Friday, December 30, 2016

We are most temporary...

God’s operations, his manner, and his swiftness are simply unable to be discerned. As the Creator’s working abound more and more with us, they will absorb our own self-efforts. 
It seems as though the stars shine more brightly before the sun rises and gradually vanish as the light advances. They have not really become invisible. A greater light has simply absorbed the lesser light. 
This is also the case with your self-effort in prayer. Since God’s light is so much greater, it absorbs our little flickers of activity. They will grow faith and eventually disappear until all self-effort to experience God is no longer distinguishable. 
I have heard the accusation from some that this is a “prayer of inactivity”. They are wrong. Such charges come from the inexperienced… 
The fullness of grace will still the activity of self. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that you remain as silent as possible… 
God’s presence is not a stronghold to be taken by force or violence. His is a kingdom of peace, which can only be gained by love. God demands nothing extraordinary or difficult. On the contrary… 
Jeanne Guyon, Experiencing God Through Prayer

Our prayer, it seems to me, has everything to do with our experience of God. If we basically lack this experience, our minds being filled with ideas about God (“notions” as the early Quakers would have said), we shall understand prayer as something – some demand or supplication – addressed to a being within a known universe, whereas the God of direct experience is not that kind of being at all. In fact “being” in not really a term that applies to God. God is the ground of being, and the universe, all that exists, exists in, and is contingent upon, God; and Christ is one name for that becoming known. The opening verses of John’s Gospel explain this perfectly well.

We are small and contingent parts of all that has come into being, and we are most temporary. We cannot know God as we know each other. To think that we can is a category mistake, and so is thinking that because God cannot be so known, there is no God. Of course there is no such thing as God, but that is not because there is no God: it is because God is not a thing. Things are merely things God does.

All we can do is find some way – whether it be sinking down into the silence of our joined worship, down to the seed of which Isaac Penington spoke, or whether it be the a practice like watching the breath, centring prayer, or the Jesus Prayer or the Nembutsu – of ceasing to try and know or be or do anything, and let God’s Spirit come into the heart in God’s own time. All we can do is be still; all we can give is love.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The practice of stillness...

In the daily practice of stillness we learn not to rely on ourselves, on our thoughts and on our feelings, but instead to rest in the darkness – and perhaps in the apparently complete emptiness – of the magnanimity of the Holy Spirit who gently opens us out into that greater generosity. Its fruit is simply love. It is our personal response to the mystery of God, made known to us in the person of Jesus Christ, for our maturing into full personhood… 
The practice of stillness is letting go. In relinquishing our desire to think, we are refraining from imposing meaning. This means that we can be more open to the way things actually are… A moment when we turn over in our hands a stone just picked up represents the state of preliminary receptiveness which is so important if we are to cultivate the deeper intuitive knowing of spiritual truths. Wonder is the necessary check to the tendency for reductionism which characterises both religious and secular forms of knowledge… 
…letting go means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to realities which may shape us, and it will perhaps open us to the chaos we fear so much… Finally, this requires us to face our fear that death will be the extinction of the self. That requires the ultimate act of trust and Christian faith. However unwilling we may be to ‘go gentle into that dark night’, faith is to surrender ourselves even now into that which, then, we shall be unable to control. Faith is the letting go into an unknown which will be a birthing more awe-full and more fully life-giving than our first ejection from the womb into the light of day. 
Andrew Norman, Learn to Be at Peace: The Practice of Stillness

It seems quite hard sometimes, writing a blog such as this, to find the right tone. I never set out to write one of those confessional blogs, full of day-to-day details of my emotional life and my intimate relationships. But this isn’t a technical blog either, constrained to facts, and opinions about facts. Sometimes I can’t write about the interior life without mentioning aspects of my own life that would be simpler not mentioned at all.

Recently I suffered a minor heart attack, and while medically it was – for someone living, in the 21st century, just across the road from a major hospital – no big deal, it was a disconcerting experience, and one which raised more questions than it appeared to answer. I found, in common with many patients such as myself, that the immediate aftermath of the episode was a strange flat depression, which made it all but impossible to write, or indeed to want to write. It was made somehow more obscure by that fact that, since I am already on the waiting list for an interventional procedure to treat the underlying problem, I found myself in a kind of a medical limbo. I needed to be careful not to make matters worse, and so, while I was relatively restricted in my normal activities, I hadn’t really anything definite to do.

Now that I have a date, next month, for the procedure, I seem to be able to look back over events, trying perhaps to make some kind of sense of the experience itself. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve encountered my own mortality before, and I have found that frailty is only one side of the coin. Reality is not what it seems. That in each of us which is love itself is beyond all the dimensions of time and matter, beyond the reach of thought. Bur it is precisely in this being beyond the reach of thought, even of conscious experience, that hope lies hidden. Unknowing extends beyond a few minutes of sitting quietly. It, itself no thing, underlies all things. It is the unseen source of all that is, and the surest refuge.

Here in Advent all we can do comes down to waiting. Darkness is heavy over the land, and tonight the fog is coming down. Through the bare trees beyond this lighted window the little distances are closing in. What we cannot see, what we have not heard, waits under the dark as it has always done. The dark has not overcome it. In the love that is its light is the seed of Christ, who comes in the shadow of the womb’s pulse long days before birth. Isaac Penington knew this:

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion. 
Quaker faith & practice 26.70

[First published on my other blog, Silent Assemblies]

Thursday, December 08, 2016

All Truth is a shadow except the last...

All Truth is a shadow except the last, except the utmost; yet every Truth is true in its kind. It is substance in its own place, though it be but a shadow in another place (for it is but a reflection from an intenser substance); and the shadow is a true shadow, as the substance is a true substance. 
Isaac Penington, 1653 – Qfp 27.22

When we think of the early years of the Quaker movement, often we remember some of George Fox’s more abrasive encounters – “I laid open their Teachers, shewing, that they were like them, that were of Old condemned by the Prophets, and by Christ, and by the Apostles: And I exhorted the People to come off from the Temples made with Hands…” (The Journal of George Fox, The First Edition, 1694, edited by Thomas Ellwood, pp. 73-74) – and forget the openheartedness of Friends like Isaac Penington, who also wrote:

Even in the apostles’ days Christians were too apt to strive after a wrong unity and uniformity in outward practices and observations, and to judge one another unrighteously in those things; and mark, it is not the different practice from one another that breaks the peace and unity, but the judging of one another because of different practices… 
And oh, how sweet and pleasant it is to the truly spiritual eye to see several sorts of believers, several forms of Christians in the school of Christ, every one learning their own lesson, performing their own peculiar service, and knowing, owning and loving one another in their several places and different performances to their Master, to whom they are to give an account, and not to quarrel with one another about their different practices (Rom 14:4). For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that; and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk. 
Isaac Penington, 1660 – Qfp 27.13

I feel that we as Quakers in the early years of our century need to keep open, even through the challenges of these difficult times, to what the Spirit is saying to us, and in us. It will not do to focus on the difficulties, to take up adversarial stands. The forces of darkness, the institutional and populists powers and principalities – racism, fascism, religious intolerance – know what to do with opposition. It feeds them, gives them the excuses they need for violence, for the display of their physical and military power and dominance. They delight in opposition, the more oppositional and confrontational the better. As John Lennon once said, “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.” But the New Woke movement, among many others, realise that the path to wholeness lies not in opposing but in outgrowing that which would hold us in darkness. And we can only do that in openness, in vulnerability, in failure.

We find it hard to accept intentional failure at the heart of our faith. But all true religion is for losers. Leaders, the successful, the alpha males and occasional alpha females, the “rich” in Jesus’ parables (e.g. Matthew 19.16-24), must learn what failure means for themselves before they can encounter God, must be broken themselves before they can help bring healing to the broken of the world. We must ourselves be prepared to have in our own hearts Leonard Cohen’s “crack in everything, [through which] the light gets in.”

