Tuesday, November 12, 2019

In the Middle


This surely is one of the most extraordinary mysteries of being Christian. We are in the middle of two things that seem quite contradictory: in the middle of the heart of God, the ecstatic joy of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; and in the middle of a world of threat, suffering, sin and pain. And because Jesus has taken his stand right in the middle of those two realities, that is where we take ours. As he says, "Where I am, there will my servant be also" (John 12.26).

The prayer of baptized people is a growing and moving into the prayer of Jesus himself and therefore it is a prayer that may often be difficult and mysterious... Christians pray because they have to, because the Spirit is surging up inside them. Prayer, in other words, is like sneezing - there comes a point where you can't not do it... But because of this there will be moments when, precisely because you can't help yourself, it can feel dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, hard to speak about.

Rowan Williams, Being Christian
We live, like so many familiar sea creatures, in the littoral zone. Their lives are lived out between sea and land (litus is Latin for shore); our conscious life is led between birth and death - even as children we learn this, and though many of us try to think as little as possible about it, we live on that threshold all our lives on earth. This liminal space (limen is Latin for threshold) is our home; but it is an unsettled place: the tides ebb and flow, the land changes; and to be aware of this, honestly and openly aware of it, is to pray.

Paul writes (Romans 8.26-27 NIV) "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God."

This is indeed prayer that is "dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, hard to speak about." It is in this kind of prayer - that can sometimes bring the one praying to the edge of giving up, since it is so unlike the cheerful "talks with God" we are so often brought up to expect - that contemplation and intercession meet in the shadow of the Holy Spirit, in whom prayer - with or without words - is in fact prophetic, merely in the act itself. For prayer in Christ is a hidden prayer ("For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" Colossians 3.3) prayed in a liminal space between life and death, knowing and unknowing; and yet it is a prayer that calls us, "Back to the beginning, back to where it all comes from..." (Williams, ibid.)

Friday, November 01, 2019

We can only receive...

Yesterday I had coffee with an old friend - a priest and a reader of this blog - and at the end of a long and sometimes searching conversation, just as we were gathering our coats to leave the coffee house, she asked me, "What is it you actually do in your prayer times - what is your practice in itself?" We both had places to get to, and I was only able to give her a quick answer. - but I thought, if she is not clear on this, perhaps I'm guilty of over-much generalisation, and writing too much about the theory of contemplative prayer rather than the practice.

So, for my friend, and for anyone else who is interested, this is what I actually do. First thing in the morning, after a quick mug of coffee (there seems to be a lot of coffee in the post - I wonder why?), I sit down - usually our little cat keeps me company - and read a passage of Scripture slowly and prayerfully, not as a formal lectio divina, but in the same way allowing the Word to speak in my heart in its own voice: usually a paragraph or so around the verse for the day from the Bible app on my phone, and a single 8-verse segment from Psalm 119 (118). Then, taking up my olive wood holding cross, I pray the Jesus Prayer - Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner - for 20 minutes or slightly longer. Prayed with attention and at a normal speed, this equates to 100 repetitions or thereabouts. I finish with the Grace, and go about the rest of the day. (I usually have a short period of actual Bible study sometime later in the day.)

I should say that I make no attempt to do anything with the Jesus Prayer. I am not trying to synchronise it with my breath, or heartbeat, or anything else. I am not attempting to empty my mind, nor to fill it with holy thoughts. I am not consciously attempting to recall those for whom I would wish to pray, though I am occasionally aware of their presence with me, somehow. Whenever my mind wanders, or thoughts drift into it, I simply and quietly return to the Prayer, speaking the words inwardly, in the silence of my heart. And it is in the heart's awareness that the Prayer seems quietly to lodge, without effort or intent.

This is a simple, strong practice that has developed over many years, as I explained in a recent post, and it has served me well. I've often thought, or been advised, that a longer, more formal office, such as the Benedictine or Franciscan forms of morning prayer, might be a good thing, but always I have been drawn back to this simplest of practices which developed over the years I was farming full-time, and had only time for the most stripped-down, resilient practice.

However, the Jesus Prayer is not a prayer that likes to be confined to a set time. After 40 years of use, it seeps into all the crevices of life like no other prayer. I find myself praying it as I walk, especially, and when I'm waiting, holding on for a phone call to be answered, or for a bus. If I doze off in a chair, I awake to find the Prayer has been praying itself in my sleep. It has even been known to slip into the listening interstices of a difficult or a profound conversation.

Before I settle down to sleep at night, I read a section of Psalm 119 again, and one of the night psalms, 4, 30, 63, 91, 116, 134 or another. I fall asleep saying the Jesus Prayer, and wake during the early hours to find it still running gently under my heart. It's then that I often do think of those for whom I would pray, for the world, for all of its creatures, its pain and its beauty, while the Prayer, quite literally, prays itself, and eventually draws me back to sleep.

Ed Cyzewski, a favourite author of mine, wrote recently on his own blog:
So much of my Christian spiritual formation has been hindered by a nagging question:

Am I doing this right?

I want to pray in ways that are authentic and sincere.

I want to be pray with the right techniques.

And these desires all lead to one overarching need when it comes to prayer: I want to guarantee a particular outcome from prayer. If I do this “right,” then authentic contemplative prayer guarantees a particular kind of encounter with God.

Everything hinged on the outcome and my belief that I could control it. If I just meant it a little bit more, prayed with a slightly better focus, examined my conscience a little more thoroughly, or practiced sitting in silence a little bit longer, then perhaps my prayer life would finally take off.

And by take off, I mean that it would yield RESULTS–stuff I can point at as evidence of God and of my own goodness...

So, what does authentic contemplation look like?

Cynthia Bourgeault writes that it’s a returning, again and again, to a sacred word, image, or practice, such as breathing. It is a complete reliance on God who has given us everything need and dwells within us before we even had a chance to prove our piety and worthiness.

God’s grace is upon us while we pray, and so we can let go of our desire to prove ourselves or our techniques as authentic. We can only clear space in our schedules and our minds for what God provides.

You don’t have anything to prove to God. You can only receive what God gives. The pressure is off. The silence is an invitation, a moment to live by faith in the present love of God that has always been here for you through the work of Jesus the Son and the indwelling of the interceding Holy Spirit.
This has been my own experience. Prayer is not a matter of technique, or even, in a sense, of persistence, although it is that. We have to show up, and keep going (Luke 18.1-8). But that's all. We can, truly, only receive what God gives. The next section from Luke's Gospel sums it up, as well as being one of the original sources for the Jesus Prayer itself:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'

"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'

"I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

Luke 18:9-14 NIV 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

In Extremis

There seems to come a time, in this business of prayer, when God insists on taking us at our word. For a long time now I have been increasingly convinced of my calling to prayer, and to contemplative prayer in particular. But the extraordinary events of recent years - the unfolding of what appears to be planetary climate catastrophe, the recurrent threats to democratic civilisation, and the ethical dislocation of social media, to name just a few - make it increasingly hard to be faithful to such a vocation.

How much easier it would be to surrender to the temptation to do something - to join in the twitterstorms, to bang the drums - do something, anything! To "sit in a quiet room alone" seems not only futile, but unbearable.

