Friday, February 29, 2008

Finding mercy

I'm gradually coming to believe that half of this "spiritual life" is just a matter of getting out of the way. The Spirit is a wind that blows where he will, and God's word will not return to him empty, but will accomplish the thing for which he sent him. (John 3.8; Isaiah 55.10,11)

Our prayer is as much about removing our silly preconceptions about what's really wrong, and what God ought to do about it (Romans 8.26) as it is about letting our hearts become aligned with God's, so that we truly will ask according to his will (1 John 5:14-15) knowing that we are heard in the very act of praying.

God is gracious and merciful, and his compassion is over all that he has made (Psalm 145.8,9), and he waits to know the longing of our hearts for mercy (Micah 6.6-8). Our Lord is gentle and humble in heart, and he longs to give our souls rest (Matthew 11.28). All we need is to let him be himself in us. Only that. In that we have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer we who live, but he who lives in us (Galatians 2.19.20) - for only at the foot of the Cross, beside our grieving Lady, do we have refuge, and find mercy.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The weight of love

When you drop a stone from your hand, what does it do? It immediately falls to that earth from whence it once came. The stone returns to its original source. The same is true of fire and water. They always seek to return to their centers. Your soul, once it begins to turn inward, is brought under this same law of central tendency. It too gradually falls toward its proper center, which is God. The soul needs no other force to draw it than the weight of love.

Jeanne Guyon, from Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ - with thanks to Inward/Outward

I just love this. The thought that all that is most truly me needs no special effort, but only its own true nature, to return to God, is like a drink of cold, clear water to my parched heart.

St. Francis saw it, I think, when he wrote (or possibly adopted) one of my very favourite prayers, the one known as The Absorbeat:

I beg you, Lord,
let the glowing and honey-sweet force of your love
draw my mind away from all things that are under heaven,
that I may die for love of you
who thought it a worthy thing to die for love of me.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A little embarrassing...

This is where I show up my British reticence, not to mention my INFP inability to handle compliments...

Twice now I've been given this award - the first time I couldn't bring myself to mention it, still less pass it on. Sorry, Episcopollyanna - no way to treat a lady's award!

Now, Tandaina's gone and done it again.
What I've been given is this:     ExcellentBlog

Thank you, both, truly. I'm all overcome...

Now, I shall have to nominate just a couple of people, I think, or else half the blogosphere. So,

Gartenfische, for one of the most beautiful blogs out there.


Kelly, who will probably be as embarrassed as I was, for perhaps the most truly Franciscan blog I know.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Union, prayer and consequences...

Last Night
by Antonio Machado

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvelous error! -
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvelous error! -
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvelous error! -
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvelous error! -
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

(Tr. Robert Bly)

It's no error, though. Christ abides in us just as we abide in him (John 15.4) - in our very hearts, in the very centre of all that we are. And it is only like this (John 15.5) that we can bear fruit at all, that we can live in and for the Kingdom of God.

I'm sure this is what contemplative prayer is for, at the root of it. To know ourselves in Christ, and him in us, is what makes prayer possible; it is not our prayer, but Christ's prayer to the Father in which we get caught up, his intercession that is his life in glory (Hebrews 7.25). We are caught up into that life, between God and humanity, and there we live in Christ, for we have died, and our life is hidden with him in God (Colossians 3.3). We have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer we who live, but he who lives in us (Galatians 2.19,20).

For me, this being "crucified with Christ" has always frightened me, as indeed it should... But what God seems to be teaching me this Lent is that it is all just part of being called; following him is following him to the Cross, and beyond, into eternal life. Being obedient to my Franciscan vocation is just being obedient to our Principles: "In the example of His own sacrifice, Jesus reveals the secret of bearing fruit. In surrendering Himself to death, He becomes the source of new life. Lifted from the earth on the Cross, He draws all people to Himself. Clinging to life causes life to decay; the life that is freely given is eternal." (The Principles, TSSF, 2)

Being crucified is nothing strange: it is only the privilege of being one who follows our Lord.

Our blessed Lady knew as she stood at the foot of the Cross, and heard her Son give her as adopted mother to his best friend, that crucifixion; only more acutely than any of us, since he was her Son as well as God's.

I'm not quite sure what is being shown me, here. Somehow the Stabat Mater Dolorosa is at the heart of it. The words of the old 13th Century Franciscan hymn keep going around in my head, especially these:

Iuxta Crucem tecum stare,
et me tibi sociare
in planctu desidero.

To stand beside the cross with you,
to join you in mourning,
is all I long for.

Virgo virginum praeclara,
mihi iam non sis amara,
fac me tecum plangere.

Chosen Virgin of virgins,
do not turn away;
let me grieve with you.

Fac, ut portem Christi mortem,
passionis fac consortem,
et plagas recolere.

Let me bear the death of Christ,
let me to share His passion,
let me recall his wounds.

(My own attempt at translation!)

