Sunday, April 29, 2012

Good Shepherd Sunday

Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one.’

(John 10:25-30)

Today is one of my favourite days in the church calendar. I find the image of our Lord as shepherd, and of ourselves as sheep, extraordinarily moving and reassuring. The mercy of Christ is just particularly that—we are foolish, and we get lost; he finds us, holds us, regardless of what may be thrown at us, regardless of all we fear, and think we perceive…

No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

(1 Corinthians 10:13)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

In a stew...

I've been thinking a bit about the news reports that have been dominating reports about the church recently: the "fight" (the Guardian's word) to become the next Archbishop of Canterbury, the appalling treatment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the USA, the latest threats from the hard men of GAFCON, and where that leaves the ordinary Christian, trying to "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [their] God..." (Micah 6.8)

While I was thinking about this, I stumbled on an excellent post by Greenpatches, which pointed me back to Richard Rohr's Falling Upward. Rohr says (pp.74-75):

A crucible, as you know, is a vessel that holds molten metal in one place long enough to be purified and clarified. Church membership requirements, church doctrine, and church morality force almost all issues to an inner boiling point, where you are forced to face important issues at a much deeper level to survive as a Catholic or a Christian, or even as a human. I think this is probably true of any religious community, if it is doing its job. Before the truth "sets you free," it tends to make you miserable.

The Christian truth, and Jesus as its spokesman, is the world-view that got me started, that formed me and thrilled me, even though the very tangent that it sent me on made me often critical of much of organised Christianity. In some ways, that is totally as it should be, because I was able to criticise organised religion from within, by its own Scripture, saints and sources, and not merely cultural, unbelieving or rational criteria. That is probably the only way you can fruitfully criticise anything, it seems to me...

Eventually... Catholicism became for me, and I think as it has for many, a crucible and thus a unified field. Which is why it is very hard to be a "former" Catholic, once you really get its incarnational and inherently mystical world-view...

For all its failures, it is no surprise that the Catholic world-view (note that I am not saying the "Roman" world-view) continues to produce Teilhard de Chardins, Mother Teresas, Thomas Mertons, Edith Steins, Cesar Chavezes, Cory Aquinos, Mary Robinsons, Rowan Williamses, Desmond Tutus, and Dorothy Days. I like to call it "incarnational mysticism." Once you get it, there is no going backward, because nothing is any better.
This is really an extraordinary insight. If Rohr is right, and generations of religious (and others) seem to testify that he is (just think of St Francis, or St Teresa of Avila) then we don't need to worry, for ourselves, about these troubles - perhaps not even about the inevitable pain and even anger that arise in us when we read yet another report of strife within the body of Christ. As St Paul said, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." (Romans 8.28)

It's worth remembering another passage of Scripture, though. "Jesus said to his disciples, 'Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!"  (Luke 17.1)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On feeling speechless…

Stuck at home with a cold, I’ve been trying to decide why I've been finding it so hard to post anything here this last week or so. Perhaps it is partly post-Easter fatigue, rather like the dead spot in January after the glory of Christmas and the new start of another year. Maybe it has to do with something described wonderfully well in the back page interview in this week's Church Times.

John Brassington, Chair of Dance into Worship, says in his interview, quoting a letter he received from Canon Joseph Poole, the first Precentor of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral,

...You will fulfil your vocation chiefly by prayer; and specifically by adoration (for which you have a special aptitude) and by intercession. There are many, many people... who need your intercession. What you will do for people, in adoration and intercession, you will probably never know, and nor will they. Only the Father knows—and that is all that matters...

One could apply those sentences to me, I think, and to many who have been called along the same path, only perhaps adding the word contemplation. Sometimes words simply fail. I think at times the act of cognition itself fails. We pray, but we feel nothing, we are aware of nothing but ordinariness and a sense of being anything but special, or useful. At times like this, words like Canon Poole’s do more for me, really, than anything…

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


The whole spiritual life can be reduced in practice to one simple formula: doing the will of God.
Thomas Merton, Ascent to Truth
It’s interesting to consider, though, if this is the case, how important must be the discernment of God’s will.

