Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Walsingham 950

On the Diocese of Exeter website you’ll find a superb sermon by Bishop Michael Langrish on Walsingham 950. Do read it all the way through, even if you think you may not be going to agree with him!


It takes two things for prayer to come to pass--a person and a word. Prayer involves right relationship between those two things. But we have lost that relationship. Involved as we are in many relationships, our relationship to words has become totally obscured. We do not think about words, although few things are as important for the life of the spirit as the right relationship to words. Words have become clichés, objects of absolute abuse. They have ceased to be commitments.

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

I often think that the relationship between word and prayer we find in prayers of repetition, whether the Cloud of Unknowing’s “sharp dart of longing love”, or the Jesus Prayer, the Hail Mary, or any other, is a cleansing one. Words used like this, as bare prayers, unencumbered with emotional baggage or conceptual complications, are as free from cliché and abuse as we can get, almost.

Holding to this discipline, allowing the words to be merely what they are, a plain approach to God in God’s own terms, is perhaps the closest we can come to Heschel’s “right relationship”. We are not trying to achieve anything here; we are letting God do that, merely “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…” (Michael Ramsey)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Real prayer

“Contemplation,” or “meditation” in some groups, was rediscovered in contemporary times beginning with the writings of Thomas Merton in the 1950s and 1960s. The word most Christians are more familiar with is simply “prayer.”

Unfortunately, in the West, prayer had become something functional; something you did to achieve a desired effect—which too often puts the ego back in charge. As soon as you make prayer a way to get what you want, you’re not moving into any kind of new state of consciousness. It's the same old consciousness, but now well disguised: “How can I get God to do what I want God to do?” It's the egocentric self deciding what it needs, but now, instead of just manipulating everybody else, it tries to manipulate God.

This is one reason religion is so dangerous and often so delusional. If religion does not transform people at the level of both mind and heart, it ends up giving self-centred people a very pious and untouchable way to be on top and in control. Now God becomes their defence system for their small self! Even Jesus found this to be true of the scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law.

Richard Rohr, adapted from CAC Foundation Set: Gospel Call to Compassionate Action (Bias from the Bottom) and Contemplative Prayer (CD, DVD, MP3)

At the heart of this lies my own uneasiness with many of the assumptions we make about prayer: that it is indeed functional, a means of getting God to do things for us, out there, in the world. And of course he does – we have only to read the accounts of the Gospel miracles to see that, or to read David’s anguished psalms of loneliness and betrayal to realise how freely God’s mercy is given to the broken heart. We mustn’t become so high-minded about prayer that we lose touch with that most fundamental of relationships. Jesus himself taught us to pray, “Our Father in heaven…”

A human father, though, would be soon grieved by a child who only ever spoke to him to ask for something. A healthy parent/child relationship consists in far more than an endless stream of demands!

Real prayer must allow God to change us, to open our hearts to his presence, his loving. More than that, when we come into God’s presence in prayer, we are coming with all the pain and loss of the world on our hearts, for it is all a part of each of us. And that I feel, is the meaning of the phrase “original sin”: not some inherited naughtiness, but our inescapable identity with a broken and spoiled world, in which cruelty is law, and might appears always to be right. Coming before God in conscious acknowledgement of that identity is true penitence, and true intercession.

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

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fearful and wonderful…

How long shall I be in the world of the voice and not of the world of the word? For everything that is seen is voice and is spoken with the voice, but in the invisible world there is no voice, for not even voice can utter its mystery. How long shall I be voice and not silence, when shall I become word in an awareness of hidden things; when shall I be raised up to silence, to something which neither voice nor word can bring?

John the Solitary 5th c., from Sebastian Brock, 'John the Solitary, On Prayer', Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, 30 (1979), 84-101, p. 87, with thanks to Voice in the Wilderness

Word without voice? Word as silence?

Sometimes I think music subsists as much in its silences as in its sounds: beyond the attack and decay of a note is the time before it was sounded, and the time after. Beyond its pitch is an infinity of vibrations that are not sound; beyond its scale degree are uncountable microtones.

