Saturday, May 31, 2008

Of God and cows...

There are times when we can do all that a fellow creature needs only if he will trust us. In getting a dog out of a trap, in extracting a thorn from a child's finger, in teaching a boy to swim or rescuing one who can't, in getting a frightened beginner over a nasty place on a mountain, the one fatal obstacle may be their distrust. We are asking them… to accept apparent impossibilities: that moving the paw farther back into the trap is the way to get it out - that hurting the finger very much more will stop the finger hurting - that water which is obviously permeable will resist and support the body - that holding onto the only support within reach is not the way to avoid sinking - that to go higher and onto a more exposed ledge is the way not to fall...

We are to God, always, as that dog or child or bather or mountain climber was to us, only very much more so... If human life is in fact ordered by a beneficent being whose knowledge of our real needs and of the way in which they can be satisfied infinitely exceeds our own, we must expect a priori that His operations will often appear to us far from being beneficent and far from wise...

You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence... the assent, of necessity, moves us from the logic of speculative thought into what might perhaps be called the logic of personal relations.

CS Lewis, from The World's Last Night and Other Essays, with thanks to Abbot Joseph

Abbot Joseph's post bears reading in its entirety, for its own sake. I have just borrowed his CS Lewis quote because it says so well what I was trying to say in my own post Despised and Rejected.

I well remember trimming cows' feet. Now, cows hate to have their feet trimmed. I think they have all the emotions of a child who loathes and fears the dentist's chair, suddenly confronted with the prospect of root canal treatment. Yet without regular trimming, cows' feet become overgrown, their gait unbalanced, and eventually they become lame, suffering great pain from solar ulcers, and untold distress, since as ruminants their whole life depends on being able to stand up, walk around, and graze.

How to explain that to cows? Well, you can't. They don't understand English (though they understand very well the tone in which it is spoken) and they have no concept, as far as I've ever been able to discover, of preventive medicine. The only answer is to develop a relationship with cows such that they trust you, and will, if reluctantly, enter the horrible mechanical steel enclosure of the foot-trimming crush, and stand, if not still, at least still enough not to hurt either themselves or the person trying to trim their feet. Then, it all becomes possible. The overgrown horn can be removed, the two claws levelled and smoothed, the proximal edges dished out to relieve pressure, and the whole foot tidied and neatly pared to the proper shape it should have.

I used to love foot trimming. Not because the cows disliked it - far from it, it made my heart ache to see their fear - but because I loved to watch them walk away with a spring in their step, obviously relishing the pleasure of walking securely, without pain or discomfort.

I sometimes think I have an inkling how God must feel, watching us do everything we can to avoid the treatment he knows will heal our broken hearts. We cannot understand the logic behind the process, any more than the poor cows can understand how being confined and manhandled, and cut about with sharp steel, can prevent their becoming lame. Our only hope is the same as the cows' - to trust the one we know, from the nature of our relationship with him, wants only to heal us, help us, love us whole again.

Pure in heart?

Jesus, the Beloved of God, has a pure heart. Having a pure heart means willing one thing. Jesus wanted only to do the will of his heavenly Father. Whatever Jesus did or said, he did and said it as the obedient Son of God: "What I say is what the Father has taught me; he who sent me is with me, and has not left me to myself, for I always do what pleases him" (John 8:28-29). There are no divisions in Jesus' heart, no double motives or secret intentions. In Jesus
there is complete inner unity because of his complete unity with God.

Becoming like Jesus is growing into purity of heart. That purity is what gave Jesus and will give us true spiritual vision.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Reading Nouwen's words like this makes me realise just how far there is to go...


At first I had no idea where the lovely Magnificat we sang every night was from: "My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior" (Luke 1:46). When I eventually found it in the first chapter of Luke's Gospel, I was startled but glad to see that it was one pregnant woman's response to a blessing from another. It is the song Mary sings after she has walked to her cousin Elizabeth’s village, and on greeting Mary, Elizabeth, who is bearing John the Baptist, recognizes that Mary bears the Messiah. . . .

The Magnificat's message is so subversive that for a period during the 1980s the government of Guatemala banned its public recitation (a sanction that I'm sure the monasteries in that country violated daily). But when I came to its words knowing so little about them, I found that all too often they were words I could sing with ease at evening prayer, with a facile (and sometimes sleepy) acceptance. On other nights, however, they were a mother's words, probing uncomfortably into my life. How rich had I been that day, how full of myself? Too full to recognize need and hunger, my own or anyone else's? So powerfully providing for myself that I couldn't admit my need for the help of others? Too busy to know a blessing when it came to me?

From "Virgin Mary, Mother of God" in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith by Kathleen Norris (Riverhead Books, 1998).
(With thanks to Vicki K Black)

Despised and rejected...

