Monday, July 30, 2007

Sacred Meal

(A wonderful extract posted by Vicki K Black at Speaking to the Soul)

From very early times, human beings have shared meals together, and seen in such an act a symbol of fellowship, common life, common love. The sharing of food and fellowship, the drinking of wine in the atmosphere of warmth and joy, such activities are among the most important in life. It is not surprising therefore that at the heart of the worship and experience of God in Christian tradition is the activity of a meal, the Eucharist. Christian spirituality is of a eucharistic type, that is, it comes to see and know and even digest God within the framework of the liturgy of eating and drinking. It has thus the marks of an active and social experience, not those of a passive and private one. And both the involvement in action, and the social character of the experience, are of the essence, and not simply incidental aspects, of the Christian spiritual path. It is an experience of God which takes place within the context of an action involving movement, responses, manual acts, greetings of our fellow participants, the offering of gifts, the receiving of communion; and this action is the action of a community in which individuals are caught up. It is not therefore on the fringes of the common life, but at its centre, that Christian spirituality, even Christian contemplation, happens. ‘Now is the time for God to act’ as the Eastern liturgy says of the eucharistic action. To come to the sacred meal of the community is to expect a divine encounter, it is both to consume and be consumed.

From Experiencing God: Theology as Spirituality by Kenneth Leech (Harper and Row, 1985).

Merton on contemplation

As so often, Thomas Merton has the perfect follow-on from my last post... What Merton says about drugs could apply as well to any form of 'contemplative technique' practiced outside the framework of faith.

This is from the Merton Institute Newsletter:

'Contemplation is not a deepening of experience only, but a radical change in one's way of being and living, and the essence of this change is precisely a liberation from dependence on external means to external ends. Of course one may say that an opening of the "doors of perception" is not entirely "external" and yet it is a satisfaction for which one may develop a habitual need and on which one may become dependent. True contemplation delivers one from all such forms of dependence. In that sense it seems to me that a contemplative life that depends on the use of drugs is essentially different from one which implies liberation from all dependence on anything but freedom and divine grace. I realize that these few remarks do not answer the real question [about drugs and contemplation] but they express a doubt in my own mind.'

Thomas Merton. Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968: 217.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Meditation, Contemplation and Prayer

I was having a long conversation with a friend earlier today, about the nature of different sorts of prayer. What, he wanted to know, was the difference between contemplation and meditation, and how could we know whether we are doing anything useful by engaging in these things, or should we be concentrating on more 'useful' kinds of prayer?

I was very taken by his questions, somehow. He seemed to be speaking not only for himself but for so many Christians these days, who are puzzled by the relationship between the more widely known kinds of petition and intercession, and these strange new worlds of prayer.

I don't know if this is the place to go into this whole question in great depth, but the answers I tried to give my friend might be worth outlining here.

The Wikipedia article, Christian Meditation, is introduced with the following words, 'Christian meditation is meditation in a Christian context. The word meditation has come to have two different meanings: (1) continued, intent, focused thought; and (2) a state of quiet, intentionally unfocused, "contentless" awareness. This double meaning has contributed to misunderstanding and disagreement about the nature, role, and even the appropriateness of Christian meditation. Traditionally, the word meditation (meditatio) had the first meaning, and another word, contemplation (contemplatio) was used for the second. (These words, however, have nearly the reverse meanings in Eastern spiritual traditions, contributing to the confusion.)'

Meditation, then, in Christian practice, is concerned generally with discursive thought; contemplation, on the other hand, is concerned with its avoidance! I would personally take issue with the word 'contentless' in referring to Christian contemplation. Michael Ramsey, for instance said this, '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.' (Canterbury Pilgrim) It is, however, in itself wordless, as Paul explains in Romans 8.26-27: 'Likewise 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. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.'

The line blurs, of course, with prayers of repetition, whether the very simple, often single word, style taught by John Main, and employed as a fall-back (when pure contemplation falters) by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, or the more complex and definitely not contentless Jesus Prayer, 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' Here the words are used as a way into contemplation, a springboard as it were. Robert Llewlyn, in A Doorway to Silence (DLT, 1986), has the picture of a large, old pheasant crossing a wide lawn, where it ran along the grass, rising up to fly a few yards, then, tired, returning to earth to run a few more paces, and then repeating the performance. He points out that just as the pheasant had the good, solid earth to return to, we have the good, solid words of our prayer.