What Karen and Paul Fredette write of the solitary life is true of any strand of the  contemplative life:
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.  
Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life
I have quoted this passage before, more than once, but it seems to me that the Fredettes express this difficult understanding better than anyone I've read - certainly far better than I could have myself. To remain faithful in prayer, no matter the temptations to do otherwise... the psalmist comes close to how it actually feels:
I am laid low in the dust;
preserve my life according to your word.
I gave an account of my ways and you answered me;
teach me your decrees.
Cause me to understand the way of your precepts,
that I may meditate on your wonderful deeds.
My soul is weary with sorrow;
strengthen me according to your word.
Keep me from deceitful ways;
be gracious to me and teach me your law.
I have chosen the way of faithfulness;
I have set my heart on your laws.
I hold fast to your statutes, Lord;
do not let me be put to shame.
I run in the path of your commands,
for you have broadened my understanding. 
Psalm 119.25-32

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Not a Childish Business

A lot of talk about mysticism and spirituality can be heard as giving you an escape route. Life is difficult but let’s take our glasses off so things look a bit more vague. But the proper definition of mysticism means we can see the nature of suffering more clearly, not less. It doesn’t make it easier, it makes it clearer... 
Let’s be very careful about telling ourselves a cheery story. Because the future may not turn out very cheery. There is no guarantee whatsoever that things will turn out well in the ordinary sense. But we can live, day by day, out of a sense of the worthwhileness of our being, and therefore of our decisions. And to live with that sense of worthwhileness of who we are, that’s where hope resides. 
Rowan Williams, in a talk on mental health, mysticism and spirituality, reported by Jules Evans
The sense of Romans 8.28, "And 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 of the words Julian of Norwich records hearing from God, "All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well", is not however a cheery story, nor an attempt to paper over a harsh reality. It is an invitation, "a profound invitation to notice how condemning we are of reality in ordinary life, and to experiment with letting go of these condemnations, to live in a way without the protection such condemnations offer." (Julian Centre) More than that, it is an invitation to look unflinchingly, through the clarity of contemplative perception, as Julian did, and as Rowan Williams does, at the nature of reality in the presence of God.
The mystical and the spiritual is the key to understanding what well-being is. Not a protected calmness and unnatural detachment, but having sufficient freedom to look clearly at what’s there, inside and outside, to resist some of the imprisoning models pushed at us, to resist some of the systems of power in which we live, so that, by being more deeply open, passive and receptive to truth and the real, we become more genuinely active, capable of living from an active centre of our being, not the periphery, not just reactive. 
Williams, ibid.
I have mentioned elsewhere, in the context of the dark times in which we live, Fr Sophrony. Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov lived through the years of the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Cold War. A Russian, he prayed in community at Mount Athos, and later at The Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, England, and like most Orthodox religious, he was a contemplative. Sophrony wrote, and taught, on the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and it was to this practice that his life was given.

We all tend often to have far too narrow a sense of what prayer is. Paul wrote, “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 cannot, humanly, know how to pray in the direct, petitionary sense under the utterly distressing and alarming circumstances within which we find ourselves living. Coming before God with some list of demands, and our advice, however well-meaning, on how best to fulfil them, simply won't do. Sophrony understood this. He wrote, "Sometimes prayer seems to flag, and we cry, 'Make haste unto me, O God' (Ps. 70.5). But if we do not let go of the hem of his garment, help will come. It is vital to dwell in prayer in order to counteract the persistently destructive influence of the outside world." (His Life Is Mine)

Dwell in prayer. Yes, that is how Julian came to hear what she was told, and how Paul came by the letter to the Romans, too. digitalnun, a sister at Howton Grove Priory, writes:
Whatever is black, bleak or broken in our lives or the lives of those around us is shot through with light and grace but we may have to put a lot of effort into discovering that for ourselves; and we are unlikely to discover it all at once. That is where we can identify with the widow’s persistence — that stubborn hoping against hope almost, that constant going over the same ground. It is not so much that we must continue to pray — though we must — as that we must be prepared for our prayer to be changed and ourselves with it. We must grow in prayer just as we grow physically and emotionally. The image of God that may have sustained us in childhood is not usually adequate for us as adults. It is, as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews remarked, a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God, yet that is what each of us must do, not just once, but again and again. And that is not a childish business.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Guide Star

Laser Guide Star - By ESO/M. Kornmesser - http://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1136a/, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16361914

It is fatally easy to make God in one's own image, or at least to accept a god made in someone else's. So we have angry gods, gods concerned almost exclusively with sexual mores and private morals, political gods (both of the right and of the left), harsh forbidding gods of judgement and predestination, soft warm micromanaging nanny gods, and as many other varieties as there are people prepared to promote them. (Vance G Morgan has a more extensive and detailed list of delusions in his book Freelance Christianity for anyone interested!)

But God is far stranger than any of these. The God of the Bible, especially of the New Testament, is not like any of our imaginings. This God is nearer to us than our own breathing, so close that Catherine of Genoa could say of him, "In God is my being, my I, my strength, my bliss, my desire. But this I that I often call so... in truth I no longer know what the I is, or the Mine, or desire, or the good, or bliss." He is the God "in whom we live and move and have our being." (Acts 17.28) He is the God of Jesus, through whom "all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made." (John 1.3)
We believe in progress – it is written into the DNA of the modern world. If things are bad, they’ll get better... 
...our philosophy of progress colors everything we consider. 19th century Darwinian theory wrote a scientific version of progress into [the] theory of evolution. Of course, using "survival" as the mechanism of change gave cover to a number of political projects who justified their brutality and callousness as an extension of the natural order.  
The metaphor of improvement remains a dominant theme within our culture. A few years ago a survey of young Americans revealed the utterly shocking conclusion that for the first time in recorded history, the young did not expect to be as well off as their parents. It was a paradigm shift in American progressive thought. It remains to be seen how that will play out. 
Fr Stephen Freeman, St Anne's Orthodox Church, Oak Ridge, Tennessee
But the Bible does not seem to believe in progress, not in the way we understand the word. "Every day, in every way, things are getting better and better," to paraphrase Émile Coué, is not the teaching of Jesus. Luke quotes him, "'When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.’ Then he said to them: ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven...'" (Luke 21.9-11) We have tended to collapse the timescale of Jesus' prophecies, and assume that since they did not happen there and then, it was business as usual, despite the fact that the great and progressive Roman Empire under which they were made went, not from strength to strength as it happily became a Christian state under Constantine, but down the tubes within a few centuries. Surely there have been wars and uprisings since then enough to satisfy the most pessimistic of us?

In modern astronomy we find a concept known as a guide star. Though the term has other uses in astronomy, I am thinking of its use in adaptive optics, where it is used as a reference point for correcting the wavefront errors introduced by atmospheric turbulence which distort our view of the distant universe. We can ourselves create a guide star if there is no convenient "steadfast star" we can use, by using the light from a powerful laser to excite atoms in the upper atmosphere  We too, gazing into the dark sky of what is not yet, have a guide star.

In the last chapter of the Bible we read, "'Look, I am coming soon! ... I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End... I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.'" (Revelation 22.12-13,16)

The Jesus of Revelation is the Lamb who was slain (5.12); the victory of Christ is through the cross, not in spite of it, and the glory of God is in the wounds of Christ. The cross extends throughout all time, and it is only through the cross we are brought home to Christ (1 Corinthians 1.18) This is the good news, and our prayer in the name of Jesus is our guide star in even the darkest of nights.


Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Open my eyes...

Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.
I am a stranger on earth; do not hide your commands from me...  
(Psalm 119.18-19)
It sometimes seems too easy to let Scripture slip into the background, especially if we normally read it  in our personal devotion as part of a daily office, where it can be a temptation to scamper through the office readings in order to get on to the more "interesting" times of intercessory or contemplative prayer.

A passage like this, from Psalm 119 - the longest Psalm, and the one most explicitly concerned with Scripture itself - reminds me that not only are there endless treasures concealed among the verses of the entire Bible, but that it is the Spirit that opens our eyes and hearts to them. Unless we read in the Spirit, the Bible will be nothing more to us than an ancient, obscure, contradictory and at times objectionable collection of texts. (See e.g. Peter Enns' How the Bible Actually Works Ch.1) To open the book quietly, in expectation, with such a prayer as the psalmist's for our eyes to be opened and our hearts prepared to encounter "wonderful things" is quite different.

Jean Khoury writes,
"...the less serious our conversion to God is, the less clear the Scriptures are to us." This is why the person who accomplishes and searches for the truth comes to the light (cf. Jn 3.21)... The more we do lectio, the more we dig deep, going down within ourselves and allowing God to descend within us. In fact, we are the ones who let God descend - or not - into our depths. This depends on the quality of our listening. Digging deep means descending into ourselves, letting the light penetrate our dark regions, at our deepest roots and our shadows. This depends on whether we open our door to him or not; our freedom decides this.
Scripture and prayer are indivisible in the life of faith, it seems to me. While of course it is possible to read the Bible prayerlessly, and to pray (perhaps!) without even unconscious involvement with Scripture, I don't think that's how either was ever intended to work. Another name, perhaps, for this intimate amalgam of word and prayer in the Spirit is Wisdom. Peter Enns again, op. cit.:
Wisdom isn't about flipping to a topical index so we can see what we are to do or think - as if the Bible were a teacher's edition textbook with the answers supplied in the back. Wisdom is about the lifelong process of being formed into mature disciples, who wander well along the unscripted pilgrimage of faith, in tune to the all-surrounding thick presence of the Spirit of God in us and in the creation around us.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

A Little Way

Practice - one's practice, a good practice, adopting a practice - is a word more usually associated, in my experience, with Buddhist than with Christian life. But is is an essential concept. In a sense, everyone involved with a religious path in any way has a practice, even if it is to do nothing more than "go to church" once a week or so.

In the contemplative life, the concept of practice becomes central. Whatever one finds oneself called to do, be it Lectio Divina, Centering Prayer, Christian Meditation as defined by WCCM, the Jesus Prayer or anything else, needs to be done regularly. It usually helps to have at least the bare bones of a framework (an opening and a closing prayer, maybe a psalm or other passage from Scripture, if not an actual Office), a place to pray, and a time. Contemplative Outreach, the centering prayer people, have this to say:
Contemplative practices facilitate and deepen our relationship with God. The more we practice and allow the transformation process to happen, the more we are able to experience the Indwelling Presence in everything we do. Contemplative practices give us the eyes to see and the ears to hear God calling us to the banquet that is our lives, as they are.
For some time now I have been actively and critically considering my own practice, and trying, with the help of some wise and prayerful friends here and there, honestly to understand where my path is taking me. In order to understand this, I've had to try to think where it has taken me up till now, and it occurred to me that not only might it be helpful to me to write it down, it might just prove helpful to anyone reading this blog to see what has worked and what has not, and, perhaps most importantly, how hidden my own path has been much of the time, from others perhaps, but mostly from myself.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I have been praying the Jesus Prayer for at least 40 years, off and on, fairly faithfully for the last thirtyish of those; but the real foundation of where I find myself today was laid when I returned to full-time farming in 1989 or 90. Now dairy farming, especially modern large-scale dairy farming, is about as time-bound an occupation as you are likely to encounter. Everything revolves around the daily (often mid-morning) visit of the wholesaler's milk tanker, which largely determines the (normally twice-daily) times of milking, in order that the morning's milk may be cooled and ready for collection by the time the tanker arrives. Everything else - routine work, vet visits, sleep, eating, and prayer - fits around milking times. I found that the only way to work in a daily practice was to get up early enough for a time of Bible reading and prayer before morning milking. (In the winter at least, this was in the middle of the night for most people!)

Any practice built up like this has to be simple, flexible, and strong. There just wasn't time for a conventional office, with books and multi-coloured ribbon markers and ring-binders; I had to come down to something that worked with a Bible, a holding cross, and possibly a notebook, that I could use with a mug of hot coffee in my hand, and a cat on my lap, next to the warm kitchen range. My practice came down to reading a passage from the New Testament or the prophets, and a Psalm, often one of the 8-verse sections of Psalm 119, and a brief meditation on that, followed by 20 minutes of the Jesus Prayer, ending with the Grace. Since then, I have kept coming back to this strong, simple outline; I have had various attempts at a daily office, now that I have time for such things, but it has never "taken", and I have always found that I returned to my simple routine, enhanced sometimes by another such period in the early afternoon.

For a long time this worried me. I should, I thought, follow a daily office of some kind. I ought, I felt, to have a more liturgical routine, a proper rule. But it just doesn't work for me, somehow.

One of the passages from Psalm 119 I have kept returning to over the years has been vv 65-72:
Do good to your servant
    according to your word, Lord.
Teach me knowledge and good judgment,
    for I trust your commands.
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
    but now I obey your word.
You are good, and what you do is good;
    teach me your decrees.
Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies,
    I keep your precepts with all my heart.
Their hearts are callous and unfeeling,
    but I delight in your law.
It was good for me to be afflicted
    so that I might learn your decrees.
The law from your mouth is more precious to me
    than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.
At first glance this talk of affliction being good for one might seem to be redolent of hair shirts and things like that, but there is another way altogether of reading this passage. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." (Matthew 5.4) The psalmist here is just telling the truth: through any honest attempt at faithfulness under any, I imagine, kind of affliction, but especially through the deprivation of many of the usual channels of following one's faith, we are blessed, whether it feels like that at the time or not. (Is this perhaps some small part of why faith seems to grow, or to be potentiated, under persecution?)

Craig Barnett writes:
The religious path is often presented as a way to achieve inner peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering. Much popular spirituality claims that life is meant to be filled with peace and contentment; that pain and anguish are problems that can be overcome by the right attitude or technique. The promise of perfect contentment is seductive, but it can never be fulfilled, because it is based on the illusion that suffering is a mistake. 
Suffering, ageing, sickness and loss are not regrettable failures to realise our true nature. They are inherent in the nature of embodied human life and our often-incompatible needs and desires. Any spirituality, therapy or ideology that promises an escape from these limitations neglects the truth that suffering is an essential dimension of human life. Growth in spiritual maturity does not mean escaping or transcending these experiences, but becoming more able to accept and learn from them; to receive the painful gifts that they have to offer.
It feels slightly odd, after so long, to find myself - not arrived, but - content with the path God has set me on. It has taken a long time, and all the while I have tended to feel that anything I had done was provisional, that it might do until something better came along. Of course while I was actively farming it was different - there wasn't much I could do except accept my little practice as good enough. Of course that's it. It is good enough. Any practice of ours cannot be more than that. It was only when I was injured in a farm accident, and had to give up farming, that I thought I ought to be "doing more" in the way of a practice, a rule. And in any case dairy farming is not an elderly man's occupation; I'd have had to retire, or change career, sooner rather than later. I suppose in some dim recess I was aware of this, and thought of my little practice as provisional. Well, in a sense it still is. All the work of faith in our present life is provisional - this strange contentment lies in the realisation of that, and in the acceptance that, in very truth, "All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?" (Proverbs 20.24)

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Eternity

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
And all her train were hurl’d. 
Henry Vaughan, from 'The World'
Time and eternity are not the same thing at all, which may seem like an obvious kind of a thing to say, except that we are too often tempted to imagine eternity as an endless progression of time; rather than, as Vaughan, I think rightly, pictures it, endless, resting light.

