Monday, November 18, 2019

The pattern of love...

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:

"Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, 'Here I am - it is written about me in the scroll -
I have come to do your will, my God.'"

Hebrews 10.5-7
Sacrifice is one of those divisive terms in the Scripture, upon which edifices of theology have been erected, building up, and demolishing, elaborate and at times oppressive doctrines of atonement and satisfaction. But actually it is quite simple, as Jesus' own life demonstrates. Sacrifice is to do the will of God, and all other sacrifice takes place within that overarching purpose; and it is so in our own lives as we go on seeking to become more like our saviour.

All that we are to become reflects Jesus' own choices at every turn, finally shown in the olive grove at Gethsemane when he prayed, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done." (Luke 22.42) It is this sacrifice which is present again with us in every Eucharist; but it is the choice that is ours in each of our own lives.

This sacrifice of choice, if I may be forgiven for using the phrase, lies at the heart of our following Christ, but it is not necessarily and in every case a choice, like Jesus', for personal pain and deprivation - inevitable though that may be somewhere along the line. It may in any particular case be a choice for something we want to do. A priest who wants to serve a country parish may in fact be called so to serve; just because she does not want to be a missionary in some far-off place that does not mean that that is necessarily God's will. I think our choosing God's will is likely to be found in much smaller choices than this: the discernment is likely to emerge unsought, almost, from the concatenation of little choices, each one quite simple - if not necessarily easy! - in itself.

The pattern of love is to move towards trust. This is what lies at the heart of all our following - as Jesus was prepared in his love for his Father to move towards trust even at the cost of his life, so each of us moves towards him in trust; and so the Kingdom is built out of our small acts of trust and love, one by one; imperceptibly, often, but inevitably (Hebrews 12.28).

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Food for the Journey

This morning's Eucharist was one of those occasions when the Spirit's presence was so tangible that one could almost have imagined it as a cloud filling St Peter's nave, like the cloud in 1 Kings 8.10-11 at the dedication of Solomon's Temple. I don't know that there was anything, any occasion, to explain it, but the action of the Eucharist became a holy ordering, a dance almost, with all of us as parts of that greater unity, the music seeming only to make audible for a moment the flowing pattern beneath the words and movements of the liturgy.

This was a pilgrim Eucharist, too: a moment on the path of each of us when the compass is reset, the course laid in. Our priest distributed the bread with the words, "The Body of Christ, food for the journey..." and the tiny, holy thing lay in the palm of my hand like a letter from home, bearing directions, and the very presence of our Companion.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

In the Middle


This surely is one of the most extraordinary mysteries of being Christian. We are in the middle of two things that seem quite contradictory: in the middle of the heart of God, the ecstatic joy of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; and in the middle of a world of threat, suffering, sin and pain. And because Jesus has taken his stand right in the middle of those two realities, that is where we take ours. As he says, "Where I am, there will my servant be also" (John 12.26).

The prayer of baptized people is a growing and moving into the prayer of Jesus himself and therefore it is a prayer that may often be difficult and mysterious... Christians pray because they have to, because the Spirit is surging up inside them. Prayer, in other words, is like sneezing - there comes a point where you can't not do it... But because of this there will be moments when, precisely because you can't help yourself, it can feel dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, hard to speak about.

Rowan Williams, Being Christian
We live, like so many familiar sea creatures, in the littoral zone. Their lives are lived out between sea and land (litus is Latin for shore); our conscious life is led between birth and death - even as children we learn this, and though many of us try to think as little as possible about it, we live on that threshold all our lives on earth. This liminal space (limen is Latin for threshold) is our home; but it is an unsettled place: the tides ebb and flow, the land changes; and to be aware of this, honestly and openly aware of it, is to pray.

Paul writes (Romans 8.26-27 NIV) "In the same way, 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."

This is indeed prayer that is "dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, hard to speak about." It is in this kind of prayer - that can sometimes bring the one praying to the edge of giving up, since it is so unlike the cheerful "talks with God" we are so often brought up to expect - that contemplation and intercession meet in the shadow of the Holy Spirit, in whom prayer - with or without words - is in fact prophetic, merely in the act itself. For prayer in Christ is a hidden prayer ("For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" Colossians 3.3) prayed in a liminal space between life and death, knowing and unknowing; and yet it is a prayer that calls us, "Back to the beginning, back to where it all comes from..." (Williams, ibid.)

Friday, November 01, 2019

We can only receive...

Yesterday I had coffee with an old friend - a priest and a reader of this blog - and at the end of a long and sometimes searching conversation, just as we were gathering our coats to leave the coffee house, she asked me, "What is it you actually do in your prayer times - what is your practice in itself?" We both had places to get to, and I was only able to give her a quick answer. - but I thought, if she is not clear on this, perhaps I'm guilty of over-much generalisation, and writing too much about the theory of contemplative prayer rather than the practice.

