Monday, December 31, 2018

Prayer beneath the Cross

As we move into the new year, we find ourselves - at least I do - looking at the broken condition of the world, with its shame and confusion, its poverty and intolerance, its extremism and cruelty, wondering what on earth is going on, and whether, in view of the increasingly desperate findings of climate science, whether there will be an earth to be going anywhere in a few years' time. Jesus is Lord? Really?

Tom Wright:
Jesus is the Lord, but it's the crucified Jesus who is Lord - precisely because it's his crucifixion that has won the victory over all the other powers that think of themselves as in charge of the world. But that means that his followers, charged with implementing his victory in the world, will themselves have to do so by the same method. One of the most striking things about some of (what we normally see as) the later material in the New Testament is the constant theme of suffering, suffering not as something merely to be bravely borne for Jesus' sake, but as something that is mysteriously taken up into the redemptive suffering of Jesus himself. He won his victory through suffering; his followers win theirs by sharing in his. 
(Simply Jesus)
There is more than one way to read Wright's words here, and he has left it, perhaps deliberately, for us to navigate our own path through the ambiguity. Those of us who are called to a more outwardly active response to the world may indeed find ourselves living out Jesus' victory in terms of physical suffering at the hands of the rulers and authorities of this present darkness (Ephesians 6.12), as so often happens in non-violent protest. But I think there is more to it than this. The beginning of this chapter of Paul's letter to the Christians in Ephesus contains advice about living honestly and justly within the existing social framework of his time, not revolution. Sometimes of course resistance to outright injustice may be inescapable, but this is not what Paul is writing about. He goes on to say (6.10-12):
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
We in the West all too often see heaven as "somewhere else" - a distant land far away from earth, where good people go on death to be with God, and are then very puzzled by this idea of "forces of evil in the heavenly realms". But as Tom Wright explains in the book I quoted above, "In ancient Judaism and early Christianity, heaven and earth, God's world and our world, overlap and interlock in various ways that put quite a different spin on all sorts of things." Spiritual forces of evil are real forces nonetheless; more real, perhaps, than their earthly expressions in terms of armies, secret police, and mob rule.

Prayer is indeed, as Paul points out, spiritual warfare. But this is Jesus' war: it is fought with weapons of love and suffering, not of conflict and destruction. Our struggles in prayer (and they are struggles, make no mistake) are not fought by curses and invective against the "enemy", nor by long rants advising God what he should do to whom; but by taking into ourselves, in the shadow of the Cross, the pain and grief of the suffering world, bringing them to our crucified and risen Lord for his healing, his mercy. As St Isaac of Nineveh recounted,
An elder was once asked, "What is a merciful heart?" He replied: 
"It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. 
For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God."

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Jesus Prayer - new page

There is much material in this blog, as well as in my others, on the Jesus Prayer - what it is, how it is prayed, and why, and things to be aware of if you feel you are being called to this form of contemplative prayer. But they are scattered among other material, and, even using the 'label' or 'category' function, not that easy to read in anything like a coherent way.

So - I have decided to put up a page pulling what seems to me to be the best of this kind of material together. The page appears in the top menu, under the header photograph, and immediately above the most recent post, but you might too easily miss it, so the link is here.

Do click through and have a look - and if there's anything you'd like to see there but can't, do leave a comment on this post - you can't comment directly on these static pages.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

My scallop-shell of quiet


The Lily Cross in All Saints Church, Godshill

Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope's true gage,
And thus I'll take my pilgrimage. 
Sir Walter Raleigh

This fragment from a much longer poem is supposed to have been written immediately before Raleigh's impending execution; in fact he was spared for the time being, and lived another 15 years or so. I found it printed on a small blue card, in All Saints Church at Godshill.

I've been vaguely familiar with these lines for many years, but I had forgotten them till I found this small card in a rack with other such things, at the back of the church, and bought it to bring home.

At the entrance to the church, in the porch by the south door, is a modern framed extract (beginning "You are not here to verify...") from TS Eliot's 'Little Gidding'. I have reproduced the whole section from which it is taken:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

I am not aware that the ancient church in this little village deep inland on the Isle of Wight has ever been a place of pilgrimage as such. If so, the fact is not mentioned in any history of the parish I have seen - though there was a Benedictine priory nearby at Appuldurcombe. But All Saints seems to me like a pilgrim church. Up a steep hill above the village, with its medieval lily cross on the wall above the reserved Blessed Sacrament, it somehow asks to be approached quietly, with reverence - not for the building, but for what it means - as at the end of a long journey.

Pilgrimage is increasingly a pattern that calls to me. As I wrote elsewhere here, "We cannot know the way; but our steps are indeed ordered by the Lord (Proverbs 20.24), if we love him, and will only draw near to him in prayer. He simply says, as he always does, 'Go', or even 'What is that to you? Follow me!' (John 21.21)" Somehow I find I no longer have the need I once had to be sure of the way.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Happy Christmas!

[With thanks to Andalusia Star News]

Happy Christmas to all The Mercy Blog readers!


Sunday, December 23, 2018

Before I was afflicted...

Walter Brueggemann writes, in Praying the Psalms, of their use of the "language of disorientation and reorientation... as old in the Bible as the call to Abram and Sarai to leave their place and go to another" - where of course they are not only relocated, but transformed, as their new names, Abraham and Sarah, remind us and them. Brueggemann goes on to associate disorientation with "the wrong place", characterised in the Psalms with the image of "the pit" - as for instance in the opening of Psalm 28:
To you, Lord, I call;
you are my Rock,
do not turn a deaf ear to me.
For if you remain silent,
I shall be like those who go down to the pit.
Hear my cry for mercy
as I call to you for help,
as I lift up my hands
towards your Most Holy Place.
Reorientation Brueggemann associates with the image of finding safe refuge under the protective wings of God - for instance in Psalm 61:
...lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the foe.
I long to dwell in your tent for ever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.
or perhaps even more tellingly in Psalm 63:
On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me.
As Brueggemann points out, this need not be understood as escapism: it may simply be the acknowledgement of "that the resources for life are not found in "us" but will have to come from another source outside of self. It is the recognition of the disoriented person that a new orientation must come as a gift." (ibid.)

