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.