Friday, March 28, 2008



Over at Finding Grace Within, Shannon writes, as part of a striking and necessary post about something else altogether, "I'll write about Easter soon, before I forget it. Really."

I think I'd better take heed, and write something about it myself, before I forget. Only I thought it through, and it seemed to me that an account of the services we held - things we did, conversations I had - would probably be much like most of my readers' Easters; and anyway such things have been described much better than I could manage, by people all over the Catholic and Anglican blogospheres.

No, what has really happened over this Easter has been hidden, silent mostly. I think what God has been showing me is that his love for me is all I need to know: that that love breaks through into my life at the Cross, and lifts it into his arms with the Resurrection. He will never let me go.

All this stuff about prayer boils down to this. What I am really doesn't matter. There isn't any holiness in me. Of myself, I really am not, truly, anything more than little, and ordinary; and anything praiseworthy about me only consists in the extent to which I am prepared to acknowledge that, and to live in the shadows, quietly, like the ivy I love so much. All my health and growth depends on accepting that.

There is no struggle in this now, but a blessed hope, and a kind of love that wells up and catches my breath, and fills my eyes with tears. Most of my life I haven't really known what love is, and still I don't; but in me now Jesus loves, and all I feel are the eddies of that deep current.

It's time to let go of a lot of things; and yet it isn't a time for heroic gestures, grand austerities, but for little turnings to that hidden track that leads out between the trees, away from the lights and the music and the excited voices.

It feels odd to be writing this in such a public place, somehow, rather than in a letter to a close friend or spiritual director. I have thought about this; and it's not an appeal for warm, supportive comments - I honestly am trying to think this through.

[picture courtesy of Oxford University School of Geography]

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Jesus who is our holiness...

To acknowledge that in our present age we have given the resurrection its true central place in our theology and, please God, in our lives, in no way contradicts what I have been saying [about the unprivileged humanity of Jesus]. I think a wrong idea is around that stressing the resurrection means by-passing a great deal of human suffering, much that, in the cold light of day, brings us face to face with the pettiness, the sickening pettiness and futility of our human lot, the sordid pettiness of our own being, a suffering utterly lacking in nobility, grandeur. This is false. Jesus delivered us from suffering in the sense that he has given it meaning, not in the sense that it is no longer there. Dying will feel like dying and yet it won't be real dying, because Jesus has destroyed death. So suffering feels like suffering and nothing else. to live the risen life of Jesus is to accept the human lot in all its bitterness as he did, and surrender to the Father in it and through it. It does not mean trying to live in a state of emotional elation that takes the edge off human suffering.

Now if what I am saying is true we can expect a wonderful flowering of the mystical life in the measure that the conditions already present are understood and exploited. For what is the mystical life but God coming to do what we cannot do; God touching the depths of being where man is reduced to his basic element? The mystical life is beyond our power, nothing we can do can bring us to it, but God is longing to give it to us, to all of us, not to a select few. He made us for this... to become his sons and daughters in very truth, with all that that implies. The prerequisite on our part is an acceptance of poverty, of need, of helplessness; the deep awareness that we need Jesus our saviour who alone brings God and man together, who is our holiness.

Ruth Burrows OCD - Guidelines for Mystical Prayer (Burns & Oates 1976, new edition 2007) (from the Introduction).

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Back online...

Our broadband connection (8 houses in the village were down the last three days) has finally been restored, so tomorrow I'll hope to catch up with what's been going on here.

Meanwhile, a quick book recommendation (of which more later): Ruth Burrows OCD - Guidelines for Mystical Prayer (Burns & Oates 1976, new edition 2007). If you have an unread copy on your shelf, do get it down now. If you haven't, check it out - I bought a copy in Salisbury last week, when the clergy, and we lay ministers, from the Diocese went to the Cathedral for Maundy Thursday - I've hardly put it down since. One of those books you just have to read and re-read.

It's getting late, and I have to be in Bournemouth first thing tomorrow, so I'd better get to bed...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Go and read...

Sue, over at Discombobula, has two of the most beautiful, most honest, posts I've read for a long time. She is a tremendous writer, which helps, and she reads Richard Rohr, which doesn't do any harm at all; but her honesty, and the acuity of her self-awareness, in some hard and painful places, just moves me to tears.

Do go and read for yourself, here first, then here.