Jesus, the favourite Child of God, is persecuted. He who is poor, gentle, mourning; he who hungers and thirsts for uprightness; is merciful, pure of heart and a peacemaker, is not welcome in this world. The Blessed One of God is a threat to the established order and a source of constant irritation to those who consider themselves the rulers of this world. Without his accusing anyone he is considered an accuser, without his condemning anyone he makes people feel guilty and ashamed, without his judging anyone those who see him feel judged. In their eyes, he cannot be tolerated and needs to be destroyed, because letting him be seems like a confession of guilt.

When we want to become like Jesus, we cannot expect always to be liked and admired. We have to be prepared to be rejected.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Very scary. I'm afraid if my own experience is anything to go by, I haven't anything to offer to soften Nouwen's words. So often, as Christians, we can accept rejection by "the world", but within the church, we tend expect that if we are righteous, we will find favour in the eyes of the people. This I think is an Old Testament concept; yet even in the lives of people like Joseph and David we find that the principle does not hold true. Jesus began his ministry growing "in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and men" (Luke 2.52 NIV) yet by the end of his life the Sanhedrin were plotting to kill him, and when they had the chance to save him, the crowds that had been crying, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" were shouting, "Crucify him!"

Jesus himself pointed out (John 15.19-21) that we can expect no less. But we needn't worry, really. There is nothing we can do to defend ourselves, nor should we try. Our job is merely to "Love [our] enemies and pray for those who persecute [us]." (Matthew 5.44 NIV) If this is to be our role, we don't have to bother collecting weapons, or peering behind curtains for enemies, or under bushes for demons. We just have to carry on being "poor, gentle, mourning... merciful, pure of heart and peacemaker[s]", and God will look after the rest, just as he looked after his Son. The worst may happen - it did to Jesus - yet "we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (Romans 8.28 NIV)

My own experience has shown me that this too is true. We can depend utterly on the mercy of God in Christ, even at what appear to be the darkest times - so that I can say, without pious pretence, "it was good for me to be afflicted" (Psalm 119.71 NIV) - for this is the only way I could myself come to know my Lord, to know the tone of his voice and the touch of his hand...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Experiencing our experiences...

Inner authority seems to come from "experiencing our experiences," and experiencing them deeply as our own.

When we meet people who know that they know, and know that they know so much more than they can understand, and finally have the trust and patience to remain in that knowledge, then we will have people who can truly represent the authority of God. In their presence we will grow strong.

Richard Rohr, from Near Occasions of Grace

I think perhaps this may have something to do with Maggie Ross's sense of refusing to anaesthetise the pain of our connectedness with creation. "Experiencing our experiences" is very much a part of this way of defenceless living.

It is so vital, at least for those of us who have been called to this contemplative path, to remain open to all that God brings to us, trusting that if we have surrendered to him then he will take care of us, and we do not need to live in fear of the consequences of our openness. We do not then need to live with barriers of self-preservation, religion, legalism: for if we hold to Jesus' teaching, we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free (John 8.31-32 NIV).

This is all the authority we need on the largely hidden path we have been called to travel. What God does with that authority is up to him; if we will only trust him in this, then we can trust - despite all our innate self-doubt - that we will be able to be a blessing, and not a hindrance, to those he leads across our way.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The equality of the ground of love...

Do we really renounce ourselves and the world in order to find Christ, or do we renounce our alienated and false selves in order to choose our own deepest truth in choosing both the world and Christ at the same time? If the deepest ground of my being is love, then in that very love, and nowhere else, will I find myself, the world, and my brother and my sister in Christ. It is not a question of either-or but of all-in-one. It is not a matter of exclusivity and "purity" but of wholeness, wholeheartedness, unity, and of Meister Eckhart's gleichheit (equality) which finds the same ground of love in everything.

Thomas Merton. Contemplation in A World of Action, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1973: p. 171

This word of Eckhart's, gleichheit, is to me one of the key understandings of contemplative prayer. If "the same ground of love [is] in everything", then this is like finding the thumbprint of God in all he has made - the DNA of the divine in all of creation. We are, quite literally, sisters and brothers not only to all our fellow humans, regardless of race, sex, religion, nationality and all other distinctions, but to all our fellow creatures, animate and inanimate: cats and dogs, cows and sheep, wildebeest and ants and the furthest stars.

Of course it also follows that whatever affects one part of creation affects all, since we are all in some sense "of the same kind". This seems to me to hold from the most abstract - the butterfly effect and other developments of chaos theory - to the most personal. Our tears, our prayers, for the brokenness we find in all things, the anguish that seems to lie at the heart of existence, are not shed and prayed in some kind of solipsistic isolation, but are part of the living fabric of all that is, channels of the mercy of Christ himself.