Like Vaughan, too, I have caught glimpses, at times especially when death has seemed closer than otherwise, of a state where time has no longer any dominion, any more than what we commonly imagine as death: a state of peace and limitless love, which seemed the same thing as light, for all was light. This is a condition more to be longed for than feared, and profoundly welcoming, accepting, healing.

We sometimes seem to worry, to wonder about judgement, and about Christ as our "advocate in Heaven" (1 John 2.1), and yet Paul's words in the first chapter of his letter to the Colossians seem closer to my own heart:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together... through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. 
Colossians 1.15-17,20
Christ is our peace, and he is himself the love and mercy of God (that aspect of the triune God that is all love and mercy). Perhaps the very pain of prayer is the means of that mercy in us for those for whom we pray, our own small participation in the work of the cross. But we are at the edge here of what human language can do, and I am no apostle. All I do know, and that for certain, is that his love and mercy are in all and through all, and that we can never fall out of that love - and that through that love we cannot be other than loved into eternity itself.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

On the edge...

Limen is the Latin word for threshold. A “liminal space” is the crucial in-between time—when everything actually happens and yet nothing appears to be happening. It is the waiting period when the cake bakes, the movement is made, the transformation takes place. One cannot just jump from Friday to Sunday in this case, there must be Saturday! This, of course, was always the holy day for the Jewish tradition. The Sabbath rest was the pivotal day for the Jews, and even the dead body of Jesus rests on Saturday, waiting for God to do whatever God plans to do. It is our great act of trust and surrender, both together. A new “creation ex nihilo” is about to happen, but first it must be desired. . . . 
Remember, hope is not some vague belief that “all will work out well,” but biblical hope is the certainty that things finally have a victorious meaning no matter how they turn out. We learned that from Jesus, which gives us now the courage to live our lives forward from here. Maybe that is the full purpose of Lent. 
Richard Rohr, Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent, Saint Anthony Messenger Press, 2010
--- 
...the post-liminal is the changed state. The re-emergence, blinking, into the daylight from the shadows. The postliminal is a transformed state, it is the time when we come down from the mountain with our faces bright. When we walk among our friends, unrecognisable. When we return to the tribe as an adult, having left as a child. When we arrive at our destination unknown, amid the acrid stench of whale vomit. Because the liminal state cannot last, it cannot be properly sustained over a very long period of time, except perhaps by cats. The intensity is too much, it is too draining. 
One of the keys to surviving the liminal stage, despite its troubling lack of ritualised rites of passage, is to look for someone who has passed this way before: a guide, a supporter, a teacher, coach or midwife. Someone with the ability to understand the difficulties of the liminal stage, and to help us through them. They help us not to rush the process, a child is should be born only when it is ready, and a key Christian metaphor has long been that of being ‘born again’. While this has been taken to mean many things, it’s worth consciously reflecting on in the context of liminality. Those of us who dwell on the threshold, slipping and winding like black cats through the shadows of the in-between-time, must be looking for the way through, that moment of re-birth. That point when we come out of the darkness, and out in to the light. The process of birth is markedly helped by the presence of a midwife, and/or a doula, just as so many of the rites of passage in our lives are helped by those with the subtle skill and experience to help us navigate them. If you find yourself in a liminal space, as you will inevitably do at various times in your life: dwelling on another threshold, look for help from those who have already passed that way, you may recognise them from their shining faces, their rough desert clothes, or from the overpowering smell of whale vomit, or maybe even sometimes from the holes in their hands and feet.
Simon Cross, Dwellers on the threshold. Simonjcross.com/longform (August 2019)
This passage from Simon Cross' essay (do click through and read the whole thing) reminds me how I have often thought that the cross is the final liminal place, the very edge between heaven and earth, death and the endless life of God. I say, "the cross is" intentionally: for, as Thibault explained to Peter Abelard, the cross goes on through all time, like the grain in a tree. It is there in the grief of those who have completely lost their way, in the death of the innocent, in the tears of the betrayed.

Paul the Apostle wrote, "for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (Colossians 3.3) The liminal space is a kind of death, and the dead are our companions there, which is perhaps why we pray along with "angels and archangels and all the company of heaven", amongst "so great a cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12.1). Our own dying will be into liminality again, into the still cross-shadowed presence of our Saviour, and accompanied by the prayers of those who have gone before. And even though all these crossings of the in-between time are necessarily made in solitude, we are not alone.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Only begin...

Christian contemplative prayer of any kind is a vocation. It has to be. It is no good deciding to take it up because we feel that it is something we ought to have included in our spiritual CV, or because we are stressed out, and feel it might help us calm down. It won't help as a cure for insomnia, or indigestion. It isn't even a tool for self-improvement, or growth in mindfulness, or inducing unusual modes of consciousness. It isn't, as some of our evangelical brothers and sisters worry, a method of emptying the mind. It is a vocation, just as much as a vocation to the priesthood, or to teaching or music.

Contemplative prayer is as much as anything a call to a life of interior solitude. It is solitude with God, of course - how could it be otherwise? - but it is solitude for God: an openness within which he can find us, a door closed (Matthew 6.6) against, at least for a moment, the world, our human appetites, and against enemy interference. It is not an easy way, really, though it is so simple.

What Karen and Paul Fredette write of the solitary life is true of a contemplative life lived in community, too, whether formally or informally:
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.  
Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life
Our question may be, though, how can we be sure that this is a vocation, that it is God who is calling us to this odd way of life? I don't think we can be certain, really, at least not before we begin. In John's Gospel Jesus says to his first disciples, "Come and see!" (John. 1.28-29) and later on in the same Gospel, the Samaritan woman Jesus meets at the well uses the same phrase, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" (John 4.29) It's all we can do, ourselves. Just begin. A year, twenty years, down the line you'll still be beginning. Each day, the sun rises, always beginning again. It always does. And so the heart opens, always from the beginning again. There is nothing else it can do, in prayer. Only God is the constant ground of our being, and his mercy is everlasting (Psalm 100.5).

