Sunday, February 28, 2010

The gift of faith…

Faith reaches the intellect not simply through the senses but in a light directly infused by God. Since this light does not pass through the eye or the imagination or reason, its certitude becomes our own without any vesture of created appearance, without any likeness that can be visualized or described.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New Directions, 1961, p. 132

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Ephesians 2.4-10

I am so grateful for these words. I know it might sound a bit much to some people, but truly I keep finding that the only way I can live is by faith, through the hope that is mine, being saved; and through the love I have for my sisters and brothers in Christ, as well as the ones who don’t know who he even is. Yet if you asked me to explain in concrete terms why I have faith, I who grew up so far from the Lord, I couldn’t tell you. All I know is that I didn’t have faith then, and I do now; I wasn’t saved then, now I am; I had love for no one but myself, and now my heart is full. I have nothing whatever for which I can take the credit. Like Paul, I want to say, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6.14)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On not becoming evil...

So we will pose the great spiritual problem in this way, "How do I stand against hate without becoming hate myself?"

We would all agree that evil is to be rejected and overcome; the only question is, how? How can we stand against evil without becoming a mirror - but denied - image of the same? That is often the heart of the matter, and in my experience is resolved successfully by a very small portion of people, even though it is quite clearly resolved in the life, death and teaching of Jesus.

Jesus gives us a totally different way of dealing with evil - absorbing it in God (which is the real meaning of the suffering body of Jesus) instead of attacking it outside and in others. It is undoubtedly the most counter-intuitive theme of the entire Bible.  It demands real enlightenment and conversion for almost all of us.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, pp. 143, 145

Our default understanding seems to be more like that of the Star Wars universe than Christ's. I can only assume that this has to do with the Fall, described in Genesis 3 as Eve's and Adam's eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We can see this in operation in every war fought across the earth at any point in history, especially in the so-called "just wars". I am not meaning necessarily to criticise here the theory of jus ad bellum: I am merely pointing out that however good the reasons for going to war, however noble and necessary the aims, jus in bello never works. As we saw tragically in the second Gulf War, those on the side of good become evil in order to combat evil, just as Rohr describes.

The Cross is both the symbol and the means of the final defeat of evil. Only on the Cross can we see evil for what it truly is, on the Cross of Christ and on the countless crosses carried, knowingly or unknowingly, by all mortal life. It is only through the Cross that all suffering finally is redeemed (Romans 5 passim; 8.18ff) and it is only in Christ that the dark side is finally overcome (John 1.1-5) Easter is not a festival with bunnies; it is not even just a Christian festival. It is a cosmic event on a par with creation itself - the healing of all that is broken (Revelation 21.1-5) and wrong, the making of all things new again, the Kingdom come, shalom at last...  

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Only in silence…

Only in silence and solitude, in the quiet of worship, the reverent peace of prayer, the adoration in which the entire ego-self silences and abases itself in the presence of the Invisible God to receive His one Word of Love; only in these “activities” which are “non-actions” does the spirit truly wake from the dream of multifarious, confused, and agitated existence.

Merton, Thomas. Love & Living. Naomi Burton Stone and Br. Patrick Heart, Editors. Harcourt, 1979. p. 20-21

I wish I could express somehow how these words awaken my heart’s longing. They come like some rumour from a distant shore, like the scent of green places across a salt and barren sea at the end of a long voyage.

These are not words of escape, though. Peace yes, but no escape, no final rest until “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8.21) Until then, our silence and our solitude are the risk of radical openness, the love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13.7)

Prayer cannot finally rest in itself as long as there are tears shed, blood spilt, among even the least in God’s creation—for “we know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8.22-23)

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…

A Lenten Prayer

The Lenten season begins. It is a time to be with you, Lord, in a special way, a time to pray, to fast, and thus to follow you on your way to Jerusalem, to Golgotha, and to the final victory over death.

I am still so divided. I truly want to follow you, but I also want to follow my own desires and lend an ear to the voices that speak about prestige, success, pleasure, power, and influence. Help me to become deaf to these voices and more attentive to your voice, which calls me to choose the narrow road to life.

