Saturday, August 30, 2008

Our friends and our enemies - please pray!

Jesus Christ, our Lord, whose footsteps we're to follow, called his betrayer "friend" and willingly handed himself over to his crucifiers. Our friends, then, are all those who unjustly inflict upon us tests and ordeals, shame and injury, sorrows and torments, martyrdom and death. They are the ones we should love most, for what they're really inflicting upon us is eternal life.

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

Father Sergio Baldin, the Franciscan friar who is fighting for his life after being savagely attacked at a monastery in the foothills of the Alps near Turin, had recently enraged a local criminal gang by helping an Albanian prostitute to escape its clutches, church sources said today.

Colonel Antonio Di Vita, head of the Carabinieri in the province of Turin, said that although all options were open, the predominant police theory was that Father Baldin and three other monks, who were all badly beaten by three masked assailants, were the victims of an attempted robbery.

However Father Gabriele Trivellin, provincial head of the Franciscan order of Friars Minor, said that the "sheer fury" of the assault showed that the aim was not theft but revenge. He was backed by Cardinal Severino Poletto, the Archbishop of Turin, who said: "If you ask me if this was a punitive raid, I would say yes, the facts point in that direction".

Father Trivellin said that the monks, who are all being treated in hospital, were known to have had helped girls involved in local drugs and prostitution rackets to leave a life of crime and turn to religion. "I know that one young girl in particular recently presented herself at the monastery and asked for help," he said...

Father Baldin, Father Battagliotti, Father Salvatore Magliano, 86, and Father Martino Gurini, 76, a former missionary in Bolivia, were having their evening meal at the San Colombano Belmonte monastery near Turin when they were attacked by three hooded men who gagged and bound them before punching, kicking and beating them with clubs.

From a full report at Times Online

Please pray for the Brothers, for their attackers, and especially for the girls who may still be at risk.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A delicate and intricate machine...

The first recommendation tonight is: don't let us waste much time gazing at ourselves. A deepened and enriched sense of God is far more important than increased and detailed knowledge of the self. God, our redeemer and sustainer, is all and does all, and is the one Reality. Life comes with such thoughts. Plunging more deeply in him with faith and love will do more than self-concerned efforts. We can do nothing of ourselves but depress ourselves and get fussy.

Don't behave like the inexperienced motorist who goes for a drive and spends all day lying in the road under the machine examining the works. The soul is a delicate and intricate machine. When it needs pulling to pieces, it is best to leave it to God. Our prayer should be that of Saint Augustine: "The house of my soul is narrow. Enlarge it, so that you may enter in. It stands in ruins: do you repair it and make it fair."

First to last, put all emphasis on God. Attend to him. Forget yourselves if you can. Bathe in his light. Respond to the unmatched attraction. Be energized by his power. Try to realize a little of the perpetual molding action of his Spirit on your souls.

Have you ever seen the popular experiment of iron filings in the field of a magnet? Those little specks of matter are nothing in themselves, but when they are placed in the field of a magnet, each becomes a centre of energy, instantly influenced by an invisible power. They align themselves parallel to the lines of the magnet's force.

From The Ways of the Spirit by Evelyn Underhill, quoted in Wisdom of the Cloister: A Monastic Reader, edited by John Skinner (Image Books, 1999) - with thanks to Vicki K Black

The man who had become a living prayer

Often, without moving his lips, St. Francis would meditate for a long time, and, concentrating, centring his external powers, he would rise in spirit to heaven. Thus, he directed his whole mind and affections to the one thing he was asking of God. He was not so much a man who prayed, as a man who had become a living prayer.

Saint Francis of Assisi
Thomas of Celano, Second Life - 95
with thanks to Portiuncula

I think we sometimes forget the depth of St. Francis' contemplative life!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The centre of your own poverty...

A door opens in the centre of our being and we seem to fall through it into immense depths which, although they are infinite, are all accessible to us; all eternity seems to have become ours in this one placid and breathless contact. God touches us with a touch that is emptiness and empties us. He moves us with a simplicity that simplifies us. All variety, all complexity, all paradox, all multiplicity cease. Our mind swims in the air of an understanding, a reality that is dark and serene and includes in itself everything. Nothing more is desired. Nothing more is wanting. Our only sorrow, if sorrow be possible at all, is the awareness that we ourselves still live outside of God...

You seem to be the same person and you are the same person that you have always been: in fact you are more yourself than you have ever been before... You feel as if you were at last fully born... Now you have come out into your element. And yet now you have become nothing. You have sunk to the center of your own poverty, and there you have felt the doors fly open into infinite freedom, into a wealth which is perfect because none of it is yours and yet it all belongs to you.

And now you are free to go in and out of infinity.

[T]he depths of wide-open darkness that have yawned inside you... are not a place, not an extent, they are a huge, smooth activity. These depths, they are Love. And in the midst of you they form a wide, impregnable country.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New Directions, 1961, with thanks to Barbara, whose quotation from this passage set me off looking it up...

