Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Here, Now

The purity is a question of
names. We are here to utter them. This is
a prayer. I have it now between my
teeth and my eyes, on my forehead. Know
the names. It is as simple as the purity
of sentiment: it is as simple
as that.

(JH Prynne, from Kitchen Poems)
"To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it." (Revelation 2.17)

The door of the year, this long year, is closing now. What we are called matters.

Just now, in the early evening, it is quiet here, the lights through the trees hardly disturbing the first hours of dark, the air cold now, not even moving the tracery of bare twigs across from the window.

"Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
over those who carry out evil devices."
(Psalm 37.7)

How the heart cries for stillness, in the clamour of obligation and rebuttal; and yet stillness is given, inside each moment. Only now is the divine touchable, and now, as if the instant were bread, and wine, in the space between breathing.

Mercy, the mercy that is Christ with us, can only rest on what actually is, here, now, in the moment given.
Quick now, here, now, always-
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

(TS Eliot, from Four Quartets)

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Abide in the Shadow

Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don’t agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ.

(CS Lewis, Letters to Malcolm)
Therefore my spirit faints within me;
    my heart within me is appalled.

I remember the days of old,
    I think about all your deeds,
    I meditate on the works of your hands.
I stretch out my hands to you;
    my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.
Answer me quickly, O Lord;
    my spirit fails.

(Psalm 143.4-7)
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your word....

It was good for me to be afflicted
so that I might learn your decrees.

(Psalm 119.67, 71 NIV)
We spend much of our lives, it seems to me, avoiding pain. It can't be done. It can't actually be done with emotional pain, I have discovered, any more than it can with physical pain. But, strangely, that's OK.


Mostly, severe, persistent pain and anxiety arise from things we cannot change. Little things, like the pain of sitting too long in one place, or thinking of something unpleasant that we saw on the news, can be changed easily enough, by moving, or by thinking of something else. But grief, loss and arthritis are of sterner stuff.

But there is one thing we can do: keep still. Abide, in the words of Psalm 91, in the shadow of the almighty. "To abide is to bear or to endure. The Psalms are calling us to abide in the midst of anxiety and fear by remembering God’s past action and awaiting God’s future action." (Psalms: Anxiety and Fear - Warren Truesdale)

Affliction, like pain, and death, comes to us all, however fortunate or unfortunate we may be in the world's eyes. Only keep still, and wait. Remember, as the psalmist did in Psalm 119, how God's love has endured, how he has brought good of harm, joy out of grief (Romans 8.28) in the past even of our own lives. Wait for the Lord; be still and wait for the Lord (Psalm 27.14, Psalms 37.7).

Strangely, I have come to be so grateful for these "afflictions", physical and spiritual. There is more peace than we can understand in simply being still, in sitting with God in prayer, sitting with what is, and letting God do what God does; what he has done supremely on the cross, in the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. "Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4.5-7)

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas morning

Many years ago I discovered this wonderful quote from G. K. Chesterton's The Spirit of Christmas, but I had forgotten it till just now.

This was written amid fields of snow within a few days of Christmas. And when I last saw snow it was within a few miles of Bethlehem. The coincidence will serve as a symbol of something I have noticed all my life, although it is not very easy to sum up. It is generally the romantic thing that turns out to be the real thing under the extreme test of realism. It is the skeptical and even rational legend that turns out to be entirely legendary.

Everything I had been taught or told let me to regard snow in Bethlehem as a paradox, like snow in Egypt. Every rumour of realism, every indirect form of rationalism, every scientific opinion taken on authority and at third hand, had led me to regard the country where Christ was born solely as a semi-tropical place with nothing but palm tree and parasols.

It was only when I actually looked at it that it looked exactly like a Christmas card.

Chesterton is right: "It is generally the romantic thing that turns out to be the real thing under the extreme test of realism. It is the skeptical and even rational legend that turns out to be entirely legendary." It is only when we allow our intellects to be divorced from our hearts that we truly lose touch with reality; only when we forget that the best stories are really true that our lives become a fiction...

A very happy Christmas, everyone, and may the love of Christ fill your hearts to overflowing today and always!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

O Virgo virginum

O Virgo virginum, quomodo fiet istud?
Quia nec primam similem visa es nec habere sequentem.
Filiae Jerusalem, quid me admiramini?
Divinum est mysterium hoc quod cernitis.

O Virgin of virgins, how shall this be?
For neither before you was any like you, nor shall there be after.
Daughters of Jerusalem, why marvel at me?
The thing which you behold is a divine mystery.

(Alternative Antiphon in English Medieval usage, up to and including the New English Hymnal)

O holy Virgin, Mother of our Lord, Theotokos, God-bearer, wondering maid among the dreaming daughters of an occupied city, waiting in the mystery you carry - pray for us!

