Friday, June 30, 2006

Back again!

Another of my long lacunae, I'm afraid... we've been doing major house tidyings and so forth, and preparing for the village fĂȘte one weekend and the church fĂȘte the next! One way or another I just haven't got to my desk more than to check emails...

We've planted a few new plants in the garden - a couple of Buddleias, a red shamrock, a couple of Osteospermums - and repopulated the planters and tubs. Should've done all this ages ago, but our hearts weren't in it in the early spring. Somehow we're coming back into bloom ourselves now - Jan especially is blinking in the light like a woman on a train that's just emerged from a long tunnel. I feel like dancing to see her - but all I seem to manage is to be grumpy about all this house rearrangement and so on. I guess I'm a bit like a cat in that respect - things may not be perfect, but I hate 'em being shook up...

Strange, I seem somehow to cope better - more graciously anyway - with adversity than I do with blessing. Maybe I feel I know what's coming with adversity!

I've finally managed to arrange a retreat - going away for 8 days at Compton Durville at the end of July. Somehow I guess I need silence and stillness like a plant needs water, and so much has happened over the last year, or less than a year, that the need has become acute, just to allow things to settle out if nothing else. Do pray that nothing will happen to prevent my going, and that Jan will be well enough that I can leave her without worrying!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Compassionate time...

As so often, I've been thinking about the relationship between contemplative prayer and what people sometimes call "real" prayer - i.e. intercessory or petitionary prayer - and what any of that has to say to circumstances like the Sand Creek Massacre, which Jan has just finished watching dramatised in Soldier Blue. I couldn't watch.

Simon Barrington Ward, in his superb book on The Jesus Prayer, says, "the whole prayer becomes an intercession. Soon, I find that I am no longer praying just for myself, but when I say 'have mercy on me, a sinner' I find that 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. The macrocosm of the world and the microcosm of my own heart look curiously similar and become part of each other. I am in those for whom I would pray and they are in me - Every petition of the prayer becomes a bringing of all into the presence and the love of God."

This of course is the essence of Michael Ramsey's famous remark that contemplative prayer "means essentially our being with God, putting ourselves in his presence... wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart."

Merton said, "The contemplative life must provide an area, a space of liberty, of silence, in which possibilities are allowed to surface and new choices – beyond routine choice – become manifest. It should create a new experience of time, not as stopgap, stillness, but as "temps vierge" – not a blank to be filled or an untouched space to be conquered and violated, but a space which can enjoy its own potentialities and hopes – and its own presence to itself. One’s own time. But not dominated by one’s own ego and its demands. Hence open to others – compassionate time, rooted in the sense of common illusion and in criticism of it." (The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton (New Directions Publishing Corp. New York, 1975) pp 117, 177)

We in our generation are all too often in danger of crating a false dichotomy between what we perceive as different kinds of prayer. But I think this is more a semantic or else a cultural thing than anything rooted in spiritual reality. I know some within the evangelical community have a deep distrust of contemplative prayer that is rooted in an assumed association with Buddhist and Hindu methods of meditation. Of course there are methodological parallels; but to say that they are effectively the same thing is to say that Salvador Dali is essentially the same as Raphael because they both used certain materials and techniques. Even the most thoroughly Eastern-influenced Christian writer on prayer knows perfectly well that for the Christian prayer is to do with God or it is nothing.

Now, given that prayer is rooted in the belief that the finite can actually communicate with the infinite, and that the infinite is interested in communicating with the finite, then it is odd to assume that such communication must be confined to plain English (or whatever is the pray-er's native language) - or indeed to words at all. After all, doesn't St Paul say that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." (Romans 8:26)? We are very familiar in our own time with many different forms of communication other than the verbal, so why should we be puzzled that it is the same with God?

The closer we draw to God, the more aware we are of the beautiful signs of his hand in all that he has made, the more we come to know his love and his mercy and his purity, the harder it for us to bear the fallenness of creation. Paul again: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved..." Romans 8:22-24. Our contemplation cannot be selfish, self-absorbed - for the closer we are to God, the more our hearts are broken for the suffering, for women, for men, children, even the smallest of the animals, and we come to see their pain and their degradation mirrored in our own lives. So our contemplation becomes intercession - and as we see the mercy and the grace of God in made visible in Christ and at work in the world by his Spirit, so our wonder and our love turns to contemplation, and all our crying returns to, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner..."