Merton is pushing the boundaries of what it is possible to express in human language, making what he once called, Raids on the Unspeakable. I don't know that, from my own slight experience of prayer, and with my own linguistic limitations, I can actually add anything to what Merton says here; but it certainly confirms what I have to my own small degree come near.

When we come anywhere near the immense unknowability of God - except as he reveals himself in Christ - our sight is darkened by his infinite light, and our hearing stilled by the breath of the voice that called the worlds into being. I Kings 19 - when Elijah stood on the mountain before the Lord, there was a great wind, then an earthquake, and then a fire, but the Lord was not in any of them, but "after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave."

This is perhaps what the anonymous author called the Cloud of Unknowing between ourselves and God, and he spoke of "smiting on" that cloud with our prayer - for it is all we can do. It is God who will open up to us, and what he opens is that door Merton speaks of here, in the very centre of all that we are. But it is only in extreme poverty of soul that we can come to that place, forgetting, as the Cloud author says, all we ever knew. There may be as many ways to that centre of poverty as there are people who pray; but the only way there that I know is through the terrible weakness of Romans 8.26, where, we having reached an end of knowing anything about praying, the very Spirit of God prays in our stead, with "sighs too deep for words."

Certainly it is in using words to bring us to an end of words - whether a prayer like the Jesus Prayer, or the Holy Rosary, or the Cloud author's "little word of one syllable" - that we come beyond knowing into unknowing, beyond seeing into a light so perfect that it darkens our vision, beyond hearing into the sheer silence of God. And in that "wide, impregnable country" is our true home, and our "infinite freedom." Oh, God, how I love you!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Settling down in the quiet...

It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting an immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.

Thomas Merton: No Man Is an Island, with thanks to Inward/Outward

I think this has much to do with the sense that I have tried to articulate, albeit clumsily, in the last few posts, that it is only as we give up our relentless desire for self-determination - the "key-code to the soul's chartroom", as I put it yesterday - that we become free to be who we really are. The withdrawal "from effects that are beyond our control" is perhaps a better way of putting what I was trying to say about accepting losses. And "to exist without any special recognition" is surely that hiddenness which lies at the heart of my own call to follow Francis... and in that is peace, "peace which the world cannot give..."

St. Francis on the Eucharist...

With every fiber of his being Francis burned with love for the Sacrament of the Body of the Lord. It left him overcome with wonder for so great a condescension and merciful love. He was said to be disconsolate if, even once, he could not hear daily Mass, even if it was impossible to do so. He received communion often and with such devotion as to make others experience a like devotion. He rendered every reverence to so venerable a sacrament, offering the sacrifice of his whole self; and when he received the Immolated Lamb of God, he immolated his own spirit in that fire which was always burning on the altar of his heart.

St. Francis of Assisi - Celano, Second Life - 201
with thanks to Portiuncula

The ethics of silence...

It is as if there is a hidden glory radiating from each person which will reveal itself only to those who have been able to focus outward and wait in generosity, allowing their own hidden glory - hidden especially from themselves - to pour forth. Each person can realize this glory by relinquishing closely-held shibboleths to listen receptively to the silence, through the silence to the other. Even as the observing I/eye is elided, the glory pours through.

The ethics that issue from the work of silence are counter-cultural. The notion of relating to people with respect by creating a welcoming space where the often surprising truth of the other may unfold is often regarded with contempt by those who take their ethics from a Machiavellian perspective. For them, relating to others without trying to manipulate them is seen as weakness.

It is for this reason that leaders like Rowan William are often under attack from all sides. The ethics that issue from silence are kenotic, that is, they arise from a wellspring of silence that has manifested itself by pouring through those who have made themselves available to it. One reason history has a tendency to repeat itself is that there are so few leaders who understand the discernment of the need to wait to see what unfolds, to be inclusive, to not act. A leader who seeks his or her own self-interest and acts accordingly will inevitably be caught in the feedback loops that eventually generate division, violence, and abuse, while a kenotic leader can often be a catalyst for something entirely new to break in.

I want to examine this concept a little more clearly in future posts, but Maggie Ross's essay (which I'd encourage you to read in full if you've time) moves us into considering the counter-cultural nature of our faith in its contemplative dimension. We mustn't shy instinctively away from recognising this, saying, I'm not a punk or a protester, I can't be counter-cultural. There's a strong and respected line of exegesis that suggests that the main motive for Jesus' crucifixion, and for the later persecution of the early church, was precisely the counter-cultural nature of the Gospel.

