Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The inner wilderness...

The wilderness is not just a desert through which we wandered for forty years. It is a way of being. A place that demands being open to the flow of life around you. A place that demands being honest with yourself without regard to the cost in personal anxiety. A place that demands being present with all of yourself.

In the wilderness your possessions cannot surround you. Your preconceptions cannot protect you. Your logic cannot promise you the future. Your guilt can no longer place you safely in the past. You are left alone each day with an immediacy that astonishes, chastens and exults. You see the world as if for the first time.

Lawrence Kushner, Eyes Remade for Wonder

I wrote a long post about this in Lent a few years ago, but Kushner’s words here remind me of the way that the words of the Jesus Prayer are continually with me. In some crucial way, this path of prayer is an inner wilderness, a desert of the heart. It is strange how God has opened the way before me, and yet I still hang back too often, instead of trusting that pierced hand outstretched to lead me in the way of the pilgrim...

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

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lent and Easter (for Godfrey)

Today we celebrated a Requiem Mass for a dear friend and tireless lifetime servant in our church. Verger, Sacristan, PCC member, Deanery Synod member—you name it, he'd done it in his eighty-one years. We’ll miss him terribly.

Somehow it was appropriate that he went home to his Lord during Lent. Godfrey was the most passionately sacramental of Christians, and he had a deep understanding of church seasons and days. Today’s Mass was just as he had wanted it to be, and we were all there to see him off. The church was packed, and somehow there was as much joy as there were tears.

It struck me last night, when we received Godfrey’s coffin into the church, that he was witnessing in utter truth to his Lord's words, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11.25-26) We were listening to the words, as we did in the Gospel reading this morning; Godfrey is there. He knows. He is living in the truth of those words.

We are living out our lives in Lent; for Godfrey, it is now, and forever, Easter Day...

Monday, February 27, 2012

Discipline and discipleship

Discipline is the other side of discipleship. Discipleship without discipline is like waiting to run in the marathon without ever practising. Discipline without discipleship is like always practising for the marathon but never participating. It is important, however, to realize that discipline in the spiritual life is not the same as discipline in sports. Discipline in sports is the concentrated effort to master the body so that it can obey the mind better. Discipline in the spiritual life is the concentrated effort to create the space and time where God can become our master and where we can respond freely to God's guidance.

Thus, discipline is the creation of boundaries that keep time and space open for God. Solitude requires discipline, worship requires discipline, caring for others requires discipline. They all ask us to set apart a time and a place where God's gracious presence can be acknowledged and responded to.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Lent is often described as a discipline. The word turns people's minds towards the externals of Lent, fasting particularly. There is so much talk about “giving up chocolate for Lent” (or something else, but usually chocolate among the Christians I know) that you’d think that was all there was to it.

Fasting is good, though I personally think it needs to be about something more than merely going without a treat that’s not especially good for one’s health, but it is only part of what Lent is about. Discipline is not a word many of us are terribly fond of. It has overtones of Victorian schools: cold showers, the cane, and hundreds of lines.

The Principles of the Third Order Society of St Francis include this sentence, “The Third Order of the Society consists of those who, while following the ordinary professions of life, feel called to dedicate their lives under a definite discipline and vows.” Without discipline, the spiritual life cannot go anywhere. Discipline is freedom, strangely enough. When we no longer open the doors of our perception to what the world offers that is not of God then our hearts are free. Jesus himself said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8.31b-32 NIV) That is the sweet heart of discipline.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The use of prayer...

What is the use of prayer if at the very moment of prayer, we have so little confidence in God that we are busy planning our own kind of answer to our prayer?

Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, p. 24

I have so often felt that this was the necessary driving force behind contemplative prayer, at least from an intercessor's point of view. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” (Romans 8.26 NIV) And if we cannot know even how to pray, how can we know what God's answer might be?

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

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Being hidden...

There is much emphasis on notoriety and fame in our society. Our newspapers and television keep giving us the message: What counts is to be known, praised, and admired, whether you are a writer, an actor, a musician, or a politician.