We have to let go of the certainties, I think, let drop the things we think we know about ourselves, about each other. We are all one in the end, one flesh under the skins of our birth and of our circumstances. It is in the ground of all our beings, in God in Christ (John 1.1-4) that all things hold together (Colossians 1.17). Our oneness is far beyond the social, or the humanly spiritual – it is the metaphysical nature of being itself, and this we cannot hold in our human minds. But in our unknowing, we can receive it as grace, as mercy.

Even among Quakers, the differences only matter if it’s the differences at which we look. If we look at that of God, whether the Light that reaches us in the silence, or that light of God within each other, streaming through the cracks, then we realise, as Rhiannon Grant did, that “Quakerism isn’t something you agree with, but something you do.”

[First published on my other blog, Silent Assemblies]

Friday, September 23, 2016

A Life with Ravens

Anyone taking the eremitic vocation seriously is bound to feel helpless, quite impotent, in fact. Hermits are determined to help, to make a positive difference, but how? What can one person do, hidden and alone? Sometimes, solitaries may feel blameworthy because they live lives which shelter them from much of the suffering that so harshly mars the existence of their brothers and sisters. Love and compassion well up in them... but is it enough? What should one do and how? This is where passionate intercessory prayer and supplication spontaneously arises. The challenge is to live a life given over to praying for others while accepting that one will seldom, if ever, see any results. One one will be able to ascertain how, or even if, their devoted prayers are efficacious for others. It is a terrible kind of poverty - to live dedicated to helping others, yet never know what good one may be doing. All that hermits can do is hope that they are doing no harm. Believers leave all results to the mercy of their God. Others rely on the interconnectedness of all humanity, trusting that what affects one, affects all. This is a form of intercession expressed less by words than by a way of life. A Camaldolese monk once wrote: "Prayer is not only speaking to God on behalf of humanity, it is also 'paying' for humanity." Suffering is part of the hermit's vocation. One of the most acute forms is to never know whether one's chosen lifestyle is worthwhile or has any value for others. Hermits enter into the darkness, the dusky cloud of unknowing, and walk without any light beyond that which is in their own hearts. Often, unbeknownst even to themselves, they have become beacons for others.

Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life
This calling to a life of interior solitude (see my other recent post here) has been growing on me more and more strongly, and becoming clearer, in recent years. The essence of this way is not so much physical solitude - though it does necessarily involve what Caroline E Stephen (Quaker Faith & Practice 22.30) called "a due proportion of solitude" - but an interior hiddenness which avoids excess or conspicuousness, or seeking for roles or causes.

The ravens of the title are of course the ones who brought Elijah bread and meat in the wilderness (1 Kings 17.2-6). A life with ravens is a life dependent upon God not only for existence but for meaning. The shadows that fell across the Kerith Ravine were the shadows of God's purpose, and the loneliness to which he had called Elijah was sustained by the ravens of God's grace.

I wrote elsewhere, "It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting myself out of the way of that channel of loving gift." The hiddenness to which I am increasingly drawn is a way of getting out of the way - of standing still enough to act as a kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of mercy.

The dark and puzzling times in which we live can so easily draw us into taking sides, feeling we must "join the fight" against this or that injustice, or "struggle" against forces beyond our control or understanding which threaten the very existence of humanity. These military metaphors contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety and guilt, where nothing we can do is ever enough, and any rest or stillness is a betrayal of our comrades-in-arms. But grace is not mediated by aggression, and peace may not be found by way of war. Craig Barnett wrote:
…the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ – allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings. Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.
Hiddenness appears to me to be not so much a matter of hiding away as hiding in plain sight, just as true simplicity is often more about the avoidance of a complicated life than the embrace of a heroic primitivism! To be "quiet and unrecognised" is deeply counterintuitive to a society driven by opposition and notoriety, and  threatens the paranoia so assiduously cultivated by mass media who, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.

To face not only the suffering of our sisters and brothers, human and otherwise, but the misunderstanding of our own inner political selves, and to embrace them in our love and our compassion, within the awareness of the presence of God, is a peculiar form of prayer. It is more like a form of penance, really. But it is in this contemplative practice itself that we make real the mysterious interconnectedness of all that is made, and through which our own solitary prayer seems to bring healing and hope in even the "valley of the shadow of death" (Psalm 23) itself.

[Originally published on Silent Assemblies]

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Cross is not an easy thing

The cross is not an easy thing. Too often, Christians either bury the pain under some sort of narrative of victory, or else sentimentalise it; Quakers tend not to talk about it.

To understand, to grow from, our Christian roots, though, requires I think that we do somehow take hold of this central event in all four Gospels.

Ilia Delio, as quoted by Richard Rohr, writes:

Only by dying into God can we become one with God, letting go of everything that hinders us from God. Clare of Assisi spoke of “the mirror of the cross” in which she saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and, yet, our great capacity for love. Empty in itself, the mirror simply absorbs an image and returns it to the one who gives it. Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love, and what we love is what we become.

It seems to me that we cannot see why the New Testament understands Christ as God’s love incarnate unless we see that real love is inseparable – in whatever terms we choose to describe it – from the cross. It was Paul who wrote:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law [through choosing to do good by strength of will], Christ died for nothing!’ (Galatians 2.20-21)

Letting in the presence of God, as I believe we do in the silence of worship, entails letting in all the love of God, all that God loves; the broken, the terrified, the pain and the uncanny bitter grieving of that which is, and is loved.

All prayer comes down to this. Truly to pray is to become a small incarnation, a tiny model of Christ; this is why it is so necessary to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.17), and why to pray is to take up the cross ourselves, since it is the refusal to turn away from openness to the pain that runs inextricably through existence, like a red thread in the bright weave of what is.

“Stand still,” said William Leddra, the day before he was martyred, “Stand still, and cease from thine own working.” The cross is absolute surrender, helplessness entirely embraced. It is abandoning all that is my will, every last attempt at self-preservation; as Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians (3.3), “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

Prayer then is consciously stepping into that death, and finding it instead the endless ocean of God’s mercy. Perhaps prayer is after all the central occupation of a human life, why we are here. Annie Dillard thought it was:

The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega, it is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blinded note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to “World.” Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.
(Teaching a Stone to Talk)

[Originally published on Silent Assemblies]

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Hermits in disguise?

There have probably always been hermits-in-disguise: the old woman living alone at the edge of the village, the family man who, as the years went by, gradually retreated into a place inside himself where his wife and children couldn’t follow. Maybe these people were quietly living a life of inner solitude, a wordless faith that remained unexpressed even to themselves. Perhaps they were the unsung spiritual heroes and heroines on the way to the life of being rather than doing that so many religious traditions consider the peak of spiritual development. Or perhaps they weren’t. Maybe they were just grumpy misanthropes or dysfunctional types who couldn’t cope with the demands of relating to others. God only knows. 
It’s often forgotten that monastic communities began as groups of hermits who gathered to support each other in what was a fundamentally solitary enterprise. (‘Monastic’ comes from the Greek monos, alone.)… the experiences reported from [solitude’s] frontline seem to confirm Thams Merton’s claim that hermits are the real McCoy, more serious about getting close to God than their community-minded counterparts. It’s a view that transforms them from anti-social creatures to explorers of a realm beyond the frontiers of known religious experience, prepared to take greater risks and endure more hardship than the average person. 
Alex Klaushofer, The Secret Life of God: a journey through Britain

Living a life of interior solitude, as a Quaker or in any other religious tradition familiar in the West, is a strange and sometimes chancy business. It is easily misunderstood, as Klaushofer hints in the passage above, and it is vulnerable to the human impulse to dramatic gestures, spectacular renunciations, and other wasteful mistakes. Eve Baker wrote, on this very subject, “Dramatic gestures are easy, simple faithfulness requires more effort.”

I have been strangely blessed by a relationship in which “[a] due proportion of solitude” (Caroline E Stephen, 1908, Quaker faith & practice 22.30) is all but taken for granted. In a marriage, or any other committed relationship, each party surely owes it to the other ensure that they do have “[a] due proportion of solitude”. This is one of the greatest gifts those who live together can give each other, not only to allow each other reasonable solitude, and each gently to safeguard their own, but actively to work for a way of life that allows reasonable, loving access to times alone with “the unseen and eternal things”. It seems to me that such a journey is one to which I have not only been called, but astonishingly equipped, through no virtue of my own.