I have come to recognise, from periods in my own life of desolation and functional solitude (being alone in the sense not necessarily of physical isolation, but of being cut off from understanding and comfort: "You have taken from me friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend." (Psalm 88.18)) the power of this kind of prayer, and how actually to pray the Psalms, to take their words and make them one's own, brings strength and refuge, comfort even, in the darkest places. I honestly believe that at these times in my life I would not have come through had it not been for the Psalms.
But there is another strand in the Psalms' treatment of suffering that I have not seen in Brueggemann's account, and which is found in its fullest form only in Psalm 119; and that is the recognition of suffering as in itself somehow a route to healing and restoration. It was in this darkest time that I mentioned in the last paragraph that I first came to notice these passages clearly, though I must have read them in passing often enough. The three passages occur close together in this longest of Psalms, between v. 67 and v. 75:
67 Before I was afflicted I went astray,
    but now I obey your word.
68 You are good, and what you do is good;
    teach me your decrees...
71 It was good for me to be afflicted
    so that I might learn your decrees...
75 I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous,
    and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.
76 May your unfailing love be my comfort,
    according to your promise to your servant.
This was for me the key to the whole thing: the way that my loneliness and distress made sense, how it did in fact connect with the Gospel - which is after all to be translated "Good News" - and how through some deep mystery it connected intimately with the Cross. I had not at that time read the Catechism of the Catholic Church - not that I have read the whole thing now! - and so I was unaware of this passage:
The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the "one mediator between God and men". But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, "the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery" is offered to all men. He calls his disciples to "take up [their] cross and follow (him)",[Mt.16:24] for "Christ also suffered for (us), leaving (us) an example so that (we) should follow in his steps."[1Pet.2:21] In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering. Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.[St. Rose of Lima] 
Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC618 [some refs. abbreviated]
This is one of those passages which some may find hard to take; but I can honestly say that it was quite simply my own experience. In turning to Christ in the Jesus Prayer, in these words from Psalm 119, and psalms like 61 and 63, the suffering that I had come into became, once accepted for what it was, itself the means of my endurance.

It's really important to understand that none of this was my doing. None of it came about through any particular insight or perspicuity of mine, still less through any imagined godliness: it was all sheer gift, as Brueggemann recognises. Any resources for this kind of survival must come from beyond the self, which is of course why it is so widely recognised that in matters of mental health the first and often the most vital step is to talk to somebody! Nor am I saying that the ultimate healing of these wounds of the spirit comes purely through the prayerful acceptance of suffering. My survival may, in my own instance, have come that way - but it was only after the passage of many years, and through skilled and patient help, that their effects have finally come to be something like healed. But their value - that is another matter entirely. One of the hardest things to take is the illusion of the pointlessness of one's own suffering; the realisation that it is not, after all, a waste of life and hope, but a way into endless life and indestructible hope, through and not despite the Cross (as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, "No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief...") is what brings us to that refuge, "in the shadow of [his] wings..."

O Radix Iesse

O Radix Iesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.
O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before whom kings will shut their mouths,
whom the nations will implore:
Come to deliver us, and do not now delay.
In Praying the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann writes,
...in the Psalms the use of language does not describe what is. It evokes into being what does not exist until it has been spoken. This kind of speech resists discipline, shuns precision, delights in ambiguity, is profoundly creative, and is itself an exercise in freedom. In using speech in this way, we are in fact doing in a derivative way what God has done in the creation narratives of Genesis. We are calling into being that which does not yet exist (compare Romans 4.17).
Unlike the language of fact and description we use in everyday talk, in the speech of politics and commerce, law and engineering, the Psalms are not seeking documentation and control, information processing. They are in the highest sense poetry - in which case perhaps Brueggemann misses the point when he says they "resist discipline, shun precision" - for then their discipline and precision are of another order entirely. They are a use of language parallel to (at least in a derivative way) God's speaking of the Word that brings all things to existence - the Word, in fact, who was with God in the beginning, "the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not." When we use language like this we are drawing, and drawn, closer and closer to Christ in the the Word, the mercy, that he is. As a poet of more discipline and precision than I dare to attempt once wrote,
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. 
TS Eliot, Four Quartets, 1, Burnt Norton, section II

And the dance that Christ is Lord of is life, and light, and becoming. "In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1.4,5) If we remain in Christ (John 15.7) ultimately the dark will not overcome us, either, for all that that light lies, like the light of eternity, on the far side of dying. He comes, indeed, to deliver us, and will not delay - already, his word accomplishes his purpose; it will not return to him empty... (Isaiah 55.11)

First published on A Long Restlessness, 19/12/2018

Stranger and more real...

Along the coast from Santana, Madeira

Susan and I recently returned from Madeira, where we spent my 70th birthday. To leave the grey chill of England behind, for the clear skies, warmth and crystal air of this tiny, mountainous island far out in the Atlantic was the best birthday present I can remember.

I don't often write this kind of blog post, but I have been so surprised to have reached the age of three-score years and ten that I couldn't forbear to mention it here. Every since I became fully aware of the limits of a lifespan I have expected to die young. There have been some practical reasons for this - a family history of heart disease, a dangerous occupation for much of my life, several of my closest friends dying in their 40s - but I'm not sure that these things explain the pervasive sense I have had of death being a constant, not unfriendly, companion. I've written something of this elsewhere, and yet I've not been able to put into words this quality of companionship, of death as a close and not unwelcome, still less unwholesome, presence.

Ursula le Guin begins her A Wizard of Earthsea with the words (attributed to "the oldest song, The Creation of Éa"):
Only in silence the word,
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk's flight
On the empty sky.
For all that I have grieved those I've lost over the years - my parents, my dear friends - I have never had the sense of death as an enemy. Quite the opposite - death has sat across from me for so many years, good-humouredly watching, gently reminding me that, as Pippin said when Gandalf explained dying to him, "That isn't so bad..." That once “the grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass,” then we know that really, in the end, truly, it’s OK. We never were alone, and love is a very good name for God - for that Source of all in which all things from galaxies to wood mice grow, and are held. That out of which, finally, we can never fall, but which will call us home to endless light, and the healing of all wounds.

And so here I am, rather unexpectedly, an old man. It's good. I am happier these days than I have ever been, and life is sweeter. After all these years, it has proved true 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) It's just a little stranger, and more real, than I had thought.

Originally published on A Long Restlessness, 9/12/2018

"I Surrender All"

In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening. 
Thomas R Kelly, Quaker faith & practice 2.10 
The spiritual hunger of the contemplative can be satisfied only by a full surrender of the soul to God. The longing of a contemplative soul finds its completion precisely in this deeper offering and surrender to God. The manner in which God draws this surrender in prayer is a mysterious aspect of each contemplative life. It has its unique variations in each life, but one essential fact is that a complete surrender of the soul is demanded by the nature of love. The need to offer all to God becomes a dominant urge within the contemplative soul and, indeed, within prayer itself. God seems to find circumstances in which the contemplative soul is faced with this need as the only manner in which it can live out its hunger for God. The surrender that takes place in prayer is often simply a response to what God has shown as an exclusive option for a soul if it is to plunge ahead in its relationship of absolute love for God. 
Donald Haggerty, The Contemplative Hunger
I have found that, as Fr. Haggerty in fact goes on to say, there is no roadmap for this interior process, no way to predict when one might be brought up against an instance of this kind of surrender. It is not something that could be taught in some imagined course on the contemplative life, or foreseen by a perceptive spiritual director, except in the most general sense. As Haggerty says,
We [come to] release our natural grip on possessiveness, our clinging to passing things that are bound to disappear eventually from our lives. We have to learn at times not to defend ourselves against those losses when they come...
We cannot bargain with God over this kind of surrender, I find. There may be unlooked-for compensations further along this line, strange blessings in place of what we have relinquished. Or quite unexpectedly, what we have given up may be restored to us, maybe in another form. But we can never see these things ahead of time, and we can never ever say to God, "I'll give up this if you'll give me that." That isn't how it works.

