Saturday, February 08, 2020

To Pray as We Are

The Jesus Prayer is also called the Prayer of the Heart. In Orthodoxy, the mind and heart are to be used as one. St Theophan tells us to keep our "mind in the heart" at all times. Heart means the physical muscle pumping blood, and emotions/feelings, and the innermost core of the person, the spirit. Heart is associated with the physical organ, but not identical with it. Heart means our innermost chamber, our secret dwelling place where God lives. "The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace; all things are there." So says St. Macarius. Someone said the heart is a dimension of interior consciousness, awareness, where we come in touch with an inner space, a space of no dimensions. This consciousness is timeless, the place where tears reside and deep contact with the present moment abide, and from which restful movement comes. Acting out of our heart means to act lightly, with vigour and enthusiasm. When not in that inner awareness, we are restless, agitated and self-concerned. There is within us a space, a field of the heart, in which we find a Divine Reality, and from which we are called to live. The mind, then, is to descend into that inner sanctuary, by means of the Jesus Prayer or wordless contemplation, and to stay there throughout our active day, and evening. We descend with our mind into our heart, and we live there. The heart is Christ's palace. There, Christ the King comes to take His rest.

Albert S Rossi,  Saying the Jesus Prayer
There is that in the Jesus Prayer that lives in the very brokenness of the human heart. When we pray the Prayer, we are not trying to pray as we would like to be, or as we think someone else might think we ought to be, but as we actually are. If our hearts are full of pain, full of the darkness of temptation or of betrayal, distracted, covetous, or grieving, then that is how we will pray. This is one reason why, incidentally, I always use the form the the Prayer that includes the final phrase "a sinner" - for that is who I am, and the two words include all these emotions, and more. For in acknowledging myself a sinner, I am acknowledging my identity, my solidarity even, with the rest of humanity, fallen as we are, and even with the rest of creation in the mysterious brokenness it shares with us, in the pain of the mouse in the owl's claws, of the grasslands in drought. And so the Prayer becomes a prayer for all who suffer, human or otherwise; a true intercession, a stepping into the mercy of God on behalf of all that is.

Perhaps this intercessory dimension of the Jesus Prayer may help to explain the difficulty sometimes encountered in its practice. I don't mean the ordinary kind of distraction, shopping lists or fantasies drifting across the field of prayer, but a real and painful struggle that sometimes makes it all but impossible inwardly to pronounce even the words of the Prayer. This kind of struggle seems not to be written of much in recent literature, though it crops up often enough in the writings of St Macarius (300-391AD) and others of his period. In his now out of print booklet Praying the Jesus Prayer (Marshall Pickering 1988) Brother Ramon SSF, though, wrote,
The Christian is well aware of the fact that the world is also evil. There is a falseness and alienation which has distracted and infected the world, and men and women of prayer, by the power of the Name of Jesus, stand against the cosmic darkness, and enter into conflict with dark powers. 'For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.' The power of the Jesus Prayer is the armour against the wiles of the devil, taking heed of the apostle's word: 'Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.' [Ephesians 6.12,18 RSV]
But I don't want to make too much of this aspect of the use of the Prayer. It does happen, and so it is as well to be aware of it, but it is not what the Prayer is all about. We are praying for the mercy of God in Christ, and it is only through the cross of Christ that God's mercy can heal us, and the wounds for which we pray. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1.5 NIV) In the repetition of the Jesus Prayer, we are ourselves walking the way of the cross, playing our own small part in its mercy.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

The Little Things

Thankfulness works in the Christian community as it usually does in the Christian life. Only those who give thanks for the little things receive the great things as well. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts prepared for us because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think that we should not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be seeking the great gifts. Then we complain that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experiences that God has given to other Christians, and we consider these complaints to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the small (and yet really not so small!) gifts we receive daily. How can God entrust great things to those who will not gratefully receive the little things from God’s hand?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
This is a passage that should, I think, be read and re-read by those of us who are involved in any way in the contemplative life. We are all so deeply infected, from childhood if not before, with our culture's ideals of progress and achievement, that we find it all but impossible to accept that our "daily gifts" are enough, are really God's good and sufficient gifts for the life of prayer into which he has called us; and we constantly abandon them in favour of fantasies of a spiritual life we imagine somewhere out beyond us, on some higher level to which we should aspire.

These things are not God's way, I feel. God calls us in the little things, in the touch of the moving air, bird-shadows on cropped grass, in the simplicity of prayer.

My heart is not proud, Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.
   But I have calmed and quietened myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content...

(Psalm 131.1-2)

Monday, February 03, 2020

An Ordinary Path

The mystical capacity of the human mind needs to be strengthened again. The capacity to renounce oneself, a greater inner openness, the discipline to withdraw ourselves from noise and from all that presses on our attention, should once more be for all of us goals that we recognise as being among our priorities.

Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, Truth and Tolerance
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Too easily, perhaps, we consider the life of contemplative prayer to be restricted to a special vocation in itself. In this limited view, anyone who remains in the world cannot possibly aspire to a deeper contemplative encounter with God. But this is clearly a wrong notion. A discipline and a commitment to prayer are required, an effort of much self-giving, more than we may have lived yet, but certainly a deeper life of prayer is open to every soul. God surely wants this inasmuch as he desire love from us and union with us. It is not necessary to examine our qualifications or suitability.