In his excellent book Finding Sanctuary, Christopher Jamison OSB, Abbot of Worth, criticising the consumerist, market-driven society in which we in the UK live, traces it back to the initiatives of Margaret Thatcher's government of the 1980s. He says:

Twentieth-century Britain once had a raft of organisations such as trade unions and professional bodies, which dictated much of the pace of ordinary life. For example, trade unions protected people from long working hours for poor pay, and professional associations enabled doctors, lawyers and other professionals to regulate the way they worked. But by the 1980s British industry was falling behind commercially in the global economy, and it fell to the Thatcher government to tackle the problem. Their solution was to destroy or reduce the power of institutions such as trade unions. This would enable market forces to operate more freely and so force the British economy to modernise; the demands of the market would now dictate every aspect of life. This applied not only to the working classes but to the professional classes as well. Far from protecting people, the state now sought to maximise competition in order to ensure that market forces decided everything in the lives of its citizens. For example, the national institutions that provided water, gas and electricity were sold off to private companies, which cut costs while trying to meet the demands of the customer in new ways. Even the National Health Service had to create an 'internal market'.

This market economy led inevitably to the emergence of a consumerist approach to life, with the slogan: 'Let the customer decide.'... So British society now defines a person as a consumer...

In simple terms, the consumerist lifestyle forces people to work too hard in order to fulfil their consumer ambitions... Armed with this understanding, you can stand back from the culture and question it. You are a free person and you can choose how busy you want to be. Freely choosing to resist the urge to busy-ness is the frame of mind you need before you can take any steps towards finding sanctuary... (pp. 15-16)

Maggie Ross's phrase, "relating to others [by] trying to manipulate them" is precisely the consumerist way, manipulating the people into "engag[ing] in endless productive work in order to... fund endless consumption." (Jamison p.17)

It is only in emptying ourselves of this "endless consumption" that we are free to live by - live among - the ethics of silence. I am so moved by what Maggie Ross says of Rowan Williams in this context. We are so blessed by having an Archbishop who is a contemplative and an historian of spirituality rather than an ecclesiastical politician. In many ways he reminds me, especially in his 2002 Dimbleby Lecture, of William Temple - and that's no bad thing!

So why should we do what the government tells us? The structures and priorities of the market state alone will simply not deliver an answer to this question that isn't finally destructive of our liberty - because they deprive us of the resources we need to make decisions that are properly human decisions, bound up with past and future. We need to be able to talk about what we're related to that isn't just defined by the specific agenda of the moment. This presents religious traditions with enormous opportunities - and enormous responsibilities. Because we know that religious involvement in public life has not always been benign; but those of us who have religious faith have learned something of how to engage with the social orders of the modern world; and it is up to us to articulate with as much energy and imagination as we can our understanding of that larger story without which the most fundamental and challenging human questions won't even get asked, let alone answered.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Letting it all go...

Contemplation is essentially a listening in silence, an expectancy... In other words, the true contemplative is not the one who prepares his mind for a particular message that he wants or expects to hear, but who remains empty because he knows that he can never expect or anticipate the word that will transform his darkness into light. He does not even anticipate a special kind of transformation. He does not demand light instead of darkness. He waits on the Word of God in silence, and when he is "answered," it is not so much by a world that bursts into his silence. It is by his silence itself suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to him as a word of great power, full of the voice of God.

Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, Doubleday & Company, 1969

It is that not expecting, not anticipating, some particular thing, that is so difficult for us. We have so many losses already, and this loss of self-determination even on the level of cognition seems like a loss too far, like the rich young ruler's wealth (Luke 18.18ff). Yet it is in losing ourself, losing even our keys to the doors of perception, that we find ourselves in God, gloriously.

Henri Nouwen once suggested that it will be like this with dying:

Dying is returning home. But even though we have been told this many times by many people, we seldom desire to return home. We prefer to stay where we are. We know what we have; we do not know what we will get. Even the most appealing images of the afterlife cannot take away the fear of dying. We cling to life, even when our relationships are difficult, our economic circumstances harsh, and our health quite poor.

Still, Jesus came to take the sting out of death and to help us gradually realise that we don't have to be afraid of death, since death leads us to the place where the deepest desires of our hearts will be satisfied. It is not easy for us to truly believe that, but every little gesture of trust will bring us closer to this truth.

Somehow we always try to cling onto stuff, our hands clenched tightly around it: if we feel we've got beyond hanging onto material things, we hang onto private hopes, personal ambitions, or the key-code to the soul's chartroom. And yet Jesus is saying all the time, "Let go! Open your hands! I've got something for you, my beloved..."

Oh, why can't we trust that what our Saviour has for us is better than anything we have, anything we could have, in this world?

St. Francis on the weapons of spiritual warfare...

In their pride, the demons take flight at the sight of the sublime virtue practised by those who are truly humble.

Saint Francis of Assisi
(Bonaventure, Major Life
(with thanks to Portiuncula)

The Holy Now

The holy Now is not something which we, by our activity, by our dynamic energy, overtake or come upon. It is a now which itself is dynamic, which lays hold actively upon us, which breaks in actively upon us and re-energizes us from within a new center. The Eternal is urgently, actively breaking into time, working through those who are willing to be laid hold upon, to surrender self-confidence and self-centered effort, that is, self-originated effort, and let the Eternal be the dynamic guide in recreating, through us, our time-world.