St Francis, of course, listened keenly to God’s voice—and yet even he, at least when young, got it wrong. He interpreted God’s word about the armour marked with the Cross as predicting his knightly success, and later he took Christ’s words from the San Damiano crucifix, “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin…” as referring to the building, and not to Holy Church herself.

St Ignatius of Loyola considered discernment impossible without a spiritual director.
No one who is trying to make spiritual progress should attempt to do so alone - a spiritual director is required. A director assists a Christian in examining the motives, desires, consolations, and desolations in one's life. Objectively, one can know what is right from looking at the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins in a thorough examination of conscience. But the broader picture of one's life is often not so clear. A Christian should, according to St. Ignatius, share everything with a director who can see things objectively, without being swayed by the emotions or passion. Discerning whether the good spirit (the influence of God, the Church, one's soul) or the bad spirit (the influence of Satan, the world, the flesh) is at work requires calm, rational reflection. The good spirit brings us to peaceful, joyful decisions. The bad spirit often brings us to make quick, emotional, conflicted decisions. A spiritual director can assist both by personal experience, listening with care, and giving an objective analysis.
St Paul (1 Corinthians 12.10) placed great emphasis on prayerful intuition, and seems to have lived by it himself (e.g. Acts 16.6-10), while John (1 John 4.1-3) seems to have proposed a creedal formula. The writer to the Hebrews, perhaps more helpfully, suggests measuring everything against Scripture (Hebrews 4.12-13).

For myself, regular readers of The Mercy Blog won’t be surprised that I most often simply give up attempting to “work it out”, and resort to the Jesus Prayer, holding my own ignorance of God’s will up, as it were, to his Son’s own merciful discernment:

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

Sunday, April 15, 2012


Reading often means gathering information, acquiring new insight and knowledge, and mastering a new field. It can lead us to degrees, diplomas, and certificates. Spiritual reading, however, is different. It means not simply reading about spiritual things but also reading about spiritual things in a spiritual way. That requires a willingness not just to read but to be read, not just to master but to be mastered by words. As long as we read the Bible or a spiritual book simply to acquire knowledge, our reading does not help us in our spiritual lives. We can become very knowledgeable about spiritual matters without becoming truly spiritual people.

As we read spiritually about spiritual things, we open our hearts to God's voice. Sometimes we must be willing to put down the book we are reading and just listen to what God is saying to us through its words.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I sometimes feel obscurely guilty about how long it takes me to get through a spiritual book, as compared with a novel, or something technical, and yet I’ve also often felt that this was the only way for me. I should have the courage of my convictions more often—it’s a besetting problem of mine, not having said courage—and simply admit that this is God’s way of telling me to eat slowly, and chew every mouthful…

Saturday, April 14, 2012


I’m always struck by the disparity in the number of comments different blogs receive. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with readership, to judge by the numbers of subscribers on Google Reader, and—perhaps more significantly—the number of readers recorded (in Blogger stats) for each post here on The Mercy Blog (TMB).

I’m not complaining, by the way, about being neglected by my non-commenting readers—I am always slightly astonished to see how many of you there are out there! It just bewilders me a little that there is such a range of responses. Some blogs hardly ever receive a comment, while some seem to attract many comments, which develop into long conversations—heated, sometimes!—with both casual visitors and those who are evidently regulars. Of course, some bloggers are more punctilious about replying to comments than I am, but still it doesn’t seem to matter that much. For example: there’s a minimalist blogger I read sometimes, who has less Google Reader subscribers than TMB, but her posts rarely seem to have less than 25 comments—sometimes 125—and yet there’s a Franciscan friar and author I read regularly who has far more subscribers on Google Reader, and who receives about the same, or maybe slightly less, comments as TMB.