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Loop-Dance of the Three-in-One

Praying the Word means reading (or reciting) Scripture in a spirit of prayer and letting the meaning of the verses inspire our thoughts and become our prayer. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we find instances of God’s people "praying the Word" by quoting Scripture in their prayers. 
Our life should be soaked in God’s Word, so it is only natural that our prayers be filled with it too. In doing so, we can experience numerous benefits to praying the Word. For example, it helps keep our prayers in scriptural proportion. "We may tend to pray about the same few issues over and over and over," says Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology Andy Naselli. "But if we pray Scripture as we read through the Bible, that will force us to pray about a rich variety of issues in scriptural proportion." 
The NIV Bible Blog 
---
 It is surely, therefore, very possible that when God began to reveal himself to men, to show them that He and nothing else is their true goal and the satisfaction of their needs, and that He has a claim on them simply by being what He is, quite apart from anything he can bestow or deny, it may have been absolutely necessary that this revelation should not begin with any hint of future Beatitude or Perdition. These are not the right point to begin at... 
CS Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms
--- 
...taken together [the Bible is] a book which has been developed in community over thousands of years, forged in and against the white heat of empire and domination, edited and revised, pored over and criticised endlessly. And it is pure treasure – it contains the voices of those who have gone before us. It shows them working out their ideology and identity, and wrestling with ideas about and experience of what they consider to be the divine. It tells us of their lives, their longings, their weaknesses and their wisdom. It showcases their failings and their blind spots, just as it demonstrates their extraordinary compassion and courage. There is, put simply, no other book like it...
But ultimately this all means little unless we are able to let the Bible 'speak' to us – and in so doing to change the way we think and the way we live. Too many people consider it the "word of God" and then find ways to justify the way they live already, claiming that this is divinely ordained. A big thumbs up from the guy in the sky. The keys to understanding the Bible aren't hard to locate, they are there in black and white, sometimes in red and white. They are there in the Mosaic covenant, and repeated by prophets: they are demonstrated by Jesus who shows that to live this way requires dedication and humility, and a radical acceptance of 'others'. When we listen for the voice of the Bible in this way, perhaps we do indeed hear God's word, from far back in time, whispered through the lives and words of our ancestors: Love other people as you love yourself. There is no limit on whom you should love.  
Simon Cross (see also his subsequent post)
On the face of it, these may appear three disparate quotations, tied together by little more than their common subject, Scripture. But reading the Bible isn't quite like reading any other book - as Simon Cross says, doing so is of little use unless we are prepared to let ourselves be changed, in ways we cannot predict or prepare for. Change is always a risky venture, yet it is the inevitable result of prayer, and of the prayerful reading of Scripture.

Whether we follow a traditional, discursive path such as Ignatian meditation, or a more obviously apophatic one such as the Jesus Prayer (which is itself drawn from Mark 10.47 and Luke 18.13), Christian contemplation is rooted deeply in Scripture. After all, it is perhaps not stretching things too far to suggest that the inspiration of Scripture ("All Scripture is God-breathed..." (2 Timothy 3.16)) comes in the first instance from people's silence before God, their listening for his unspoken word upholding all that is (Hebrews 1.3). Contemplation returning on itself, our hearts following the loop-dance of the Three-in-One...

Monday, August 05, 2019

The Heartland of Prayer

There are two kinds of spiritual darkness: the darkness of the nearness of the presence of God, which is in reality a Light, but one too bright for our endurance; and the darkness of our blemished human nature, hiding from us that Light of the Spirit as it begins to permeate the higher levels of the mind. The first darkness is experienced only by those who are far advanced in holiness, the true saints whose number and identity are known only in heaven. Most of us are so very far from being saints that in our pride we may regard the slow and halting dawn of that Light as our own achievement; so we may think of the second darkness as being at the same time the consequence of sin and the dispensation of a loving Providence; for God in his mercy takes even our sins and uses them to make us humble and obedient. There is a sense in which, having sinned, we may be thankful for our sins. But the primary sin is pride: when this is dead, the soul returns to God. 
Acceptance of darkness, then, is an absolutely necessary condition of learning how to pray. In the darkness of our prayer, when we cannot even know if we are praying at all, our only source of reassurance is our faith; and faith has its dwelling in the heart, beyond the reach of the brain, inaccessible to psychological or neurological research. We cannot feel our faith in God. The Catholic priest and spiritual director, Father Vincent McNabb, arranged to have inscribed upon his coffin an alternative translation of the words addressed to Jesus by Peter on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias after the Resurrection: "Lord, thou knowest if I love thee" (John 21:17).
Lois Lang-Sims, 'The Mind in the Heart
The heartland of prayer is silence, which is darkness by another name: the darkness of cognition, the abnegation of "the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses." (Oxford Dictionary: cognition) It is only in this darkness, this absence, that we can know God as himself, and this only by means of the "sharp dart of longing love" of The Cloud of Unknowing. But we cannot speak of this, not even to ourselves. We are, like "Prufrock, unable to communicate not the doubting question 'What is it?' but the glorious answer." (Adrian Leak, Church Times)

All our efforts at prayer, in the end, are paths to silence, darkness, from contemplative disciplines to the sound and action of the liturgy, where, as one of my favourite Eucharistic hymns begins, "Let all mortal flesh keep silence/And with fear and trembling stand..."

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Contemplative Life

There is a tendency, and has been probably since the Reformation, to consider objective, measurable things, observable by means of the five human senses, or extensions of them, as reality; and anything else, whether spiritual or imaginal, as somehow less real, and of less consequence.

There is another way of looking at the universe altogether, one which regards all of creation as alive with spirit, shot through with the presence of God, whose being gave it existence, and sustains it at every instant. God is the ground of all being, and all that is is held and kept by God. "In God's hand" is one metaphorical way of putting it, if you can read that without anthropomorphism.

Fr Stephen Freeman, a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, puts it like this in a recent blog post:
The assumptions of these two worldviews could hardly be more contradictory. The naturalistic/secular model has the advantage of sharing a worldview with contemporary culture. As such, it forms part of what most people would perceive as "common sense" and "normal." Indeed, the larger portion of Christian believers within that model have no idea that any other Christian worldview exists. 
The classical/sacramental worldview was the only Christian worldview for most of the centuries prior to the Reformation. Even then, that worldview was only displaced through revolution and state sponsorship. Nonetheless, the sacramental understanding continues within the life of the Orthodox Church, as well as many segments of Catholicism. Its abiding presence in the Scriptures guarantees that at least a suspicion of "something else" will haunt some modern Christian minds. 
[If you are interested in following Ft Stephen's argument, which is fascinating and important, but which follows a slightly different path to my own post, I'd strongly suggest clicking through and reading the linked post, and the subsequent one, to understand his complete thesis.]
From the point of view of one who prays, the distinction between these two points of view is crucial. If the "objective" worldview governs out thought and our perception, then prayer does indeed become problematical. Either it is a largely solipsistic activity, designed to make us "feel better" about ourselves and those we pray for, or it is a request that God break into the shell of cause and effect he has created, and manipulate it for our own benefit or for someone else's.

