Sunday, January 19, 2020

This morning in the silence...

This morning in the silence I was struck by the fact that - although I often feel that I struggle with maintaining a little life of prayer and "keeping low" in what some would describe as the privilege of my life here in the quiet west country - in many ways this is no more than our human susceptibility to what is traditionally called temptation. We are frail, temporary creatures, and we react in often very predictable ways to our own circumstances.

When we find ourselves in hardship, whether through poverty, ill-health or any other trouble, we tend towards bitterness, which keeps us from appreciating, or even seeing, let alone gratitude for, God's blessings; though admittedly they may be hidden and obscure, "treasures of darkness" (Isaiah 45.3 NRSV).

When we find ourselves living peaceful lives of relative comfort (what the Bible often refers to as "prosperity", rather  than the Fortune 500 variety!) we tend towards complacency, as though we could somehow take credit for our good fortune - a point of view that a sudden illness will quickly correct. They are God's blessings anyway, and he knows why he has given them to us for a while.

It's coming to seem to me that all we can do is grow where we are planted (1 Corinthians 7.17-24) and remain there to grow the best fruit we can.*

George Fox, as so often, has a word for this:
Keep in the wisdom of God that spreads over all the earth, the wisdom of the creation, that is pure. Live in it; that is the word of the Lord God to you all, do not abuse it; and keep down and low; and take heed of false joys that will change. (Qfp 19.32)
as does the Psalmist:
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,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
    from this time on and forevermore.  
(Psalm 131)
* Unless indeed we are direct victims of abuse or injustice, in which case God's call is presumably to come out of there, and our duty to follow; but that is another story.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Lord, hear my voice...

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
    Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
    to the voice of my supplications! 
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
    Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
    so that you may be revered. 
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
    more than those who watch for the morning,
    more than those who watch for the morning. 
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
    For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
    and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
    from all its iniquities.
Psalm 130

This last week or more I have been quite unwell, with a sudden, painful and exhausting illness that has left me incapable of anything useful at all really. (I'm getting rather better now - not to worry!) Not for the first time I was struck that, above all, physical pain is boring. It hoards for itself all one's energy and attention, and gives nothing back. Prayer of a sort is possible, entirely essential, yet even the attention required for something so simple as the Jesus Prayer is recaptured by the pain by the simple expedient of increasing, or at least appearing to increase.

Now, I’m writing this not to complain - others have far worse to contend with, over far longer timescales, which must bring their own perspective - but simply as a heads-up, and to myself, a reminder. Physical pain is not the worst thing, far from it, but it is appallingly effective at capturing the limelight, especially when it manages to prevent sleep as well, and so its ally exhaustion makes impossible even the last shreds of resolve.

The paradox of the title of this post from Psalm 130 is that a voice is really what one doesn't seem to have at times like these. Not a physical voice, or the sort of voice usually associated with mental prayer. But there is something, something that calls out "of the depths", and there is a piece of oneself, far down, that holds onto the Lord, and even onto his remembered word, through everything. The problem is, I find, becoming and remaining conscious of that - or wanting to, and being unable.

Somehow I find a holding cross does help the soul to wait, even when the mind can't make sense of anything much at all. This little piece of olive wood (mine came from the groves around the Mount of Olives many years ago) is nothing in itself, but it seems to make a kind of bridge over this period of uselessness, and to connect in the most healing way possible with our Lord's own suffering. I can't speak more of this: the conscious mind is aware only of flickering shadows, but the heart knows, and it knows what that bit of wood means. And that is enough.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Here, Now

The purity is a question of
names. We are here to utter them. This is
a prayer. I have it now between my
teeth and my eyes, on my forehead. Know
the names. It is as simple as the purity
of sentiment: it is as simple
as that.

(JH Prynne, from Kitchen Poems)
"To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it." (Revelation 2.17)

The door of the year, this long year, is closing now. What we are called matters.

Just now, in the early evening, it is quiet here, the lights through the trees hardly disturbing the first hours of dark, the air cold now, not even moving the tracery of bare twigs across from the window.

"Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices."
(Psalm 37.7)

How the heart cries for stillness, in the clamour of obligation and rebuttal; and yet stillness is given, inside each moment. Only now is the divine touchable, and now, as if the instant were bread, and wine, in the space between breathing.

Mercy, the mercy that is Christ with us, can only rest on what actually is, here, now, in the moment given.
Quick now, here, now, always-
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

(TS Eliot, from Four Quartets)

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Abide in the Shadow

Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don’t agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ.

(CS Lewis, Letters to Malcolm)
Therefore my spirit faints within me;
    my heart within me is appalled.

I remember the days of old,
    I think about all your deeds,
    I meditate on the works of your hands.
I stretch out my hands to you;
    my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.
Answer me quickly, O Lord;
    my spirit fails.

(Psalm 143.4-7)
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your word....

It was good for me to be afflicted
so that I might learn your decrees.

(Psalm 119.67, 71 NIV)
We spend much of our lives, it seems to me, avoiding pain. It can't be done. It can't actually be done with emotional pain, I have discovered, any more than it can with physical pain. But, strangely, that's OK.


Mostly, severe, persistent pain and anxiety arise from things we cannot change. Little things, like the pain of sitting too long in one place, or thinking of something unpleasant that we saw on the news, can be changed easily enough, by moving, or by thinking of something else. But grief, loss and arthritis are of sterner stuff.

But there is one thing we can do: keep still. Abide, in the words of Psalm 91, in the shadow of the almighty. "To abide is to bear or to endure. The Psalms are calling us to abide in the midst of anxiety and fear by remembering God’s past action and awaiting God’s future action." (Psalms: Anxiety and Fear - Warren Truesdale)

Affliction, like pain, and death, comes to us all, however fortunate or unfortunate we may be in the world's eyes. Only keep still, and wait. Remember, as the psalmist did in Psalm 119, how God's love has endured, how he has brought good of harm, joy out of grief (Romans 8.28) in the past even of our own lives. Wait for the Lord; be still and wait for the Lord (Psalm 27.14, Psalms 37.7).

Strangely, I have come to be so grateful for these "afflictions", physical and spiritual. There is more peace than we can understand in simply being still, in sitting with God in prayer, sitting with what is, and letting God do what God does; what he has done supremely on the cross, in the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. "Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4.5-7)

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas morning

Many years ago I discovered this wonderful quote from G. K. Chesterton's The Spirit of Christmas, but I had forgotten it till just now.

This was written amid fields of snow within a few days of Christmas. And when I last saw snow it was within a few miles of Bethlehem. The coincidence will serve as a symbol of something I have noticed all my life, although it is not very easy to sum up. It is generally the romantic thing that turns out to be the real thing under the extreme test of realism. It is the skeptical and even rational legend that turns out to be entirely legendary.

Everything I had been taught or told let me to regard snow in Bethlehem as a paradox, like snow in Egypt. Every rumour of realism, every indirect form of rationalism, every scientific opinion taken on authority and at third hand, had led me to regard the country where Christ was born solely as a semi-tropical place with nothing but palm tree and parasols.

It was only when I actually looked at it that it looked exactly like a Christmas card.

Chesterton is right: "It is generally the romantic thing that turns out to be the real thing under the extreme test of realism. It is the skeptical and even rational legend that turns out to be entirely legendary." It is only when we allow our intellects to be divorced from our hearts that we truly lose touch with reality; only when we forget that the best stories are really true that our lives become a fiction...

A very happy Christmas, everyone, and may the love of Christ fill your hearts to overflowing today and always!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

O Virgo virginum

O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before you was any like you, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel at me?
The thing which you behold is a divine mystery.

(Alternative Antiphon in English Medieval usage, up to and including the New English Hymnal)

O holy Virgin, Mother of our Lord, Theotokos, God-bearer, wondering maid among the dreaming daughters of an occupied city, waiting in the mystery you carry - pray for us!

Monday, December 23, 2019

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come to save us, O Lord our God.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7.14 NIV)
O come, Lord Jesus, and heal all that is so broken. Restore the places long desolate; make light again the broken hearts. What we cannot understand, give us grace to live. Where we dream of justice, let your judgement bring us mercy.