But God is gentle, beyond our understanding or expectation. He does not demand these surrenders, nor force them on us. We come to realise that "God wants nothing but complete surrender, although he will never make an absolute demand for it (Haggerty)." Circumstances, it is true, may take things from us - an illness, an accident, a betrayal may take away things we have held dear - but there is always the opportunity not to surrender them to God, but to fight to recover them, to demand compensation, to find someone or something to blame... Sometimes, though, I have discovered, there is a real inward hint ahead of time: "If you accept this course of action, there will be consequences," almost as clear as a heard voice. The stronger the call to whatever it is, the more radical the choice, the clearer the inward hint. It is never explicit - one does not know what the consequences may be, in my experience - but it is there, along with the absolute sense of rightness of the possible action.

The realness of these things is inescapable. The call to surrender, to trust against trust in God, is not remotely imaginary. René Voillaume wrote:
All the great Christian contemplatives are unanimous in their testimony: whatever the spiritual path, the union with God is perceived by them as real, a more existential reality, more solid, more full of being and certainty than any other experience of the physical world. In this sense, it is true to say that contemplatives are the most realistic of men.
There are many times in one's life, though, that these instances of surrender are simply absent, and when they do appear they can be so unexpected as to seem momentarily unreal. They come not usually as answers to prayer, but in the context of prayer - sometimes fervent prayer, maybe not of petition or intercession, but of longing contemplation. I have found them in the smallest occasions of life, as well as at the great crossroads of change and pilgrimage. The one thing that does seem to be common to them all is that they are done in the shadow of the Cross. They are ways to lay down one's life, with all that that phrase entails. They are ways to pain; and, like the Lord we follow, we cannot see beyond that to whatever unimaginable Resurrection may lie on the other side.

There is something, too, of the forgiveness of the Cross about these strange occasions God brings to us. These losses may come through the action, or inaction, of someone else. Our acceptance of the surrender may open the door to harm, intentional or unintentional, at the hands of someone else. Then they become opportunities not only of renouncement, relinquishment, of some known good, but of love and forgiveness; in the utter mystery of God, love and forgiveness not only of our oppugner, but of ourselves. They can thus be strange acts of cleansing, healing even - a glimpse of purgatory on earth, if that is not a presumptuous suggestion.

Oddly, these occasions of loss - and that is what they are, make no mistake - are also occasions of grace. They lie under the great overarching promise of Romans 8.28, "[a]nd we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" and they can be, like all losses rightly accepted, windows into the purposes of God himself. Weak though our vision is in this life (1 Corinthians 13.12), we can glimpse through them something of the vast economy of Heaven, the fields of blessing and redemption that lie beyond the final door, the last living surrender to God in the arms of Sister Death.

Originally published on A Long Restlessness, 7/11/2018

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Strange Grace

img_20180419_133516968
Mist over Horseshoe Bay


When you stop to think about it, grace is actually a strange idea. We learn, from our earliest childhood, that things operate by the laws of cause and effect: if you drop something, it hits the ground; if you disobey someone in authority, there will be consequences. We learn, too, that events have causes. If the cause of a given event is not immediately obvious - it starts raining, for instance - then look harder. There's a cloud up there somewhere.

It is tempting, for some of us at any rate, to try this with grace. We are blessed: we must have done something right somewhere. Conversely, we still make the category mistake over which Jesus corrected his disciples in John 9.1-5.

The healing of our own hearts is all grace. We so easily live, all of us, clenched in a spiritual version of the cause and effect paradigm: we feel bad, so we must have done something wrong; if we wish to feel better, we need to find the thing that will please God - or at least press the right psychological button - so that we are somehow put right again.

In his book Dying Well: Dying Faithfully, John Wyatt, Professor of Ethics and Perinatology at University College London, points out that the medieval Ars moriendi, Latin texts on the art of dying of presumed Dominican origin,  contain the idea of despair over our past as a temptation we must face. Demons are sometimes shown tormenting the dying with lists of their misdeeds
...in a terrible parody of the words 'Ecce homo' ('Behold the man!') said about Jesus - 'Ecce peccata tua', ('Behold your sins!'). Part of the subtlety of the accusations is that the demons quote scripture to demonstrate the righteousness of God, the seriousness of the individual sins and failures, and the impending judgement... 
If loss of faith is loss of belief and trust, despair is the loss of hope... 
In one of the Ars moriendi images, an angel visits a dying man and encourages him by pointing to figures from the Scriptures who repented and received forgiveness... 
The medieval writers frequently emphasized the importance of meditating on the figure of Christ on the cross... But there seems to be a deeper mystery than merely being an external observer of Christ's sufferings... The apostle Paul summed up his own personal hope in these words: '...that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death' (Philippians 3.10, emphasis added). In some indescribable way we can have the privilege of entering into and identifying with the sufferings of Christ on the cross...
Scott J. Hafemann writes:
In our day of self-help and age of technology and technique, it is important to keep in mind that God is both the initiator and object of this [inner] reconciliation. Our propensity is to view the gospel as our opportunity to reconcile God to us by showing him how much we love him, rather than seeing it as God’s act in Christ by which he reconciles us to himself by demonstrating his own love for us. The gospel is not our chance to get right with God, but God’s declaration that he has already made us right with him. The gospel does not call us to do something for God that he might save us; it announces what God has done to save us that we might trust him. 
(The NIV Application Commentary: 2 Corinthians)
God’s love for us, temporary and powerless as we are, somehow reaches us through this spiritual hyperlink that is the cross, and it is the crucified Jesus to whom we turn for mercy.
Mercy is to me the heart of prayer – and not only because it is the Jesus Prayer that is the centre of my own prayer. Cynthia Bourgeault writes:
…When we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional – always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being. Just like [the] little fish swimming desperately in search of water, we, too – in the words of Psalm 103 – “swim in mercy as in an endless sea.” Mercy is God's innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.
The cross of course is “God’s innermost being turned outward… in love” – and it is at the cross that, in the words of the Vineyard song, we find mercy and grace.