I have quoted elsewhere in full Fr Laurence Freeman’s Advent Address last year, but in this context part of it may help express what I am getting at:

The word ‘wilderness’ in Greek is eremos, an uninhabited place. This gives us the word hermit, one who lives in solitude. In meditation we are all solitaries. 
Meditation leads us into the wilderness, into a place uninhabited by thoughts, opinions, the conflicts of images and desires. It is place we long for because of the peace and purity it offers. Here we find truth. But it also terrifies us because of what we fear we will lose and of what we will find. 
The more we penetrate into the wilderness, the solitude of the heart, the more we slow down. As mental activity decreases, so time slows until the point where there is only stillness – a living and loving stillness. Here, for the first time, we can listen to silence without fear. The word emerges from this silence. It touches and becomes incarnate in us. It incarnates us making us fully embodied and real in the present. 
Only here, where we cut all communication with the noisy, jeering, fickle crowds inhabiting our minds do we see what ‘fleeing from the world’ means. What it does not mean is escapism or avoidance of responsibilities. It means to enter into solitude where we realise how fully, inescapably we are embodied and embedded in the universal web of relationships.

I am coming gradually to realise that for me, the danger of “escapism or avoidance of responsibilities” is not so much to be found in turning away from the news of politics, the agitation and conflict of social media, but in allowing myself to become caught up in them. “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” (Matthew 24.6)

I am not separate from God, ever. I could have no existence outside what is, for I am. I am intricately part of what is, and all that is is held in the ground of being, which is God. I’m more interested, as RS Thomas once said (The David Jones Journal R. S. Thomas Special Issue (Summer/Autumn 2001)) in the extraordinary nature of God. But that implies – how can it not? – the realisation that I am inextricably involved with all else, human, animal or otherwise, that is. How else could prayer work?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Jesus Prayer

Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward speaking on, and leading, the Jesus Prayer:


Beyond Redemption?

Alastair McIntosh writes, in today’s issue of The Friend,
It was the American writer James Baldwin who suggested that: ‘One of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.’ 
We sideline the pain of spiritual growth when we reduce it to questions like: ‘If there’s a God, how can “He” allow evil?’
Imagine how it would be if every time some human folly (or even cruelty) were about to happen, the ‘Great Cosmic Health and Safety Officer’ zapped it from on high. 
We would never get to feel the pain of others, or of ourselves. We would remain in spiritual infancy, devoid of empathy, unexercised by the evils of the world. For love to be free, evil has to be an option. 
Therefore, said saint Silouan of Athos: ‘Keep thy mind in hell and do not despair.’
I think that what he is saying is: fully face the brokenness of the world, but never forget that God’s not sleeping. 
It is a reminder of hope, and of deeper processes at work that might transcend our conscious ken. A reminder, too, that nothing, and no one, is ever beyond redemption.
I myself wrote recently,
These are, to say the least, difficult and puzzling times. The merest glance at the headlines will suffice to demonstrate that, and to demonstrate the further fact that the media, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.
In the face of massively publicised and widespread cruelty and injustice, violence and deceit, it is increasingly hard to avoid the current zeitgeist of taking sides, adopting entrenched positions, and demonising the “opposition”.
It is seems more and more popular to represent “the other side” as beyond redemption, and yet sometimes if we will only listen, they will shock us by their humanity and their vulnerability. Not long ago I was speaking with a prominent Tory MP and (then) cabinet minister, when he expressed his genuine grief at the assumption that he and his party were trying to punish and oppress the disabled. For a moment, real pain peeped out from behind the urbane mask of the seasoned politician, and I found my own heart grieved for him. More of these moments are scattered throughout our days, I think, than we would imagine, if only we are open to them, if only we can allow the clamour of the populist voices, and of our own assumptions and prejudices, to die away in an interior silence and openness that I have found comes only through continual prayer.

Repetitive prayer, whether a Christian practice such as the Jesus Prayer, or a Buddhist one such as the Nembutsu, has a way, eventually, of attaching itself to one’s life rhythms – the breath, the heartbeat – till it becomes an integrated part of one’s existence, drawing the heart (understood as the centre of our personal being) not away from “the outer world of sense and meanings” (Thomas R Kelly) but always towards the source of all that is.

This is not a difficult, technical exercise, nor one reserved for men of unusual and select spiritual gifts, but one for all of us, female or male, artisan or intellectual, old or young. It is so simple, whether as a side-effect of a practice such as the Nembutsu, or just to “maintain a simple attention and a fond regard for God, which I may call an actual presence of God.” (Brother Lawrence)

St Silouan the Athonite, whom Alastair McIntosh quotes, was an Eastern Orthodox monk born in Russia who travelled to Mount Athos while still only in his twenties, and lived there at St. Panteleimon Monastery as a brother until he died, in his seventies, just before the outbreak of World War II. In common with other Athonite monks, Silouan’s main form of prayer would have been the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Very early in the history of the Christian church, certainly by the 4th century, the term hesychasm, the life of silence, began to appear in the writings of scholars like John Chrysostom and Evagrius Pontikos, as well as in the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Hesychasts, as they became known, were practitioners of a tradition of contemplative prayer based on the Jesus Prayer that was available to everyone, regardless of education, ordination or formal membership of a monastic community.

The Anglican Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward writes that
This prayer is marked by a compunction and penitence. It has the sense of a kind of joyful mourning of one’s own and the world’s pitiableness. It knows our need to be rescued and saved, with tears. It is expressed in short, urgently or longingly repeated prayer directed to Jesus present in the heart, a presence to which the person praying seeks to turn his or her waking and sleeping thoughts (‘I slept but my heart was awake’, Song of Solomon 5:2) and whole life.
There is a sense of immediacy, of personal experience of the presence of God, from the very start of the hesychast tradition, that will be immediately familiar to Friends. Writing of the work of Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) Barrington-Ward goes on to say,
For Symeon, the resurrection is not only in the future. It begins here and now… He wrote out of an overwhelming encounter with the living Christ and with the Holy Spirit, through whom he claimed the resurrection of us all can occur.
By the 15th century the tradition had established itself in the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece, and was from there carried to Russia by St Nilus of Sora (Nil Sorski) where it established itself in the forest communities in the far north, which were consciously modelled after the early desert settlements in Egypt in the times of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. There the way of the hesychasts flourished right through until the years following the Russian Revolution in the early 20th century, when many of its practitioners took refuge once again on Mount Athos, some eventually, like the great writer and teacher on prayer Sophrony Sakharov, even turning up in England. It was to St. Panteleimon Monastery that many of these Russian monks came; Sophrony himself became a disciple of Silouan.

Sophrony wrote,
The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside… 
It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…
I am always reminded by this passage of Thomas R Kelly who, writing of solitary prayer, comes very close indeed to restating the hesychast tradition himself. He describes how “[the] processes of inward prayer do not grow more complex, but more simple” and he recommends using a short phrase, whether from Scripture or from one’s own imagination, and he advises, “Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.” He goes on to say,
But the time will come when verbalisation is not so imperative, and yields place to the attitudes of soul which you meant the words to express… Behind the foreground of the words continues the background of heavenly orientation, as all the currents of our being are set towards Him. Through the shimmering light of divine Presence we look out upon the world, and in its turmoil and fitfulness, we may be given to respond, in some increased measure, in ways dimly suggestive of the Son of Man… All we can say is, Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the orbit… Sometimes the prayer and this Life that flows through us reaches out to all souls with kindred vision and upholds them in his tender care. Sometimes it flows out to the world of blinded struggle, and we become cosmic Saviours, seeking all those who are lost.
[First posted on my other blog, Silent Assemblies

Saturday, August 13, 2016

More on being a Marsh-wiggle

Yesterday I wrote of the call to a kind of solitude in prayer and openness to the Spirit leading to “mov[ing] deeper into the saltmarsh of the spirit, closer to the edge of the last sea…”

I’m aware of some ambiguity here. Am I suggesting a life of physical solitude, moving away from marriage, and the companionship of Friends, to a distant shed or cabin in the woods, as some, notably Thomas Merton and Brother Ramon SSF, have done? Catherine Doherty wrote of a poustinia in the marketplace: a hermitage set among city streets, with some kind of an outreach, an “apostolate” in the Roman Catholic terminology. Is that what’s involved? I have asked myself these questions for many years, and the answer seems gradually to be emerging in a way simpler and stranger than I had imagined.

