Saturday, January 31, 2009

Where true joy is hidden...

At first sight, joy seems to be connected with being different. When you receive a compliment or win an award, you experience the joy of not being the same as others. You are faster, smarter, more beautiful, and it is that difference that brings you joy. But such joy is very temporary. True joy is hidden where we are the same as other people: fragile and mortal. It is the joy of belonging to the human race. It is the joy of being with others as a friend, a companion, a fellow traveler.

This is the joy of Jesus, who is Emmanuel: God-with-us.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey
This is the joy I was thinking about in my last post: the joy that the Holy Spirit brings to the hearts of us fragile, mortal people is precisely the "joy of Jesus, who is Emmanuel." As Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, "I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love." (Ephesians 3.16-17)

Being poor in a rich man's world...

Another of Jesus' non-negotiables is justice and generosity toward the poor and the outsider. That's quite clear, quite absolute - page after page of the Gospels. And now Christians think nothing of amassing fortunes and living grandly. Jesus' bias toward the poor was something that rich nations did not want to hear.

Richard Rohr, from the CAC webcast, Nov. 8, 2008: "What is The Emerging Church?"

Rohr is right when he says we don't wish to hear this - and I fear that we may fail to take the opportunity offered us by the current economic troubles. It seems that much of the work of the popular arts (music, cinema) of the Great Depression was devoted to getting rich, rising above the grey dole queues to a glittering invulnerable world perfectly shown by Busby Berkeley.

But poverty without joy is depression itself. It's only when we live out joy within poverty that we can live as Christ called us to live; and it's only the Spirit living within us who can fill us with that joy (Luke 10.21) It's that teaching which Francis brought so clearly to the world of his day, and it's that teaching of which Franciscans must keep reminding the world in which we find ourselves living, today maybe more than ever...

Friday, January 30, 2009

What makes us human...

Joy is what makes life worth living, but for many joy seems hard to find. They complain that their lives are sorrowful and depressing. What then brings the joy we so much desire? Are some people just lucky, while others have run out of luck? Strange as it may sound, we can choose joy. Two people can be part of the same event, but one may choose to live it quite differently than the other. One may choose to trust that what happened, painful as it may be, holds a promise. The other may choose despair and be destroyed by it.

What makes us human is precisely this freedom of choice.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey.

As Franciscans, this seems to be just what we are to do. As it says in the Principles of the Third Order:

We as Tertiaries, rejoicing in the Lord always, show in our lives the grace and beauty of divine joy. We remember that we follow the Son of Man, who came eating and drinking, Who loved the birds and the flowers, Who blessed little children, Who was a friend to tax collectors and sinners and Who sat at the tables of both the rich and the poor. We delight in fun and laughter, rejoicing in God’s world, its beauty and its living creatures, calling nothing common or unclean. We mix freely with all people, ready to bind up the broken-hearted and to bring joy into the lives of others. We carry within us an inner peace and happiness which others may perceive, even if they do not know its source.

This joy is a divine gift, coming from union with God in Christ. It is still there even in times of darkness and difficulty, giving cheerful courage in the face of disappointment, and an inward serenity and confidence through sickness and suffering. Those who possess it can rejoice in weakness, insults, hardships, and persecutions for Christ’s sake; for when they are weak, then they are strong.

Oh, Lord, give me grace to live like this always!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I’m a polyhistor, innit?

blog readability test

Ah, well, so much for plain English…

Forgive and forget?

Forgiving does not mean forgetting. When we forgive a person, the memory of the wound might stay with us for a long time, even throughout our lives. Sometimes we carry the memory in our bodies as a visible sign. But forgiveness changes the way we remember. It converts the curse into a blessing. When we forgive our parents for their divorce, our children for their lack of attention, our friends for their unfaithfulness in crisis, our doctors for their ill advice, we no longer have to experience ourselves as the victims of events we had no control over.