St. Francis begins his Canticle of the Creatures:

Most High, all powerful, good Lord ,
To you be praise, glory, honour and all blessing.

Only to you, Most High, do they belong.
And no one is worthy to call upon your name.

May you be praised, My Lord, with all your creatures,
especially brother sun,
through whom you lighten the day for us.

He is beautiful and radiant with great splendour.
He signifies you, O Most High.

Be praised ,my Lord, for sister moon and the stars.
clear and precious and lovely they are formed in heaven...

I want always to remember my kinship with all that has been made, with the little robin singing on topmost twig of the cedar behind the house in the last of the light, the shadowy, lovely tree, the chalk bank that rises above the garden, and the fields beyond, with their sheep and ponies, badgers and mice. The pain that is in all creation, as it "waits with eager longing" (Romans 8.19) for redemption, let me remember too, lifting it to the gentleness of Christ, the mercy of Christ, in whose love all things hold together (Colossians 1.17)

The mourning of Christ...

Jesus, the Blessed One, mourns. Jesus mourns when his friend Lazarus dies (John 11:33-36); he mourns when he overlooks the city of Jerusalem, soon to be destroyed (Luke 19:41-44). Jesus mourns over all losses and devastations that fill the human heart with pain. He grieves with those who grieve and sheds tears with those who cry.

The violence, greed, lust, and so many other evils that have distorted the face of the earth and its people causes the Beloved Son of God to mourn. We too have to mourn if we hope to experience God's consolation.

with thanks to the Henri Nouwen Society

It's important to realise that the "mourning" Nouwen is calling us to can seem merely destructive, psychologically dangerous; and so it is, unless we can do something with it, and unless we are supported, loved, prayed-for, as part of a living community in Christ.

I often think that - apart from the obvious necessity for anyone called to the contemplative or intercessory ways of prayer to be members of a church where they can feel at home - this is one of the most important reasons for joining a religious order as a tertiary, or oblate, or companion, or whatever term the order you find yourself called to uses.

Maggie Ross said:

Even something as simple as refusing to anesthetize the gnawing pain in the pit of your soul that is a resonance of the pain of the human condition is a form of habitual intercession. To bear this pain into the silence is to bring it into the open place of God’s infinite mercy. It is in our very wounds that we find the solitude and openness of our re-creation and our being. We learn to go to the heart of pain to find God’s new life, hope, possibility, and joy. This is the priestly task of our baptism.

I am continually struck by that last sentence. Our mourning with Christ for the brokenness of creation lies at the very heart of our being Christian. It is his tears we weep, his grief that aches within us, and it is to him we must turn in our grieving. He is our refuge, our Saviour, our sanity; but it is only through our entering into his pain that he can become refuge, Saviour and sanity for those for whom we grieve (see Romans 8.18-27, yet again - and see also John 17.20-26).

Saturday, May 24, 2008


We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.

Romans 8.22-27 (NIV)

We wait, in the place without words, and we cannot even name our wating to ourselves. Our faith has brought us past the borders of human knowing, into the desert of the heart. And yet the Spirit is with us in the silence, and it is his wordless voice that carries our tears to the mercy of Christ, into the is-ness of God.

Kyrie eleison,
Christe eleison,
Kyrie eleison...

Prayer is not introspection...

Still thinking about the strangeness of prayer that I wrote about yesterday, I stumbled across a wonderful passage from Henri Nouwen's Clowning in Rome: Reflections on Solitude, Celibacy, Prayer and Contemplation at Inward/Outward:

To be continually in communion with God does not mean thinking about God in contrast to thinking about other things, nor does it mean spending time with God instead of spending time with other people. As soon as we begin to divide off our thoughts, we separate God from our daily life. At that point God is allocated to a pious little niche in some corner of our lives where we only think pious thoughts and experience pious feelings.

Although it is important and even indispensable for our spiritual lives to set apart time for God and God alone, our prayer can only become unceasing communion when all our thoughts - beautiful or ugly, high or low, proud or shameful, sorrowful or joyful - can be thought in the presence of the One who dwells in us and surrounds us. By trying to do this, our unceasing thinking is converted into unceasing prayer moving us from a self-centered monologue to a God-centered dialogue.

To do this we want to try to convert our thoughts into conversation. The main question, therefore, is not so much what we think, but to whom we present our thoughts, because to pray unceasingly means to think and live in the presence of Love. To pray unceasingly is to channel our thoughts out of their fearful isolation into a fearless conversation with God…

Prayer, therefore, is not introspection. Introspection means to look inward, to enter into the complex network of our mental processes in search of some inner logic or some elucidating connections. Introspection results from the desire to know ourselves better and to become more familiar with our own interiority. Although introspection has a positive role in our thought processes, there is a danger that it may entangle us in a labyrinth of our own ideas, feelings, and emotions and lead us to an increasing self-preoccupation.