Llewlyn is referring in this book to the Rosary, which is another crossroads prayer. As prayed in its traditional form, involves prayers of repetition (the Hail Mary, the Lord's Prayer, the Gloria) underpinning discursive meditation on the 'Mysteries,' key events in the life of Jesus, and of his Mother. Many people who pray the Rosary find that, usually after long use, it can lead directly into contemplation, which process is the whole subject of A Doorway to Silence (DLT, 1986), whose subtitle is 'The Contemplative Use of the Rosary.'

So is contemplation a waste of time, pointless navel-gazing, or worse, opening the back door of our minds to whatever spiritual entity might decide to come strolling in?

Of course if you keep in mind Michael Ramsey's definition above, you will begin to see that contemplation is anything but selfish introspection, and if you consider Paul's account of the role of the Spirit in the passage I quoted from Romans, you will see that the mind is very far from being left undefended.

As I said in an earlier post today, 'Contemplation brings us continually closer to God, and so we get all tangled up in his love and his mercy.' One of the great early teachers of contemplation, St Isaac of Nineveh, the 7th Century anchorite and unwilling Bishop, said:

'An elder was once asked, "What is a merciful heart?" He replied:

"It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation.

For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns with without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God."'

A final word from one of the great contemplatives of the Middle Ages, Catherine of Siena:

'The secret of Christian contemplation is that it faces us with Jesus Christ toward our suffering world in loving service and just action...'

After the retreat...

Following my retreat, I spent quite some time just catching up on things - as if I'd been away for months! - and just trying to let things settle down in my mind to the point where I could express them slightly coherently.

I have always, I guess, known that intercession and contemplative prayer are all tangled up together somehow. I think it's pretty hard to be a contemplative - well, a Christian contemplative anyway - without being an intercessor as well; and, I suppose, hard to be an intercessor at any depth without at least some contemplative dimension to our prayer.

Contemplation brings us continually closer to God, and so we get all tangled up in his love and his mercy. All those things that have touched us, friends' grief, news reports of pain and loss, things we see and hear casually - or so we think - on our way through life, get "treasured up" (just as our Lady treasured the things she heard about her Son) in our hearts without our realising it, and increasingly so as we become increasingly saturated with grace through our contemplation, and we somehow cling crying to God with "sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8.26) not knowing why our contemplation has turned suddenly to tears...

The other aspect of the retreat was very strongly rooted in Mother Julian's teaching itself... she says, (Revelations of Divine Love, Long Text, Ch. 39, tr. Upjohn) "...though the soul is healed [of sin, through contrition, compassion, and longing for God] God still sees the wounds - and sees them not as scars but as honours."

And this, which made sense of many things I'd been feeling but had not understood: "The soul that would remain in peace must, when another's sins come to mind, flee as from the pains of hell, searching into God for remedy and help against it... For looking on another['s]... sin makes, as it were, a thick mist before the eyes of the soul, so that for a time we cannot see the beauty of God..."

Not only was there much healing involved in these passages for me personally, but I began to understand why I find things like reality TV, soaps, "true confessions," and many sorts of drama and fiction pretty well unbearable. I have often wondered why this should be - it's more than an aversion, more like a spiritual allergy, to the extent I can't stay in the same room if someone's watching this stuff on television - and now I realise I'm not the only one to feel like this!

I don't know if anyone else has this reaction, but I find a strange thing about going on retreat is that while I arrive home buzzing with everything that happened, full of a kind of leaping spiritual energy, I quickly become bogged down in the quotidian, and within a week or so I feel miles away from that place of stillness before God... then gradually, from somewhere below the conscious threshold the Spirit brings me back, brings me to where I can understand - or at least, find a few words for - what happened. Then, I find I have changed; not how I'd expected, usually, but changed nonetheless.

I've been thinking...

I've been thinking about what this blog's for, and why I'm keeping it. (Is that what you do with a blog, keep it, like a diary? Or do you blog it? Blogging a blog? H'mm...) I really enjoy reading other people's chatty blogs, with all the details of their holidays, what they're wearing, their neighbours, and their pets - and I'm not saying I'll never write about such things here - but somehow it doesn't feel like the reason I started this.

There are also some very churchy blogs around, full of nothing but learned disquisitions on ecclesiology, past, present and future, and abstruse issues in philosophical theology, and I have to confess I keep most of those in my feed reader for a week or two, and then unsubscribe again once I've built up a couple of dozen unread posts. So, if I'm to do to others what I'd like to be done to me, it's not very fair of me to try and keep one of those going, even supposing I had the academic equipment to manage it...