Blessings on you, Sue - you're the real thing all right...

Love is strong as death...

I've been trying to find words to describe this Easter, but it's hard. Nothing I can think of writing would actually convey what it has felt like.

I could describe how we did things at church, the rough wood life-size Cross that Rhona had arranged to have set up in the triple chancel arch, the somehow heartbreaking foot-washing, and the aching wonder of Tenebrae, leading to the silence of Easter Saturday, and on to the glory of Sunday morning - but nothing would communicate the stillness inside the celebration, the adoration that wells up still.

"Love is strong as death..." (Canticles 8.6) and our Lord's love stronger by far.

Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
you take away the sin of the world:
have mercy on us;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father:
receive our prayer.

For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

He Is Risen Indeed!


Glorious Lord of life,
by the mighty resurrection of your Son
you overcame the old order of sin and death
to make all things new in him:
Grant that we who celebrate with joy
Christ's rising from the dead
may be raised from the death of sin to the life of righteousness;
through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.

[photo: Identity in Practice]

Friday, March 21, 2008

Words fail me...

Telling people about a death quickly becomes liturgical - you find yourself using the same phrases, choosing the same words, over and over, as if telling a favorite story to a child. "I had just come up to check on her," you tell the tenth person who asks, "and there she was, in exactly the same position as before, her handkerchief in her hand."

You tell it the same way, over and over - "...her handkerchief in her hand," you say. "I had just come up to check." "I had just come up to check." "And there she was." "And there she was." It begins to sound like a refrain.

"He was on his way back from camping and was asleep in the back of the truck," you say. "He was on his way back....on his way back...on his way back," you tell person after person, in just the same way.

"They were on the airport road and an abandoned car on the side of the road exploded," you say, and then you say it again and again, every time you tell. "They were on the airport road." "They were on the airport road."

The very disbelief that compels you to tell and retell the story dissolves in the repetitive familiarity of the words you use. It drains away all the horror you want and need to express. We hear it again today, on this Friday so mysteriously called Good, the shock of loss hollowed of its horror by the familiarity of its telling and retelling.

Words fail us quickly at these times.

The Almost-Daily eMo from the Geranium Farm Copyright © 2001-2008 Barbara Crafton - all rights reserved

Thursday, March 20, 2008


The Mercy Blog is going dark for the Easter Triduum.

Jesus said, "I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth." (John 17.19-15)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Listen, I will tell you a mystery!

Christians speak of the "paschal mystery," the process of loss and renewal that was lived and personified in the death and raising up of Jesus. We can affirm that belief in ritual and song, as we do in the Eucharist, but until people have lost their foundation and ground, and then experienced God upholding them so that they come out even more alive on the other side, the expression "paschal mystery" is little understood and not essentially transformative.

Paschal mystery is a doctrine that Christians would probably intellectually assent to, but it is not yet the very cornerstone of one's life philosophy. That is the difference between belief systems and living faith. We move from one to the other only through encounter, surrender, trust and an inner experience of presence and power.

(Richard Rohr, from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality)

Rohr's language is beautiful, but slightly too abstract for what I have been feeling as we move into Holy Week. Henri Nouwen said,

When we dismiss people out of hand because of their apparent woundedness, we stunt their lives by ignoring their gifts, which are often buried in their wounds.

We all are bruised reeds, whether our bruises are visible or not. The compassionate life is the life in which we believe that strength is hidden in weakness and that true community is a fellowship of the weak.

We only know Christ for who he is when we know ourselves as bruised like him: when we know that only in defeat can we find victory; only in loss can we be restored. The Cross is the place where this transformation can happen, and only the Cross. In absorbing the fallenness of Creation, the death that holds it captive, Jesus made possible the transformation of all things (Romans 8.21), the death of death itself. If we follow him into this mystery, if we trust him this far, then "we have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer we who live, but it is Christ who lives in us: for we have died, and our life is hidden with Christ in God." (Galatians 2.19-20, Colossians 3.3)

Monday, March 17, 2008

Friends of Tibet

Necessary, if very chilling, reading.

Friends of Tibet: March 2008

On not going back to Egypt

a minor friar has a wonderful post on the subject of struggling in prayer, and, it seems to me, this discipline of Lent we are all drawing together to a close.

