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.


  1. Anonymous8:59 am

    On the question of 'doing Useful Things' it is also useful perhaps to remember the words of somebody, a very traditionalist kind of Catholic, who said that 'it is the task of a Christian to leave the world a better person, not to leave the world a better place'. These words are unlikely to be accepted by most people today, and seem to illustrate the chasm that exists between the active and contemplative vocations, the contemplative being something that many people find difficult to fathom. Is this because, as Wittgenstein once complained, the 'world is now wrapped in cellophane' thus dimming our awareness of the spiritual realm?

    We should also bear in mind that a naive, ill-judged attempt to do good, however well intentioned, is unlikely to bear fruit, or may have catastrophic effects. Rather like being treated for a serious disease by an enthusiastic but inexperienced medical student. 'Skill in means', to borrow a Buddhist term, is required, and is something that takes a little (or a long) time to acquire.

    Though contemplatives may castigate themselves quite frequently for appearing to do nothing, it is again an article of faith among those with a more old-fashioned view of religion that prayer, of whatever type, has its own mysterious power to do good in the world, which can never be 'proved', according to the rather superficial reasoning demanded of a scientific age, but may be just as important, in the scheme of things, as good works of a more obvious variety.

    1. Strong and encouraging words - thank you! I am reminded:

      More things are wrought by prayer
      Than this world dreams of -
      For so the whole round earth is every way
      Bound by gold chains about the feet of God…