Friday, June 29, 2012

Not seeing in the dark...

The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines...

Ladder-climbing Western culture, and the clinging human ego, made the Gospel into a message of spiritual advancement—ascent rather than descent. We hopefully do advance in “wisdom, age, and grace” (Luke 2.40), but not at all in the way we thought. Jesus again got it right! He brilliantly and personally taught the way of the cross and not the way of climbing.

We come to God much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right. God absolutely leveled the human playing field by using our sins and failures to bring us to divine union. This is surely the most counterintuitive message of the Gospels—so counterintuitive that it largely remains hidden in plain sight.

Richard Rohr, June 2012

This is hard for us to accept, or even understand. Even within the life of faith we expect to be able to say, "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better..." We look for concrete progress in holiness, deepening commitment to church responsibilities, significant achievements in evangelism and what used to be called "corporal works of mercy". The Buddhist teacher and writer Chogyam Trungpa famously called this attitude "spiritual materialism", and we Christians are as good at it as any,

The paradox is that if we do follow Jesus on the way of the Cross, we will grow in holiness, and all the rest of it - but only so long as it is our Lord whom we're following for his own sake, and not for what we might receive. (This I think is perhaps what Jesus meant at when he said (John 6.26) that people were looking for him for what they could get.)

I know myself - but only in retrospect - that the times in my life when changes, transformations as Rohr calls them, have taken place have been low  times, times when I often haven't been able to see God's hand in events at all, but only darkness and shame and confusion. Perhaps this is what faith is: to hold on to God, to love him best of all, when nothing shows him to us, and the road is black with loss.

Sometimes, unteachable, I have wondered how to hang onto these depths of faith in the good times, like now, when all around seems to be going well, and happiness is a daily fact. It isn't possible. God knows when, and how much, we need these shadow times, these times of hollowness and pain. Even if we were able to administer this medicine ourselves, we would probably destroy ourselves. Like seeds, we can only really grow in darkness - and we can't see in the dark...

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Struggling again…

In the autumn, I wrote about some of the struggles I’d been having on high doses of steroids (for sarcoidosis) and of my hopes for some respite from the side-effects on a reduced dose. Having done quite well on a holding dose for six months, I began, three weeks ago I think, on my consultant’s advice, finally to taper off the dose altogether. I had not anticipated where this would lead…

Being on corticosteroids for a relatively long period causes the adrenal glands effectively to shut down; tapering off the dose puts one into a condition of adrenal insufficiency, the idea being that the adrenal glands will wake up to the fact that no-one is doing their work for them any more, and they had better get it together and start work again. This does not feel good for the unfortunate owner of the said glands, at all. The fatigue, aches and pains, hypoglycaemia and erratic blood pressure are bearable enough I suppose, but the psychological symptoms are a problem. Depression with teeth might be a good description. It certainly does not help creative work, blogging included.

Oddly enough, though, somewhere inside here the work goes on. God is good, always. Prayer is not only possible, but nourishing and healing in a way I find impossible to convey properly in words. And reading Cynthia Bourgeault, though very slow indeed (I can only read a few pages at a time, before they blur into visual noise and/or I fall asleep) is an adventure I wish I could do justice to here. I really do look forward to thinking through with you people some of what she has to say about apophatic vs. cataphatic prayer—and why I disagree with her about the Jesus Prayer. Pray for me for a gap in the fog so I can do just that.

Maybe simply having got this off my chest here will help, much as I hate being personal like this in public. If you are going through anything like this yourself, know this: God does not turn away. He’s in this with you, if only you will surrender sufficiently to hear his voice, feel his touch. Don’t stop praying, even when it feels pointless, barren. People sometimes say, “I can’t pray, though…” Of course you can. Anyone can repeat the words of the Jesus Prayer, or the Latin Rosary. It may not feel like it’s doing the slightest good, but that’s not the point. God is still there. He knows. Jesus promised that no-one and nothing can snatch us out of his hand (John 10.27-30). He knew abandonment and despair, because he emptied himself and became like us. But he rose in glory from the worst that could possibly happen to him, and his pierced hands are still open to each of us even now…

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

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Asleep in the Mercy…

Very often the word “awakening” is used to describe the ways of God in the heart of his people (e.g. Timothy Jones’ Awake my Soul or Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centring Prayer and Inner Awakening) and of course in many ways this is a good image. God does, by his grace, wake us from the half-conscious life we live in the world, caught among images and the desire for images, living in a reality that is far from real, but a kind of user interface with reality—for, as Eliot said, “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.”

In a recent article in Church Times, Tony Horsfall (the quote is from his recent book Rhythms of Grace: Finding Intimacy with God) wrote, “We live in a God-bathed world. There is no place where God is not, although sometimes we may be asleep in his presence.” I know what he means, and of course we have all known times like this, when we realise we have spent the entire space of the Eucharistic prayer at Mass thinking about HTML5, or the need to weed the garden. But truly being asleep, sound asleep, in the presence of God, falling asleep in the conscious presence of God, consciously longing for the mercy of Christ, and letting oneself slip into sleep as into that mercy—that is something different, and I would want to be clear about the distinction…

I seem to be collecting a little cache of writings about this, and I don’t want to repeat myself here, so do start with this Lent’s post The Shores of Perception, which links back to the earlier posts—or else just click “dreams” in the tag cloud in the sidebar. There is so much more to explore here, and yet by its very essence it is hard to capture, sitting here at a keyboard. But I will try, over the next few weeks I will try as best I can…

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Grace abounding…

Grace—it’s a strange concept for those of us who’ve become used to the “no such thing as a free lunch” way of thinking. It seems literally to be too good to be true. We cannot believe the universe works this way, that, as Cynthia Bourgeault writes:

…you will suddenly find yourself set down in a very different universe from the one we have grown accustomed to inhabiting in these recent, post-Enlightenment centuries. Rather than living in a “clockwork” universe run on implacable scientific principles by an absentee landlord God—or, even more desolate, a totally random, nobody-in-charge universe where the only law is the law of the jungle—instead you wake up inside a warm-hearted and purposive intelligence, a coherence of which you yourself are part of the expression…

Everything is given—and this is not some theoretical, abstract theological concept, a kind of story religious people tell each other to take their minds of the cold and the dark. Nothing is of final value earned—we could never deserve that. As Richard Rohr once said,

If it's too idealized and pretty, if it's somewhere floating around up in the air, it's probably not the Gospel. We come back, again and again, to this marvellous touchstone of orthodoxy, the Eucharist. Eucharist, in the first physical incarnation in the body of Jesus, is now continued in space and time in ordinary food…

You don’t have to put spirit and matter together; they have been together ever since the Big Bang, 14.6 billion years ago (see Genesis 1.1-2 and John 1.1-5). You have to get on your knees and recognize this momentous truth as already and always so. The Eucharist offers microcosmic moments of belief, and love of what is cosmically true. It will surely take a lifetime of kneeling and surrendering, trusting and letting go, believing and saying, “How could this be true?”

It is all gift. What we need, at the very deepest level, is already there, in the open, pierced hand held out to us. And yet it is very concrete—in our sisters and brothers we know that sustaining love in very truth, warm and breathing. We have only to be broken enough to need it. And love is strong as death… it outlasts the grave, lifts the orbits of the spheres, nourishes the star-fields… it is God himself.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Mercy...

Mercy is the length and breadth and height and depth of what we know of God—and the light by which we know it. You might even think of it as the Being of God insofar as we can possibly penetrate into it in this life, so that it is impossible to encounter God apart from the dimension of mercy.
The choice of term may seem a bit odd. Today “mercy”—along with so many other classic words in our spiritual tradition—has developed a negative connotation. It seems to suggest power and condescension, a transaction between two vastly unequal parties. A friend of mine, in fact, was told by her spiritual director that she should not pray the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy one me,” the mainstay of Eastern Orthodox contemplative spirituality—because “it reinforces medieval stereotypes of paternalism and powerlessness.” Modern people, this spiritual director felt, need to be told that they are worthy, “that they can stand on their own two feet before God.”
But the word “mercy” comes profoundly attested to in our Judeo-Christian spiritual heritage. Aside from the fact that the Jesus Prayer, hallowed by two millennia of Christian practice, has been consistently singled out... as the most powerful prayer a Christian can pray, we simply cannot get away from the Mercy without getting away from the Bible as well. The word confronts us at every turn, as a living reality of our faith...
Cynthia Bourgeault Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God (Cloister Books) pp.20-22
I have to confess, without wishing to be unpleasant to Bourgeault's friend's SD, to finding the idea of standing on my own two feet before God so utterly silly as to be almost funny. This has far less to do with my own ingrained stereotypes of paternalism and powerlessness than with the odd few fleeting little glimpses of God's own Being that have been granted me over the years. The legend of King Canute on the seashore comes to mind.

Cynthia Bourgeault comes closer, in this wonderful little book, than almost anyone else I've read to describing what this way of prayer actually feels like.

Living in the Mercy, since that is what having the Jesus Prayer at the centre of one's spiritual life over al long period actually seems to be, As Bourgeault describes so well in the last few pages of Mystical Hope, we become changed, gradually, at a level which the everyday parts of our minds may come to observe, but which they can never directly access nor control. At this level, all is God's. The part of ourselves that St Paul calls σάρξ, sarx, translated variously as “flesh” (NRSV, KJV etc.) “human nature” (ISV), “sinful nature” (NIV) chunters on, doing what it does, and yet we are no longer under any obligation to take that much notice of its panics and enticements (Romans 8.12). As Bourgeault says, “Hope is not imaginary or illusory. It is that sonar by which the body of Christ holds together and finds its way. If we, as living members of the body of Christ, can surrender our hearts, re-enter the righteousness, and listen for that sonar with all we are worth it will again guide us... to the future for which we are intended. And the body of Christ will live, and thrive, and hold us tenderly in belonging.” (ibid. pp.98-99)

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Early in the morning...

This order and discipline must be sought and found in the morning prayer. It will stand the test at work. Prayer offered in early morning is decisive for the day. The wasted time we are ashamed of, the temptations we succumb to, the weakness and discouragement in our work, the disorder and lack of discipline in our thinking and in our dealings with other people: all these very frequently have their cause in our neglect of morning prayer. The ordering and scheduling of our time will become more secure when it comes from prayer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with thanks to BibleGateway
It's a strange thing, but I have found this to hold true in every circumstance and stage of life. It doesn't get less true as one moves into contemplative ways of praying: somehow it applies even more keenly in the wide lands of silence and stillness.

Saturday, June 02, 2012


I've been sorting out some pictures...

Walking to the ferry at Fionnphort, on the Isle of Mull


Baile Mor, Iona's village

The ruins of the old Augustinian convent

An Iona bee on the ivy-leaved toadflax that grows everywhere

St Mary's Abbey

The High Cross at the Abbey

The Cloisters

Inside the Abbey Church

Today's reading is John 15.18-21...

The High Altar

Ferns in the chancel wall!

The font - the legs are of Iona marble

Gardens in Baile Mor

Bishop's House, the Anglican retreat house

An old cat in the sun...

The post box

Baile Mor from the beach, with the Abbey behind