But if the world is indeed sacramental, if it is as much a medium for the presence of God as for sustaining his creatures, then prayer becomes something very different indeed. The Kingdom of God is perhaps our Lord's way of describing what is going on: it is in part a life lived in the realisation of God's presence and energy - his love - as permeating and renewing all that is. St Paul puts it like this,
...these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.
(1 Corinthians 2.10-12)
Now prayer becomes something different indeed. It is much more like entering into the Kingdom with Christ, bringing our will into his unknowable purposes (Proverbs 20.24), in which he works in all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8.28). Michael Ramsey wrote,
Contemplation is for all Christians... [It] means essentially our being with God, putting ourselves in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart.
I suspect this is why those who practice contemplative prayer refer so often to "the contemplative life", for to pray like this leads eventually to a life lived largely outside the "real world" of getting and spending, and its rewards. As Jesus himself put it, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5.1) A life like this, though, is a life in some small way like his, and he was on earth "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." (Isaiah 53.3) The needs of the world are beyond counting, and to carry even the least of them on our heart is to have it broken, as our Lord's was; and it is only those who mourn thus who can receive, and carry, the comfort of his mercy. (Matthew 5.2)

Monday, July 22, 2019

Constant craving

There is in the heart of each of us some sweetly painful core of longing that often remains unrecognised, or else is mistakenly ascribed to a need for sex, or companionship, or achievement, or some other fulfilment common to human life. Of course one who lacks these things may quite legitimately long for them, but I am not talking about these everyday lacks and desires. What I am talking about is somehow insatiable in the ordinary course of events, and so, if misread, say for a need for intimate relationship, can lead to untold unhappiness and unthought unkindness; for even the best marriage, the closest friendship, will leave it unsatisfied and still empty. kd lang seems to have seen this as clearly as anyone, in her almost heartbreakingly poignant song 'Constant Craving':
Even through the darkest phase
Be it thick or thin
Always someone marches brave
Here beneath my skin 
Constant craving
Has always been 
Maybe a great magnet pulls
All souls towards truth
Or maybe it is life itself
That feeds wisdom
To its youth 
Constant craving
Has always been...
We are not used in our time to correctly identifying it, for it is yearning for God. Robert Llewelyn, in With Pity, Not With Blame, writes:
...yearning, though associated in a special way with conversion, will always be an element in prayer; indeed its intensity will increase rather than decline with advancing years. The soul which is awakened by the fulness of the joy which is to come must by nature long for its consummation. Julian [of Norwich] describes the experience as painful, even as a lasting penance which God mercifully enables us to bear. This suffering, borne in love, must remain until we possess God as our reward.
For myself - as, I suspect, for kd lang - this yearning, however painful, is something we would rather die than have removed from our souls. Jack Kerouac, in a passage I can't now locate, spoke of it as a endless longing for "sweet permanence", and of course it is in a way, since only God, the ground of being itself, is everlasting; everything else is subject to change and decay, as Henry Francis Lyle put it so well in his old hymn 'Abide with Me'.

I have found, after years of searching, that prayer is the only place to go with a craving like this. It doesn't, of course, satisfy it; but it is a recognition of its source and purpose, and a step decisively in the right direction. Contemplative prayer, in the broadest sense of the term, is probably the nearest we will get to it this side of death. As I hinted the other day, one of its great advantages is it doesn't require that we understand, or be able to describe to ourselves, what it is we are yearning for; we can simply approach the presence of God with our hearts filled with this inchoate, grieving desire, and ask without words to come in...

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Rest for the weary and unclear

Contemplative prayer is always an odd occupation, and it has effects on our wider spiritual life that extend far beyond our formal times of prayer.

Robert Llewelyn, writing in With Pity, Not With Blame, quotes Edward Bouverie Pusey on distracting and unwelcome thoughts during prayer: "Do not examine yourself about these thoughts whether you consented to them or not. Do not try not to have them. Be not impatient to get rid of them; only desire that you should love God more." He (Llewelyn) goes on to say, "To suffer such thoughts patiently accepting yourself as you are, and looking in trustful surrender to God, is necessarily a humbling experience. For that very reason it is cleansing and healing."

This is a stunning realisation. All those feelings of envy or fear, those sexual fantasies, those thoughts of shopping lists or of our own tedious failings; these are not just not distractions to be fought against with gritted teeth, nor to be pushed down with a determined will, but they are capable of being used by God for our "cleansing and healing". Once again the psalmist had it spot on: "It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees." (Psalm 119.71)

Julian of Norwich, that wisest of women of prayer, took this a whole, almost shocking, stage further. (We sometimes forget that this revered English anchoress, counsellor of Margery Kempe and quoted by TS Eliot and Thomas Merton, was one of the most radical and daring theologians and spiritual directors of any time, not just of her own.) Robert Llewelyn (ibid.), quoting her (Revelations of Divine Love, tr. Clifton Wolters, and Julian of Norwich: Showings, tr. Edmund Colledge OSA and James Walsh SJ):
'He lays on each one he loves some particular thing, which while it carries no blame in his sight causes them to be blamed by the world, despised, scorned, mocked, and rejected.' This, she goes on to explain, is that our pride may be overcome, and that united to Christ we may be made 'humble and mild, clean and holy'. In this our suffering 'our Lord rejoices with pity and compassion', a line which must be linked with the following later in the chapter: 'For he wants us to know that it will all be turned to our honour and profit by the power of his Passion, and to know that we suffered in no way alone, but together with him, and to see in him our foundation.' Being united to Christ in his suffering is central to the whole work of redemption, and our chastisement itself 'becomes gentle and bearable when we are really content with him and with what he does...' 'What penance a man should impose upon himself was not revealed to me... but this was shown, with particular and loving emphasis, that we are to accept and endure humbly whatever penance God himself gives us with his blessed passion ever in mind.' Julian adds that while we are to recognize and accept our chastening the remedy is 'that our Lord is with us, protecting and leading us into the fullness of joy'. And so we are taken to the climax of the chapter: 
'Flee to our Lord and we shall be comforted. Touch him and we shall be made clean. Cling to him and we shall be safe and sound from every kind of danger. For our courteous Lord wills that we should be as at home with him as heart may think or soul may desire.'
If I look back over my own life, with its at times catastrophic (at least from the world's perspective) stumblings and missteps, its meanderings and its outright sins, I can see the precision of Julians insights here. These words, which I first read many years ago, but which I have only gradually come to understand in part, transform everything.

Julian's words put flesh on the bones of Paul's famously disturbing observation "that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose." (Romans 8.28) More than that, she is anointing our memories and regrets with hope, and with an unspeakable comfort. Of course we did not understand what was going on at the time; of course we were lost in mire and confusion... Was it not Paul too who said, a few verses earlier, "For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience"? (Romans 8.24-25)

Prayer is the means we have been given, all of us, to bring to God these long memories of pain, and glimpses of sudden and frightening hope; and it is, in the long run, the means we have been given to receive his comfort. It is the great gift of contemplative prayer that we need not understand, need not find the right words - or any words - to explain to God or to ourselves what it is that weighs so heavily on our hearts, to hear Jesus' own invitation to
Come to me, all you that 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 11.28-30)

Friday, July 05, 2019

All prayer is...

