Word" by quoting Scripture in their prayers. 
Our life should be soaked in God’s Word, so it is only natural that our prayers be filled with it too. In doing so, we can experience numerous benefits to praying the Word. For example, it helps keep our prayers in scriptural proportion. "We may tend to pray about the same few issues over and over and over," says Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology Andy Naselli. "But if we pray Scripture as we read through the Bible, that will force us to pray about a rich variety of issues in scriptural proportion." 
The NIV Bible Blog 
 It is surely, therefore, very possible that when God began to reveal himself to men, to show them that He and nothing else is their true goal and the satisfaction of their needs, and that He has a claim on them simply by being what He is, quite apart from anything he can bestow or deny, it may have been absolutely necessary that this revelation should not begin with any hint of future Beatitude or Perdition. These are not the right point to begin at... 
CS Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms
...taken together [the Bible is] a book which has been developed in community over thousands of years, forged in and against the white heat of empire and domination, edited and revised, pored over and criticised endlessly. And it is pure treasure – it contains the voices of those who have gone before us. It shows them working out their ideology and identity, and wrestling with ideas about and experience of what they consider to be the divine. It tells us of their lives, their longings, their weaknesses and their wisdom. It showcases their failings and their blind spots, just as it demonstrates their extraordinary compassion and courage. There is, put simply, no other book like it...
But ultimately this all means little unless we are able to let the Bible 'speak' to us – and in so doing to change the way we think and the way we live. Too many people consider it the "word of God" and then find ways to justify the way they live already, claiming that this is divinely ordained. A big thumbs up from the guy in the sky. The keys to understanding the Bible aren't hard to locate, they are there in black and white, sometimes in red and white. They are there in the Mosaic covenant, and repeated by prophets: they are demonstrated by Jesus who shows that to live this way requires dedication and humility, and a radical acceptance of 'others'. When we listen for the voice of the Bible in this way, perhaps we do indeed hear God's word, from far back in time, whispered through the lives and words of our ancestors: Love other people as you love yourself. There is no limit on whom you should love.  
Simon Cross (see also his subsequent post)
On the face of it, these may appear three disparate quotations, tied together by little more than their common subject, Scripture. But reading the Bible isn't quite like reading any other book - as Simon Cross says, doing so is of little use unless we are prepared to let ourselves be changed, in ways we cannot predict or prepare for. Change is always a risky venture, yet it is the inevitable result of prayer, and of the prayerful reading of Scripture.

Whether we follow a traditional, discursive path such as Ignatian meditation, or a more obviously apophatic one such as the Jesus Prayer (which is itself drawn from Mark 10.47 and Luke 18.13), Christian contemplation is rooted deeply in Scripture. After all, it is perhaps not stretching things too far to suggest that the inspiration of Scripture ("All Scripture is God-breathed..." (2 Timothy 3.16)) comes in the first instance from people's silence before God, their listening for his unspoken word upholding all that is (Hebrews 1.3). Contemplation returning on itself, our hearts following the loop-dance of the Three-in-One...