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

Friday, September 07, 2018

A Long Pilgrimage

Over the years I have had more than thirty homes. Eight of the moves, starting before I was able to walk, were fitted in before I was 20, thanks to my peripatetic mother. I must have caught the bug, for I simply carried on, as jobs and personal circumstances moved me around the country; my church affiliations have changed too - not quite so often! - sometimes along with my address. And yet I have longed for contentment, envied those whose settled lives enabled them simply to stay put and watch the seasons change, and the years bring the patterns of history across a settled landscape.

Michelle Van Loon, in her moving book Born to Wander: Recovering the Value of our Pilgrim Identity, quotes Søren Kierkegaard:
Faith expressly signifies the deep, strong, blessed restlessness that drives the believer so that he cannot settle down at rest in this world, and therefore the person who has settled down completely at rest has also ceased to be a believer, because a believer cannot sit still as one sits with a pilgrim's staff in one's hand - a believer travels forward.
Pilgrimage, though, is more than moving on. Van Loon (ibid.) distinguishes three "parallel, sometimes overlapping streams" of pilgrimage in Scripture:
  • Moral pilgrimage focuses on everyday obedience to God.
  • Physical pilgrimage emphasises a bodily journey to a holy site in order to seek God.
  • Interior pilgrimage describes the pursuit of communion with God through prayer, solitude and contemplation.
Restlessness, as Michelle Van Loon points out, is potentially a powerful compass. As she reminds us, St Augustine of Hippo wrote, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." My own restlessness has been an odd alternation between my own self-will, and (often misplaced) longings, and God's calling me back on to the path to "communion with [him] through prayer..." Again and again I am reminded of Proverbs 20.24: "All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?"

But how can we know that we are on the right path? Gradually, I am coming to the conclusion that we cannot. When God called Abram, he merely said, we are told, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land I will show you" (Gen 12.1) "The land I will show you..." Not the land I have shown you, the land to which I have given you directions and a grid reference. "So Abram went, as the Lord had told him..." (v. 4) And Abram wandered around all over the place, from adventure to misadventure, not knowing the way; but in the end he came to the place where God could say to him, "Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northwards and southwards and eastwards and westwards..." (Gen 13.14) and Abram saw the land to which he had been called.

We cannot know the way; but our steps are indeed ordered by the Lord, if we love him, and will only draw near to him in prayer. He simply says, as he always does, "Go", or even "What is that to you? Follow me!" (John 21.21)

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Silence is a curious thing...

Silence is a curious thing. It is not by any means merely the absence of noise, but a stripping away of much that occupies our waking minds – thought, conclusion, classification, knowing. We operate in definitions, boundaries, alternatives, and what we encounter in silence lies beyond all distinctions.

We sit in meeting for worship, held in the presence of Friends, or alone, our minds quietened with our own practice, be it watching our breath, or something like the Jesus Prayer, and our discursive, directed mind falls away to a background murmur (or gabble, if we’re having a bad day!) to leave a brilliant darkness, an unknowing awareness that is permeable to the Spirit; it is a place where we may find ourselves exclaiming, with Jacob (Genesis 28.16), “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”

More and more I am convinced that to remain hidden (Colossians 3.3) with Christ in God, unknowing, is at least for me the narrow path to God’s own presence, where even our own steps are unknown to us (Proverbs 20.24); God who is entirely beyond our own comprehension, whose name can only be a pointer, as Jennifer Kavanagh says, to something beyond our description. In silence itself is our hiddenness, our unknowing, where God waits within our own waiting (Isaiah 30.18)…

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

What Silence Is For

I have written a post on my other blog, Silent Assemblies, that goes some way to explaining how I see one aspect of silence. It may be of interest to Mercy Blog readers, but as it is written from an explicitly Quaker point of view, and tries to address certain current Quaker concerns, I shall only link to it here:

What Silence Is For

Monday, July 30, 2018

Map Making

One of the things that seem to happen in the spiritual life is that "as we mature we add experience to the original 'deposit of faith' and it changes us - changes how we think, speak, act and pray." (JP Williams, Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality)  As we go on, a process of stripping inevitably takes place: a leaving behind of much that seemed essential to our comfort, our identity, even to our relationship with God.

A page further on in her study, Janet Williams writes, describing this stage of our spiritual journey as "an ascent",
... it feels like an ascent because we find ourselves not simply exchanging one scene for another but - at least sometimes - acquiring a larger perspective, being able to see how the partial glimpses that seemed so different at the time are parts of a broader landscape, being able to reconcile and integrate what earlier seemed irreconcilable. In a sense, we don't just leave a particular landscape as we ascend, we also leave ourselves behind, the versions of ourselves that were comfortable in the old places. In another sense, what we leave behind is God - a version or view of God, that is. Just as the higher up we stand, the bigger the horizon is, so too with God; as Augustine says, 'God is always greater, no matter how much we have grown.'

...although we have to be careful not to mistake this, there is a kind of growing distance from earlier concerns: not that we cease to care about injustice or unkindness but that we are less narrow in our sympathies.
Memory, or rather, remembering, plays its part here. Thinking back over the path that led us here, we can see that, "All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?" (Proverbs 20.24)

This is often partly repentance as much as recall, even as we remember the places where we stumbled painfully among the rocks, or strayed off the way altogether for a while. But remembering allows us to see the pattern, see the way we have been led. As the author of Proverbs goes on to say, "The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord, searching every inmost part." (20.27) Our self-awareness illuminates a map, almost, of our leading. Not only do we see God's hand in all we have done, guiding us even when we have missed the path, but we see the way back: back to incarnation, back to the life of creation, to the pain and need of the world - the things by which we were drawn to prayer in the first place...

Friday, June 29, 2018

A Simple Thing

One of the things that has always touched me about the Jesus Prayer is its simplicity. It is not in any way a mode of prayer reserved for religious professionals, nor one that requires training or qualifications. How do you pray the Jesus Prayer? Well, you say Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Rinse. Repeat. And that, really, is all there is to it, despite the many books that have been written about the practice and theology of this ancient prayer.

Jesus once said,
I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do...
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. 

(Matthew 11.25-6, 28-30 NIV)
I am occasionally made anxious by some recent writers on the contemplative tradition, and the terminology with which they surround contemplative prayer - "dualistic thinking", "non-dual consciousness" and so forth - it can come to sound as though one needs a degree in comparative religion and a master's in psychology. I do sort of know what they are getting at, yet I yearn for the simplicity of the Jesus Prayer and its tradition. A prayer that is as appropriate for a farmer as for an academic, for a taxi driver as for a nun or a monk - now that is something I can rejoice in, as we are all carried together into the Light.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Kraken Wakes

For some reason we think that spiritual progress is marked by lack of struggle in life. [My] purpose... is to emphasise that this is simply not the case. Spiritual progress is learning to confront struggle in a new way so that we don't struggle with the fact that life is fraught with struggle. But the practice of contemplation will expose us to many things we would rather not see but need to see if we are going to grow. Even something as potentially debilitating as depression or obsessive-compulsive behaviour finds healing salve in the practice of contemplation...