I am increasingly scared by all this. I really don't know where it is going, and I just pray that somehow the grace of Christ will keep me from going completely off the rails. For strange and wild though what I'm writing seems to be, the truth I'm fumbling after isn't strange and wild. It's perfectly straightforward, and as plain as bread and ordinary wine.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Base Camp...

"But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you." (Matthew 6:6)

This is, therefore, the real meaning of every real penitential commitment: to withdraw from the current of exterior things, to silence the advancing hubbub of so many human voices, in order to return into oneself, into one’s deepest inner life; because it is in the silence of conscience that God waits for us.

When, in fact, Jesus says: Go into your room and shut the door, he does not call to an isolation that is an end in itself. That shutting the door corresponds to the one decisive opening of the human heart: the opening to God.

[Pope John Paul II: Excerpted from a talk in Rome to students and their teachers, February 28, 1979, as reprinted in the Madonna House Newsletter of February 2008.]

(With thanks to Gabrielle)

This is what Lent seems to be all about for me this year. That heart-opening, that surrender to God's love, without guarantees, without saying, "Yes, but what will you do for me?" is fundamental. All the removal of pretences, the understanding of what God is calling me into, depends upon this.

Lord, don't let this Lent be, for me, just a stretch of time. Please, let it be a base camp, a place to set out from, and a place of shelter.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Assault craft...

I think the contemplative mind is the most absolute assault on the secular worldview that you can have because it is a different mind from what we've been taught. The calculative mind or the egocentric mind reads everything in terms of personal advantage. As long as you read reality from that small self and read everything with a calculative mind, I don't think you're going to see things in any really new way.

All the great religions have talked about a different way of seeing that is actually a different perspective, a different vantage point, a different starting point. To quote Albert Einstein, "No problem can be solved with the same consciousness that caused it."

Richard Rohr, from Contemplative Prayer

I have always felt like a bit of an oddity, really. Partly it has had to do with being brought up the way I was, partly with being, according to the Myers Briggs personality types, an INFP. It may be, in God's economy that is so unlike our human one, these things have been a necessary preparation for a life of prayer. It may very well be that. But if, as Fr. Richard says, "the contemplative mind is the most absolute assault on the secular worldview that you can have," then that explains it. I have never, in my whole life, felt altogether comfortable with "the secular worldview!"

Over the years, I have tried various ways to find where I did fit, where I would feel comfortable. It's only in the last ten years or so that I have begun to realise that, from the world's point of view, I'm just never going to fit in, wherever I try to settle. These days I feel most nearly comfortable with my fellow Franciscans, but for the rest, I've come to cease worrying about it. If I have truly been called, as seems to be the case, to this odd life of prayer and contemplation, then it doesn't matter. Not fitting in is presumably part of the job description, if one is going to mount "absolute assault[s] on the secular worldview"!

The danger of course, in anything like this, is pride. It is so easy for the fallen heart to cast itself as the romantic outsider, the misunderstood hero of the spiritual revolution.

It seems God has decided to use this Lent to straighten me out a bit.

It's becoming abundantly clear that the only antidote to what could end up as a kind of creeping gnosticism, is fellowship: submitting to being a small part of something much greater than myself, and yet very ordinary. As I said the other day, being part of my own local church fellowship, being obedient to that as well as to my own Order, is absolutely vital, especially to one so vulnerable to self-deception as myself!

He has also set eternity in the hearts of men...

SaltSister has a remarkable post which I really do encourage you to click over and read in its entirety. I can't resist, however, posting just a couple of snippets here.

She frames her post with that wonderful passage from Ecclesiastes, which is so much better in the NIV translation: "He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end." (Eccl. 3:11, NIV)

She says:
For the Christian believer, the thought of someone we care for missing God represents the loss of all eternity. I have often wondered how can there be a point to enjoying God forever when eternity has been lost? Who can get their mind around such a thing?

"When they crucified Jesus, they crucified eternity."

Now where did that thought come from, I wondered? I never considered it before. God is eternal. Could there even be an "eternity" without Him? No, there could not be. In an instant I realized that all of eternity was wrapped in Christ while the Roman soldiers nailed His humanity to the Cross...

Suddenly, I knew the answer was in there. I’ve known a few people who died without seeing their prayers answered for lost family members, yet those prayers were answered after their departure. I wondered just how far can God really come from behind. What we see is a far cry from what He sees. There is a judgment, though what it entails has not yet been revealed. I am beginning to think that whatever comes, it will not diminish what God has bought through the Cross of Christ. It was an eternity-for-eternity trade. Eternity crucified, eternity resurrected - fully beyond our imagination of both the good we hope will come and the evil we fear...
Do go and read the whole thing for yourself. This is as pure and profound a God-given, contemplative insight as I've read for a long time. Go, SaltSister! To God be the glory...

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Henri Nouwen wrote:

We like to make a distinction between our private and public lives and say, "Whatever I do in my private life is nobody else's business." But anyone trying to live a spiritual life will soon discover that the most personal is the most universal, the most hidden is the most public, and the most solitary is the most communal. What we live in the most intimate places of our beings is not just for us but for all people. That is why our inner lives are lives for others. That is why our solitude is a gift to our community, and that is why our most secret thoughts affect our common life.