He says,

It's always been a struggle for me in prayer. If I only pray when or because I enjoy it, or worse, because like the idea of prayer, or still worse, because I like the idea of myself as a prayerful person, then my prayer is only a self-devotion. This is what it really means to take God's name in vain. That's why the "night of sense" is a real gift of grace; when the Spirit removes from us the natural interest, desire, and gratification we receive in prayer, then we find out if we really love God for God's sake alone.

This isn't to say that a natural interest in prayer and devotion isn't a good thing, or that it shouldn't make us feel good. If they get us praying in the first place, they're good. But we need to notice that when God takes our interest and "feeling like it" away, this is actually a grace.

When this "night of sense" happens, we have two choices. We can panic over the consolation and apparent fulfillment and good feelings we seem to have lost, and run to fill ourselves up with our drug of choice instead. This is what it means to go back to Egypt. Or we can trust in the God we cannot see, and believe that we are being led obscurely through a place where our feeling have become a desert.

I was so struck by his remark about going back to Egypt vs. trusting the Lord in the wilderness, and the real grace of the "night of sense". This is the true desert of the heart, a place we must learn to live in, even to love; though, like Moses, we may not see the Promised Land in our life on earth.

Christe eleison...


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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Acquainted with grief...

The cross is the exhibition of Life being precisely that; more - as knowing itself to be precisely that, as experiencing itself as being precisely that. We are relieved - may one say? - from the burden of being naturally optimistic. "The whole creation groaneth and travaileth together." [Romans 8.22] If we are to rejoice always then it must be a joy consonant with that; we need not - infinite relief! - force ourselves to deny the mere burden of breathing. Life (experience suggests) is a good thing, and somehow unendurable; at least the Christian faith has denied neither side of the paradox. Life found itself unendurable. Life itself consents to shrink from its own terrors; it concedes to us its utterance of our own prayer: "O not this! If it be possible, not this!" I am not for a moment equating our sorrows with that; the point is that the sorrow is centrally there. Life itself is acquainted with grief.

And not grief alone. Crucifixion was an obscene thing. It was revolting not merely because of the torture and the degradation, but also because of the disgust; or rather it is revolting to us - I do not know that it was revolting to those who saw it. They were as accustomed to it as our fathers were to burning and castration or we to many years' imprisonment or to the gallows. It was, however, definitely more spectacularly obscene than the gallows; we can hardly, in the nature of things, realize it so, and even our best efforts tend to make it a little respectable. But then again life, as we know it, is obscene; or, to be accurate, it has in it a strong element of obscenity. Again and again we become aware of a sense of outrage in our physical natures. Sometimes this is aroused by the events of which we read in the papers, but as often by the events which happen to us. The family, for example, is a sacred and noble thing, but the things that happen in the family are the result of blood antagonistic to itself. "Love," it is said, "is very near to hate." Without discussing the general truth of that, it may be allowed that were it is so, the hate is often of a particularly virulent and vehement kind.

I take these two qualities - the sorrow and the obscenity - as examples of that dreadful contradiction in our experience of life which is flatly exhibited in the living of life by Life.

From "The Cross" by Charles Williams, in Charles Williams: Essential Writings in Spirituality and Theology, edited by Charles Hefling (Cowley Publications, 1993). Hat-tip to Vicki K Black.

I first read this years ago. I can't remember where, now - in an old collection of Williams' essays, I think - but Vicki Black posted it this morning as a Palm Sunday meditation. How much the Church needs to hear it this Passiontide: only a faith that can look with open eyes into the terror and agony of the Cross, and see it every day through all Creation, has anything to say to this broken world we live in.

In a remarkable, poetic, courageous post, which I really suggest you read in its entirety, Sue says, "I live in my body in the days between dying and resurrection." This is where these days are headed - the only truthful place we can live.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Let's face it...

"Not everything we face can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless we face it." (James Baldwin)

I think this is one of the best expressions of the sense I have of being "skinless", deprived of defences, in prayer. Only when we are completely unprotected from the affect of things can we truly pray. At least, it's this way for me. In the facing of things, there is the possibility of change inherent in the act itself. If that facing of things is done in the name of Jesus, for the sake of his mercy, with a completely open heart, then that is all prayer needs in order to move mountains.

Diminishing returns?