Forgiveness allows us to claim our own power and not let these events destroy us; it enables them to become events that deepen the wisdom of our hearts. Forgiveness indeed heals memories.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I think this fits somehow with the last post—our forgiven memories become what we are, our wounds are even in this life glorified to an extent, a reflection, perhaps, of the glory our wounds will share with Christ’s in the life to come.

The Jesus Prayer is for me the central way this happens, unseen, without intellection—though not without struggle!

I’ve been thinking lately about the relationship between the Jesus Prayer as intercession, and the Jesus Prayer as contemplation, not to mention the Jesus Prayer as petition… Some people recommend changing the Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…”) in order to use it as intercession: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on Lucy”, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on the Christians in Indonesia” and so on. I’ve no objection if anyone feels that works for them, but for me, it doesn’t.

Changing the Prayer—for me—misses the point of Romans 8.26, “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.” (NIV) It distracts me to have to remember whether it’s Lucy, or Jim, or the homeless people in Bournemouth, I’m supposed to be asking mercy for, and it might even prevent our being open to the Spirit praying in us (Romans 8.27) as he would otherwise. The contemplative dimension of the Prayer, which requires the reasoning side of the mind to disengage, and the heart to be filled with Jesus’ own love and mercy by the action of the Holy Spirit, is only free to function so long as one is not intellectually caught up in the words that are occupying the conscious surface of the mind—and it is the contemplative dimension of the Prayer which enables one’s whole being to be placed at the service of God in prayer.

The drift of what I’m trying to say becomes especially clear when we consider Nouwen’s point above:  if we have been hurt by Fred at some time, what shall I pray for? That I will be enabled to forgive him? That Fred will hear and accept my forgiveness (bearing in mind that he may by now be dead, or in another country and not on Facebook)? That God will bless him? That God will heal us both? That we will be reconciled? All of the above? Or things I haven’t even begun to imagine, that God will achieve in both our hearts through our strangely shared wounds, and through my prayer? If it’s this last alternative, how much better to leave it to God to pray in and through me, as the Prayer works unseen in my heart, bringing about unspeakable wonders of mercy that I don’t have the thoughts to frame, or the brain to comprehend!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

It’s not the years, honey…

In general the only people I really trust doing reconstruction work are people who have paid their dues to deconstruction. If someone has never been able to see the dark side, they haven't gained the right to talk the language of reconstruction.

You need to have seen the dark side, have felt the sour stomach and have emerged renewed from the belly of the whale.

We don't need naïve people or people in denial. We need people who have been there, know the problems and have come out alive.

Richard Rohr, from Hope Against Darkness, p. 171

As someone who has definitely done his time in the smelly innards of that whale, I’m enormously heartened by this. Those of us who have come through these dark places sometimes envy the obvious children of light, those who have grown up in lovely Christian homes, given themselves to God with strong and shining faith in their early youth, stuck with it while they completed degrees and postgraduate degrees in Biblical and moral theology, married fellow students, gone on to a thriving ministry, and… oh, you get the picture… Rohr has a word of hope for us after all, we whose memories are full of things we’d rather not have to remember, and who sometimes are tempted to say, with Indiana Jones, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage…”

Back online…

Whew! At last I’m back online at my own PC – still gradually settling into the new machine, trying to get everything set up without too much clutter… I’ll try and post a bit more regularly here now that everything seems to be working as it should!

Friday, January 23, 2009

A sad day...

We have finally had to give in and rehome our poor beautiful Lulu. She was so unhappy living with the kittens, spending all her time swearing at them and lashing out at them. She was miserable, and they were getting very frightened of her, so this morning we took her to the RSPCA rehoming centre. We both feel terrible, but it was the only solution, that or rehoming the kittens - but they get on so well with dear old Figgy, and Lulu really didn't. She needs to be an only cat... what she'd like above all is to live quietly with one or two people, with a warm lap to snuggle on, and no other cats to make her feel insecure. The very nice people at the RSPCA will let us know how she gets on...

But we'll miss her. She was such a character, and always waiting by the front door when we came in, purring and winding around our ankles. I know it's best for her, and for the kittens, but it hurts...

Going to the side and doing it differently...

