Saturday, July 02, 2016

The bridge of Christ in the heart's prayer...

Awakening can be enlightening and exhilarating, but the really shocking aspect comes from awakening to the fact that it will ultimately entail a death of some kind. Some part of the old familiar self must be given up and its abandonment can be as traumatic as death. On this Paul and the most reliable spiritual guides in the Christian tradition agree. It may be seen as the fruitful death of a grain of wheat, as Jesus put it, or as the death of the caterpillar on its way to becoming a butterfly, but shorn of the comforting metaphor the death of the old and familiar can hardly be anything but painful, confusing and instinctively resisted. What awaits on the other side, so to speak, is a radical change in our sense of identity, so that a genuine awakening can be recognized in the fact that after it has happened, one will give a different answer to the question, Who am I?
Frank Parkinson, quoted on the CANA site
Cynthia Bourgeault, in the opening chapter of her The Wisdom Jesus, describes an early experience of God "in golden light" as carrying with it the discovery that, "in that moment... there was something in me that knew. It didn't know what it knew, exactly, but it knew that it knew. Deeper than all the precepts that had been drilled into me in my childhood religious training, it simply recognised the voice of truth when it heard it and let go into its presence." Bourgeault's experience came to her out of her confusion and distress at the news of the impending death of a seriously ill neighbour.

I can't really imagine that, however alienated we might be from religious expectations, however estranged from what makes us human, we may not find that our longings, our terrors, our grief, at some time bring us out beyond our own ability to cope, to comprehend, even. In that, there is prayer, impossible though it may be for some of us to name it.

In God's own self, God is. I am frail, temporary, contingent. The connecting strand is God's mercy, not any act or presumption of my own.

Thomas Merton wrote, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by 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 of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, 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 billion 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.

There is then something that connects us, to God and to each other, and to all of creation, that Quakers describe as "that of God in everyone." The light in the eyes of another human, in the eyes of an animal, that beauty that is there in life, and which ceases so certainly in the moment of death - that is pure gift, the creature's own entire and precious isness, a little fleck of the istigkeit of God. Perhaps there are a very few in any age who know this so perfectly that they become so caught up in that shared quality of being that they are somehow more than, and yet most fully, human. Perhaps Christ is that identity newborn, a bridge where a ferry used to be. Prayer that is the heart's true voice will cause that bridge to spring into being, the indwelling Christ born within the human heart, whatever name it might know him by.

I think that inside all true prayer there is a core of silence. We may be aware of crying out to God, railing against God, imploring or denying God; and yet deep inside there is the unknowing, the contact of the speechless with the indescribable. Maybe silence is the truest prayer. The words are just our way of telling ourselves about it, however we may intend them. If God is God, then there are no secrets between us (Romans 8.26-27), and words are in the end, mere doorways into that silence, as we see so clearly in the Jesus Prayer, or in the recitation of the Rosary.

But in prayer there is also a kind of death. True prayer involves a realisation that what we long for, what we need so desperately is in the end quite beyond us. We look to ourselves, to our training and our assumptions, and we find naught for our comfort. (Perhaps those without religious experience get here sooner, which may be the thought behind Jesus' remark that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance. (Luke 15.7)) To come to the very end of our own capacity to act or to comprehend is death indeed, and yet, as in physical death, there is more here than meets the eye.

That "point or spark" within is truly God. It goes on, indestructible and beyond time itself. In death there is nothing else, and yet nothing else is needed. To know that this, finally, is our own truest self may well be death - but in the same instant it is everlasting life, full of all the grace and joy of God, the very mercy that is indeed God. Cynthia Bourgeault again:

Mercy is the length and breadth and height and depth of what we know of God - and the light by which we know it. You might even think of it as the Being of God insofar as we can possibly penetrate into it in this life, so that it is impossible to encounter God apart from the dimension of mercy.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Humility of Prayer


I agree with the statement of Ronald Knox that: 'We must accustom men’s minds to the notion that it does not matter what the politicians do, does not matter if it bishops seem to let us down. We belong to a spiritual kingdom, complete in itself, owing nothing to worldly alliances.' I do not think it means we must ignore the world, let it go to pot. As we discover more about the spiritual kingdom, which is the infinite presence of God, who is all good, fills all space, is changeless, perfect and eternal - now - we can see and experience this world in a new light. Even when my limited human mind does not perceive this I know it is so. We cannot ignore the world. It is too beautiful and too holy. How we view it, how we experience it, depends on from where we view it. 
Joyce Grenfell, In Pleasant Places, p. 171

Among all the fallout from the EU Referendum it is far too easy to forget that spiritually, things are the same as they ever were. Love, and the mercy of God, are not threatened by referendums, nor even by the heartless behaviour that some have shown in the days leading up to, and following the result. Prayer is not less necessary, but more so, and more urgently; and the outcome of prayer - generosity, kindness and healing - is the real antidote to despair, anxiety and anger. Hate is not quenched by hate, but by love; fire is not extinguished by yet hotter fire, but by the pouring out of cool water.

Our faithfulness is practiced in the little things, the daily responsibilities. In all the rush and bustle of events and circumstances, it is so easy to be distracted - to snap instead of to answer courteously, do a botched and hurried job, completely fail to notice someone else's suffering. Sometimes we chase trails of worry about the future, nostalgia or resentment about the past, leaving the present moment unattended to. We lost sight of Jesus. 'Oh, what? I thought he was with you!' [Luke 2.43ff]
Penelope Wilcock, writing in New Daylight
Prayer can only take place in the present moment: it being the opening of our hearts to God, who is eternal, there is nowhere else for it to take place but the "intersection of the timeless moment" (TS Eliot, Little Gidding). Too much public, and even private, intercessory prayer, it seems to me, is concerned with the future - even with the past. It is the conscious inhabitation of the present moment that is the special place of contemplative prayer, and in the silent prayer of the heart we can allow God access, in complete vulnerability, to all our anxieties and longings, both those of which we are aware and those hidden even from ourselves, without our attention being taken up with their recitation and their rehearsal. Then, open to "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4.7), our prayer is one with God's, and with those of our sisters and brothers who are caught up in the moment's action. It is only in the humility of prayer, hidden as it is, that the victory of Christ, the Cross, becomes our own, and through us becomes available to those for whom our prayer is prayed.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

"Sinners make the best contemplatives"

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 29, 2016

A Retired Life

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

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

In Quaker Faith & Practice we read:

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Spring of Tears

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

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

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

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

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