In contemplating the holiness of God man develops more quickly than he does in his ability to conform his life to the commandments. Hence the impression that the distance between us and God continually increases.

Archimandrite Sophrony On Prayer (hat-tip to a minor friar).

This is what is so humanly frustrating about contemplative prayer.  We can never "get anywhere" that we can understand or measure, and the further we do in fact get the greater the difference we perceive between ourselves and Jesus, whom we're called to resemble (1 Corinthians 11.1).

The only way out of thinking of this as a law of diminishing returns is absolutely to give up thinking of being rewarded for, or "getting anything out of", prayer, "for [we] have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (Colossians 3.3)

I wish I could say it gets easier. It may do, eventually - though somehow I doubt it - but if it does I'm certainly not there yet!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Don't rot...

We must in all things seek God. But we do not seek Him the way we seek a lost object, a "thing." He is present to us in our heart, in our personal subjectivity, and to seek Him is to recognize this fact. Yet we cannot be aware of it as a reality unless He reveals His presence to us. He does not reveal Himself simply in our own heart. He reveals Himself to us in the Church, in the community of believers, in the koinonia of those who trust Him and love Him.

Seeking God is not just an operation of the intellect, or even a contemplative illumination of the mind. We seek God by striving to surrender ourselves to Him whom we do not see, but Who is in all things and through all things and above all things...

To live for oneself alone is to die. We grow and flourish in our own lives in so far as we live for others and through others. What we ourselves lack, God has given them. They must complete us where we are deficient. Hence we must always remain open to one another so that we can always share with each other.

Thomas Merton, Seasons of Celebration. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1950) pp. 223-224, 229.

Oh, how much this insight matters! CS Lewis once said somewhere that there could be no such things as freelance Christians, and Merton amplifies that statement. We need each other so deeply as Christians, and the name of that need is the Church. How can we not need the Body of Christ? What happens to body parts if they are removed, and left lying around?


Listening in the spiritual life is much more than a psychological strategy to help others discover themselves. In the spiritual life the listener is not the ego, which would like to speak but is trained to restrain itself, but the Spirit of God within us. When we are baptised in the Spirit - that is, when we have received the Spirit of Jesus as the breath of God breathing within us - that Spirit creates in us a sacred space where the other can be received and listened to. The Spirit of Jesus prays in us and listens in us to all who come to us with their sufferings and pains.

When we dare to fully trust in the power of God's Spirit listening in us, we will see true healing occur.

(With thanks to the Henri Nouwen Society)

This passage from Henri Nouwen seems to me to incorporate a really vital truth about the life of prayer, and one which I beg to suggest extends far beyond personal listening. I was writing the other day about how in the life of prayer we become "skinless" in the face of the pain of fallen Creation. Becoming permeable is perhaps another way of putting it; or, in Nouwen's frame of reference, becoming willing, surrendered listeners to the cries of the broken world, rather than passive, shrinking hearers.

If we will only listen, and listen intently, to the terrible pain and beauty of all that is made, then we can truly begin to pray: since in our silence, God's Spirit is listening in us, praying what we cannot pray (Romans 8.26). In our surrender we will become conduits by which Christ's mercy can pour into the anguish of all that we will dare to love.

Monday, March 10, 2008


So many terrible things happen every day that we start wondering whether the few things we do ourselves make any sense. When people are starving only a few thousand miles away, when wars are raging close to our borders, when countless people in our own cities have no homes to live in, our own activities look futile. Such considerations, however, can paralyse us and depress us.

Here the word call becomes important. We are not called to save the world, solve all problems, and help all people. But we each have our own unique call, in our families, in our work, in our world. We have to keep asking God to help us see clearly what our call is and to give us the strength to live out that call with trust. Then we will discover that our faithfulness to a small task is the most healing response to the illnesses of our time.

(With thanks to the Henri Nouwen Society)

This seems to have a lot to do with this sense of prayer and the Cross that I've been groping around after for the last couple of days. I have spent far too much of my life feeling guilty about not doing more practically, not having the resources to give more, not having much in the way of the gifts of an evangelist, instead of getting on with what I have been called to do, which is to pray, and to do what I can to share any insights I may have regarding the business of praying.