In the Eternal Now all become seen in a new way. We enfold others in our love, and we and they are enfolded together within the great Love of God as we know it in Christ. In the Now, people aren’t just masses of struggling beings, furthering or thwarting our ambitions, or, in far larger numbers, utterly alien to and insulated from us. We become identified with them and suffer when they suffer and rejoice when they rejoice. One might almost say we become cosmic mothers, tenderly caring for all.

The Eternal Now breaks through the time-nows and all is secure. A sense of absolute security and assurance of being linked with an overcoming Power replaces the old anxieties. All things of value are most certainly made secure through Presence. Faith, serene, unbroken, unhurried world-conquest by the power of Love is a part of peace.

For the experience of Presence is the experience of peace, and the experience of peace is the experience not of inaction but of power, and the experience of power is the experience of pursuing Love that loves its way untiringly to victory. The one who knows the Presence knows peace, and the one who knows peace knows power and walks in complete faith that that objective Power and Love which has overtaken him will overcome the world.

When we lived in the one-dimensional time-ribbon we had to think life out all by ourselves. The past had to be read cautiously, the future had to be planned with care. Nothing was to be undertaken unless the calculations showed that success was to be expected. No blind living, no marching boldly into the dark, no noble but ungrounded ventures of faith. We must be rational, sensible, intelligent, shrewd. But then comes the reality of the Presence, and the Now-Eternal is found to underlie and generate all time-temporals. And a life of amazing, victorious faith-living sets in. Not with rattle and clatter of hammers, not with strained eyebrows and tense muscles but in peace and power and confidence we work upon such apparently hopeless tasks as the elimination of war from society, and set out toward world brother/sisterhood and interracial fraternity in a world where all the calculated chances of success are very meager.

Thus in faith we go forward, with breath-taking boldness, and in faith we stand still, unshaken, with amazing confidence. For the time-nows are rooted in the Eternal Now, which is a steadfast Presence, an infinite ocean of light and love which is flowing over the ocean of darkness and death.

Thomas Kelly was a Quaker whose passion for the depths of faithful living is shared in the book, A Testament of Devotion, compiled by Douglas Steere in 1941 following Kelly’s sudden death at age 47. This piece is an excerpt from that book, with thanks to Inward/Outward...

I think Thomas Kelly has put his finger on much that we fail to understand in the life of prayer. If we look at time, or rather eternity - that which is beyond time - in this way, it makes sense of so much about praying beyond our own knowledge, or awareness even: "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) Our being enfolded together in Christ with all we love and care about, all the broken ones whom we cry out for in uncomprehending pain, are brought into our prayer by our very nature as, "We become identified with them and suffer when they suffer and rejoice when they rejoice. One might almost say we become cosmic mothers, tenderly caring for all." This is all I've ever longed for prayer to be!

Thursday, August 21, 2008


Wherever we are or wherever we are going, we have our cell with us. For Brother Body is the cell, and the soul is the hermit who dwells in it, meditating there and praying to God. Therefore, if the soul does not preserve quiet and solitude in its own cell, of what profit is a cell made by hands?

Saint Francis of Assisi, Legend of Perugia - 80, with thanks to Portiuncula

Sometimes, though, the cell made by hands is necessary in a symbolic, almost a sacramental, way - or any place of solitude and silence - as St. Francis himself found when he withdrew from the villages around Assisi, to pray alone on the slopes of La Verna. Sometimes I come to my quiet room with the sense of someone picking up a glass of cold, clear water on a hot day - and with just that sense of finding the one thing my whole being not only longs for, but needs, at the deepest, most basic level.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Counting the cost, a bit...

What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course, it is the cross.

Flannery O’Connor, with thanks to Inward/Outward

I was talking the other day with a friend, trying to explain how I was feeling about prayer and love. It came to me as I tried to find words for things I don't really have words for, that I am just becoming increasingly vulnerable to my own imagination. Now, I don't mean imagination in the sense of making things up. I don't even mean what many people mean when they (far too loosely for my liking) speak of the "creative imagination". The thing I'm looking for is much closer to what I understand John Keats to have meant by his theory of negative capability.

I find myself increasingly unable to read news accounts, for instance, without entering into that condition of "intentional openmindedness" that Keats described; incapable of defending myself, or at least refusing to defend myself, against my own imaginative reconstruction of whatever tragedy or inhumanity I've encountered. It also involves an acute, concrete even, awareness that my own humanity is born of this broken world that holds such things; and that this world is only broken through the fallenness of people just like me.

At its worst, this becomes a kind of a waking nightmare. It certainly leads to sleep continually punctuated by what I can only describe as empathetic nightmares, dreams of horrors of which I am not the victim, but where I must observe, unable to intervene or participate or rescue.