Introspection often causes paralyzing worries or unproductive self-gratification. Introspection has the potential to create moodiness, and this moodiness is a very widespread phenomenon in our society. It betrays our great concern with ourselves and our undue sensitivity to all our thoughts and feelings. It leads us to experience life as a constant fluctuation between 'feeling high' and 'feeling low,' between 'good days' and 'bad days,' and thus becomes a form of narcissism.

Prayer is not introspection. It is not a scrupulous, inward-looking analysis of our own thoughts and feelings but it is an attentiveness to the Presence of Love personified inviting us to an encounter. Prayer is the presentation of our thoughts to the One who receives them, sees them in the light of unconditional love, and responds to them with divine compassion. This context of thinking in the Presence, of conversation and dialogue with Love, is the joyful affirmation of our gentle Companion on the journey with God who knows our minds and hearts, our goodness and our beauty, our darkness and our light.

In this context, our life of prayer - apart from the necessary and shared liturgical framework which must always remain to hold our own together - comes down to discerning how to "think... in the Presence." For me it has become the Jesus Prayer; but there are many alternatives, the Rosary, centring prayer, the Kyrie, the Trisagion... the list goes on. What seems to be essential is that we should be willing to be naked before God, to let go of the pretences, the "pious little niche" mentality; to stop even trying to stop trying, and just "come as we are", full of the thoughts and fears and longings that define who we are at this moment. That we be still, at last, and know that he is God.

Friday, May 23, 2008


I've been trying very hard this week to try to find a way to express this sense I have that so much of prayer goes on wordlessly, hidden even from the one praying. Trouble is, how does one write about something like that? I'm reminded of Lao Tzu's remark that "The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name."

But the prayer does go on. I find that increasingly I cannot put God out of my mind. Whatever I try and think about, it's God and Jan, God and supper, God and music... Things somehow get tested against his presence, in the oddest way. Even decisions about technical things are not entirely exempt, like the ethics of open-source as opposed to commercially developed software!

More than that, I cannot get away from the pain that I feel, that Maggie Ross so tellingly describes as "the gnawing pain in the pit of your soul that is a resonance of the pain of the human condition..." (In my case, it's as often the pain of the rest of creation, the animals and the plants and the broken and hurting stuff of existence itself.) The only way to deal with such pain, against which I have less and less defence, is to pray. The Jesus Prayer comes more and more naturally, appearing at all sorts of times of the day or night, so that I'm not sure if I suddenly begin to pray, or whether I'm just suddenly aware that I have been praying all along...

Ironically, my set times of prayer have become more difficult: I am more easily distracted, more easily interrupted. I find myself constantly challenged, continually driven back to my rule like someone clinging to a floating spar in a tide race.

More and more I find myself enormously grateful for the Third Order, for the whole community of St. Francis throughout the world, in whichever denomination; religious and secular alike they are my sisters and brothers, the little ones of Jesus. I really don't know what I should do without them!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Becoming a Peacemaker...

What if God were to speak to us now; to give us a fresh look at what's real, true, and the core of our world? Might God say, "Be just, be kind, care, share, give, take, love, laugh, cry, feel the pain, and dance in the time of joy"? And what would we hear? Would it be what we want to hear, or what was said? Could we each hear in our own way? Must we all be of the same mind? Must the one who hears at twelve feet fight with the one who hears at twelve yards? Will the black one and the white one and the child of the land all know God in the same way? And if not, will they then fight?

What if God said, "I grant you a gift: a world full of peace, health, and food for all. I give you a time, now, when each may sit by his vine and by her fig tree and none will cause you fear"? Would we heed the words? If God came to each of us in a dream, would we hold the dream in our hearts and souls, or would we cast it off as just a dream? What would it take to look deep with in, where we live and know truth, and there to find the one God, who cries for us and waits and hopes and says, "I am here. Do not fear. Live, love, talk, and walk hand in hand with me. Let no child learn war anymore, but let each bring what is right and just in his home and in her land!"

Rabbi Albert M Lewis, Director of the Emeritus College at Aquinas, Grand Rapids, Michigan - courtesy of the Henri Nouwen Society
(Note: Rabbi Lewis has written this reflection using only one-syllable words. It is an old discipline, intended to be simple without being simplistic)

Monday, May 19, 2008

A long obedience in the opposite direction...

In a world of fugitives the person taking the opposite direction will appear to run away. If the truth has made us odd, if we have not accommodated ourselves out of all recognition, then it will appear to some people that we're running away, that we're living an escapist existence, that we're outsiders, even outlaws – whereas the truth is that we're the insiders, because we're bearing God's reality, not the world's. We are the true establishment, because we are building and inhabiting God's basilica, the commonwealth of eternity, not earth.