Fr. Donald Haggerty, The Contemplative Hunger
I sometimes dislike using the term "mystic" or "mystical" to describe the life of inner prayer. Quite apart from any woo-woo connotations, it seems to imply someone special, a guru of sorts, set apart from ordinary people and their lives. Contemplative prayer, with due respect to those who worry about its influence on the Christian life, is none of those things. If it is a hidden path, it is one hidden in plain sight, and those who follow it are - they are, they don't just appear to be - profoundly ordinary people, with ordinary lives apart from their inescapable calling to the interior life.

This, perhaps, is why I find myself drawn to the Jesus Prayer - Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner - before other kinds of contemplative disciple. It is so simple, made up as it is from two Gospel passages (Luke 18.13 and Mark 10.47). Twelve words are not too many to remember, and the prayer requires no particular location nor special equipment. Ordinary words, easy to repeat, whether in 20 minutes alone with the Bible, a cat and a cup of coffee, or in a few moments waiting at the traffic lights.

Henri Nouwen wrote,
Hiddenness is an essential quality of the spiritual life. Solitude, silence, ordinary tasks, being with people without great agendas, sleeping, eating, working, playing ... all of that without being different from others, that is the life that Jesus lived and the life he asks us to live. It is in hiddenness that we, like Jesus, can increase "in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people" (Luke 2:51). It is in hiddenness that we can find a true intimacy with God and a true love for people.
This ordinary hiddenness is the natural home of the contemplative: not the mountain top, not the university (unless she happens to be an academic) nor the monastery (unless he happens to be a monk) but the ordinary occasions of life among ordinary people, the ones for love of whom Jesus died.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Simeon and Anna

Today the church remembers Simeon and Anna, the two faithful elders who were "waiting for the consolation of Israel" (Luke 2.22-39). I love these two, the priest and the prophet, faithful for so many years to the Spirit's promise, to a quiet message delivered to the listening ears of their own spirits long ago, patient, still open in prayer to that wordless voice in the quiet of the temple, waiting.

Neither Simeon nor Anna is known for any great deeds, for prominent service or any other notable achievement, but for waiting, and for these few words at the close of their lives, when their faithfulness in patience met Mary's and Joseph's faithfulness in bringing Jesus to the temple at the time appointed (Leviticus 12)

I have been so impatient in my life for results, for recognition, for achievement, when all that may have been needed is waiting, and listening. It is hard to wait, hard to trust - not so much the Spirit as - one's own hearing. What if I were wrong? What if I misheard, if I were merely a victim of wishful thinking?
Our waiting is always shaped by alertness to the Word. It is waiting in the knowledge that someone wants to address us. The question is, are we home? Are we at our address, ready to respond to the doorbell? We need to wait together, to keep each other at home spiritually, so that when the Word comes it can become flesh in us. That is why the Book of God is always in the midst of those who gather. We read the Word so that the Word can become flesh and have a whole new life in us.

Henri Nouwen, Finding My Way Home
The psalmist, whose words must have been familiar to both Simeon and Anna, seems to sum it up in Psalm 119.105, 123-125 "Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path... My eyes fail, looking for your salvation, looking for your righteous promise. Deal with your servant according to your love and teach me your decrees. I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes." It sounds so simple, as in fact it is; and yet I think it is the key to Simeon's and Anna's patience, and the answer to my own doubts.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Deserts, Silence, Solitudes

It seems strange to say, but what can help modern man find the answers to his own mystery,and the mystery of him in whose image he is created, is silence and solitude - in a word, the desert. Modern man needs these things more than the hermits of old...

Deserts, silence, solitude are not necessarily places, but states of mind and heart. These deserts can be found in the midst of the city, and in the every day of our lives. We need only to look for them and realise our tremendous need for them. They will be small solitudes, little deserts, tiny pools of silence, but the experience they will bring, if we are disposed to enter them, may be as exultant and as holy as the one God himself entered. For it is God who makes solitude, deserts and silences holy.

Catherine Doherty, Poustinia
Eve Baker, too, writes:
The desert to which the solitary is called is not a place, but something that must be there below the surface of ordinary human existence. It is nowhere, a place of thirst after God…

The disciplines of solitude will be different for everyone. Maintaining an inner cell of quiet will be a greater struggle for the person with family obligations or for those whose life involves working closely with other people… It is like having a compass in one’s hand, pointing to the true north. The busyness of life will swing the needle, but it will return again to the same direction.

Prayer is not so much a matter of specific occasions, forms, words, but a constant orientation towards God which becomes habitual. This is the hidden life which goes on inside the external one which differs little from any other human life except for the hidden search for solitude, silence and simplicity...
Once again I find myself in the position of coming to realise, painfully, that for me there has to be a pattern of a very interior asceticism. As Baker says, "Dramatic gestures are easy, simple faithfulness requires more effort." External commitments, too, however tempting it may be to make a positive, practical contribution to a community that makes room for me in its heart, are actually a danger to this interiority of prayer, and to my own hidden life within it.