I know that Lent is going to be a very hard time for me. The choice for your way has to be made every moment of my life.  I have to choose thoughts that are your thoughts, words that are your words, and actions that are your actions. There are not times or places without choices. And I know how deeply I resist choosing you.

Please, Lord, be with me at every moment and in every place. Give me the strength and the courage to live this season faithfully, so that, when Easter comes, I will be able to taste with joy the new life that you have prepared for me.


(from The Road to Daybreak, Henri J. M. Nouwen)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Treasures of darkness...

[W]e have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4.7-12 NRSV)

I've not been able to get this passage out of my head since our Assistant Priest Judy mentioned it in her powerful sermon yesterday morning. Later in the same letter Paul says (12.7b-10) that he will gladly boast of his weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in him.

I feel somewhat the same as Paul. Although I have never been one to make my private life public, and this blog was never intended as any sort of reality show, I cannot escape the feeling that I am supposed somehow to share what God is doing in all of this. Like my illustrious predecessor, I am daily finding treasures of darkness, and riches hidden in secret places, and I can't quite keep quiet about it, and it's necessary to include just a little personal detail so as to make what I say comprehensible. My present situation, still unresolved, still neither married not single, is one that is a daily hurt. Jan had to return from the USA earlier this year, and circumstances beyond the control of either of us keep us living here in the same house. It's a situation that, although I did nothing to bring it about, I cannot help but be ashamed of. It stands in the way of all I try to do.

And yet... As a Franciscan, I am predisposed in some deep way to a longing for poverty. (Francis himself, after all, fell in love with "Lady Poverty", a bride he once described as "a wife of surpassing fairness.") There is economic poverty, of course, but for me the crucial thing is the poverty of action, the poverty of self-determination. In this, which really is for me a most painful thing, I am discovering not only a capacity in myself for surrender to God that I never knew I had, but God's goodness, his mercy and his grace. I am getting to know Christ in ways that I never could have done left to myself, that I never could have dreamed of discovering however closely I had attempted, of my own strength, to follow him.

And that's the point. We are called to take up our own crosses and follow Jesus, but we don't usually - well, I didn't - realise just what this means. Jesus' way of the Cross was a way of surrender. From the garden in Gethsemane to the tomb where he was laid, Jesus surrendered himself first of all to his Father, then to his enemies, and finally to his friends. We can only follow him by our own act of surrender - more properly, like Jesus himself, by successive acts of surrender.

For me, it has turned out as Leonard Cohen described, "Love is not a victory march / It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah." Yet God is good. Only through the most radical surrender can we find out how good. Only by letting go of all we possess can we really follow our Saviour who gave up everything for us. Only in being emptied can we be filled. Only in loss can we finally be found.

There is such hope in this, such utter and unquenchable hope. On the far side of the worst than can happen, Christ waits for us, his pierced hand stretched out to draw us into perfect joy.

I assume death will be like this. Certainly it seems to have been so for those who have been able to tell us something of the way of their own passing. As Paul said in his letter to the Romans, "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (8.38-39)

The odd thing is that it is only in these strange conditions of radical poverty that we can actually know these things as true. These are the "treasures of darkness" themselves. We seem to find, like the man who sold everything to buy the pearl of great price, that it is more than worth it. The love of Christ is greater, and stranger, and he himself is closer, than we had ever suspected. All we need is the faith of the Psalmist who wrote, in Psalm 119, "It is good for me that I was humbled, so that I might learn your statutes... Let your steadfast love become my comfort according to your promise to your servant. Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight."

Friday, February 12, 2010

Nothing we could ever hope to own...

In the Franciscan Third Order we are called to a life of simplicity (see The Principles, Days 10-12), even poverty. In our Western, 21st century life this is an odd thing to understand. I am only just beginning to get a handle on what it might mean, and this only by means of God's showing me its implications in ways that don't allow me to take credit for anything, still less act the hero as I might otherwise be inclined to do.

I am coming to believe that my 20-odd year obsession with Romans 8:28 is actually central to our understanding of the Franciscan way in these odd and troubled times. God does truly work in all things for the good of those who love him, and who are called according to his purpose. In many ways our poverty lies in this, our giving up of our own ambitions to self-determination, self-actualisation, and our abandoning of ourselves to God's grace, his sheer unconditioned gift. Our hopes and dreams are not ours really, not our own to bargain with, to lay plans for, as though we had our future at our own disposal.