From: TS Eliot, The Family Reunion (hat-tip to inward/outward)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Trinity Sunday

God For Us, we call You Father,
God Alongside Us, we call You Jesus,
God Within Us, we call You Holy Spirit.

You are the Eternal Mystery
That enables, enfolds, and enlivens all things,
Even us, and even me.

Every name falls short of your
Goodness and Greatness.
We can only see who You are in what is.
We ask for such perfect seeing.
As it was in the beginning, is now,
and ever shall be.

Richard Rohr, from Simplicity

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Bearing pain into silence...

It's the night before Trinity Sunday, and I'm aware that I've been pretty silent this week, for which apologies. It's been a busy week, on the outside, but inside I've not been able to stop thinking about the passage from Maggie Ross I mentioned on Monday, where she says:

There are as many ways of intercession as there are moments of life. Intercession can become deep and habitual, hidden even from our selves. There is nothing exotic about such practice. What matters is the intention that creates the space and the stillness. Even something as simple as refusing to anesthetize the gnawing pain in the pit of your soul that is a resonance of the pain of the human condition is a form of habitual intercession. To bear this pain into the silence is to bring it into the open place of God’s infinite mercy. It is in our very wounds that we find the solitude and openness of our re-creation and our being. We learn to go to the heart of pain to find God’s new life, hope, possibility, and joy. This is the priestly task of our baptism.

This so accurately describes the path of prayer God has been leading me increasing along for nearly 30 years - acutely, for the last 10 years - that it is quite uncanny. It's also, by definition, hard to write about - hard even to think about, conceptually, since it is so hidden. As Maggie says, it is at times hidden even from ourselves.

Maggie writes of "the intention that creates the space and the stillness..." and it is this which the Jesus Prayer does. But it doesn't only do that: it helps us quite explicitly to "bear this pain into the silence... to bring it into the open place of God’s infinite mercy." The repetition of the words, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner" create a stillness and a crying, where the wounds of our openness to, our identification with, the pain of the human condition are lifted up to the Cross in all their particularity and is-ness, and in all our own defencelessness and conceptual defeat.

The astonishing thing is, it works - something happens, when we pray like this, far greater than our own little intellects can grasp. Or should I say, why should I be astonished that Jesus would answer this kind of prayer, so close to his own heart?*

There is far more to this way of praying than this, and I am only just beginning to understand a little of it. I shall hope to explore a little more here over the next week or so - but I hope you will bear with me if I am a bit faltering, both in regularity of posts and in my language - I find this difficult to write about, just as I know I must try...

    *Matthew 6.6; Luke 13.34; Luke 18.35ff; John 11.35 etc.

Monday, May 12, 2008

God's tears...

Another way to talk about intercession might be to say that because the life we have is a share in God’s life, when we pray on behalf of another, we are creating a space for God to use that life as is most appropriate, according to God’s light, not ours. Because of our shared nature with God, in this space our life becomes God’s life: God’s tears, God’s offering, God’s power. We set God free to work his mysterious love in ways that we should not care to seek to know, if we are rightly focused on God. Some people wake each night to devote a specific amount of time to this conscious offering of their lives on behalf of the world, to make a space, however humble, where some small fragment of human suffering can perhaps find a little respite and peace.

There are as many ways of intercession as there are moments of life. Intercession can become deep and habitual, hidden even from our selves. There is nothing exotic about such practice. What matters is the intention that creates the space and the stillness. Even something as simple as refusing to anesthetize the gnawing pain in the pit of your soul that is a resonance of the pain of the human condition is a form of habitual intercession. To bear this pain into the silence is to bring it into the open place of God’s infinite mercy. It is in our very wounds that we find the solitude and openness of our re-creation and our being. We learn to go to the heart of pain to find God’s new life, hope, possibility, and joy. This is the priestly task of our baptism.

From: Maggie Ross: The Space of Prayer, III

I do recommend reading Maggie's whole three-part (so far?) series on prayer - there are some profound and lovely things there, and a deep understanding of the contemplative way.

Pentecost a day late (I have an excuse...)

Little Tommy was baptised yesterday. What better day for it? The sun was shining over All Saints Church on Portland, and we remembered the day the Holy Spirit arrived in power...

Living in the Country...

You Should Live in the Country

You are laid back, calm, and good at entertaining yourself.

You don't need an expensive big city to keep you busy.

You'll take the peaceful life over the stressful life any day of the week.

Where Should You Live?

Seems I'm living in the right place, then.

Hat tip to Jane for this piece of perceptive silliness...