Sunday, June 18, 2006

God is good...

Over this past week God's blessings and his mercy have been so clear... The details I can't go into one by one, and in any case they probably wouldn't make much sense to anyone else - but there has been such a sense of his "steadfast love" after all the difficulties of the winter. So many things in our lives are coming straight and clear now - he really is "making all things new."

The weather goes on and on bringing out the beauty of this place we live in. This morning is all hazy sunshine and a kind of sheen of light on the leaves like the skin of water on stones in a stream. This light seemed to follow everyone this morning into church - there weren't many of us today, with people away on holiday - but there really was such a clear sense of our being "one body, because we all share in the one bread." Communion was a tangible thing, as though the sacrament itself became visible over us all like that light on the leaves, and for those few moments we were transfigured, like people on the steps of Heaven...

Monday, June 12, 2006

About the Sacred Feminine & such things...

I just found this wonderful post, "Sacred Feminine?" on OTRgirl's fine blog. What she says about Mary Magdalene bears quoting in full:
Dan Brown maintains that by Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene and having a child with her he was elevating women. Frankly what Jesus really did for Mary was much more radical. He saw her as a person. He didn’t have to have sex with her, marry her, or have children with her for her to be valuable. He instead recognized her intrinsic worth. In most societies around the world and throughout history, that has not been true. Even now in the US most of my single women friends are agonizing about still being single. Without anyone saying it, there’s a sense that something is ‘wrong’ with them. If they were smarter, nicer, prettier, more willing to compromise, etc. surely they’d be married by now. But Jesus values women for themselves. They were part of the group of disciples as unmarried women. He let himself be touched in public by an ‘unclean’ woman (who wept over his feet, dried them with her—unbound=prostitute—hair, and anointed his feet with perfume). His masculinity didn’t need a woman for validation and he valued the feminine in woman without needing to possess her.
OTRgirl is so strong and clear about this, that I was groping after in posts like "Upside Down..." and "A special deformity of conscience?" She's nailed the DaVinci Code thing good and proper, and made a superb point about one of my favourite Gospel people in one hit. Stunning stuff!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Sunshine and things...

Listening to Clannad, to Maire Brennan's extraordinary voice, that is more joyful and more tragic than anyone's I know. Suddenly wanting to be in Ireland again. There are bits of me that belong to that beautiful broken land and that are never quite whole unless I'm there. But I've never seriously considered moving there, somehow. Odd creature I am, I think...

I am going to have to do something about this growing obsession with soundscapes - strange thing for a guitarist to get into, unless they happen, like Steve Hillage, to stumble across their very own Miquette Giraudy! Very hard to do anything in this territory without keyboards...

Dorset is wonderful in the sunshine - there's a clear golden light over everything, and the air is heavy with the scent of flowers, except when a light sea breezes springs up to bring the freshness back. Behind the house the bank of the old chalk-pit rises up in solid wall of green, inhabited by solitary warblers and little families of titmice... God is very good, and, "Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made." (Romans 1:20) Not too hard to understand or see on a day like today!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Abelard, Eckhart and Keats

This passage came up this evening at our LPA course, strangely, since it is for the third or fourth time I have stumbled across it recently:

From somewhere near them in the words a cry rose, a thin cry, of such intolerable anguish that Abelard turned dizzy on his feet, and caught at the wall of the hut. "It's a child's voice," he said.

Thibault had gone outside. The cry came again. "A rabbit," said Thibault. He listened. "It'll be in a trap. Hugh told me he was putting them down."

"O God," Abelard muttered. "Let it die quickly."

But the cry came yet again. He plunged through a thicket of hornbeam. "Watch out," said Thibault, thrusting past him. "The trap might take the hand off you."

The rabbit stopped shrieking when they stooped over it, either from exhaustion, or in some last extremity of fear. Thibault held the teeth of the trap apart, and Abelard gathered up the little creature in his hands. It lay for a moment breathing quickly, then in some blind recognition of the kindness that had met it at the last, the small head thrust and nestled against his arm, and it died.