Still, real greatness is often hidden, humble, simple, and unobtrusive. It is not easy to trust ourselves and our actions without public affirmation. We must have strong self-confidence combined with deep humility. Some of the greatest works of art and the most important works of peace were created by people who had no need for the limelight. They knew that what they were doing was their call, and they did it with great patience, perseverance, and love.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I think this is something we truly need to get hold of, now more than ever. Hiddenness is so alien to our culture, and yet I often think that nothing lasting can really be achieved in the spiritual life without its being hidden from the harsh lights of publicity. At times, it needs to be hidden even from ourselves - as Jesus said, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6.3-4 NIV)

This is one of the things that gives me such an appetite for the solitary life. To pray, to study, with no possibility of reward, no reputation...  I wrote a while ago: “I feel an intense hunger for hiddenness; I long to be like a wren, living out its life deep in an ivied hedgebank, hardly seen among the dense leaves and underscrub. Somehow all this has to do with the heart, too: mine is too full to accomplish anything outwardly, still less to write more for the time being…”

It's difficult to achieve this, too. Our brother St Francis struggled with his longing for solitude and contemplation, and his vocation to preach the Gospel—which inevitably drew him into the public eye, and away from his peace with God.

Elsewhere in the text I’ve quoted at the head of this post, Henri Nouwen wrote:

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.

As always, I struggle with this. It is hard, as I wrote the other day, to balance living a life surrendered to God in prayer with living “in the world”—and yet this balance seems to lie at the heart of the Tertiary vocation. Paul's words keep coming back to me:

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.

Colossians 3.1-3

Friday, February 24, 2012

Solitude as community...

We like to make a distinction between our private and public lives and say, “Whatever I do in my private life is nobody else's business.” But anyone trying to live a spiritual life will soon discover that the most personal is the most universal, the most hidden is the most public, and the most solitary is the most communal. What we live in the most intimate places of our beings is not just for us but for all people. That is why our inner lives are lives for others. That is why our solitude is a gift to our community, and that is why our most secret thoughts affect our common life.

Jesus says, “No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house” (Matthew 5:14-15). The most inner light is a light for the world. Let's not have “double lives”; let us allow what we live in private to be known in public.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I think one thing that Lent teaches us is that, contrary to much that contemporary life teaches us, and contrary to many of the fantasies we may entertain, we do not live in splendid isolation. No, “though we are many, we are one body in Christ...” (Romans 12.5)

Jesus, faint though he was with hunger, and worn from his weeks of aloneness in the wilderness, could not react in isolation to the temptations he encountered. What he chose then would touch each one of us today, more than 2,000 years later. Our solitude is no different; our thoughts are not our own to play with as we choose. Our surrender is far deeper than that.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The mercy of Christ...

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.

If I trust You, everything else will become, for me, strength, health, and support. Everything will bring me to heaven. If I do not trust You, everything will be my destruction.

Thomas Merton. Thoughts in Solitude. (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux) pp.29-30

If we are to trust God, it is in his mercy we are to put our trust. Jesus, in his faithfulness, sacrifice and glorious resurrection, is for us the mercy of God. To trust in that mercy, to surrender ourselves into those arms open on the Cross itself, is the beginning, and the end, of our following. .He is the living word, the beginning and the end. In him and through his and for him all things came to be, and all people. Truly, if he is for us, who can be against us?

It's in realising this, in understanding that in and of ourselves we can do nothing, that we find that in surrendering everything to him, in absolute trust in his mercy, all things will become for us “strength, health, and support.” This is our penitence, the fast that we are called to in Lent: a fast from the self-sufficiency, ambition, and power that were offered to Jesus at the end of his own long fast in the wilderness (Luke 4.1-13) a giving up that prefigures our own dying into the endless mercy of Christ “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1.24)

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

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

Last year I put up here a post by Br Dan of Dating God, and looking at it again, I can’t resist doing as he’s done himself, and reposting it today:

“Even the darkest moments of the liturgy are filled with joy, and Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten fast, is a day of happiness, a Christian feast.”