Friday, May 09, 2008

The Just One Book Meme

Thanks (?) to Diane, who gives the rules as:

Books are scarce in the world. They are illegal in some provinces. They are not easily replaced if not impossible to replace if lost in many if not most circumstances. If you can replace a book or buy one it is usually through the black market at astronomical costs that you cannot afford. Yet you have been able to maintain one of the best collections in the world. If your entire library was about to burn up (think of the firefighters in Fahrenheit 451 invading your home) and you could only have one* book to take with you other than the Bible, what would that be and why?

Simple Rules: Answer the question. Offer one quote that resonates with you. Tag five people whose response is of genuine interest to you and inform him or her that they have been tagged. Cheers!

*And it cannot be an entire series of something, that’s cheating.


Has to be Julian of Norwich, in Sheila Upjohn's tremendous translation, All Shall Be Well. Can't be anyone else, really. Not even St. Francis, or St. Isaac of Nineveh, or Thomas Traherne, or Charles Williams, or Tolkien, or Philip Pullman, or Br. Ramon, or, or, or...


But I'm not going to tag anyone, Diane. I never can. So if anyone reading this wishes to put themselves through this utterly miserable experience, be my guest. Just let me know whom I've haunted with this horrible thought, so I can offer appropriate penance...

Seven Spiritual Weapons...

Jesus Christ gave up his life that we might live, therefore, whoever wishes to carry the cross for his sake must take up the proper weapons for the contest, especially those mentioned here. First, diligence; second, distrust of self; third, confidence in God; fourth, remembrance of the Passion; fifth, mindfulness of one's own death; sixth, remembrance of God's glory; seventh, the injunctions of Sacred Scripture following the example of Jesus Christ in the desert.

St. Catharine of Bologna, On the Seven Spiritual Weapons

An obscure 15th Century Poor Clare puts her finger on so many of our troubles in following the way of prayer. Well, on mine, at least!

I'm aware that in the first decade of the 21st Century Sister Catharine's second weapon will sound a little strange to some, accustomed as we are to thoughts of self-realisation, self-actualisation, self-improvement, self-importance... but it is honestly essential. The older I get, and the longer I keep at this strange occupation of ours, the more it seems essential.

"The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17.9 NIV)

The heart deceives itself; it deceives the very person in whose breast it beats. Unless we trust God utterly, and ourselves very little, we're going to trip over every spiritual obstacle, and every quirk of our own humanness - what used to be called "the flesh".

There's nothing perverse or sinister in what Catharine is saying. It's only when we don't take her advice that we have recourse to hair shirts and cold baths. So long as we walk in the way of the Psalmist who said, "I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands." (Psalm 119.176 NIV) we'll be OK. God's word will light our path, and all our prayers will be from the heart of a God we can trust utterly, who holds our trembling helplessness gently in his pierced hands, and loves us no matter what.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Prayer of the Heart

I think Sister Julian would have approved of the following!

It is difficult to speak of the aim or goal of [contemplative] prayer, for there is a sense in which it is a process of union which is as infinite as it is intimate... The meaning and design of the Jesus Prayer is an ever deepening union with God, within the communion of saints. It is personal, corporate and eternal, and the great mystics, in the Biblical tradition, come to an end of words. They say that "eye has not seen nor ear heard", they speak of "joy unspeakable" and "groanings unutterable" and "peace that passes understanding".

But there are some things which we can say, which are derivative of that central core of ineffable experience. We can say that such prayer contains within itself a new theology of intercession. It is not that we are continually naming names before God, and repeating stories of pain, suffering and bereavement on an individual and corporate level, but rather that we are able to carry the sorrows and pains of the world with us into such contemplative prayer as opens before us in the use of the Jesus Prayer. God knows, loves and understands more than we do, and he carries us into the dimension of contemplative prayer and love, and effects salvation, reconciliation and healing in his own way, using us as the instruments of his peace, pity and compassion.

Thus we can say that the "prayer of the heart" unites us with the whole order of creation, and imparts to us a cosmic awareness of the glory of God in both the beauty and the sadness of the world. The process of transfiguration for the whole world has begun in the Gospel, but it will not be completed until the coming of Christ in glory. And until that time we are invited, through prayer, to participate in the healing of the world's ills by the love of God. And if we participate at such a level, then we shall know both pain and glory. The life and ministry of Jesus in the gospels reveal this dimension, for Jesus was at one and the same time the "man of sorrows, acquainted with grief", and the transfigured healer, manifesting the glory of the Father upon the holy mountain.

Brother Ramon SSF Praying the Jesus Prayer Marshall Pickering 1988

Julian of Norwich, contemplative, mystic, counsellor, theologian

Wonderful and glorious is the place where the Lord lives. And so it is his will that we turn quickly at his gracious touch, rejoicing more in his entire love that sorrowing over our frequent falling.

For it is the greatest worship we can give him, that we should live gladly and merrily because of his love while we are here in penance. For he looks on us so tenderly that he sees all our living as penance. For the natural longing we have for him is an everlasting penance to us - and he mercifully helps us bear it.