These, too, can be vehicles by which the mystery we call God breaks through and shines in awareness.

Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation
Anyone practicing the Jesus Prayer (and I believe this to be equally true of any other discipline such as Centering Prayer, the contemplative use of Holy Rosary, or Christian Meditation) will find sooner or later that they are led into waters whose floor shelves steeply away into the abyss, far out of their depth in pain and the memories of pain. At times like this the Jesus Prayer (or its equivalent) functions more like a bit of floating wreckage that we can cling to than any kind of structured prayer, though that is what it is.

The godly king of ancient Israel, Hezekiah, confronted with the besieging Assyrian army, received a letter from their king and commander-in-chief Sennacherib renewing his threat to sack Jerusalem, and warning him not to trust in God's protection from his forces. Hezekiah's reaction was not to surrender, nor to return boast for boast, but to go "up to the house of the Lord and spread [the letter] before the Lord." (Isaiah 37.14)

So too the contemplative who is confronted with the siege ramps and archers of their own brokenness, their shame and the traumas they had thought to forget. There is nothing to be gained by trying to force these armies of the unconscious back to the land of repression, nor in giving way to fantasies, or running from prayer into some comforting pleasure or another. These are not distractions we can dismiss lightly, but very krakens of the mind's deeps. Like dear King Hezekiah, our trust, even here, is in the Lord. At even the very end, "Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him." (Job 13.15 NIV) In our discipline our trust holds fast - the floating wreckage of our prayer is more than we can imagine. Like Hezekiah, the angel of the Lord will come to our defence by a way we had not suspected, our peace will come from a direction we had not seen, and like Elisha's servant we shall see "the hills full of horses and chariots of fire" (2 Kings 6.17 NIV).

The fire of love can burn even in the midst of the storm, and we shall hear Jesus' own voice, gentle and half-asleep, speaking peace and stillness to the waves. (Mark 4.35-41) Benignus O'Rourke's words remind us,
Sometimes when people meditate or pray without words they are accused of trying to anaesthetise themselves to deaden their pain. But what we really do in our quiet prayer is to face the pain, engage with it, and transform it into energy for loving.

Finding Your Hidden Treasure: The Way of Silent Prayer

Thursday, June 21, 2018

A still voice...

I have often wondered why hills seem to be so popular with prophets and mystics. Moses climbed Mount Sinai, as explained in Exodus 19,
At the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain...
Jesus "went out to the mountain to pray; and... spent the night in prayer to God." (Luke 6.12) In fact he made a habit of it: "many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray." (Luke 5.15b-16)

George Fox climbed Pendle Hill,
As we went I spied a great high hill called Pendle Hill, and I went on the top of it with much ado, it was so steep; but I was moved of the Lord to go atop of it; and when I came atop of it I saw Lancashire sea; and there atop of the hill I was moved to sound the day of the Lord; and the Lord let me see atop of the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered.
(from Fox's journal, quoted in Quaker faith & practice)
Part of it may simply be that climbing a hill is an act, not of some naive attempt to get physically closer to a God conceived of as "up there", but of deliberately putting ourselves in the way of hearing from God. It may be the same impulse that leads us to silence and stillness in the awareness of God's presence. A prayer like the Jesus Prayer, the "prayer word" in Centering Prayer, or the word "maranatha" in Christian Meditation, at least in part, seeks to do the same thing, to lead us to a state of inward withdrawal from the world of getting and doing into a condition of inner receptiveness, as Jesus explained:
But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
(Matthew 6.6)
(For what reward could God give us better than the gift of God's presence?)

William Penn summed it up,
And you, young convinced ones, be you entreated and exhorted to a diligent and chaste waiting upon God, in the way of his blessed manifestation and appearance of himself to you. Look not out, but within… Remember it is a still voice that speaks to us in this day, and that it is not to be heard in the noises and hurries of the mind; but it is distinctly understood in a retired frame. Jesus loved and chose solitudes, often going to mountains, to gardens, and sea-sides to avoid crowds and hurries; to show his disciples it was good to be solitary, and sit loose to the world.
Quaker faith & practice 21.03 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Outstaring the Ghosts

The psalmist says, 'You hide those who trust in you in the shelter of your presence.' For 'hide' we might read 'heal'. To sit with with our buried hurts and pains in the presence of the Lord is to allow ourselves to be healed by him. We no longer become involved in trying to sort them out, nor do we recoil from them. We sit quietly. We are beginning to have the confidence to outstare our ghosts.
Sometimes when people meditate or pray without words they are accused of trying to anaesthetise themselves to deaden their pain. But what we really do in our quiet prayer is to face the pain, engage with it, and transform it into energy for loving.
Benignus O'Rourke, Finding Your Hidden Treasure: The Way of Silent Prayer
Richard Rohr wrote, in one of his Daily Meditations (back in 2010 - it's long been taken down):
We have put our emphasis on trying to love God, which is probably a good way to start—although we do not have a clue how to do that.  What I consistently find in the mystics is an overwhelming experience of how God has loved them.  God is the initiator, God is the doer, God is the one who seduces us.  All we can do is respond in kind, and exactly as Meister Eckhart said, "The love by which we love God is the very same love with which God has first loved us."
The mystics' overwhelming experience is this full body blow of the Divine loving them, the Divine radically accepting them.  And the rest of their life is trying to verbalize that, and invariably finding ways to give that love back through forms of service, compassion and non-stop worship.  But none of this is to earn God's love; it's always and only to return God's love.  Love is repaid by love alone.
Our prayer, as contemplatives, is not something that is for ourselves alone, nor even - as if that were not sufficient - simply our response to our perceiving of the immensity of God's love. I think this cannot be emphasised strongly enough. We need to understand that our life of prayer, especially if we are called to the contemplative life, is not a solipsistic, "self-actualising" activity, or some kind of relaxation technique aimed at producing a pleasant, stress-free state of mind, still less a quest for any kind of psychedelic experience. The contemplative vocation is as much as anything a call to intercession, and to a life lived in the shadow of the Cross.

Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, in Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life, write:
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. No 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.
What the Fredettes write applies, of course, to the contemplative life however lived, whether in community or in physical solitude. The contemplative life has always been to a great extent a life lived in hiddenness, and in our own time, when the culture of celebrity and notoriety is continually whipped up by the press and social media, it is deeply counterintuitive to seek to live this way. These days relatively few of us live in true solitude, and still less of us in the more or less enclosed forms of community traditionally inhabited by contemplatives - the Carthusians, for instance, or the Poor Clares - and so we live not so much hidden lives as lives hidden in plain sight, ordinary, unrecognised and quiet. This hiddenness is really more a way of just getting out of the way - of standing still enough to act as a kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of mercy.