In 1958 Thomas Merton wrote an essay titled, “Ash Wednesday,” which offers a reflection on the relationship between penance and joy found in the celebration of the beginning of Lent and the marking of our foreheads with ashes. Instead of me rambling on and on here today, I thought it would be good to share more from Merton himself. You can read the entire essay in Seasons of Celebration (FSG 1965), 113-124.

“Ash Wednesday is for people who know that it means for their soul to be logged with these icy waters: all of us are such people, if only we can realize it.

“There is confidence everywhere in Ash Wednesday, yet that does not mean unmixed and untroubled security. The confidence of the Christian is always a confidence in spite of darkness and risk, in the presence of peril, with every evidence of possible disaster…

“Once again, Lent is not just a time for squaring conscious accounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before. The light of Lent is given us to help us with this realization.

“Nevertheless, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday is not focussed on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God. The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy, and the just do not need a saviour.”

Thomas Merton on Ash Wednesday « Dating God

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Leaning into Lent…

Contemplation (the prayer beyond words and ideas) is a way to describe what Jesus did in the desert. It is not learning as much as it is unlearning. It is not explaining as much as containing and receiving everything, and holding onto nothing. It is refusing to judge too quickly and refining your own thoughts and feelings by calm observation and awareness over time—in the light of the Big Picture.

You cannot understand anything well once you have approved or disapproved of it. There is too much you there. Contemplation is loosening our attachment to ourselves so that Reality can get at us, especially the Absolute Reality that we call God.

Contemplation is the most radical form of self-abandonment that I can imagine. It is most difficult if there is not a profound trust that there is Someone to whom I can be abandoned! Such self-forgetfulness paradoxically leads one to a firm and somewhat fearless sense of responsibility. Now I can risk responsibility precisely because I know the buck does not stop here. There is a co-creation going on, a life giving synergism that is found somewhere between surrender and personal responsibility, God fully “co-operating with those who love God” (Romans 8.28), as St. Paul says it.

Richard Rohr, Near Occasions of Grace

As we draw near to Lent, I’m reminded strongly of my own call to contemplative prayer, and the urgent need to reconcile with it the other calls of my Christian life: my own local church, TSSF, my contacts in the other churches on the Isle of Purbeck.

Contemplation allows us to get caught up, consciously, in the purposes of God. (Note that I said consciously, not conceptually. This is awareness, not ratiocination; reason is too blunt an instrument.) Paul goes on to say:

[C]reation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption… the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.

Romans 8.20-27 NIV

As humans we cannot avoid our fallenness being caught up in the brokenness of creation (theologians call this Original Sin) but instead of acting this out in the relationships and obligations of our lives (moral theologians call this sin) we allow our connectedness to make us somehow available in prayer to become part of the very cry of creation. There is in each of us, if only we will look clearly into the lens of grace offered us in prayer, that which will echo every pain, and each cause of pain, in all that is made. Our surrender to this call is, in its very little way, like our Lord’s surrender to the Cross, and as voluntary.

It was once explained to me by a dear friend and mentor that one of the reasons those called to the contemplative life tend to live in community is that the love and discipline of community life support and protect its members in this hard and vulnerable vocation. Those of us who live outside community have opportunities, and struggles, our more enclosed sisters and brothers are spared. In some way we must resist the ever-growing temptation to plunge ourselves into activity—much of it good and blessed in itself—rather than risk this appalling surrender that is the only door to our true healing, and to the healing of those for whom we pray.

Jesus said it all, really, in one short sentence: “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17.33)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Words and the Word...

Words, words, words. Our society is full of words: on billboards, on television screens, in newspapers and books. Words whispered, shouted, and sung. Words that move, dance, and change in size and color. Words that say, "Taste me, smell me, eat me, drink me, sleep with me," but most of all, "buy me." With so many words around us, we quickly say: "Well, they're just words." Thus, words have lost much of their power.