A core principle of the Center for Action and Contemplation is: The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. Just go ahead and live positively "in God, through God, with God."

In the short run, you will hold the unresolved tension of the cross. In the long run, you will usher in something entirely new and healing.

This was the almost intuitive spiritual genius of Saint Francis. He wasted no time attacking the rich churches and pretentious clergymen; he just went to the side and did it differently.

Richard Rohr, from Hope Against Darkness, p. 15

How different this is from some of the writings of "church-leaving" Christians you find around the innertoobs! It seems to me that it's only in this "going to the side" that we make a way for grace to flow through our own lives, and through the laying-down of our lives.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Solitude and community...

Solitude greeting solitude, that's what community is all about. Community is not the place where we are no longer alone but the place where we respect, protect, and reverently greet one another's aloneness. When we allow our aloneness to lead us into solitude, our solitude will enable us to rejoice in the solitude of others. Our solitude roots us in our own hearts. Instead of making us yearn for company that will offer us immediate satisfaction, solitude makes us claim our center and empowers us to call others to claim theirs. Our various solitudes are like strong, straight pillars that hold up the roof of our communal house. Thus, solitude always strengthens community.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I'm often struck by how often we misunderstand solitude, and the call to solitude in the contemplative heart. Not just "the world" but most of us in the church as well. Solitude is not opposed to community: it is essential for true community, just as contemplation is not opposed to intercession, but is essential for intercession's growth, from an attempt at magic to real and costly prayer.

A coincidence of opposites...

The cross, as we see again and again, is the "coincidence of opposites": One movement going vertical, another going horizontal, clearly at cross-purposes.

When the opposing energies of any type collide within you, you suffer. If you agree to hold them creatively until they transform you, it becomes redemptive suffering.

This stands in clear and total opposition to the myth of redemptive violence, which has controlled most of human history, even though it has never redeemed anything. Expelling the contradictions instead of "forgiving" them only perpetuates the problem.

Richard Rohr, from Hope Against Darkness, p. 14

It looks as though normal service may be able to be resumed next week - meanwhile, here's a wonderful passage from Richard Rohr. Road-tested, this one!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Slight Hiatus...

My poor old PC has finally died... Till I can get my hands on a new one, there'll be a slight pause in the proceedings here!

Pax et bonum...


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A huge spontaneous upheaval…

We are living in the greatest revolution in history – a huge spontaneous upheaval of the entire human race; not the revolution planned and carried out by any particular party, race, or nation, but a deep elemental boiling over of all the inner contradictions that have ever been in man, a revelation of the chaotic forces inside everybody. This is not something we have chosen, nor is it something we are free to avoid.

Thomas Merton: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, with thanks to Inward/Outward

And we're still caught up in the waves of that upheaval, I think. I'd go so far as to say that the fact that you're reading this, and that I was able to post it, and that there is such a thing as the Internet at all, is just a part of that upwelling. It is where we have to pray…

Monday, January 12, 2009

Merton's geography of the soul…

[T]he inner self is not a part of our being, like a motor in a car. It is our entire substantial reality itself, on its highest and most personal and most existential level. It is like life, and it is life: it our spiritual life when it is most alive. It is the life by which everything else in us lives and moves. It is in and through and beyond everything that we are. If it is awakened, it communicates a new life to the intelligence in which it lives, so that it become a living awareness of itself: and this awareness is not so much something that we ourselves have, as something that we are. It is a new and indefinable quality of our living being.

(Thomas Merton. The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation. William H. Shannon, editor (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003): 6.)

Sporadic cat-blogging episode…

Little Ruby has been for her first check-up at the vet since losing her eye, and he is very pleased indeed with her progress. (She continues to charm the socks off all the staff at the surgery!) To her immense relief she was able to have her Elizabethan collar off when she got home – she spent most of the next hour washing every scrap of herself several times over…

Here's a picture of Lulu looking, as Carly says, like a force to be reckoned with!

