Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Light in darkness…

In this state of self-abandonment, in this path of simple faith, everything that happens to our soul and body, all that occurs in all the affairs of life, has the aspect of death. This should not surprise us. What do we expect? It is natural to this condition. God has plans for souls and he carries them out very successfully, though they are well-disguised. Under the name of ‘disguise’ are such things as misfortune, illness and spiritual weakness. But in the hands of God everything flourishes and turns to good.

Jean Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence

I am sometimes surprised when I hear people say, ‘How can you believe in a God that would let something like that happen to me (to my sister, brother, friend, lover…)?’

I know some people, some of whom I respect and admire, who have felt this way. For some reason I never have. I have not led a particularly sheltered life, at least for someone who has lived most of his life in England in peacetime, and I have been close to those who have suffered.

Why don’t I feel this rejection of God? Why don’t I turn away from the one who created this world in which there is such great pain, such injustice, such cruelty? Why don’t I blame him for the suffering of the innocent, the defilement of beauty, the loss of hope?

Of course it’s not because of any spiritual qualities of mine, and I don’t think it’s because I am unusually insensitive to others’ pain. I think the answer, so far as there is one, must have something to do with this ‘self-abandonment’ de Caussade speaks of here.

For some odd reason the sense has become clear to me – in some ways I think it has always been there – that God does have plans for us, and that these plans are indeed, ‘plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.’ (Jeremiah 29.11) God, it seems, would rather do this gently, in peace; but he will do it, no matter what we do, or what is done to us. The Prophets, Jeremiah particularly, make this pretty clear, in their stories of hope and blessing on the far side of war and exile; but the Cross makes it blindingly clear, and, through the grace Christ brought to us there, it opens the door to hope and blessing, to restoration and peace beyond all our trials.

Paul wrote, ‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us… We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8.18,28)

All things. For me it has somehow always been so. Oh, it’s hard to express this clearly enough without somehow seeming to rebuke those for whom it is terribly different, and I truly don’t want to do that. I just know that God has blessed me even in the worst times with his presence and his love, and he has shown me things I could not otherwise have seen.

Somehow – and for me it has always seemed to be caught up in the practice of the Jesus Prayer – these blessings have come about in the conscious, if not intentional, abandonment of my own self-interest. Somehow, as far as I have been able to respond to God’s call to set down my own instincts to self preservation, and abandon myself into his hands, I have been blessed with ‘treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places.’ (Isaiah 45.3)

‘God is light and in him there is no darkness at all…’ (1 John 1.5) But his light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. (John 1.5)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sister Death

In the desert tradition, death is a companion, a friend. St. Francis of Assisi called death "sister." He was a believer of extraordinary power, at home with the desert way of believing. Death, far from being the terror we encounter at the end of our earthly existence, is the companion and friend who walks with us now. Sister Death is with us always. Her shadow marks and influences every moment.

To live our life from the point of view of our death is not necessarily a capitulation to despair, to withdrawal, to passivity. Rather, it can become the basis for our being and doing in the world. The more we refuse to look at our own death, the more we repress and deny new possibilities for living.

Alan Jones, Soul Making

We don’t talk enough about death. We talk endlessly, in a kind of grim voyeurism, about killing, but we try hard not to mention death, our own death. Even we Christians tend to shy away from the subject.

If we avoid the subject of death, we avoid the subject of dying more. I know the feeling. As I get older, the time of my own death, my own dying, draws nearer. I am now much closer to the end of my life, whenever that is to be, than I am to its beginning. Since I enjoy life, the love and company of my fellow creatures, the delights of nature and art, I don’t like to think of leaving them. Besides, there is no guarantee that my dying will be peaceful, or pleasant. It might be violent; or it might be messy and protracted, bereft of dignity and intelligence.

Yet our dying is not something outside God’s mercy. By the grace of the Incarnation our Lord went this way before us, making clear the path through the sacrifice of the Cross. There is no moment that we are without Christ’s mercy, for in Julian of Norwich's words, “the sweet eye of pity and love is never lifted off us.”

I keep coming back to last Sunday’s Gospel reading from John 14:

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

The way leads through death to eternal life. It did for Jesus; it will for us, if we love him. Of course Death is our Sister. It is she who will lead us home, to the place our hearts have been longing for all these years. I truly believe, from my own close experience as well as from everything I’ve read, that Death is gentle, however un-gentle may be the means of our dying. We are far from perfect, even the best of us, and yet Christ’s mercy is everlasting, and without limit; mercy triumphs over judgement.

But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in
the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. (Jude 1.20-21)

But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
on those who fear him. (Psalm 103.17)

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever. (Psalm 136.1)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Balance and the Franciscan calling…

Franciscans... Wordless witnesses of life...
These are faithful who, in the midst of their own community, demonstrate their capacity for understanding and acceptance, sharing of life and destiny, solidarity for what is noble and good. They radiate their faith in values and their hope in something that is not seen.
We stir questions in the hearts of those who see how we live:
Why are they like this?
Why do they live this way?
What or who is it that inspires them?
We are who God calls us to be: witnesses to the Gospel by action. Servants of the unworthy servants of God.

From Wrestling with Angels

Every great secret makes one poor, it seems.  Like a powerful sexual encounter, it cannot be shared and therefore it cannot be understood or valued by others.  As a result, it is almost always misunderstood, especially by those who have not yet discovered their own secret or found their own “private room.”  The secret of divine intimacy is by definition unshareable, ineffable, and mysterious even to the one who enjoys it.  It makes you great, but it also makes you very lonely, and often the subject of cruel accusations, comparisons, and spiritual competition.