Still, the word has the power to create. When God speaks, God creates. When God says, "Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3), light is. God speaks light. For God, speaking and creating are the same. It is this creative power of the word we need to reclaim. What we say is very important. When we say, "I love you," and say it from the heart, we can give another person new life, new hope, new courage. When we say, "I hate you," we can destroy another person. Let's watch our words.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I seem to have been somewhat caught up in other things these last few days, and I'm sorry I haven't been blogging here as much as I'd have liked. But thinking about the readings for tomorrow, I was struck yet again by John's glorious introduction to his Gospel:

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. (John 1.1-5)

I think Nouwen was only partly right when he suggested that words have lost their power. I think that words may have lost their power for some of us; in and of themselves, they are as powerful as they ever were.

Jesus is the living Word, and all words are somehow almost sacramental as a result. Matthew 5.21-22 suggests something of this power: we would do well, it seems to me, to try and keep this in mind. In this season, when everything seems to be coming out in little pink hearts, we sometimes forget that, as Nouwen reminds us, "When we say, 'I love you,' and say it from the heart, we can give another person new life, new hope, new courage." These words are a tiny act of creation, a small but very real part in Jesus' glorious affirmation, "Behold, I make all things new."

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Joyful in hope…

Joy is what makes life worth living, but for many joy seems hard to find. They complain that their lives are sorrowful and depressing. What then brings the joy we so much desire? Are some people just lucky, while others have run out of luck? Strange as it may sound, we can choose joy. Two people can be part of the same event, but one may choose to live it quite differently than the other. One may choose to trust that what happened, painful as it may be, holds a promise. The other may choose despair and be destroyed by it.

What makes us human is precisely this freedom of choice.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

And 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)

I think sometimes that enduring joy is simply accepting in our own lives that Paul’s remark in Romans 8.28 is literally true. It may seem odd to us, but if we let him, if we choose to trust, God will lead us into that truth.

I say this in all trepidation, since there are things in some people’s lives (there have been some in mine) that truly cannot by any human standards be said to be good, and I am not saying for a minute that we should by some spiritual sleight of hand attempt to say that they are. But God will, in the end, work in all things to bring that promise to pass.

It is a weak and sentimental Christianity that plants roses at the foot of the Cross; yet in the worst that evil could do, in the final triumph of all that is cruel and perverse and heartless, Christ was able to put to death death itself. “…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53.5 NIV)

This is hope. “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” (Romans 12.12 NIV)

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The prayer of sharing…

Joy is hidden in compassion. The word compassion literally means “to suffer with.” It seems quite unlikely that suffering with another person would bring joy. Yet being with a person in pain, offering simple presence to someone in despair, sharing with a friend times of confusion and uncertainty… such experiences can bring us deep joy. Not happiness, not excitement, not great satisfaction, but the quiet joy of being there for someone else and living in deep solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this human family. Often this is a solidarity in weakness, in brokenness, in woundedness, but it leads us to the centre of joy, which is sharing our humanity with others.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

This is of course wonderfully true just as Nouwen writes it here—and note that he is saying “being with a person in pain, offering simple presence to someone in despair, sharing… confusion and uncertainty…” not “offering solutions”—but it is also deeply true of prayer.

Intercessory prayer, at least the intercession of the contemplative, does not mean presenting God with accurate analyses of the situation or the person we are praying for, nor presenting him with detailed solutions we have worked out which he is to bring to pass “in Jesus’ name.” True intercession, as I understand it, is simply being with the person in God’s presence—being in God’s presence with the person held in our love and our shared distress. As Michael Ramsey once wrote, “Contemplation 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.”

For me, the Jesus Prayer opens up more and more landscapes of prayer as the years go by, where our praying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” leads the heart on into that deep sharing of pain, despair, confusion, uncertainty. It is, just as Nouwen writes here, “a solidarity in weakness, in brokenness, in woundedness…” and though it is often hard to pray this way, and our sharing of others’ grief in prayer can lead to real tears of our own, still it does lead us truly to “the centre of joy, which is sharing our humanity with others.”