It was that last confiding thrust that broke Abelard's heart. He looked down at the little draggled body, his mouth shaking. "Thibault," he said, "do you think there is a God at all? Whatever has come to me, I earned it. But what did this one do?"

Thibault nodded.

"I know," he said. "Only, I think God is in it too."

Abelard looked up sharply.

"In it? Do you mean that it makes him suffer, the way it does us?"

Again Thibault nodded.

"Then why doesn't he stop it?"

"I don't know," said Thibault. "Unless it's like the prodigal son. I suppose the father could have kept him at home against his will. But what would have been the use? All this," he stroked the limp body, "is because of us. But all the time God suffers. More than we do."

Abelard looked at him, perplexed. "Thibault, do you mean Calvary?"

Thibault shook his head. "That was only a piece of it--the piece that we saw--in time. Like that." He pointed to a fallen tree beside them, sawn through the middle. "That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across. That is what Christ's life was; the bit of God that we saw. And we think God is like that, because Christ was like that, kind, and forgiving sins and healing people. We think God is like that forever, because it happened once, with Christ. But not the pain. Not the agony at the last. We think that stopped."

Abelard looked at him, the blunt nose and the wide mouth, the honest troubled eyes. He could have knelt before him.

"Then, Thibault," he said slowly, "you think that all this," he looked down at the little quiet body in his arms, "all the pain of the world, was Christ's cross?"

"God's cross," said Thibault. "And it goes on."

From Peter Abelard
by Helen Waddell
It brings me back once again to the thought that we, if we are truly to follow Christ, to become like him, then there is this terrible identification, this empathy, in all the full sense of the word.

Merriam Webster's Medical Dictionary defines empathy like this:
the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner...
but it's deeper than that. John Keats spoke famously of "negative capability" - by which he seemed to mean not only the ability to open oneself to experience (including, crucially, others' experience) but also to remain within that experience, or knowledge, without attempting to reduce it to intellectually manageable proportions - or in Keats' own words: "that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason."

Only so can we truly respond to the quality that Meister Eckhart just called istigkeit, is-ness... Negative capability is a kind of empathy "which permits us simply to let things be in whatever may be their uncertainty and their mystery." (Nathan Scott)

But don't imagine - as I think Eckhart's contemporary detractors imagined - that this implies a kind of detachment, a cold withdrawal from the world and the suffering creatures that inhabit it. In 1985 the Pope, John Paul II, said: "Did not Eckhart teach his disciples: 'All that God asks you most pressingly is to go out of yourself - and let God be God in you'? One could think that, in separating himself from creatures, the mystic leaves his brothers, humanity, behind. The same Eckhart affirms that, on the contrary, the mystic is marvellously present to them on the only level where he can truly reach them, that is in God."

Paul said, " have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (Colossians 3:3)

Eckhart makes the vital link between Abelard and Keats - that as we are open uncritically to our created sisters and brothers, human and otherwise, we are able as Christians to be open in Christ, and that this openness is in itself somehow redemptive, as we simply walk with them through the dark valley, bearing the light of Christ in our own hearts.

From this comes true prayer, for it is only in this condition of openness to suffering in Christ that we are able to pray for people and situations as they are rather than as we conceive them to be, or as we assume they ought to be.

I want to finish with a quote I've mentioned before, from Br. Ramon SSF, where he explains this kind of prayer better than anyone I know:

We have seen that the Jesus Prayer involves body, mind and spirit... The cosmic nature of the Prayer means that the believer lives as a human being in solidarity with all other human beings, and with the animal creation, together with the whole created order (the cosmos). All this is drawn into and affected by the Prayer. One person's prayers send out vibrations and reverberations that increase the power of the divine Love in the cosmos.

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... 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 prayers and supplications...' [Ephesians 6:18]

From Praying the Jesus Prayer by Br Ramon SSF (Basingstoke: Marshall Pickering, 1988) Page 26.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Summer (not) in the City

The weather here has been just plain wonderful - warm, bright, sunny but just a little sea breeze to stop it getting stifling. The kids are out playing football everywhere, happy dogs chasing after them, and Figgy the cat sits on the warm earth under the Ceanothus bushes, coming in to cool off covered in pollen and smelling of honey.

