Thursday, December 29, 2011

Who is there to trust?

Life is unpredictable. We can be happy one day and sad the next, healthy one day and sick the next, rich one day and poor the next, alive one day and dead the next. So who is there to hold on to? Who is there to feel secure with? Who is there to trust at all times?

Only Jesus, the Christ. He is our Lord, our shepherd, our rock, our stronghold, our refuge, our brother, our guide, and our friend. He came from God to be with us. He died for us, he was raised from the dead to open for us the way to God, and he is seated at God's right hand to welcome us home. With Paul, we must be certain that “neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nothing already in existence and nothing still to come, nor any power, nor the heights nor the depths, nor any created thing whatever, will be able to come between us and the love of God, known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

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. (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux), p.29

The Jesus Prayer is for me the most perfect, tiny encapsulation of this. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…” In those words lie all the trust, all the security, of faith itself.

Of course we won’t always feel like that. The worms of doubt and the sinkholes of despair will always be there waiting. Years of learned responses, years of self-denigration, will claim the day as their own. That’s what is so good about a prayer like the Jesus Prayer. Praying in the Spirit is all very well, but the enemy of our souls can so easily set up impenetrable barricades in our hearts before we can react, or even notice. But a prayer that is so simple, that has been repeated formally and informally day after day, month after month, doesn’t need consciousness of the Spirit’s presence. We can say those words however dry, however broken we are, however meaningless they seem.

They are not meaningless. This is not some pattern of nonsense syllables: this is a prayer to the Son of the living God, and he will answer. He will. Nothing else could have brought me through some of the darkest days of the last ten years or so.

For all that I’ve written so often here about the intercessory and contemplative aspects of the Jesus Prayer, we mustn’t be too high-minded to remember its sheer usefulness as a lifebelt. But, and it is perhaps a big but, it won’t be as much use as it should be if we merely keep it on a shelf for emergencies. The Jesus Prayer is a way of life, a practice as demanding in itself of faithfulness and mindfulness as any path of Christian prayer. Only when it becomes a habit as close as one’s own heartbeat can it open the door of our broken heart to the Lord who stands at the door and knocks, whether we know it or not…

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

St John, Apostle and Evangelist

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was in the beginning with God.All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

(John 1.1-5; 14)

Today we celebrate the feast of St John, Apostle and Evangelist. The Lectionary reading today focus on his letters—but it is the sheer, staggering metaphysics of his Gospel prologue that gets me every time. The mere existence of anything, let alone our ability to perceive it, relate to it, be at all in ourselves, sometimes gives me attacks of vertigo just thinking about it.

I remember, when it was first beginning to dawn on me that there might be something in the Christian faith after all, reading this passage for the first time in a modern translation, and thinking, “Why does no-one teach this at school? This changes everything!” It answered at a stroke all those aching questions that kept me awake in the early hours: at last all the wonderings and speculations and fretful study and inadvisable experiments were superseded by 96 words that were as solid and true as a steel bolt… In a sense, the rest of my life has been an outworking of that moment.

I didn’t then read the opening of John’s first Letter (if letter is what it was supposed to be) but after the immediacy of his Gospel, which I read right through after that experience with the prologue I somehow knew what he meant. If what he had experienced with Christ those three years in Judea and Samaria meant anything, they meant just what he said, and that meant there was no going back, no matter how I struggled:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true;but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

(1 John 1.1-10)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas night…

Sometimes people assume that ‘good’ Christians have no doubts, never ask questions, never experience a sense of bewilderment in the face of cruelty or disaster. That is demonstrably untrue. To be a Christian is surely to live with uncertainty, relying on the gift of faith to bridge the gap between our understanding and our questioning…the God we seek is not a God afar off, but God-with-us, one who has shared our humanity and calls us to share in his divinity…

There in a nutshell is what Christmas is about. In his compassion and love, God wills to take our human flesh and blood and redeem us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord. Our salvation is very near. It began with Mary’s generous-hearted consent to be the Mother of God. It will take physical shape with the birth of Jesus on Christmas night. It will be completed only when all are one with Him in the Kingdom. Truly, this is ‘a mystery hidden from long ages, a secret into which even angels long to look!

from Digitalnun’s iBenedictines blog

Each Christmas might be our last on earth. There is such a glorious fragility about this season, when we celebrate the birth of a tiny, vulnerable baby—who just happened to be the Son of God—to a young Jewish girl far from home in the middle of occupied territory, Her faith, the loyalty of her husband Joseph, the kindness of strangers, opened the door to eternity in the person of that little new-born lad.

Christmas night is holy. Of all nights of the year there truly is an uncanny glory about this one. This is no myth, no fairy-tale to hold back the dark. This is God, touching all that he has made with the most tender love, the most glorious power of mercy—with his saving grace made Mary’s Son…

Friday, December 23, 2011

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come to save us, O Lord our God.


O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before you was any like you, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel at me?
The thing which you behold is a divine mystery.

(Alternative Antiphon in English Medieval usage, up to and including the New English Hymnal)


Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7.14)

O come, Lord Jesus, and heal what is so broken. Restore the places long desolate; make young again the broken hearts. What we cannot understand, make clear. Where there is no justice, let your judgement bring us mercy.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

O Rex Gentium

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.


Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7.14)

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
              Is immortal diamond.

('That Nature is...' Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Don't say goodbye (I know you can save us)
Don't wave goodbye (and nothing can break us)
Don't say goodbye (I know you can save us)
You can bring us back again
You can bring us back again

('Save Us', Feeder)

(2008’s post, slightly reheated)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Daring to speak?

The experience of the fullness of time, during which God is so present, so real, so tangibly near that we can hardly believe that everyone does not see God as we do, is given to us to deepen our lives of prayer and strengthen our lives of ministry. Having experienced God in the fullness of time, we have a lifelong desire to be with God and to proclaim to others the God we experienced.

Peter, years after the death of Jesus, claims his Mount Tabor experience as the source for his witness. He says: “When we told you about the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, we were not slavishly repeating cleverly invented myths; no, we had seen his majesty with our own eyes ... when we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18). Seeing God in the most intimate moments of our lives is seeing God for others.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I think this may be one of the most valuable things we can do as Christians, both for those who don’t know Christ, and for those of our sisters and brothers who find themselves astray in shadowed places, and wondering if their faith was just a story they were telling themselves, long ago…

It’s hard, though, sometimes to convey the immediacy of encountering God without seeming to “boast”, as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 11 & 12. I don’t know what the answer to this is; if St Paul tied himself up in knots about it, I can’t imagine what I could do. Still, sometimes the only thing that matters is the eye-witness account, the person who can stand up and say, “I was there: I saw that…”

We are in a season of miracle; angels threaded the skies over Bethlehem those 2,000-odd years ago, and we must not be surprised to meet them even now. God has not ceased to speak with humankind, even if not many listen. (Did they then?) We must dare to speak, perhaps (even though we feel as foolish as our brother Paul felt) of things that so far beyond our understanding that our words fall like bright flecks of ice, and are lost in “snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago…” Perhaps if we try, we shall find the words are given to us, and the Holy Spirit will speak what needs to be said… I don’t know. I am way out of my depth…

O Oriens

O Oriens,
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Pre-industrial people were far more connected to the natural cosmos and seasons than we are today, and were very aware that today is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, and not really the death of the sun—but its rebirth! The liturgical year was easily connected to the seasons of nature. The Latin word was Oriens, also translated “The Dayspring” (see Luke 1.78), and used as an image of Jesus, the Rising Son/Sun who is always leading us into the future horizons of time and history.