We are this kind of thing ourselves – there was a time when each of us was not, and there will be a time after us, and yet our limited lives are shot through with eternity. A bit of the Spirit – who, being spirit, cannot be divided – is in each who lives, human or otherwise (Psalm 104.30), and so the perishable will somehow put on imperishability (1 Corinthians 15.42ff), and we shall “become word in an awareness of hidden things” – not in these glimpses, reflections in broken water, but in steady truth and certain rest, and

“God himself will be with [us];
he will wipe every tear from [our] eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

(Revelation 20.3-4).

Just as the Kingdom is here, and yet to come, within us, yet about to break upon us, so we live in eternal life even now: our little, sleep-rounded lives lie in the palm of that piercèd hand that made the vaults of Orion, the unimaginable distances and lambent deeps of interstellar space. Truly, we are fearfully and wonderfully made…

Collaboration or competition?

When you truly know, the giveaway is that you know that you do not know! Truly holy people are always humble. If you are not humble, you have not experienced the Holy One. If you don’t see humility in religion, you know it’s not on the right course.

The prophets are always calling Israel to such humility. They represent the self-critical and honest part of religion. Without the prophetic element, religion is always self-serving and idolatrous. True prophets please nobody, neither left nor right, which are mere ideologies. According to Jesus, the whole world will hate you if you follow him (Matthew 10:22). When you are truly prophetic, both the left and the right will mistrust and attack you.

Richard Rohr, adapted from CAC Foundation Set: Gospel Call to Compassionate Action (Bias from the Bottom) and Contemplative Prayer (CD, DVD, MP3)

I know I keep on saying this in one way or another, but I do feel that what Rohr says here has a bearing on how we view prayer. Too often prayer assumes that if we do not know, then we ought to, and oceans of ink and forests of trees are expended by good and honest Christian charities producing and distributing prayer bulletins, prayer newsletters, prayer diaries and other aides de prière, so that supporters may pray in a more informed manner.

Perhaps those who put so much effort and so many resources into producing these publications intend us merely to be better informed, and so come to prayer with their needs closer to our hearts; but I worry that some of us will simply founder beneath the burden of detail, and fail to pray at all since we cannot pray for everything. In any case, God’s purposes may be greater and stranger than anyone may imagine who is caught up in the day-to-day minutiae of running an aid agency or a homeless shelter.

We need prophets, as Rohr so rightly says. We need, too, those who come before God in reckless prayer, crying out for mercy and justice, not for specific instances of charity. Of course we are right to pray for charities, Christian and otherwise, and for their work. Some of us may be called, by reason of personal involvement, perhaps, to pray extensively of one or another. But prayer activism is not the same as prophetic prayer.

Nor, come to that, does prophetic prayer consist in recasting Jeremiads in terms of contemporary events, like so many “words” coming out of certain Christian camps in recent years, proclaiming God’s wrath and judgement on corrupt and disobedient nations as if the Incarnation and all that follows from it had never happened.

We live in the Kingdom; but the Kingdom is not yet. We are redeemed; but the world is not, nor will it be. Someday there will be a new heaven and a new earth. Meanwhile, we work and pray to build the Kingdom one kindness at a time, knowing that it will never be more than an outpost of love in a broken and dying world. Jesus knew that, which is why he rebuked Peter for trying to keep him from the Cross (Matthew 16.23).

Elaine Aron, in her book The Highly Sensitive Person, argues persuasively for society's need for sensitive, reflective people just as much as for extraverted, dynamic types. She categorises them as (p.18 et passim) “priestly advisors”, informing and balancing the “warrior kings” whom both the media and the man in the street tend to value above all. It seems to me that Christian society has just as deep a need as any other for those who are called to the contemplative rather than the active to take their vocation seriously. As Aron points out, introverts are not failed extraverts: they are a different, and equally valuable, kind of human being. Being human is a collaboration, not a competition, or at least it should be.

Perhaps those of us who are called not to “know how to pray as we ought”, but to pray, as Paul said in Romans 8.26-27, within the Spirit’s own intercession, need to stop feeling like second-class citizens of the Kingdom, but to realise that we are a vital part of its growth, as important as – though not more important than – those who are called to give their lives in active service. We need to talk, to inform each other, to understand each other. But it is easier, maybe, for activists to publish prayer bulletins than it is for contemplatives to communicate their calling to live out their intercession. Hence, perhaps, blogs like this?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Costing not less than everything…

It costs so much to be a full human being that there are very few who have the enlightenment or the courage to pay the price. One has to abandon altogether the search for security and reach out to the risk of living with both arms open. One has to embrace the world like a lover. One has to accept pain as a condition of existence.