Very gradually, I am coming to understand this calling, not least in terms of my Franciscan vocation. The Principles of the Third Order of St. Francis list Three Ways of Service (The Principles TSSF,13), the first of which is prayer. The introduction to the three ways reads:

We as Tertiaries desire to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, whom we serve in the three ways of Prayer, Study, and Work. In the life of the Order as a whole, these three ways must each find full and balanced expression, but it is not to be expected that all members devote themselves equally to each of them. Each individual’s service varies according to their abilities and circumstances, yet as individual member’s our Personal Rule of Life must include each of the three ways.

Working out that call in my own life is the most important thing I can do myself at the moment. What God is doing is another matter altogether - but he can safely be left to get on with it, so long as I am doing my bit!


Padre Mickey, Panama's answer to d'Addario Strings, has tagged me for what seems to be a remarkably silly meme. He was tagged by a dog, by the way.

It is the Middle Name meme. Of which I have two... H' mm.

Here are the rules:

1. You have to post the rules before you give your answers.
2. You must list one fact about yourself beginning with each letter of your middle name. (If you don't have a middle name, use your maiden name or your mother's maiden name).
3. At the end of your blog post, you need to tag one person (or blogger of another species) for each letter of your middle name. (Be sure to leave them a comment telling them they've been tagged.)


J - Jan, with whom I fell in love pretty nearly at first sight, though it took me two years to admit it!

O - Ovation, by far and away my favourite acoustic guitar maker.

H - Hairs, cat, which are the main feature of our home. Black ones (Figgy's), white ones (Lulu's) and ginger ones (also Lulu's). I am usually decorated with an assortment of all three colours.

N - Nine, my size in shoes. (UK sizes, that is.) It's also my favourite number, for some reason I've never fathomed.


G - Guitar - like Padre, I play six-string, and bass as well, but mainly 6-string electric.

U - University - never actually went to one, as such. Art School, yes; Agricultural College, yes. (Though not at the same time.)

Y - Young. Some say I never was. I've always been sort of grave and thoughtful, even at my craziest.


I can't tag seven other people. I shan't. I rebel. If seven readers of this would like to consider themselves tagged, be my guest. If this is you, then there yer go... Just leave me a comment to tell how it happened...

Without separation...

Still thinking about the Cross, I had a very strange night, full of dreams I cannot remember, but which have left me tired and shaken this morning. Appropriately, the weather is very rough here; the sky is dark and troubled, with flecks of bright blue showing through and shedding beautiful patches of bright sunlight on the wet ground.

Richard Rohr wrote, in Things Hidden, "Jesus does not define holiness as separation from evil as much as absorption and transformation of it, wherein I pay the price instead of always asking others to pay the price."

This seems to be key to what God is saying to me this Lent, and I don't care for it one little bit. The fact that it fits right in with what I've been coming to think over a number of years doesn't help.

You see, if we are to follow our Lord, we have, as he himself pointed out (Luke 9.23-24), to take up our cross and follow him, not seeking to preserve our lives, but being willing to lose them. As I see it, this "taking up [one's] cross" is all about the "absorption and transformation" of evil. I wrote elsewhere about the strange solidarity of prayer, whereby "what I am doing is somehow making the crucified Christ present in creation, through my own ontological status within, and my own conscious openness to, the whole community of createdness." What if this works the other way? What if our own "conscious openness to" our fellow creatures involves us inextricably in their pain, and in their seeming inability to live without inflicting pain? What if our sensitivity, our defencelessness, in the presence of the brokenness of all that lives, is the way that we can ourselves be little reflections of Christ's utter, appalling vulnerability on the Cross, where all that we are (and hence all that we are open to...) is "crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2.19,20)?

This radical skinlessness is what it seems to be about: being prepared to live entirely without defences, unshielded from the radiation of anguish in which we live as created beings. This is the flip-side, somehow, of what Rohr says elsewhere in Things Hidden,

After all, our task is to separate from evil, isn't it? That is the lie! Any exclusionary process of thinking, any exclusively dualistic thinking, will always create violent people on some level.

That I state as an absolute, and precisely because the cross revealed it to me. The crucifixion scene is our standing icon stating both the problem and the solution for all of history.

Our refusal to separate, by so much as the thickness of our skin, from the pain, and the sin, of this made and fallen life, is what lies at the heart of prayer for me, at the moment. Gazing up at the Cross, as the three Marys, and John, did that first Easter, is the only way to become, and to survive becoming, a little shadow of that great "absorption and transformation". But what is the price? That's what I find so scary.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Cross prayers...