[The somewhat artificial date for Jesus' birthday was chosen to be December 25, because it was not until a few days after this that early astronomers could assess the rebirth of the sun, and so this became the Roman celebration of the birth of the sun and for Christians—Jesus' birth day!]

So go outside on this shortest day of the year (or longest if you live in Australia, New Zealand, Bangalore, or Singapore!), and know that whatever it appears to be, it is about to change! But who would suspect? The great change is totally hidden from us because we are still inside of it and too close to it.

Richard Rohr, December 2011

The people who walked in darkness
   have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
   on them light has shined.

(Isaiah 9.2 )

…for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.

(Malachi 4.2)

We cannot know what God is doing—his ways are not our ways, and his paths are beyond understanding. But God is faithful and just, slow to anger and full of compassion and steadfast love. If only we would trust him!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

O Clavis David

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David;
he shall open, and no one shall shut;
he shall shut, and no one shall open.

(Isaiah 22.22)

His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

(Isaiah 9.7)

I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

(Isaiah 42.6-7)

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.

(Isaiah 61:1)

Come, Lord Jesus, Holy and Anointed One, and lead us out from darkness into your everlasting light…

Monday, December 19, 2011

O Radix Jesse

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, who stands a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will fall rapt in prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no more.

Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophecies of Isaiah (11.1,10) and Micah (5.1), the one who was to come, as Paul explains in Romans 15.12. But he is the one who is still to come, to bring healing and restoration to all of Creation – which is why we still pray, "Come and deliver us, and delay no more."

All that we are cries out for healing, justice, restoration, and only in Christ are these things finally possible. Advent draws down to this longing, this cry.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus, come!

Hail, space for the uncontained God!

(from the Akathistos Hymn, Greece, VIc)
We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
God waited.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, 'How can this be?'
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
perceiving instantly
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –
but who was God.
This was the minute no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,
She did not cry, "I cannot, I am not worthy,"
nor "I have not the strength."
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Denise Levertov, with grateful thanks to Catholic Ireland

Sunday, December 18, 2011

O Adonai

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Lord and ruler of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords in human vesture,
in the Body and the Blood
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of Light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

At his feet the six-winged seraph;
cherubim with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
”Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord Most High!”

Words: Liturgy of Saint James (fifth century);
trans. Gerald Moultrie (1829-1885), 1864

Music: Picardy (French carol as in The English Hymnal, 1906)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

O Sapientia

Starting in the first millennium of Christianity, there was a build-up to the feast of Christmas. Each day an antiphon was sung dramatically at Vespers (sundown prayer) presenting central and alluring metaphors for the Incarnation of the Eternal Christ. (Remember that the Jewish tradition had all feasts begin at sundown on the previous day. Religious feasts were originally observed sundown to sundown. They transitioned to midnight to midnight with the invention of the clock.)

In these O Antiphons, when read backwards in the monastic illustrated Psalters, the opening letters of each day spelled across the page ERO CRAS, or “Tomorrow I will be.” It was an ancient form of very effective religious theatre and presentation.

Today, December 17, begins with the letter S for sapientia. Wisdom—sophia in Greek, sapientia in Latin, sabiduria in Spanish—was the feminine metaphor for the Eternal Divine, as found especially in the books of Proverbs and Wisdom. One might partner or compare Sophia with Logos, which is the masculine metaphor for the Divine. It is interesting that Logos was used in John's Gospel (1.9-14) and became the preferred tradition, but Sophia was seldom used outside of the monasteries. On December 17 we invoke the feminine image of God as Holy Wisdom.

Richard Rohr, December 2011

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come to teach us the way of prudence.

The sun is gilding Swanage this early afternoon with peace and beauty. It is easy to remember these words today, how Wisdom “mightily and sweetly order[s] all things.” One day, it will be so forever, and “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well…”

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Peaceable Kingdom…

When we think of oceans and mountains, forests and deserts, trees, plants and animals, the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the galaxies, as God's creation, waiting eagerly to be “brought into the same glorious freedom as the children of God” (Roman 8:21), we can only stand in awe of God's majesty and God's all- embracing plan of salvation. It is not just we, human beings, who wait for salvation in the midst of our suffering; all of creation groans and moans with us longing to reach its full freedom.

In this way we are indeed brothers and sisters not only of all other men and women in the world but also of all that surrounds us. Yes, we have to love the fields full of wheat, the snow-capped mountains, the roaring seas, the wild and tame animals, the huge redwoods, and the little daisies. Everything in creation belongs, with us, to the large family of God…

All of creation belongs together in the arms of its Creator. The final vision is that not only will all men and women recognise that they are brothers and sisters called to live in unity but all members of God's creation will come together in complete harmony. Jesus the Christ came to realise that vision. Long before he was born, the prophet Isaiah saw it:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the panther lie down with the kid,
calf, lion and fat-stock beast together,
with a little boy to lead them.
The cow and the bear will graze,
their young will lie down together.
The lion will eat hay like the ox.
The infant will play over the den of the adder;
the baby will put his hand into the viper's lair.
No hurt, no harm will be done
on all my holy mountain,
for the country will be full of knowledge of Yahweh
as the waters cover the sea.

(Isaiah 11:6-9)

We must keep this vision alive…

Long before Jesus was born the prophet Isaiah had a vision of Christ’s great unifying work of salvation. Many years after Jesus died, John, the beloved disciple, had another but similar vision: He saw a new heaven and a new earth. All of creation had been transformed, dressed with immortality to be the perfect bride of Christ. In John’s vision the risen Christ speaks from his throne, saying: “Look, I am making the whole of creation new. …. Look, here God lives among human beings. He will make his home among them; they will be his people, and he will be their God, God-with-them. He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness or pain. The world of the past has gone” (Revelation 21:5; 21:3-4).

Both Isaiah and John open our eyes to the all-inclusive nature of Christ’s saving work…

The marvellous vision of the peaceable Kingdom, in which all violence has been overcome and all men, women, and children live in loving unity with nature, calls for its realisation in our day-to-day lives. Instead of being an escapist dream, it challenges us to anticipate what it promises. Every time we forgive our neighbour, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision come true.