At one point I found myself saying to my friend, "I think my nightmares are becoming the ground of my praying." Were it not for this, I think I might go mad. And yet... if I were to be offered the opportunity "to anaesthetise the gnawing pain in the pit of [my] soul that is a resonance of the pain of the human condition" (Maggie Ross) I don't think I would take it. And that has to be the love of Christ working in my heart through the Holy Spirit - because, I suppose, I am after all praying - for my natural self would leap up and grasp whatever anodyne was going, believe me!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Being counted among the poor...

How can we embrace poverty as a way to God when everyone around us wants to become rich? Poverty has many forms. We have to ask ourselves: "What is my poverty?" Is it lack of money, lack of emotional stability, lack of a loving partner, lack of security, lack of safety, lack of self-confidence? Each human being has a place of poverty. That's the place where God wants to dwell! "How blessed are the poor," Jesus says (Matthew 5:3). This means that our blessing is hidden in our poverty.

We are so inclined to cover up our poverty and ignore it that we often miss the opportunity to discover God, who dwells in it. Let's dare to see our poverty as the land where our treasure is hidden.

Henri Nouwen Bread for the Journey

St. Francis' words of love for Lady Poverty, whom he considered his "betrothed", remind us that as Franciscans we are called precisely to "embrace poverty" as our companion and lover.

The Principles of the Third Order state (10): "The first Christians surrendered completely to our Lord and recklessly gave all that they had, offering the world a new vision of a society in which a fresh attitude was taken towards material possessions. This vision was renewed by Saint Francis when he chose Lady Poverty as his bride, desiring that all barriers set up by privilege based on wealth should be overcome by love. This is the inspiration for the third aim of the Society, to live simply." They go on to say (12), "We as Tertiaries are concerned more for the generosity that gives all, rather than the value of poverty in itself..."

I have always felt that there was more to this poverty thing than generosity and simplicity, and Nouwen puts his finger on it here. There are more poverties than the material kind: the NRSV translates Matthew 5.3 as, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Our poverty is the emptiness we must embrace if we are to be filled with all that God has to give us, filled with his very, Holy, Spirit...

Friday, August 15, 2008

More hiddenness...

If indeed the spiritual life is essentially a hidden life, how do we protect this hiddenness in the midst of a very public life? The two most important ways to protect our hiddenness are solitude and poverty. Solitude allows us to be alone with God. There we experience that we belong not to people, not even to those who love us and care for us, but to God and God alone. Poverty is where we experience our own and other people's weakness, limitations, and need for support. To be poor is to be without success, without fame, and without power. But there God chooses to show us God's love.

Both solitude and poverty protect the hiddenness of our lives.

Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey

In many ways, here is the answer to my question yesterday. God in his grace has given me a little of each in this life I find myself leading these days, and it is quite remarkable how he has made it possible for me to live, to serve him, and yet to be open to the ordinary calls of my life with Jan, and in this village. I won't say I always appreciate his grace for what it is, nor that I always make proper use of all that he gives me, yet his grace is there, and in crazy abundance. God is good, beyond all we can ask or imagine!

On praying the Jesus Prayer...

I was thinking this morning that though I've often mentioned the Jesus Prayer in this blog, I've not written much about actually praying the Prayer.

Obviously, as I've written elsewhere, the Jesus Prayer is a prayer of repetition. Not the "vain repetition" of the King James Version translation of Matthew 6:7 (which the NRSV translates, more accurately, as "heap up empty phrases", which is more a criticism of long, wordy prayers than of repetitive ones), but the insistent, longing prayer of the blind men of Matthew 20:30-31, who would not keep quiet, but went on and on calling out to Jesus, "have mercy on us!" (The prayers of Isaiah 6, and Revelation 4:2 and 5:11-14 are prayers of repetition too, but of praise rather than of supplication or intercession.)

In the Orthodox tradition, the Jesus Prayer is usually counted by the 100 - this takes around 20 minutes, and is a convenient practical measure - and is prayed with the aid of a 50- or 100-knot woollen prayer rope, or a chotki, a set of simple wooden beads, often 33 in number.

In the West, a standard set of Latin Rosary beads is often used, or an Anglican Rosary.

These methods are all good, and have a long tradition supporting them, but the use of beads or a knotted rope will not suit everyone, since for some people the mechanical process will in itself be a distraction, rather than a defence against distraction. Some have found that the use of a visual focus, a candle maybe, or a crucifix, will bring the mind to the necessary level of concentration to avoid wandering thoughts and drifting attention - as well as having its own symbolic value; but for myself, nothing replaces the tactile. I have discovered that by far the most effective focus for me is a holding cross.

