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...

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