We must remind one another constantly of the vision. Whenever it comes alive in us we will find new energy to live it out, right where we are. Instead of making us escape real life, this beautiful vision gets us involved.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

We are all together in this now, we followers of Christ. This is the judgement we await at Advent, a judgement of mercy, of endless grace.

We feel so helpless when we look at the suffering in the world, the misunderstandings, the betrayals, the tragic confusions behind each suicide, the cruelty and rejection faced by those who love and trust, the small, the weak, the dependent—children, animals, the poor.

Nouwen’s words here remind us that there is always something we can do, small as it may seem to us. It is love that matters. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4.16) However poor, however baffled, we can love. This very emptiness, this helplessness we feel may be our greatest asset in the economy of Christ, who said himself that, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…”

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Multitudes of obligations?

Much of our acceptance of multitudes of obligations is due to our inability to say No. We calculated that the task had to be done, and we saw no one ready to undertake it. We calculated the need, and then calculated our time, and decided maybe we could squeeze it in somewhere. But the decision was a heady decision, not made within the sanctuary of the soul.

A Testament of Devotion by Thomas R Kelly, with thanks to inward/outward

So much of our Christian life, not to mention elsewhere, is taken up with this “acceptance of multitudes of obligations” that we assume that this is the natural, right and inevitable way to be a Christian. Well, I all too often find myself making that assumption, anyway. It is so hard to turn around, and allow God to look at the whole thing from within us. But it was Jesus himself who said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Dear Mary of Bethany, I think she must have been a particular favourite of Jesus’. Her devotion, her single-mindedness, her willingness to step right outside her culture, her final and absolute faithfulness—it isn’t hard to see why she would have a particular place among his followers. Whether or not you accept the Catholic identification of her with Mary Magdalene, Mary is the woman of tears (John 11.33), the one who saw, where her brothers had so clearly failed to see, the Cross standing directly across the path of her Lord (John 12.1-8), and anointed him for that journey, and as Matthew and Mark (26.13; 14.9) record, he recognised her for it. “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Truly, there is need of only one thing. Mary got it right where her sister, and most of us, fail. No wonder we pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…”

Monday, December 05, 2011

The life that is most truly and wholly ours…

The contemplative finds God not in the embrace of “pure love” alone but in the prophetic ardour of response to the “Word of the Lord”: not in love considered as essential good but in love that breaks through into the world of sinful men in the fire of judgment and of mercy. The contemplative must see love not only as the highest and purest experience of the human heart transformed by grace, but as God's unfailing fidelity to unfaithful man…

The contemplative life will therefore need to be understood... in terms of living experience and witness...

Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 1998) p.133

I think this cannot be emphasised strongly enough. We need to understand that our life of prayer, especially if we are called to the contemplative life, is not a solipsistic, “self-actualising” activity, or some kind of relaxation technique aimed at producing a pleasant, stress-free state of mind, still less a quest for psychedelic experience. The contemplative vocation is a call to battle, a call to prophetic witness, and to a life lived in the shadow of the Cross.

We cannot all be, like Thomas Merton, widely published and influential in and beyond the religious life. We are not all called to martyrdom like Maximilian Kolbe or Charles de Foucauld. God does not call us to imitate others, except possibly his Son or his blessed Mother, he calls us to the life that is most truly and wholly ours. We may be surprised, when we ourselves arrive at the throne of grace, to discover that some of the most highly blessed of the saints in glory are those who were most easily overlooked in their life on earth. It is enough to serve in the place in which God has placed us, married or single, in work or out of work, in sickness or in health, in a village church or in community, as a humble if prayerful servant like Brother Lawrence or in the life of a Doctor of the Church.

God’s call to us is a call of love; to love someone is to desire most passionately all that is good for them, all that leads them home to love Itself. Even for us humans the purest love is like that—what must God’s love for us be like? Perhaps we can see, if we live our lives in the light of the Cross…

Sunday, December 04, 2011

One perfect vessel…

The Annunciation story (Luke 1.26-38) is the crescendo point to scripture’s theme of total grace and gift. Did you ever notice that Mary does not say she’s “not worthy”? She only asks for clarification: “How can this happen? I am a virgin” (Luke 1.34). She never asks if, whether, or why!

That is quite extraordinary and reveals her egolessness. Mary becomes the archetype of perfect receptivity. It takes the entire Bible to work up to one perfect vessel that knows how to say an unquestioning yes to an utterly free gift.

Richard Rohr, from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, pp. 31-32

Rohr here puts his finger on what I have felt about our Lady ever since I’ve been a Christian. In one sense she appears to be an ordinary, humble Jewish girl, engaged to a village craftsman; yet she is as Rohr says, “one perfect vessel that knows how to say an unquestioning yes to an utterly free gift.”

Paradox. God’s dealings with his creation seem to be wrapped in paradox; he through whom all things were made came to be born of a virgin, a helpless baby at the very hinge of history…

Amen. Even so, come., Lord Jesus

Friday, December 02, 2011


"Come, Lord Jesus" is a leap into the kind of freedom and surrender that is rightly called the virtue of hope. The theological virtue of hope is the patient and trustful willingness to live without closure, without resolution, and still be content and even happy because our Satisfaction is now at another level, and our Source is beyond ourselves.
We are able to trust that the Lord will come again, just as Jesus has come into our past, into our private dilemmas, and into our suffering world. Our Christian past then becomes our Christian prologue, and "Come, Lord Jesus" is not a cry of desperation but an assured shout of cosmic hope!
Adapted from Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr, p. 5

I think this may be one of the longest lessons to learn in this life of prayer. To relinquish the longing for closure, resolution, satisfaction is a fierce kind of poverty; Lady Poverty can be a passionate, and unexpected, lover!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

It will be all right...

Our short lives on earth are sowing time. If there were no resurrection of the dead, everything we live on earth would come to nothing. How can we believe in a God who loves us unconditionally if all the joys and pains of our lives are in vain, vanishing in the earth with our mortal flesh and bones? Because God loves us unconditionally, from eternity to eternity, God cannot allow our bodies - the same as that in which Jesus, his Son and our savior, appeared to us - to be lost in final destruction.

No, life on earth is the time when the seeds of the risen body are planted. Paul says: "What is sown is perishable, but what is raised is imperishable; what is sown is contemptible but what is raised is glorious; what is sown is weak, but what is raised is powerful; what is sown is a natural body, and what is raised is a spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). This wonderful knowledge that nothing we live in our bodies is lived in vain holds a call for us to live every moment as a seed of eternity.