When I came back from retreat I said, "Maybe later I'll try and say something about the spiritual side of this, but at the moment it still feels very private." But that is why I started this blog, to try and keep track of my own thoughts on prayer, and things related to prayer, and to share them in case there might be resonances for anyone else.

I was writing recently to a friend, trying to tell her a bit about my retreat, and all that had happened in those few short days, when it occurred to me that that was what I should be doing here. That was the reason I had first begun. So...

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Wrong kind of silence?

Sorry for the gap in transmission - I had a really busy week last week, which was topped off with a hard disk failure. Just what was needed. Today, after an expensive visit to the computer shop, I now have a brand new hard disk, with some much-needed extra capacity too. Then of course I had to sit down and reinstall everything, including all those dear little drivers, and then copy over all my backed-up data. Thank goodness for Google Browser Sync - I hadn't lost all my bookmarks and passwords either. So no despair, just tedium... well, at least I didn't have to reinstall all those odd little bits of software I now no longer use, but never could bear to uninstall, so things are a bit tidier too.

Fortunately, with Gmail, I was able to keep in touch with people... but blogging had to go on hold for a while. I'll try and post a few thoughts later on this week about living in the country. Not Labradors and blackberries, but what the church is in places like this, and maybe what it could be...

Monday, July 16, 2007

Your Holiness...?

"The heresy of individualism: thinking oneself a completely self-sufficient unit and asserting this imaginary "unity" against all others. The affirmation of the self as simply "not the other". The true way is just the opposite: the more I am able to affirm others, to say "yes" to them in myself, by discovering them in myself and myself in them, the more real I am. I am fully real if my own heart says yes to everyone.

I will be a better Catholic, not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further.

So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot "affirm" and "accept," but first one must say "yes" where one really can.

If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it."

Thomas Merton. Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander. New York: Doubleday, 1966: p. 144.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Limitless grace...

Sr Claire Joy, over at Flavor of the Month, has a wonderful quote from Barbara Crafton+, which I just can't resist posting here:

It turns out there's no secret code, no hidden key. There's no need of one: eternal life isn't locked. Anybody can live as a lover of God and neighbor, just by walking out his front door and looking around at what needs to be done. And then doing the first thing that presents itself. And then another. And another. As many as you want — they're all your neighbors. And the Christ who lives in you also lives in each of them.

Beautiful! What are we so afraid of, that we try and set limits to grace, at least for other people?

Mercy & grace...

Jane R at Acts of Hope has a real act of hope to share with us:

From Episcopal Life Online (formerly Episcopal News Service):

Monks of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) are joining forces with a member of the Massachusetts National Guard to help men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan find a safe place to heal.

Read the full story here.

A Centaur writes...

Just found this on Padre Mickey's - a way of working out what mythological creature you are. So, I seem to be a centaur, which is actually quite appropriate if you remember your Narnia ;-)

(Now, listen up some of you readers! This is only a bit of fun - ain't got nothin to do with demons, nor false gods, neither...)

You Are a Centaur

In general, you are a very cautious and reserved person.
However, you are also warm hearted, and you enjoy helping others in practical ways.
You are a great teacher, and you are really good at helping people get their lives in order.
You are very intuitive, and you go with your gut. You make good decisions easily.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Sts. John Jones and John Wall

Sts. John Jones and John Wall c. 1530-1598; 1620-1679
(With thanks to Saint of the Day)


These two friars were martyred in England in the 16th and 17th centuries for refusing to deny their faith.

John Jones was Welsh. He was ordained a diocesan priest and was twice imprisoned for administering the sacraments before leaving England in 1590. He joined the Franciscans at the age of 60 and returned to England three years later while Queen Elizabeth I was at the height of her power. John ministered to Catholics in the English countryside until his imprisonment in 1596. He was condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered. John was executed on July 12, 1598.

John Wall was born in England but was educated at the English College of Douai, Belgium. Ordained in Rome in 1648, he entered the Franciscans in Douai several years later. In 1656 he returned to work secretly in England.

In 1678 Titus Oates worked many English people into a frenzy over an alleged papal plot to murder the king and restore Catholicism in that country. In that year Catholics were legally excluded from Parliament, a law which was not repealed until 1829. John Wall was arrested and imprisoned in 1678 and was executed the following year.

