Friday, September 28, 2012

Gentle lightning…

We are told that St. Francis used to spend whole nights praying the same prayer: “Who are you, God? And who am I?” Evelyn Underhill claims it’s almost the perfect prayer. The abyss of your own soul and the abyss of the nature of God have opened up, and you are falling into both of them simultaneously. Now you are in a new realm of Mystery and grace, where everything good happens!

Notice how the prayer of Francis is not stating anything but just asking open-ended questions. It is the humble, seeking, endless horizon prayer of the mystic that is offered out of complete trust. You know that such a prayer will be answered, because there has already been a previous answering, a previous epiphany, a previous moment where the ground opened up and you knew you were in touch with infinite mystery and you knew you were yourself infinite mystery. You only ask such grace-filled questions, or any question for that matter, when they have already begun to be answered.


Somehow I find the openness of St Francis’ prayer extraordinarily moving. As I wrote the other day, we humans are very slow to trust, even in our own Creator and Redeemer. In our own prayer, we reach up to God, but only in response to his grace—to the movement of his Holy Spirit towards us. It’s a bit like a lightning stroke, perhaps—as the stepped leader reaches down from the cloud to earth, so a smaller streamer of opposite charge reaches up from earth to meet it. When they touch, the great lightning stroke itself is formed.

We are too prone to credit ourselves with the responsibility for our own spiritual lives. Thank God, we don’t have such a heavy burden to carry. Being created things, we depend entirely upon the mercy of God, Christ, of whom John wrote, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” All that we are rests in God, and his touch awakens us to reach up to him, as a sleepy cat will sometimes reach up her paw to someone reaching down to touch her…

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Swimming in mercy...

…When we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional - always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being. Just like [the] little fish swimnming desperately in search of water, we, too - in the words of Psalm 103 - "swim in mercy as in an endless sea." Mercy is God's innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.
Cynthia Bourgeault, Mystical Hope

"God's innermost being turned outward..."?

"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... And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth." (John 1.1,2,14)

The mercy of God, in which we swim as in an endless sea, is Christ himself, who says, "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them." and, "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (John 6.56; 17.20,21)

We are not beyond mercy, outside mercy, or bereft of it; nor can we be. When we cry out to Christ for his mercy, we are crying out as those who seek to realise what they already have, like the man who cried out "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9.24)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Faithful at any cost?

Many people live with the unconscious or conscious expectation that eventually things will get better; wars, hunger, poverty, oppression, and exploitation will vanish; and all people will live in harmony.  Their lives and work are motivated by that expectation.  When this does not happen in their lifetimes, they are often disillusioned and experience themselves as failures.

But Jesus doesn't support such an optimistic outlook.  He foresees not only the destruction of his beloved city Jerusalem but also a world full of cruelty, violence, and conflict.  For Jesus there is no happy ending in this world.  The challenge of Jesus is not to solve all the world's problems before the end of time but to remain faithful at any cost.

Henri Nouwen - with thanks to the Henri Nouwen Society

Faithfulness; trust; mercy. It seems to me that these three are inextricably linked. God's mercy, Christ himself, is faithful beyond our imagining, and it is only in him that our own little faithfulness can subsist at all. We trust so little.

Irma Zaleski says, "It is our failure of trust, our turning away from God and focusing on ourselves - our self-centredness - our need to protect ourselves at all cost, which the Fathers considered the root of all sin. Because we are unable to anybody or anything, and, above all else, because we are unable to trust God, we are compelled to reply on our own resources, to attempt to find our own happiness, and to fulfil our own desires and needs. We are imprisoned, stranded on the island of our self. We are all exiles from Paradise."

The only way out is repentance: trusting God in Christ enough to give up struggling, give up our self-reliance, and to cry out unceasingly, like some 21st-century Bartimaeus, for mercy, in whatever words, or wordlessness, we are given...

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Name of Jesus

36. The use of the Holy Name not only brings anew the knowledge of our own union with Jesus in His incarnation. The Name is also an instrument by which we may obtain a wider view of Our Lord's relation to all that God has made. The Name of Jesus helps us to transfigure the world into Christ (without any pantheistic confusion). Here is another aspect of the invocation of the Name: it is a method of transfiguration.

37. It is so in regard to nature. the natural universe may be considered the handwork of the Creator... It can be considered as the visible symbol of the invisible divine beauty... And yet all this is insufficient. Creation is not static. It moves, striving and groaning, towards Christ as its fulfilment and end. (Romans 8.21,22) What we call the inanimate world is carried along by a Christward movement. All things were converging towards the Incarnation. The natural elements and the products of the earth, rock and wood, water and oil, corn and wine, were to acquire a new meaning and to become signs and means of grace. All creation mysteriously utters the Name of Jesus: 'I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.' (Luke 19.40) It is the utterance of his Name that Christians should hear in nature. By pronouncing the Name of Jesus upon natural things, upon a stone or a tree, a fruit or a flower, the sea or a landscape, or whatever it is, the believer speaks aloud to the secret of these things, he brings them to their fulfilment, he give an answer to their long and apparently dumb waiting... We shall say the Name of Jesus in union with all creation...

38. The animal world may also be transfigured by us. When Jesus remained forty days in the wilderness, he 'was with the wild beasts.' (Mark 1.13) We do no know what happened then, but we may be assured that no living creature is lift untouched by Jesus' influence. Jesus himself said of the sparrows that 'not one of them is forgotten before God.' (Luke 12.6) We are like Adam when he had to give a name to all the animals... Scientists call them as they think fit. As to us, if we invoke the Name of Jesus upon the animals, we give them back their primitive dignity which we so easily forget--the dignity of living beings being created and cared for by God in Jesus and for Jesus...

On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, Lev Gillet (A Monk of the Orthodox Church)
Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, 1949

This is one of the most extraordinary and profound passages on prayer that I have read. (The 'Invocation of the Name of Jesus' referred to is, of course, the Jesus Prayer, as the book explains elsewhere.) All that is necessary in prayer is to bring those we hold in our hearts, in our perception even, into the presence of Christ by this prayer of the Name.

Yet Gillet's theology of the Prayer is more radical even than this. (It is small wonder this little book is not better known nor more widely available!) Earlier he writes:

27. The Name of Jesus brings us more than his presence. Jesus is present in the Name as a Saviour, for the word 'Jesus' means just this: saviour or salvation... Jesus began his earthly mission by healing and forgiving...

28. The Name of Jesus not only helps us to obtain the fulfilment of our needs... (John 16.23-24) But the Name of Jesus already supplies our needs. When we require the succour of Our Lord we should pronounce his Name in faith and hope, believing that we already receive what we ask for. Jesus Himself is the supreme satisfaction of all men's needs. And He is that now, as we pray. Let us not regard our prayer in relation to fulfilment in the future, but in relation to fulfilment in Jesus now. He is more than the giver of what we and others need. He is also the gift. He is both giver and gift, containing in Himself all good things... This is quite another thing than if he had merely given them to us. Now we may find in his Name all that he is. Therefore the Name of Jesus, in so far as it links us with Jesus Himself, is already a mystery of salvation...


When I discovered this little pamphlet (it is only 32 pages long) on the bookshelf in one of the guest houses at Hilfield Friary, it was like discovering that someone had put words to my own deepest intuitions and longings. It struck me speechless for a long time, and I am only just beginning to try and think through some of the implications, at least for my own life of prayer. I'll try to write more here shortly.