The wonderful knowledge, that nothing we live in our body is lived in vain, holds a call for us to live every moment as a seed of eternity.
Henri Nouwen

When I was young, I used to be plagued by this sense of wrongness, that all that I might ever do, make, write would in the end come down to a thread of dust in a dead universe - that all human love, natural beauty, joy, longing, would end the same way. Sometimes my heart would feel as though it could not contain the grief of that.

I remember, very shortly after coming to be a Christian, poring over Paul's letters on a long train journey, and realising that it was just as Paul says: nothing is lost - all we are, all we have loved, dreamed, made or seen will be raised as it should be, glorious and imperishable, unfallen. I felt a joy and, yes, a relief, that must somehow be a foretaste of waking up in the Resurrection, and realising that God's promise has come true at last. Remembering, it comes back, like yesterday. It will be all right, all of it, forever:

God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.
(Revelation 21.3b-4)

Even so, come, Lord Jesus...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Signs of glory…

The resurrection of Jesus is the basis of our faith in the resurrection of our bodies.  Often we hear the suggestion that our bodies are the prisons of our souls and that the spiritual life is the way out of these prisons.  But by our faith in the resurrection of the body we proclaim that the spiritual life and the life in the body cannot be separated.  Our bodies, as Paul says, are temples of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 6:19) and, therefore, sacred.  The resurrection of the body means that what we have lived in the body will not go to waste but will be lifted in our eternal life with God.  As Christ bears the marks of his suffering in his risen body, our bodies in the resurrection will bear the marks of our suffering.  Our wounds will become signs of glory in the resurrection…

In so many ways we use and abuse our bodies.  Jesus’ coming to us in the body and his being lifted with his body in the glory of God call us to treat our bodies and the bodies of others with great reverence and respect.

God, through Jesus, has made our bodies sacred places where God has chosen to dwell.  Our faith in the resurrection of the body, therefore, calls us to care for our own and one another's bodies with love.  When we bind one another’s wounds and work for the healing of one another’s bodies, we witness to the sacredness of the human body, a body destined for eternal life.

Henri Nouwen

Perhaps it’s odd to be speaking of Easter at the opening of Advent; and yet our hope, the hope of judgement, the hope of justice, the hope of healing, is only found in the Cross. Without the Cross, Advent and Christmas are a children’s tale, a pool of light and warmth against the utter cold and appalling distances of deep space.

Advent is a double waiting. We wait for news from the angel; for the appearance of a bright star. And yet all that happened long ago, in Nazareth, in Bethlehem of Judea. We wait for another coming, for other news.

This time, it will be very different. “Come, thou long expected Jesus,” we sing. He will come.

This time, there will be no star in the East, no Annunciation. “For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.” (Luke 17.24) Yet in this judgement, nothing is wasted. All that we have suffered will be transformed, renewed; and so will all that all creation has suffered.

Jesus cries out, “Behold! I make all things new!” And, in the light of his wounds, it will be accomplished.

A Prayer for Advent

Lord, still us this today and in this Advent Season – keep us wide awake in these days of waiting. Take from us our anxieties and our preoccupations, our distractions and our despair. Let us be empty in this time before, awaiting your coming with empty hands, and open hearts…

Lord, prepare us for your coming. Fill us with the hope of your judgement, and a longing for your justice. Let our hope and our prayer be always for this broken creation of which we are part. Have mercy on all who suffer, human or animal. Help us to bring the good news of your coming, the comfort of hope, the joy of this new kind of waiting…



Peace Made Flesh—courtesy of Green Patches, here are some superb Franciscan resources for Advent from the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Name.

More thoughts later, I hope—it’s nearly time to leave for church…

Almighty God,
give us grace to cast off the works of darkness
and put on the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life,
in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility;
so that when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit
one God now and for ever.

(with thanks to Liturgy—Worship that Works, where you can find more excellent Advent material)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Praying with St. Francis…

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

Francis is never trying to earn God's love; he is celebrating it! He continually enjoys God's love in everything he sees and experiences. Mature prayer always breaks into gratitude and praise.

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

Richard Rohr, from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations

I can’t think of anything to add to this that wouldn’t detract from its beauty…

Sleepy Griffin…


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

“At the still point of the turning world…”

Ministry is acting in the Name of Jesus.  When all our actions are in the Name, they will bear fruit for eternal life.  To act in the Name of Jesus, however, doesn't mean to act as a representative of Jesus or his spokesperson.  It means to act in an intimate communion with him.  The Name is like a house, a tent, a dwelling.  To act in the Name of Jesus, therefore, means to act from the place where we are united with Jesus in love.  To the question “Where are you?” we should be able to answer, “I am in the Name.”  Then, whatever we do cannot be other than ministry because it will always be Jesus himself who acts in and through us.  The final question for all who minister is “Are you in the Name of Jesus?”  When we can say yes to that, all of our lives will be ministry.

Henri Nouwen

I think this quality of living in the Name of Jesus “like a house, a tent, a dwelling…” (such beautiful words!) has a great deal to do with the practice of the Jesus Prayer. We can’t come to know Jesus this well, well enough “to act in an intimate communion with him,” without long commitment to prayer. But to seek to pray in the Name of Jesus simply by putting “in the name of Christ” on the end of our prayers is one thing, actually praying the Name continually, as the Jesus Prayer leads us to do, is something else again. For me, personally, there is nothing to replace it—praying the Prayer is the deepest kind of homecoming, the safest refuge, the warmest embrace, lying somehow on the threshold of eternity while the hours of this little life spin on their axis, “at the still point of the turning world.” (Eliot)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Falling into God’s mercy…

All of these words describe mystical moments: enlargement, connection or union, and emancipation. You may not use the same words, but on a practical level mysticism is experienced as a new capacity and a new desire to love. And you wonder where it comes from. Why do I have this new desire, this new capacity to love some new people, to love the old people better, maybe to enter into some kind of new love for the world? I even find my thoughts are more immediately loving. 

Clearly, you are participating in a love that’s being given to you. You are not creating this. You are not generating this. It is being generated through you and in you and for you. You are participating in something larger than yourself, and you are just allowing it and trusting it for the pure gift that it is…

After the first levels of enlargement, connection or union, and some degree of emancipation, mystical experiences lead to a kind of foundational optimism or hope. It catches you by surprise, especially in the middle of all these terrible things that are happening in the world. Hope is not logical, but a participation in the very life of God (just like faith and love).