This deep gazing upon the mystery of divine and human suffering is found in the prophet Zechariah (12:10, 13:1, 14:8) in a very telling text that became a prophecy for the transformative power of the victims of history.

Today this is perhaps what we would call "grief work," holding the mystery of pain and looking right at it and learning deeply from it, which normally leads to an uncanny and newfound compassion and understanding. The hospice movement and the exponential growth in bereavement ministries throughout many of the churches are showing this to be true, but look how long it has taken us to rediscover such wisdom.

I believe we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified to soften our hearts toward God, and to know that God's heart has always been softened toward us, even and most especially in our suffering. This softens us toward ourselves and all others who suffer.

(Richard Rohr, from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality)

I don't know very much about grief work in formal practice. It's a fascinating area, but one I'd embark on with great trepidation, at least insofar as it involved trying to help anyone else.

The gazing upon the image of the crucified is something else, though, and something I keep getting more and more drawn towards this Lent. It's a helpless, wordless thing as it happens to me, not something I could possibly have been attracted to for myself, so I can only assume this is something the Spirit is doing in my heart, and quite separate from any inclination of mine.

Our Franciscan Third Order Office contains "The Cross Prayers," one of which reads:

Almighty God,
When the world was growing cold
You raised up blessed Francis
Bearing in his body the marks of the Passion of your son.
Inflame our hearts by the fire of your love
And mercifully grant to us your people true penitence
And grace to bear the cross for love of  Him
Who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit
One God now and forever.  Amen.

I wonder if in some way what is happening could be an answer to prayers like this? This sense of standing at the foot of the Cross has been so strong these last few weeks, and it is so unlike my usual preoccupations, that although I am longing to know where it is leading, I am afraid. Forgive me, too, if I don't put it clearly enough, or come over more certain of myself than I am. I'm groping for words all the time, for something I've never had to try even to describe to myself before.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

What has to die...

To understand Jesus in a whole new way, you must first know that Christ is not his last name, but his transformed identity after the Resurrection - which takes humanity and all of creation along in its sweet path. Jesus became the Christ, and included us in this identity.

That's why Paul will create the new term "the body of Christ," which clearly includes all of us. So think of the good Jesus, who has to die to what seems like him - so that he can rise as the Christ. It is not a "bad" man who must die on the cross, but a good man ("false self") - so that he can be a much larger man ("True Self"). Jesus dies, Christ rises. The false self is not the bad self; it is just not the true self.

What Fr. Richard says here about the death of the false self reminds me of how I've been thinking about Lent. Often people think of Lent as a time to "give things up" - and mostly the things they're considering giving up are at best slightly guilty pleasures, things they feel they really shouldn't be so attached to, or would be healthier without - like chocolate, or television.

I've always struggled with this idea of Lent. Mostly when I look at "lifestyle choices" (horrid phrase!) they hardly need thinking about. Smoking is really bad for you, and for those around you - don't do it. Coffee is wonderful, and harmless in moderation, and socially responsible if you go for the fair-trade variety. Enjoy it. Lent is surely about more than these. The desires that are the subject of really big choices, like sex, are not just for Lent. Celibacy is a lifelong calling, as is marriage.

Lent for me is much more a time of penitence than of penances. I've often struggled to understand what this word "penitence" truly means. It's not the same as repentance. The Franciscan Third Order was originally known as the "Order of Penitents." John Townroe describes it as "knowing that my state is ever and always one that calls for mercy."

That mercy is the mercy of the Cross. It is the mercy we ask for in the Jesus Prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Simon Barrington-Ward describes it as a "prayer of total confession and surrender and yearning for wholeness" - which is, as I understand him, precisely what Rohr is talking about in the quote above.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


The root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved. That faith that one is loved by God. That faith that one is loved by God although unworthy - or, rather, irrespective of one's worth.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p.75 - with thanks to Beth


I have found that a big hindrance to spiritual growth is trying to be someone else and at a different point on the spiritual journey. This realization came again to me after a meeting where everyone was sharing their prayer experiences which included travel to special places, long retreats, days of prayer, visits to monasteries, and I was full of "if onlys." If only I could make a five-day retreat; if only my daughter were older; if only my parents lived closer to help with child care; if only we had more money...