For his love makes him long for us, and his wisdom and truth, with his rightfulness, make him allow us to be here. And he wills that we see it like this.

For this penance is natural to us, and is the highest - as I see it. For this penance never leaves us until the time we are fulfilled and have him as our reward.

Julian of Norwich, Showings (Long Text) Chapter 81 Tr. Sheila Upjohn

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Praises of God

Lord God:
you alone are holy,
you who work wonders!
You are strong, you are great,
you are the Most High,
you are the almighty King,
you, holy Father, King of heaven and earth.

Lord God: you are Three and you are One,
you are goodness, all goodness,
you are the highest Good,
Lord God, living and true.

You are love and charity, you are wisdom,
you are humility, you are patience,
you are beauty, you are sweetness,
you are safety, you are rest, you are joy,
you are our hope
and our delight,
you are justice, you are moderation
you are all our wealth
and riches overflowing.

You are beauty, you are gentleness,
you are our shelter, our guard
and our defender,
you are strength, you are refreshment,
you are our hope.
you are our faith.
you are our love,
you are our complete consolation,
you are our life everlasting,
great and wonderful Lord,
all powerful God, merciful Saviour!


St. Francis of Assisi

Monday, May 05, 2008

The time between...

We are between Ascension Day and Pentecost: we are in the Novena: in the nine days between. This is the original meaning of the term. These between times in the Christian year always seem like thin places to me, times when whatever it is divides the material and the spiritual, this world and the next, is somehow less dense, permeable almost.

In these nine days - between our Lord's ascension to the Father, and the outpouring of the promised Holy Spirit - his mother Mary, together with "certain women" (I think we can guess who was among them!), his brothers, and the Apostles, "were constantly devoting themselves to prayer." (Acts 1.13-14) It must have been strange for them. They had no real idea how long they were going to have to wait, nor quite what it was they were waiting for. They just knew Jesus had told them to wait. Oh, he had told them to wait to "be baptised with the Holy Spirit" - but they had no real frame of reference for that.

We are ourselves living in the times between. We live between birth, which we can't really remember, and death, which we can't really imagine. We know, as Christians, that death isn't the end of the story; but what lies on the other side of death we can't imagine either. More than this: we lives in the times between our Lord's ministry on earth, his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, and his Parousia, his "coming again" - whatever that means. On the far side of Parousia lies the Eschaton, and at that our imaginations finally, and completely, fail. Well, mine does. If what John the Evangelist was shown was in fact a glimpse of it, even his philosophical mind and his wonderful grasp of Greek failed him, and we are left with the enigma (I almost said mare's nest) that we call The Revelation.

So what did the original followers of Jesus do, lost like us in their time between, not knowing how long they were waiting, or for what, really? They constantly devoted themselves to prayer. I can't myself think of any other possible reaction... I suppose that is why I find myself so strongly, so deeply called to the life of prayer. I am confused, puzzled. I find this whole thing of being between Parousia and Eschaton, between birth and death, between the chthonic and the spiritual, just baffling, just as I find it baffling (Romans 8.26) to know how to pray. And that, as much as anything, is why I seem to have been called to pray the Jesus Prayer. "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." What else is there to say?

Saturday, May 03, 2008

The paradox of freedom...

It's quite clear that in the final analysis it's the grace of Christ that liberates us. It's the experience of unconditional love that really sets us free.

But first we have to be led to the circumstances that make it possible for this love to get through to us, so that we can sense and experience the need for this new life.

Richard Rohr, from Simplicity

This is what so often seems so scary about the Christian life. TS Eliot once called it, "A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)" (Little Gidding, from Four Quartets), and Jesus himself spoke of taking up one's cross in order to follow him. But it is true.

Jesus gives us a hint, perhaps. To the Jews who had believed him, he said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8.31-32 NIV)

Love, truth, freedom. And yet they can only be found through obedience. As always, paradox, resolved in grace, in mercy.

Psalm 119 sums it up:

Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your word...

It was good for me to be afflicted
so that I might learn your decrees...

I know, O LORD, that your laws are righteous,
and in faithfulness you have afflicted me.

May your unfailing love be my comfort,
according to your promise to your servant.

Let your compassion come to me that I may live,
for your law is my delight.

(Ps 199.67,71,75-77 NIV)

That's all?