John Jones and John Wall were canonized in 1970.


We Anglicans should, I think, look unflinchingly at some of these shameful incidents from our past. I don't mean we should continually beat ourselves up over them, nor that we should all immediately go over to Rome as a penance. I just feel we need to own where we are coming from. We need to do this in fairness to our sisters and brothers of the Roman Church; more urgently, we need to look at our current attitudes and behaviour in the light of our past.

There is much loose talk of schism, on both "sides" of however you wish to characterise the present unrest in the Anglican Communion. How then are we going to behave towards those with whom we disagree? Are we going to be like Titus Oates, and ferment distrust and intolerance, and ultimately injustice, against those we fear; or are we going to behave more like the Franciscan Poor Clare St Veronica Giuliani, who though unjustly accused and deprived of office and privilege, remained in obedience and quite free of bitterness till she was finally restored?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

St Benedict of Nursia

I was intending to post a quite long and informative note on St Benedict, it being his feast day and all, but as I might have guessed, that Pesky Panamanian Priest has got there first with another of his high-class hagiographical highlights.

Do read this - superb stuff - we owe so much to St Benedict, who must go down as the man whose work laid the foundations for the religious life as we know it. As Padre Mickey says, "Today is the feast of St. Benedict of Nursia. He is important because he really helped establish monasticism in the form which spread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and helped civilize much of Europe. The Rule he developed is the Rule of Life used by many monastic orders even to this day..."

Monday, July 09, 2007

Presidential Address by the Archbishop of York - Monday 9th July 2007

Dr John Sentamu gave the Presidential Address at the General Synod meeting in York today.

You need to read this superb address in its entirety, but just for a taster, here's the beginning and end of what ++John said:

'There is a commanding invitation which echoes throughout the Bible. It’s a message given at various times to patriarchs and prophets, to nations and to shepherds, to Zechariah and to Mary, to disciples and to fledgling congregations in the church’s earliest days.

“Fear not, do not be afraid”.

My brothers and sisters this is a message that we need to hear, because it seems to me that we have become afraid. And what are we afraid of? Of causing offence by being ourselves? Afraid of the future? Afraid of the challenges to our faith and actions from many quarters, to which we don’t know how to respond without giving offence in return? Are we afraid of those who are different from us? Afraid of failure, afraid of ridicule? Afraid of looking foolish? Afraid of taking risks?


Don’t listen to what the cynics say about the Church of England, that “it moves forward by constantly looking backwards.” Don’t allow yourselves to be persuaded by those who say “We’ve tried that before and it never worked”.

It’s after they’ve been out fishing all night and caught nothing, when they’re tired and hungry and discouraged, that Jesus says to his disciples “Put out into the deep, and let down your nets for a catch.”

And for the Israelites on the brink of the promised land, the dream was ready and God was ready, but the people weren’t because of their self-doubt and fear. They forgot that they were children of God. What happened to our dreams? Where’s the vision God put before us? What’s wrecking it? Is it because we are sinful, because we keep getting things wrong?

I don’t think that’s it. I think our dream is being delayed because our fear tricks us into thinking of ourselves as grasshoppers or worms.

In place of fear, we must face the troubles which confront us, in the church and in the world, with steadfastness and wisdom. This means facing up to crises, when they occur, with honesty and realism, not minimising the problem but not supersizing it either, keeping it in Godly proportion.

Missionaries in China back in the 1930s noted that the Chinese ideogram for ‘crisis’ is a combination of two other word pictures – ‘opportunity’ and ‘danger’. When we perceive a crisis, we need to see it in the light of its dangerous opportunity - not being paralysed by fear of the danger, but spurred on by hope in the opportunity.

In the 1st letter of John, we read that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us.”

In the face of all that confronts us, and makes us fearful, let us recognise the authority of God’s word made human in the face of Jesus Christ. His ancient promises of love, mercy and justice made manifest as God pitched his tent among us and we beheld His glory. Let us also be confident, as we have faith in the Word of God, trusting God’s own testimony. Do we believe the reports of the Lord? Do we believe the evidence of our own eyes, as we see God at work in lives and communities transformed? Let us live out that faith. Jesus Christ came among us, died, rose and ascended and we have received the Holy Spirit. He is with us till the end of time.

The Lord says to us all: “Fear not, for I have overcome the world.”

So, my brothers and sisters, let us not be afraid.

