Friday, November 24, 2006

You say it's your birthday...

You say it's your birthday -
It's my birthday too, yeah.
They say it's your birthday -
We're gonna have a good time.
I'm glad it's your birthday -
Happy birthday to you.

Yes we're going to a party party
Yes we're going to a party party
Yes we're going to a party party.

I would like you to dance - Birthday
Take a cha-cha-cha-chance - Birthday
I would like you to dance - Birthday

You say it's your birthday -
Well it's my birthday too, yeah.
You say it's your birthday -
We're gonna have a good time.
I'm glad it's your birthday -
Happy birthday to you.

John Lennon & Paul McCartney

As a little boy I never realised other people had the same birthday as me, and it came as quite a shock when I discovered someone who did! Now, of course, I realise I share a birthday with, among other people, Elvis Ramone, Ian Botham, Edgar Meyer, Donald Duck Dunn, Russell Watson and John Squire, not to mention my dear friend George Crewe. I hope each of you who shares our birthday has a great one, blessed and not a little crazy, as the best birthdays should always be...

The Purpose of Discipline - a birthday meditation...

The purpose of discipline is, however, to make us critically aware of the limitations of the very language of the spiritual life and of ideas about that life. If, on an elementary level, discipline makes us critical of sham values in social life (for example, it makes us realize experientially that happiness is not to be found in the usual rituals of consumption in an affluent society), on a higher level it reveals to us the limitations of formalistic and crude spiritual ideas. Discipline develops our critical insight and shows us the inadequacy of what we had previously accepted as valid in our religious and spiritual lives. It enables us to abandon and to discard as irrelevant certain kinds of experience which, in the past, meant a great deal to us. It makes us see that what previously served as real "inspiration" has now become a worn-out routine and that we must go on to something else. It gives us the courage to face the risk and the anguish of the break with our previous level of experience. It enables us, in the language of St. John of the Cross, to face the Dark Night in full awareness of our need to be stripped of what formerly gratified and helped us.

Thomas Merton. "Renewal and Discipline" in Contemplation in A World of Action
(New York, Doubleday and Company, Inc.): pp 128-129

I love this passage of Merton's. We are always so unwilling to recognise "the inadequacy of what we had previously accepted as valid in our religious and spiritual lives," especially in the broadly "evangelical" areas of the church. There is such (understandable) suspicion of opening ourselves to new things. It could be seen in some of the harsher reactions to the "Toronto Blessing" back in '94, and it can be seen today in some of the reactions to changes God is bringing about in the Anglican Communion. But Merton is talking about the interior life of the individual, and it's not fair to shanghai his thoughts to support my own ecclesiological maunderings!

Of course it's scary, allowing God to change us, and reveal to us the hidden things of the Spirit. We wonder if we are hearing right, or if we are being misled by the enemy. We try to test things against Scripture (1 John 4:1) and yet we still feel unsure that beneath us is solid
ground. It's here that the discipline God helped us put in place will come to help us.

I know myself that all the things that have happened over the extraordinary year since my last birthday, the things God has shown me that I'd spent years trying to avoid looking at, the places I'd run from years ago that God has brought me back to revisit, would have been altogether more than I could have handled had it not been for the discipline God provided through the Franciscan Third Order. The little daily facts of the Office, of regular self-examination and of wise and loving spiritual direction, kept me (relatively) sane, and far more importantly, very close to God, at times when I might otherwise simply have lost it.

The track 'The Canal' on the Eremos site tries to express some of this, where the underlying thread of the music, the tonal centre, holds despite the darkness and uncertainty of form, till
finally the light breaks through. "Just as the sun's rays are sometimes hidden from the earth by thick cloud, so for a while a person may be deprived of spiritual comfort and of grace's brightness... Then, all of a sudden, without that person being aware, it is all given back. Just as the surface of the earth rejoices at the rays of the sun when they break through the clouds, so the words of prayer are able to break through..." (St Isaac of Nineveh, Homilies, 13.)

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Lilac and things like that...

Following a link from LutheranChik's excellent blog, I found this lovely print by Mary Azarian, in her Thoreau series.

I don't know what it is, but there's something about deserted buildings where there are still signs of their human habitation - Thoreau's lilac, various kitchen garden remnants (I once found leeks flowering in the garden of a derelict shepherd's cottage in the Welsh mountains) bits of old farming tackle, marbles, the rusted wheel of a doll's pram - that just breaks my heart.

I can't help thinking of the people who lived there, their lives, loves, hopes and dreams, and how once they took delight in what is now ruined. I just choke up thinking about it, and I feel so full of helpless love for these folk I've never met.

I guess that's one thing about God's having given us prayer. It's impossible to do anything, or even to imagine what might be done, but I can pray. Pray God's mercy, his blessing, on the descendants of these forgotten people; pray that their passing was peaceful, at the end of a life full of joy and fulfilment. Pray that somehow they may know that they are still loved, if only in a stranger's puzzled heart...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Prayer does not blind us...

Prayer does not blind us to the world, but it transforms our vision of the world, and makes us see it, all men, and all the history of mankind, in the light of God. To pray "in spirit and in truth" enables us to enter into contact with that infinite love, that inscrutable freedom which is at work behind the complexities and intricacies of human existence.

Thomas Merton: Contemplative Prayer, 1969, Herder and Herder

People of prayer from the more 'Evangelical' streams of the church are occasionally suspicious of contemplative prayer. Sometimes this is because they mistakenly confuse it with mantric forms of meditation, such are are practised by followers of TM, but often it's because they feel it is an escape from the world, a turning inward, away from the pain and the confusion of a broken creation. But Merton and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, are at one on this. You'll recall the quote from Ramsey I used on the index page of The Mercy Site:

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.

Contemplative prayer brings us closer than ever to the inconsolable pain of our fellow mortals, human and animal; unbearably close, closer than empathy, something close to the very compassion of God. This would be unbearable, more than the human mind or heart could withstand, if it were not for the fact that in prayer, in contemplative prayer particularly, we are enabled to bring this pain and need into God's very presence - by his grace and mercy in Jesus, who has opened the way for us (Hebrews 10:19ff) - to him who heals all things, renews all things (Revelation 21:5) and who will ultimately "be their shepherd, and... guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." (Rev. 7:17) We can safely put all things into his nail-pierced hands, and know peace, for in him, "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well," as another contemplative, Julian of Norwich, once wrote.