Monday, September 29, 2008

The spiritual dimension of the common cold...

When Francis read the Sermon on the Mount, he saw that the call to be poor stood right at the beginning: "How blessed are the poor in spirit!"

Henceforward, Francis' reading of the gospel considered poverty to be "the foundation of all other virtues and their guardian." The other virtues receive the kingdom only in promise; poverty, however, is invested with it already now and without delay. "Theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:3).

Franciscan spirituality has never been an abstraction. It is grounded in Jesus' specific instructions to his disciples and not in theology.

Richard Rohr, from Hope Against Darkness

I've had a dreadful cold this last week, the kind that reduces the interior of the head to soggy cotton-wool, so I've rather neglected blogging, having very little to say between blowing my nose...

Perhaps a really bad cold has a spiritual dimension, though. Seriously.

Being unable to think means you have nothing to fall back on but God, and being unable to say much at all allows God space and time (space and time I don't usually leave free) to sort out some of the tangles in my heart.

Rohr is right. We have nothing, spiritually. Actually, we have nothing materially, either, not that we can keep, or hold on to. We just imagine we do. (The contortions of the global economy recently should teach us that, if nothing else does.) And this is just how it should be. We're not made to have stuff: we're made to receive God, like little hollow cups. We think of following Jesus - we need to think of following him in his kenosis, his self-emptying, too. Only when we are prepared to lose it all will we truly have God. (Luke 9.23-27)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Insignificant and unbalanced...

Have no fear of being thought insignificant or unbalanced, but preach repentance with courage and simplicity. Have faith in the Lord, who has overcome the world. His Spirit speaks in you and through you, calling men and women to turn to him and observe his precepts. You will encounter some who are faithful, meek, and well disposed; they will joyfully receive you and your words. But there will be more who are sceptical, proud, and blasphemous, and who will insult you and resist your message. Prepare yourselves, therefore, to bear everything with patience and humility.

Saint Francis of Assisi
Legend of the Three Companions - 36

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

To live a contemplative life…

To live a contemplative life, to be spiritual, does not mean that we spend life in some kind of sacred spa designed to save us from having to deal with the down and dirty parts of life. The contemplative life is not spiritual escapism. Contemplation is immersion in the God who created the world for all of us…. And so must we do whatever justice must be done in our time if we claim to be serious about really sinking into the heart of God. A spiritual path that does not lead to a living commitment to the coming of the will of God everywhere for everyone is no path at all. It is, at best, a pious morass, a dead end on the way to God.

Joan Chittister

If we are truly to pray, truly to live without anaesthesia in a broken world, then we must avoid any hint of escapism. The kind of prayer implied by Romans 8.26, "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words…", and the Jesus Prayer, is anything but escapism. It is becoming one with God's mercy, caught up in what he is doing, even when we don't know what he is doing. This longing in prayer for Christ's mercy, longing for the healing of the Cross in this place of bitterness, involves changing our own hearts, taking away all that insulates us from God, and from the brokenness towards which his mercy reaches out. (This, I take it, is what self-denial actually means.)

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

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

(Isaac of Nineveh, Ascetical Homilies, pp. 344-5)

Our vocation...

The peace which you proclaim with words must dwell even more abundantly in your hearts. Do not provoke others to anger or give scandal. Rather, let your gentleness draw them to peace, goodness, and concord. This is your vocation: to heal wounds, to bind what is broken, to bring home those who are lost. And remember that many who may now seem to be of the devil can one day become disciples of Christ.

Saint Francis of Assisi
Legend of the Three Companions, 58

Monday, September 22, 2008

Receiving mercy...

Do you want to know God? Then learn to understand the weaknesses and imperfections of [others]. But how can you understand the weaknesses of others unless you understand your own? And how can you see the meaning of your own limitations until you have received mercy from God, by which you know yourself and Him? It is not sufficient to forgive others: we must forgive them with humility and compassion. If we forgive them without humility, our forgiveness is a mockery: it presupposes that we are better than they...

We overcome the evil in the world by the charity and compassion of God, and in so doing we drive all evil out of our own hearts.

Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, Doubleday and Company, 1955, p. 163.

Busyness and worry...

We need to be especially alert to the evil subtlety of Satan. His one desire is to keep people from having a mind and heart disposed to their Lord and God.

He circles, lusting to snatch away the human heart by the ruse of some gain or assistance and to stifle remembrance of the word and precepts of the Lord.

He wants to extinguish the light of the human heart, and so he moves in by means of worldly busyness and worry.

Saint Francis of Assisi
Rule of 1221, Chapter XXII
with thanks to Portiuncula

Friday, September 19, 2008

Poverty and weakness…

When you see a poor man, you must consider the one in whose name he comes, namely, Christ, who took upon himself our poverty and weakness. The poverty and sickness of this man are, therefore, a mirror in which we ought to contemplate lovingly the poverty and weakness which our Lord Jesus Christ suffered in his body to save the human race.

St. Francis of Assisi
Legend of Perugia - 89
With thanks to Portiuncula

Iuxta Crucem…

This reflection by Henri Nouwen seems to fit perfectly with the previous post, somehow:

Standing erect, holding our heads high, is the attitude of spiritually mature people in face of the calamities of our world. The facts of everyday life are a rich source for doomsday thinking and feeling. But it is possible for us to resist this temptation and to stand with self-confidence in this world, never losing our spiritual ground, always aware that "sky and earth will pass away" but the words of Jesus will never pass away (see Luke 21:33).

Let us be like Mary, the mother of Jesus, who stood under the cross, trusting in God's faithfulness notwithstanding the death of his beloved Child.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

The paradox of the Cross…

Sister Laurel M. O'Neal, erem. dio. has a remarkable post over on her blog Notes from Stillsong Hermitage, in which she discusses the Exaltation of the Cross. I'd really recommend you to click over and read the whole post, because the thread of what she says is so important, but I can't resist posting a couple of passages here:

How many times have we heard it suggested that Christians ought not wear crosses around their necks as jewelry any more than they should wear tiny images of electric chairs, medieval racks or other symbols of torture and death? Similarly, how many times has it been said that making jewelry of the cross trivialize what happened there? There is a great deal of truth in these objections, and in similar ones! On the one hand the cross points to the slaughter by torture of hundreds of thousands of people by an oppressive state. More individually it points to the slaughter by torture of an innocent man in order to appease a rowdy religious crowd by an individual of troubled but dishonest conscience, one who put "the supposed greater good" before the innocence of this single victim.