So, for my friend, and for anyone else who is interested, this is what I actually do. First thing in the morning, after a quick mug of coffee (there seems to be a lot of coffee in the post - I wonder why?), I sit down - usually our little cat keeps me company - and read a passage of Scripture slowly and prayerfully, not as a formal lectio divina, but in the same way allowing the Word to speak in my heart in its own voice: usually a paragraph or so around the verse for the day from the Bible app on my phone, and a single 8-verse segment from Psalm 119 (118). Then, taking up my olive wood holding cross, I pray the Jesus Prayer - Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner - for 20 minutes or slightly longer. Prayed with attention and at a normal speed, this equates to 100 repetitions or thereabouts. I finish with the Grace, and go about the rest of the day. (I usually have a short period of actual Bible study sometime later in the day.)

I should say that I make no attempt to do anything with the Jesus Prayer. I am not trying to synchronise it with my breath, or heartbeat, or anything else. I am not attempting to empty my mind, nor to fill it with holy thoughts. I am not consciously attempting to recall those for whom I would wish to pray, though I am occasionally aware of their presence with me, somehow. Whenever my mind wanders, or thoughts drift into it, I simply and quietly return to the Prayer, speaking the words inwardly, in the silence of my heart. And it is in the heart's awareness that the Prayer seems quietly to lodge, without effort or intent.

This is a simple, strong practice that has developed over many years, as I explained in a recent post, and it has served me well. I've often thought, or been advised, that a longer, more formal office, such as the Benedictine or Franciscan forms of morning prayer, might be a good thing, but always I have been drawn back to this simplest of practices which developed over the years I was farming full-time, and had only time for the most stripped-down, resilient practice.

However, the Jesus Prayer is not a prayer that likes to be confined to a set time. After 40 years of use, it seeps into all the crevices of life like no other prayer. I find myself praying it as I walk, especially, and when I'm waiting, holding on for a phone call to be answered, or for a bus. If I doze off in a chair, I awake to find the Prayer has been praying itself in my sleep. It has even been known to slip into the listening interstices of a difficult or a profound conversation.

Before I settle down to sleep at night, I read a section of Psalm 119 again, and one of the night psalms, 4, 30, 63, 91, 116, 134 or another. I fall asleep saying the Jesus Prayer, and wake during the early hours to find it still running gently under my heart. It's then that I often do think of those for whom I would pray, for the world, for all of its creatures, its pain and its beauty, while the Prayer, quite literally, prays itself, and eventually draws me back to sleep.

Ed Cyzewski, a favourite author of mine, wrote recently on his own blog:
So much of my Christian spiritual formation has been hindered by a nagging question:

Am I doing this right?

I want to pray in ways that are authentic and sincere.

I want to be pray with the right techniques.

And these desires all lead to one overarching need when it comes to prayer: I want to guarantee a particular outcome from prayer. If I do this “right,” then authentic contemplative prayer guarantees a particular kind of encounter with God.

Everything hinged on the outcome and my belief that I could control it. If I just meant it a little bit more, prayed with a slightly better focus, examined my conscience a little more thoroughly, or practiced sitting in silence a little bit longer, then perhaps my prayer life would finally take off.

And by take off, I mean that it would yield RESULTS–stuff I can point at as evidence of God and of my own goodness...

So, what does authentic contemplation look like?

Cynthia Bourgeault writes that it’s a returning, again and again, to a sacred word, image, or practice, such as breathing. It is a complete reliance on God who has given us everything need and dwells within us before we even had a chance to prove our piety and worthiness.

God’s grace is upon us while we pray, and so we can let go of our desire to prove ourselves or our techniques as authentic. We can only clear space in our schedules and our minds for what God provides.

You don’t have anything to prove to God. You can only receive what God gives. The pressure is off. The silence is an invitation, a moment to live by faith in the present love of God that has always been here for you through the work of Jesus the Son and the indwelling of the interceding Holy Spirit.
This has been my own experience. Prayer is not a matter of technique, or even, in a sense, of persistence, although it is that. We have to show up, and keep going (Luke 18.1-8). But that's all. We can, truly, only receive what God gives. The next section from Luke's Gospel sums it up, as well as being one of the original sources for the Jesus Prayer itself:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'

"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'

"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

Luke 18:9-14 NIV 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

In Extremis

There seems to come a time, in this business of prayer, when God insists on taking us at our word. For a long time now I have been increasingly convinced of my calling to prayer, and to contemplative prayer in particular. But the extraordinary events of recent years - the unfolding of what appears to be planetary climate catastrophe, the recurrent threats to democratic civilisation, and the ethical dislocation of social media, to name just a few - make it increasingly hard to be faithful to such a vocation.