Some bloggers have closed comments altogether, some have open commenting (and often trouble with trolls and spam as a result) while others, like me, have enabled comment moderation and CAPCHA, It makes (apart from the closed blogs of course) little difference to the amount of comments they receive, seemingly.

Perhaps here is a field for research into the sociology of blogging…

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Christ the mercy of God…

Mostly we think of people with great authority as higher up, far away, hard to reach. But spiritual authority comes from compassion and emerges from deep inner solidarity with those who are “subject” to authority. The one who is fully like us, who deeply understands our joys and pains or hopes and desires, and who is willing and able to walk with us, that is the one to whom we gladly give authority and whose “subjects” we are willing to be.

It is the compassionate authority that empowers, encourages, calls forth hidden gifts, and enables great things to happen. True spiritual authorities are located in the point of an upside-down triangle, supporting and holding into the light everyone they offer their leadership to.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

Sometimes I think that mercy is all that matters in the universe, ultimately. Easter shows us, if it shows us anything, that the mercy of Christ is the pivot on which all things turn. In the death of Christ, the very sun’s light was dimmed; in his Resurrection, all things are made new.

We don’t know the source of the very early hymn the Apostle Paul quoted in Philippians 2.6-11, but it perfectly sums up our Lord Jesus, the Son and the mercy of God, who

though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

“Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.* (1 Corinthians 15:20)

St. Paul seldom leaves the message at the level of “believe this fact about Jesus.” He always moves it to “this is what it says about you!” or “this is what it says about history!” Until we are ourselves pulled into the equation, we find it hard to invest ourselves in a distant religious belief.

Paul normally speaks of “Christ”—which includes us and all of creation—for he never knew Jesus “in the flesh” but only as the eternal Body of Christ. Christ Crucified is all of the hidden, private, tragic pain of history made public and given over to God. Christ Resurrected is all suffering received, loved, and transformed by an All-Caring God. How else could we have any kind of cosmic hope? How else would we not die of sadness for what humanity has done to itself and to one another?

The cross is the standing statement of what we do to one another and to ourselves. The resurrection is the standing statement of what God does to us in return. Today really is our big feast day!

Richard Rohr, Easter 2012

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Being where Christ is…

All truly contemplative souls have this in common: not that they gather exclusively in the desert, or that they shut themselves up in reclusion, but that where He is, there they are.

Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, p.95

And that does not make today a comfortable place to be, or even one that the mind can grasp, really. There is just this hollow silence, an absence of anything that thought can reach, or hold.

Prayer today is odd—a reaching out into what is not known, but still loved; almost as the Magdalene loved between the Cross and the empty tomb, perhaps. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing said it well, many years ago: “He can certainly be loved, but not thought. He can be taken and held by love but not by thought…” (Ch. 6)

A Psalm for Easter Saturday

I love the Lord, because he has heard
my voice and my supplications.
Because he inclined his ear to me,
therefore I will call on him as long as I live.
The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
‘O Lord, I pray, save my life!’

Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
our God is merciful.
The Lord protects the simple;
when I was brought low, he saved me.
Return, O my soul, to your rest,
for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

For you have delivered my soul from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling.
I walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.
I kept my faith, even when I said,
‘I am greatly afflicted’;
I said in my consternation,
‘Everyone is a liar.’

What shall I return to the Lord
for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord,
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful ones.
O Lord, I am your servant;
I am your servant, the child of your serving-maid.
You have loosed my bonds.
I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will pay my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord,
in your midst, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!

                                 Psalm 116 NRSV

No more what we were before…

In the stories of the Crucifixion the agony and the death of Jesus are connected with a group of events in nature: Darkness covers the land; the curtain of the temple is torn in two; the earth is shaken and the bodies of saints rise out of their graves. Nature, with trembling, participates in the decisive event of history. The sun veils its head; the temple makes the gesture of mourning; the foundations of the earth are moved; the tombs are opened. Nature is in an uproar because something is happening which concerns the universe.

