Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On not being so different after all…

At first sight, joy seems to be connected with being different. When you receive a compliment or win an award, you experience the joy of not being the same as others. You are faster, smarter, more beautiful, and it is that difference that brings you joy. But such joy is very temporary. True joy is hidden where we are the same as other people: fragile and mortal. It is the joy of belonging to the human race. It is the joy of being with others as a friend, a companion, a fellow traveller.

This is the joy of Jesus, who is Emmanuel: God-with-us.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

In London over the weekend, I was struck by just this thought, walking across the Millennium Bridge, travelling on the Tube, sitting in The Palms of Goa watching Charlotte Street fill up in the early evening… So many sisters and brothers, their lives at least as intricate and loved as mine, going about their days on this earth of ours—and I found myself loving them, holding them before God in my own heart I suppose, in a way I had never been conscious of before.

London has all too often been hard to visit, difficult to be in; this time, though, it was all delight. I’m not saying I want to move there again after so many years and so many changes, yet I found again my love of this glorious, scarred, beautiful ball of energy and grace that is our capital. I was there with Susan, of course—but even so, this city is a pretty special place on its own. And being there, I became part of the place again: vulnerable I suppose, open to the spirit of the place, and so, somehow, part of its blessing myself. I am so grateful…

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Desperate measures…

It is a world-shattering disclosure that the stream of life is a single stream, though it takes various forms as it spills over into time and space. This disclosure is made to anyone whose discipline sends him on high adventure within his own spirit, his own inner life. By prayer, by the deep inward gaze which opens the eyes of the soul to behold the presence of God, a person feels the steady rhythm of life itself. We seem to be behind the scene of all persons, things and events. The deep hunger to be understood is at last seen to be one and the same with the hunger to understand.

Howard Thurman, with thanks to inward/outward

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (Jesus, in John 14.6)

Sometimes, I think, we underestimate the metaphysical element of our faith. If all we had was a social Gospel, or an ethical handbook, we would be blessed, certainly, but our faith would have no meaning beyond this little life we live in. Annie Dillard once wrote:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

(Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982)

We are not “sufficiently sensible of conditions.” This is a life and death thing we have embarked upon; the God we worship is the unseen, unheard source of all that is, yet he gave himself to be born of a young Jewish girl in a country province of an occupied nation, far away from anything or anyone that mattered. What part of this do we not understand? Our faith is nothing if not a desperate measure, a mad leap into the glory of a love unthought of, a hope unthinkable no matter how long, or deep, the thought.

Mercy. If it were not for his mercy, the mercy of that inconceivable sacrifice of the Cross, we would have no hope at all. As it is, we do have hope—and faith, and love, limitless, unending. And the greatest of these is love.

Friday, January 20, 2012


To be grateful for the good things that happen in our lives is easy, but to be grateful for all of our lives—the good as well as the bad, the moments of joy as well as the moments of sorrow, the successes as well as the failures, the rewards as well as the rejections—that requires hard spiritual work. Still, we are only truly grateful people when we can say thank you to all that has brought us to the present moment. As long as we keep dividing our lives between events and people we would like to remember and those we would rather forget, we cannot claim the fullness of our beings as a gift of God to be grateful for.

Let’s not be afraid to look at everything that has brought us to where we are now and trust that we will soon see in it the guiding hand of a loving God.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

This speaks to me very clearly at the moment, when God seems to be leading me step by step through the pathways that led me here, stopping every now and again to point out some little thing, some sudden glint of grace, or some still aching heartbreak that bridged some otherwise impassable divide between life and faith.

For nearly 25 years, now, I have known Romans 8.28 to be the defining verse of the Bible for me. There is so much pain, so much wrong in this broken and still beautiful world, and my life has been shadowed by both, and has caused both in its turn. Yet in all things God does work for the good of those who love him; and he has brought such peace, and such light, out of the darkest times, that I find myself more and more entangled in the purposes of this verse, and more and more dependent on the mercy it implies. The shadow of the Cross lies over it all.

As this odd journey goes on, my prayer draws down to this, too. I am so enmeshed in the the fallenness of the created world (I think this is what is meant by original sin) that, like everyone, every thing I do or think or say affects all creation for better or for worse. We are here, and nowhere else. We cannot ask for mercy for ourselves without asking for mercy on all that is made; our cry for justice is the cry of all the oppressed, now and since the beginning. This is the only way my prayer can work at all—perhaps it is the only way prayer ever works. It is how the Cross itself works, how its sacrifice is continually opened for us again in every Mass…

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

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A caveat…



With thanks to http://www.jimnolansblog.com/isabella-bannerman-cartoons/

Freedom in solitude…

All human beings are alone. No other person will completely feel like we do, think like we do, act like we do. Each of us is unique, and our aloneness is the other side of our uniqueness. The question is whether we let our aloneness become loneliness or whether we allow it to lead us into solitude. Loneliness is painful; solitude is peaceful. Loneliness makes us cling to others in desperation; solitude allows us to respect others in their uniqueness and create community.

