Thursday, June 29, 2017

It is Enough

Sometimes when I attempt to explain the practice of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, especially to Friends, someone will react along the lines of, “Oh, I hate this morbid preoccupation with sins! Surely we all need more self-esteem, not less?”

Now, while of course I sympathise with the bruised heart demanding comfort, not condemnation, I think this objection is an understandable misunderstanding. In the original Greek, as taught in the Philokalia onwards, the word for sinner is ἁμαρτωλόν (hamartolón) – a word which is not, in the Eastern Orthodox context, chiefly concerned with transgressing one of a list of Naughty Things, but with the sense of failing to be what one might be, of missing the mark. And this is a sense of sin to which I can all too readily relate!


Sin in the Orthodox Christian understanding is “missing the mark” (the literal meaning of the Greek word for sin, hamartia), falling short of the glorious purpose for which God created mankind. It is also understood as separation from God, since intimate communion with God is the normal state of mankind from which most people have fallen. Sin is imperfection, anything which fails to live up to the fullness of life in Christ for which man was created.

The Bible sometimes uses legal metaphors to refer to sin, likening it to crime, that is, crime against God's law. For Orthodox Christianity, while making use of legal imagery, the more dominant imagery used for sin is also drawn from Scripture, and that is that sin is a kind of disease, an affliction for which salvation is the cure.




In Pure Land Buddhism there is a useful, rather delightful term, bombu nature. Attractive though the word may be, the concept is a relentlessly honest summing-up of the human condition. Kaspalita Thompson writes:


Recognising our bombu nature is a hard thing to do – it means really looking at what motivates our actions, and how we are compelled by greed, and hate and delusion. It means noticing when all the stuff we have pushed into our long black bag [in Jungian terms, our shadow] starts to leak out and taking responsibility for for that, and it sometimes means looking into the long bag itself and seeing what is there, in the darkest places of our psyche.


Any form of contemplative prayer will bring us face to face with this imperfect, often broken, nature that is ours by dint of simply being human. Mother Mary Clare SLG discusses this at length in her book Encountering the Depths (SLG Press 1981). She says,


When we are not attentive listeners it is not only our own personal relationship with God that will be diminished, but even possibly the direct communication between God and another person. Our dissipation of mind, instability and lack of courage to face ourselves, or to be vulnerable to others, frustrates God’s intention that our prayer be a clear pathway to the discernment of the needs of each other.


The most difficult and decisive part of prayer is acquiring this ability to listen…


In prayer, as in all our lives, we are in need of God’s mercy. If we are honest, our imperfection, our incompleteness, somehow, is at the root of who we are. When we pray, “have mercy on me, a sinner”, we are not striking a pose, nor beating ourselves up for masturbating or eating chocolate. We are simply being realistic. In her TED talk The Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown says,


This is what I have found: To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen ... to love with our whole hearts, even though there's no guarantee -- and that's really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that's excruciatingly difficult -- to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we're wondering, "Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?" just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, "I'm just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I'm alive." And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we're enough.

And strangely, this is what accepting ourselves as hamartolón, this is what accepting our bombu nature, accepting ourselves as above all in need of mercy comes down to. We are enough, because we are loved by God. We are enough because we rest in the ground of being, incomplete as we are; because we have been given the grace to know our need of mercy, and to ask for it. It is enough.

[Also published on Silent Assemblies]

Saturday, June 24, 2017

On Common Ground

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

2 Corinthians 4.16-18 NRSV

Words are odd and slippery things. We need them to communicate, obviously, and we actually seem to need them to think. The discipline of psycholinguistics is all about this, which I find fascinating. (It’s one of those subjects which, had I another couple of lifetimes to hand, I might like to study formally.) It seems that words – language – are deeply embedded in the structure not only of our thinking minds, but of our physical brain. Perhaps it is not surprising that, since we are in some way made “in the image of God”, there should be in the very pattern of our making something to correspond, like a tiny model almost, with the opening words of St. John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

John 1.1-3 NRSV

Of course this has, at least potentially, profound implications for how we read Scripture. We are not to read it like a set of instructions for, say, a washing machine. God is not telling us to do all the things the people in the Bible thought he might, throughout the long history of the people of Israel and beyond, be telling them to do.

One of the great tragedies and errors of the way people have understood the Bible has been the assumption that what people did in the Old Testament must have been right ‘because it’s in the Bible’. It has justified violence, enslavement, abuse and suppression of women, murderous prejudice against gay people; it has justified all manner of things we now cannot but as Christians regard as evil. But they are not there in the Bible because God is telling us, ‘That’s good.’ They are there because God is telling us, ‘You need to know that this is how some people responded. You need to know that when I speak to human beings things can go very wrong as well as very wonderfully.’ God tells us, ‘You need to know that when I speak, it isn’t always simple to hear, because of what human beings are like.’

