Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give up all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you. 
RS Thomas, 'The Bright Field', in Collected Poems, 1945–1990

These are dark times, with the prospect of constitutional crisis, economic unrest, and of leaving the EU without a working exit agreement looming over us like dark cloud-shadows. And things are no better, it seems, for our old allies in the US.

Writing of Christian mindfulness in the context of pilgrimage - a discipline in which she recommends the Jesus Prayer, by the way - Sally Welch writes:
Mindfulness is not a fair-weather method of meditation, of making space to encounter God; nor are we taught that to ignore suffering or evil makes it go away. We are told to face up to it, to acknowledge its existence, but then to put it from us, 'for it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come' (Mark 7.21)... 
Nor must we use any past experiences to project frightful outcomes, but must simply call upon God to support us. 'You have given me the shield of salvation, and your right hand has supported me; your help has made me great,' says Psalm 18.35. G.M. Hopkins, that master of descriptive beauty, echoes this truth in his reminder that 'all things counter, original, spare, strange' can teach us God's grace; that they were created by him to shine forth with his beauty, strange though it may seem to us. So, too, our times of suffering are not undertaken alone but in the company of Christ who can redeem all things.
When I read that last sentence, it was as though a door opened for me - of course! This was the experience I have had over and over again in the most difficult times of my life: "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with ..." (Psalm 23) For me, the simple recitation of the Jesus Prayer - Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner - has been enough to keep the eyes of my heart open to his presence.

In this way, suffering, and the fear of suffering, become Eucharistic. The presence of Christ is not confined to the sacrament, surely; and he is with us in suffering through the Cross. As Jane Williams writes:
'Glory' is found in relating, in the unbreakable witness of Son, Father, and Spirit to the reality that everything flows from love.This is too simple to be credible. It is so simple that it becomes obscure and baffling. Even more baffling is John's insistence that the Cross is the most obvious and visible manifestation of Jesus' power. John 3.14, 8.28 and 12.32 all speak of Jesus being 'lifted up'. 'exalted', on the Cross, and in each case this enigmatic statement comes in the context of a statement or discussion about the relationship between Father and Son. Indeed, John 3.14 is followed by the famous: 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son' (John 3.16). Somehow, the Cross is the power of the merciful humility of God, hidden in plain sight. Here, if only we could see it, is the origin of the universe, in the unbreakable love of the Father and the Son.
But our word 'Eucharist' comes from the Greek for thanksgiving ("taking bread, he gave you thanks...") and thanksgiving - and this is very strange - is all caught up in suffering. We can see it beginning to appear in Psalm 119.71-75:
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...
Your hands made me and formed me;
    give me understanding to learn your commands.
May those who fear you rejoice when they see me,
    for I have put my hope in your word.
I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous,
    and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me...
Its clarification, as it were, though, is in Paul's letters. Romans 8.17: "Now if we are children, then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory"; 2 Corinthians 1.5: "For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ"; and sealed together with the words I keep coming back to, from 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."

We are not alone under the leaden skies of January - and above, as it always does, the sunlight strikes silver from the upper surface of the thickest clouds. This is no sentimental silver lining. The cold rain is still as cold, and the shadows as dense; but they are not the end of the story - far from it.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

When we were still powerless...

I have been struck before by the parallel between the Quaker practice of holding someone or something in the Light - being simultaneously and intentionally aware of them, and of the presence of God - and what I have come to call contemplative intercession.

Theophan the Recluse wrote:
Divine action is not something material: it is invisible, inaudible, unexpected, unimaginable, and inexplicable by any analogy taken from this world. Its advent and its working within us are a mystery… Little by little, divine action grants to man increased attention and contrition of the heart in prayer…

The spirit of prayer comes upon man and drives him into the depths of the heart, as if he were taken by the hand and forcibly led from one room to another. The soul is taken captive by an invading force, and is willingly kept within, as long as this overwhelming power of prayer still holds sway over it.

(Quoted in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, ed. Timothy Ware & Chariton of Valamo)
Time and again, recently, I find myself woken in the night by the recollection, or the sudden awareness, of the need, or pain, of someone, human or otherwise. Often these are ones of whom I know very little in a factual sense. I cannot "pray for them" in the conventional sense of making explicit petitions on their behalf to an anthropomorphised conception of God in my own mind - how could I? - but I can keep them close in my heart as I sink into my awareness of the constant steadfast love of God, and of his unfailing presence that sustains all things (Hebrews 1.3). (For me, the Jesus Prayer is enough engagement for what is left of my conscious mind, enough to help keep it out of the way.)