Letting our aloneness grow into solitude and not into loneliness is a lifelong struggle. It requires conscious choices about whom to be with, what to study, how to pray, and when to ask for counsel. But wise choices will help us to find the solitude where our hearts can grow in love.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Finding my own way between solitude and loneliness has been an interesting journey, these past few years. I am coming to realise just how important solitude is to me; and yet I often don’t use it as well as I should. Solitude, it seems to me, is a priceless gift, a thing one should not take for granted. Like all spiritual gifts, it is all to easy to waste…

So long as one is not lonely, there is an immense freedom in solitude. The heart expands, somehow, in this unaccustomed space, and thought becomes free and spacious too. Somehow I find myself able to think recklessly about, feel for, love, people against the mere thought of whom I’d have felt I had to defend myself had I not had this marvellous freedom.

Our Lord knew all about the power of solitude—it was why he “would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” (Luke 5.16) It seems to me that if we follow him, we must follow him here, as the disciples were often invited to do. (Mark 6.31)

Perhaps this is a very tiny reflection of the sort of thing that used to happen to the Desert Mothers and Fathers. Those who sought them out (at least the ones who sought them out for more than mere curiosity) found in them an extraordinary openness and love, and an ability to see and hear their visitors more clearly than anyone they met in the normal course of events in the city or wherever. Needless to say, my solitude, and my faithfulness to it, are insignificant compared with theirs; yet this freedom, this willingness, eagerness even, to be vulnerable, grows in me daily—and all the more as God sets me, in prayer, increasingly free from the past.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Come and see…

Often we want to be able to see into the future. We say, “How will next year be for me? Where will I be five or ten years from now?” There are no answers to these questions. Mostly we have just enough light to see the next step: what we have to do in the coming hour or the following day. The art of living is to enjoy what we can see and not complain about what remains in the dark. When we are able to take the next step with the trust that we will have enough light for the step that follows, we can walk through life with joy and be surprised at how far we go. Let’s rejoice in the little light we carry and not ask for the great beam that would take all shadows away.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Psalm 119.105)

I’m not entirely sure why I find this so moving. My whole life I’ve longed for a powerful headlight and a map and a compass, when all God provides – all he promised to provide – is an oil-lamp that casts enough light for the next step…

Somehow the next step is all we see, though. Our hearts are full enough the tears and glory of the present moment – or they should be – without trying to play chess openings with the future. But we forget that, and stay awake at night trying to work it out, consequence by consequence. God knows it doesn’t work…

God’s word “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4.12) We so easily forget: it is this which is to light our way, If this is our guide, if we will be content with this light, then Christ, who is the living Word, full of grace and truth, will take us by the hand as he took Andrew, saying, “Come and see…”

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The bridge of prayer…

Prayer is the bridge between our conscious and unconscious lives. Often there is a large abyss between our thoughts, words, and actions, and the many images that emerge in our daydreams and night dreams. To pray is to connect these two sides of our lives by going to the place where God dwells. Prayer is “soul work” because our souls are those sacred centres where all is one and where God is with us in the most intimate way.

Thus, we must pray without ceasing so that we can become truly whole and holy.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Following on from yesterday’s post, I wonder how many others find, as I do, that the more they pray, the more they dream? Last summer I wrote:

The longer I go on in this life that is about prayer, the less I realise I know about it. As Rohr [says], prayer happens. Sometimes, I’m not even sure I am there. Prayer is all wrapped up in dreams, these days, too. Some nights are so filled with dreaming that is prayer, or prayer that is dreaming, that I’m not always sure what is sleep and what is not. But these are not dreams of the prophetic, “God gave me a dream – better sit up and write it down!” variety. They rise out of sleep like the wrecks of crippled warships rising out of sand and silt, full of pain and the memory of pain, and sink again in the half-waking susurration of the Jesus Prayer. They are nothing I do; their content has generally nothing to do with my life or even my experience.

Our dreams are rooted deep in a life we see little of in our waking hours; our prayer, I increasingly feel, is rooted there too. Certainly contemplative prayer draws on the sap that root lifts up from the dark soil of our human, and beyond human, connectedness. Each of us is the end-point of countless generations; still more, each of us is God-made, Spirit-breathed. The imprint of our making is on us, whether we will recognise it or not, and so is the imprint of our redemption: we are marked with the Cross. If this is what we are, how can we not be a part of each other, of all, ultimately, that is made, for “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (John 1.3 NIV)?

In each of us the memory of our heart’s path is traced, often quite unconsciously. Everything that has moved us, grieved us, concerned us is there, waiting to be touched, woken. Associations will often do it, as Marcel Proust found when he tasted the madeleine he had dipped in his tea, but they produce a frail, surface recollection, quite unlike the deep and resonant representations of dreams.

Deepest of all, perhaps, is prayer. In prayer God is reaching out to us, far more than we are reaching for him, and he knows all; for in Christ all things hold together (Colossians 1.17). Paul also reminds us (Romans 8.27) that “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.”