Rowan Williams, Being Christian

We are capable, though, of hearing. There is something in us that responds directly, at a level somehow other than conscious reasoning, to these words of Scripture, this Word, in a way that actually doesn’t seem to occur in the same manner with other texts. This is seen most clearly in the practice of Lectio Divina. (The Wikipedia article here is very well worth reading.) The reader moves through the stages of Lectio, reading, meditation (in the sense of “pondering”), prayer and contemplation, of which last the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Contemplative prayer is silence, the “symbol of the world to come” or “silent love.” Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love. In this silence, unbearable to the “outer” man, the Father speaks to us his incarnate Word, who suffered, died, and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus.

There is something going on here far more than meets the eye. We are dealing with things we cannot really understand, though we may touch them by faith. Jennifer Kavanagh writes:

Faith is not about certainty, but about trust… Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience.


So by the presence of the Word, words become experience. Something happens, far down perhaps in the nature of being human, that corresponds to the nature of being itself. We may see and understand not more than temporary things; but there is that in us that responds to, resonates with, “what cannot be seen” – and here God meets us on common ground at last.

Friday, June 23, 2017

A Pillar of Cloud

I have not posted here for longer than usual. As I wrote back in April, I have been caught somehow between worlds. Mother Mary Clare SLG wrote, in Encountering the Depths (SLG Press, 1981):

In the life of prayer, the process of re-orientation of ourselves towards God, we have to learn how to acknowledge that we are sinners; not by emotional self-deprecation, nor by psychoanalysis, though this may be a necessary way towards true self-knowledge, but by looking towards God with hands empty and open to receive his mercy. He will then lead us on to the next thing he has in store for us. In prayer, that is to say, in true theology of living, repentance does not mean misery, but genuine conversion of heart…

If we really want to pray, we have to give time to learning its lessons. We are free to love, and every moment of the day is God’s good time. We must be realistic, and give ourselves time to realise what we are truly seeking. Perhaps we all tend to worry too much about ourselves in prayer…

I have discovered increasingly how much I need community; not just a loose association of people who have come to live not far from each other, but the Eucharistic community that is the church. My life, outwardly at least, has been marked by wandering and change; I have not stayed long with many of the communities I have found myself part of. The one constant has been the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and in a sense all the turns and apparent blind alleys of my journey have been its outworkings. Certainly, it has been at times of crisis that I have been most aware of clinging to the Prayer as to a life raft, to carry me through the waves – but even, perhaps especially, the Jesus Prayer is a prayer quite explicitly prayed in the understanding that the pray-er is a member of a community of faith. For me, increasingly, there is more than meets the eye in this community thing.

If we take away from our awareness of our lives as lived in the long shadow of the New Testament, anything to explain what it is so many Christian communities do each Sunday, it seems to me we should take something like this (adapted from a post here back in 2008):

We Christians are a Eucharistic community. Jesus was born of a woman, a real, live, flesh and blood woman, and though he died, rose, and underwent the transformation of the Ascension, he remains real, live, flesh and blood, and Saviour. He gave us a concrete, physical Eucharist of bread and wine, not only to remember that, but to actually make our relationship with him, and our relationship with each other and sisters and brothers in him, real. We eat his flesh and drink his blood; he becomes, by the ordinary process of digestion, our own flesh and blood. We are what we eat.

We can only give the material world back its power when we realise that we are a Eucharistic community, in literal, living, breathing fact, and not as an abstraction. Otherwise we risk becoming to ourselves ghosts, living in a world of concepts and categories: how then can we treat anyone, or any part of creation, with respect, let alone reverence?

During our increasingly frequent periods here on the Isle of Wight, we have, more often than not, worshipped at one or another of our local Anglican churches, rather than driving across the Island to the one Quaker meeting in Newport; and taking part, with something approaching regularity, in the familiar rite of the Eucharist, is reminding me of these old insights. It is all too easy for me, at any rate, to “worry too much about [myself] in prayer” – but to lose myself in these accustomed patterns is another kind of homecoming. What matters to me, increasingly, is to be part of a community which takes seriously its life as a laboratory of the spirit, its sense of being a place where the long responsibilities of prayer are made real in the life of a place and of a people. That this may at times be centred in a form of words, and of definite actions, sometimes makes things simpler, strangely. Perhaps allowing this to be for me what it is, is another kind of repentance, understood as “waking up to the true reality of our condition before God and responding to this grace by returning – not just once, but again and again – to the path of holiness.” (Zaleski, op cit.)

When we pray the Jesus Prayer as a way of coming into the Presence of God, we should not forget that it is not always an easy or painless way. We cannot approach the infinite clarity, truth and power of God without becoming aware of the abyss that separates us. This is why, in the understanding of many of its early teachers, we cannot really undertake to practise the Jesus Prayer seriously unless we first realise our own poverty and our need of God’s mercy and are willing to ask for it ceaselessly, as long as we live.