How much easier it would be to surrender to the temptation to do something - to join in the twitterstorms, to bang the drums - do something, anything! To "sit in a quiet room alone" seems not only futile, but unbearable.

What Karen and Paul Fredette write of the solitary life is true of any strand of the  contemplative life:
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
I have quoted this passage before, more than once, but it seems to me that the Fredettes express this difficult understanding better than anyone I've read - certainly far better than I could have myself. To remain faithful in prayer, no matter the temptations to do otherwise... the psalmist comes close to how it actually feels:
I am laid low in the dust;
preserve my life according to your word.
I gave an account of my ways and you answered me;
teach me your decrees.
Cause me to understand the way of your precepts,
that I may meditate on your wonderful deeds.
My soul is weary with sorrow;
strengthen me according to your word.
Keep me from deceitful ways;
be gracious to me and teach me your law.
I have chosen the way of faithfulness;
I have set my heart on your laws.
I hold fast to your statutes, Lord;
do not let me be put to shame.
I run in the path of your commands,
for you have broadened my understanding. 
Psalm 119.25-32

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Not a Childish Business

A lot of talk about mysticism and spirituality can be heard as giving you an escape route. Life is difficult but let’s take our glasses off so things look a bit more vague. But the proper definition of mysticism means we can see the nature of suffering more clearly, not less. It doesn’t make it easier, it makes it clearer... 
Let’s be very careful about telling ourselves a cheery story. Because the future may not turn out very cheery. There is no guarantee whatsoever that things will turn out well in the ordinary sense. But we can live, day by day, out of a sense of the worthwhileness of our being, and therefore of our decisions. And to live with that sense of worthwhileness of who we are, that’s where hope resides. 
Rowan Williams, in a talk on mental health, mysticism and spirituality, reported by Jules Evans
The sense of Romans 8.28, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose", and of the words Julian of Norwich records hearing from God, "All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well", is not however a cheery story, nor an attempt to paper over a harsh reality. It is an invitation, "a profound invitation to notice how condemning we are of reality in ordinary life, and to experiment with letting go of these condemnations, to live in a way without the protection such condemnations offer." (Julian Centre) More than that, it is an invitation to look unflinchingly, through the clarity of contemplative perception, as Julian did, and as Rowan Williams does, at the nature of reality in the presence of God.
The mystical and the spiritual is the key to understanding what well-being is. Not a protected calmness and unnatural detachment, but having sufficient freedom to look clearly at what’s there, inside and outside, to resist some of the imprisoning models pushed at us, to resist some of the systems of power in which we live, so that, by being more deeply open, passive and receptive to truth and the real, we become more genuinely active, capable of living from an active centre of our being, not the periphery, not just reactive. 
Williams, ibid.
I have mentioned elsewhere, in the context of the dark times in which we live, Fr Sophrony. Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov lived through the years of the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Cold War. A Russian, he prayed in community at Mount Athos, and later at The Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, England, and like most Orthodox religious, he was a contemplative. Sophrony wrote, and taught, on the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and it was to this practice that his life was given.

We all tend often to have far too narrow a sense of what prayer is. Paul wrote, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8.26-27)

We cannot, humanly, know how to pray in the direct, petitionary sense under the utterly distressing and alarming circumstances within which we find ourselves living. Coming before God with some list of demands, and our advice, however well-meaning, on how best to fulfil them, simply won't do. Sophrony understood this. He wrote, "Sometimes prayer seems to flag, and we cry, 'Make haste unto me, O God' (Ps. 70.5). But if we do not let go of the hem of his garment, help will come. It is vital to dwell in prayer in order to counteract the persistently destructive influence of the outside world." (His Life Is Mine)

Dwell in prayer. Yes, that is how Julian came to hear what she was told, and how Paul came by the letter to the Romans, too. digitalnun, a sister at Howton Grove Priory, writes:
Whatever is black, bleak or broken in our lives or the lives of those around us is shot through with light and grace but we may have to put a lot of effort into discovering that for ourselves; and we are unlikely to discover it all at once. That is where we can identify with the widow’s persistence — that stubborn hoping against hope almost, that constant going over the same ground. It is not so much that we must continue to pray — though we must — as that we must be prepared for our prayer to be changed and ourselves with it. We must grow in prayer just as we grow physically and emotionally. The image of God that may have sustained us in childhood is not usually adequate for us as adults. It is, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews remarked, a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God, yet that is what each of us must do, not just once, but again and again. And that is not a childish business.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Guide Star

Laser Guide Star - By ESO/M. Kornmesser - http://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1136a/, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16361914

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.