And of course there were collaborators in this slaughter: the religious establishment, disciples who were either too cowardly to stand up for their beliefs, or those who actively betrayed this man who had loved them and called them to a life of greater abundance than they had ever known before. If we are going to appreciate the triumph of the cross, if we are going to exalt it as Christians do and should, then we cannot forget this aspect of it. Especially we cannot forget that much that happened here was NOT THE WILL OF GOD, nor that generally the perpetrators were not cooperating with that will! The cross was the triumph of God over sin and sinful godless death, but it was ALSO a sinful and godless human (and societal!) act of murder by torture. Both aspects exist in tension with each other, as they do in ALL of God's victories in our world…

…the Cross does indeed triumph. Suffering does not. Pain does not. Neither will our lives be defined in terms of these things despite their very real presence. What I think needs to be especially clear is that the exaltation of the cross has to do with what was made possible in light of the combination of awful and humanly engineered torment, and the grace of God. Sin abounded but grace abounded all the more. Does this mean we invite suffering so that "grace may abound all the more?" Well, Paul's clear answer to that question was, "By no means!" How about tolerating suffering when we can do something about it? What about remaining in an abusive relationship, or refusing medical treatment which would ease mental and physical pain, for instance? Do we treat these as crosses we MUST bear? Do we allow ourselves to become complicit in the abuse or the destructive effects of pain and physical or mental illness? I think the general answer is no, of course not…

We must act in ways which open others TO THE GRACE OF GOD. Yes, suffering does this, but this hardly means we simply tell people to pray, grin, and bear it - much less allowing the oppressive structures to stay in place! As the gospels tell us, "the poor you will always have with you" but this hardly means doing nothing to relive poverty! Similarly we will always have suffering with us on this side of death. What is essential is that the Cross of Christ is exalted, that the Cross of Christ triumphs in our lives and society, not simply that individual crosses remain or that we exalt them (especially when they are the result of human engineering and sin)! And, as I have written before, to allow Christ's Cross to triumph is to allow the grace of God to transform all the dark and meaningless places with his presence, light and love. It is ONLY in this way that we truly "make up for what is lacking in the passion of Christ."

There is such wisdom in what Sr. Laurel says here, and deep understanding of this sense of paradox, of things held in tension that are humanly irreconcilable, that marks so much of God's dealings with women and men. I have often groped for a way to express this reconciled contradiction myself in this blog, but I think Sister has expressed it here better than I've managed so far!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Roots and things…

The Oxford Movement called on people to look more deeply into the institutional life of the established Church to discover its inner mystery as the Body of Christ. In reading the Tracts one discovers beneath the concern for institutional structures a deep piety and spirituality, and even more a sense that the Tractarians' concern about institutions and their outward forms arose from what they believed about Jesus Christ as Lord of the Church. The immediate situation called for a defence of the Church against those who would, as they thought, destroy it. As the Movement gathered strength they were more and more nourished by a sacramental spirituality and devotion which had much wider implications. . . .

The Church is sacramental not simply because it was founded by Jesus but because it is his graceful presence in the lives of human beings. It was this vision of the Church which became so central to the Oxford Movement, first as it was expressed in the Tracts and later in sermons, manuals of devotion and theological treatises. The Church was seen as the community of grace, the means through which we share in the life of God in Christ, and as the present embodiment of Christ himself by his Spirit in the world. Therefore, it could be nothing less than sacramental: the visible presence of the invisible God; his redeeming act towards his people in their history, working through people, institutional structures, and the things of creation—water and bread and wine.

Nowhere, perhaps, is such a view better expressed than in Dr. Pusey’s Tract on baptism (Tract 67) and in his several writings on the Eucharist (Tract 81 and his sermon ‘The Holy Eucharist a Comfort to the Penitent’). In those writings Pusey draws upon the scriptures, the writings of the Fathers (especially Cyril of Alexandria) and a host of earlier Anglican divines, to show that in those two sacramental acts of the Church our redemption in Christ is made real and present to us through God’s use of the things of creation, and that through them we are truly incorporated into and participate in the real humanity of Christ himself. In the sacraments a new principle of life is imparted to us as we are united to Christ in the Church.

From Church, Ministry and Unity: A Divine Commission by James E. Griffiss, a volume in the Faith and the Future series, edited by David Nicholls (Basil Blackwell, 1983) with thanks to Vicki K Black


[The Franciscan Third Order] was formed in the Anglican Communion around 1936 at a time when Brother Douglas was operating from a farmhouse in Dorset, now called Hilfield Friary, and Father Algy had the vision of establishing three orders, as in the medieval church. The Third Order in Europe celebrated its Diamond Jubilee at Salisbury Cathedral on Saturday, 20th July 1996, led by its Minister Provincial, Very Revd Stephen Platten, Dean of Norwich;   In addition to Europe there are four other provinces in which the Third Order operates: America, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, whilst a number of tertiaries work in isolated areas under the care of the Minister General.

from the TSSF UK website

The roots of the Anglican Franciscans run deep into the Oxford Movement, for it was within the movement that the Anglican church began to recover the legacy of monasticism:

Monastic life in England came to an abrupt end with Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII. The property and lands of the monasteries were confiscated and either retained by the king or given to loyal protestant nobility. Monks and nuns were forced to either flee for the continent or to abandon their vocations. For around 300 years, there were no monastic communities within any of the Anglican churches.

Shortly after the Oxford Movement began to advocate restoring catholic faith and practice to the Church of England (see Anglo-Catholicism), there was felt to be a need for a restoration of the monastic life. Anglican priest John Henry Newman established a community of men at Littlemore near Oxford in the 1840s. From then forward, there have been many communities of monks, friars, sisters, and nuns established within the Anglican Communion. In 1848, Mother Priscilla Lydia Sellon founded the Anglican Sisters of Charity and became the first woman to take religious vows within the Anglican Communion since the Reformation. In October 1850 the first building specifically built for the purpose of housing an Anglican Sisterhood was consecrated at Abbeymere in Plymouth. It housed several schools for the destitute, a laundry, printing press and soup kitchen. From the 1840s and throughout the following one hundred years, religious orders for both men and women proliferated in the UK and the United States, as well as in various countries of Africa, Asia, Canada, India and the Pacific.