The heart being the place where God's love meets us (Romans 5.5-6) it meets too there the one whom we are holding in our heart. Nothing else seems to be needed. It is the simplest, and yet in my little experience, the hardest and most painful thing. But it is good, and wholesome, and given by God in that place which is so far nearest, most open to his own love as it reaches us by his Holy Spirit.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

The Grace of Trust

Looking down 1900ft from the Cabo GirĂ£o skywalk, Madeira

There are times when we can do all that a fellow creature needs if only he will trust us. In getting a dog out of a trap, in extracting a thorn from a child's finger, in teaching a boy to swim or rescuing one who can't, in getting a frightened beginner over a nasty place on a mountain, the one fatal obstacle may be their distrust. We are asking them to trust us in the teeth of their sense, their imagination, and their intelligence. We ask them to believe that what is painful will relieve their pain and that what looks dangerous is their only safety. We ask them to accept apparent impossibilities: that moving the paw farther back into the trap is the way to get it out – that hurting the finger very much more will stop the finger hurting – that water which is obviously permeable will resist and support the body – that holding onto the only support within reach is not the way to avoid sinking – that to go higher and onto a more exposed ledge is the way not to fall. To support all these incredibilia we can rely only on the other party’s confidence in us – a confidence certainly not based on demonstration, admittedly shot through with emotion, and perhaps, if we are strangers, resting on nothing but such assurance as the look of our face and the tone of our voice can supply, or even, for the dog, on our smell. Sometimes, because of their unbelief, we can do no mighty works. But if we succeed, we do so because they have maintained their faith in us against apparently contrary evidence. No one blames us for demanding such faith. No one blames them for giving it. 
CS Lewis The World's Last Night
I have been struck recently by the truth of this passage for my own relationship with God. The times in my life when I have come through the most difficult circumstances have been those times when I have been most conscious of the infinite trustworthiness of God. Quite literally, if I had not trusted God's grace and mercy, especially as Paul explains it in chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans, I couldn't have come through to be sitting here writing this. And yet, of myself, I am not capable of that kind of trust, when all the evidence of sense and intellect points to the radical untrustworthiness of the whole situation. To trust God enough to walk out on what appears to be thin air is only possible through prayer; to trust God enough to pray rather than run is sheer grace, an act simply inaccessible to the unaided human will.

The priest, abolitionist and ex-sea captain and slave trader John Newton, who knew a thing or two about desperate situations, wrote sometime before 1779:
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
   That sav'd a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
   Was blind, but now I see. 
'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
   And grace my fears reliev'd;
How precious did that grace appear
   The hour I first believ'd! 
Thro' many dangers, toils, and snares,
   I have already come;
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
   And grace will lead me home...
All that is is gift. There is nothing else. The air we breathe, the slender band of temperatures in which we can survive, the earth beneath our feet, the steady beating of our hearts - we brought about none of this by our own will or intention, and we cannot sustain any of it by our own will or intention either. Whatever happens, we cannot fall out of God, who holds all time, all things, within the love that is his istigkeit, his own being:
I saw that [our Lord] is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good, as I understand. 
And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… 
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the creator and protector and the lover. For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have perfect rest or true happiness, until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me. 
Julian of Norwich, Showings, Ch. 5 

Monday, December 31, 2018

Prayer beneath the Cross

As we move into the new year, we find ourselves - at least I do - looking at the broken condition of the world, with its shame and confusion, its poverty and intolerance, its extremism and cruelty, wondering what on earth is going on, and whether, in view of the increasingly desperate findings of climate science, whether there will be an earth to be going anywhere in a few years' time. Jesus is Lord? Really?