For me, this is at the heart of all I seem to be being called to do. My prayer is absolutely inextricably linked with the community in which I live, local and global; the fact that the prayer God has called me to is contemplative in nature only intensifies this identification. In this sense, the contemplative life couldn't be farther from a programme of self-improvement, or a shortcut to a blissed-out life. This identification is in fact frequently extraordinarily painful, for me at any rate, since it is before anything else an identification with the broken-hearted, the oppressed, the prisoners, and all those kinds of people Jesus realised he was being sent to, when he was passed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, in Luke 4.

Thinking about the surrender implicit in all I wrote yesterday about faithfulness, and on which Jan picked up in her comment, I've come to realise that much of my problem over the years has been that God asks one to surrender to him, not to any particular action he might take, or direction he might wish me to take. Once surrendered, God knows what might happen!

Julian of Norwich has this to say (I'm using Sheila Upjohn's translation, Chapter 68):

...these words "you shall not be overcome" were said clearly and strongly to make us certain, and to give us comfort against all troubles that may come. [Jesus] did not say:

"You shall not be tempest-tossed
you shall not be work-weary
you shall not be discomforted."

But he said: "You shall not be overcome."

In her blog Consecrated to Mary, Gabrielle quotes these words attributed to our Lady: "...the world shall succumb to dark times of great tribulations. I plead to you all to become intertwined with my Immaculate Heart so I may protect and guide you through such bleakness."

St. Paul wrote: "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it." (1 Corinthians 10.13)

The last five years especially, and the ten years preceding them too, only in a more diffuse way, have been God's "severe mercy" (to appropriate
Sheldon Vanauken's phrase) in teaching me that not only must my surrender be to him, unconditionally, but that ultimately, he is all I have to rely on. We cannot expect to be preserved from bleakness, kept from being tempest-tossed and acutely discomforted, if we are to follow our Saviour, for he faced all these things, and yet was obedient, surrendered, even to the point of death (Philippians 2.8). Ultimately, he was not overcome, but his overcoming was only by way of the Cross, and it is only by the way of the Cross that it is possible for us not to be overcome. In Revelation 12.11 we read, "...they have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death."

The way of following Jesus is not the way of success and acclaim, of wealth or security; it is the way of the Cross, and will take us, ultimately, like our Lord, through the gate of death. On the far side of that gate,
though, we shall find eternal life, since he has gone that way before us.

This imitatio Christi bit is quite hard to cope with. I don't want to write all this stuff, actually. But if I am even remotely honest in thinking it through, this is where it gets me. I can't claim to be even remotely comfortable with it, humanly speaking, and I'm most certainly not preaching it to anyone else, and yet for me it is impossible to escape.

Friday, February 22, 2008


It seems to me that what is going on with this Lent, for me at any rate, is all to do with surrender.

Of course I do mean surrender to the will of God, in the sense of the Lord's Prayer, and in the sense (though she is an extreme example!) of our Lady's submission to the angel's revealing God's will to her in Luke 1 - "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." What I mean particularly, though, and this has everything to do with what I was saying the other day about accepting to be who I am, is surrender to the environment God has placed me into. Fidelity, if you like.

In Silence and Honey Cakes (Lion 2003, pp. 92-3) Rowan Williams says:
The church celebrates fidelity - it blesses marriage, the most obvious sign of the pledging of bodies. But it also blesses the vows of the monastic and solitary life, equally as signs of promise and fidelity... And, quite concretely too, there is a way in which a Christian church can be a sign of fidelity, of a pledged body, in a community from which so much has fled or drained away: communities of poverty or drabness, without much to... interest the person looking for stimulus. In very unmagical settings indeed, inner cities and prisons, and remote hamlets and struggling mission plants, the church remains pledged; its pastors and people and buildings speaking of a God who is not bored or disillusioned by what he has made - and so they speak of the personal possibilities for everyone in such a situation. In short, a church that is faithful to its basic task is telling people that willingness to be who they are, and to begin to change from the point of that recognition, is fundamental to the encounter with God... Christianity encourages me to be faithful to the body that I am - a body that can be hurt, a body that is always living in the middle of limitations; it encourages me to accept unavoidable frustration in this material and accident-prone existence without anger.
For me, this is often the hardest thing, often the severest discipline. I am a dreamer, someone who longs for strange and far-off things, beauty and wonder and awe; accepting to be who I am, where I am, in the "very unmagical setting" God has placed me into, is maybe my own heart's desert. I am coming to see how I must be faithful to that. To go off hunting for the mystical mountains would not only be unfaithfulness to God and to my own community: it would be, like sexual unfaithfulness, at least as deeply harmful to me as to anyone else. Amma Syncletica (3rd-4th Century) said, "If you are living in a monastic community, do not go to another place: it will do you a great deal of harm."