Morris West, with thanks to inward/outward

It seems to me that this comes very close to Jesus’ remark in Matthew 16.24-26, “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. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”

We are not our own. Our very life has been given to us, and what do we have to offer in return but our life? God will receive that gift more tenderly than we can imagine, and will keep it more surely than any human defence. All things come from him, and of his own do we offer him (1 Chronicles 29:14).

Beyond this, all is thanksgiving; as Eliot said, “A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)…”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Hiddenness & Poverty

Hiddenness is an essential quality of the spiritual life. Solitude, silence, ordinary tasks, being with people without great agendas, sleeping, eating, working, playing... all of that without being different from others, that is the life that Jesus lived and the life he asks us to live. It is in hiddenness that we, like Jesus, can increase “in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people” (Luke 2:51). It is in hiddenness that we can find a true intimacy with God and a true love for people.

Even during his active ministry, Jesus continued to return to hidden places to be alone with God. If we don’t have a hidden life with God, our public life for God cannot bear fruit…

One of the reasons that hiddenness is such an important aspect of the spiritual life is that it keeps us focused on God. In hiddenness we do not receive human acclamation, admiration, support, or encouragement. In hiddenness we have to go to God with our sorrows and joys and trust that God will give us what we most need.
In our society we are inclined to avoid hiddenness. We want to be seen and acknowledged. We want to be useful to others and influence the course of events. But as we become visible and popular, we quickly grow dependent on people and their responses and easily lose touch with God, the true source of our being. Hiddenness is the place of purification. In hiddenness we find our true selves…

If indeed the spiritual life is essentially a hidden life, how do we protect this hiddenness in the midst of a very public life? The two most important ways to protect our hiddenness are solitude and poverty. Solitude allows us to be alone with God. There we experience that we belong not to people, not even to those who love us and care for us, but to God and God alone. Poverty is where we experience our own and other people's weakness, limitations, and need for support. To be poor is to be without success, without fame, and without power. But there God chooses to show us God's love.

Both solitude and poverty protect the hiddenness of our lives…

When we enter into solitude to be with God alone, we quickly discover how dependent we are.  Without the many distractions of our daily lives, we feel anxious and tense.  When nobody speaks to us, calls on us, or needs our help, we start feeling like nobodies.  Then we begin wondering whether we are useful, valuable, and significant.  Our tendency is to leave this fearful solitude quickly and get busy again to reassure ourselves that we are “somebodies.”  But that is a temptation, because what makes us somebodies is not other people's responses to us but God's eternal love for us. 

To claim the truth of ourselves we have to cling to our God in solitude as to the One who makes us who we are. 

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey, by Henri J.M. Nouwen , © 1997 Harper San Francisco

I have found that these passages from the Henri Nouwen Meditation & Reflection emails over the past few days explain better than anything I’ve read why I’ve found myself increasing tending to withdraw slightly from public involvement with things, from blogging – at least as regularly as I sometimes have – and even from some bits of church life.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (Matthew 5.3) When know we have nothing we have not been given, know we are nothing, then God can flood the heart with his mercy, with his Holy Spirit, with Christ to whom the Spirit bears witness (John 14.25), and there is the Kingdom of Heaven in all its now-ness, its kairos. This is why I have sometimes found it, odd though it sounds, hard to cope with good times. God’s presence is so obvious, so close, in times of real hardship and distress that it feels almost as if one may lose him in the days of wine and roses.

God grant me sufficient hiddenness always. As I said once, quite a while ago, I do long to be more like ivy, that flourishes in shadowed places.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Simple obedience...

Tertiaries recognise the power of intercessory prayer for furthering the purposes of God’s kingdom, and therefore seek a deepening fellowship with God in personal devotion, and constantly intercede for the needs of his church and his world. 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. Lastly, we are encouraged to avail ourselves of the sacrament of Reconciliation, through which the burden of past sin and failure is lifted and peace and hope restored.