Eve Baker writes:
The desert to which the solitary is called is not a place, but something that must be there below the surface of ordinary human existence. It is nowhere, a place of thirst after God…
The disciplines of solitude will be different for everyone. Maintaining an inner cell of quiet will be a greater struggle for the person with family obligations or for those whose life involves working closely with other people… It is like having a compass in one’s hand, pointing to the true north. The busyness of life will swing the needle, but it will return again to the same direction.
I have found myself with very few family obligations, and since taking early retirement after an accident, few definite obligations to other people. But my heart is easily divided, and I far too readily fall into old patterns of treating contemplation as raids into the unknown in search of material. I have been a poet, and an improvising, occasionally composing musician; it is hard to break habits developed over many years

For me, I am coming to believe, there has to be a pattern of a very interior asceticism. As Baker writes, “Dramatic gestures are easy, simple faithfulness requires more effort.” It may be that I have to some degree to restrict my involvement in the busyness of Quaker life. Certainly I must be extremely careful of unthinking creative commitments!

Eve Baker again:
Prayer is not so much a matter of specific occasions, forms, words, but a constant orientation towards God which becomes habitual. This is the hidden life which goes on inside the external one which differs little from any other human life except for the hidden search for solitude, silence and simplicity…
I am beginning to find, all over again, the essence of the tax collector’s prayer in Luke 18.13-14, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” The more transparent one’s life becomes to the light, the more that light shows the stains, the broken edges of the heart. This is a very ordinary thing, not at all arcane. Certainly it is nothing to take credit for. The light is what it is; gradually one is laid open, that’s all, and the thing is not to take the offered baits of distraction and easy solace among familiar or shiny things.

There’s a lot I don’t understand; but the saltmarsh of the spirit lies wide along the horizon, and the wind from the sea carries the clean scent of distance.

[First posted on my other blog, Silent Assemblies]

On being a Marsh-wiggle

I have struggled for much of my life with what might be described as my calling, my primary vocation, or whatever term might better be used to describe what I am supposed to do with my “one wild and precious life”, to plunder Mary Oliver again.

I have known since childhood the power of solitude, of lonely places; and I have always been most at home alone in the grey wind, without a destination or timetable, or sitting by myself in a sunlit garden, watching the tiny velvety red mites threading their paths on a warm stone bench. I used to think it was my duty to enter that world on some kind of a quest, looking to see what I might find, what treasure I might bring back to the known world.

Eve Baker writes, in Paths in Solitude:
The solitary is the bearer of the future, of that which is not yet born, of the mystery which lies beyond the circle of lamplight or the edge of the known world. There are some who make raids into this unknown world of mystery and who come back bearing artefacts. These are the creative artists, the poets who offer us their vision of the mystery…
But a raider is not at home: his raids are fitful incursions into a land not his own, and what he sees there he sees as raw material, uncut stones he may haul back into the world of action and reward, there to be cut into poems, music. The real treasures of the hidden world are scarcely visible to a raider, nor, like Eurydice, will they survive the journey back to the known world.
Eve Baker goes on:

But there are also those who make solitude their home, who travel further into the inner desert, from which they bring back few artefacts. These are the contemplatives, those who are drawn into the heart of the mystery. Contemplatives have no function and no ministry. They are in [that] world as a fish is in the sea, to use Catherine of Siena’s phrase, as part of the mystery. That they are necessary is proved by the fact that they exist in all religious traditions. Contemplatives are not as a rule called to activity, they are useless people and therefore little understood in a world that measures everything by utility and cash value. Unlike the poet they do not return bearing artefacts, but remain in the desert, pointing to the mystery, drawing others in.

Marsh-wiggles live, in CS Lewis’ Narnia, out in the salt marshes beyond the hills and the forest, and farther still from the cities bright with trade and pageantry. Their simple homes are set well apart from one another, out on the “great flat plain” of the marshlands. Puddleglum, the marsh-wiggle we meet in The Silver Chair, comes up with, when his back is against the wall, one of the most remarkable statements of faith in Lewis’ fiction:

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all of those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones… We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia… and that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull as you say.”

Perhaps contemplatives are only kidding themselves. Perhaps they are, to take Baker’s semi-irony literally, quite useless people. But our uselessness may yet be a good deal more useful in the dark and doubt of humanity’s pain than all the utilities of the marketable world.

It seems that life as a marsh-wiggle may be closer to my own calling than I would have guessed. To move deeper into the saltmarsh of the spirit, closer to the edge of the last sea, may mean the giving up, not of love and companionship perhaps, but of many of the comfortable certainties, and the familiar tools of the raider’s life. A wiggle’s wigwam is good enough, maybe.

[Reposted from my other blog, Silent Assemblies]

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Unfolding

The other day, I wrote of unfolding – “the unfolding that is my life, and of which my death will be part.”

It seems to me that this is one clue to the old “who am I?” question. It doesn’t appear that there is a fixed “thing” that is me. I am becoming, that is all. I don’t unfold myself along the time that is given me – and it is given me, I don’t take it – but with each year and each minute I unroll like a kind of a carpet as time itself unrolls.

In myself I am no thing – though my body is an object with certain dimensions and attributes that, however they may change over time, are recognisably me – in my becoming, my unfolding, everything is gift.

In silence, I can hear myself becoming, breath by breath, and I know that there is a source beyond my physical presence, far beyond my scrabbling thoughts, from which I appear to become. Obviously, it is being. I am, so inevitably it is in the ground of that (and all) being that I am held, and unrolled, moment by moment. I cannot fall out of what is. This is so perfectly natural that it lifts away the alienation of my self from its true home, and the anxiety of what I might be. If I am so unfolded, then the unfolding itself is what I am, as is its ground. As Paul wrote, “Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3.11)

To realise this, of course, is itself a kind of death: the death of the individual me, the death of any dream of being the master of my soul. The death, in fact, of my soul itself as separate, over against an alien world. “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” said Paul in the same letter (Colossians 3.3).

This incompleteness, this lack of a separated self, is of course at the heart of the Gospel. Richard Rohr seems to suggest that it underlies what he calls “the spirituality of imperfection.” As he says,
The real moral goals of the Gospel—loving enemies, caring for the powerless, overlooking personal offenses, living simply, eschewing riches—can only be achieved through surrender and participation. These have often been ignored or minimized, even though they were clearly Jesus’ major points. We cannot take credit for these virtues; we can only thank God for them: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory because of your mercy and faithfulness” (Psalm 115:1).
The love that is our becoming shows itself as the mercy of God in all that unfolds: “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)

Our accepting our utter dependence upon and oneness with the God who gives us being is precisely the “surrender and participation” of which Rohr writes. Only this way can that mercy that Christ is flow through us, in prayer and deed, to the world’s pain.

[Reposted from my other blog, Silent Assemblies]

Saturday, July 02, 2016

The bridge of Christ in the heart's prayer...