Monday, December 23, 2019

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, Rex et legifer noster,
exspectatio Gentium, et Salvator earum:
veni ad salvandum nos, Domine, Deus noster.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come to save us, O Lord our God.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7.14 NIV)
O come, Lord Jesus, and heal all that is so broken. Restore the places long desolate; make light again the broken hearts. What we cannot understand, give us grace to live. Where we dream of justice, let your judgement bring us mercy.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

O Rex Gentium

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation,
'One who trusts will not panic.'
And I will make justice the line,
and righteousness the plummet...

(Isaiah 28.16-17)

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

('That Nature is...' Gerard Manley Hopkins)

From the cornerstone all the measurements and angles of ancient architecture were determined; all the paths and turnings of our lives are measured from Christ our Saviour, for
All our steps are ordered by the Lord;
how then can we understand our own ways?

(Proverbs 20.24)

Saturday, December 21, 2019

O Oriens

O Oriens,
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness -
on them light has shined.

(Isaiah 9.2)

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.

(Isaiah 60.1-2)

But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.

(Malachi 4.2)
I love the dawn. The slow lightening of the sky towards the east, the steadfast morning star still bright above the horizon, calls to some deep sense of freedom and grace within me, a faint echo of the infinite freedom of God's grace, the mercy of forgiveness in Christ, of loss restored, and all things made new. In him, we are truly free at last, and like calves at the end of winter, our own hearts leap as we come into our own country, the land beyond our sorrow.

Friday, December 20, 2019

O Clavis David

O Clavis David, et sceptrum domus Israel;
qui aperis, et nemo claudit;
claudis, et nemo aperit:
veni, et educ vinctum de domo carceris,
sedentem in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners." (Isaiah 61:1)

In this reading from Isaiah, the prophet describes the coming Servant of Yahweh. It is precisely this quote that Jesus first uses to announce the exact nature of his own ministry (Luke 4:18-19). In each case Jesus describes his work as moving outside of polite and proper limits and boundaries to reunite things that have been marginalized or excluded by society: the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the downtrodden.

Jesus’ ministry is not to gather the so-called good into a private country club but to reach out to those on the edge and on the bottom, those who are “last” to tell them they are, in fact, first! That is almost the very job description of the Holy Spirit, and therefore of Jesus… and for that matter of us as bearers of Emmanuel, God with us!

Adapted from Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

(St. Teresa of Avila)
The words of Isaiah's prophecy, "I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and no one shall shut; he shall shut, and no one shall open." (Isaiah 22.22 ) recur in Jesus' own mouth in Revelation 3.7-8:
And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:

These are the words of the holy one, the true one,
who has the key of David,
who opens and no one will shut,
who shuts and no one opens:

I know your works. Look, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.
We too easily judge ourselves - our own worth in God's eyes, our worth to our fellow creatures even - by our own strength. But our strength is not at issue. As the Lord once said to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12.9) It is in our very weakness that the Lord can do his best work; in our weaknesses that his words are fulfilled. The littlest faithfulness will do it, as the psalmist said: "Though I am lowly and despised, I do not forget your precepts." (Psalms 119.141 NIV)

Thursday, December 19, 2019

O Radix Jesse

O Radix Jesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
There is no mention of any moral worthiness, achievement or preparedness in Mary, only humble trust and surrender. She gives us all, therefore, a bottomless hope in our own little state. If we ourselves try to "manage" God, or manufacture our own worthiness by any performance principle whatsoever, we will never bring forth the Christ but only ourselves.

Mary does not manage, fix, control or "perform" in any way. She just says "Yes!" and brings forth the abundance that Isaiah promises (Isaiah 48:17-19). This is really quite awesome, and counters any economic notion of earning or performing.

Adapted from Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr

I think that we have hardly thought through the immense implications of the mystery of the incarnation. Where is God? God is where we are weak, vulnerable, small and dependent. God is where the poor are, the hungry, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the elderly, the powerless. How can we come to know God when our focus is elsewhere, on success, influence, and power? I increasingly believe that our faithfulness will depend on our willingness to go where there is brokenness, loneliness, and human need.

If the church has a future it is a future with the poor in whatever form. Each one of us is seriously searching to live and grow in this belief, and by friendship we can support each other. I realize that the only way for us to stay well in the midst of the many "worlds" is to stay close to the small, vulnerable child that lives in our hearts and in every other human being. Often we do not know that the Christ child is within us. When we discover him we can truly rejoice.

Henri Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey: The Diary of His Final Year

I am reminded of St. Bonaventure’s devotion to the poverty of the Blessed Virgin (see e.g. The Life of St. Francis, Ch.7) who brought nothing to her encounter with the angel, and asked for nothing, but simply surrendered. How can we respond, except in silence, and the poverty of our own hearts?