The holding cross can be used in both formal and informal prayer times, when walking for instance, and while it is ideally suited to the Jesus Prayer, it is most certainly not confined that that, or indeed to any, form of words. In fact that is for me one of its great benefits: unlike beads or a rope, the holding cross allows the Jesus Prayer to shade off into the prayer of silence, and back again, without any loss of rhythm or "falling behind", which so easily pulls the mind back, away from God, onto the mechanics of counting.

It is best to approach saying the Jesus Prayer with as few preconceptions as possible. Although I have read widely, and I hope deeply, on the Prayer over the years, I began saying it when I knew very little of the tradition, or the traditional methods, of praying the Prayer. It took hold, as God had obviously intended it should, and became simply part of who I am before God. The accounts of Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), and the tax-collector at the temple (Luke 18.10-14), became part of my own story. In fact, although when I was first introduced to the Prayer by Fr. Francis Horner SSM back in 1978, he gave me Per-Olof Sjogren's wonderful book to read, a good deal of what happened in the years following were things for which I had no frame of reference. I only discovered much later that they were commonplace in the experience of those who pray the Prayer!

So don't be afraid, if God calls you on this way of knowing him, to strike out into the deep. After all, even the best maps can do no more than hint at destinations, and maybe warn of shoals; they can convey nothing of the sea-wind, the endless cry of the gulls, the wonderful scent of the waves as they break, or the peace there is in the lift and rock of the deep-water swell...


All of eastern piety, according to Vladimir Lossky, consists of the celebration of what is the goal of our salvation: overcoming the abyss between God and man. This is why there is added to the Christians' devotion to an incarnate divine hypostasis, Jesus Christ, a deified human hypostasis, Mary, whom Gregory Palamas calls: 'the boundary between the created and the uncreated'.

We hear about 'the eschatologism of the eastern Church'. Is the mystery of Mary not one of the most effective expressions of this hope? 'The last glory of the Mother of God', Lossky continues, is 'the eschaton realized in a created person before the end of the world. Tradition shows us the Mother of God in the midst of the disciples on the day of Pentecost... The Mother of God received with the Church the last and only thing she lacked, so that she might grow to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.'

In pre-revolutionary Russia, close to a thousand icons of Mary were venerated in the liturgical calendar under various names—for example, 'Our Consolation', 'Provident', 'Softening of our evil hearts', and so on. The icon called Pokrov (Protection) represents the Virgin covering the entire earth with her mantle. The icon Znamenye (Sign, Miracle) shows Mary in the orans posture, with the Word of God on her breast. This is symbolic of the deifying contemplation which makes God present in the soul. On the icon of the Ascension, the Virgin represents the Church imploring the descent of the Spirit and the second coming of the Saviour. The veneration of the Mother of God represents one of the typical traits of eastern Christians because devotion to the Theotokos (God-bearer) agrees well with the characteristics of eastern spirituality.

From Prayer: The Spirituality of the Christian East, Volume 2 by Tomaš Špidlík SJ (Cistercian Publications, 2005), with thanks to Vicki K Black.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hiddenness... again...

Hiddenness is an essential quality of the spiritual life. Solitude, silence, quiet, ordinary tasks, being with people without great agendas, sleeping, eating, working, playing - all of that without being different from others, that is the life that Jesus lived and the life he asks us to live. It is in hiddenness that we, like Jesus, can increase "in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people" (Luke 2:51). It is in hiddenness that we can find a true intimacy with God and a true love for people.

Even during his active ministry, Jesus continued to return to hidden places to be with God alone. If we don't have a hidden life with God, our public life for God cannot bear fruit...

One of the reasons that hiddenness is such an important aspect of the spiritual life is that it keeps us focused on God. In hiddenness we do not receive human acclamation, admiration, support, or encouragement. In hiddenness we have to go to God with our sorrows and joys and trust that God will give us what we most need.

In our society we are inclined to avoid hiddenness. We want to be seen and acknowledged. We want to be useful to others and influence the course of events. But as we become visible and popular, we quickly grow dependent on people and their responses and easily lose touch with God, the true source of our being. Hiddenness is the place of purification. In hiddenness we find our true selves.

Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
Not for the first time, I find myself wondering whether blogging is an activity compatible with hiddenness! I suppose it's no more incompatible, though, than any form of creative work; and I actually find the idea of creative work which is completely anonymous, or pseudonymous, rather pretentious... so I guess I just need to stop looking at myself, and get on with it...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Now we are three...

Francis, the faithful servant and perfect imitator of Christ, feeling himself wholly united to Christ through the virtue of holy humility, desired his humility in his friars before all other virtues. And in order that they might love, desire, acquire, and preserve it, he gave them constant encouragement by his own example and teaching, and particularly impressed this on the Ministers and preachers, urging them to undertake humble tasks.

Saint Francis of Assisi, Mirror of Perfection - 73

Humility, love, and joy are the three notes which mark the lives of each of us as Tertiaries. When these characteristics are evident throughout the Order its work will be fruitful. Without them all that it attempts will be in vain.

