Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Jesus Prayer

Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward speaking on, and leading, the Jesus Prayer:


Beyond Redemption?

Alastair McIntosh writes, in today’s issue of The Friend,
It was the American writer James Baldwin who suggested that: ‘One of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.’ 
We sideline the pain of spiritual growth when we reduce it to questions like: ‘If there’s a God, how can “He” allow evil?’
Imagine how it would be if every time some human folly (or even cruelty) were about to happen, the ‘Great Cosmic Health and Safety Officer’ zapped it from on high. 
We would never get to feel the pain of others, or of ourselves. We would remain in spiritual infancy, devoid of empathy, unexercised by the evils of the world. For love to be free, evil has to be an option. 
Therefore, said saint Silouan of Athos: ‘Keep thy mind in hell and do not despair.’
I think that what he is saying is: fully face the brokenness of the world, but never forget that God’s not sleeping. 
It is a reminder of hope, and of deeper processes at work that might transcend our conscious ken. A reminder, too, that nothing, and no one, is ever beyond redemption.
I myself wrote recently,
These are, to say the least, difficult and puzzling times. The merest glance at the headlines will suffice to demonstrate that, and to demonstrate the further fact that the media, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.
In the face of massively publicised and widespread cruelty and injustice, violence and deceit, it is increasingly hard to avoid the current zeitgeist of taking sides, adopting entrenched positions, and demonising the “opposition”.
It is seems more and more popular to represent “the other side” as beyond redemption, and yet sometimes if we will only listen, they will shock us by their humanity and their vulnerability. Not long ago I was speaking with a prominent Tory MP and (then) cabinet minister, when he expressed his genuine grief at the assumption that he and his party were trying to punish and oppress the disabled. For a moment, real pain peeped out from behind the urbane mask of the seasoned politician, and I found my own heart grieved for him. More of these moments are scattered throughout our days, I think, than we would imagine, if only we are open to them, if only we can allow the clamour of the populist voices, and of our own assumptions and prejudices, to die away in an interior silence and openness that I have found comes only through continual prayer.

Repetitive prayer, whether a Christian practice such as the Jesus Prayer, or a Buddhist one such as the Nembutsu, has a way, eventually, of attaching itself to one’s life rhythms – the breath, the heartbeat – till it becomes an integrated part of one’s existence, drawing the heart (understood as the centre of our personal being) not away from “the outer world of sense and meanings” (Thomas R Kelly) but always towards the source of all that is.

This is not a difficult, technical exercise, nor one reserved for men of unusual and select spiritual gifts, but one for all of us, female or male, artisan or intellectual, old or young. It is so simple, whether as a side-effect of a practice such as the Nembutsu, or just to “maintain a simple attention and a fond regard for God, which I may call an actual presence of God.” (Brother Lawrence)

St Silouan the Athonite, whom Alastair McIntosh quotes, was an Eastern Orthodox monk born in Russia who travelled to Mount Athos while still only in his twenties, and lived there at St. Panteleimon Monastery as a brother until he died, in his seventies, just before the outbreak of World War II. In common with other Athonite monks, Silouan’s main form of prayer would have been the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Very early in the history of the Christian church, certainly by the 4th century, the term hesychasm, the life of silence, began to appear in the writings of scholars like John Chrysostom and Evagrius Pontikos, as well as in the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Hesychasts, as they became known, were practitioners of a tradition of contemplative prayer based on the Jesus Prayer that was available to everyone, regardless of education, ordination or formal membership of a monastic community.

The Anglican Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward writes that
This prayer is marked by a compunction and penitence. It has the sense of a kind of joyful mourning of one’s own and the world’s pitiableness. It knows our need to be rescued and saved, with tears. It is expressed in short, urgently or longingly repeated prayer directed to Jesus present in the heart, a presence to which the person praying seeks to turn his or her waking and sleeping thoughts (‘I slept but my heart was awake’, Song of Solomon 5:2) and whole life.
There is a sense of immediacy, of personal experience of the presence of God, from the very start of the hesychast tradition, that will be immediately familiar to Friends. Writing of the work of Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) Barrington-Ward goes on to say,
For Symeon, the resurrection is not only in the future. It begins here and now… He wrote out of an overwhelming encounter with the living Christ and with the Holy Spirit, through whom he claimed the resurrection of us all can occur.
By the 15th century the tradition had established itself in the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece, and was from there carried to Russia by St Nilus of Sora (Nil Sorski) where it established itself in the forest communities in the far north, which were consciously modelled after the early desert settlements in Egypt in the times of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. There the way of the hesychasts flourished right through until the years following the Russian Revolution in the early 20th century, when many of its practitioners took refuge once again on Mount Athos, some eventually, like the great writer and teacher on prayer Sophrony Sakharov, even turning up in England. It was to St. Panteleimon Monastery that many of these Russian monks came; Sophrony himself became a disciple of Silouan.