Some Anglican religious communities are contemplative, some active, but a distinguishing feature of the monastic life among Anglicans is that most practice the so-called "mixed life", a combination of a life of contemplative prayer with active service. Anglican religious life closely mirrors that of Roman Catholicism. Like Roman Catholic religious, Anglican religious also take the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Religious communities live together under a common rule, reciting the Divine Office and celebrating the Eucharist daily.

In the early 20th century when the Anglo-Catholic Movement was at its height, the Anglican Communion had hundreds of orders and communities, and thousands of religious. However, since the 1960s there has been a sharp falling off in the numbers of religious in many parts of the Anglican Communion, most notably in the United Kingdom and the United States. Many once large and international communities have been reduced to a single convent or monastery comprised of elderly men or women. In the last few decades of the 20th century, novices have for most communities been few and far between. Some orders and communities have already become extinct. There are however, still thousands of Anglican religious working today in religious communities around the world. While vocations remain few in some areas, Anglican religious communities are experiencing exponential growth in Africa, Asia, and Oceania.

from the Wikipedia article on Christian Monasticism


One of the results of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church during the 19th century was the re-establishment of religious orders, including some of Franciscan inspiration. The principal Anglican communities in the Franciscan tradition are the Community of St. Francis (women, founded 1905), the Society of Saint Francis (men, founded 1934), and the Community of St Clare (women, enclosed). There is also a Third Order.

Another officially sanctioned Anglican order with a more contemplative focus is the order of the Little Brothers of Francis in the Anglican Church of Australia. Their webpage is here

There is a young Order of Ecumenical Franciscans that started in the United States. Their webpage is here

There are also some small Franciscan communities within European Protestant and Old Catholic Churches, and The Saint Francis Ecumenical Society - [4] Ecumenical Franciscan Society from Eastern Europe (Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and free Protestant members). There are some Franciscan orders in Lutheran Churches.

Two of the more ecumenical Franciscan Orders within the Anglican heritage are the Order of Servant Franciscans (OSF)[5] and the Conventual Community of Saint Francis (CCSF). The members of the Order of Servant Franciscans (OSF) are committed the process of becoming ministers of Christ's message of reconciliation and love, as demonstrated by the holy lives of Saints Francis and Clare. The Conventual Community of Saint Francis (CCSF) has a special charism to serve the marginalized, including the poor and homeless, racial and sexual minorities, and others who are not welcomed by the institutional church. The OSF and the CCSF are not officially related in any way.

from the Wikipedia article on Franciscans

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

I do not give to you as the world gives...

Many people live with the unconscious or conscious expectation that eventually things will get better; wars, hunger, poverty, oppression, and exploitation will vanish; and all people will live in harmony. Their lives and work are motivated by that expectation. When this does not happen in their lifetimes, they are often disillusioned and experience themselves as failures.

But Jesus doesn't support such an optimistic outlook. He foresees not only the destruction of his beloved city Jerusalem but also a world full of cruelty, violence, and conflict. For Jesus there is no happy ending in this world. The challenge of Jesus is not to solve all the world's problems before the end of time but to remain faithful at any cost...

About the end-time Jesus says: "There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the turmoil of the ocean and its waves; men fainting away with terror and fear at what menaces the world, for the power of heaven will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory" (Luke 21:25-28) All of this is already taking place. For anyone who has listened deeply to the heart of God, the despair of the world and the coming of the great liberation are both visible every day.

What then should we do? Jesus says it clearly: "Stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand" (Luke 21:28). There is so much hope here. We do not have to faint but can stand straight, welcoming our Lord with outstretched arms.

Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey


I am convinced that most of the saints were religious dropouts from societies that were going nowhere. Faith called them to drop out and believe in something else.

Jesus' announcement of the reign of God was telling us that culture as we've created it is on a track toward self-destruction and emptiness.

All we have to give up is the utterly false understanding that we have of ourselves from civil society. For some reason that liberation seems to be the most difficult thing in the world!

Richard Rohr, from Radical Grace


Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Jesus, John 14.27

I wonder if I'm odd in finding these thoughts comforting at times like this...?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Not just one more thing...

The spiritual knowledge that we belong to God and are safe with God even as we live in a very destructive world allows us to see in the midst of all the turmoil, fear, and agony of history "the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory" (Luke 21:27). Even though Jesus speaks about this as about a final event, it is not just one more thing that is going to happen after all the terrible things are over. Just as the end-time is already here, so too is the coming of the Son of Man. It is an event in the realm of the Spirit and thus not subject to the boundaries of time.

Those who live in communion with Jesus have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the second coming of Jesus among them in the here and now. Jesus says: "Before this generation has passed away all will have taken place" (Luke 21:32). And this is true for each faithful generation.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

This is one of the most astonishing bits of eschatological preaching I've read. One of those, "Of course!" moments... how limited we can be in our thinking, how tied to our unquestioned concepts of time and matter. Physicists know better!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Keeping it together...

How can we not lose our souls when everything and everybody pulls us in the most different directions? How can we "keep it together" when we are constantly torn apart?

Jesus says: "Not a hair of your head will be lost. Your perseverance will win you your lives" (Luke 21:18-19). We can only survive our world when we trust that God knows us more intimately than we know ourselves. We can only keep it together when we believe that God holds us together. We can only win our lives when we remain faithful to the truth that every little part of us, yes, every hair, is completely safe in the divine embrace of our Lord. To say it differently: When we keep living a spiritual life, we have nothing to be afraid of.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Naked and poor...

I think authentic God experience gives you another place to stand, another identity, and the courage to stand outside of the world.

Authentic God experience liberates you from the domination system, liberates you from needing everything to be perfect or right, and liberates you to be who you really are - naked and poor.

And until you can stand in what Jesus called the kingdom of God, a different kingdom, you will almost always be completely subservient to the world.

