Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Receiving the gift of God's mercy...

Lent is a preparation to rejoice in God’s love. And this preparation consists in receiving the gift of God’s mercy - a gift which we receive insofar as we open our hearts to it, casting out what cannot remain in the same room with mercy.

Thomas Merton. Seasons of Celebration. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950: p. 116

"Receiving the gift of God's mercy" - this reminds me so much of the secret working of the Jesus Prayer, how it softly works its transformations in the praying heart, without our even being aware that it's happening. All we know is that we pray the Prayer as best we can; and then one day we wake up, and we realise we have changed. Maybe we have changed only subtly - or maybe a deep and radical shift has come over us, and everything is different. We don't know how it happened. It is only the gift of God's mercy, that we had been praying for all this time...

"The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace; all things are there." St. Macarius, The Homilies.

"We don't say the Jesus Prayer, or enter wordless contemplation, to get 'some benefit.' We don't pray to reduce our stress, or strengthen our immune system, or lose weight, or add years to our life. On the contrary, we enter prayer to follow Christ, to become open to Him. His way is the Way of the Cross." Albert S Rossi. Saying the Jesus Prayer. St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Merton - a suitable thought for Lent?

The Holy Spirit never asks us to renounce anything without offering us something much higher and much more perfect in return. Self-chastisement for its own sake has no place in Christianity. The function of self-denial is to lead to a positive increase of spiritual energy and life. The Christian dies, not merely in order to die, but in order to live...

Seasons of Celebration [SC]. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950. p. 130.

Merton has put his finger on the fundamental agreement between the penitential understanding of Lent, and the life-affirming understanding of the season. It's like CS Lewis' picture of the demon of lust, having been killed by the angel, being transformed into a glorious, and rideable, stallion. (The Great Divorce Bles, 1946; Fount, 1977. pp. 89 ff) But Lewis' demonised ghost suffered when its familiar was killed, and we shouldn't think that the pain of that death will be more bearable in view of the life to follow - cf. Mark 8:34. I imagine it's a bit like trying to explain to a cow why she must have her feet trimmed, or to a little boy why he has to go to the dentist...

Friday, February 23, 2007

It's an odd thing, Lent...

It's an odd thing, but there really does seem to be "something in " the penitential quality of Lent. I know people sometimes say these days that they feel there's something life-denying about the idea of a penitential season anyway, and that it should be replaced with a celebration of being human, or something to that effect. I've plenty of sympathy with them: after all, we are fully human, as Jesus himself was in his time on earth, and he carries that humanity with him into the risen life he calls us into. His mercy is upon our humanity and our frailty, not on some perfected, bloodless, alchemical essence; and to pretend otherwise tends towards a very warped and jaundiced view of what it is to be human.

But - and it's a big but - the humanity we all inhabit, and on which Jesus' mercy rests, is a fallen, broken humanity this side of heaven, and different in many ways from the life we shall know with him in glory. And we need to recognise that. We need to truly take it on board, and look our own fallenness straight in the eye, and say, "Yes, that's me. It always has been, and without your grace, my Lord, it always would be."

Oh God, it hurts. It's so degrading, looking at the mess inside the pleasant, wholesome exterior. Come on, it is a mess. No good pretending otherwise.

Of course we are capable of good, and love, and self-sacrifice - increasingly so, as the pure water of the Spirit cleanses us, and the good leaven of Christ works its way through out dough. But we'll always let ourselves down, we'll always let him down, all the way to our dying day.

I used to think Paul was being a bit hypocritical, when he wrote in 1 Timothy 1.15: "The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the foremost." But he's right, and it seems to me the further I go, the longer I go on trying to follow my Lord, the more I realise just how much mess there is still in me. In all of us, yes - but that doesn't lessen or somehow defuse that fact that it is there in me.

And this is what I think Lent is about - this Lent anyway, for me. If God is ever to do anything with me, I have to look straight at who I really am: not who I'd like to be, nor who I hope you might believe me to be, but who I actually am. And then there might be something approaching solid ground...