The Principles, TSSF - 21

Today is the third birthday of The Mercy Blog. Doesn't seem possible!

Saturday, August 09, 2008


I know I've probably written this kind of thing before, but I feel the urge for a change coming on. I have grown comfortable with the routine of posting a quotation from Richard Rohr, Henri Nouwen, et al., and then commenting, briefly or otherwise; or at least using the passage as a jumping-off point for my own thoughts. This isn't intentionally dishonest, but it does enlist my subject as a kind of human shield against uncomfortably close involvement with what's actually going on with me.

I don't propose to adopt an approach that's simply not like me. If you met me in person, you'd find I don't talk a great deal about shoes, or shopping, or sport. Not that I've anything against such things; I just don't spend much time engaging with them... What I am going to try to do is write more directly about what I'm actually thinking about, what's keeping me awake sometimes.

All this may mean somewhat more sporadic posts, or it may not. Bear with me, though, while I try and make this blog a little more worthwhile, if sometimes rather less easy to read!

Friday, August 08, 2008

The poor in spirit...

Meister Eckhart said that the spiritual life has more to do with subtraction than with addition.

But in the capitalistic West, we keep climbing higher up the ladder of spiritual success, and we've turned the Gospel into a matter of addition instead of subtraction.

What we should do is get ourselves out of the way! Then God will be evident. Then we can easily welcome Christ.

We've taken ourselves so seriously, although we're only a tiny moment of consciousness.

As a person I'm just a tiny part of creation, a particle that reflects only a fragment of God's glory.

Richard Rohr, from Simplicity

When I think of the grief so many people suffer - myself included, over the years - feeling that we're not climbing up "the ladder of spiritual success", or that we have slipped back down from somewhere we had once achieved, it brings tears to my eyes. It's only as we do discover our failure to "achieve" spiritually, when we discover that the ladder is actually a snake, that we being to become people God can use, people who can receive the love he has for us, people he can transform and heal and redeem and bring into the Kingdom to "live and work to [his] praise and glory."

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven..."

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Poor little brothers and sisters...

Above all else St. Francis stands for love, but love that empties itself, love that is so secure that it can be poor. It can let go of its reputation, securities, and money.

In every age, Francis will be called the little poor man. He was free enough to be poor. He named his community "the brothers of the lower class" (friars minor). He changed sides intentionally...

Richard Rohr, Radical Grace: Daily Meditations


My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please", while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there", or, "Sit at my feet", have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

(James 2.1-5)

In Francis' time, the minores were the poor, the servant class, while the majores were the aristocracy, the lords and ladies. It's a strange and unhappy thing, but even in our own time I've found this attitude among people in the church, and it is a stench in the nostrils of God! Francis' deliberate choice is a choice we must all, in one way or another, make as Christians. Maybe literally, as Francis and Clare (a highborn noble lady in Assisi) did, and maybe in other ways, but make it we must, if we are to follow our Lord, who read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.

and went on to say, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4.18-21)

I've been a bit neglectful of this blog the past week. Just been very busy here, with PCC meetings and so forth. I'll try and get back to regular posting, if only brief snippets! Doesn't do to let the poor thing lie fallow...

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Do what is yours to do...

When we see that the world is enchanted, we see the revelation of God in each individual as individual. Then our job is not to be Mother Teresa, our job is not to be St Francis - it's to do what is ours to do. That, by the way, was Francis's word as he lay dying. He said, 'I have done what was mine to do; now you must do what is yours to do.' We must find out what part of the mystery it is ours to reflect. That's the only true meaning of heroism as far as I can see. In this ego-comparison game, we have had centuries of Christians comparing themselves to the Mother Teresas of each age, saying that she was the only name for holiness. Thank God we have such images of holiness, but sometimes we don't do God or the Gospel a service by spending our life comparing ourselves to others' gifts and calls. All I can give back to God is what God has given to me - nothing more and no less!

Our first job is to see correctly who we are, and then to act on it. That will probably take more courage than to be Mother Teresa. To be really faithful to that truth is utterly difficult and takes immense courage and humility. We have neglected the more basic and universal biblical theme of 'personal calling' in favour of priestly and religious vocations. The most courageous thing we will ever do is to bear humbly the mystery of our own reality. That is everybody's greatest cross.

Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs - with thanks to Sue

Paradox in practice...

Jesus is giving us a win-win scenario, but what we always do with the gospel is make it into a win-lose. That's the only way the dualistic mind can think. You're either in or you're out.

That's why the world does not love us, because we don't know how to include, how to forgive, how to pour mercy and compassion and patience upon events as God - thank God - does with us.

God's grace plays the middle, expands the middle, redeems the middle, and if that's not true, what hope is there? What hope is there if we don't learn how to hold the contradictions?

Do you know, I think it's this that has come out of all that I've been reading about The Lambeth Conference? (Reading recent posts in Anglican Centrist and LambethJournal will give you much more about why I say this that I could in a few sentences.)

