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.

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