Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Merton on Solitude

Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.

From Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters: The Essential Collection, Shannon & Bochen (eds.), HarperOne  2008

Downward mobility...

The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record - that's what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame.

The way of Jesus is radically different. It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility. It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place! Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing? Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Let go of the private dream for the dream of God. Most of us live in the past, carrying our hurts, guilts and fears. We have to face the pain we carry, lest we spend the rest of our lives running away from it or letting it run us. But the only place you'll ever meet the real is now-here. It's the hardest place for us to live, the place where we're most afraid to live, because it feels so empty and boring. Now-here almost always feels like nowhere, and that's precisely where we must go.

Richard Rohr, from Jesus' Plan for a New World

I am so grateful for this movement in my own life. I don't know to what extent I could claim to have chosen this: probably I didn't choose it to any great extent. At the time, each step down seemed like misfortune, or at least force of circumstance. But at each step I met Jesus, holding out his pierced hand to help me down. Truly. This isn't some kind of pious fantasy, but plain experience - as concrete and even ordinary, and yet as glorious, as today's midsummer sunlight.

God's beautiful mercy in Christ is greater than any of the messes we make. John was nothing less than factually accurate when he wrote, (John 1:5) "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." It doesn't. It couldn't, ever. Put a light in a dark place, and however deep the darkness, the light doesn't grow less - but the darkness lessens...

Preaching without words, again…

Faith can’t really be taught; faith is usually caught. One receives it more by osmosis than by direct instruction. Those who are animated by living faith, openly trusting in God and one another, pass on faith.  Children who grow up where the family’s faith is generating love, where a fulfilling life vision is being celebrated, and the inner meaning of things is taken seriously, naturally receive the gift of faith. Children do not imitate what their parents dutifully believe nearly as much as they are attracted to what authentically excites their parents.

If a person is teaching religion without offering some energetic faith to catch, then teaching religion is largely a waste of time. It actually becomes an immunization and blockage against the real thing, as so many of us have learned. Real faith is too real to ignore or to dismiss.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Radical Grace, St Anthony Messenger Press, 1996

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Messy and shameful...

Jesus says: "If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him... take up his cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24). He does not say: "Make a cross" or "Look for a cross." Each of us has a cross to carry. There is no need to make one or look for one. The cross we have is hard enough for us! But are we willing to take it up, to accept it as our cross?

Maybe we can't study, maybe we are handicapped, maybe we suffer from depression, maybe we experience conflict in our families, maybe we are victims of violence or abuse. We didn't choose any of it, but these things are our crosses. We can ignore them, reject them, refuse them or hate them. But we can also take up these crosses and follow Jesus with them.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I think this has been one of the hardest things for me to learn. Like so many people, I have wasted years looking for a good cross, a noble, praiseworthy cross, one that everyone can see is holy and admirable. I've ignored, and tried to avoid, the real, messy, shameful ones I've been given - the ones just like Jesus', actually. Those are the ones he asks us to take up so that we can, truly, follow him...

The fire in the dark...

We are always in need of repentance, of the willingness to acknowledge our state of forgiveness; we are always being forgiven, transfigured and forgiving, and thus being part of God's transfiguration of creation.

Sin both matters terribly and matters not at all: matters terribly as a vehicle for evil, and matters not at all because it can be transformed in the love of God. Sin, which we cannot avoid, and the acknowledgement of sin, can be a balancing factor, not a morbid preoccupation. It is rather a knowledge that adds reality to the assessment of decisions we are about to make, and brings us to a kind of self-knowledge that surpasses gladness because of the fire in the dark, and the fire in our tears.

And because we are one organism our tears cannot stop with ourselves; our responsibility cannot stop with a narcissistic perception of where our sin leaves off and another's begins. The more we participate in transfiguration, the less we fear, the less we feel we have to control. Thus the boundaries between ourselves and others become less defined and finally disappear altogether, not because we are finding ourselves by testing ourselves against the actions and reactions of others, but precisely because we are being found in God and thus need less self-reflection.

with thanks to Episcopal Café

Monday, June 28, 2010

Losing it...

Courage is connected with taking risks. Jumping the Grand Canyon on a motorbike, coming over Niagara Falls in a barrel, or crossing the ocean in a rowboat are called courageous acts because people risk their lives by doing these things. But none of these daredevil acts comes from the centre of our being. They all come from the desire to test our physical limits and to become famous and popular.

