Thursday, July 18, 2019

Rest for the weary and unclear

Contemplative prayer is always an odd occupation, and it has effects on our wider spiritual life that extend far beyond our formal times of prayer.

Robert Llewelyn, writing in With Pity, Not With Blame, quotes Edward Bouverie Pusey on distracting and unwelcome thoughts during prayer: "Do not examine yourself about these thoughts whether you consented to them or not. Do not try not to have them. Be not impatient to get rid of them; only desire that you should love God more." He (Llewelyn) goes on to say, "To suffer such thoughts patiently accepting yourself as you are, and looking in trustful surrender to God, is necessarily a humbling experience. For that very reason it is cleansing and healing."

This is a stunning realisation. All those feelings of envy or fear, those sexual fantasies, those thoughts of shopping lists or of our own tedious failings; these are not just not distractions to be fought against with gritted teeth, nor to be pushed down with a determined will, but they are capable of being used by God for our "cleansing and healing". Once again the psalmist had it spot on: "It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees." (Psalm 119.71)

Julian of Norwich, that wisest of women of prayer, took this a whole, almost shocking, stage further. (We sometimes forget that this revered English anchoress, counsellor of Margery Kempe and quoted by TS Eliot and Thomas Merton, was one of the most radical and daring theologians and spiritual directors of any time, not just of her own.) Robert Llewelyn (ibid.), quoting her (Revelations of Divine Love, tr. Clifton Wolters, and Julian of Norwich: Showings, tr. Edmund Colledge OSA and James Walsh SJ):
'He lays on each one he loves some particular thing, which while it carries no blame in his sight causes them to be blamed by the world, despised, scorned, mocked, and rejected.' This, she goes on to explain, is that our pride may be overcome, and that united to Christ we may be made 'humble and mild, clean and holy'. In this our suffering 'our Lord rejoices with pity and compassion', a line which must be linked with the following later in the chapter: 'For he wants us to know that it will all be turned to our honour and profit by the power of his Passion, and to know that we suffered in no way alone, but together with him, and to see in him our foundation.' Being united to Christ in his suffering is central to the whole work of redemption, and our chastisement itself 'becomes gentle and bearable when we are really content with him and with what he does...' 'What penance a man should impose upon himself was not revealed to me... but this was shown, with particular and loving emphasis, that we are to accept and endure humbly whatever penance God himself gives us with his blessed passion ever in mind.' Julian adds that while we are to recognize and accept our chastening the remedy is 'that our Lord is with us, protecting and leading us into the fullness of joy'. And so we are taken to the climax of the chapter: 
'Flee to our Lord and we shall be comforted. Touch him and we shall be made clean. Cling to him and we shall be safe and sound from every kind of danger. For our courteous Lord wills that we should be as at home with him as heart may think or soul may desire.'
If I look back over my own life, with its at times catastrophic (at least from the world's perspective) stumblings and missteps, its meanderings and its outright sins, I can see the precision of Julians insights here. These words, which I first read many years ago, but which I have only gradually come to understand in part, transform everything.

Julian's words put flesh on the bones of Paul's famously disturbing observation "that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose." (Romans 8.28) More than that, she is anointing our memories and regrets with hope, and with an unspeakable comfort. Of course we did not understand what was going on at the time; of course we were lost in mire and confusion... Was it not Paul too who said, a few verses earlier, "For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience"? (Romans 8.24-25)

Prayer is the means we have been given, all of us, to bring to God these long memories of pain, and glimpses of sudden and frightening hope; and it is, in the long run, the means we have been given to receive his comfort. It is the great gift of contemplative prayer that we need not understand, need not find the right words - or any words - to explain to God or to ourselves what it is that weighs so heavily on our hearts, to hear Jesus' own invitation to
Come to me, all you that are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11.28-30)

Friday, July 05, 2019

All prayer is...