Mystical experiences also lead to a sense of safety. Anybody who has ever loved you well or has felt loved by you always feels safe. If you can’t feel safe with a person, you can’t feel loved by them. You can’t trust their love. If, in the presence of God, you don’t feel safe, then I don’t think it’s God—it’s something else. It’s the god that is not God. It’s probably what Meister Eckhart is referring to when he says, “I pray God to free me from God.” He means that the God we all begin with is necessarily a partial God, an imitation God, a word for God, a “try on” God. But as you go deeper into the journey, I promise you, it will always be safer and more spacious. If you still feel a finger wagging at you, you’re not going deeper. You’re going backwards…

Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change. If the mystics say that one way, they say it a thousand ways. But because most of our common religion has not been at the mystical level, we’ve been given an inferior message—that God loves me when I change (moralism). What that does is put it back on you. You’re back to “navel-gazing,” and you never succeed at that level. You are never holy enough, pure enough, refined enough, or loving enough. Whereas, when you fall into God’s mercy, when you fall into God’s great generosity, you find, seemingly from nowhere, this capacity to change. No one is more surprised than you are. You know it is a gift.

Richard Rohr, from Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate ...
Seeing God in All Things
(CD, DVD, MP3)

It’s just this falling into God’s mercy that underlies the practice of the Jesus Prayer. I know there are many other ways, but for me the directness and simplicity of the Prayer is like nothing else—the words, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” sum up my own complete inability to do it for myself. I cannot even choose to “fall into God”. There is no place from which to fall, unless God puts one there.

(A word of explanation: though naturally anyone can recite the words of the Jesus Prayer, I honestly believe it is a kind of vocation in itself. It may not do anything for you. That’s OK—it’s no reflection either on you or on the Prayer. There will be another way—you just have to make the space for God to show you what it is. But if somehow the words just come alive in your heart, then you may need to take this further. Father Seraphim, at the Nazareth House Apostolate, has some wise words, and an excellent reading list, here.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Listen, I will tell you a mystery!

Living a spiritual life makes our little, fearful hearts as wide as the universe, because the Spirit of Jesus dwelling within us embraces the whole of creation. Jesus is the Word, through whom the universe has been created. As Paul says: “In him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible—all things were created through him and for him—in him all things hold together “ (Colossians 1.16-17). Therefore when Jesus lives within us through his Spirit, our hearts embrace not only all people but all of creation. Love casts out all fear and gathers in all that belongs to God.

Prayer, which is breathing with the Spirit of Jesus, leads us to this immense knowledge.

Henri Nouwen

Nouwen uses the word “knowledge” here, where I’d be tempted to use vision, or intuition. The largely unintended opening of the heart to all creation that seems to occur in prayer, contemplative prayer particularly, is not much like the knowledge we associate with academic study, or even with experience in the world. Actually it’s quite hard to find the right word at all to describe it: it is not something we do ourselves at all, nor is it exactly done to us, and so our language, based as it is in either intentionality or passivity, falters and warps…

The traditional language of contemplative prayer speaks of “acquired” and “infused” contemplation, and yet this essentially intercessory dimension of love for “all that is made” (Julian of Norwich) is something that as far as I can see is different from either, at least in the senses described by St. Teresa of Avila or St. Francis de Sales.

The closest description I can find in the literature is one I have quoted before, from St. Isaac of Nineveh (7th Century):

An elder was once asked, “What is a merciful heart?”

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

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

St. Isaac doesn’t explain how the heart was set on fire, though; the best I can do is hazard that it is in turning continually to Christ in faith, trusting in his mercy, the frail scraps of mercy and compassion that naturally remain even in the fallen human heart are somehow caught up in Christ’s mercy, in his utterly boundless love for all that was made through him in the beginning. This can only happen in our willing surrender to Christ in prayer, hence it is intentional; yet it can only happen to us (as our Lady said, “let it be with me according to your word…”) by the action of the Spirit.

This is in the truest sense of the word a mystery, and exploring it will take as many days as are left to me, and I hope, many more, if such can be called days!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sacred Wounds?

Pain teaches a most counterintuitive thing—that we must go down before we even know what up is. Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.”

All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.

If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter. If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somehow in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, p. 191

It’s strange that I have found, over the years, that the practice of the Jesus Prayer cuts both ways with this matter of pain.

Firstly, it most assuredly does form “a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds,” more deeply and powerfully that any other way that I have found—at least for those called to the Prayer rather than any contemplative other form. As Irma Zalesk says, in Living the Jesus Prayer (p.63), “…the essential thing is to keep that deep, central space of our being that we call the heart wide open and turned towards [Christ]. The Jesus Prayer leads us into that space, and allows us to live there unceasingly.” If that will not transform our pain, I don’t know what will.

But there is another side to living so closely in the presence of Christ, in the “deep central space” of the heart. The Christ who said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light...” (Matthew 11.28-30) is the same Jesus who said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16.24-25)

The practice of the Jesus Prayer leads us deep and deeper into loving our fellow-creatures (human and otherwise) and so into opening our hearts to their pain. I said the other day that I could understand the impulse of those called to contemplative sorts of prayer either to gather in enclosed communities, or to live as solitaries. This life makes one so vulnerable, so thin-skinned, that it is all but impossible sometimes to live a “normal” life among people who will often have no idea what is the matter with us. Living with a heart open to the pain of the poor, the unjustly accused, the victims of war, rape, violence; to the pain of desperately mistreated animals in fur farms, the fear of the hunted fox, the grief of the abandoned kitten—these are not things that will leave us unmarked, unruffled.

But the wounds we bear in prayer for others are sacred wounds. In their very little way they are like the wounds of Christ. (A very few contemplatives, like St. Francis, have kept it up to the point where they are physically wounded in prayer.) These wounds, sacred though they are, transformative though they are both for ourselves and for those whom we bear in our hearts in prayer, are real wounds. St. Francis bled: try as he might, he could not conceal his wounds from his brothers; those of us who have not travelled so far as our Brother Francis will still bear the marks of our prayer in tears, in vulnerabilities, in “sensitivities” that some will not understand.

If we cannot conceal these marks that prayer leaves on us, what are we to do with them? How are we to live in the world? As Tertiaries, we are to live according to the Principles of the Third Order which state: “When Saint Francis encouraged the formation of The Third Order he recognised that many are called to serve God in the spirit of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience in everyday life (rather than in a literal acceptance of these principles as in the vows of the Brothers and Sisters of the First and Second Orders). The Rule of The Third Order is intended to enable the duties and conditions of daily living to be carried out in this spirit.”

I don’t know the answer to this. Perhaps one of the tasks of my remaining years may be, if it doesn't sound too vaulting an ambition, to try and work it out; and maybe this blog is at least the beginning of a place to share that process, if God allows.

Pray for me!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembrance Day

As we see so many people die at a young age, through wars, starvation, AIDS, street violence, and physical and emotional neglect, we often wonder what the value of their short lives is.  It seems that their journeys have been cut off before they could reach any of their goals, realise any of their dreams, or accomplish any of their tasks.   But, short as their lives may have been, they belong to that immense communion of saints, from all times and all places, who stand around the throne of the Lamb dressed in white robes proclaiming the victory of the crucified Christ (see Revelation 7:9).