Since the time of the evangelists, wherever the story of Golgotha has been told as the turning event in the world-drama of salvation, the role nature played in this drama has also been told. Painters of the crucifixion have used all their artistic power to express the darkness over the land in almost unnatural colours. I remember my own earliest impression of Good Friday—the feeling of the mystery of the divine suffering, first of all, through the compassion of nature. And so did the centurion, the first pagan who witnessed for the Crucified. Filled with awe, with numinous dread, he understood in a naive-profound way that something more had happened than the death of a holy and innocent man…

The sun veiled its face because of the depth of evil and shame which it saw under the Cross. But the sun also veiled its face because its power over the world had ceased once and forever in these hours of its darkness. The great shining and burning god of everything that lives on earth, the sun who was praised and feared and adored by innumerable human beings during thousands and thousands of years, had been deprived of its divine power when one human being in ultimate agony maintained His unity with that which is greater than the sun. Since those hours of darkness it is manifest that not the sun, but a suffering and struggling soul which cannot be broken by all the powers of the universe is the image of the Highest, and that the sun can only be praised in the way of St. Francis, who called it our brother, but not our god…

And the earth not only ceases to be the solid ground of life; she also ceases to be the lasting cave of death. Resurrection is not something added to the death of Him who is the Christ; but it is implied in His death, as the story of the resurrection before the resurrection, indicates. No longer is the universe subjected to the law of death out of birth. It is subjected to a higher law, to the law of life out of death by the death of Him who represented eternal life. The tombs were opened and bodies were raised when one man in whom God was present without limit committed His spirit into His Father’s hands. Since this moment the universe is no longer what it was; nature has received another meaning; history is transformed and you and I are no more, and should not be any more, what we were before.

Paul Tillich, The New Being, Ch.23 (also available to read online here)

Friday, April 06, 2012

Cold and empty…

After all the church activity, Good Friday evening is cold and empty, empty as the stripped altars, the shocking, open tabernacle, without even its curtain…

If I feel like this, wondering how long it will be till Sunday morning, how must it have been for his Mother, and the scattered, frightened disciples?

To whom can we turn, when silence lies hollow as the night wind, and the light fails at last?

Peter said it: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6.68)

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Maundy Thursday…

This evening I went to our local Catholic church, The Church of the Holy Spirit & St Edward, for the beautiful Mass of the Last Supper. We didn’t sing the hymn ‘Godhead Here in Hiding’, but it was that which kept coming back to me during the service:

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.

On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men,
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.

I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he;
Let me to a deeper faith daily nearer move,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.

O thou our reminder of Christ crucified,
Living Bread, the life of us for whom he died,
Lend this life to me then: feed and feast my mind,
There be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.

Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican;
Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what thy bosom ran—
Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.

Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with thy glory’s sight. Amen.

(St Thomas Aquinas, tr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ)

The opening words stanza seems to fit so well the stripped altar, the Body and Blood of our dearest Lord veiled from sight on the Altar of Repose. This is the night he gave to his disciples the treasure of the Mass, prayed for them and for us, and went out into the night of Gethsemane. Truly, his mercy is everlasting…

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Palm Sunday…

It is our emptiness in the presence of the abyss of His reality, our silence in the presence of His infinitely rich silence, our joy in the bosom of the serene darkness in which His light holds us absorbed, it is all this that praises Him.

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

…and under the chaos and frenzy of Palm Sunday, the crowd shouting

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
   the King of Israel!”

(John 12.13)

runs like a great river this “infinitely rich silence” in which Jesus remains in his Father, and his Father in him, through it all.

Lent comes down to this: a moment on the path to the Cross, when the great prophecies lock together, and there is the sudden stillness of a course laid in.

Serving at the Eucharist this morning, it was all I could do at times to stay present to the Liturgy, and not to be drawn into the stillness, or into my own emptiness of heart before that glorious Is-ness…