Lulu Shed 2

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A light for my path…

Often we want to be able to see into the future. We say, "How will next year be for me? Where will I be five or ten years from now?" There are no answers to these questions. Mostly we have just enough light to see the next step: what we have to do in the coming hour or the following day. The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step with the trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go. Let's rejoice in the little light we carry and not ask for the great beam that would take all shadows away.

(Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey)

Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light for my path.

(Psalm 119.105)

I need to read things like this. I always want to know exactly where things are going, precisely what God has planned for me after I do this next thing, and he always says, "Just do the next thing. Leave the consequences, and their consequences, to me." I never listen… the next time I'm just as bad.

Ruby is doing well – she has been playing with her sister all day, as best she can with her silly collar. She refuses to go back in her cage at any price. I have to say she seems just fine not in it!

Friday, January 09, 2009

Ruby's home!

Little Ruby is home safely – thank you all for your prayers…

Apart from being most disgruntled with her silly Elizabethan collar, Ruby's happy, eating, purring, delighted to see her sister – but for the next couple of days she'll stay in her little cage. Early next week she'll go back to the vet, and if all's well, she'll be able to be free in the house. No one's going out till they've been spayed, now. She enchanted everyone at the surgery – Jan thinks they were sorry to see her go… They've made a wonderfully neat job of closing her eye – once everything's healed she'll just have one closed eye. She doesn't seem in the least worried about only having the one to see out of. Animals are so accepting and adaptable – they truly do seem to accept "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) So long as they know they are loved, and cared for, that's all they need…

I am so grateful for our cats, for their joy and their companionship, for the way they trust us and keep us company, when actually there is (except at times like this!) nothing to prevent their leaving and making an independent, feral life for themselves, like the wandering tom who hurt our poor little Ruby.

I don't know what it is about cats. I'm fond of all animals, cats and dogs and cows (especially cows) and stoats and crabs and spiders and the wonderful furry bumble-bees who fill our little garden with their hum in springtime, but cats are special…

Prayer for Gaza…

I have been very remiss in not posting anything here about the tragic conflict in and around Gaza. But as those who know me well know only too well, I am a supremely apolitical animal, and I always doubt my ability to add anything useful to political analysis or debate. On the contrary, I seem only ever to step on people's toes without actually provoking anything more thoughtful, or useful, than some emotion on the spectrum between irritation and rage.

I can't hold back any longer, though. When UN aid vehicles come under fire from Israeli tanks, and rockets are fired into an Israeli old people's home from across the Lebanese border, the pride and fear of men has catastrophically overcome their humanity in ways seen more clearly perhaps in Rwanda or Kosovo. There are ambitions to genocide, perhaps on both sides of this evil.

Of the Christian bloggers whose work I follow, Jane Redmont in particular has useful collections of links, notably to Israeli peace initiatives. It is all too easy to assume that each and every Israeli is a hawk keening for the blood of those who live in Gaza, and it just isn't so, any more than the parallel assumption that those who live in Gaza each passionately, personally support Hamas' ambitions to destroy the state of Israel.

I don't quite know how to pray – but as I keep on saying in these pages, I don't have to:

…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. (Romans 8.26-27 NIV)

[I haven't given links for each of the reports or assertions I've made above: they are not my own private thoughts, but well attested in news media sympathetic to each side. Don't bother challenging me on each point: comments are moderated, and I don't want to get drawn into an argument as to whose news report is most likely to be true, and whose mere propaganda – that isn't the point of this post.]

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Prayers for Ruby…

Our kitten Ruby is at the vets tonight: in the morning she is having one of her eyes removed, having been attacked by a local cat on the first day of her first oestrus. (We had been advised not to have the kittens spayed till after their first heat.)

Please pray for the poor fluffy scrap, that she will come through the operation as well as possible, and that she will not be too upset being alone – this will be the first night the two sisters have spent apart in all their short lives…


Tuesday, January 06, 2009


(By special request – first instalment for Jane!)