Tom Wright:
Jesus is the Lord, but it's the crucified Jesus who is Lord - precisely because it's his crucifixion that has won the victory over all the other powers that think of themselves as in charge of the world. But that means that his followers, charged with implementing his victory in the world, will themselves have to do so by the same method. One of the most striking things about some of (what we normally see as) the later material in the New Testament is the constant theme of suffering, suffering not as something merely to be bravely borne for Jesus' sake, but as something that is mysteriously taken up into the redemptive suffering of Jesus himself. He won his victory through suffering; his followers win theirs by sharing in his. 
(Simply Jesus)
There is more than one way to read Wright's words here, and he has left it, perhaps deliberately, for us to navigate our own path through the ambiguity. Those of us who are called to a more outwardly active response to the world may indeed find ourselves living out Jesus' victory in terms of physical suffering at the hands of the rulers and authorities of this present darkness (Ephesians 6.12), as so often happens in non-violent protest. But I think there is more to it than this. The beginning of this chapter of Paul's letter to the Christians in Ephesus contains advice about living honestly and justly within the existing social framework of his time, not revolution. Sometimes of course resistance to outright injustice may be inescapable, but this is not what Paul is writing about. He goes on to say (6.10-12):
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
We in the West all too often see heaven as "somewhere else" - a distant land far away from earth, where good people go on death to be with God, and are then very puzzled by this idea of "forces of evil in the heavenly realms". But as Tom Wright explains in the book I quoted above, "In ancient Judaism and early Christianity, heaven and earth, God's world and our world, overlap and interlock in various ways that put quite a different spin on all sorts of things." Spiritual forces of evil are real forces nonetheless; more real, perhaps, than their earthly expressions in terms of armies, secret police, and mob rule.

Prayer is indeed, as Paul points out, spiritual warfare. But this is Jesus' war: it is fought with weapons of love and suffering, not of conflict and destruction. Our struggles in prayer (and they are struggles, make no mistake) are not fought by curses and invective against the "enemy", nor by long rants advising God what he should do to whom; but by taking into ourselves, in the shadow of the Cross, the pain and grief of the suffering world, bringing them to our crucified and risen Lord for his healing, his mercy. As St Isaac of Nineveh recounted,
An elder was once asked, "What is a merciful heart?" He replied: 
"It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. 
For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God."

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Jesus Prayer - new page

There is much material in this blog, as well as in my others, on the Jesus Prayer - what it is, how it is prayed, and why, and things to be aware of if you feel you are being called to this form of contemplative prayer. But they are scattered among other material, and, even using the 'label' or 'category' function, not that easy to read in anything like a coherent way.

So - I have decided to put up a page pulling what seems to me to be the best of this kind of material together. The page appears in the top menu, under the header photograph, and immediately above the most recent post, but you might too easily miss it, so the link is here.

Do click through and have a look - and if there's anything you'd like to see there but can't, do leave a comment on this post - you can't comment directly on these static pages.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

My scallop-shell of quiet


The Lily Cross in All Saints Church, Godshill

Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope's true gage,
And thus I'll take my pilgrimage. 
Sir Walter Raleigh

This fragment from a much longer poem is supposed to have been written immediately before Raleigh's impending execution; in fact he was spared for the time being, and lived another 15 years or so. I found it printed on a small blue card, in All Saints Church at Godshill.

I've been vaguely familiar with these lines for many years, but I had forgotten them till I found this small card in a rack with other such things, at the back of the church, and bought it to bring home.

At the entrance to the church, in the porch by the south door, is a modern framed extract (beginning "You are not here to verify...") from TS Eliot's 'Little Gidding'. I have reproduced the whole section from which it is taken:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

I am not aware that the ancient church in this little village deep inland on the Isle of Wight has ever been a place of pilgrimage as such. If so, the fact is not mentioned in any history of the parish I have seen - though there was a Benedictine priory nearby at Appuldurcombe. But All Saints seems to me like a pilgrim church. Up a steep hill above the village, with its medieval lily cross on the wall above the reserved Blessed Sacrament, it somehow asks to be approached quietly, with reverence - not for the building, but for what it means - as at the end of a long journey.

Pilgrimage is increasingly a pattern that calls to me. As I wrote elsewhere here, "We cannot know the way; but our steps are indeed ordered by the Lord (Proverbs 20.24), if we love him, and will only draw near to him in prayer. He simply says, as he always does, 'Go', or even 'What is that to you? Follow me!' (John 21.21)" Somehow I find I no longer have the need I once had to be sure of the way.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Happy Christmas!

[With thanks to Andalusia Star News]

Happy Christmas to all The Mercy Blog readers!