This life of inner solitude and hiddenness - for it is hidden from our own selves within as well as outwardly - is in many ways lived for others. We stand out in the wind, and in some mysterious way we relive Moses' experience on Mount Sinai, when the Israelites said to him, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die."

The ghosts we outstare are not our own merely; somehow in the silence of prayer we find ourselves confronting the ghosts of those we live amongst, touching the shadows that our post-Enlightenment age casts across all our lives, touching, as did the monks of Mount Athos during the years of the Stalin's purges and Hitler's atrocities, the dark skirts of chaos and cruelty that brush continually against our civilisation. Yet our prayer does, as I wrote yesterday, "tend... always to stillness, to wholeness of mind and spirit, to the peace of God, beyond our understanding..." It is that peace we seek for those with whom our prayer and our lives are inextricably caught up, just by being frail, temporary human things.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Peace of God

In his Confessions Augustine describes movingly how God had made him whole after many years of brokenness. 'I find no safe place for myself save in you in whom all my scattered pieces are gathered together,' he writes.
The journey to wholeness, he says, started when he withdrew to the quiet place of sweet solitude within his own heart. There he invited God to speak to him, 'Whisper words of truth in my heart,' he pleaded, 'for you alone speak truth... I shall not turn aside until you gather all that I am into that holy place of peace, rescuing me from the world where I am broken and deformed and giving me new form and new strength.'
Augustine describes that holy place of peace in his commentary on John's Gospel. It is 'that innermost shrine of your deepest self,' he tells us, 'that place of sweet solitude, where there is no weariness, where no bitter thoughts enter, where there is no lurking temptation or heavy sorrow...'
So Augustine bids us: 'Surrender to him now all your futile searching. What is withered in you will flower again. your sickness will be healed. What is faded will be fresh again, and what is warped made whole and strong and sound. And all that is weak in you will not drag you to the grace. But your wholeness will remain with you before God, who remains strong and abides forever.'
Benignus O'Rourke, Finding Your Hidden Treasure: The Way of Silent Prayer
The way of the Jesus Prayer is a way of immense simplicity, a way into silence almost more complete than any other. There are words, yes, but saying the Jesus Prayer, there is nothing we need to do at all; no need to dig for concealed shadow material, no need to prepare the healing of memories. All that is in Jesus' hands. All that is what is meant by mercy. We simply repeat the words of the Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner in the silence of our own hearts; the words tending always to stillness, to wholeness of mind and spirit, to the peace of God, beyond our understanding...

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Hidden Things

In The Big Book of Christian Mysticism (I love that title!) Carl McColman tells the story of a friend of his who had been a spiritual explorer, checking out Eastern spirituality and "other practices from around the world" before settling down as an Anglican, in the Episcopal Church. While happily at home in his new faith community, he missed the practice, the open teaching on the mystical life, that he'd become used to in Eastern meditation.
Finally, he took his question to his priest. "It's hidden in plain sight," was the minister's response. "The Christian tradition has just as much depth as any other wisdom tradition, but no one's going to hand it to you on a silver platter. You have to go looking for it." The priest went on to recommend a few books - The Philokalia, The Cloud of Unknowing challenging my friend to get the right equipment and start working if he wanted to climb the mountain.
But McColman goes on, later in the chapter, to remind his readers that, despite the metaphor, mysticism is not an extreme sport, a grand hobby, but simply "trusting in the singular beauty of your own path, no matter how unexceptional (or unfulfilling) it may seem at times to be." Often, I think, the more unexceptional, even unpromising, the better. Jesus once said (Matthew 11.25 NIV) "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children."

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 (Matthew 5.3) is essential to living in that mercy.

McColman again:
Some forms of spirituality can subtly reinforce experiences, not of God, but of the ego. Mysticism, on the other hand, concerns the more daunting task of surrendering the ego before the cross of Christ. It's about immersing your self-identity into the cloud of unknowing and the dark night of the soul. It is the hidden or "negative" path where, ultimately, all is stripped away before the awesome presence of God.
The Jesus Prayer, and, I imagine, every other classical or modern discipline of contemplative prayer, is at root a very simple practice, for simple people, the poor in spirit in fact. The points of light across the reservoir, hardly visible between the leaves of springtime, are almost hidden from sight; yet their light is as bright as ever, illuminating the place of their own presence. Only in the darkest time can we see their pinpoints reaching through the trees...

Friday, May 11, 2018

Excelsior?

When I was prosperous, I said, “Nothing can stop me now!” Your favor, O Lord, made me as secure as a mountain. Then you turned away from me, and I was shattered. I cried out to you, O Lord. I begged the Lord for mercy, saying, “What will you gain if I die, if I sink into the grave? Can my dust praise you? Can it tell of your faithfulness? Hear me, Lord, and have mercy on me. Help me, O Lord.” You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever!

Psalm 30.6-12 NLT

I have found, over the years I’ve been trying to follow Christ, that I for one stumble at least as much as I walk, and wander off into thorny and sometimes trackless places at least as often as I keep to the path. Sometimes, of course, that’s due to inattention on my part, often inattention to Scripture (“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119.105 NRSV)) but as often it’s due to my own ideas of what’s good for me, which I will insist on following through before I have thought them through.

My first close encounter with the church as a living thing was when, at the age of 29, I found myself staying at St Michael’s Priory, at Willen near Milton Keynes, at a very low and broken point in my life. 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 Horner SSM 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 the 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.

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. 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.”

We are all beggars, I suppose, when it comes down to it, and the sooner we realise it, like the psalmist in the opening quote, the sooner we can get ourselves out of the way of God. The history of the church, like the history of any one of its people, is the history of people finding out the necessity of getting themselves, and their ideas, out of the way of God – for it is only that way that we can realise who Christ actually is.

Ascension Day celebrates an odd but crucial incident in the life of the early church. Liturgical art depicting the ascension of Christ is all too often faintly ridiculous: a pair of sandalled feet disappearing into a wisp of low cumulus cloud, while the disciples point them out to each other, in case someone might have missed them going up. But picture language, as in the account in Acts 1.9-11, will only take us so far. Paul makes a far better stab at it in Ephesians 1.19-23:

I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honour at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church. And the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself.

The purpose of prayer in the Christian’s life is surely to put him or herself consciously “under the authority of Christ” for it is only so that we, as bits, however imperfect, of the church that is his body, can become aware of how he “fills all things everywhere”. This is surely the contemplative vision in a nutshell. Christ is the love of God made visible in Jesus, and it is, for the Christian, through him that the door opens into the garden, into the silent, sunlit land beyond comprehension – the open heaven of Luke 24.50-52, and our own true home at last.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

In the Landscape of Silence

Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” 
John 14:6-14 NRSV – Gospel reading for May 1, The Feast of St Philip and St James

Famously, this is a passage that universalists stumble over, seeing it as a prime piece of spiritual imperialism on the part of the Gospel writer. But it occurred to me this morning, when the Gospel was read in our local parish church, that there is another way entirely to read it.

