Thursday, February 17, 2011

Opening up…

We are told that St. Francis used to spend whole nights praying the same prayer: “O God, who are you?  And God, who am I?”  Evelyn Underhill claims it’s almost the perfect prayer.  The abyss of your own soul and the abyss of the nature of God have opened up, and you are falling into both of them simultaneously.  Now you are in the true realm of Mystery and grace, where everything good happens!

Notice how the prayer of Francis is not stating anything but just asking open-ended questions.  It is the humble, seeking, endless horizon prayer of the mystic that is offered out of complete trust.  You know that the prayer will be answered, because there has already been a previous answering, a previous epiphany, a previous moment where the ground opened up and you knew you were in touch with infinite mystery and you knew you were infinite mystery.  You only ask such grace-filled questions, or any question for that matter, when they have already begun to be answered.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate

I’m almost afraid to add any of my own words here, in case I spoil it! Rohr is so very right when he says you can only ask such questions when you are already living, however imperfectly, in the answers. Like Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple (1 King 8:22ff) we cannot pray like this unless our Father shows us how by his Holy Spirit living in us. That’s why it’s so hard to explain these kind of things to the sceptical – it just doesn’t make any sense without the grace of God already drawing us into this particular path of prayer.

What I love is that open-endedness – that refusal to put limits to the answer God might give. It’s like all of the different ways of contemplative prayer: our questions, our intercessions, our longing, even, are not articulated – but we allow God access to all that we are at the very innermost place, that only the Spirit knows, not even we ourselves (Romans 8:26-27). All we know is that we change, gradually or suddenly, becoming imperceptibly more like Christ, following him more closely, longing for his presence, longing to know him for who he is, not for what he might give. The prayer, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” becomes as intensely personal as it once seemed lost in eschatological distance.

We cannot do any of this ourselves. We can’t even want to do it without the Spirit drawing us, filling us, longing within us. It is all grace, all from God himself…

Wednesday, February 09, 2011


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

I often think that this consolation is at the heart of all pastoral care, and at the root of all intercessory prayer. Just as we cannot ourselves, and are not ourselves called to, mend what is wrong for other people (except in certain very specific senses, for instance in the work of a doctor or a fire-fighter), so we are not called to work out how God can best mend things for those for whom we pray. We are called to come before God with them on our hearts, to hold them, and hold them in God’s presence, for as long as it takes. Very few words are required. All it takes is a heart willing to be broken in love for a broken world, for all who suffer, human or otherwise.

I am sure that this has a lot to do with praying “in the name of Christ”. We Christians are in Christ, all members of the same body, sharing in the one Bread of Life, Jesus. Our consolation is in his passion, his suffering for this broken creation; and it is all we have to give, all we have to share, with anyone. Our prayer stands in this, if it stands at all.

This is what is at the core of the ancient practice of the Jesus Prayer. As we pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…” we are actually standing in solidarity – more, in identity, with the brokenness of all our sisters and brothers in all of broken (fallen) creation – see Romans 8:18-27.

Friday, February 04, 2011


We operate with the assumption that giving people new ideas changes people. It doesn’t. Believing ideas is, in fact, a way of not having to change in any significant way, especially if you can argue about them. Ideas become defences.

If you have the right words, you are considered an orthodox and law-abiding Christian. We burned people at the stake for not having the right words, but never to my knowledge for failing to love or forgive, or to care for the poor. Religion has had a love affair with words and correct ideas, whereas Jesus loved people, who are always imperfect.

You do not have to substantially change to think some new ideas. You always have to change to love and forgive ordinary people. We love any religion that asks us to change other people. We avoid any religion that keeps telling us to change.

Richard Rohr, adapted from How Men Change: A Thin Time (CD, DVD, MP3)

At our Third Order local group meeting last night, we were discussing, as part of our current study of the Principles, how a certain untidiness is a necessary and inevitable part of the Franciscan charism. We do not, cannot as followers of Francis following Christ, have everything cut and dried, all our words precisely right, and all our actions in line with them. To do so would be the way of the fanatic or the fundamentalist, not the Franciscan.

As Rohr says, Jesus loved people, in all their imperfection and all their untidiness. Look at the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman by the well at Sychar (John 4:1-30). Hers was a life with all kinds of loose ends—a life that didn’t conform to expectations, especially not orthodox Jewish expectations, and yet here was Jesus sharing with her the living water, and trusting her to share it with her fellow citizens.

We cannot allow ourselves to grow unless we are prepared to allow ourselves a little untidiness, What matters is love, rigorous, sacrificial love, not having all our ducks in a row.

And yet we are members of a religious order; we live by a rule. How does that square with this necessary untidiness? One of our group, a Tertiary of many years’ experience, told us of a wonderful expression of her late (Tertiary) husband’s: our rule is like a set of pea-sticks—a framework up which we can grow. But, just as in a vegetable garden, it is the peas that matter, not the pea-sticks!

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Coming close…

God desired me so I came close. No one can come near God unless God has prepared a bed for you. A thousand souls hear God's call every second, but most every one then looks into their life's mirror and says, I am not worthy to leave this sadness.

Teresa of Avila: Love Poems From God, translated by Daniel Ladinsky, with thanks to inward/outward

I keep thinking of Teresa’s words, for I am indeed one of those who has looked into life’s mirror and said, I am not worthy to leave this sadness.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. By your grace, help me to say yes to you—open my knotted hands that I might receive your blessings…