Richard Rohr, from Spiral of Violence

In a world so full of social and political turmoil and immense human suffering, people of faith will often be ridiculed because of their so-called ineffectiveness. Many will say: "If you believe that there is a loving God, let your God do something about this mess!" Some will simply declare religion irrelevant, while others will consider it an obstacle to the creation of a new and better world.

Jesus often tells his followers that, as he was, they will be persecuted, arrested, tortured, and killed. But he also tells us not to worry but to trust in him at all times. "Make up your minds not to prepare your defence, because I myself shall give you an eloquence and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to resist or contradict" (Luke 21:14-15). Let's not be afraid of skepticism and cynicism coming our way, but trust that God will give us the strength to hold our ground...

In a world so full of social and political turmoil and immense human suffering, people of faith will often be ridiculed because of their so-called ineffectiveness. Many will say: "If you believe that there is a loving God, let your God do something about this mess!" Some will simply declare religion irrelevant, while others will consider it an obstacle to the creation of a new and better world.

Jesus often tells his followers that, as he was, they will be persecuted, arrested, tortured, and killed. But he also tells us not to worry but to trust in him at all times. "Make up your minds not to prepare your defence, because I myself shall give you an eloquence and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to resist or contradict" (Luke 21:14-15). Let's not be afraid of skepticism and cynicism coming our way, but trust that God will give us the strength to hold our ground...

When we are anxious we are inclined to overprepare. We wonder what to say when we are attacked, how to respond when we are being interrogated, and what defence to put up when we are accused. It is precisely this turmoil that makes us lose our self-confidence and creates in us a debilitating self-consciousness.

Jesus tells us not to prepare at all and to trust that he will give us the words and wisdom we need. What is important is not that we have a little speech ready but that we remain deeply anchored in the love of Jesus, secure about who we are in this world and why we are here. With our hearts connected to the heart of Jesus, we will always know what to say when the time to speak comes.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I need to hear these words over and over again. I know them to be true - time and again they have been proved to be true by actual events. Perhaps better, Christ has proved himself true in even the worst of events: "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) And yet still I wonder what I'd do if [insert the latest horror from the news, or nightmare of my own heart] happened - what I'd say, how I'd cope. And yet when bad things have happened - and a fair few have, over the last 10 years or so - not only have they not been the ones I was expecting, but I've had not a clue how to cope. And yet, every time, in the darkest places, the light was not overcome; and God, even in the most desperate times of fear and pain, has somehow caused "all things [to] work together for good for those who love [him], who are called according to his purpose." (Romans 8.28 NRSV)

St. Mary at the Cross...

Lord Jesus Christ,
when you were raised upon the cross,
your mother Mary stood beside you in your passion:
may your Church, as it shares in your suffering and death,
come to share more deeply in your risen life;
for, with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
you are alive and reign, one God,
now and for ever. Amen.

(Collect for 15 September, The Daily Office SSF)

Mary was the first to place a kiss on his brow.  She had quenched his thirst and caressed him with tenderness.  Now his hands are nailed to a tree.  His brow bleeding. His throat parched.  A mother never abandons her child.  His pain is her suffering.  His death, her broken heart.  Never had the world seen a mother’s heart filled with such joy at the birth of a child.  Never will it see such sorrow at his death.  Who could ever fathom the depth of a mother's love!

Matthew, Mark and Luke all place the other women on Golgotha "at a distance" (apo makrothen) from the cross.  But John places Mary right next to the cross (para to stauro).  The woman closest to Jesus in life is closest to him in death.  Love gives Mary the courage to be there.  There is no love in nature stronger than the bond of mother and child.

The crowd is drunk with mockery.  The criminal to the left is hurling insults.  The one to the right, begging for mercy.  Mary is silent.  With loud cries and lamentation, Rachel weeps at the death of her children (cf Jer 31:15).  There are sorrows that cannot be contained.  But not one word from Mary’s lips.  The deepest sorrow sheds silent tears.

At the angel's greeting, Mary spoke her fiat.  Then, in silence, the Word became flesh in her womb.  God has become man.  On Calvary, Mary stands in silence.  The taunts of the bystanders at Jesus’ death cannot drown out the sweet song of the angels at his birth.  Her silence is her consent to the mystery of salvation through the death of her son.

As Jesus was always faithful to the Father, Mary was always faithful to the Son. Her presence at the foot of the Cross is the gift of her total union with her son in the work of redemption.  Mary stands.  It is the position of nobility.  She causes her son no added pain by loud laments.  At the death of her sons cruelly executed, Rizpah throws herself on the ground in uncontrollable grief (2 Sam 23:10-11).  Mary stands.  It is the proper gesture for one who is sacrificing.  The Shepherd is willingly laying down his life as the Lamb led to slaughter.  Jesus is the Victim.  Mary is one with him in self-immolation...

Jesus spoke and water turned to wine.  His word multiplied bread and called Lazarus from the grave.  Christ’s word has power.  It effects what it commands.  He speaks now from the cross.  And his word creates a new reality, a new relationship in the economy of salvation.

"Son, behold your mother."  Jesus first entrusts the beloved disciple to Mary.  Mary is to care for the disciple.  Clearly, Jesus is not making provision for the earthly care of his mother after his death.  To the beloved, Jesus gifts his own mother.  He is not renouncing the bond that binds him to Mary.  He is elevating and expanding it.  The beloved disciple is every true believer.  Mary's motherhood is universal.  We are all placed in her care.

"Woman, behold your son."  It is the second Annunciation.  At the word of the angel, Mary became the mother of the Son of God.  At the word of the Son of God, she now becomes the mother of all God's children.

The Cross is the "hour" of redemption.  It is the moment when God's plan for our salvation is accomplished.  According to that plan, every disciple is now bound to Mary in the order of grace.  She is our mother, not just for a time, but for all eternity.  In the birth pangs of Golgotha, the Church is born.  And, at the center, there beats the heart of a mother.

Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli, Mary at the Cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

from Stabat Mater by Jacopone da Todi, 13th Century Franciscan friar (my own translation)

At the edge...

I am already forgetting the only thing that the silence has taught me: our lives are usable for God. We need not be effective, but only transparent and vulnerable.