Simon Cross, Oasis chaplain, writer and teacher, has this to say in the most recent of his weekday meditations (7/5/2019: 'No Hiding Place'):
One of the most famous of all the ancient Jewish songs we call the Psalms is number 139, which talks about the writer's understanding of God. A contemporary Christian view of God tends towards a view of the divine that is at once distant, and controlling. This is a way of thinking that owes as much to Greek mythology as anything else. 
The God of the 139th Psalm on the other hand is somehow different: "If I go to the highest heights, you are there, if I make my bed in the depths, you are there." God is at once in all places. We tend to think of this physically, that there is no 'where' that God isn't. But actually the text goes beyond even this, beyond the physical: the word we translate as 'depths' is the Greek word šə·’ō·wl (sheol), which means 'grave' or even 'hell'. This is an idea which transcends physicality. 
There is nowhere, in life, or in death, surmises the poet, that is beyond his sense of the divine. This is not a remote, controlling God, not the 'deadbeat dad' of popular religion, it is an intimate, animated divinity, coursing like life itself through the veins and arteries of the universe, present in every dimension. The poetic language used here speaks of an idea of the divine which transcends the kind of boundaries which we seek to put in to place, nothing is cut off. This is a very deep idea of God.
As John Pritchard points out,
[In prayer] we cannot expect arbitrary interruptions of the natural course for our personal benefit. The dead of Auschwitz rule out the possibility of a cosy, domesticated view of how God relates to his world. But let's also recognise that there are no 'laws' of nature as such, just generalisations of observable experience. The fabric of creation has a much more open texture than we once thought... 
When we pray for things to change in a situation, therefore, we are not throwing pebbles at some iron wall of 'natural law'. We are co-operating with God in enabling his loving presence to come to bear on the situation, and so inevitably affect it... The supernatural is an infinite projection of the natural, to the point where it is transformed.
Now I happen not to like the word "supernatural". When it isn't conjuring up images of séances and ouija boards, it reminds me of some humanists explaining why they don't believe in that snowy-bearded puppet-master in the clouds. But if, as Pritchard says, there is more to reality than metrics and observation, and Newtonian mechanics, it may be an inevitable usage; if God is indeed "an intimate, animated divinity, coursing like life itself through the veins and arteries of the universe, present in every dimension" then there is nowhere and nothing that is outside God, not even the very worst of times. As Thibault reminded Peter Abelard in Helen Waddell's eponymous novel, in all the pain of the world, and in all its grief and loss, the cross of Christ, the cross of God in Christ, goes on and on.

"[T]he Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’" (I Corinthians 11.23ff) And so the prayer of the Church goes on, and on into unimaginable futures, in the unimaginable humility of God, who in Jesus "was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate." If indeed it is, as he said, his body and his blood that become one with us, knit with all the we are, cell by cell and breath by breath by the very processes of human biology, then in that plain fact the mercy of Christ is without end, an infinity of grace. All prayer is, can ever be, is simply owning that.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The hiddenness of it all



All our steps are ordered by the Lord;
   how then can we understand our own ways? 
(Proverbs 20.24)
We know that in all things God works for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. 
(Romans 8.28)
Esther de Waal, in her book Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict, asks "How aware am I that anything I do in any way is part of the working out of God's will?" This is a shocking thing to be asked. Not only is it an immediate blow to our self-esteem and our precious sense of independence ("I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul" and so on) but it contains more than a hint of Julian of Norwich's "It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

We are frail things, temporary and provisional in our few years on the good earth, and somehow broken withal, even from birth it seems (Psalm 51.5); and yet we are what God has made us (Ephesians 2.10), created in Christ Jesus for works God prepared for us beforehand. We rest in God; there is nowhere else for us to be, no way to fall out of God's love (John 10.28-29), nor anywhere to fall, for God is all in all (1 Corinthians 15.28). "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love." (1 John 4.19)

Isaiah had it down, all those years ago (43.1-2):
But now thus says the Lord,
   he who created you, O Jacob,
   he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
   I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
   and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
   and the flame shall not consume you. 
The very thing we most fear in our century, our loss of independence and self-determination, our sense of being in charge of ourselves and of our fate, turns out to be our salvation. For if we truly cannot fall out of God's love, what is there to fear, even in the worst of times? But we cannot do it our way: we must acknowledge with all out heart our unknowing, our dependence, the hiddenness of it all, as the author of Proverbs saw, that "All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?"


Saturday, June 29, 2019

Calling out the devil



Returning from Walsingham after five days' parish pilgrimage, I realise that I have been given an extraordinary blessing. I don't know if you are familiar with the popular psychological concept of the inner critic. It's that voice in your head that tells you continually that you're not good enough, not intelligent enough, learned enough, good looking enough, strong enough, brave enough - you complete the list. It's the motor of the impostor syndrome.

As I have grown older I have come mostly to be free of the ministrations of the inner critic in these outward, conventional areas of life, and when they do come, I am generally able to recognise them for what they are and shut them down. However, outward and conventional does not cover the spiritual life, and here I have been increasingly defenceless against being undermined, disabled by a voice that identifies with absolute precision what is required for maximum effect.

The problem is that this voice, this accuser has access to our personal data like no one else, not even Mark Zuckerberg, and he is not bound at all by GDPR. Whatever blessing God has given me over the years - and he has given me far more than I could ever deserve or imagine - the accuser has found something in my past, or in my present thoughts, to counter it; to allow me accept, for example, its general applicability to humankind, but not to me. And I have fallen for it. Until this week, I simply have not made the identification of what I gullibly assumed to be compunction, or self-knowledge, with what the desert fathers and mothers referred to as temptation from demons, or indeed from the devil himself.

Casting about, since getting back, for a way to explain the last few days, I have found that the Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber identifies this, exactly as I have been shown, as the "accuser of our comrades" (Revelation 12.10). She says,
No matter if you believe the devil is an actual being or the human forces of evil or just the shadow side of our own beings, we all know the voice of the accuser. The voice of shame in our heads - that's the accuser, the accusing voice that tells me that I am what I've done, or that who I am is wrong... But the truth is, no one has ever become their ideal self. It's a moving target, a mirage of water on a desert road. The more we struggle to reach it, the thirstier we become, and yet we come no closer to actual water.
The writer, retreat presenter and communications director of Our Lady of Calvary Retreat Center, Connecticut, Sheri Dursin puts it like this:
[W]hat’s so harmful about an Inner Critic? Doesn’t it keep us from being arrogant or overconfident? Doesn’t it challenge us to be better or try harder? In truth, the Inner Critic does no such thing! It leads you to feel worthless, undeserving and small.
All that is necessary, living in the grace and sacraments of the Church, is to know the accuser for what he is. With that gift, the one I have received this week from God through the prayer and counsel of those who love him, it seems that one can come at last, even in one's own weakness, into the victory won in Christ these long years past:
Now have come the salvation and the power
    and the kingdom of our God
    and the authority of his Messiah,
for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down,
    who accuses them day and night before our God.
But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb
    and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. 
(Revelation 12.10-11)

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Hidden in plain sight...

Scattered throughout Scripture there are hints and traces of a Christian life in many ways unlike some popular assumptions about our faith. Throughout the history of the church, from New Testament times onwards, as I hinted yesterday, this sense of a life of stillness and radical dependence upon God has flowed often beneath the surface of its more public expressions of worship and community.

Throughout the Hebrew scriptures there are passages such as Psalm 42, "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God"; Psalm 46, "Be still and know that I am God"; Psalm 131, "O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things  too great and too marvellous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul,..."; and Proverbs 20.24, "All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?"

Once we come to the New Testament the references become almost too frequent to mention, from Matthew 6.6, "But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" on through almost the entire Gospel of John, especially the introduction (chapter 1.1-18); Jesus' remarks to Nicodemus (chapter 3.1-15) and throughout his farewell discourse (chapters 14-17). Paul's letters, especially of course Romans 8, and Colossians 3.3, "For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God", continue the theme.

