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..."

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