This does not, of course, imply anything inimical to the life of prayer. Quite the opposite. I am coming to see that there is a particular role for the embedded pray-er, especially the embedded contemplative pray-er, that is not filled by anyone else or in any other way.

There is a huge sense of gratitude and wonder and hope in this realisation. God is faithful, and merciful, and for me to be faithful to this call, to remain where I have been placed, as much a pledged person as any hermit or monastic, is an irreplaceable virtual anchorhold from which to pray for the mercy and grace of Christ, for me and for all to whom I am pledged - Jan, my church, my community, my Order, and the body of Christ.

Now, at last, I think I am coming to see what being a Tertiary Franciscan might be for me, and how that call to prayer and contemplation and inner solitude might look for one called to that "definite discipline and vows." (The Principles, TSSF, 3)

Do pray for me! I think I'm going to need it...

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The desert of the heart

God wants to give us the eyes to see it and the ground to receive it. What are all these crippled and handicapped people telling us? What is the witness of all these nurses and life-bearers? It seems God wants us to live a vulnerable life, a life dependent on other people, a life that is unafraid to cry.

"Happy are those who hunger and thirst for justice," Jesus says.

The little ones are able to see what is happening. These are the ones who, when there is something more, will be ready.

What kind of God is this? It is a God who increases our capacity to feel the pain of being human, a God who allows deformities and tragedies so we can all be bound together in a sisterhood of need, a brotherhood of desire.

Recorded at Lourdes, from On Pilgrimage With Father Richard Rohr

After my last post, this passage underlines what seems to be going on beneath the surface this Lent.

But what is the point of all this vulnerability? Why dwell on "the pain of being human," even the pain of being alive at all in a broken world, human or feline or bovine or insect. Wouldn't we do better to concentrate on the positive aspects, on the many cheerful and excellent things the church is doing in youth work, evangelism, aid for the developing world? Wouldn't we be better employed getting out there and doing some of this stuff, rather than sitting moping over the woes of the world, or at least concentrating on honest paid work so that we could provide financial support for those who do?

It's difficult, and I do have some sympathy with those who feel like this. But St. Francis, one of the most actively engaged of saints, clearly didn't.

Francis of Assisi was drawn both to contemplation and to a life of preaching; periods of intense prayer nourished his preaching. Some of his early followers, however, felt called to a life of greater contemplation, and he accepted that. Though Conrad of Piacenza is not the norm in the Church, he and other contemplatives remind us of the greatness of God and of the joys of heaven.

Pope Paul VI's 1969 Instruction on the Contemplative Life includes this passage: "To withdraw into the desert is for Christians tantamount to associating themselves more intimately with Christ's passion, and it enables them, in a very special way, to share in the paschal mystery and in the passage of Our Lord from this world to the heavenly homeland."

Leonard Foley, OFM, writing in Saint of the Day

As Christians we need always to keep in mind that what we accomplish for Christ is not accomplished in our own strength, out of our own resources and resourcefulness, as someone might accomplish it for a secular employer. (I'm aware of the potential role of prayer in the life and work of a Christian employee, but that isn't what I'm talking about here!) First and foremost, Jesus calls us to "abide in [him]." He goes on to say,

Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15.4-7)

It is prayer - better, God, in answer to prayer - which accomplishes things for God, not people. God uses people to answer prayers, certainly; but to say that in that case it is the people who accomplish the work is like saying that it is the saw and the hammer, and not the carpenter, who built the barn.

Elsewhere, I wrote at length about this whole question, and I'm sorry to have spent so long rehearsing it here. What I suppose I am trying to say is that God seems, this Lent, to be making this real, and not theoretical.

I simply can no longer just get on with things. Prayer is becoming a disability in terms of leading a "normal life." Increasingly my heart is turning to the little I know of the life of Mount Athos, or to the Russian concept of poustinia, the "desert of the heart," which may or may not be a physical place.

What am I to do? I know that I have certain useful abilities - mucking around with computers, for instance. I am (relatively) literate and numerate; I'm a musician of sorts; I have an decent speaking voice, and don't mind public reading and speaking. It seems mean to deny the use of these things to others. It is impossible even to consider not being around for Jan, especially with her health being as uncertain as it is. But the call to prayer, to the Jesus Prayer in particular, just won't go away. It keeps getting stronger every day, every hour, almost. It is getting urgent now.

In one sense of course all this is just the perennial issue facing the Franciscan Tertiary, and with my life profession coming up at Francistide, it's obvious that I should be wondering what it all entails, all over again! But there's more to it than that. Br. Ramon SSF spent much of his life working out what a call to solitary prayer, and especially, like me, to the Jesus Prayer, meant in terms of his vocation as an Anglican First Order Friar. Somehow I have to find out what God means by this call in my own life.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Only the broken hearted...

Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself and, if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will already have surpassed myself. For it is the unaccepted self that stands in my way and will continue to do so as long as it is not accepted. When it has been accepted - it is my own stepping stone to what is above me. Because this is the way man has been made by God. Original sin was the effort to surpass oneself by being "like God" - i.e. unlike oneself. But our God-likeness begins at home. We must first become like ourselves and stop living "beside ourselves."