I don’t believe Jesus is saying anything exclusive about only being saved if you accept him as your personal saviour, in the old tent mission sense, or about the followers of any other path not being saved. It sounds to me as if he is saying something much more like this: you are only going to encounter God if you come to realise that, as the Augustinian Father Martin Laird wrote in Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation, “union with God is not something we are trying to acquire; God is already the ground of our being. It is a question of realising this in our lives.” Living so close to Jesus during the three years of his ministry, the penny should have dropped for Philip. Jesus lived more closely than anyone with that realisation at the centre of all he was and did; for he, Jesus, of all people, “walk[ed] cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” (George Fox)

Likewise, some worry about Jesus’ remark at the end of this passage, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” I asked, they say, for world peace – or a Mercedes Benz – and I didn’t receive it. Don’t work none.

In a later book, Martin Laird writes,

But when we petition God for anything over a long period of time, something else begins to happen; we are brought into the depths of God and are joined with God’s will. The fourth-century Syrian monk Denys the Areopagite explains how this works. He tells us to “picture ourselves aboard a boat. There are ropes joining it to some rock. We take hold of the rope and pull on it as if we were trying to drag the rock to us when in fact we are hauling ourselves and our boat toward that rock.” Denys provides a useful metaphor. We think we know what we need and attempt to bend God to our will, but the more we pull, the closer we are drawn into God’s will. Denys continues, “We will not pull down to ourselves that power which is everywhere and yet nowhere, but by divine reminders and invocations we may commend ourselves to it and be joined to it.” We pray to God for this and that. Often these things are important, but gradually we are united to God through our many requests and even in spite of them.

Conversely, our journey into the open, silent saltmarshes of the spirit is no solipsistic attempt at what is so commonly called self-realisation. Laird again, “There is an intercessory dimension to interior silence; for interior silence and compassionate solidarity are all of a piece, like spokes leading to the hub of a wheel… Only on the rim of the wheel of daily life do we appear to be separated from each other, but if we follow each spoke from the rim to the hub, all the spokes are one in the centre. We each share the same Centre.” And it is that centre that is Christ in each of us.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The sowing of seeds

This has been a strange Easter. For us, it has been marked indelibly by the death of a old and dear friend on Easter Saturday evening. In his excellent post for Easter on the Britain Yearly Meeting website, Alistair Fuller writes:
The story of Holy Week and Easter, seen as a whole, is vivid and unsettling. It contains within it themes of friendship, betrayal and political tension. There is state-sponsored murder, and the violent pendulum swing of public opinion from adoration to condemnation. There are moments of loneliness, desolation, unspeakable cruelty and profound courage. There is falling and failing, of many kinds. And there is tenacious and unflinching love. 
And Easter itself is not quite the sunlit miracle story we might remember. There is no gospel telling of anything that might be described as ‘the resurrection’, but rather a jagged and untidy collection of stories and moments of encounter.
It has been so for us, and yet, as Fuller goes on to say, it has been full “of the unconquerable aliveness of the love encountered in and through Jesus.”

Marcelle Martin, in her 2016 book Our Life Is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey, writes of the process known by early Quakers, George Fox in particular, as “The Refiner’s Fire” (from Malachi 3.2: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap…”):
Experiences of the Light are challenging when they show us ways we have not been living in accordance with God’s love and truth. Western cultures teach people from infancy to onward to push divine guidance to the back of our awareness, and most people quickly learn to block perception of the indwelling Presence of God. Reversing this and consciously opening our hearts and minds to spiritual truth is not easy. It takes patience and courage to still our minds, turn within, and wait in a receptive way for the Light to show us how we have been resisting divine Love and Truth in the particulars of our thinking, our relationships, our way of living, and our participation in the world. Seeing this can be surprising… 
[Quoting Sandra Cronk] “The process of entering into a deep relationship with God is also the process of uncovering ourselves… In the light of that love, deep re-patterning can take place in us.”
For me, the reality has been less straightforward than it is or some. Due to some quirk of nature or nurture – my mother, who brought me up as a single parent, was a painter and sculptor – I never did “learn to block perception of the indwelling Presence of God” to the extent that most people seem to. As I wrote a couple of years ago, “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.” Listening for that indwelling presence has been at times terrifying, at times joyful, but it has never been entirely possible to escape, hard as I occasionally tried, especially in my mid-twenties. I am at least as susceptible as anyone I know to self-deception and wishful thinking, to being untrue to myself and to God, and to looking outside myself, at the external aspects of thought and practice among people of faith, trying to distract myself from the work of the Spirit in my heart. But it is less easy to distract the Holy Spirit, and so I have been called back again and again to these uncomfortable, at times downright dangerous, places, out in the saltmarshes of the heart.

Parker J Palmer saw this as clearly as anyone, having lived through these difficult times himself:
Inner work is as real as outer work and involves skills one can develop, skills like journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendship, and prayer…
TS Eliot wrote:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
This Easter it is true. Loss and grieving get caught up inextricably into prayer, and prayer into what Jesuits call the prayer of examen. It is harder than ever to distract myself, but the indistractible Spirit is gentle, too, and
…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)
I wrote a few weeks ago how I had been startled in meeting by a Friend’s ministry – just these few words, from Proverbs 20.24,
All our steps are ordered by the Lord;
how then can we understand our own ways?
that spoke directly to my condition. It is hard to see how our steps are “ordered by the Lord,” but all that is really left, this Easter, is to trust, and to remain still. In Isaac Penington’s words,
…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.
First published on Silent Assemblies

Monday, March 26, 2018

Naming the mystery?

Prayer is not about unveiling an impersonal source of our being, nor about gaining access to some sort of basic cosmic energy, nor about diving into a greater whole. Prayer is meeting the Father’s eyes and discovering that he loves us, cares for us, and journeys at out side. 
Luigi Gioia, Say it to God: In Search of Prayer: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2018
This is the sort of statement that irritates some people, Friends and liberal Christians alike, who do indeed feel they wish to see God in impersonal terms like these. The problem is one of language, of course (see much of God, words and us, ed. Helen Rowlands), but also of rather more than the bare use of that term might suggest. Too much use of the personal may awaken in some unfortunate memories of simplistic caricatures of faith taught in Sunday schools, evangelistic rallies and elsewhere, while the often studied, mannered use of the impersonal may cramp and inhibit those of us whose own natural speech uses the concepts of a Trinitarian God as the inevitable expression of their experience of faith.