But rather, Put out into the deep.'

What contemplation isn't - Merton again...

'Contemplation is more than a consideration of abstract truths about God, more even than affective meditation on the things we believe. It is awakening, enlightenment and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God's creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life. Hence contemplation does not simply "find" a clear idea of God and confine Him within the limits of that idea, and holds Him there as a prisoner to Whom it can always return. On the contrary, contemplation is carried away by Him into His own realm, His own mystery and His own freedom. It is a pure and virginal knowledge, poor in concepts, poorer still in reasoning, but able, but its very poverty and purity, to follow the Word "wherever He may go."'

'Contemplation can never be the object of calculated ambition. It is not something we plan to obtain with our practical reason, but is the living water of the spirit that we thirst for, like a hunted deer thirsting after a river in the wilderness.'

Thomas Merton. New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Press, 1961: pp. 5, 10

"Prayer is... freedom"

'Prayer is the truest guarantee of personal freedom. We are most truly free in the free encounter of our hearts with God in His word and in receiving His Spirit which is the Spirit of truth and freedom. The Truth that makes us free is not merely a matter of information about God but the presence in us of a divine person by love and grace, bringing us into the intimate personal life of God as His Sons [and Daughters] by adoption. This is the basis of all prayer and all prayer should be oriented to this mystery of adoption in which the Spirit in us recognizes the Father. The cry of the Spirit in us, the cry of recognition that we are Sons [and Daughters] in the Son, is the heart of our prayer and the great motive of prayer. Hence recollection is not the exclusion of material things but attentiveness to the Spirit in our inmost heart. The contemplative life should not be regarded as the exclusive prerogative of those who dwell within monastic walls. All can seek and find this intimate awareness and awakening which is a gift of love and a vivifying touch of creative and redemptive power, that power which raised Christ from the dead and which cleanses us from dead works to serve the living God. It should certainly be emphasized today that prayer is a real source of personal freedom in the midst of a world in which we are dominated by massive organizations and rigid institutions which seek only to exploit us for money and power. Far from being the cause of alienation, true religion in spirit is a liberating force that helps us to find ourselves in God.'

Thomas Merton. The Hidden Ground of Love. Letters, Volume 1. William H. Shannon. editor. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1985: p. 159.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Home again!

Back home safely in Wool last night, after what seemed like a long train journey across the width of England from Norwich.

Jan and the cats were fine, and seem to have had quite a good time in my absence! I just had the best time at the Julian Shrine. Maybe later I'll try and say something about the spiritual side of this, but at the moment it still feels very private. Practically, though, if anyone else is thinking of going, do! Not only is it the most wonderful place to visit, and to pray (see this picture of the Shrine in Mother Julian's cell) but I would seriously recommend the Guest House next door, run by the Community of All Hallows, rather than some hotel in the city. Sr Pamela will give you the warmest welcome, and if my experience is anything to go by, you will meet some fascinating people among your fellow guests.

Just be careful of the bookshop in The Julian Centre next door - you can do serious damage to your wallet without even noticing... If nothing else, though, pick up a copy of All Shall Be Well, Sheila Upjohn's marvellous modern language translation of The Revelations of Divine Love, which the Centre has recently republished. They have pretty much every other translation as well, including the essential scholarly edition by Colledge & Walsh, and at least one edition of the original text, and loads of quality icons, rosaries and other bits & bobs.

As an aside, if you look at the picture of the Shrine, you'll see on the left a kind of shelf under the stone crucifix carved under the window. (The shelf is used for votive candles in little blue pots.) That shelf marks the original floor level, and the window, which opens onto the church next door, was where she would hear Mass, and receive the Blessed Sacrament. To sit in silence in the place where Julian herself prayed is something I quite lack the words to describe.

In the last chapter of her book Julian writes about her Revelations:

"I desired in many ways to know what was our Lord's meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different, without end."

Sunday, July 01, 2007

On Retreat!

I'm off on retreat to the Julian Centre in Norwich, at the church where the Lady Julian of Norwich had her cell in the 14th and early 15th century. I'm staying not in the church of course, but in All Hallows House, the guest house.

I'm leaving in the morning tomorrow, Monday, travelling up by train... I'll stay three full days. and travel home on the Friday. I'd be very glad of your prayers, not only for safe travelling and a good retreat, but for Jan and the cats while I'm away.

Look out for another post on Friday, or soon after! Take care, everyone...