Dear Betty died today, a peaceful end to her long battle with cancer. Well into her seventies, she was one of the greatest enthusiasts for Vineyard-style worship (so long as it wasn't too loud) and so sure of God's love for her, and for his church. We'll miss her. The whole village will. She's happy now, of that I'm completely certain, no more worries, no more pain. She'll find her towel laid out by the crystal sea, and an end to tears forever.

God's love is stronger even than death. "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose... Who will separate us from the love of Christ? ...For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:28-39)

The sun goes on shining.

I sometimes wonder if our love of the sun, and our corresponding depression when we are deprived of it for long, isn't some kind of premonition of that time when "the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb." (Revelation 21:23). We are made to walk in the light, and our hearts are sick till that day when the light of the world, and of all worlds, will shine for us always, with no clouds, no distorting mirror, no need to shield our eyes - for "then [we] will know fully, even as [we] have been fully known." (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Monday, June 05, 2006

Some more reflections on Merton... love another as a person we must begin by granting him his own
autonomy and identity as a person. We have to love him for what he
is in himself, and not for what he is to us. We have to love him for
his own good, not for the good we get out of him. And this is
impossible unless we are capable of a love which ‘transforms’ us,
so to speak, into the other person, making us able to see things a he
sees them, love what he loves, experience the deeper realities of his
own life as if they were our own. Without sacrifice, such a
transformation is utterly impossible. But unless we are capable of
this kind of transformation ‘into the other’ while remaining
ourselves, we are not yet capable of a fully human existence.

From Disputed Questions by Thomas Merton
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, New York, 1960) Page 104.

This is a very deep thing Merton is saying here, and it has huge implications not only for pastoral care, but also for the life of prayer. To pray for someone is to love them, in a way just as practical as feeding them or clothing them or listening to them. But if our love is to reach the depths of identification Merton is hinting at here, then our prayer may look very different from the conventional intercessory model.

On the home page of The Mercy Site I quote Michael Ramsey: "Contemplation is for all Christians... [It] means essentially our being with God, putting ourselves in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart."

In order to love, to pray, like this we need to become entirely vulnerable to the world, defenceless, without keeping ourselves back from the sometimes unbearable reality confronting us. But we don't, truly we don't, need to be able accurately to delineate the problem, sociologically, medically, economically, politically... still less do we need to be able to dream up an answer to it. God knows all about the problem, far more intimately and accurately than we ever could, and he, the all-wise God, knows how to bring his mercy to bear on it. No, what he needs from us is our love - a love that cares enough to risk breaking our hearts for those who suffer, as Jesus was broken for us.

We need to be open to the pain of creation, but open in and with God. Such openness in our own strength might overwhelm our minds and hearts - but to be open in Christ, through the Spirit, is the most redemptive act we as humans are capable of. And we are all capable of it. It doesn't require a degree, any special aptitude, rigorous training - it just needs love.

Mea culpa!

It's been far too long since I posted anything... Really have kept meaning to, but there's been so much going on, and when I've had the time my head's been going in all kinds of directions.


I'll try and get into the habit of posting at least someting regularly - it's not fair to have a blog and leave it unattended, I always think.

Looking back to my last post on May 15th, I should record that I finally said, "yes" and have begun the offical Lay Pastoral Assistant training. Feels like a huge step, somehow. I don't think it's the job itself - and in our church it's very much what you make it, so I can major on prayer rather than visiting if that's where the Lord puts me (it usually is!) - but more that it's a kind of irrevocable commitment to work within the Anglican church  from now on. Well it feels irrevocable. It also feels incredibly right. I have less doubt than I've had about anything since beginning the long Franciscan trail. God has finally nailed me, I think, and so here I shall stay, nailed...

There's a lot to think about. I do know that coming here to Wool, Jan and I both felt so strongly that God was calling us to serve this community, to work here, in this and the surrounding villages, and despite some pretty strong human nudges away from here, nothing has changed that. I've felt too, increasingly strongly, that one of the real challenges to the chuch in England at the moment is ministering to the rural community, and that the CofE is probably the only church in a position to do so. I've been praying about this for years now - so I can't really complain if God has taken me at my word, and decided to make me a bit of the answer to my own prayers!

More of this later - I need to go and put some rice on to boil...