It is so easy to fall into comparing myself with others and thus feeling "less than." All these spiritual experiences sound so wonderful and so right, so holy - from the other person's standpoint. But then I come back to my reality, my particular phase and point in life: I am a home schooling parent of a very active and enthusiastic seven-year-old daughter; my parents live in another state; and we have no extra money for travel. Growth for me can only happen in this place and in the here and now. The if onlys are just that: wishful thinking that takes me out of accepting who I am at this time.

The here and now is the place for me, for my growth, and indeed spiritual growth can occur without long retreat, travel, workshops, intense periods of prayer. I need to be, to live in the now and to allow my life to unfold from where it is.

Acceptance is key - accepting that this is who I am, as I am and that I am deeply loved, in this very moment. No method or experience or technique can make me holier; it is only in my receptivity, my acceptance of what is - that is the starting point for me, my growth in holiness. The challenge is to accept my life situation and grow from there, letting my unique self unfold, knowing I am the beloved of God, at this very moment of time and within all the circumstances of my life.

Patience Robbins, © 2007 The Shalem Institute.

This sense of acceptance that Patience writes about is very much on my mind this Lent. I too have been a terrible one, all my life, for the "if onlys." As I've grown older I've grown a little subtler about it, maybe, and my "if onlys" have tended to be more about retreats and solitude, and less about money and recognition, but still...

God doesn't work in the "if-onlys." He only works in the "as-is-es." God can do things with where we are, with who we are. Where we might be, who we might be, are mental doodles of our own, and nothing to do with God, however much we may think of them as being about godly things, like the ideal church, the perfect Christian marriage, the right job for a Christian.

God grant me to walk only in the little pool of light he sheds on my path (Psalm 119.105) and not to long for magic maps. Please, Lord, let me live in moments you give, and know that they are enough, and that each of them is in the right place. Jesus said, "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself..." (Matthew 6.34 NIV) All that we need to follow him is really here, now; it may not look sufficient, or inviting, but it doesn't have to. Hard though it is to re-read the story of Gethsemane, it is where this particular train of thought leads. Jesus didn't find the Cross inviting, at all - in fact his prayer is as close to an "if-only" as we hear from him in the Gospels - but the Cross was the place where his life was going, and where his unimaginable victory would be found. I don't imagine we who follow him can ask for a much easier ride, in fact, he warned we shouldn't (John 15.20). What he did promise, though, was that he would be with us always (Matthew 28.20), and that, strange though it feels to write it, is enough for me.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Love and evil (slight return)

Just found this, from Richard Rohr, which was probably sloshing around in my mind somewhere when I wrote that last post. Fr. Richard seems to me to be saying something rather similar, though he doesn't take quite so many words...

Did Jesus not reveal for all humanity the very pattern of redemption itself? Could that not be what we mean by calling him "The Savior of the World"? (John 4:42). Jesus is, in effect, saying, "This is how evil is transformed into good! I am going to take the worst thing and turn it into the best thing, so you will never be victimized, destroyed or helpless again! I am giving YOU the victory over death!"

Jesus takes away the sin of the world by dramatically exposing what is the real sin of the world (ignorant attacking and killing, not purity codes), by refusing the usual pattern of attacking and killing back, and, in fact, "returning their curses with blessings" (Luke 6:27), then finally by teaching us that we can "follow him" in doing the same.

(from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality)

Love and evil

People are perplexed by evil. The old, old question, "If God is good, why is there evil in the world?" is still asked every day, whether in these very general terms, or in very particular, anguished terms, as in, "Why did God let these terrible things happen to me, or to those I love?"

Religious people often say odd things about evil: either they then to dismiss it as a misunderstanding on the part of the theologically unsophisticated, or they personify it beyond anything in the Bible, representing the world as populated with countless demons, each one far more powerful and dangerous than any Christian.

What if evil is in fact the absence of love? Perhaps, love being so strong and particular a thing, its very absence is palpable, having an identity and dimensions, capable - if you must - of being named; and yet an absence nonetheless, and no entity? God did not create an absence. God is love: where he has been wilfully rejected, love is not.