Simon Cross, Oasis chaplain, writer and teacher, has this to say in the most recent of his weekday meditations (7/5/2019: 'No Hiding Place'):
One of the most famous of all the ancient Jewish songs we call the Psalms is number 139, which talks about the writer's understanding of God. A contemporary Christian view of God tends towards a view of the divine that is at once distant, and controlling. This is a way of thinking that owes as much to Greek mythology as anything else. 
The God of the 139th Psalm on the other hand is somehow different: "If I go to the highest heights, you are there, if I make my bed in the depths, you are there." God is at once in all places. We tend to think of this physically, that there is no 'where' that God isn't. But actually the text goes beyond even this, beyond the physical: the word we translate as 'depths' is the Greek word šə·’ō·wl (sheol), which means 'grave' or even 'hell'. This is an idea which transcends physicality. 
There is nowhere, in life, or in death, surmises the poet, that is beyond his sense of the divine. This is not a remote, controlling God, not the 'deadbeat dad' of popular religion, it is an intimate, animated divinity, coursing like life itself through the veins and arteries of the universe, present in every dimension. The poetic language used here speaks of an idea of the divine which transcends the kind of boundaries which we seek to put in to place, nothing is cut off. This is a very deep idea of God.
As John Pritchard points out,
[In prayer] we cannot expect arbitrary interruptions of the natural course for our personal benefit. The dead of Auschwitz rule out the possibility of a cosy, domesticated view of how God relates to his world. But let's also recognise that there are no 'laws' of nature as such, just generalisations of observable experience. The fabric of creation has a much more open texture than we once thought... 
When we pray for things to change in a situation, therefore, we are not throwing pebbles at some iron wall of 'natural law'. We are co-operating with God in enabling his loving presence to come to bear on the situation, and so inevitably affect it... The supernatural is an infinite projection of the natural, to the point where it is transformed.
Now I happen not to like the word "supernatural". When it isn't conjuring up images of séances and ouija boards, it reminds me of some humanists explaining why they don't believe in that snowy-bearded puppet-master in the clouds. But if, as Pritchard says, there is more to reality than metrics and observation, and Newtonian mechanics, it may be an inevitable usage; if God is indeed "an intimate, animated divinity, coursing like life itself through the veins and arteries of the universe, present in every dimension" then there is nowhere and nothing that is outside God, not even the very worst of times. As Thibault reminded Peter Abelard in Helen Waddell's eponymous novel, in all the pain of the world, and in all its grief and loss, the cross of Christ, the cross of God in Christ, goes on and on.

"[T]he Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’" (I Corinthians 11.23ff) And so the prayer of the Church goes on, and on into unimaginable futures, in the unimaginable humility of God, who in Jesus "was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate." If indeed it is, as he said, his body and his blood that become one with us, knit with all the we are, cell by cell and breath by breath by the very processes of human biology, then in that plain fact the mercy of Christ is without end, an infinity of grace. All prayer is, can ever be, is simply owning that.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The hiddenness of it all

All our steps are ordered by the Lord;
   how then can we understand our own ways? 
(Proverbs 20.24)
We know that in all things God works for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. 
(Romans 8.28)
Esther de Waal, in her book Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict, asks "How aware am I that anything I do in any way is part of the working out of God's will?" This is a shocking thing to be asked. Not only is it an immediate blow to our self-esteem and our precious sense of independence ("I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul" and so on) but it contains more than a hint of Julian of Norwich's "It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

We are frail things, temporary and provisional in our few years on the good earth, and somehow broken withal, even from birth it seems (Psalm 51.5); and yet we are what God has made us (Ephesians 2.10), created in Christ Jesus for works God prepared for us beforehand. We rest in God; there is nowhere else for us to be, no way to fall out of God's love (John 10.28-29), nor anywhere to fall, for God is all in all (1 Corinthians 15.28). "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love." (1 John 4.19)

Isaiah had it down, all those years ago (43.1-2):
But now thus says the Lord,
   he who created you, O Jacob,
   he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you. 
The very thing we most fear in our century, our loss of independence and self-determination, our sense of being in charge of ourselves and of our fate, turns out to be our salvation. For if we truly cannot fall out of God's love, what is there to fear, even in the worst of times? But we cannot do it our way: we must acknowledge with all out heart our unknowing, our dependence, the hiddenness of it all, as the author of Proverbs saw, that "All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?"

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Calling out the devil

Returning from Walsingham after five days' parish pilgrimage, I realise that I have been given an extraordinary blessing. I don't know if you are familiar with the popular psychological concept of the inner critic. It's that voice in your head that tells you continually that you're not good enough, not intelligent enough, learned enough, good looking enough, strong enough, brave enough - you complete the list. It's the motor of the impostor syndrome.