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

O Adonai

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel,
qui Moysi in igne flammae rubi apparuisti,
et ei in Sina legem dedisti:
veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and gave him the law on Sinai:
Come to redeem us with an outstretched arm. 
Jesus came in the fullness of time. He will come again in the fullness of time. Wherever Jesus, the Christ, is the time is brought to its fullness.

We often experience our time as empty. We hope that tomorrow, next week, next month or next year the real things will happen. But sometimes we experience the fullness of time. That is when it seems that time stands still, that past, present, and future become one; that everything is present where we are; and that God, we, and all that is have come together in total unity. This is the experience of God's time. "When the completion of the time came [that is: in the fullness of time], God sent his Son, born of a woman" (Galatians 4:4), and in the fullness of time God will "bring everything together under Christ, as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth" (Ephesians 1:10). It is in the fullness of time that we meet God.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey
In the NRSV, these two passages expand as:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' (Galatians 4.4-6)

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Ephesians 1.8b-10)
I love this phrase, the "fullness of time" - pleroma tou chronos. Jesus is the Word, and where the Word is, all things are brought to wholeness, healing, completeness, fullness. All things come into being through him (John 1.3) and through him will all things be made whole (Revelation 21, Romans 8.18ff).

Christ is the mercy of God come among us, limitless and everlasting. "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." (Julian of Norwich)

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

O Sapientia

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come to teach us the way of prudence.
...but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1.23-25

I, wisdom, live with prudence,
and I attain knowledge and discretion..
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

Proverbs 8.12, 22-31

The marvellous vision of the peaceable Kingdom, in which all violence has been overcome and all men, women, and children live in loving unity with nature, calls for its realisation in our day-to-day lives. Instead of being an escapist dream, it challenges us to anticipate what it promises. Every time we forgive our neighbour, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision come true.

We must remind one another constantly of the vision. Whenever it comes alive in us we will find new energy to live it out, right where we are. Instead of making us escape real life, this beautiful vision gets us involved.

Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey

I keep thinking of this as I long, in these troubled and uncertain days, for that day of righteousness and justice described in Isaiah 11, and yet the only way there is through this present darkness, by the way of prayer, illuminated by the little lamp of God’s word, that sheds only enough light for the next step (Psalm 119.105) and yet is (v 89) eternal. After all, "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God…"

As Jesus said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy." (Matthew 5.6,7)

Sunday, December 15, 2019

"A fathomless ocean of pain..."

The low, repetitive bawling was a distant throb of distress that Lilah had never grown used to, even though  it happened every time a cow gave birth. Sometimes, at night, it was unbearable, the bereft mother calling and calling for her baby, the embodiment of despair. Sometimes it seemed to Lilah that in her short life she had been party to a fathomless ocean of pain and misery, that all this suffering was there inside her, barely supressed by her flippant ways and habitual optimism. And sometimes she couldn't stop herself imagining every hurt and cruelty; every experimental laboratory; every horse used in war; every animal ill-used in the service of man; every creature sent terrified to the abattoir. All of it added up to an entire universe of horrifying anguish, and she had to breathe slow and deep to be able to carry on.
This passage (the wider context of the narrative makes it clear that the character's experience is not confined merely to questions of animal husbandry, but relates equally to her grief at the murder of her father, and to the inhumanity of humankind generally) from the murder mystery A Dirty Death, by Rebecca Tope, reminds me of the assertion, explained so well in Helen Waddell's own novel Peter Abelard, that the cross of Jesus goes on and on throughout all history, like a ring in the trunk of a tree; and that Calvary is but the visible bit, the saw-cut through the tree that reveals the ring. The cross, with all of its pain and desolation, continues through all time, the sacrifice by which Christ's mercy is present always as redemption and grace.

Whatever technical interpretation we place on the theology of crucifixion and the atonement, the direct spiritual experience of "an entire universe of horrifying anguish" is, to me at least, the most fundamental call to prayer, and the reason why for me only a contemplative discipline comes anywhere near answering that call. Not for the first time I am reminded of this passage from Praying the Jesus Prayer by Br Ramon SSF:
We have seen that the Jesus Prayer involves body, mind and spirit... The cosmic nature of the Prayer means that the believer lives as a human being in solidarity with all other human beings, and with the animal creation, together with the whole created order (the cosmos). All this is drawn into and affected by the Prayer. One person's prayers send out vibrations and reverberations that increase the power of the divine Love in the cosmos.

The Christian is well aware of the fact that the world is also evil. There is a falseness and alienation which has distracted and infected the world, and men and women of prayer, by the power of the Name of Jesus, stand against the cosmic darkness, and enter into conflict with dark powers... The power of the Jesus Prayer is the armour against the wiles of the devil, taking heed of the apostle's word, 'Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayers and supplications...' [Ephesians 6.18]

Friday, December 06, 2019

Deep calls to deep...