God takes it all from there, and there is not much point in comparing who is better, right, higher or lower, or supposedly saved. We are all partial images slowly coming into focus, to the degree we allow and filter the Light and Love of God.

Richard Rohr, from Contemplation in Action

Those at the edge, ironically, always hold the secret for the conversion of every age and culture. They always hold the projected and denied parts of our soul.

Only as the People of God receive the stranger and the leper, those who don't play our game, do we discover not only the hidden and hated parts of our own souls, but the Lord Jesus himself.

In letting go, we make room for the Other. The Church is always converted when the outcasts are re-invited into the temple.

Richard Rohr, from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations 

As those who follow Christ, who was crucified outside the city wall, we are called always to question, by our very existence, the culture into which we have been born, or which our occupations have led us. We cannot allow ourselves to become comfortable - respectable members of a status quo supported by law, custom and wealth. But, and it is a big but, we are not called to be revolutionaries as the world understands revolution, still less terrorists, however we may have sometimes to preach terrible messages, as John the Baptist did.

"We need not be effective, but only transparent and vulnerable." Always we must remember this, for here is the secret both to the humility without which God cannot achieve anything in or through us. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux said, "No spiritual house can stand for a moment except on the foundation of humility." As Christians, we are not called to do great things for God. God has called us to allow him to do great things with us, in us, through us, around us: the glory is his, since it is he who does all that is good.

Something for us all to remember...

The tactic of nonviolence is a tactic of love that seeks the salvation and redemption of the opponent, not [our opponent's] castigation, humiliation, and defeat. A pretended nonviolence that seeks to defeat and humiliate the adversary by spiritual instead of physical attack is little more than a confession of weakness. True nonviolence is totally different from this, and much more difficult. It strives to operate without hatred, without hostility, and without resentment. It works without aggression, taking the side of the good that it is able to find already present in the adversary. This may be easy to talk about in theory. It is not easy in practice, especially when the adversary is aroused to a bitter and violent defense of an injustice which [the adversary] believes to be just. We must therefore be careful how we talk about our opponents, and still more careful how we regulate our differences with our collaborators. It is possible for the bitterest arguments, the most virulent hatreds, to arise among those who are supposed to be working together for the noblest of causes...

Nothing is better calculated to ruin and discredit a holy ideal than a fratricidal [and sororicidal] war among "saints."

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday, Inc., 1966) pp. 73-74

Follow me...

Did not the Lord's flock actually follow him in tribulation and persecution, shame and hunger, sickness and trial and all the rest, and thereby receive eternal life from the Lord? What a great shame, then, that while the saints actually followed in the footsteps of the Lord, we, today's servants of God, expect glory and honor simply because we can recite what they did.

Saint Francis of Assisi
Admonition 6
with thanks to Portiuncula

Go with God, Gabrielle, we'll miss you!

Two of my favourite blogs, Contemplative Haven and Consecrated to Mary, by our sister in prayer Gabrielle, are going offline. She writes,

Dear friends, this will be my last post at Contemplative Haven. As I stated on my “Mary” blog, it is time now for me to slip back into a more contemplative life, offline. I want to thank you all for the years of friendship, fun, angst, joys, sorrows, humour and prayer - you have all sustained me - each and every one of you. May God bless you and keep you, and may you continue to flourish in your contemplative lives.

Gabrielle states on her "Mary" blog that she'll "leave Consecrated to Mary available for a while, in case there are any prayers here that you would like to copy, or any links that you would like to bookmark for your own future use." Hopefully Contemplative Haven will remain on-line for a while, too. If you're not familiar with this wonderful writer, do have a read through some of her back posts; her blogrolls and links lists are a treasure-trove, too.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Foolish, weak and inefficient...

We must learn to trust God. Developing that trust is worth some particular attention, worth making time to stop and pray, and be quiet in God.

That may be impractical, but the way of faith is not the way of efficiency. God has not called us to an efficient way of life. We are called to a way of faith. Much is a matter of listening and waiting.

Richard Rohr, from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations

I am already forgetting the only thing that the silence has taught me: our lives are useable for God. We need not be effective, but only transparent and vulnerable.

God takes it all from there, and there is not much point in comparing who is better, right, higher or lower, or supposedly saved. We are all partial images slowly coming into focus, to the degree we allow and filter the Light and Love of God.

Richard Rohr, from Contemplation in Action

When we discover ourselves "hidden with Christ in God," we don't need any kind of self-image at all. I hope this doesn't sound too esoteric, because it isn't; it's what happens in true prayer.

This is what will happen when we expose ourselves to silence and stop exposing ourselves to the judgments of the world; when we stop continuously "picking up" the energy of others; when we stop thinking about what others think of us and what they take us to be. We are who we are in God - no more and no less.

Richard Rohr, from Simplicity

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

1 Corinthians 1.26-29

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Colossians 3.1-4

I always seem to come back to this disconnect between myself and "the world" of England in 2008. I think that what is happening to me, in itself a development of the character I was born with, I guess, is an outworking of the call to be a Tertiary, a Franciscan living not in a religious community, but in "the world". I have always struggled slightly with some of the Principles of the Thrid Order, where they speak of (4, 12 for example) of doing things "in the spirit" of the evangelical counsels. It comes over almost as a cop-out: OK, we Tertiaries are all caught up in property, marriage and careers, but hey, we'll have a play at being religious, just so long as it doesn't interfere too much with our lives.

Now, I know this isn't how Francis saw the Third Order at its inception, and it certainly isn't how most of my fellow Tertiaries live, but it has always felt a bit this way to me. More than likely, that's because of my own weakness, and my own tendency to seize on excuses for laxity! I have prayed long and perplexedly about it, and what seems to be emerging into the fog of my own confusion is what Rohr is saying in the passages I've quoted above.

Trying to follow our dear brother St. Francis, especially in the contemplative aspects of his life, is always going to set us against society's preconceptions about life. We are taught from an early age that learning and cleverness, strength, dynamism and effectiveness, are the best things we have to offer life; and in return, life will give us - or rather, we will seize - the "good things in life": wealth, fame, sexual conquest. The way of Francis, which is after all only the way of Christ, runs utterly counter to this philosophy. It does indeed look like a steep and narrow way sometimes, gazing up from the Oxford Street along the way to the desert, but at the end is glory!