I watched an extraordinarily moving film clip today (thanks Dria) of Market Street in San Francisco just days before the earthquake of 1906. The street was full of people, horses, traffic going about their own lives, following their own plans - so full of life and hope. I dare say Port-au-Prince looked much that way on the morning of January 12th.

We cannot know our lifetime. Our next breath is a gift we cannot deserve, and the one after that. We have this moment in which to love God, to love our sister, our brother, the cat who lies against the keyboard, the birds we feed in the garden. In all these things God works for good beyond our imagining, even when they seem so frail, so tragically able to be hurt. Like Jesus in the garden, we are called to an unthinkable trust. That is our poverty, all our riches, nothing we could ever hope to own.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Hat-tip to Christine Sine.

Visit The Robin Hood Tax website.


Consolation is a beautiful word. It means "to be" (con-) "with the lonely one" (solus). To offer consolation is one of the most important ways to care. Life is so full of pain, sadness, and loneliness that we often wonder what we can do to alleviate the immense suffering we see. We can and must offer consolation. We can and must console the mother who lost her child, the young person with AIDS, the family whose house burned down, the soldier who was wounded, the teenager who contemplates suicide, the old man who wonders why he should stay alive.

To console does not mean to take away the pain but rather to be there and say, "You are not alone, I am with you. Together we can carry the burden. Don't be afraid. I am here." That is consolation. We all need to give it as well as to receive it.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

The consolation of friends is a precious and irreplaceable thing. You know who you are - thank you! 

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The plague that destroys at midday...

One of the perils of the contemplative life that our age seems to have forgotten to watch out for is a condition called accidie, or acedia. The excellent if brief Wikipedia article describes it as follows:

Acedia (also accidie or accedie, from Latin acidĭa, and this from Greek ἀκηδία, negligence) describes a state of listlessness or torpor, of not caring or not being concerned with one's position or condition in the world. It can lead to a state of being unable to perform one's duties in life. Its spiritual overtones make it related to but distinct from depression. Acedia was originally noted as a problem among monks and other ascetics who maintained a solitary life...

The demon of acedia holds an important place in early monastic demonology and psychology. Evagrius of Pontus, for example, characterizes it as "the most troublesome of all" of the eight genera of evil thoughts. As with those who followed him, Evagrius sees acedia as a temptation, and the great danger lies in giving in to it.

In her remarkable A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland remarks,"It is very difficult to describe the effects of accidie, because its predominant feature is a lack of affect, an overwhelming sense of blankness and an odd restless and dissatisfied boredom." (p. 108) It is pre-eminently the sin of social networking, and of the online life generally.

I often used to wonder what this was that came over me, so that I could spend hours  messing around at the keyboard, and have nothing to show for it at the end. Now I think I begin to understand. Just as the enemy of our souls uses other good and wholesome things about being human, like sex, and food, and companionship, so these new means of communication and learning become means of our being pulled off course, diverted from the ways God has prepared for us to walk in.

John Cassian compared acedia to "the plague that destroys at midday" of Psalm 91 (90 in the Greek numbering). This affliction is not depression properly speaking, though I think some contemporary psychiatrists would so diagnose it, but a spiritual issue, sin if you will. Certainly the old eremitical writers like Cassian recognised it as such. It is prayer, and simplicity, and plain obedience to the order of one's own rule, as well as simple physical work, that will set us free. But perhaps above all prayer. We could do worse than start with Psalm 91...

Monday, February 01, 2010


My hope is in what the eye has never seen. Therefore, let me not trust in visible rewards. My hope is in what the heart of man cannot feel. Therefore let me not trust in the feelings of my heart. My hope is in what the hand of man has never touched. Do not let me trust what I can grasp between my fingers.

Let my trust be in Your mercy, not in myself. Let my hope be in Your love, not in health, or strength, or ability or human resources.

Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1999, pp. 29-30

This is so close to what God has been showing me over the last year... We know so very little of his purposes for us, let alone for those we meet and serve and love. Our trust is all we can bring, a gift that can only be held  in open hands.