Sophrony wrote,
The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside… 
It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…
I am always reminded by this passage of Thomas R Kelly who, writing of solitary prayer, comes very close indeed to restating the hesychast tradition himself. He describes how “[the] processes of inward prayer do not grow more complex, but more simple” and he recommends using a short phrase, whether from Scripture or from one’s own imagination, and he advises, “Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.” He goes on to say,
But the time will come when verbalisation is not so imperative, and yields place to the attitudes of soul which you meant the words to express… Behind the foreground of the words continues the background of heavenly orientation, as all the currents of our being are set towards Him. Through the shimmering light of divine Presence we look out upon the world, and in its turmoil and fitfulness, we may be given to respond, in some increased measure, in ways dimly suggestive of the Son of Man… All we can say is, Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the orbit… Sometimes the prayer and this Life that flows through us reaches out to all souls with kindred vision and upholds them in his tender care. Sometimes it flows out to the world of blinded struggle, and we become cosmic Saviours, seeking all those who are lost.
[First posted on my other blog, Silent Assemblies

Saturday, August 13, 2016

More on being a Marsh-wiggle

Yesterday I wrote of the call to a kind of solitude in prayer and openness to the Spirit leading to “mov[ing] deeper into the saltmarsh of the spirit, closer to the edge of the last sea…”

I’m aware of some ambiguity here. Am I suggesting a life of physical solitude, moving away from marriage, and the companionship of Friends, to a distant shed or cabin in the woods, as some, notably Thomas Merton and Brother Ramon SSF, have done? Catherine Doherty wrote of a poustinia in the marketplace: a hermitage set among city streets, with some kind of an outreach, an “apostolate” in the Roman Catholic terminology. Is that what’s involved? I have asked myself these questions for many years, and the answer seems gradually to be emerging in a way simpler and stranger than I had imagined.

Eve Baker 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.
I have found myself with very few family obligations, and since taking early retirement after an accident, few definite obligations to other people. But my heart is easily divided, and I far too readily fall into old patterns of treating contemplation as raids into the unknown in search of material. I have been a poet, and an improvising, occasionally composing musician; it is hard to break habits developed over many years

For me, I am coming to believe, there has to be a pattern of a very interior asceticism. As Baker writes, “Dramatic gestures are easy, simple faithfulness requires more effort.” It may be that I have to some degree to restrict my involvement in the busyness of Quaker life. Certainly I must be extremely careful of unthinking creative commitments!

Eve Baker again:
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…
I am beginning to find, all over again, the essence of the tax collector’s prayer in Luke 18.13-14, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” The more transparent one’s life becomes to the light, the more that light shows the stains, the broken edges of the heart. This is a very ordinary thing, not at all arcane. Certainly it is nothing to take credit for. The light is what it is; gradually one is laid open, that’s all, and the thing is not to take the offered baits of distraction and easy solace among familiar or shiny things.

There’s a lot I don’t understand; but the saltmarsh of the spirit lies wide along the horizon, and the wind from the sea carries the clean scent of distance.

[First posted on my other blog, Silent Assemblies]

On being a Marsh-wiggle

I have struggled for much of my life with what might be described as my calling, my primary vocation, or whatever term might better be used to describe what I am supposed to do with my “one wild and precious life”, to plunder Mary Oliver again.

I have known since childhood the power of solitude, of lonely places; and I have always been most at home alone in the grey wind, without a destination or timetable, or sitting by myself in a sunlit garden, watching the tiny velvety red mites threading their paths on a warm stone bench. I used to think it was my duty to enter that world on some kind of a quest, looking to see what I might find, what treasure I might bring back to the known world.