Craig Barnett, quoted in God, words and us, writes,
Most Quakers who use the word ‘God’ are not speaking of an ‘old man in the clouds’, or the omnipotent and omniscient supernatural God of the philosophers. Liberal Quakerism has inherited from the wider mystical religious tradition an understanding of spiritual reality as ultimately mysterious and unnameable, This tradition uses the word ‘God’ not as the name of an external ‘being’ but as a signpost that points towards our experience of spiritual reality… 
For many people the word ‘God’ has so many unpleasant association with authoritarian or dogmatic religion that it is definitely unhelpful for them. For others, it is the most natural word to express their own experience and its continuity with traditional Quaker spirituality or with other religious paths. There is no right answer here: it is simply a matter of our personal histories and sensibilities, which may also change over time in response to different experiences.
Writing in the 22 March 2018 issue of The Friend, Cap Kaylor says, in their article ‘Christ, mystery and faith‘,
Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, the deeper narrative from which Quakerism sprang is the Christian narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who functioned both as archetype and engine for the early Quakers. For most of our history Friends have had no trouble identifying with that Christian narrative. 
The Religious Society of Friends began as a reform movement within Christianity, and for the early Friends there was no confusion when it came to identifying the Light with the historical person of Jesus. They lived and moved in a society that was saturated with a Christian ethos. The very stones around them proclaimed a Christian culture that we can no longer take for granted as they could. Embedded within a Christian milieu they found their meaning and their mission in the gospels. 
We are now faced with a dilemma. That Christian milieu has long since faded, and seeds that were planted early in our own history have left Quakers uniquely vulnerable to the stresses and challenges of a materialistic and aggressively secular civilisation. The historic channels through which Christian faith has typically been transmitted were scripture, tradition, and sacramental ritual. They weave together to form the narrative that is the Christian community’s collective memory of the Jesus event. 
To a certain degree, part of the uniqueness of Quakerism has been its rejection of scripture, tradition and ritual as the principle sources of religious authority. In their place, Friends have historically elevated the individual’s experience of the Inward Light as primary. But it might now be asked whether the very thing that made Quakerism unique within Christianity is now making it uniquely vulnerable. Without scripture, tradition or sacramental ritual, what is left to re-link us to the original narrative that gave shape and substance to what began as an explicitly Christian mysticism? 
We could do without a reliance on scripture, ordained ministry, or ritual while we lived in a Christian society that provided us with commonly held ethical presuppositions and a vocabulary to interpret our spiritual experiences. But that time has now past. However, without the force of at least an ostensibly Christian culture, where is the Religious Society of Friends to look for its identity and its engine?
Prayer has a way of undercutting our assumptions and our intellectualising, our “notions” as early Friends would have said. We are so much less than we think we are, and beside the realities we encounter in prayer our ideas and our preconceptions seem, to be honest, often slightly silly.

Luigi Gioia goes on to say,
In the end the source of authentic peace and truth will have to be looked for within. The real source of certainty as well…
Here is a Professor of Systematic Theology at the Pontifical University in Rome saying something that would not have sounded inappropriate in the mouth of an early Quaker! Prayer, if it is anything, is an authentic encounter with that which is far beyond the personal as we understand it, not because it is less than personal, but because it is infinitely more. For that, my own understanding fits precisely the Triune God of the creeds. When I pray the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, I am not reciting a formula; I am praying, in the Spirit, to Christ. There are no other words for that. We humans need sacraments: we need something, whether shared silence or shared bread and wine, to link us and heal us and remake us, to make real, to ground, our experience in the flesh in which we are made. Prayer needs this grounding – it cannot live as bodiless esotericism. It needs breath, warmth, life.

Gioia again,
Not that [in prayer] pain, worry, sin, selfishness, shame, guilt, magically disappear. Not that we lose our solidarity with all our brothers and sisters who do not pray or who do not believe. On the contrary, authentic prayer makes us more compassionate: we start feeling not only our pain but the pain of our brothers and sisters as well, we start perceiving the inward groans of humanity and even of the whole of creation [Romans 8.19-23]. What changes, however, is that these groans, this pain, these worries, this shame, this guilt, become prayer, feed prayer, so that love and hope are inexplicably infused into them and they lose their bitterness, their ability to hurt us, to trouble us: in hope we were saved and when we hope we become able to wait with patience, because all things work together for good for those who experience God’s love in prayer [Romans 8.28]…

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Aerials, signs...



Divine action is not something material: it is invisible, inaudible, unexpected, unimaginable, and inexplicable by any analogy taken from this world. Its advent and its working within us are a mystery… Little by little, divine action grants to man increased attention and contrition of the heart in prayer… 
The spirit of prayer comes upon man and drives him into the depths of the heart, as if he were taken by the hand and forcibly led from one room to another. The soul is taken captive by an invading force, and is willingly kept within, as long as this overwhelming power of prayer still holds sway over it. 
Theophan the Recluse, quoted in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, ed. Timothy Ware & Chariton of Valamo

Palm Sunday has a way of reminding us that we are all capable of both more good and less good than we had thought. The crowd who welcomed Jesus on the way into Jerusalem, the disciples who vowed to lay down their lives for their Lord, were the same people who later allowed themselves to be whipped up into demanding the release of a terrorist called Barabbas rather than Jesus; the same disciples who ran from the arresting officers; the same Peter who, having earlier sworn to die with him. swore he knew nothing of Jesus. We are no different; and yet there is a grace we do not suspect, working beneath all that we do, if we are open to the gift of the Spirit in us.

Bernard of Clairvaux wrote:
I admit that the Word has also come to me and has done so many times. But although he has come to me, I have never been conscious of the moment of his coming. I perceived his presence, I remembered afterwards that he had been with me; sometimes I had a presentiment that he would come, but I was never conscious of his coming or his going… 
Where he comes from when he visits my soul, and where he goes, and by what means he enters and goes out, I admit that I do not know even now, as John says, you do not know where he comes from or where he goes [Jn 3.8]. There is nothing strange in this, for of him was it said, Your footsteps will not be known [Psalm 77.19]… 
It was not by any movement of his that I recognised his coming; it was not by any of my senses that I perceived he had penetrated to the depths of my being. Only by the movement of my heart, as I have told you, did I perceive his presence.
We are not in the Jerusalem of the first century: we are in a strange, liminal place, all of us, and have been for a long while – since the first Easter. We do not know, any more than Bernard of Clairvaux knew, how exactly it is that the Spirit comes to be present in us, and yet
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 find ourselves walking through the world unarmed, vulnerable, available; with the prayer of Jesus himself in our hearts always, the Spirit interceding for us with sighs too deep for words. Being present to all we encounter as prayer, rather than needing consciously to say prayers, we are present as aerials, signs, receiving stations. The mist covers the distances, and our vision is not good; but Paul knew this, too:
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 
(1 Corinthians 13.12-13)