Awakening can be enlightening and exhilarating, but the really shocking aspect comes from awakening to the fact that it will ultimately entail a death of some kind. Some part of the old familiar self must be given up and its abandonment can be as traumatic as death. On this Paul and the most reliable spiritual guides in the Christian tradition agree. It may be seen as the fruitful death of a grain of wheat, as Jesus put it, or as the death of the caterpillar on its way to becoming a butterfly, but shorn of the comforting metaphor the death of the old and familiar can hardly be anything but painful, confusing and instinctively resisted. What awaits on the other side, so to speak, is a radical change in our sense of identity, so that a genuine awakening can be recognized in the fact that after it has happened, one will give a different answer to the question, Who am I?
Frank Parkinson, quoted on the CANA site
Cynthia Bourgeault, in the opening chapter of her The Wisdom Jesus, describes an early experience of God "in golden light" as carrying with it the discovery that, "in that moment... there was something in me that knew. It didn't know what it knew, exactly, but it knew that it knew. Deeper than all the precepts that had been drilled into me in my childhood religious training, it simply recognised the voice of truth when it heard it and let go into its presence." Bourgeault's experience came to her out of her confusion and distress at the news of the impending death of a seriously ill neighbour.

I can't really imagine that, however alienated we might be from religious expectations, however estranged from what makes us human, we may not find that our longings, our terrors, our grief, at some time bring us out beyond our own ability to cope, to comprehend, even. In that, there is prayer, impossible though it may be for some of us to name it.

In God's own self, God is. I am frail, temporary, contingent. The connecting strand is God's mercy, not any act or presumption of my own.

Thomas Merton wrote, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billion points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.

There is then something that connects us, to God and to each other, and to all of creation, that Quakers describe as "that of God in everyone." The light in the eyes of another human, in the eyes of an animal, that beauty that is there in life, and which ceases so certainly in the moment of death - that is pure gift, the creature's own entire and precious isness, a little fleck of the istigkeit of God. Perhaps there are a very few in any age who know this so perfectly that they become so caught up in that shared quality of being that they are somehow more than, and yet most fully, human. Perhaps Christ is that identity newborn, a bridge where a ferry used to be. Prayer that is the heart's true voice will cause that bridge to spring into being, the indwelling Christ born within the human heart, whatever name it might know him by.

I think that inside all true prayer there is a core of silence. We may be aware of crying out to God, railing against God, imploring or denying God; and yet deep inside there is the unknowing, the contact of the speechless with the indescribable. Maybe silence is the truest prayer. The words are just our way of telling ourselves about it, however we may intend them. If God is God, then there are no secrets between us (Romans 8.26-27), and words are in the end, mere doorways into that silence, as we see so clearly in the Jesus Prayer, or in the recitation of the Rosary.

But in prayer there is also a kind of death. True prayer involves a realisation that what we long for, what we need so desperately is in the end quite beyond us. We look to ourselves, to our training and our assumptions, and we find naught for our comfort. (Perhaps those without religious experience get here sooner, which may be the thought behind Jesus' remark that there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance. (Luke 15.7)) To come to the very end of our own capacity to act or to comprehend is death indeed, and yet, as in physical death, there is more here than meets the eye.

That "point or spark" within is truly God. It goes on, indestructible and beyond time itself. In death there is nothing else, and yet nothing else is needed. To know that this, finally, is our own truest self may well be death - but in the same instant it is everlasting life, full of all the grace and joy of God, the very mercy that is indeed God. Cynthia Bourgeault again:

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.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Humility of Prayer


I agree with the statement of Ronald Knox that: 'We must accustom men’s minds to the notion that it does not matter what the politicians do, does not matter if it bishops seem to let us down. We belong to a spiritual kingdom, complete in itself, owing nothing to worldly alliances.' I do not think it means we must ignore the world, let it go to pot. As we discover more about the spiritual kingdom, which is the infinite presence of God, who is all good, fills all space, is changeless, perfect and eternal - now - we can see and experience this world in a new light. Even when my limited human mind does not perceive this I know it is so. We cannot ignore the world. It is too beautiful and too holy. How we view it, how we experience it, depends on from where we view it. 
Joyce Grenfell, In Pleasant Places, p. 171

Among all the fallout from the EU Referendum it is far too easy to forget that spiritually, things are the same as they ever were. Love, and the mercy of God, are not threatened by referendums, nor even by the heartless behaviour that some have shown in the days leading up to, and following the result. Prayer is not less necessary, but more so, and more urgently; and the outcome of prayer - generosity, kindness and healing - is the real antidote to despair, anxiety and anger. Hate is not quenched by hate, but by love; fire is not extinguished by yet hotter fire, but by the pouring out of cool water.

Our faithfulness is practiced in the little things, the daily responsibilities. In all the rush and bustle of events and circumstances, it is so easy to be distracted - to snap instead of to answer courteously, do a botched and hurried job, completely fail to notice someone else's suffering. Sometimes we chase trails of worry about the future, nostalgia or resentment about the past, leaving the present moment unattended to. We lost sight of Jesus. 'Oh, what? I thought he was with you!' [Luke 2.43ff]
Penelope Wilcock, writing in New Daylight
Prayer can only take place in the present moment: it being the opening of our hearts to God, who is eternal, there is nowhere else for it to take place but the "intersection of the timeless moment" (TS Eliot, Little Gidding). Too much public, and even private, intercessory prayer, it seems to me, is concerned with the future - even with the past. It is the conscious inhabitation of the present moment that is the special place of contemplative prayer, and in the silent prayer of the heart we can allow God access, in complete vulnerability, to all our anxieties and longings, both those of which we are aware and those hidden even from ourselves, without our attention being taken up with their recitation and their rehearsal. Then, open to "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4.7), our prayer is one with God's, and with those of our sisters and brothers who are caught up in the moment's action. It is only in the humility of prayer, hidden as it is, that the victory of Christ, the Cross, becomes our own, and through us becomes available to those for whom our prayer is prayed.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

"Sinners make the best contemplatives"

It seems strange to me sometimes how in the midst of a contented life, at last, I can find myself almost nostalgic for times when I had little, and with that little or no security. Of course in fact I am not nostalgic for the anxiety, or for the lack of so many things that are commonly thought of as necessities; what I am nostalgic for is the extraordinarily conscious closeness of God.

It's interesting to note that Jesus didn't say, "Blessed are the poor," but "Blessed are the poor in spirit." (Matthew 5.3) I don't think for a minute that there is anything ennobling or even spiritually helpful about poverty or insecurity in themselves, even if freely chosen as in a monastic setting - still less when enforced by circumstances, or by social injustice; what is significant here is the inner poverty that accompanies the acceptance of poverty (or sickness, or injustice) as from the hand of God, rather than greeting adversity with anger or self pity. The mercy and blessing of God seem to fall especially on those who depend upon nothing but God, who have nothing in themselves to depend upon, or to rely upon as a source of pride or self-esteem. It was the tax collector at the temple in Luke 18, who, standing at a distance and praying "God, have mercy on me, a sinner" who went home at peace with God, not the self-righteous Pharisee.

Laurence Freeman once wrote that "sinners make the best contemplatives." The sense of being separated, marginalised, is in itself a grace, strangely. Jesus himself said that he came (Luke 5.32) not to call the righteous, but sinners. Perhaps it is in accepting this that we open ourselves to the grace and mercy of God in Christ, regardless of our external circumstances. It is no coincidence that the classical form of the Jesus Prayer ends with the words, "a sinner." To me it seems that knowing oneself as imperfect, fallible, poor in spirit is essential to living in that mercy.

Now that it is Lent, perhaps it is only our sense of self-reliance that we need to give up. Anything else is just a reflection of that need, or a means to it.

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

Friday, January 29, 2016

A Retired Life

Not for the first time I have been struck by the power of the Jesus Prayer as a form of intercession. Paul writes in Romans 8.26-27 of how "the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God." The heart filled with the Jesus Prayer will indeed be filled with these wordless groans, with "sighs to deep for words" (NRSV).

I have sometimes struggled with the temptation to suspect that by following this path into contemplative prayer, into a kind of lay mystical life, I am in some way dodging the difficult work of, on the one hand, traditional intercessory prayer, praying through lists of people and situations, describing them in detail to God, and asking him to bring about certain resolutions; or on the other hand, dodging the difficult work of activism, protest, demonstration, civil disobedience or whatever - or at least volunteering to do Useful Things.