I love this little essay from among Barbara Crafton's Almost Daily eMos. She captures the essence of contemplation more clearly, for me, in these few simple sentences than many more scholarly attempts:

The church in the morning is dark. The candles offer a more encouraging beauty than electric lights ever could, and so we leave them off in the sanctuary. Something about lighted candles in a church quiets the mind and stills the tongue, and the day begins with a certain hush, a quiet easing into the world.
In the evening, the sun lights the window in the sanctuary, firing all its colors and bringing them to life. It is so brilliant that you could leave the candles unlit and nobody would notice. But we light them anyway. Lighting a candle to begin a set-aside time for quiet contemplation, scripture and prayer is a signal. Do it often enough, and the very lighting of the candle triggers prayer itself. The human capacity to condition ourselves, to form habits of spiritual response to physical things, is a powerful aid to the spiritual life.

These contemplative moments are times when one understands that understanding is not the sole goal of the spiritual life. Human reason is a gift, but it is not our only gift. That quiet, receptive waiting that begins when we go to the prayer place at the prayer time, light the prayer candle, pick up the prayer book, inhale deeply the old-hymnals-fresh-candlewax-memory-of-furniture-polish smell of a place that 140 years of prayer have made holy: that receptive waiting is a gift, too. Just as we exercise our minds by learning, we exercise our capacity to receive simply by showing up in the prayer place and waiting, content to be empty until God fills us.

And then what happens, when God fills us? Might we fall to the ground, burst into ecstatic utterance? Well, we might. Mostly, though, we will just close our books when we are finished and thank each other for sharing this prayer. Then we go home, or go to work, or go make supper. Quiet. Calm. Ready for what comes. Over and over again, the same dependable readiness to meet the day or sleep the night can be mine or yours or anybody's. Just by showing up.

That's all? Shouldn't it be harder? Isn't more demanded of us? Oh, much is demanded of us in life, but it is not demanded here. Here, in the prayer place, we are not the ones who give. We are the ones who receive.

Pope Benedict XVI - no Dr Strangelove...

Do go and read this excellent (London) Times Online commentary from Gerard Baker - yet another whom the new Pope has thoroughly won over! (The title of this post is the title of Mr Baker's article.)

Here's a snippet:

...the Pope’s most compelling words are a constant reminder of how absurd his
stereotype has been. He speaks repeatedly of the simple beauty of human

Shortly before he became Pope, Benedict told a congregation: “Christianity is
not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism.
Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story, an event.”

This idea of faith as a love story — God’s love for his people, and our love
for Christ, the human face of God — is what Benedict seems to want us to
understand as the defining theme of his papacy. His first encyclical was not
on birth control or gay marriage, but on what many considered the somewhat
surprising subject of the simple divinity of human love, including the
sanctity of erotic love. This emphasis on the centrality of love to the
human condition is so at odds with the caricature of the doctrinal
vigilante, endlessly lecturing on the perils of sexual intemperance, that it
requires us to think hard about the very nature of religion’s role in modern
life. It is a useful counterweight to the popular secular view that religion
is the root of all human discord...

Friday, May 02, 2008

Friday Cat Blogging - the cat next door

This is Griffin, the cat next door, relaxing on our patio... which is I fear overdue for a spring clean!


Sue, over at Discombobula, links to this wonderful article by Dr. C. Baxter Kruger, on Calvinism and why he left! Superb reading - I'd advise clicking over and reading the whole thing - but here's a little snippet to whet your appetite:

The apostles are crystal clear that it was in and through and by and for Jesus that all things came into being and are sustained. Let me cite a few verses.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being (John 1:1-3).

For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created by Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together (Colossians 1:16-17).

And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3).

John and Paul and the author of Hebrews are emphatic that Jesus is the Creator and that not one thing that was created came into being in any way other than through Jesus Christ. And note that this point is not relegated to obscure footnotes in the latter chapters of their writings. This is the first point. As a side note, when is the last time you heard a sermon on the fact that Jesus is the Creator, the one in and through and by and for whom all things were created? Why isn’t such an obvious apostolic emphasis prominent in our preaching today?

My point here is to say that in the apostolic mind there is a definite and clear connection between Jesus Christ and all creation. Unless we are prepared to posit that the Father created and sustains creation’s existence behind the back of his Son, then, with the apostles, we affirm that everything came into being through the Father’s Son, and we affirm that everything continues to live and move and have its being through him (see Acts 17:28 and I Corinthians 8:6-7). Everything, including every human being, derives existence through Christ and breathes Christological air.

I shan't even try to summarise Dr Kruger's actual argument here; suffice it to say, he underlines my every misgiving about Calvinism as theology, while retaining respect and affection for the great John Calivin himself.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Ascension Day!

Blessed are you, almighty God,
through Jesus Christ the King of glory.
Born of a woman,
he came to our rescue.
Dying for us,
he trampled death and conquered sin.
By the glory of his resurrection
he opened the way to life eternal
and by his ascension,
gave us the sure hope
that where he is we may also be.
For these and all your mercies, we praise you,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit:
Blessed be God for ever!

(Oremus for Thursday, May 1, 2008
The Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ)
(opening prayer)