A cat is the best Christmas decoration…


Both kittens (you are not to look at the messy surroundings)

Sunday, January 04, 2009

On not babbling on…

Following on from yesterday's post, and Gabrielle's perceptive comment, I just found this:

If we allow ourselves to stay at the lower level of consciousness; either/or, all or nothing thinking, we haven't been taught how to pray. The reason some of us almost hesitate to use the word prayer is because it has become this practical, functional, making announcements to God. It is the very thing that Jesus told us not to do. "Why do you babble on like the pagans do?" [Matthew 6.7] God already knows.

Prayer, which was a code word in the New Testament for this different consciousness, became pretty much a practical problem solving thing. It was not a new mind and a new heart with which you looked out at reality.

(Richard Rohr, from the CD A New Way of Seeing/ A New Way of Being; Jesus and Paul)

The only point I'd take issue with here is one of language: I don't like using phrases like "lower levels of consciousness" myself, if I can avoid them. It's too easy to tempt the Gnostic in all of us! I much prefer Jesus' remark, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children." (Luke 10.21 NIV)

Saturday, January 03, 2009


The film is focused on father Anatoly's repentance of his sin (therefore the virtually continuous occurrence of the Jesus Prayer); but the transgressions of the depicted character (a fool for Christ) and their impact on the others are the means by which the actual plot develops. The film's director Pavel Lungin, speaking of the central character's self-awareness, said he doesn't regard him as being clever or spiritual, but blessed "in the sense that he is an exposed nerve, which connects to the pains of this world. His absolute power is a reaction to the pain of those people who come to it;" while "typically, when the miracle happens, the lay people asking for a miracle are always dissatisfied" because "the world does not tolerate domestic miracles."

Screenwiter Dmitry Sobolev further explains: "When people ask for something from God, he is often wrong because God has a better understanding of what a person wants at that moment." Pyotr Mamonov, who plays the lead character, formerly one of the few rock musicians in USSR, converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in the 1990s and lives now in an isolated village. Pavel Lungin said about him that "to a large extent, he played himself." Mamonov received a blessing from his confessor for playing the character.

The simplicity, the humbleness, the remoteness, the miracles converge into creating a timeless snapshot of the Orthodox spirituality, apart from the historical circumstances. Patriarch Alexei II of Russia praised Ostrov for its profound depiction of faith and monastic life, calling it a "vivid example of an effort to take a Christian approach to culture."

(From the Wikipedia entry on the recent Russian film Ostrov) (You need to read the whole entry for the context…)


Life is precious. Not because it is unchangeable, like a diamond, but because it is vulnerable, like a little bird. To love life means to love its vulnerability, asking for care, attention, guidance, and support. Life and death are connected by vulnerability. The newborn child and the dying elder both remind us of the preciousness of our lives. Let's not forget the preciousness and vulnerability of life during the times we are powerful, successful, and popular.

(Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey)

This comes very close to my own heart in the Jesus Prayer. I have recently discovered a fellow-traveller on the path of this Prayer, who calls himself Confessing Evangelical - an English Lutheran living "somewhere on the fringes of London" but located here in cyberspace. Here is a list of permalinks to his posts on the Prayer: Confessing Evangelical's posts on the Jesus Prayer.

Probably CE's most striking post is The Jesus Prayer as a summary of the gospel, where he quotes Bishop Kallistos Ware:

…to have mercy is to acquit the other of the guilt which by his own efforts he cannot wipe away, to release him from the debts he himself cannot pay, to make him whole from the sickness for which he cannot unaided find any cure. The term "mercy" means furthermore that all this is conferred as a free gift: the one who asks for mercy has no claims upon the other, no rights to which he can appeal.

I think the thing that God is trying to show me by calling me to the Jesus Prayer is that here in fact is the way to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5.17) - as intercessors, all God asks of us is broken hearts - we do not need to find solutions to the prayers we pray, nor just the right words to frame them. God knows what is on our hearts (Romans 8:26-27) - we need only be honest and courageous enough to feel: feel the pain and the grief and the confusion and betrayal and despair the world feels, and to come before our Lord and Saviour with them on our hearts, and ask for God's mercy in the holy name of Jesus.

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 (now unfortunately out of print)