The seventy returned [to Jesus] with joy, saying, "Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!" He said to them, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."

At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him."

Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it."

Luke 10.17-24

Friday, September 12, 2008

Only prayers of praise...

St. Francis passed on to us only prayers of praise. He went simply through his life finding new things for which to praise God at every turn: the little things, nature, the creatures, the animals, situations, his brothers - for whatever is happening, he praises God.

Francis is never achieving God's love; he is celebrating it! He continually celebrates God's love in everything he sees and experiences. Mature prayer always breaks into gratitude.

Prayer is sitting in the silence until it silences us, choosing gratitude until we are grateful, and praising God until we ourselves are an act of praise.

Richard Rohr, from The Great Themes of Scripture

Brother Bernard loses it...

How much grace God often gave to the poor men who followed the Gospel and who voluntarily gave up all things for the love of God was manifested in Brother Bernard of Quintavalle who, after he had taken the habit of St. Francis, was very frequently rapt in God by the contemplation of heavenly things.

Thus one time it happened that while he was attending Mass in a church and his whole mind was on God, he became so absorbed and rapt in contmplation that during the Elevation of the Body of Christ he was not at all aware of it and did not kneel down when the others knelt, and he did not draw his cowl back as did the others who were there, but he stayed motionless, without blinking his eyes, gazing straight ahead, from morning until noon.

Brother Bernard of
Little Flowers of St. Francis - 28
with thanks to Portiuncula

I know just how he felt!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

An act of surrender...

Maggie Ross has just posted number IV in her Ethics Issuing from Silence series. She begins:

When silence is the wellspring, day-to-day living evolves toward simplicity and unobtrusiveness. To inhabit silence naturally leads to embracing silence in the exterior as well as interior worlds. Changes to the way you live may take place subtly and gradually, almost without your realizing it.

and ends:

In short, there is good news and bad news. The "bad" news is that you will never again feel at home in the culture around you. The good news is that you now lead a life whose riches were once unimaginable. There is no language to describe it. Far from being a selfish exercise, a life lived from the wellspring of silence influences other lives - but without our being aware of this fact. Silence itself has resonances, but the way you have come to be in the world quietly opens the possibility of transfiguration to everyone around you.

I would urge you to click over and read the whole post. But I mention it here not just as a recommendation - heartfelt though that is - but because I am so convinced that this life of prayer comes to permeate all that we are, and that accepting that God has called us in this way is to accept the most profound rearrangement of all we have come to accept as "normal life".

Richard Rohr writes:

The most simple and spiritual discipline is some degree of solitude and silence. But it's also the hardest, because none of us want to be with someone we don't love.

We won't have the courage to go into that terrifying place of the soul without a great love, without the light and love of the Lord. Such silence is the most spacious and empowering technique in the world, yet it's not a technique at all. It's precisely the refusal of all technique...

We must learn to trust God. Developing that trust is worth some particular attention, worth making time to stop and pray, and be quiet in God.

That may be impractical, but the way of faith is not the way of efficiency. God has not called us to an efficient way of life. We are called to a way of faith. Much is a matter of listening and waiting.

This act of surrender, this taking of our hands off the controls of our life, is anything but a trivial thing. It is perhaps the most radical act, short of dying, that we're likely to find ourselves involved in. As Rohr suggests, it requires courage - but not the raw, exhilarating courage that comes in some emergency, and permits acts of bravery we'd never consider if we had time to think. It's a long-term kind of courage, much more like the courage that keeps a mother at the bedside of her sick child through the cold hours before dawn. But this courage is ultimately a decision for joy, paradoxically enough. The love of God is the most joyful thing there is, and all we stand to lose are the things that stand between that love and our own heart.

For silence is not God, nor speaking; fasting is not God, nor eating; solitude is not God, nor company; nor any other pair of opposites. He is hidden between them, and cannot be found by anything your soul does, but only by the love of your heart. He cannot be known by reason, he cannot be thought, caught, or sought by understanding. But he can be loved and chosen by the true, loving will of your heart.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Mary, on her Birthday...

Saint Francis embraced the Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ with indescribable love, because she had made the Lord of Majesty our brother and had obtained mercy for us. After Christ, it was Mary in whom he placed his trust and whom he chose as advocate, both for himself and his brothers.

Saint Francis of Assisi, from St. Bonaventure, Major Life - 9:3
with thanks to Porticuncula

Our Lady's origin is wrapped in silence, as was her whole life. Thus, her birth speaks to us of humility. The more we desire to grow in God's eyes, the more we should hide ourselves from the eyes of creatures. The more we wish to do great things for God, the more we should labour in silence and obscurity.

Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen OCD, Divine Intimacy, 1964

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The second gaze

I make no apologies for reproducing the following without comment: I'm not feeling too well today, and in any case what could my comments add to such wisdom, truly? All I can say is that, as far as my slight experience goes, all Rohr says here has proved to be only too true!

My immediate response to most situations is with reactions of attachment, defensiveness, judgment, control and analysis. I am better at calculating than contemplating. Let's admit that we all start there. The false self seems to have the 'first gaze' at almost everything. On my better days, when I am open, undefended and immediately present, I can sometimes begin with a contemplative mind and heart. Often I can get there later and even end there, but it is usually a second gaze. It is an hour by hour battle, at least for me. I can see why all spiritual traditions insist on daily prayer - in fact, morning, midday, evening, and before we go to bed prayer, too! Otherwise, I can assume that I am back in the cruise control of small and personal self-interest, the pitiable and fragile "richard" self.

The first gaze is seldom compassionate. It is too busy weighing and feeling itself: "How will this affect me?" or "How does my self-image demand that I react to this?" or "How can I get back in control of this situation?" This leads us to an implosion, a self-preoccupation that cannot enter into communion with the other or the moment. Only after God has taught us how to live 'undefended' can we immediately stand with and for the other and for the moment. It takes lots of practice.