The story of the innocent children murdered by King Herod in his attempt to destroy Jesus (see Matthew 2:13-18), reminds us that saintliness is not just for those who lived long and hardworking lives.  These children, and many who died young, are as much witnesses to Jesus as those who accomplished heroic deeds…

Through baptism we become part of a family much larger than our biological family. It is a family of people “set apart” by God to be light in the darkness. These set-apart people are called saints. Although we tend to think about saints as holy and pious, and picture them with halos above their heads and ecstatic gazes, true saints are much more accessible. They are men and women like us, who live ordinary lives and struggle with ordinary problems. What makes them saints is their clear and unwavering focus on God and God's people. Some of their lives may look quite different, but most of their lives are remarkably similar to our own.

The saints are our brothers and sisters, calling us to become like them.

Henri Nouwen

On this Remembrance Day, as we remember the young lives cut short in their brightest of days by war, and all the tangled and compromised politics of war, it is more than well worth remembering that death is not the end; that these dear people who have died are still our family, our friends, our lovers… One day, our praise with blend with theirs before the throne of mercy.

It is not true
that this world and its people
are doomed to die and be lost.

This is true:
God so loved the world
that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believes in him,
shall not perish but have everlasting life.

It is not true
that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination,
hunger and poverty, death and destruction.

This is true:
I have come that they may have life,
and that abundantly.

It is not true
that violence and hatred should have the last word,
and that war and destruction have come to stay forever.

This is true:
Unto us a child is born,
and unto us a Son is given,
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God,
the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

Allan Boesak

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Hidden with Christ in God…

When we pray the Jesus Prayer, we stand empty-handed, having nothing to offer, and expecting everything from God… Everything we have to offer, everything we call “I” is so poor, so infinitesimally small in comparison to what we are receiving, that we hardly dare to offer it at all…

The fundamental aloneness of the human before the face of God is very difficult for many of us to accept. We often associate it with loneliness, with lack of love and rejection, even with death. We are disappointed and filled with anxiety when we realise that even in our closest human relationships, in our moments of deepest love, we can never really dissolve the boundaries that separate us from others… We are never still. We forget, or perhaps we have never learned, that although we can never break down the walls of our aloneness ourselves, God certainly can. Our aloneness—our separateness—is not a prison in which we must remain forever, but a door to communion with God, but also with the whole universe. For God brings with him every human being who has ever lived.

Praying the Jesus Prayer can become such a door for us. By praying it simply, standing alone and totally open and real before the face of Christ, we become aware of the great silence—the holy silence—at the heart of our being…

Irma Zaleski, Living the Jesus Prayer, Canterbury Press, 2011

I have been finding myself in some unusual places recently, just because of this aloneness before God. It’s hard, sometimes, to be fair to the people around, to relatives who phone at odd times, to dear friends who would understand, only I don’t somehow think to include them.

I have often thought that I understand very well the impulse of those called to contemplative sorts of prayer either to gather in enclosed communities, or to live as solitaries. Sometimes it’s difficult to live a so-called normal life, when part of one is “hidden with Christ in God” as Paul so wonderfully put it in Colossians 3.3, and one’s “social self” is missing several layers of skin.

The Jesus Prayer, of course, is not only the means for getting people like me in this kind of mess, but is also our refuge from the mess itself, and healing for the wounds it brings. After all, whether they look like it or not, they are the wounds of love, the love the prayer brings with it, for the whole of creation in its brokenness, its pain, its incompleteness. After all,

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death… For I am convinced that 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.

Romans 8.1-2; 38-39

Monday, November 07, 2011

On not needing to know…

Because we cannot ever “see the heart” as God sees, we cannot really know what is good for us, and especially what is good for others. We don’t know what their true needs are, what is the best solution to their problems, what would assuage their pain. But we don’t need to know. The Jesus Prayer can become for us a powerful way of intercession, of praying for others. By praying the Holy Name over them, by embracing them in our thoughts and our hearts, we surrender each one of them to God’s mercy and love and we trust that God will do what is best for them.

When we intercede for others in this way, when we bring them all to the mercy of Christ—the good and the bad, those whom we love and those whom we cannot love, those who love us and those who hate us—we do what the Lord has told us to do and what he himself did on the cross. This is the great way of love to which he has called us, and is also our work, the only work that truly matters, the work of love.

Irma Zaleski, Living the Jesus Prayer, Canterbury Press, 2011

I’ve written about this intercessory aspect of the Jesus Prayer elsewhere; I have often been troubled by our propensity to analyse problems and tell God what he should do about them—as if we could know! What God calls us to is nothing more nor less than love: simply to care enough carry in our hearts before him our sisters and brothers in creation, human or otherwise; to rejoice with their joys, weep for their pain, cry out with them in their bafflement and their loss…

The first two verses of Psalm 131 read:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
   my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
   too great and too marvellous for me.

This is the very spirit of praying intercession in the Jesus Prayer. Sophrony Sakharov wrote:

The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside...

It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in - we know the power of true prayer...

His Life Is Mine, pp. 127-128

(Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov lived through the years of the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Cold War. A Russian, he prayed in community at Mount Athos, and later helped found The Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, England. Fr. Sophrony wrote, and taught, on the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and it was to this practice that his life was given.)

One of the most beautiful aspects of the Jesus Prayer is the universality of its calling: anyone, ordained or lay, secular or religious, learned or otherwise, can pray this prayer. It requires no qualifications. Its use is not limited to any one denomination. It is prayed, and taught, from the Orthodox Church, through the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran, the Anglican, and Methodist churches to the Vineyard. (Who knows how many others are involved…) If any of us senses God calling us to this way of prayer, there is nothing to prevent us from just starting—it may turn out to be the answer years of misgivings and difficulties in prayer…

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A Bright Sadness…

I’ve been reading Irma Zaleski’s just-published book Living the Jesus Prayer, which I would encourage anyone interested in this way of praying to read.

She says (pp.44-45):

The Jesus Prayer, because it is a path of reality, is a way of learning and accepting the tremendous truth, too often forgotten, that “only God is good.” (Matthew 19:17) We cannot be good, because we do not really know what good is. We can never comprehend the nature of God’s infinite goodness and love. We cannot be, strictly speaking, like God. No effort of our own can make us so…

I think it is true to say that as we walk the way of prayer, as we become more open to God, as we grow closer to him, we become more and more aware of how great an abyss separates us from God…

This longing, this sense of separation from God, is the heart of all true repentance. It is often a source of sadness for us, at times even of tears, that we seem to be so far away from what we have been called to be, so disappointing to ourselves and God. The Fathers often called it “bright sadness,” and considered it a great gift to receive, for it brings us always before the face of God. It teaches us the meaning of mercy and fills us with joy.

These word’s of Zaleski’s say what I have been wanting so much to say here, and have been quite unable to describe in my own words.