The Principles of the Third Order - The Third Way of Service, Prayer
It's strange how much more clearly this has been coming to speak to me over recent months, and how strongly I've been convicted of my own failure to live by it. Remarkable, too, how easy it is to find excuses for filling that "much time" that I have at my disposal with other things than prayer.

Temptation always sells us so short. God has more to give us than we can possibly ask imagine, and yet we allow ourselves to be led away by the least alternative. Well, I do. And yet I find that even what little obedience I manage to give to God's call to prayer as my chief calling is rewarded so generously that I haven't the tears to acknowledge it.

On this day after St. Clare's Day, I keep remembering these word's from Clare's Testament: "I bless you during my life and after my death, as I am able, out of all the blessings, with which the Father of mercies has blessed and will bless His sons and daughters in heaven and on earth and a spiritual father and mother have blessed and will bless their spiritual sons and daughters. Amen."

God has so blessed me over these last months, with blessings I couldn't have imagined, or dreamt up for myself. He is faithful beyond our understanding, and we know so little of gratitude. And so we have Christ's mercy beneath us as a cupped hand, and our Lady's simple obedience as our light, our Stella Maris: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word..." How hard that is for us, sinners that we are, and yet how necessary. It's strange, but I sometimes actually find myself these days longing for that simple obedience, as Francis and Clare did...

Saturday, August 06, 2011

There is a crack in everything…

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen, Anthem

We are fallen things in a fallen world. This place is broken. It was broken a very long time ago, and it has been falling to bits ever since. We cannot stand aside from this brokenness. Schadenfreude is prohibited. We are in this, all of us, up to our necks. You can read the first few chapters of Genesis how you like – it makes no difference to me whether you take it as literal, metaphorical or merely allegorical – it comes to the same thing in the end. Jesus knew this very well. He spoke of it often, most tellingly perhaps in the parable of the weeds (Matthew 13.24-30):
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’
He knew that it was painful and despair-inducing to live like this, and he knew we would always try to find ways to mend things, to pull up weeds. He knew too that it would be impossible to get it right – trying to pull up the bad stuff we’d injure and destroy the good. We can see this principle at work every day in Afghanistan, in Syria, Somalia… We can’t help it, perhaps, we have to try and fix it; we can’t bear to watch and do nothing. Paul saw this too:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Romans 8.18-25

We can’t know how to pray. But, Paul goes on to remind us (vv.26-27):
…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.
We need to learn to stay still, to wait on the Harvester at the end of things. Till then, all I can do is pray as I have been shown, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…”

Friday, August 05, 2011

A journey through the dark...

The news from around the world is strange and disturbing again: the stock markets appear to be in panic, tyrants threatened with displacement seem to be getting a second wind, and the freedom of the Press (through its own excesses, to be sure) could well be under threat even in our own country. If ever there was a time for a call to prayer, it’s now.

Very often we understand these words “call to prayer” in a very direct intercessory sense. We think of “claiming”, “rebuking”, “pronouncing the judgements of God”; and if like me we are called to a very different way of prayer, we conclude that it can’t be addressed to us.

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 at The Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, England, and like most Orthodox religious, he was a contemplative. Sophrony wrote, and taught, on the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and it was to this practice that his life was given.

I feel that we all sometimes – and I am one of the worst – have far too narrow a sense of what prayer is. Paul wrote, “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.” (Romans 8.26-27)

We cannot, humanly, know how to pray in the direct, petitionary sense under these – or many – circumstances. Coming before God with our list of demands, and our advice on how best to fulfil them, simply won’t do, given the extraordinary complexity of world events, and the limited nature of the human mind. Sophrony understood this. He wrote, “Sometimes prayer seems to flag, and we cry, ‘Make haste unto me, O God’ (Ps. 70.5). But if we do not let go of the hem of his garment, help will come. It is vital to dwell in prayer in order to counteract the persistently destructive influence of the outside world.” (His Life Is Mine p.64)

Later in the same book Sophrony addressed directly the issue of prayer in a world such as ours:
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...

ibid, pp. 127-128
I wrote 18 months ago about this, and what I wrote seems so relevant to this question of prayer in the midst of a broken and despairing world that I thought I should repost it in its entirety here:

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

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

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

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

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

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