If there is even the slightest sense in what I am saying, then certain interesting things follow. Firstly, evil can never be defeated by evil. The philosophy of ends justifying any means is shown for the false thing it is. No war can ever end war; no torture can be justified in the name of preventing torture. Secondly, only love can defeat evil. Thirdly, the defeat of evil will look utterly unlike anything you would normally think of as victory.

Faced with evil - with its own palpable absence, a kind of existential negative - what can love do? It cannot fight, it cannot take up arms, for in doing so it must lay aside love, and doing so, itself become the evil it has set out to defeat. All love can do is love. All love can want for another is mercy.

Jesus shows us what this unthinkable thing might look like. Faced with evil he did nothing but love. In love he healed. In love he released women and men from what bound them, and set them free to love. He cast out the blackness of no-love with the light of his own limitless love. Confronted with an evil which would destroy him, he did not seek to destroy his destroyers, but reasoned with them, prayed for them, forgave them, loved them. That love was so absolute that not even death, the ultimate evil, the utter lack of living love, could resist it. Jesus' resurrection was as inevitable as the way the dawn follows the night, just as his crucifixion was the inevitable result of taking love to its logical conclusion. That's why the Cross is the place of victory; the empty tomb is merely the result. On the Cross Jesus refused to come down, and, calling upon legions of angels, to lay waste to his enemies. On the Cross he insisted upon loving, right up to and through death itself. That is how death was defeated; that is how he came to rise again on the third day.

If we are to enter into Christ's victory, it can only be through the Cross.

I confess that all the above is rather an example of my getting carried away, thinking things through to what seems to me to be the only supportable conclusion. But when it comes down to our own lives as crucified with Christ (Galatians 2.19) then it starts to become experience. I do know in my own life that the only "victorious living" I have been able to do has been by way of the Cross; by loving, and going on loving, whatever happens.

Jesus said,

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5.44 ff)

I don't think all those discussions about what he could have meant by "perfect" are much use. Surely all he was trying to say was, just love. Love whatever. Love no matter what happens, no matter what they do to you. Love wholly. Let your love be such a concentrated, unconditional thing that it cannot be deflected, cannot be defeated. If that is how we love, then victory is certain. Then we can "Ask, and it will be given [us]; search, and [we] will find; knock, and the door will be opened for [us]. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened." (Matthew 6.7,8)

But it won't be the kind of victory an emperor or a president would acknowledge; and the answers to our prayers won't be the kind of answers people usually imagine - health, wealth and happiness. If we love, in the face of evil, those won't be our prayers. The only prayer, finally, is the prayer for mercy. Nothing less will do.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

One for all...

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.

(With thanks to the Henri Nouwen Society)

Every time I think of this I am moved almost to tears. That our solitude, our prayer and contemplation, should be given as a gift is just the most beautiful thought. Nouwen says here, "our community", but I can't help but think that in my understanding "community" is the whole community of Creation, ultimately.

In "The Cosmic Nature of the Jesus Prayer" (Praying the Jesus Prayer Together, BRF, 2001) Brother Ramon SSF wrote:

We have seen that the Jesus Prayer involves body, mind and spirit. If the whole person is given to God then it reflects the greatest commandment of all, the command to love... The cosmic nature of the Prayer means that the believer lives as a human being in solidarity with all other human beings, and with the animal creation, together with the whole created order (the cosmos). All this is drawn into and affected by the Prayer. One believer's prayers send out vibrations and reverberations that increase the power of the divine Love in the cosmos.

The Christian is well aware of the fact that the world is also evil. There is a falseness and alienation that distracted and infected the world, and men and women of prayer, by the power of the Name of Jesus, stand against the cosmic darkness, and enter into conflict with dark powers. "For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places."  [Ephesians 6.12] The power of the Jesus Prayer is the armour against the wiles of the devil, taking heed of the apostle's word, "Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayers and supplication."

...It is the one whose heart is aflame with the love of Jesus who can effectively radiate compassion and stretch out a hand in practical help to those in need.

This is why, I think, God has done this strange thing of calling me to pray the Jesus Prayer above all else. Somehow praying the Prayer in this way within my community - however widely or locally I might understand the word - is like planting the Cross at the heart of it. If "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2.19,20) then what I am doing is somehow making the crucified Christ present in creation, through my own ontological status within, and my own conscious openness to, the whole community of createdness. Not for the first time, this Lent, I'm finding that a remarkably scary thought...