Eve Baker writes, in Paths in Solitude:
The solitary is the bearer of the future, of that which is not yet born, of the mystery which lies beyond the circle of lamplight or the edge of the known world. There are some who make raids into this unknown world of mystery and who come back bearing artefacts. These are the creative artists, the poets who offer us their vision of the mystery…
But a raider is not at home: his raids are fitful incursions into a land not his own, and what he sees there he sees as raw material, uncut stones he may haul back into the world of action and reward, there to be cut into poems, music. The real treasures of the hidden world are scarcely visible to a raider, nor, like Eurydice, will they survive the journey back to the known world.
Eve Baker goes on:

But there are also those who make solitude their home, who travel further into the inner desert, from which they bring back few artefacts. These are the contemplatives, those who are drawn into the heart of the mystery. Contemplatives have no function and no ministry. They are in [that] world as a fish is in the sea, to use Catherine of Siena’s phrase, as part of the mystery. That they are necessary is proved by the fact that they exist in all religious traditions. Contemplatives are not as a rule called to activity, they are useless people and therefore little understood in a world that measures everything by utility and cash value. Unlike the poet they do not return bearing artefacts, but remain in the desert, pointing to the mystery, drawing others in.

Marsh-wiggles live, in CS Lewis’ Narnia, out in the salt marshes beyond the hills and the forest, and farther still from the cities bright with trade and pageantry. Their simple homes are set well apart from one another, out on the “great flat plain” of the marshlands. Puddleglum, the marsh-wiggle we meet in The Silver Chair, comes up with, when his back is against the wall, one of the most remarkable statements of faith in Lewis’ fiction:

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all of those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones… We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia… and that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull as you say.”

Perhaps contemplatives are only kidding themselves. Perhaps they are, to take Baker’s semi-irony literally, quite useless people. But our uselessness may yet be a good deal more useful in the dark and doubt of humanity’s pain than all the utilities of the marketable world.

It seems that life as a marsh-wiggle may be closer to my own calling than I would have guessed. To move deeper into the saltmarsh of the spirit, closer to the edge of the last sea, may mean the giving up, not of love and companionship perhaps, but of many of the comfortable certainties, and the familiar tools of the raider’s life. A wiggle’s wigwam is good enough, maybe.

[Reposted from my other blog, Silent Assemblies]

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Unfolding

The other day, I wrote of unfolding – “the unfolding that is my life, and of which my death will be part.”

It seems to me that this is one clue to the old “who am I?” question. It doesn’t appear that there is a fixed “thing” that is me. I am becoming, that is all. I don’t unfold myself along the time that is given me – and it is given me, I don’t take it – but with each year and each minute I unroll like a kind of a carpet as time itself unrolls.

In myself I am no thing – though my body is an object with certain dimensions and attributes that, however they may change over time, are recognisably me – in my becoming, my unfolding, everything is gift.

In silence, I can hear myself becoming, breath by breath, and I know that there is a source beyond my physical presence, far beyond my scrabbling thoughts, from which I appear to become. Obviously, it is being. I am, so inevitably it is in the ground of that (and all) being that I am held, and unrolled, moment by moment. I cannot fall out of what is. This is so perfectly natural that it lifts away the alienation of my self from its true home, and the anxiety of what I might be. If I am so unfolded, then the unfolding itself is what I am, as is its ground. As Paul wrote, “Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3.11)

To realise this, of course, is itself a kind of death: the death of the individual me, the death of any dream of being the master of my soul. The death, in fact, of my soul itself as separate, over against an alien world. “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” said Paul in the same letter (Colossians 3.3).

This incompleteness, this lack of a separated self, is of course at the heart of the Gospel. Richard Rohr seems to suggest that it underlies what he calls “the spirituality of imperfection.” As he says,
The real moral goals of the Gospel—loving enemies, caring for the powerless, overlooking personal offenses, living simply, eschewing riches—can only be achieved through surrender and participation. These have often been ignored or minimized, even though they were clearly Jesus’ major points. We cannot take credit for these virtues; we can only thank God for them: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory because of your mercy and faithfulness” (Psalm 115:1).
The love that is our becoming shows itself as the mercy of God in all that unfolds: “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.” (Romans 8.28)

Our accepting our utter dependence upon and oneness with the God who gives us being is precisely the “surrender and participation” of which Rohr writes. Only this way can that mercy that Christ is flow through us, in prayer and deed, to the world’s pain.

[Reposted from my other blog, Silent Assemblies]

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.