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


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.