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.

6 comments:

  1. In Luke 6:20 it is the poor who are blessed, no mention of the poor in spirit.Can Luke and Matthew both be right? Why not.To take a synonym - the 'humble' can be poor in worldly things or they can be modest and unassuming. Neither is necessarily by choice, the former is by circumstance, the latter by personality. I'm inclined to think that Jesus meant both and neither in whatever it was that he actually said, and that the well-fed un-humble likes of us should be careful when we pronounce on what he meant.
    cheers
    Peter S

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  2. Thank you for this, Peter.

    The point about Luke's reading here is well made. I think that if you reread my post, though, you'll see that I do mention being blessed at a time when I was (at least for someone living in England) materially poor, and certainly without much security at all. But it was "the extraordinarily conscious closeness of God" which brought the blessing, not the lack of money or security, and that came about through my acceptance, in silence, of the situation as being through, or at least in, the hand of God - see Romans 8.28. There were people I knew then in similar situations to myself who were decidedly not blessed; they greeted their situation with anger, self-pity or political cynicism, and that is the point I was trying to make. It's not the financial and social poverty that is the vector of blessing, but the poverty of spirit that may or may not accompany it.

    I don't know whether Matthew is recording a different occasion to Luke's - I'm sure Jesus re-used his best bits, like any preacher - or whether his source remembered differently to Matthew's, or whether he embroidered the recollection, but the instinct is right. I don't intend to pronounce on what Jesus himself intended, I think, so much as to bear witness to what I experienced then, and have experienced under very different outward circumstances in later years.

    All the best

    Mike

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  3. On the other hand, while one can accept for oneself voluntary poverty, if one is articulate one has a responsibility (it seems to me) to advocate for others who have been tossed under the wheels of the system (as Jesus himself may have been doing).

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  4. I absolutely agree, Barb, and thanks for saying so. Accepting one's own situation, be it voluntary or involuntary, in no way absolves us from doing whatever we can, whether in prayer, words or action, it seems to me.

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  5. As member of the the Manchester Julian group I am happy to align myuself with the idea that sinners make the best contemplatives. My comment on Facebook arose from my experince as a member of Central Manchester Local Quaker Meeting where Friends rarely talk about prayer or the Chrstian Hope. Although Michael Birket (page 42 of Silene and Witness - The Quaker Tradition.2004, London, Darton Longman Todd) speaks of Friends using both kataphatic and apophatic prayer to centre down, I find that these are unfamiliar and puzzling adjectives and, like accounts, sadly a big turn off for local Friends.

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    1. It's interesting, isn't it, how familiar Friends are with the actual practice of Meeting for Worship, yet are often unfamiliar with the much longer Christian contemplative tradition within which it (sometimes uneasily!) sits.

      There's a good, plain-speaking article on the difference between kataphatic and apophatic prayer here which might demystify it for a few...

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