Being a beloved son [or daughter] will not make you fit in, but in fact will make you an outsider in almost all circles—sometimes even to yourself, as you question your own self-assuredness and doubt your own best moments.  Every secret makes one poor and lonely, living alone in rooms of doubt—the doubt that comes from an unshareable ecstasy.

Richard Rohr, from Soul Brothers: Men in the Bible Speak to Men Today,
pp. 91-92, 93

I’ve been much troubled, recently, by the need for balance in my life. Balance between prayer and action, between music and (non-musical) writing, between solitude and community, between Church and the world, and especially between the expectations of others and my obligations to them.

In our daily Third Order cycle of prayer, the 24th of the month is the day for praying for one’s calling as a Franciscan, and so these things were on my mind and heart as I came into my time of silent prayer. Three quarters of that prayer time were, predictably, anything but silent, and were divided perhaps equally between distractions and turmoil. However, in the last quarter a great peace settled on me. Here am I, writing about the Jesus Prayer, about the intercessory dimension of contemplative prayer, and all things like that, and the answer to all these things is right there with me, only I hadn’t seen it…

It is so simple. If I come to the Lord with these things on my heart, with anything on my heart really, all I need to do is trust, and the answers will be given me. I don’t need to know how they’ll be given – directly, through the words or actions of others, through circumstances or the movement of my own longing – I just need to trust that they will be given, and go on with the Prayer. As Michael Ramsey once wrote, “Contemplation is for all Christians... [It] means essentially our being with God, putting ourselves in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart…” And am I not myself of the world? Only too clearly I am!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Anguish and mercy…

A person may go on pondering deeply in intense emotion about his needs, about the need of the moment. That is not yet prayer. Adding "in the name of God" to it will not make it prayer. It is the cry of anguish which becomes a realization of God's mercy that constitutes prayer. It is the moment of a person in anguish forgetting his anguish and thinking of God and God's mercy. That is prayer.... It may last a moment but it is the essence of a lifetime.

Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Insecurity of Freedom with thanks to inward/outward

This comes very close to the heart of why I pray, and how I pray. For me, it is only this coming together of our human anguish and God’s mercy – which would be a possible description of the Cross – that makes prayer possible. If God were to allow me to feel the anguish of the world as keenly as he does, but were not to let me see how his mercy was poured out on the Cross, my despair would be beyond bearing, truly.

Perhaps this is why the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,’ is prayed so passionately so many years after it was first formulated in the time of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. I have written of this before, but I cannot think that I have seen the need for such a prayer more clearly than in these words of Heschel’s. The degree of anguish that we see in the world, that we suffer along with (which is what the word ‘compassion’ means) doesn’t permit any lesser prayer, and certainly cannot be comprehended in our words. I always think it was something like that that Paul was getting at when he wrote, in Romans 8.26-27: ‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God…’

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Terra incognita…

Much of what we find in the eyes of Jesus must first have been in the eyes of Mary. The mother’s vision is powerfully communicated to her children. Mary had to be his first “spiritual director,” the one who gave the vision to Jesus, who taught Jesus how to believe. What was in Jesus’ eyes was somehow first in hers. And in both of their eyes is what they both believe about God.

Mary holds us naked at each end of life: the Madonna first brings us into life, and then the grief-stricken mother of the Pieta hands us over to death. She expands our capacity to feel, to enter the compassion and the pain of being human. She holds joy deeply, where death cannot get at it. Jesus learns by watching her.

The mother teaches us by the way she suffers his birth and then stands at the foot of the cross. Not a word is spoken in either place; she simply trusts and experiences deeply. In other words, she is present. Faith is not for overcoming obstacles; it is for experiencing them.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations,
pp. 153-154, day 163

I’m only too well aware how long it is since I updated The Mercy Blog, and this passage from Richard Rohr goes some way towards explaining why I don’t seem to have been able to bring myself to write anything here.

This Lent was most definitely a time for experience rather than words. I wrote quite a bit in the weeks leading up to Easter, and when Easter Day came, with its joy and new hope, I posted the few photographs I’d taken at the dawn service on the beach, had breakfast, went to Mass at St Mark’s, and found myself incapable of writing a word. The time after Easter was a time of extraordinary joy, and a deep, unexpected, at times painful, cleansing.

The lengthening spring days have been filled with laughter and sunlight, and the nights with complex, baffling, often distressing dreams. There have been no words for this process, no way to describe it to myself, nothing for the mind to grasp and handle. I have had merely to let God – and it has been hard enough at times even to name him – get on with it. For almost the first time in thirty years I have found it hard even to pray the Jesus Prayer; or should I say it has been hard to bring myself to begin. Once started, my heart has often clung to the Prayer as to a lifeline, and I have found a thread of light on this dark ocean. Mary herself, I think, has been the Sea Star. I have discovered her waiting sometimes, at the edge of vision, when I was least looking for her. “Hail Mary, full of grace…” She is.

I have never known this before, a time of light, and growing peace, when my rational mind was dark, not with “dark thoughts” but with an absence of thought, and an inability to comprehend the changes God has been working in me. Truly this has been a time when the glory has been God’s alone, for I have not been able even to understand what he has been up to.

Time and again I have turned to the Psalms, to Psalm 131: “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.” (v1)

and to Psalm 145: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (vv8-9)

Of course I don’t quite know where I am in all this: since I have no maps for this terra incognita I have no idea of the extent of this land. God’s goodness to me continues to astonish me, his faithfulness is absolute. Here are blessings I never imagined, depths of love I cannot sound.

I will try to post here more regularly, try to find words at least to indicate the edges of what is quite beyond words.

“The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings. The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfils the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them.” (Psalm 145.17-19)