Thomas Merton, from A Search for Solitude

Suffering is the necessary feeling of evil. If we don't feel evil we stand antiseptically apart from it, numb. We can't understand evil by thinking about it. The sin of much of our world is that we stand apart from pain; we buy our way out of the pain of being human.

Jesus did not numb himself or withhold from pain. Suffering is the necessary pain so that we know evil, so that we can name evil and confront it. Otherwise we somehow dance through this world and never really feel what is happening.

Brothers and sisters, the irony is not that God should feel so fiercely; it's that his creatures feel so feebly. The totally free person is one who can feel all of it and not be afraid of any of it.

Richard Rohr, from Days of Renewal

It might seem strange to juxtapose these two passages like this, but somehow they work together to describe what is beginning to happen to me this Lent. I am slowly coming to realise that my perennial soppiness, or brokenheartedness, is just exactly the way God wants me to be, and that's pretty much that.

What do I mean by "perennial brokenheartedness"? Well for me, it appears outwardly in the way that I cannot ignore suffering, real  or fictional, human or animal, which gives rise to my rather antisocial inability to watch or read much in the way of TV, films or novels. Inwardly, it is an inability, especially in prayer, to turn my heart away from pain.

It gets embarrassing too. Once, years ago, appalled at my own hard-heartedness in prayer, I prayed for the gift of tears. Bad idea. That's the kind of prayer God seems to take a particular delight in answering. Now, of course, I can't stop my helpless tears when I pray, or get involved in certain sorts of conversations.

Of course I've often tried to minimise such things. Even these days, it's embarrassing enough for women to be this way. When men do it it's downright odd. Besides, the more I can minimise it to myself, the more I can insulate myself from the transferred suffering of others, as well as from whatever internal suffering of my own is going on.

This Lent God seems to be removing pretences from me like a shipwright scraping barnacles off an old trawler. It's most uncomfortable. It's also scary, since, accepting it, as I have to, as being from God, I have no alternative but to accept where it may lead. It's out of my hands.

You see, for me at any rate, this process seems to have a lot to do with what Jesus meant when he spoke of taking up one's cross to follow him. Jesus' accepting the way of the Cross is the original pattern. When we accept to follow where he leads, we cannot avoid this pain. It is the same as love. Naming evil as the absence of love, our only weapon against it is love, and love, confronting evil, is pain; ultimately, traced to its very root, it is the pain of the Cross.

When the wind blows down this hard,
Many a bond is broken.
See the water lie on the ground
From where the heavens opened.

Lord, how will you get through this night
With your dreams departed?
And who alone will comfort you?
Only the broken hearted.

So you've gone beyond your means,
Every wound is open,
Your best laid plans are out of reach,
And all your fears unspoken.

Lord, how will you get through this night
With your dreams departed?
And who alone will comfort you?
Only the broken hearted.

        Eric Clapton, 'Broken Hearted,' from Pilgrim

Monday, February 18, 2008

A night prayer

Lord Jesus Christ,
you are the gentle moon and joyful stars,
and watch over the darkest night.
You are the source of all peace,
reconciling the whole universe to the Father.
You are the source of all rest,
calming troubled hearts,
and bringing sleep to weary bodies.
You are the sweetness that fills our mind with quiet joy,
and can turn the worst nightmares into dreams of heaven.
May I dream of your sweetness,
rest in your arms,
be at one with your Father,
and be comforted in the knowledge
that you always watch over me.

Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536), with many thanks to Jane R.

(Yes, I know it's first thing in the morning now. You can just keep it till tonight, can't you? I simply couldn't resist posting it immediately...)


When I was young, I wanted to suffer for God. I pictured myself being the great and glorious martyr. There's something so romantic about laying down your life. I guess every young person might see themselves that way. But there is nothing glorious about the moment of suffering when you're in the middle of it. You swear it's meaningless. You swear it has nothing to do with goodness or holiness.

The very essence of the desert experience is that you want to get out. A lack of purpose, of meaning - that's what causes us to suffer. When you find a pattern in your suffering, a direction, you can accept it and go with it. The great suffering, the suffering of Jesus, is when that pattern is not given.

Richard Rohr from The Great Themes of Scripture (CD)

I know that for me this has so often been true. I don't know how many times I have said to myself, "I wouldn't mind if I knew this were for God, from God, if I even knew I were being persecuted for righteousness' sake... but this is meaningless!" And yet I know in retrospect that it has been at these very times that God has done the miracles he has done in my life: transformed, healed, watered the aridity of my heart and grown wonders there that are all his, and none of my own.

I am so grateful for this insight, and for the mercy of God that has allowed me access to it. Whether of course it will help the next time I am stuck in one of these experiences is another matter altogether. Perhaps if I did remember it, perhaps if I could rationalise my way out of the pain by recalling the other times God has brought good out of this stuff, then the transformation would no longer be possible. I don't know. And I suppose not knowing is part of it all too. If it were knowable then, like the Eucharist, like Sacraments in general, then it would no longer be a mystery.