These last few weeks have been a strangely painful time, and yet good also. Irma Zaleski says, in the previous chapter:

The way of the Jesus prayer has been called “white martyrdom.” It is the way of the Cross, because there is no greater pain than to stand in the total poverty of our human weakness,to see clearly our misery, our inability to be good. The temptation to judge ourselves, to hate ourselves, would be irresistible if we did not know and had not experienced the merciful, healing power of Jesus.

I think that what has happened has been that this year, with the pilgrimages both to Walsingham and to Medjugorje, I have come so close to the presence of God that I have really not been able to bear the sight of myself in that mirror of glory. It has taken a long while, and much—though perhaps not enough—prayer to come to the point where I can write these words.

God knows where we go from here. I do know that the call (back) to the Jesus Prayer has been growing stronger and stronger since our return from Medjugorje. (The arrival of Living the Jesus Prayer in the post from Amazon, where I had pre-ordered it months ago and then forgotten all about, was one of those striking “coincidences” that God loves so much.)

I will try to be less sporadic in documenting this odd journey, in case it might help anyone reading this blog. It’s often hard, as I said above, to find words for this kind of thing; perhaps Irma Zaleski has given me a lever to crack the door of speechlessness a little ajar…

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Forgiveness is the answer to the child's dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean. The dream explains why we need to be forgiven, and why we must forgive. In the presence of God, nothing stands between God and us--we are forgiven. But we cannot feel God's presence if anything is allowed to stand between ourselves and others.

Dag Hammarskjold: Journal 1956

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those
who sin against us…

I don’t know of a clearer or more beautiful explanation of how this works than Dag Hammarskjold’s words here. No wagging fingers, no hard bargains; just the truth…

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Indwelling Presence…

In the Judeo-Christian creation story, humans were created in the very “image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1.26). Our DNA is divine.

The Divine Indwelling is never earned by any behaviour whatsoever or any ritual, but only recognized and realized (Romans 11.6, Ephesians 2.8-10) and fallen in love with. When you are ready, you will be both underwhelmed and overwhelmed at the boundless mystery of your own humanity.

Without that underlying experience of God as both abyss and ground, it is almost impossible to live in the now, in the fullness of who I am, warts and all, and almost impossible to experience the Presence that, paradoxically, always fills the abyss and shakes the ground.

Richard Rohr, adapted from The Naked Now, p. 22

We waste so much time seeking God, as though he were a distant land, or a lost object of desire, when he is in every cell and fibre of what we are. What is needed is perhaps harder than any quest: to get out of the way.

I’ve been praying about this chemically-induced depression I’ve been struggling with recently, and I think that part of the problem—as indeed it is with any serious or long-term illness—is that our inner eyes become fixed on some image of ourselves, rather than on our essential image-bearing humanity.

Of course, the part that is left out of the passage from Rohr’s book that I’ve quoted above is the part about our fallenness. We are made in the image of God, all right, but that image is tarnished and obscured by sin. My present tendency to self-obsession and self-pity is no more than an exaggeration of something that is common to us all, which is only overcome by grace.

Grace itself is always there, like the sun’s light. The earth may turn away; clouds may cover the sky, but the faithful sun shines on still. So it is with the grace of Christ: his love never falters—we do.

But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets,the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction,since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed;it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3.21-26 [my emphasis]

Oh, God, give me the grace to get myself out of the mirror, and watch only for your reflection. Give me the love to care only for those others in whom you have placed your image; give me the strength to weep with them, dance with them, pray for them… for without you I am far too weak.

And yet… Paul also wrote (2 Corinthians 12.9): “[the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Four-fold Franciscan Blessing

May God bless you with a restless discomfort about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may tirelessly work for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, or the loss of all that they cherish, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you really CAN make a difference in this world, so that you are able, with God's grace, to do what others claim cannot be done.

And the blessing of God the Supreme Majesty and our Creator,

Jesus Christ the Incarnate Word who is our brother and Saviour,

and the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide,

be with you and remain with you, this day and forevermore.


[I’ve been unable reliably to trace an original source for this—if anyone knows, I’d appreciate a comment!]

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bible Sunday

Today is Bible Sunday, and the collect for today reads:

Blessed Lord
who caused all holy scriptures
    to be written for our learning
help us so to hear them,
to read, mark learn and inwardly digest them
that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word,
we may embrace and forever hold fast
    the hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.


Sometimes our hearts feel closed and dry—and yet, if we will just listen, or read, quite passively and without examining how we may be taking in what we read or hear, the living water of God’s Word (who is, after all, our Saviour Jesus Christ) will secretly soften and heal us. Its working may be unknown and unrealised, and yet it is true and sure beyond our fallible senses.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Believing in the Church…

The Church is an object of faith.  In the Apostles' Creed we pray:  “I believe in God, the Father ... in Jesus Christ, his only Son – in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”  We must believe in the Church!  The Apostles’ Creed does not say that the Church is an organization that helps us to believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  No, we are called to believe in the Church with the same faith we believe in God.

Often it seems harder to believe in the Church than to believe in God.  But whenever we separate our belief in God from our belief in the Church, we become unbelievers.  God has given us the Church as the place where God becomes God-with-us.

Henri Nouwen

I am so grateful for this! I know that a some people who feel quite spiritual believe that they can find God in country walks, or sitting by the sea, better than they can in a church, but somehow the point is missing here.

Christ is “God-with-us”, Emmanuel, and the Church is the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12.22ff) at whose centre is the Eucharist, where the Body of Christ becomes real and present among us. How can we not be fractured, lost, outside the Body of which we are a part? We cannot live alone; members of any living body, if severed, do not live a wild and fruitful life: they die and shrivel. We must remain in community even when it hurts, even when we cannot for the life of us think what we’re doing there—only as part of a Eucharistic community can the life-blood of Christ, bearing the oxygen of the Spirit, flow freely in our veins.

Thank God for the Church—for each of us, frail and fallible as we are, living in this messy and glorious community of ours, and for the eternal Church “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners…” (CS Lewis)—our home and our refuge, and our sign…

Friday, October 21, 2011

On struggling…

Last year I wrote that I didn’t see The Mercy Blog as a confessional platform, full of chatty accounts of what I’d been eating, listening to, wearing, worrying about… I’ve tried to stick to this rule, with a few notable exceptions, since I first started the blog in 2005.

I was struck, then, by Jane Sigrist’s comment, when she most generously made TMB her Blog of the Week, that I had “been brave enough to share some of the joys and struggles of [my] journey honestly, often at great depth, yet with a humble simplicity that's an inspiration to others.”