Spiritual courage is something completely different. It is following the deepest desires of our hearts at the risk of losing fame and popularity. It asks of us the willingness to lose our temporal lives in order to gain eternal life...

The society in which we live suggests in countless ways that the way to go is up. Making it to the top, entering the limelight, breaking the record - that's what draws attention, gets us on the front page of the newspaper, and offers us the rewards of money and fame.

The way of Jesus is radically different. It is the way not of upward mobility but of downward mobility. It is going to the bottom, staying behind the sets, and choosing the last place! Why is the way of Jesus worth choosing? Because it is the way to the Kingdom, the way Jesus took, and the way that brings everlasting life.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey
All too often, I think, we Christians are the last to realise that what society regards as misfortune may be for us the greatest blessing. The Beatitudes (Matthew 5) spell this out for us, and yet we consistently don't get it. We interpret grief as something to be "got over", poverty as "an attack from the devil." Doing so, I think we risk missing the blessings Jesus has promised us - cf. Luke 18:29-30.

We need to have the courage of our convictions, we Franciscans especially. Our faithfulness is not to the world's values, nor even Christ's, but to Jesus himself. We cannot go on looking for the world's rewards, judging ourselves by the world's standards. We have to be happy being a bit strange, raggedy even, the kind of people who get misunderstood, but without rancour and without affectation. Our only rewards are the ones we have been promised. This is the way that Jesus took, and we can only follow, surely?

Glorious freedom…

Do you know that you are never absolutely sure you’re right when you’re living in faith?  That’s exactly why it’s called “faith!”   I wonder where this modern demand for certitude came from, which has produced fundamentalism?

At the crucial moments in your life’s decision making, you are always trusting in God’s guidance and mercy and not in your own perfect understanding.

You’re always “falling into the hands of the living God,” as Hebrews 10:31 says, letting God’s knowing suffice and God’s arms save.  Although, it does say in the same verse that it is a “scary” or “awesome” thing to do.

Richard Rohr, from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, Saint Anthony Messenger Press, 2008, p. 136

The opposite of faith is not intellectual doubt, because faith is not localized primarily in the mind. The opposite of faith, according to a number of Jesus’ statements is anxiety. If you are fear-based and “worried about many things,” as he says in Luke 10:41, you don’t have faith in a Biblical sense.  Faith is to be able to trust that God is good, involved, and on your side. So you see why it takes some years of inner experience to have faith.  It is not just that somewhat easy intellectual assent to doctrines or an agreement with a moral position.   This has passed as the counterfeit of faith for far too long.

When you cannot rely upon an Infinite Source, you yourself become your primary reference point in terms of all preferences, needs, results, and controls.  That would make anybody both anxious and insecure.

Richard Rohr, from Jesus’ Plan for a New World, Rohr, Fisher and Feister, St Anthony Messenger Press, 1996, p. 118

This connects very closely, I think, with my previous post.

I’m not sure that I would concur in any unqualified way with Rohr's insistence that “…it takes some years of inner experience to have faith.” Certainly faith takes years to mature, and deepen; but if seasoned, vintage faith were the only kind, what on earth was Jesus talking about when he commended people for their saving faith whom he'd only that moment met? (e.g. Luke 7:1-9; 8:42-48)

However, Fr. Richard is certainly right about trust vs. fear. Whether we reach this position by a “leap of faith” or by years of hard-won experience (Psalm 119:71) it is our trust that in all things God will work for our good, for our very best, in mercy, truth and power (Romans 8:28) that slips us from the grip of the enemy and sets us firmly within “the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21 NIV).

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Pain, pleasure and joy...

Life in this world is full of pain. But pain, which is the contrary of pleasure, is not necessarily the contrary of happiness or joy. Because spiritual joy flowers in the full expansion of freedom that reaches out without obstacle to its supreme object, fulfilling itself in the perfect activity of disinterested love for which it was created...

True joy is found... in the intense and supple and free movement of our will rejoicing in what is good not merely for us but in Itself.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New Directions Books, 1961, Shambhala Publications Inc., 2004, p. 259

I have found this to be true. As I've explained elsewhere here, things have at times have been very painful, and often bleak, over the last year and a bit. Yet joy has never, not for an instant, abandoned me. Oh, there have been times when I have abandoned joy; but that's a different matter altogether, one addressed by the Psalmist:

I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight.
Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me.
I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands.