What is happening here? I think that God is reaching down to these hidden, seemingly forgotten connections with the needs and pains and brokenness of others, and is retrieving our unspoken prayers in the silence of contemplation, or of sleep. This is an extraordinary, profound thing, and I think it is here that the distinction between dream and prayer becomes blurred. To be honest, there is much I simply don’t know about these shadowed paths of prayer, but I think that possibly, if we (as is often attested to in the Orthodox tradition) find ourselves praying the Prayer as we go to sleep, it will run quietly on in some part of our mind even in the deepest sleep, and our hearts, remaining attuned to God in Christ Jesus, will be open to that gentle touch that lifts our memories to prayer. And who is to say that our dreams may not echo that divine lifting, that holy, unthought-of participation in the work of redemption that goes on, even as the Cross goes on, in every generation till our Lord’s return.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Stella Maris…

Our minds are always active. We analyse, reflect, daydream, or dream. There is not a moment during the day or night when we are not thinking. You might say our thinking is “unceasing.” Sometimes we wish that we could stop thinking for a while; that would save us from many worries, guilt feelings, and fears. Our ability to think is our greatest gift, but it is also the source of our greatest pain. Do we have to become victims of our unceasing thoughts? No, we can convert our unceasing thinking into unceasing prayer by making our inner monologue into a continuing dialogue with our God, who is the source of all love.

Let’s break out of our isolation and realize that Someone who dwells in the centre of our beings wants to listen with love to all that occupies and preoccupies our minds.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

1 Thessalonians 5.16-18

There is so much we cannot know by thinking, including some of the most fundamental questions regarding “life, the universe and everything…” – how then can we know how or what to pray for everyone of whose pain or need we come to hear. How can we possibly “pray without ceasing” as Paul recommends?

I so often find myself adrift in strange seas these days, my hair and beard crusted with the salt of old tears, that my heart fills up with the longing for God, for his mercy and his judgement, before I am even aware of what is going on. As I do gradually become aware, all I really know are the words of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…” Was I praying the Prayer all along? Was it praying me? I don’t know. But the shadow of the Cross lies over it all, and the figure of our Blessed Lady seems to draw alongside me in the twilight air. She is, after all, Stella Maris, the Sea Star…

Friday, January 06, 2012


The Epiphany is an ancient Christian feast day and is significant in a number of ways. In the East, where it originated, the Epiphany celebrates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. It also celebrates Jesus' birth.

The Western Church began celebrating the Epiphany in the 4th century where it was, and still is, associated with the visit of the magi (wise men) to the infant Jesus when God revealed himself to the world through the incarnation of Jesus. According to Matthew 2:11 they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

BBC – Religions

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter…

TS Eliot, ‘The Journey of the Magi

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy would one day rule the nations?
Did you know
that your Baby Boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?
The sleeping Child you're holding is the Great, I Am…

Mark Lowry & Buddy Greene, ‘Mary Did You Know?’

In Epiphany we begin to glimpse who this Baby is; we start to realise that the Angel of the Annunciation was speaking no less than the sober truth when he said, “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1.31-33)

Lord God, open our eyes to see your Son as he truly is, Lord of all, Saviour of the world and all creation (Romans 8.21), your Name and your Word who is exalted above all things (Psalm 138.2)…

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Broken bread…

There is a great difference between successfulness and fruitfulness. Success comes from strength, control, and respectability. A successful person has the energy to create something, to keep control over its development, and to make it available in large quantities. Success brings many rewards and often fame. Fruits, however, come from weakness and vulnerability. And fruits are unique. A child is the fruit conceived in vulnerability, community is the fruit born through shared brokenness, and intimacy is the fruit that grows through touching one another's wounds. Let’s remind one another that what brings us true joy is not successfulness but fruitfulness…

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

It seems to me that this distinction lies at the heart of much that grieves us in our society. There is a deep longing in the heart of each of us for fruitfulness, a longing to really make a difference, to be able to go to our rest feeling that we have truly made a difference. But since we don’t understand about fruitfulness, since society has lied to us about success since our school days, we imagine that that is what we are longing for; and so we strive ever harder to be successful. We may very well achieve success, too, but we find that it is hollow and barren, a dry husk where we had anticipated something very different.

I wonder if this deep disappointment that is inherent in all success may not be the reason why so many people who achieve success seem to go off the rails, falling victim to drink, drugs, misplaced sex, even suicide? For however hard they try, however much success they achieve in their chosen field, be it rock music, football, or finance, they will never experience that fruitfulness for which their hearts long.

This is a spiritual thing. Only God could have put this longing for fruitfulness in our hearts, since this is one of the ways in which we are made in his image. Our strength is not in success, achievement, domination; our strength is that which is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12.9) and our wounds, like Christ’s, are the place of our healing and the heart of our love. Like him (Philippians 3.10), in our little way, we are broken; it is broken bread which feeds, and goes on feeding, each others’ broken hearts, and in so doing, mends our own…

Sunday, January 01, 2012

A New Year…

Lord, thank you for the gift of time. Thank you for the great geological ages, through which you shaped this beautiful world. Thank you for the generations of people who have lived and worked here; walked, dreamed and loved here.

Thank you, Lord, for this last year we have lived, for all that we have seen and heard and felt, whether they have seemed good to us or bad, for “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8.28)

Bless us, dear Lord, in this New Year. Teach us to use well the time you give us to serve you, to serve each other, in love and grace all this coming year…