Perhaps it is a sacrament, albeit not of a kind immediately recognised by tradition. Perhaps the desert is really part of the Eucharist, just as Jesus' temptations during those 40 days at the beginning of his ministry were part of the story of the Cross?

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

(Hebrews 4.14-16)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A straight path?

Our remembrance that God remembers us will be the highway into the future, the straight path of the Lord promised by John the Baptizer (Luke 3:4). Memory is the basis of both pain and rejoicing: We cannot have one without the other.

Do not be too quick to heal all of those memories, unless that means also feeling them deeply and taking them all into your salvation history. God calls us to suffer the whole of reality, to remember the good along with the bad. Perhaps that is the course of the journey toward new sight and new hope. Memory creates a readiness for salvation, an emptiness to receive love and a fullness to enjoy it.

Richard Rohr, from a Sojourners article, "The Energy of Promise"

I don't know if you'll remember my post, The Use of Emptiness, back in January, that was triggered by this same passage. There I was struck by Rohr's comment that "God calls us to suffer the whole of reality," and that only in so doing, being present, open, to the painful as well as to the delightful in what we experience, and crucially in what we remember of what we have experienced.

Here, Fr. Richard is pointing out that our memories will, if only we are true to what we remember, will provide us with the road to transformation, the "straight path" down which Christ will enter our hearts, bringing healing and restoration.

This Lent, I'm finding that being true to what I remember, honest with God and with myself about the bad as well as the good that I remember both of myself, and of those close to me over the years, is bringing healing that no amount of trying not to think too closely about certain things has ever achieved. It seems that only as we are true to ourselves, not just to ourselves as we seem to be at present, but true to the people we have been over all the years of our lives, in the periods we are so glad to have outgrown - just as much as the ones we rather like to relive - that we can let Christ, who is light and truth, into the dark and broken places of our aching hearts, where his word and his touch will at last bring freedom and peace, as they did to the "daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years," in Luke 13.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

What breathing is for...

In solitude, at last we're able to let the Lord define us the way we are always supposed to be defined: by relationship, the I-thou relationship, in relation to a Presence that demands nothing of us but presence. If we've never lived in the realm of pure presence without our world of achieving, we don't know how to breathe there at first. And that's precisely why the Lord has to breathe through us. The Lord has to be our life, the Lord has to be our identity. At last, we allow ourselves to be defined by relationship instead of by the good - even the holy - things we've done.

Richard Rohr, from Letting Go: A Spirituality of Subtractions

Perhaps this explains the sometimes almost physical hunger I have for solitude sometimes. I have often thought that for me the worst thing would be to be denied solitude, to have to live a life perpetually lacking that balm and refuge. Breathing the air of "pure presence," I somehow know what breathing is for...


Openness is not gentility in the social arena. It is not polite listening to people with whom we inherently disagree. It is not political or civil or "nice." It is not even simple hospitality. It is the munificent abandonment of the mind to new ideas, to new possibilities. Without an essential posture of openness, contemplation is not possible. God comes in every voice, behind every face, in every memory, deep in every struggle. To close off any of them is to close off the possibility of becoming new again ourselves.

From Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light by Joan Chittister (Orbis Books, 2000).

(With thanks to Vicki K Black...)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Nothing at all is wasted...

God cooperates with those who love by turning everything to their own good. (Romans 8:28)

St. Paul says that God both initiates and cooperates in all human growth. God "works together with" us, which means both our workings are crucial. Every moment, God is trying to expand your freedom. Can you imagine that? God is trying to make this choice more alive, more vital, more clear, more true. God even uses your mistakes and your sin in that regard. Nothing at all is wasted. I believe that's profoundly true. If that's not the providence of God, what else would be "providential"?

The provident care of God is that God is working for our wholeness, for our liberation, probably more than we are.

Richard Rohr, from Enneagram II: Tool for Conversion

I make no apologies whatever for yet another quote from Fr. Richard - this one just seems too apposite to pass up!

It's OK to listen to the grey voice

There is a difference between change and transformation. Change happens when something old dies and something new begins. I am told that planned change is as troublesome to the psyche as unplanned change, often more so. But change might or might not be accompanied by transformation of soul. If change does not invite personal transformation, we lose our souls. At times of change, the agents of transformation must work overtime, even though few will hear them. The ego would sooner play victim or too-quick victor than take the ambiguous road of transformation. We change-agents need a simple virtue: faith. It still is the rarest of commodities because it feels like nothing, at least nothing that satisfies our need to know, to fix, to manage, to understand. Faith goes against the grain.
Richard Rohr, from Radical Grace, "A Transitional Generation"

That's somehow what Lent feels like this year, for me. Somehow I've become part of the season more clearly this year than I can remember, and it's had some unexpected effects. My relative silence of the last few days is not merely down to busy-ness, though it has been a busy week, but to a kind of silence, a nothing-to-declare, a kind of spiritual statelessness, almost. It doesn't feel bad. It doesn't feel particularly good, either. Largely, it doesn't feel like anything, and yet I know without a shadow of doubt that there is major stuff going on under the surface. Loch Ness on a grey November day would be the image to bring to mind...   Image:Loch Ness Urquhart2.jpg Urquhart Castle ruins from Loch Ness - Wikimedia Commons Music reference: It's OK to Listen to the Gray Voice by the Jan Garbarek Group.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Good morning...