Doherty again:
The presence of  a person who is in love with God is enough… nothing else is needed…

When you are hanging on a cross you can't do anything, because you are crucified. That is the essence of a poustinik's contribution… The poustinik’s loneliness is of salvific and cosmic proportions… By hanging on the cross of his loneliness, his healing rays, like the rays of the sun, will penetrate the earth…

The world is cold. Someone must be on fire so that people can come and put their cold hands and feet against that fire...

The poustinik's whole reason for going into loneliness - into solitude - his whole reason for exposing himself to temptation, is always for others. It is always in identification with… Christ, with his whole life, with his crucifixion. It is then the way to our resurrection and that of others.
Pope Paul VI's 1969 Instruction on the Contemplative Life includes this passage: "To withdraw into the desert is for Christians tantamount to associating themselves more intimately with Christ's passion, and it enables them, in a very special way, to share in the paschal mystery and in the passage of Our Lord from this world to the heavenly homeland."

This is hard. For so much of the life we have grown up to expect to live is based on the approval of others, their companionship and encouragement on a path towards a shared objective, that actually to set out into this desert of the heart is in many ways as lonely and difficult as it must have been for the women and men setting out into the solitary places of Egypt and Syria back in the 3rd century AD. But like their journey, it is not done alone. Like them, we must each of us be part of a community of faith; in the deepest and trues sense, a Eucharistic community, where we may live among our sisters and brothers, supported, if not always by their absolute understanding, at least always by their love.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Without Assurance

In her little book Practical Mystics, Jennifer Kavanagh quotes Rufus Jones’ definition of mysticism as “the attitude of mind which comes into correspondence with a spiritual world-order which is felt to be as real as the visible one.”

This comes very close to my own experience; what I have loved above all about the Quaker way is this sense of practical, hands-on, experimental mysticism. To the extent that it roots itself, and all its works, in such an experimental faith, it seems to me, Quakerism does well; to the extent that it does not, it outruns its Guide, basing its actions and pronouncements merely on our own limited human notions of right and wrong, and of social or political expediency.

Charles F Carter (Qfp 26.39) wrote in 1971:
True faith is not assurance, but the readiness to go forward experimentally, without assurance. It is a sensitivity to things not yet known. Quakerism should not claim to be a religion of certainty, but a religion of uncertainty; it is this which gives us our special affinity to the world of science. For what we apprehend of truth is limited and partial, and experience may set it all in a new light; if we too easily satisfy our urge for security by claiming that we have found certainty, we shall no longer be sensitive to new experiences of truth. For who seeks that which he believes that he has found? Who explores a territory which he claims already to know?
In another book of hers, A Little Book of Unknowing, Jennifer Kavanagh writes:
…Faith is not about certainty, but about trust… 
We have seen that there is little about which we can be certain. Certainty may be undermined by limitations of the current state of knowledge; the subjective nature of experience; the fluid quality of the material world; or the intervention of unforeseen events. But beyond these aspects of the world about which we often assume knowledge, there is a dimension of life to which rational explanation simply doesn’t apply. Most people would admit that there is much that we cannot apprehend through reason or through the senses. We might know a fact with our brains, but not be able to understand what it means, to fully experience its reality – the age of a star or the trillions of connections within the human brain – some things are too big, too complex, for us to conceive. Einstein, who knew a thing or two about factual knowledge, felt that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. There is a dimension which co-exists with the material, rationally grounded world, is not in opposition to it or threatened by scientific development but happily stands alone in the context of everything else. This is the world of religious experience.
This, it seems to me, is crucial. Unknowing is essential to true faith, and indispensable for any kind of practical experience of the Light. When we tie ourselves down with dogmatic statements and attitudes, be they overly literal interpretations of historical creeds, or uncompromising assertions of some atheist position or other, we close the door on the Spirit, cutting off the light from shining into the darkness of our own limitations.

Kavanagh (ibid.) quotes Dorothee Sölle:
The crucial point here is that in the mystical understanding of God, experience is more important than doctrine, the inner light more important than church authority, the certainty of God and communication with him more important than believing in his existence or positing his existence rationally.
When we come into the silence, whether of our own life of prayer and reflection (Advices & Queries 3) or of meeting together for worship, bereft of words and notions, it is only that direct experience that will, if we let it, be our sure guide, and will lead us, quite without the intellectual assurance we too often crave, into truth, unity and love.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Living Retired Lives

I have sometimes struggled with the temptation to suspect that by following a path into a kind of lay contemplative 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 my faith community.

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
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.

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).

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 practised 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 fulfilment… 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. In my own case, calling and sickness, or at least weakness from past injuries, work together in God’s own synergism to reinforce my calling to a retired life.

I think we have, if we find ourselves called to the Jesus Prayer – or indeed any other contemplative practice – and the life that is lived within that practice, to be prepared to walk into the dark, as it were, unknowing, and see how things turn 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.

[This is a revised and expanded version of a post published here under a different title.]