In Quaker Faith & Practice we read:

Those of you who are kept by age or sickness from more active work, who are living retired lives, may in your very separation have the opportunity of liberating power for others. Your prayers and thoughts go out further than you think, and as you wait in patience and in communion with God, you may be made ministers of peace and healing and be kept young in soul.
London Yearly Meeting, 1923 - Quaker Faith & Practice 21.46
I would want to add the word “calling” to the first sentence here: “kept by age, sickness or calling…” Throughout history, even in times of great social need, the calling to a retired life of prayer and contemplation has been recognised. Julian of Norwich, for instance, lived during the time of the Black Death that swept Europe in the Middle Ages, yet seems to have lived out much of her life as an anchoress, devoted to prayer, contemplation, writing, and probably what we would call these days counselling, or spiritual direction.

Simon Barrington-Ward writes of St. Silouan:
...he began to recognise that [his sense of darkness and isolation] was in part the oppression of the absence of the sense of God and the alienation from his love over the whole face of the globe. He had been called to undergo this travail himself not on account of his own sin any more, but that he might enter into the darkness of separated humanity and tormented nature and, through his ceaseless prayer, be made by God's grace alone into a means of bringing that grace to bear on the tragic circumstances of his time. He was praying and living through the time of World War I and the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of all that led to the Holocaust [not to mention the Russian Revolution, and at the very end of his life, Stalin's Great Purge]. And with all this awareness of pain and sorrow, he was also given a great serenity and peacefulness and goodness about his, which profoundly impressed those who know him.

For all of us in our lesser ways, the Jesus Prayer, as well as bringing us into something of this kind of alternation which St. Silouan so strikingly experienced, also leads us on with him into an ever-deepening peace. You can understand how those who first taught and practiced this kind of prayer were first called "hesychasts": people of hesychia or stillness.
Of course all this is by grace, entirely by grace, God's life and presence given to us freely in Christ. We are called into this. I honestly don't think we could choose these things for ourselves. Even if we could, they would fall into disuse by our own inertia. We would become bored with the Prayer, terrified by the darkness and the identification with the pain and alienation of the world. Why would we choose such a path, hidden as it is too, mute and inglorious?

Barrington-Ward again:
After all, the whole prayer becomes an intercession. Soon I find that I am on longer praying just for myself, but when I say "on me, a sinner" all the situations of grief and terror, of pain and suffering begin to be drawn into me and I into them. I begin to pray as a fragment of this wounded creation longing for its release into fulfillment... I am in those for whom I would pray and they are in me, as is the whole universe. Every petition of the prayer becomes a bringing of all into the presence and love of God...
What is required here has to be a retired life, given for the greater part to prayer and silence. How this will work out in each of our lives cannot be prescribed. It will have to be worked out with fear and trembling, in the mercy of the Prayer itself, and it will probably look quite different for each of us. I think we have, if we find ourselves called to the Jesus Prayer and the life that is lived within its practice, to be prepared to walk into the dark, as it were, unknowing, and see how things work out. The path may be quite straightforward; or it may be quite scandalously tangled and broken. That is not for us to choose. All we have to do is walk in it, I think.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Spring of Tears

Once we find ourselves on the way of the Jesus Prayer, we discover that it is not by any means a comfortable shortcut, a way out of confronting the pain and emptiness of the world. As we begin to travel this path, to pray the Prayer consistently, we find that we become more and more aware of our own pain, and the darkness that lies within our own hearts. To cry out continually, "have mercy on me, a sinner", as did the tax-collector in Luke 18.10-14, breaks down the defences we have built up against looking directly at ourselves in the clear mirror of repentance.

We in the West have generally grown up thinking of sin as committing acts contrary to some kind of code, or list, of Bad Things that must not be done. But the Desert Mothers and Fathers don't seem to have looked at sin like this at all. The Greek word used for sin, αμαρτία - amartia, apparently means something much more like "missing the mark" than "doing bad stuff", as does the equivalent Hebrew term, syn. Irma Zaleski says, "They were thinking of the condition of those who are... not centred rightly, who are not in the right relationship with God. The root of sin - the ground from which all individual sins spring - is our alienation from God. Repentance, then, should not be... viewed primarily... in terms of guilt - of punishment and repayment - but in terms of metanoia: a Greek word meaning "conversion"... turning away from ourselves and recentring ourselves on God."

If we can get past the musty atmosphere of "owning up" which we have come to associate with repentance, and see it as taking an accurate view of ourselves in relation to God, and in relation to what we ourselves could be were we only open to love God as God loves us, then we begin to see that there really is very little difference between us and anyone - anyone - else. The seeds of cruelty and selfishness are sown deeply in all our hearts, and we cannot stand in judgement over another, no matter what they have done. This is hard, not only to identify with the pain of the victims, but with the cruelty of the victors and the perpetrators of darkness.

Zaleski again:
The way of the Jesus Prayer has been called "white martyrdom." It is the way of the Cross, because there is no greater pain than to stand in the total poverty of our human weakness, to see clearly our misery, our inability to be good. The temptation to judge ourselves, to hate ourselves, would be irresistible if we did not know and had not experienced the merciful, healing power of Jesus. 
But, because we have met Christ and have experienced his compassionate, loving presence, we can surrender all judgement to him and be at peace. We can accept ourselves as we are. We can love ourselves and also love others. Because we have discovered that the judgement of Christ is not the judgement of an inquisitor or a tyrant but of a Good Physician, we are able to go to him and show him all the bleeding, cancerous places of our bodies and souls - not so he may punish us, but so he may heal us.
The longer we go on walking in the way of the Prayer, the more clearly we realise that the gulf we have discovered separating us from God is the same gulf that separates our neighbours from God, and the longing for God that leads us onwards is the same longing, the same sense of incompleteness, of - as the existentialists termed it - alienation, that drives the restless and destructive addictions of humanity.

Once realised, once seen for what it is in the bright Light that the Spirit shines into our deepest hearts, this sadness of separation - the core of true repentance - becomes a spring of tears, welling up for ourselves and for all people. It may be sadness, but it is what St John Climacus called "a bright sadness". And we see that our separation is not different from that separation of anyone, and that our prayer for mercy, for union, for reintegration with God, carries with it the love, and the pain, that God has somehow through all this given us for all who suffer, human or otherwise, pain and separation. Our praying of the Jesus Prayer has become in itself intercession: as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote: "[Christ] is able for all time to save completely those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them." (Hebrews 7.25)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Way of a Beggar

This blog, over the ten years or so it has been up, has been very much about the Jesus Prayer. Irma Zaleski wrote that the Jesus Prayer is not a means of discursive meditation on Christ, nor a path to some "higher" level of prayer or spirituality, but rather the way of a beggar.

Since I was introduced to the Prayer by Fr Francis Horner SSM back in 1978, it has proved to be so for me. Not having been brought up a Christian, but in fact to distrust and avoid the church, it took me a long time to surrender to the insistence of the Holy Spirit. Fr Francis had the inspired - literally, I think - idea not so much to teach me the Jesus Prayer, but merely to give me a copy Per Olof Sjögren's little book on the Prayer, and to answer the questions I raised on reading it during the time I stayed at Willen Priory.

In the years since that summer at Willen I have rattled about the church a bit, finding it difficult to settle down, despite the trust that has too often been placed in me, but by God's grace the Prayer has kept hold of me, and I have practiced it more or less (often less) faithfully all that time. The Prayer is the way of a beggar indeed. It lays no claim to anything, but merely asks for mercy, as did the tax collector at the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 18:9-14). Nothing more. Unlike the Pharisee, who runs through his spiritual resumé as he stands before the Lord, the tax collector won't even raise his eyes to heaven, but simply prays, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" By the time the Jesus Prayer had become a regular form of prayer in the Egyptian desert in the early Christian centuries, it had become, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Irma Zaleski continues:
To call upon the name of Jesus so often, so insistently, is to knock again and again at the door of our own hearts: "the room within." This is the deepest centre of our being, where Christ lives, an essential fact of our faith that we often forget. In praying this prayer, we remember that Christ has always been there and will never leave us, no matter what we have done, no matter how greatly we have sinned. The Jesus Prayer is, for those who embrace it, a true, healing expression of our relationship with Christ.
"That of God" within us each, the indwelling Christ, reminds me of the way that the sun strikes a blade of grass very early in the morning, and each dew-drop sparkles with the purest light. That light is really sunlight, no matter how tiny the dew-drop; small as it is, fragile, imperfect and soon to evaporate, yet it holds for a moment the true light, to return it, as best it can, faithfully to the watching eye.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Field Theory

I have written often enough on my struggle with wanting to know "how things work"; and, Christian theology being replete with explanations of how, and why, prayer is supposed to work, I have sometimes struggled with how such often mechanistic views might mesh with my actual experience of prayer - which is, as far as it goes, anything but mechanistic.