(Psalm 119: 174-176, NIV)

Friday, June 25, 2010

We must give words...

The word must become flesh, but the flesh also must become word. It is not enough for us, as human beings, just to live. We also must give words to what we are living. If we do not speak what we are living, our lives lose their vitality and creativity. When we see a beautiful view, we search for words to express what we are seeing. When we meet a caring person, we want to speak about that meeting. When we are sorrowful or in great pain, we need to talk about it. When we are surprised by joy, we want to announce it!

Through the word, we appropriate and internalize what we are living. The word makes our experience truly human...

The word is always a word for others. Words need to be heard. When we give words to what we are living, these words need to be received and responded to. A speaker needs a listener. A writer needs a reader.

When the flesh - the lived human experience - becomes word, community can develop. When we say, "Let me tell you what we saw. Come and listen to what we did. Sit down and let me explain to you what happened to us. Wait until you hear whom we met," we call people together and make our lives into lives for others. The word brings us together and calls us into community. When the flesh becomes word, our bodies become part of a body of people.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey
We are not the kind of creatures who live alone, for ourselves. Solipsism is an illness, not a viable philosophy. As God remarked (Genesis 2:18), it is not good for humankind to be alone. Even those of us who are called to live as solitaries live in, and for, the community that is the Church.

What Nouwen says here reminds me of the poet's vocation. Derek Walcott memorably remarked:
(the) good poet is the proprietor of the experience of the race.... he is and has always been the vessel, vates, rainmaker, the conscience of the king and the embodiment of society, even when society is unable to contain him...

the conceit behind history, the conceit behind art, is its presumption to be able to elevate the ordinary, the common, and therefore the phenomenon. That's the sequence: the ordinary and therefore the phenomenon, not the phenomenon and therefore its cause. But that's what life is really like - and I think the best poets say that... it is the ordinariness, not the astonishment, that is the miracle, that is worth recalling.
Our speaking is deeply embedded in who, what, we are (Genesis 2:19). There is an extent to which we cannot really be said to know something unless we can describe it to ourselves (the study of epistemology is much concerned with this); and personal experience suggests that much of this knowing lies in the very act of attempting to describe something to another. As EM Forster famously said, "How can I know what I think till I see what I say?"

Christ is the living word. It is his life in us (John 17:22-23) is not less than word. Creation itself began with God's word in Christ (John 1:1-3) and all we truly are begins with Christ's word in us, the very image of God.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Love, joy, peace...

How do we know that we are infinitely loved by God when our immediate surroundings keep telling us that we'd better prove our right to exist?

The knowledge of being loved in an unconditional way, before the world presents us with its conditions, cannot come from books, lectures, television programs, or workshops. This spiritual knowledge comes from people who witness to God's love for us through their words and deeds. These people can be close to us but they can also live far away or may even have lived long ago. Their witness announces the truth of God's love and calls us to act in accordance with it...

Living a spiritual life is living a life in which our spirits and the Spirit of God bear a joint witness that we belong to God as God's beloved children, (see Romans 8:16). This witness involves every aspect of our lives. Paul says: "Whatever you eat, then, or drink, and whatever else you do, do it all for the glory of God" (Romans 10:31). And we are the glory of God when we give full visibility to the freedom of the children of God.

When we live in communion with God's Spirit, we can only be witnesses, because wherever we go and whomever we meet, God's Spirit will manifest itself through us...

How does the Spirit of God manifest itself through us? Often we think that to witness means to speak up in defence of God. This idea can make us very self-conscious. We wonder where and how we can make God the topic of our conversations and how to convince our families, friends, neighbours, and colleagues of God's presence in their lives. But this explicit missionary endeavour often comes from an insecure heart and, therefore, easily creates divisions.

The way God's Spirit manifests itself most convincingly is through its fruits: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22). These fruits speak for themselves. It is therefore always better to raise the question "How can I grow in the Spirit?" than the question "How can I make others believe in the Spirit?"

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey 

I am reminded of the remark attributed to St. Francis (though no one has apparently been able to trace its source*), "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary use words."