I honestly do believe that the Anglican Communion has an immense amount to offer the entire Christian Church at the moment; and it is precisely because of our present hermeneutical troubles that we are broken enough to do it. Our willingness to open ourselves to what the Spirit is doing, to the real nature of the Gospel as lived in our own time - rather than as lived in some "historical Jesus" New Testament reconstruction of the mind, or at some possibly romanticised period in Church history - is showing us more about the grace and mercy of Christ than we could possibly have expected.

I cannot resist quoting at length from Bishop George E Packer, Episcopal Suffragan Bishop of Chaplaincies and Bishop-in-Charge of Micronesia:

If the Anglican Communion would just turn over their troubles to my 40 member indaba group everything would be fine. We had a break through as an American female bishop likened our church to siblings arguing in the back seat of the family car. There was a murmur of final understanding since there had been a wonder if those Episcopalians were coming unglued. No, just poking each other the way kids do. "But we stay together and that's what makes unwanted boundary crossings by South American and African bishops so confusing." She said.

I was re-playing that fateful day in Minneapolis in 2003 in my mind when we confirmed Gene Robinson's consecration and how no one gave much of a passing thought to how this news would impact anyone in this room. Some have been beaten and called members of "the gay church" in cultures where sympathizers like that were stoned, others have died... not because of Gene but because dioceses have rejected the HIV-AIDS assistance from the American church's tainted money.

The conversation - for the Americans and the Canadians - had real remorse in it: we acted without care for the greater family and we were deeply sorry. I'm not saying the consecration wouldn't have happened but the hurt of disregard for them - which was plain and evident - would not have been there.

Then Bishop Michael of Sudan continued as he said that his church was only getting used to thinking about homosexuals now with that he composed a prayer right on the spot emphasizing his point. After the entreaty to "Our dear Lord" it was as sensitive a summary of their uncertain lives in his land that I had ever heard. We were silent. (I wonder if this Lambeth is about where had hoped the 1998 meeting would have been in the appreciation of basic gay lives and rights.)

The bishop went on to say that we had to give he and his people some time; elevating gay persons into leadership positions of authority was confusing to him and his congregations. "Can't a baptized person get into heaven without you making him a bishop for awhile?" He had us there. As he was speaking I wasn't sure if the nods were in sympathy or agreement. It seemed like both and it came about as there was an acceptance of North American remorse.

The atmosphere in the room had changed. Said our facilitator, "We seem to have arrived at a special level of trust." And that seemed to hold true for the heretofore stilted conversations about the Covenant too, that code of conduct we have all been dreading. Now, there was a growing consensus around the things which make us an affirmed, communion of churches in search of a grace-filled process which would come to the rescue when we get out of sorts with each other. It had been the meanderings in recent years for the right venue to discuss this which has been so maddening.

If we could only come up with a process of soft intention, setting our minds and hearts in the way Christ would want us to behave when things get enflamed... sort of a compact indaba. +gep

Friday, August 01, 2008

The trapdoor...

If God is crucified flesh for Paul then everything is a disguise: weakness is really strength, wisdom is really foolishness, death is really life, religion is often slavery and sin itself is actually for Paul the trapdoor, that's my word, the trapdoor into salvation.

We looked for an omnipotent God and we lost faith when God appeared to be weak and not in control.

So the truth in paradoxical language lies neither in the affirmation nor in the denial of either side, but precisely in the tug of war between the two. Now hold on to that...

The human and the divine co-existing at the same time is real religion. This creates honest people. People who don't waste time proving they're right, superior, or saved.

They spend time on a journey falling deeper into the mystery of God where they feel safe enough, secure enough, and loved enough to admit such things.

That is how one gets into the mystery of freedom, and why this notion of freedom is so scary.

Richard Rohr, from Great Themes of Paul

[God] said to [Paul], My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
(2 Corinthians 12.9-10 NIV)

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned - for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who was a pattern of the one to come.

But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man's sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(Romans 5.12-21 NIV)

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

(Romans 8.1-4 NIV)

I have deliberately used the NIV translation here, where the Greek word "sarx" is translated "sinful man" or "sinful nature" according to context, which brings out the meaning of the writing. Strong's G4561, σάρξ "... 4) the flesh, denotes mere human nature, the earthly nature of man apart from divine influence, and therefore prone to sin and opposed to God." Otherwise, translating "sarx" simply as "flesh" tends to a Gnostic-style dichotomy of flesh=bad, spirit=good.

But of course Paul also says, "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" (Romans 6.1-2)

I was so struck by this, since of course it is the hidden power-source of one of my own key verses from Paul, Romans 8.28, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."

If I look back over my own rather tattered life, I can see so clearly that the real progress, if that's the right word in the context, the beginnings of actually following Christ, came not despite my own weakness and fallibility, but because of them. Praise be to Christ!