You're the time of day right around sunrise, when the sky is still a pale bluish gray. The streets are empty, and the grass and leaves are a little bit sparkly with dew. You are the sound of a few chirpy birds outside the window. You are quiet, peaceful, and contemplative. If you move slowly, it's not because you're lazy – it's because you know there's no reason to rush. You move like a relaxed cat, pausing for deep stretches that make your muscles feel alive. You are long sips of tea or coffee (out of a mug that's held with both hands) that slowly warm your insides just as the sun is brightening the sky.

Strangely enough, that is precisely my favourite time of the day!

(Nicked from the Byzigenous Buddhapalian)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Please don't stop praying for Burma...

It's not over, not by a long chalk. The news media may have all but ceased their coverage, but the situation in Burma, especially for the Buddhist monks and nuns, is worse than ever.

You can read some of the facts at the Avaaz website, here.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible...

I'm sorry I've been rather silent these past few days. This has been an excellent but busy weekend, with both TSSF and Deanery Chapters, not to mention other meetings and things; and I've been trying to leave some part of my heart in Lent despite it all. I've really had to neglect the poor old blog a bit, I fear. But I will re-emerge this week, I promise, God willing...

Friday, February 08, 2008

Heads up...

for Mercy Blog readers using Firefox: v. has just been released. You really should update your installation as soon as you reasonably can.

Mozilla say:

As part of Mozilla Corporation’s ongoing stability and security update process, Firefox is now available for Windows, Mac, and Linux for free download from

Due to the security fixes, we strongly recommend that all Firefox users upgrade to this latest release.

If you already have Firefox 2.0.0.x, you will receive an automated update notification within 24 to 48 hours. This update can also be applied manually by selecting “Check for Updates…” from the Help menu starting now.

For a list of changes and more information, please review the Firefox Release Notes.

If you are still running Firefox 1.5.0.x, you are highly encouraged to upgrade to the Firefox 2 series as Mozilla ceased supporting Firefox 1.5.0.x in May 2007. Simply choose “Check for Updates…” from the Help menu to begin the upgrade process.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A little practice for death...

A beautiful meditation from Sr. Catherine Grace, at the Community of the Holy Spirit, contains this extraordinary passage:

...the weather had transformed from the gray chill of winter to the glory of late spring. That is how I hope my own death will be - the time when I know more certainly that my death will come soon will be a Lenten time, but the death itself will open into a glorious, fecund awareness of the One God-ness that permeates absolutely everything.

Every Lent, then, becomes a little practice for death, every Easter a murmur of the vast futurescape ahead that teems with possibility. Whether we consider ourselves religious or not, this time of year begs us to attend carefully to the slowly changing season. Soon, soon we will each emerge into the glory of a mysterious future.

I wish you all great stillness in the cave-days ahead. Slip between the moments of your own days, attentive to the wisdom that dwells in time-outside-of-time.

Ash Wednesday musing « Grace-full Thoughts

Darkness and emptiness

Stay in the darkness and emptiness. Do not flee from the nothingness or try to fill up that hollow place with your own attempts to create new finite pillars on which to build your life...  God is to be found in the darkness, not away from it.

Sandra Cronk, Dark Night Journey (with thanks to Inward/Outward)


Even the attempt to describe to oneself in thought what is going on in that darkness can be deceptive: a temptation, almost, in the sense of Jesus' temptations in the desert - a temptation to do magic with names. Lent is for me a time of unknowing, silence, emptiness. How shall I be able to hear, when it comes, the cry of, "He is risen!" if I am all full of words till then?

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

                            (from: TS Eliot: 'Ash Wednesday')

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ash Wednesday

God’s mercy is greater than our sins. There is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God but rather to self-preoccupation. Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and our failings and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says, 'I am too sinful to deserve God’s mercy.' It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride.

Lent is a time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: 'Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God’s mercy . . . or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?' The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God’s mercy.

Henri Nouwen A Cry For Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee

(Hat-tip to Gartenfische)


The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
     a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

(Psalm 51.17)


The Lord is gracious and merciful,
     slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
     and his compassion is over all that he has made.

(Psalm 145.8-9)

Mercy Site email...

It's a very long time since anyone legitimate emailed me from The Mercy Site, yet every day I receive at least a dozen, frequently revolting, spam emails from the site mailto link. They get very nicely filtered out, but I'm getting fed up with having to muck out the spam filter on a daily basis. I'm therefore closing that account, plus another old account with the same ISP that's also getting heavily spammed.