Of course it isn't an either/or: neither Francis nor Henri Nouwen meant to imply that. But our words, should we use them, can only be counter-productive unless we do live in the fruits of the Spirit, ", joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." (NIV)

Jesus came that we might have life, 'and have it to the full' (John 10:10). People around us will only be drawn in if they see this quality of fullness and richness of our life together, but not if they see laws and legalism. Bees are attracted by honey, not vinegar.
Ian Paul, Wordlive

(*In Chapter XVII of his Rule of 1221, however, Francis did tell the friars not to preach unless they had received the proper permission to do so. Then he added, "Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.")

Seaside Rock... (post number 1000)

Words are important. Without them our actions lose meaning. And without meaning we cannot live. Words can offer perspective, insight, understanding, and vision. Words can bring consolation, comfort, encouragement and hope. Words can take away fear, isolation, shame, and guilt. Words can reconcile, unite, forgive, and heal. Words can bring peace and joy, inner freedom and deep gratitude. Words, in short, can carry love on their wings. A word of love can be the greatest act of love. That is because when our words become flesh in our own lives and the lives of others, we can change the world.

Jesus is the word made flesh. In him speaking and acting were one...

Words that do not become flesh in us remain "just words." They have no power to affect our lives. If someone says, "I love you," without any deep emotion, the words do more harm than good. But if these same words are spoken from the heart, they can create new life.

It is important that we keep in touch with the source of our words. Our great temptation is to become "pleasers," people who say the right words to please others but whose words have no roots in their interior lives. We have to keep making sure our words are rooted in our hearts. The best way to do that is in prayerful silence.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

We seem to me to be incarnate beings through and through. God's image is written in us like the words in a stick of seaside rock - but it is written in the flesh and blood, bones and neurons of which we are made. We are not ghosts stuck in machines, awaiting some kind of liberation: we are all of a piece, and holy.

Saying this, of course, gives us an odd sense of responsibility. If we are like sticks of rock, but bearing the image of God all the way through instead of the words "Blackpool Rock", then wherever we go, whatever we do, that image goes with us. The name for thinking about this is perhaps "penitence"...

A thought: this is post number 1000 on The Mercy Blog. Perhaps I should order a commemorative stick of rock?

Monday, June 21, 2010

On not wriggling...

In brief, do everything as though in the presence of God and so, in whatever you do, you need never allow your conscience to wound and denounce you, for not having done your work well.

Proceeding in this way you will smooth for yourself a true and straight path to the third method of attention and prayer which is the following: the mind should be in the heart - a distinctive feature of this third method of prayer. It should guard the heart while it prays, revolve, remaining always within, and thence, from the depths of the heart, offer up prayers to God. (Everything is in this: work in this way until you are given to taste the Lord.) When the mind, there, within the heart, at last tastes and sees that the Lord is good, and delights therein (the labor is ours, but this tasting is the action of grace in a humble heart), then it will no longer wish to leave this place in the heart... and will always look inwardly into the depths of the heart and will remain revolving there, repulsing all thoughts sown by the devil...

Therefore our holy fathers, hearkening to the Lord... have renounced all other spiritual work and concentrated wholly on this one doing, that is on guarding the heart, convinced that, through this practice, they would easily attain every other virtue, whereas without it not a single virtue can be firmly established. Some of the fathers called this doing, silence of the heart; others called it attention; yet others - sobriety and opposition (to thoughts), while others called it examining thoughts and guarding the mind.

Keep your mind there (in the heart), trying by every possible means to find the place where the heart is, in order that, having found it, your mind should constantly abide there. Wrestling thus, the mind will find the place of the heart.

From Simeon the New Theologian (949-1022), in Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, translated by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E. H. Palmer (London: Faber and Faber, 1951) with thanks to Episcopal Cafe
Those who are in a hurry delay the things of God. (St. Vincent de Paul)
I am in a strange place at the moment, full of ideas and hopes - and trepidations! - and yet oddly unable to do anything about it. I am, as I keep saying in these recent posts, in the hand of Christ, like some little animal scooped up from beside the road. I know I have been rescued, and yet all my instinct is to wriggle and scrabble frantically. But just like the small creature beside the road, my escape would be the death of me - all I can do is wait for my Lord to set me gently down wherever it is he has in mind, in a safe place where I can live, and grow, and do what it is he has made me to do...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Safe at last...