On a practical level, my days are two extremes: both very busy and very quiet and alone. I avoid most social gatherings, frankly because I know my soul has other questions to ask and answer as I get older. Small talk and 'busyness about many things' will not get me there. If I am going to continue to address groups, as if I have something to say, then I have to really know what I know, really believe what I believe, and my life has to be more experiential and intimate than mere repetition of formulas and doctrines. I am waiting, practicing and asking for the second gaze.

Your practice must somehow include the 'problem.' Prayer is not the avoiding of distractions, but precisely how you deal with distractions. Contemplation is a daily merging with the 'problem' and finding its full resolution. What you quickly and humbly learn in contemplation is that how you do anything is probably how you do everything. If you are brutal in your inner reaction to your own littleness and sinfulness, your social relationships and even your politics will probably be the same - brutal.

It has taken me much of my life to begin to get to the second gaze. By nature I have a critical mind and a demanding heart, and I am impatient. These are both my gifts and my curses, as you might expect. They are both good teachers. A life of solitude and silence allows them both, and invariably leads me to the second gaze. The gaze of compassion, looking out at life from the place of Divine Intimacy is really all I have, and all I have to give, even though I don't always do it.

God leads by compassion toward the soul, never by condemnation. If God would relate to us by severity and punitiveness, God would only be giving us permission to do the same. God offers us, instead, the grace to 'weep' over our sins more than ever perfectly overcome them, to humbly recognize our littleness rather than become big. It is the way of Cain. It is a kind of weeping and a kind of wandering that keeps us both askew and awake.

So now my later life call is to 'wander in the land of Nod,' enjoying God's so often proven love and protection and to look back at my life, and everybody's life, the One-and-Only-Life, marked happily and gratefully with the sign of Cain. Contemplation and compassion are finally coming together. This is my second gaze. It is well worth waiting for, because only the second gaze sees fully and truthfully. It sees itself, the other and even God with God's own eyes, which are always eyes of compassion.

Richard Rohr, from Radical Grace, with thanks to Inward/Outward

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The little lark...

Above all birds [St. Francis] loved the little lark, known in the language of the country as lodola capellata (the hooded lark). He used to say of it, "Sister lark has a hood like a Religious and is a humble bird, for she walks contentedly along the road to find grain, and even if she finds it among the rubbish, she pecks it out and eats it."

With thanks to Portiuncula

I love St. Francis' way of calling the animals, and indeed all creation, his sister and brother. I cannot think of them any other way myself, and their joy and their pain is my joy and my pain too. I remember feeling that way when I was very young - but it was not until God led me deeper into prayer that I recovered those feelings, purer and deeper now, and less changeable. Lord, keep me always close to all the wonders you have made, and keep my heart always open to my sister and brother creatures, whoever they are.

Trusting holy visitations...

The Incarnation is time to celebrate, or as Thomas Merton puts it: "Make ready for the Christ, whose smile - like lightning - sets free the song of everlasting glory that now sleeps, in your paper flesh - like dynamite."

And God goes ahead enfleshing spirit and inspiriting the flesh; while for us, who have learned, like Elizabeth, to trust holy visitations, our life leaps within us for joy!

Richard Rohr, from Near Occasions of Grace

Contemplation outside the walls...

So many people, including Catholics, have no image in their random access memory to attach to the words contemplative life, monastery or cloister. Such images have faded from the radar screen of our culture. There was a time when you could mention Carmelites, St. Therese of Lisieux or Teresa of Avila to help people focus the lens of association. Those words draw blanks now. People ask, “So what work to you do?” And you know they don’t get it.

Then I explain that the life of contemplative nuns is enclosed (confined to the monastery) in service to the apostolic work of prayer; communal prayer in the regular recitation or singing of the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) and daily private prayer. Such concentration requires that we stay close to home...

Monasticism tells us something important about the structure of our humanity. Almost every single one of the major world traditions has developed some form of cenobitic life. Just as some people - at all times and in all cultures - have felt impelled to become dancers, poets, or musicians, others are irresistibly drawn to a life of silence and prayer...

The monastic life demands a kind of death - the death of the ego that we feed so voraciously in secular life. We are, perhaps, biologically programmed to self-preservation. Even when our physical survival is not in jeopardy, we seek to promote ourselves, to make ourselves liked, loved, and admired; display ourselves to best advantage; and pursue our own interests - often ruthlessly. But this self-preoccupation, all the world religions tell us, paradoxically holds us back from our best selves. Many of our problems spring from thwarted egotism. We resent the success of others; in our gloomiest, most self-pitying moments, we feel uniquely mistreated and undervalued; we are miserably aware of our shortcomings. In the world outside the cloister, it is always possible to escape such self-dissatisfaction: we can phone a friend, pour a drink, or turn on the television. But the religious has to face his or her pettiness twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. If properly and wholeheartedly pursued, the monastic life liberates us from ourselves - incrementally, slowly, and imperceptibly. Once a monk has transcended his ego, he will experience an alternative mode of being. It is an ekstasis, a "stepping outside" the confines of self.

From Karen Armstrong’s Introduction to A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor (New York Review of Books, 1982) with thanks to Vicki K Black

As Tertiaries, some of us feel called more to the contemplative dimension of St. Francis' life than to the active. As it states in the Principles of the Third Order, "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."

It's not necessarily easy, though, to reconcile the imperatives described in the two passages above with the demands of daily life outside a community. Henri Nouwen says,

How can we stay in solitude when we feel that deep urge to be distracted by people and events? The most simple way is to focus our minds and hearts on a word or picture that reminds us of God. By repeating quietly: "The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want," or by gazing lovingly at an icon of Jesus, we can bring our restless minds to some rest and experience a gentle divine presence.

This doesn't happen overnight. It asks a faithful practice. But when we spend a few moments every day just being with God, our endless distractions will gradually disappear.

I shouldn't imagine it will be any surprise, if you're a regular reader of this blog, that I should connect this with the practice of the Jesus Prayer - but it is by means of such "faithful practice", whether of the Jesus Prayer, the Holy Rosary, or any of the other prayers of what might be called "contemplative repetition", that we are enabled to keep a creative tension in our lives, rather than a destructive one.

Brother Ramon points out,

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

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The ways of peace...

