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.


Anonymous said...

You are following God's call in your own life, and it is a beautiful thing.

Your writings give me courage to follow my own unconventional, contemplative path. I have struggled with that for a long time (as you will see, as I just wrote yet another post about it!).

Mike Farley said...

Dear Gartenfische, it is a long time since you left this comment, and a long time since I read an update on your blog. I do hope you are well, and living in the centre of God's "good, pleasing and perfect will".