Encouraged, then, by Jane’s remark, I have to confess that I’ve been struggling a bit lately. I suffer from a condition called sarcoidosis, which was first diagnosed back in 1972, and which has been going through a cycle of remission and activity in multiple organ systems ever since. Recently it has been making a nuisance of itself again, and I have been on the usual treatment, high doses of steroids. One of the side-effects of this has been depression, of the “I can’t be bothered to do anything, I’m useless at everything anyway” variety. Reluctant to blog about this, I’ve blogged about nothing – which has contributed another arc to the vicious circle.

By God’s grace things have improved to the point where my consultant feels it’s safe to reduce the dose of steroids, while she keeps a careful eye on the chemical markers. I feel it’s important to try and break out of this grey cotton-wool trap I’ve been in; to resume blogging anyway, regardless of whether I make any sense or not, may be part of this.

I am quite certain that I remain in the palm of Christ’s own pierced hand, however much I may feel like something floating in the bottom of a washing-up bowl. He will make something of this, have no doubt, for “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8.28 NIV) He does. It’s important to remember this, much as the Psalmists remembered (e.g. in Psalm 77) the past glorious deeds of God, even in exile and captivity:

Your way was through the sea,
   your path, through the mighty waters;
   yet your footprints were unseen.

Psalm 77.19

Pray for me, though, that I may cling tight to that memory, even when his footsteps do remain unseen…

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi


Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.


Nothing I could write here would better Padre Mickey’s marvellous post. Click over there and read the whole thing…

Monday, October 03, 2011

Breaking Bread…

The two disciples whom Jesus joined on the road to Emmaus recognised him in the breaking of the bread. What is a more common, ordinary gesture than breaking bread? It may be the most human of all human gestures: a gesture of hospitality, friendship, care, and the desire to be together. Taking a loaf of bread, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it to those seated around the table signifies unity, community, and peace. When Jesus does this he does the most ordinary as well as the most extraordinary. It is the most human as well as the most divine gesture.

The great mystery is that this daily and most human gesture is the way we recognise the presence of Christ among us. God becomes most present when we are most human…

When we gather around the table and eat from the same loaf and drink from the same cup, we are most vulnerable to one another. We cannot have a meal together in peace with guns hanging over our shoulders and pistols attached to our belts. When we break bread together we leave our arms - whether they are physical or mental - at the door  and enter into a place of mutual vulnerability and trust.

The beauty of the Eucharist is precisely that it is the place where a vulnerable God invites vulnerable people to come together in a peaceful meal. When we break bread and give it to each other, fear vanishes and God becomes very close.

Henri Nouwen

Something like this strikes me at every celebration of the Eucharist. “Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread…”

We who share in this most blessed sacrament are truly one, one community, one body of Christ, through the Body by which he is made present to us, this Blood he shed for us. This is real, not some man-made symbol; this uniting is something far deeper than anything that could ever separate us, and far deeper than anything we could ever do ourselves to bring us together. The very act of God is here among us each time we celebrate this most glorious event; how could we ever have thought otherwise? Jesus himself told us, “This is my body… This cup… is the new covenant in my blood…” The verb is clean, present, real. In this moment, so are we – for an instant, at least, we can glimpse the shores of heaven; for a moment, we can be who we were made to be. This “amen” is for each of us, just for a shining second, our own surrender, our “let it be to me according to your word.”

Christ in each of us, the hope of glory…

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Medjugorje and after…

It’s the first of October already, and I’ve been putting off posting here simply because, after a full week back home, I’m still fairly speechless about the Medjugorje pilgrimage.

Google will very quickly introduce you to many pages (probably the Wikipedia article already linked here, and its internal links, provide the best place to start, especially for the unfamiliar or sceptical (!) enquirer) dealing with the village, and with the history of Marian pilgrimage to the area. You will easily be able to trace the various controversies surrounding the site, from the early disagreements with the Communist authorities of Yugoslavia, through the Bosnian War of the early 1990s, to the current inquiry by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

But none of these – and as you may imagine I had read plenty before we travelled – had prepared me even slightly for the impact that most Franciscan of places would have on me. It is hard to explain how this came about, and it is this difficulty that has made me strangely reluctant to begin this post.

Certainly I experienced nothing “supernatural” in the external way. The widely reported and well-attested miracles of healing still go on, but I did not experience these directly during our stay. The experiences I did have were entirely spiritual and internal, and too private to write of here or anywhere.

What has remained, apart from a greatly deepened love of our Lady herself, is an odd kind of spiritual certainty – a sureness of heart, if I can use such a phrase. This life that I have lived, its twists and turns, the many things I would have wished otherwise, is a gift from God’s own hand. It is thoroughly permeated by the Holy Spirit, and so lived-in by Christ. I cannot choose the best bits. All that I have lived through works in the end together for my own good (Romans 8.28!); somehow for the healing of my tangled heart.

Yet again the call is to prayer, to the simplification of life. I seem to be incapable of living without getting caught up in stuff. Increasingly I’m coming to understand why men and women are called to live in community, where “stuff”, physical and social, is owned by the community, and they themselves are not caught up in it in such a personal way as we are who live in the world.

I know too how easily trying to live with less stuff can in itself become a hobby, can become “stuff” in its own right. Try entering “minimalist blog” into your favourite search engine, and you will find a legion of (mostly) young (mostly) American women and men whose waking hours seem to be devoted to working out how to live with increasingly less stuff – not all of it physical stuff, by any means. That isn’t what I’m getting at.

There is a passage in the Principles of the Third Order Society of St. Francis which reads, “Those of us who have much time at our disposal give prayer a large part in our daily lives. Those of us with less time must not fail to see the importance of prayer and to guard the time we have allotted to it from interruption.” I have made a fairly poor showing on either count, on the whole, and it is mostly to do with my attachment to stuff: social, intellectual, even spiritual stuff quite as much as physical stuff.

I am rambling. Medjugorje has been for me about far more than un-stuffing. It is, though, about living one-pointedly. The mistake some Protestants make is to imagine that Catholics worship Mary. They love her, honour her, turn to her; but she herself is continually pointing them to her Son. Medjugorje has been for me an experience of being called to leave everything and follow him, being called far deeper into the place Paul describes in the opening verses of Colossians 3:
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
In the end, it’s simply about trust – trusting Jesus enough actually to believe the Beatitudes, I suppose…

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Back Home…

I’d meant, of course, to write an informative, well-illustrated blog post, all about my trip to Western Herzegovina, and the pilgrimage to Medjugorje, but I’m too blown away to find many words.

I’d expected Medjugorje to be an amazing place, even for remarkable things to happen spiritually – but I hadn’t bargained for this blessed country. I love this place – the landscape, the people, the sound of the language.






Of course, neither my words nor the many thousands that have been written about Medjugorje since 1981 can really convey much of value about the pilgrimage itself. These words do, perhaps: ‘“Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.” This [the Eucharist] is my glue…’ Ian Morgan Cron (quoting Eugene O’Neill) in Church Times, 23 September 2011.