As I have grown older I have come mostly to be free of the ministrations of the inner critic in these outward, conventional areas of life, and when they do come, I am generally able to recognise them for what they are and shut them down. However, outward and conventional does not cover the spiritual life, and here I have been increasingly defenceless against being undermined, disabled by a voice that identifies with absolute precision what is required for maximum effect.

The problem is that this voice, this accuser has access to our personal data like no one else, not even Mark Zuckerberg, and he is not bound at all by GDPR. Whatever blessing God has given me over the years - and he has given me far more than I could ever deserve or imagine - the accuser has found something in my past, or in my present thoughts, to counter it; to allow me accept, for example, its general applicability to humankind, but not to me. And I have fallen for it. Until this week, I simply have not made the identification of what I gullibly assumed to be compunction, or self-knowledge, with what the desert fathers and mothers referred to as temptation from demons, or indeed from the devil himself.

Casting about, since getting back, for a way to explain the last few days, I have found that the Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber identifies this, exactly as I have been shown, as the "accuser of our comrades" (Revelation 12.10). She says,
No matter if you believe the devil is an actual being or the human forces of evil or just the shadow side of our own beings, we all know the voice of the accuser. The voice of shame in our heads - that's the accuser, the accusing voice that tells me that I am what I've done, or that who I am is wrong... But the truth is, no one has ever become their ideal self. It's a moving target, a mirage of water on a desert road. The more we struggle to reach it, the thirstier we become, and yet we come no closer to actual water.
The writer, retreat presenter and communications director of Our Lady of Calvary Retreat Center, Connecticut, Sheri Dursin puts it like this:
[W]hat’s so harmful about an Inner Critic? Doesn’t it keep us from being arrogant or overconfident? Doesn’t it challenge us to be better or try harder? In truth, the Inner Critic does no such thing! It leads you to feel worthless, undeserving and small.
All that is necessary, living in the grace and sacraments of the Church, is to know the accuser for what he is. With that gift, the one I have received this week from God through the prayer and counsel of those who love him, it seems that one can come at last, even in one's own weakness, into the victory won in Christ these long years past:
Now have come the salvation and the power
    and the kingdom of our God
    and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
    who accuses them day and night before our God.
But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
    and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. 
(Revelation 12.10-11)

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Hidden in plain sight...

Scattered throughout Scripture there are hints and traces of a Christian life in many ways unlike some popular assumptions about our faith. Throughout the history of the church, from New Testament times onwards, as I hinted yesterday, this sense of a life of stillness and radical dependence upon God has flowed often beneath the surface of its more public expressions of worship and community.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures there are passages such as Psalm 42, "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God"; Psalm 46, "Be still and know that I am God"; Psalm 131, "O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things  too great and too marvellous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul,..."; and Proverbs 20.24, "All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?"

Once we come to the New Testament the references become almost too frequent to mention, from Matthew 6.6, "But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" on through almost the entire Gospel of John, especially the introduction (chapter 1.1-18); Jesus' remarks to Nicodemus (chapter 3.1-15) and throughout his farewell discourse (chapters 14-17). Paul's letters, especially of course Romans 8, and Colossians 3.3, "For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God", continue the theme.

It would be too tedious in the medium of a blog post to go on finding example after example throughout the Bible; we Christians are often accused of thinking we know all the answers - and maybe some fundamentalists and others do think so - but really the way of Christ, while we follow it on earth, is a way of mystery and darkness more than anything else. "Faith", writes Jennifer Kavanagh, "is not about certainty, but about trust." She goes on,
Any attempt to define or describe God is to distort, to impose our own limitations of time and space. Although we can ascribe to God such qualities as good, true and loving, we have to recognise that these are mere pointers, and we might want to learn to think of God without adjectives. The word "God" itself is a pointer to something beyond our description. 
Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience. 
This quiet and often unrecognised strain of faith runs throughout the life of the people of Christ up to this day. It is not so much hidden away - esoteric - as hidden in plain sight, a golden thread in the weave of the church. It may even turn out to be the main pattern, after all...