Cynthia Bourgeault comes closer than anyone I've read to offering an explanation which might be both intellectually credible and sufficiently close to anything I've actually encountered in prayer to begin to make sense to me. She writes:
Only recently have we Christians begun to feel even vaguely comfortable talking about things... at the level of spiritual energy. The problem, essentially, as we approach this important issue of contemplative prayer and compassionate action is that we are working with an outgrown metaphysics. You could say that we are still using a Newtonian theology in a quantum universe. While science has long since acclimated to thinking of matter and energy as one continuous field, in out older theological categories we still keep matter and energy rigidly separate - and God the most separate of all. Body and spirit are different. Creator and creature are different. We still do not know, apart from calling it pantheism, how to talk about God being in all things; how to speak of the substance (not merely the image) of divine life coursing through both the visible and the invisible in one continuous revelation of divine love. We keep trying to express a vision of unity within a metaphysics of separateness. What is needed is a "quantum" leap forward into a new way of seeing... so that we no longer focus on the separate things, but stare directly into the energy field that contains them all - that great "electromagnetic field of love" as Kabir Helminski called it...
...I have tried to suggest a new way of picturing hope. In this new positioning, the underlying sense of corporateness is physically real, for that "electromagnetic field of love" is the Mercy - and the Mercy is the body of Christ. Through this body hope circulates as a lifeblood. It warms, it fills, it connects, it directs. It is the heart of our own life and the heart of all that lives.
Hope's home is at the innermost point in us, and in all things. It is a quality of aliveness. It does not come at the end, as the feeling that results from a happy outcome. Rather, it lies at the beginning, as a pulse of truth that sends us forth... It is entered always and only through surrender...

Anything, it seems, that acts within this field has the possibility - perhaps the inevitability - to affect all that lives and moves and has its being within that same field. Our prayer, then, is not a request to some distant, separated ruler for his magical intervention, nor an act of mere self-hypnosis in order to give us the impulse to behave as we believe to be right, but a real and effective ripple in the conjoined skein of all that is, the membrane of "all that is made", as the hazelnut rests at peace in the hand of Christ.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

An Odd Occupation

Contemplative prayer is an odd occupation. Thomas Merton described it as a sinking down into the depths of one's being, into the "hidden ground of love". In those who find themselves called to contemplative prayer, there appears to be a sort of magnetic pull towards this: not to some kind of personal improvement, a sort of perfected selfhood, but to the Ground of Being itself - to God.

Compared, too, with "utilitarian" concepts of social justice or of evangelism - the greatest numbers of hungry fed, poor clothed, ears filled with the Gospel - the contemplative life seems an unlikely calling. But we must not forget that all through the years of World War II exiled Russian monks (among them Archimandrite Sophrony) prayed in the monasteries and caves of Mount Athos, and during her years in a Soviet labour camp Irina Ratushinskaya wrote poems on bars of soap with the burnt end of a matchstick, committing them to memory before she washed away the evidence.

The closer we find ourselves drawn to God, to the inexhaustible mercy that is at the heart of being itself, in-ness (Eckhart's istigkeit), the more that love comes to fill us, setting gently aside our self-concern, till we come to "[be] 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" (Michael Ramsey). That is the intercessory dimension of our contemplative prayer, not intercession in the sense of asking for things, but in the sense of being with.

In prayer, time flattens out into presence. It is as though we could stand on a high place watching someone complete a journey on the plain below: we can see the place where their trip began; we can see their destination; and we can see the dot of their vehicle, a tiny model travelling that dusty road across the open land. For them, there is a succession of times: departure; driving; arrival. But for us there is only now, containing the journey whole and present, time realised as space, complete in itself. Within this space that is Mercy itself, all our histories, as Cynthia Bourgeault points out, "past, present and future, all our hopes and dreams, are already contained and, mysteriously, already fulfilled." She goes on:
The great mystics have named this as the heart of the Mercy of God: the intuition that the entire rainbow of times and colours, of past and future, of individual paths through history, is all contained - flows out of and back into - that great white light of the simple loving presence of God. Alpha and Omega, beginning and end. And in that Mercy all our history - our possible pasts and possible futures, our lost loved ones and children never born - is contained and fulfilled in a wholeness of love from which nothing can ever possibly be lost.
To hold such a vision in our hearts, together with those for whom our hearts are simultaneously broken - the poor, the lost, the weary and the sick, the victims and the perpetrators of cruelty, human or otherwise - is surely a calling to be grateful for, even if it is a hidden and a little-known vocation. For me at any rate, it is the best definition of prayer I know.

Sailing in the Fog (a reblog)

In her small book Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God, Cynthia Bourgeault quotes Dom Bede Griffiths as saying that there are three "pathways to the centre" the "innermost ground of our being where we meet and are met by God": near-death experience, falling desperately in love, and meditation. She speaks of the "visceral remembrance of how vivid and abundant life is when the sense of separateness has dropped away”, but goes on to describe meditation as "go[ing] down to the same place, but by a back staircase deep within [our] own being."

Bourgeault, a little further on in her book than the Bede Griffiths quote, mentions the experience of sailing in the fog off the coast of Maine, and realising (as I have myself when I was young and spent time messing about in boats) that in the absence of a clear sight of one's landfall other senses develop: the smell of land, the sound, and the feel beneath one's feet, of the waves' shortening and quickening near the shore. She draws a parallel with the spiritual life:

If egoic thinking [normal, everyday consciousness] is like sailing by reference to where you are not—by what is out there and up ahead—spiritual awareness is like sailing by reference to where you are. It is a way of "thinking" at a much more visceral level of yourself—responding to subtle intimations of presence too delicate to to pick up at your normal level of awareness, but which emerge like a sea swell from the ground of your being once you relax and allow yourself to belong deeply to the picture.

Bourgeault goes on to describe meditation (she is using the word to describe Christian contemplation, whether by centring prayer, the Jesus Prayer, or another similar method) as, once it is driven by "the yearning for truth [having] become… overwhelming in us, and we have the sense that everything done in the ordinary way of consciousness merely ends in lies and disillusionment", wagering everything on the trust that there is this other sense in us, "that knows how to sail in the fog, see in the dark."

We are so used, especially in our goal-oriented society, even among Friends all too often, to knowing, with our surface reasoning, where we are going and why, that sailing in the fog can seem like a fruitless, even foolhardy endeavour. But where we are going, if we truly are "yearning for truth", cannot be found with binoculars, in the sunlight. There are so-called charts, but they are scribbles, like The Cloud of Unknowing, on the backs of envelopes, 'x' marks the spot on a scrap of salt-stained parchment, and in any case the sands have shifted over the long years and their tides. (I was amused to see, on Thesaurus.com, that one the antonyms listed for "reasoning" was "truth"!)

I have been growing used to sailing in the fog, sneaking down the back stairs of my mind. Sometimes I find it hard to start writing prose when I have been drifting like a seabird in the haar. Listen, the waves do change near landfall. Listen, you can smell the trees, the damp earth. But you must be very quiet, and stop straining your eyes in the mist.


[Reblogged, slightly edited, from a post a year ago, on my blog Silent Assemblies]

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Hope against Hope?