Christ, no one on earth really wants the pain and horror of war.
We do not want to kill or be killed, to hurt or be hurt.
But we all see injustice,
and sometimes it makes us angry
and we see no other way to right the wrong
except by war.
Christ, teach us the ways of peace!
Calm our angry hearts
and grant to all peoples and their leaders
patience in the search for peace and justice.
Help us to be ready to give up
some of our comforts and power and pride,
so that war will leave the face of the earth
and we may work for you in peace.

"Teach Us the Ways of Peace" by Avery Brooke, in Plain Prayers in a Complicated World (Cowley Publications, 1993)
With thanks to Vicki K. Black

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The recovery of tears...

This morning, writing about the relationship between contemplative and intercessory prayer, I remarked on Maggie Ross's reference to St. Isaac the Syrian, or St. Isaac of Nineveh, whichever you prefer, and I quoted my own favourite passage:

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

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

(Ascetical Homilies, pp. 344-5)

This evening, to my amazement, Maggie Ross has posted an extract from an article first published in Sobornost, Spring 1987, pp. 14-23:

In the earliest days of the Church, tears had an integral place in Christian life, and we find their most eloquent champions in the early Syrian tradition, especially in Ephrem and Isaac. Like so many insights of the early Church, teaching on tears has fallen prey to theological reductionism, and what is communicated to us today is not profound insight into human nature, but spiritual imperative. As a result, especially in the West, tears have been relegated to the spiritual museum where they are regarded as quaint, embarrassing and even shameful. There is, however, a growing realisation that something is radically wrong with this view...

it is my thesis that tears are absolutely central to Christian experience, and that we need to recover them today. Tears signify losing one's life - or what one thinks is one's life; one's pseudo-life - in order to gain true life; tears are at the core of receiving and mirroring the outpouring of God's love in kenosis, which begins with creation and reaches its culmination in Jesus the Christ.

She goes on to quote from St. Paul's letter to the Philippians, which I've taken the liberty of reproducing here in the NRSV:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross. (Ch. 2 vv 5-9)

  • A very dangerous activity...

    Contemplation is a change in consciousness. It brings us to see beyond boundaries, beyond denominations, beyond doctrines, dogmas and institutional self-interest straight into the face of a mothering God from whom comes all the life that comes.

    To claim to be aware of the oneness of life and not to regard all of it as sacred trust is a violation of the very purpose of contemplation, the immersion in the God of life. To talk about the oneness of life and not to know oneness with all of life may be intellectualism but it is not contemplation. Contemplation is not ecstasy unlimited. It is enlightenment unbounded by parochialisms, chauvinisms, classisms and gender.

    Transformed from within, the contemplative becomes a new kind of presence in the world, signaling another way of being, seeing with new eyes and speaking with new words the Word of God. The contemplative can never again be a complacent participant in an oppressive system. From contemplation comes not only the consciousness of the universal connectedness of life but the courage to model it, as well.

    Those who have no flame in their hearts for justice, no consciousness of responsibility for the reign of God, no raging commitment to human community may indeed be seeking God. But make no mistake, God is still, at best, only an idea to them, not a reality. Indeed, contemplation is a very dangerous activity. It not only brings us face to face with God. It brings us, as well, face to face with the world, face to face with the self. And then, of course, something must be done. Nothing stays the same once we have found the God within. We become new people and, in the doing, see everything around us newly, too. We become connected to everything, to everyone. We carry the world in our hearts: the oppression of all peoples, the suffering of our friends, the burdens of our enemies, the raping of the Earth, the hunger of the starving, the joy of every laughing child.

    Joan Chittister, from with thanks to Inward/Outward

    This is what I keep trying to say when I write about contemplative prayer as being not less involved than intercession as it is often understood, but more involved; not self-obsessed but self-forgetful.

    Maggie Ross wrote unforgettably of this:

    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.

    She (Ross) references St. Isaac the Syrian (aka St. Isaac of Nineveh), the 7th Century anchorite, in her footnotes. I am not sure which passage she is thinking of precisely; but the one that comes immediately to my mind is this one:

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

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

    (Ascetical Homilies, pp. 344-5)

    Those words probably come nearer than anything I've read to expressing what I've come to feel over the years I've been praying like this. It was only when I truly accepted the truth of St. Paul's words, "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..." (Romans 8.26 NIV) and admitted to myself that they perfectly described the way I came to prayer, that I began to understand what this strange calling might mean; and what living as a signal of a new way of being, a human sign of God's merciful presence, might involve. And that I am only just starting to know, at a very superficial level, since it once again involves paradox. A sign is to be seen; the calling of the contemplative is to hiddenness.

    Monday, September 01, 2008

    Jesus, the woman and the dogs...

    I have read and heard a number of people's thoughts (here, for instance, and here) recently on Matthew's story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman. To save you looking it up, here it is:

    Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, 'Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.' But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, 'Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.' He answered, 'I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.' But she came and knelt before him, saying, 'Lord, help me.' He answered, 'It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.' She said, 'Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.' Then Jesus answered her, 'Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.' And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15.21-28)

    Many of the recent comments I've read focus on the possibility that what we read here is an account of Jesus' growing self-awareness, his understanding of himself and his mission only gradually expanding to encompass the universal scope of the work his Father had sent him to do, and of himself as Saviour of the world, not just of Israel. Now, I'm not doubting that Jesus did come, at least in some respects, gradually to a full understanding of who and why he was, and of the divine dimension of his identity. It seems unlikely that he was born with the whole package, as it were, clear in his mind from day one. However, I'd always read this passage rather differently, and I was amused to discover this morning that the great Quaker theologian and philosopher D. Elton Trueblood read it much the same way.

    What if Jesus were actually teasing the Canaanite woman? What if there was an obvious twinkle in his eye when he spoke those words, and an eyebrow raised in the direction of his disciples, who were after all rather prone to trying to maintain the exclusivity of his ministry (sending away the little children, for instance, and ignoring Bartimaeus)? Her witty reply would then make sense, and would be be far more believable humanly that way, than as a response to a cold-eyed denial. Come to think of it, can you really, honestly, imagine a cold-eyed denial from Jesus to anyone, let alone a woman distraught about her daughter's suffering?

    If you'd like to read more on this, I can recommend Glenn Miller's fascinating article; and his eye-opening remarks about Greek words for dogs!