Friday, June 21, 2019

Dying in a time of greed

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the desert fathers and mothers saw solitude as a way to replace martyrdom. In his introduction to the spirituality of the desert fathers and mothers, John Chryssavgis writes, "The voice of the desert's heart replaced the voice of the martyr's blood, and the Desert Fathers and Mothers became witnesses of another way, another Kingdom. There was no surer way than solitude to strip away what they depended on in place of God... This was a kind of "death" for them, which led to new life. 
Ed Cyzewski, Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians
We seem to be living at the end of an era when we could describe ourselves as inhabitants of Christendom. Our world in many ways seems to be dominated by attitudes and values so far from those of our Lord that our situation more resembles that of the very earliest Christians living under the authority of a pagan Roman state than it does that of the desert monastics in the 3rd and 4th century AD; but while the blood of the martyrs is by no means a thing foreign to our own time, nonetheless there is for an increasing number of people a sense of an urgent need to withdraw from much that consumer society sees as integral to its health and growth.

The recent popularity of lifestyle minimalism ("simple living"), and a rising awareness the significance of sensory processing sensitivity ("Highly Sensitive People"), the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, Enneagram, and other strands of personality psychology, underline a growing unease with consumerism as cultural ideology. These largely secular echoes of past teachings on the simple life dating back at least as far as Lao Tzu and Gautama Buddha, and flourishing in the Christian Middle Ages in the Benedictine, Franciscan and other traditions, are an often plangent criticism of our spiritual, environmental and economic dead end, but all too often they lead at best to an outward turning away from an unwelcome lifestyle, but not towards anything in particular.

My prayer is that the increasing anxiety, even dread, about the future that characterises the recognition of the Anthropocene may lead, through these already encouraging beginnings to the rediscovery of the inner life, not so much as to escape from our troubled times, or even as a resource and compass for us who walk among them, but to the death of the self that is referred to by the phrase "self-centred" - the self that our consumer culture feeds so well. Where this may eventually lead I have no idea, just as of course the desert mothers and fathers had no idea of the great flowering of medieval monasticism and its literature for which they were sowing the seeds when they sold up and moved out into the caves and sketes of Egypt at the dawn of the 4th century AD.

A rediscovery, in our frail and conditional time, of life of the desert of the heart may lead to places we haven't dreamed of yet. This will be, I suspect, profoundly unlike the all too often romantic impulse to a kind of renewal of monasticism itself, whether in the Anglican religious restorations of the last 150 years, or in the various attempts at reconstituting Celtic Christianity and its communities. If something is growing, or at any rate getting somewhere near germination, it seems more likely to be a discipline that takes very seriously Jesus' words in Matthew 6:6, about going into one's room and closing the door, and praying to one's Father who sees what is done in secret. This is surely the beginning, if it is the beginning of anything, of a true inward spirituality of hiddenness - of fading out, in fact: "For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3 NIV); "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:20 NIV)

Thursday, May 30, 2019

New Pages

Alert readers might notice that a few new permanent pages have appeared along the top menu of this blog. I compiled these, or earlier versions of them, for my other blog A Long Restlessness, which has not really taken off in terms of readership, probably because it largely duplicates the content and intent of this one. Accordingly, I think I shall gradually let it fade away; but the "fixed" content, essays that frame and hopefully give context to the blog itself, may have some continuing value for readers here. I shall try and keep them up to date...

The Peace of God

In the silence of Ascension Day, what is peace? The quietness of sunlight holds something that does not depend on an absence of noise, a resolution of antinomy.

Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." (John 14.27) and "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16.33)

As we live, change and death are always with us. This is the way things are made, and connect; depend one upon another and give rise to new life. We are vulnerable in the very way we are made. The wounds that we acquire will not bleed always, but the marks will remain, like the marks on the risen Jesus' hands and feet. Jacob limped, for the rest of his life presumably (Genesis 32.31), after his encounter with God at Peniel.

Things don't have to be mended to be healed, and as long as we are part of this earth from which we are made, there will be an ache, a hollow place, where we long for - we long for peace, we long for "sweet permanence" as Kerouac said somewhere. What we are longing for is God, who in Jesus is with us always (Matthew 28.20) Paul learned contentment through Jesus "who strengthen[ed him]" in all circumstances, "whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." (Philippians 4.12) All we really need is trust: as Jesus said, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me." (John 14.1)