If anyone would like to contact me regarding the site, do please leave a comment here, which is nice and safe!

Monday, February 04, 2008

Altered states?

Being a little slow sometimes, I only just found a wonderful homily for the Sunday before last - 3rd February - posted on the Order of the Holy Cross lectionary blog. Ideally you should read the whole thing, but I'll just post here the bits that really echoed my own experience:

First, let me say a word on altered states of consciousness. "Altered states of consciousness" or "altered states of awareness" are phrases used in anthropology and psychology to describe temporary conditions in which we experience reality in a very different way from what is usual or normative in our respective societies.

Our contemporary Western societies frown on such states. And we are socialized to repress the experience we gain in such experiences. The most commonly accepted altered state of consciousness amongst us is dreaming. As a Western society we accept altered states of consciousness to the extent that their content remains purely private and personal.

Most human societies recognize learning value to altered states of consciousness and accept that thought-leaders have something to share about the nature of reality in telling the story of their altered states of consciousness.

I have had the grace to have a couple of waking state mystical experiences, another phrase to describe one type of altered state of consciousness. They changed my life by the intensity and importance of what they taught me.

But if a video camera had been trying to record it, it would have captured nothing but the normalcy of the subway ride and subway station where it happened. Does it mean it didn't happen? God speaks, even today, and God is not restricted in how we are spoken to...

As a monk who yearns to be ever more awake and present to the Presence of God, Moses struck me as a wonderful model as I read and prayed this text.

Free yourself up from the busy-ness, get the help you need, show up, make yourself available, sit there, don't just do something.

And then, be ready to wait. Discerning God's call is not your thing, if you are into instant gratification and multi-tasking.

I know this sort of talk would horrify some of my brothers and sisters (more brothers than sisters, I think!) in evangelical circles, but really we cannot know the deep things of God so long as we insist on confining ourselves in the prison of what is, at root, secular thinking about God. I mean the determination to restrict our mental and spiritual activity in respect of our Creator and his dealings with us, his Scriptures, and their bearing on our lives, to the outer, reasoned and willed, layer of our personality - the place where we do business, mend cars, and study commerce and politics.

Jesus of course saw this very clearly, and, on a visit to Bethany, gently pointed it out to Martha when she became frustrated with her sister Mary (Luke 10.38-42).

Boundaries and thresholds

Daily Reading for February 4 - Cornelius the Centurion (Acts 10)

If a boundary defines, then moving or removing that boundary means redefinition. Something new is being identified and named. The work of changing a boundary - or moving ourselves across a threshold - demands attention and a willingness to listen to the voices around us...

Any decision to include or exclude either creates a different system altogether or modifies the existing one. Indeed, revolution itself might be defined as the setting of a new boundary. Responsible shifting of boundaries requires our asking a number of questions: Where is the boundary? Who or what determined it in the first place? Is this line of God, or was it set by powers acting contrary to God's will? Does there need to be a line drawn where there was none before? How do we know? The answers we make to these questions can help us discover when and where boundaries need to be maintained, shifted, or abolished altogether, especially concerning those areas of human life in which there is considerable disagreement. Answers do not come easily. They will emerge only after intense work in personal and communal discernment - prayer, wrestling with God’s word in scripture, honest exchange.

From Good Fences: The Boundaries of Hospitality by Caroline Westerhoff (Cowley Publications, 1999).

With thanks to Vicki K Black

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Abide in me...

"I no longer seek any perfection from my own efforts…but only the perfection that comes from faith and is from God…We who are called perfect must all think in this way" (Philippians 3:9,15)

Where the text finally points, leads and calls is to the total mystery of divine union - and nothing less.

You don't have to figure it all out or get it all right ahead of time. You just have to stay on the journey. All you can do is stay connected. We don't know how to be perfect, but we can stay in union. "If you remain in me and I remain in you," says Jesus, "you can ask for whatever you want and you’re going to get it" (see John 15:7). When you're connected, there are no coincidences anymore.

Synchronicities, coincidences, accidents and "providences" just keep happening. Union realigns you with everything, and things just start happening. I cannot explain the "chemistry" of it all. Some people call it "the secret". All I know is that the "branch cut off from the vine is useless" (John 15:5), yet on the vine it bears much fruit (15:5, 7). The True Self is endlessly generative, in touch with its Source; the false self is fragile, needy and insecure.

Richard Rohr, from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality

The key to understanding John 15.7 (NRSV: "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you") in all its almost spooky accuracy - and where I think the "prosperity gospel" really falls down - is that if we do abide in our Saviour, what we ask for will be what he would have asked for in that situation. Somehow I just can't see him asking his Father for a swimming pool and a brand new Lexus, but maybe that's a failure of imagination on my part...

What I can see Jesus asking for is the courage to lay down his life for his sheep; for mercy and grace for the suffering, release for the prisoners, gladness for the grief-stricken, food for the hungry - things like that. Dear Jesus, blessed Saviour, teach me to want what you want, to pray for those whom you pray for, to dream your dreams!