Fear of life leads to excessive fear of death... In some way one must pay with life and consent daily to die, to give oneself up to the risks and dangers of the world, to allow oneself to be engulfed and used up. Otherwise, one ends up as though dead, in trying to avoid life and death.

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
Jesus, Luke 9:24
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Paul, Galatians 2:19b-20
Perhaps if we could only forget, for a while, that there are worse things than death, we could realise that our life is far more than this present breathing, this little tent of frail flesh and bone... We are safe in Christ's wounded hand, and all we are is his. Did he not say, "My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand." (John 10 27-28)?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

It is enough...

I keep being drawn back to Thursday's post. We know so little of what God is actually doing with us, and yet we do know that God has a way of working in deep paradox, bringing light out of darkness, and new life out of what appears to us to be death.

Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be." John 12:24-26a)

What we are has so often to be broken for what God longs for us to be to come about.  "Elisha had to break his plough, which represented his financial security, before he could qualify for a double portion of God's Spirit (1 Kings 19:19-21). Mary had to break her alabaster box, which represented her dowry and hope for marriage, in order to receive Christ's highest commendation (Mark 14:3-9)." (From a UCB devotional a friend sent me.) Sometimes it happens without our willing it. David did not intend his world to fall apart when he first looked at Bathsheba from his rooftop (2 Samuel 11-12); but he ended up realising (Psalm 51:17) that "[t]he sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise..."

God does not ever intend us harm; but he knows our fallenness, and he knows that we cannot be kept from harm without losing our freedom to choose to love each other, and to love him. So often what lies on the far side of the worst we can imagine is better than the best we can imagine. That is the story of the Cross (John 12:26b-28), and it is the story of all our human loss and all our human hope.

Where does this leave us? I made a stab at it the other week, in my post More treasures of darkness... We cannot know where God is taking us. All we can know is the next step, in faithfulness to his word (Psalm 119.105). All our trust, all our future, rests in Christ's pierced hands. It is enough. There truly is nothing else to know.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Nothing else to know...

Zephaniah, addressing a slum of Northern Kingdom refugees in Jerusalem (Zephaniah 3:14-18), and Paul, writing to the Philippians from his chains (Philippians 4:4-7), both counsel an unprecedented and unwarranted joy to their listeners.  Were they naïve or pie in the sky believers?  Probably not, because the whole of anything always contains parts and reasons for joy and contentment.  To accept and live in the whole of things is to be “holy.”  The unified field of God does not blot out all sadness and tragedy entirely, but it somehow and surely co-exists with it.  Joy and sadness can live together within us at the same time, and afterwards we learn to never despair because of the dark sides of things.  The dark side is never the whole, although in the short term it often appears to be.

Richard Rohr, Radical Grace, p.9

We so often don't realise what is happening to us. We live in God's hand, in the wounded hand of Christ; truly all we are is his. There is, in the end, nothing else to know.

Why are we waiting?

"It comes like a gentle dew" (Isaiah 45:8). Grace comes when you stop being preoccupied and stop thinking that by your own meddling, managing and manufacturing you can create it.

We're trained to be managers, to organize life, to make things happen. That's what's built our culture, and it's not all bad. But if you transfer that to the spiritual life, it's pure heresy. It doesn't work. You can't manage and manoeuvre and manipulate spiritual energy. It's a matter of letting go. It's a matter of getting the self out of the way, and becoming smaller, as John the Baptist said. It's a matter of the great kenosis, as Paul talks about in Philippians 2:6-11, the emptying of the self so that there's room for another.

It's very hard for us not to fix and manage life and to wait upon it, "like a gentle dew."

I think this is, for me, the hardest lesson. When I read Psalm 119:105, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path", I always want a pocket GPS receiver, or at least a folding map, rather what's promised in the psalm, which would have been the little, glimmering patch of light shed by an oil lamp such as the Hebrews used, barely enough to show the next step on the path.

Our waiting is our poverty; our willingness to wait is our acceptance of our own emptiness, our almost complete lack of the riches of foreknowledge. God alone truly knows what is to come (Romans 8:29; 11:2). We exist on the uncertain shoreline of the future - we are creatures of the tidemark, between the solid land of what has been, and the unthinkable currents of time itself. 

God, grant me the grace to wait for grace itself - take from me my constant fretting, and teach me how to simply let you be God. Please.