In her luminous little book Mystical Hope, Cynthia Bourgeault writes of the difference between the mystical hope of her title and the standard, upbeat product that is tied to outcome: "I hope I get the job." "I hope they have a good time on holiday." "I hope Jill finds her cat." "I hope the biopsy is clear..." If we are dependent on "regular hope", she asks, where does that leave us when it turns out to be cancer, when our friends disappear on their holiday in the Andes?

Bourgeault goes on point out that there seems to be quite another kind of hope "that is a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at things. Beneath the 'upbeat' kind of hope that parts the sea and pulls rabbits out of hats, this other hope weaves its way as a quiet, even ironic counterpoint." She goes on to quote the prophet Habakkuk, who at the end of a long passage of calamity and grief, suddenly breaks into song:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
   and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
   and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
   and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
   he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
   and makes me tread upon the heights. 
(Habakkuk 3.17-19)

Here is a hope that in no way depends upon outcomes; a hope that lifts us up in spite of the worst, that leads us, with Job, closer to God the more "hopeless" the circumstances. It can be found too in the writings of William Leddra, Corrie ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Irina Ratushinskaya... But how? Where could such a hope come from, that sings even in the mouth of the furnace?

Cynthia Bourgeault suggests three observations we might make about this seemingly indestructible hope, which she calls mystical hope:


  1. Mystical hope is not tied to a good outcome, to the future. It lives a life of its own, seemingly without reference to external circumstances and conditions.
  2. It has something to do with presence - not a future good outcome, but the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by something intimately at hand.
  3. It bears fruit within us at the psychological level in the sensations of strength, joy, and satisfaction: an "unbearable lightness of being." But mysteriously, rather than deriving these gifts from outward expectations being met, it seems to produce them from within.
Bourgeault remarks that one more quality might be added to the characteristics of mystical hope: that it is in some sense atemporal - out of time. "For some reason or another," she says, "the experience pulls us out of the linear stream of hours and days... and imbues the moment we are actually in with an unexpected vividness and fullness. It is as if we had been transported, for the duration, into a wider field of presence, a direct encounter with Being itself."

Thomas Merton (whom Cynthia Bourgeault also quotes here) writes:

At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.
As Cynthia Bourgeault recognises, this awareness, whether sudden or gradual, of the "last, irreducible, secret center of the heart where God alone penetrates" (Mansur al-Hallaj) may come out of a clear blue sky as well as out of the storm. But perhaps I might be permitted to make a small observation from my own experience: it seems to be in times of absolute inner poverty, when almost all worldly satisfactions and securities have been withdrawn by pain and circumstance, when realistically there is no hope at all of the upbeat variety left, that these moments of clarity and presence most often manifest. Perhaps this is the sheer mercy of God coming to us when there is nothing else left to us, but there does seem to be one other factor involved here, and to me it seems to be crucial to understand this. Regular, faithful practice appears to be in some way essential. Now please hear me: I am not saying that practice will put us in control these moments of illumination - they are pure grace - nor that practice will somehow bring them about. But practice will open our hearts to their possibility; it will dim the incessant clamour of thought and grasping, to the point where we can glimpse the initial glimmer of that inner light, and stand still and watch.

Another point occurs to me. If we look at what I have just written about inner poverty, and the lack of satisfaction and security, and about pain and straitened circumstances, one has almost a recipe for classical asceticism, for hair shirts, hunger and scourging, for enforced celibacy and for the enclosed life. This is, it seems to me, to misunderstand the mercy of God. It may very well be that God grants to those who have nothing else to look forward to but pain and lack, these radiant glimpses of glory, but to attempt to force God's hand by artificially producing the external conditions of divorce, disability or the concentration camp seems to me to be foolishness, to put it as charitably as I am able. But practice, the "white martyrdom" of faithful and unremitting prayer, is another matter entirely, one where the Jesus Prayer, "hallowed by two millennia of Christian practice... consistently singled out... as the most powerful prayer a Christian can pray" (Bourgeault, op cit.), seems perfectly fitted to our path, not only as a means of hesychasm, of stilling the heart, but simply as a prayer:

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

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov)

The news from around the world is strange and disturbing, as so often recently: the atrocities of Daesh in Syria, the Lebanon and now Turkey, the appalling behaviour of G4S staff in our own country, further discoveries of climate change. It is hard to know how to pray in the face of such a torrent of bad news, when the heart contracts with grief and helplessness, and sleep seems far off... Yet if ever we are called to prayer, surely it is in times like this.

Very often we when we hear these words “call to prayer” we are tempted to understand them in a very direct intercessory sense. We think of “claiming”, “rebuking”, “pronouncing the judgements of God”; and if like me we are called to a very different way of prayer, we conclude that the call, if call it is, can’t be addressed to us.

Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov lived through the years of the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Cold War. A Russian, he prayed in community at Mount Athos, and later at The Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, England, and like most Orthodox religious, he was a contemplative. Sophrony wrote, and taught, on the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and it was to this practice that his life was given.

I feel that we all sometimes - and I am one of the worst - have far too narrow a sense of what prayer is. Paul wrote, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And 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.” (Romans 8.26-27)

We cannot, humanly, know how to pray in the direct, petitionary sense under these - or many - circumstances. Coming before God with our list of demands, and our advice on how best to fulfil them, simply won't do, given the extraordinary complexity of world events, and the limited nature of the human mind. Sophrony understood this. He wrote, "Sometimes prayer seems to flag, and we cry, 'Make haste unto me, O God' (Ps. 70.5). But if we do not let go of the hem of his garment, help will come. It is vital to dwell in prayer in order to counteract the persistently destructive influence of the outside world." (His Life Is Mine p.64)

I notice that Archimandrite Sophrony's His Life Is Mine is back in print from St Vladimir's Seminary Press, and available on Amazon. I'm delighted to see this, as Sophrony was one of the most useful writers on the Jesus Prayer in modern times. Below are a few passages I've collected that seem to speak to our condition:

Real prayer, of course, does not come readily. It is no simple matter to preserve inspiration while surrounded by the icy waters of the world that does not pray...

Of all approaches to God prayer is the best and in the last analysis the only means. In the act of prayer the human mind finds its noblest expressions. The mental state of the scientist engaged in research, of the artist creating a work of art, of the thinker wrapped up in philosophy - even of professional theologians propounding their doctrines - cannot be compared to that of the man of prayer brought face to face with the living God. Each and every kind of mental activity presents less of a strain than prayer. We may be capable if working for ten or twelve hours on end but a few moments of prayer and we are exhausted.

Prayer can accomplish all things. It is possible for any of us lacking in natural talent to obtain through prayer supranatural gifts. Where we encounter a deficiency of rational knowledge we should do well to remember that prayer, independently of man's intellectual capacity, can bring a higher form of cognition. There is the province of reflex consciousness, of demonstrative argument; and there is the province where prayer is the passageway to direct contemplation of divine truth...

Prayer offered to God is imperishable. Now and then we may forget what we have prayed about but God preserves our prayer for ever...

When it is given to man to know the overriding value of prayer as compared with any other activity, be it in the field of science, the arts, medicine or social or political work, it is not difficult to sacrifice material well-being for the sake of leisure to converse with God. It is a great privilege to be able to let one’s mind dwell on the everlasting, which is above all the most splendid achievements of science, philosophy, the arts and so on. At first the struggle to acquire this privilege may seem disproportionately hard; though in many cases known to me the pursuit of freedom for prayer becomes imperative...

Intense prayer can so transport both heart and mind, in their urgent desire for the eternal, that the past fades into oblivion and there is no thought of any earthly future - the whole inner attention is concentrated on... God. It is a fact that that the more urgent our quest for the infinite, the more slowly we seem to advance. The overwhelming contrast between our own nothingness and the inscrutable majesty of the God Whom we seek makes it impossible to judge with any certainty whether we are moving forward or sliding back. In his contemplation of the holiness and humility of God, man’s spiritual understanding develops more quickly than does his ability to harmonise his conduct with God’s word. Hence the impression that the distance separating him from God continually increases... Prayer becomes a wordless cry, and regret for the distance separating him from God turns to acute grief...

The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside...

It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in - we know the power of true prayer...