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ash Wednesday

Yes, I know today's Thursday - I just couldn't write about yesterday while it was still yesterday, for some reason.

Our morning service was one of those extraordinary times when you know God's doing huge things beneath the surface, but you can't see clearly what he's doing. Just huge slow upwellings of the Spirit, like the surface indications of powerful movements beneath the surface of deep water.

Reading Psalm 51 together always brings me to tears - so much so that I could hardly read the printed words, and I sat there in the choir stalls sniffing helplessly. Being such a good (read 'bald') target, I got a specially good mark of ashes, and some very funny looks on the way home... The beginnings of seasonal humility...?

I'll try and write some more tomorrow... for now I'm sort of haunted by shreds of Eliot's poem, and I find it hard to find my own words, "about the centre of the silent Word..."

Monday, February 12, 2007

Our true context

Only when we see ourselves in our true human context, as members of a race which is intended to be one organism and "one body," will we begin to understand the positive importance not only of the successes but of the failures and accidents in our lives. My successes are not my own. The way to them was prepared by others. The fruit of my labors is not my own: for I am preparing the way for the achievements of another. Nor are my failures my own. They may spring from the failure of another, but they are also compensated for by another’s achievement. Therefore the meaning of my life is not to be looked for merely in the sum total of my achievements. It is seen only in the complete integration of my achievements and failures with the achievements and failures of my own generation, and society, and time. It is seen, above all, in my integration in the mystery of Christ.

From: No Man Is An Island. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company

I'm not sure exactly why, but I found this really encouraging - perhaps it's something to do with the bit about "It is seen, above all, in my integration in the mystery of Christ..." The idea that our failures, as much as our successes, are all caught up in that mysterious intentionality is just amazing... Romans 8:28 applying to what we stuff up, as much as it does to what misfortunes may happen to us!

Friday, February 09, 2007

If you belonged to the world...

If I had no choice about the age in which I was to live, I nevertheless have a choice about the attitude I take and about the way and the extent of my participation in its living ongoing events. To choose the world is not then merely a pious admission that the world is acceptable because it comes from the hand of God. It is first of all an acceptance of a task and a vocation in the world, in history and in time. In my time, which is the present. To choose the world is to choose to do the work I am capable of doing, in collaboration with my brother and sister, to make the world better, more free, more just, more liveable, more human. And it has now become transparently obvious that mere automatic "rejection of the world" and "contempt for the world" is in fact not a choice but the evasion of choice. The man, who pretends that he can turn his back on Auschwitz or Viet Nam, and act as if they were not there, is simply bluffing.

From: Contemplation in A World of Action. NY: Doubleday and Company, 1971: 164-165

This is a terrifying quote, really, for someone like me - a man who likes a quiet life, is appalled by confrontation and violence, and just likes to live and let live. And yet our Lord didn't really offer the option of a quiet life. He said, "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also..." John 15:18-20 (NIV)

We cannot as Christians sit quietly on the sidelines while the world gets the next Dachau, the next Gulag, ready for action. Even if we know that our call is to the prayer place, and not to the physical barricades, we will have to bear the consequences. The emotional and spiritual consequences most certainly - but we can't forget either the old maxim that we must be prepared to be the answer - or part of the answer - to our own prayers. If we pray for someone to do or say something to stand up against evil, against our growing British surveillance society, for instance, we mustn't be too surprised if God says, in the words of the old National Lottery adverts, "It's you!"

And I shudder.

God, give me the grace to walk in your ways, always, please. Otherwise I'd run in my ways, right away from any such thing...

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Back again...

Sorry for more than a week without posting anything here - my PC became rather ill, and had to go in for a motherboard and processor transplant. Radical surgery indeed, and I've only just collected it today. I have to say it's pretty much like having a new machine inside the old casing - very nice!

It's been an interesting week - I've been thinking and praying, and reading J├╝rgen Moltmann - rather glad of the freedom from electronic distractions, even if it has been occasionally frustrating!

I'll write more tomorrow - it's getting late, and I'm only just getting to the end of the huge lump of (mostly pretty irrelevant) emails that had built up!