It would be too tedious in the medium of a blog post to go on finding example after example throughout the Bible; we Christians are often accused of thinking we know all the answers - and maybe some fundamentalists and others do think so - but really the way of Christ, while we follow it on earth, is a way of mystery and darkness more than anything else. "Faith", writes Jennifer Kavanagh, "is not about certainty, but about trust." She goes on,
Any attempt to define or describe God is to distort, to impose our own limitations of time and space. Although we can ascribe to God such qualities as good, true and loving, we have to recognise that these are mere pointers, and we might want to learn to think of God without adjectives. The word "God" itself is a pointer to something beyond our description. 
Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience. 
This quiet and often unrecognised strain of faith runs throughout the life of the people of Christ up to this day. It is not so much hidden away - esoteric - as hidden in plain sight, a golden thread in the weave of the church. It may even turn out to be the main pattern, after all...

Friday, June 21, 2019

Dying in a time of greed

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the desert fathers and mothers saw solitude as a way to replace martyrdom. In his introduction to the spirituality of the desert fathers and mothers, John Chryssavgis writes, "The voice of the desert's heart replaced the voice of the martyr's blood, and the Desert Fathers and Mothers became witnesses of another way, another Kingdom. There was no surer way than solitude to strip away what they depended on in place of God... This was a kind of "death" for them, which led to new life. 
Ed Cyzewski, Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians
We seem to be living at the end of an era when we could describe ourselves as inhabitants of Christendom. Our world in many ways seems to be dominated by attitudes and values so far from those of our Lord that our situation more resembles that of the very earliest Christians living under the authority of a pagan Roman state than it does that of the desert monastics in the 3rd and 4th century AD; but while the blood of the martyrs is by no means a thing foreign to our own time, nonetheless there is for an increasing number of people a sense of an urgent need to withdraw from much that consumer society sees as integral to its health and growth.

The recent popularity of lifestyle minimalism ("simple living"), and a rising awareness the significance of sensory processing sensitivity ("Highly Sensitive People"), the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, Enneagram, and other strands of personality psychology, underline a growing unease with consumerism as cultural ideology. These largely secular echoes of past teachings on the simple life dating back at least as far as Lao Tzu and Gautama Buddha, and flourishing in the Christian Middle Ages in the Benedictine, Franciscan and other traditions, are an often plangent criticism of our spiritual, environmental and economic dead end, but all too often they lead at best to an outward turning away from an unwelcome lifestyle, but not towards anything in particular.

My prayer is that the increasing anxiety, even dread, about the future that characterises the recognition of the Anthropocene may lead, through these already encouraging beginnings to the rediscovery of the inner life, not so much as to escape from our troubled times, or even as a resource and compass for us who walk among them, but to the death of the self that is referred to by the phrase "self-centred" - the self that our consumer culture feeds so well. Where this may eventually lead I have no idea, just as of course the desert mothers and fathers had no idea of the great flowering of medieval monasticism and its literature for which they were sowing the seeds when they sold up and moved out into the caves and sketes of Egypt at the dawn of the 4th century AD.

A rediscovery, in our frail and conditional time, of life of the desert of the heart may lead to places we haven't dreamed of yet. This will be, I suspect, profoundly unlike the all too often romantic impulse to a kind of renewal of monasticism itself, whether in the Anglican religious restorations of the last 150 years, or in the various attempts at reconstituting Celtic Christianity and its communities. If something is growing, or at any rate getting somewhere near germination, it seems more likely to be a discipline that takes very seriously Jesus' words in Matthew 6:6, about going into one's room and closing the door, and praying to one's Father who sees what is done in secret. This is surely the beginning, if it is the beginning of anything, of a true inward spirituality of hiddenness - of fading out, in fact: "For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3 NIV); "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:20 NIV)

Thursday, May 30, 2019

New Pages

Alert readers might notice that a few new permanent pages have appeared along the top menu of this blog. I compiled these, or earlier versions of them, for my other blog A Long Restlessness, which has not really taken off in terms of readership, probably because it largely duplicates the content and intent of this one. Accordingly, I think I shall gradually let it fade away; but the "fixed" content, essays that frame and hopefully give context to the blog itself, may have some continuing value for readers here. I shall try and keep them up to date...

The Peace of God

In the silence of Ascension Day, what is peace? The quietness of sunlight holds something that does not depend on an absence of noise, a resolution of antinomy.

Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." (John 14.27) and "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16.33)

As we live, change and death are always with us. This is the way things are made, and connect; depend one upon another and give rise to new life. We are vulnerable in the very way we are made. The wounds that we acquire will not bleed always, but the marks will remain, like the marks on the risen Jesus' hands and feet. Jacob limped, for the rest of his life presumably (Genesis 32.31), after his encounter with God at Peniel.

Things don't have to be mended to be healed, and as long as we are part of this earth from which we are made, there will be an ache, a hollow place, where we long for - we long for peace, we long for "sweet permanence" as Kerouac said somewhere. What we are longing for is God, who in Jesus is with us always (Matthew 28.20) Paul learned contentment through Jesus "who strengthen[ed him]" in all circumstances, "whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." (Philippians 4.12) All we really need is trust: as Jesus said, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me." (John 14.1)

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Faithful prayer and listening silence...

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful. 
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
For quite a time now I have had an uneasy sense about much religious (in the broadest sense of the word) activism - also in the broadest sense of the word! Whether Quakers or Catholics, many of us do allow ourselves to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, surrender to too many demands... Friend Job Scott (1751–1793) wrote,
Our strength or help is only in God; but then it is near us, it is in us - a force superior to all possible opposition - a force that never was, nor can be foiled. We are free to stand in this unconquerable ability, and defeat the powers of darkness; or to turn from it, and be foiled and overcome. When we stand, we know it is God alone upholds us; and when we fall, we feel that our fall or destruction is of ourselves.
It is this upon which all our works rest; indeed it is in this sense that we can say that all our strength, and any good we may do, comes by faith in God and not by the works themselves (Ephesians 2:8-9; James 2:18) that faith may call us into.

The problem, I think, is that all too often we act not from the Spirit: not, as early Quakers, and many since, would have said, according to leadings. We have an idea that such and such may be the right thing to do; we feel a political conviction to speak or act or vote in a certain way; we see what someone else is doing and we feel guilty unless we are doing likewise. These things are not leadings, but notions, and to act in accordance with them is turning from God into our own strength, from God's wisdom into our own ideas. In Merton's terms, it is an act of violence - against ourselves as much as against anyone else - and in the end it brings only fruitlessness and grieving.

In 1992 Meeting for Sufferings, the standing representative body entrusted with the care of the business of Britain Yearly Meeting through the year, minuted:
The ground of our work lies in our waiting on and listening for the Spirit. Let the loving spirit of a loving God call us and lead us. These leadings are both personal and corporate. If they are truly tested in a gathered meeting we shall find that the strength and the courage for obedience are given to us. We need the humility to put obedience before our own wishes. 
We are aware of the need to care for ourselves and each other in our meetings, bearing each other’s burdens and lovingly challenging each other. 
We also hear the cry of those in despair which draws out our compassion. We know the need to speak for those who have no voice. We have a tradition of service and work which has opened up opportunities for us. But we are reminded that we are not the only ones to do this work. Not only can we encourage a flow of work between our central and our local meetings; but we must recognise the Spirit at work in many bodies and in many places, in other churches and faiths, and in secular organisations.
In this minute Friends speak for all of us; we all need the humility to put obedience to the Holy Spirit's leadings before our own convictions, before our own guilt. Coming before our loving God in faithful prayer and listening silence our actions will be true, and just, whether they be exterior actions in the world, inward actions of prayer and discipline, or both. It is Christ we follow, and it is his work we do, or we work in vain.