In one of his sermons, entitled 'The Depth of Existence', the theologian Paul Tillich speaks of God in terms of 'depth'. He says that 'the name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God'... Once a person has known the depth that is in the bleakest emptiness, then they are in a strange way open to the depth that is in the most sublime fullness. And in a mysterious way - and this is at the heart of Christianity - the emptiness even becomes the fullness. 'Blessed are the poor in spirit', says Jesus, 'for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven'. For such a person their practice of prayer can be described in terms of these four words: 'Deep calls to deep.' [Psalm 42.7]

Patrick Woodhouse, Life in the Psalms
These few words from Patrick Woodhouse's beautiful book capture something I have been trying to find words for for a very long time. The Apostle Paul writes, "For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and 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 1.19-20) Even here the fullness (pleroma) of incarnation is caught up in the self-emptying (kenosis) of the cross (Philippians 2.7-8).

These scraps of Paul's struggles to find words for the ineffable, and bits of his Greek that have become for us today technical terms of academic theology, don't come near the actual encounter that Woodhouse is hinting at. That's hardly surprising, as they seem to be close to the core of contemplative prayer itself, that is found only in silence; and then only as pure gift, the fleeting touch of the Spirit's wing.

But in extremis, at the far edge of being human, the "bleakest emptiness" can be so shot through with the presence of Christ, with the weight of his mercy, that it is almost like coming home. It is hard to describe, but possibly the nearest I can get is to say that, without the pain (physical or emotional) being in the least lessened, the nearness of God in Christ, mediated through that dreadfulness, is so much more significant than any personal experience, even this, that the heart rejoices in the midst of its distress. Jesus nailed it, in fact, in the Beatitudes.

Sunday, December 01, 2019


Carlo Carretto wrote:
Here is the miracle of love: to discover that all creation is one, flung out into space by a God who is a Father, and that if you present yourself to it as he does - unarmed and full of peace - creation will recognize you and meet you with a smile.

I, Francis
He also wrote this about prayer:
...as long as we pray only when and how we want to, our life of prayer is bound to be unreal. It will run in fits and starts. The slightest upset - even a toothache - will be enough to destroy the whole edifice of our prayer life.

You must strip your prayers... You must simplify, de-intellectualize. Put yourself in front of Jesus as a poor man: not with any big ideas, but with living faith. Remain motionless in an act of love before the Father. Don't try to reach God with your understanding; that is impossible. Reach him in love; that is possible.

from Michael L. Gaudoin-Parker, The Real Presence through the Ages

And Jesus, when they asked him which was the greatest commandment, replied:
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." (Matthew 22.37-40)
Love. That is all there is, finally. When everything else has failed, love remains. And all things lead back to love. St Paul saw this perfectly: not only in 1 Corinthians 13.13 ("...the greatest of these is love"), but so strongly in Romans 8. The whole chapter, beginning, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus..." through all the statements about prayer and the Spirit, and the cry of assurance that begins at v28, leads on finally to "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Prayer is love. To "Pray always" (Luke 18.1) is to love always. The Jesus Prayer, once it becomes by use bedded into the heart, begins to sing gently under all our thoughts and all our words, fulfilling all but unconsciously that injunction of Paul's to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 15.17).

Micah recorded the Lord as saying, "what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (6.8) To love mercy. To love as prayer, and that prayer a prayer for mercy, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner..."

Annie Dillard:
"Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place?" [Psalm 24.3] There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead - as if innocence had ever been - and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been.

Holy the Firm
And Jesus gave us those two commandments, to love our Lord and to love each other; and our love can surely only truly be shown, as is Jesus' for us, as mercy. Lord Jesus, have mercy - on us and through us - use our love and our prayer as you will, for your mercy, in your Spirit. "Lord here I am - send me! Have mercy on me, a sinner..."

[Reblogged, slightly edited, from an earlier post, 2006]

Friday, November 29, 2019

Almost Advent

It is almost Advent. The night is far gone; the day is near. There are lights on the far side of the old reservoir; but in between, where the garden is, and the almost leafless trees, is perfect black, deep and velvety, its sleeping birds hidden entirely from view. It is hard to believe there ever was anything but this deep night.

It is Black Friday. It should be a day of penitence, it feels, of cleansing - of laying down the empty, heavy things that freight our longings. The trackless wind of the Spirit blows where it chooses, and we hear the sound of it, but we do not know where it comes from or where it goes. In the unseen places within us, already, we feel it lift the hair of our hearts.

Come, Lord. The hollow earth waits, the night is open. Make straight the ways of your love in all that we are. Emmanuel, wake us from our sleep, our uneasy dreaming, with your angel words, as you woke poor Joseph to a strange new hidden life with you.

Come, Lord, come - this of all Advents, come.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

A Life in the Psalms

I've written often enough here about the Psalms, often in the context of my own prayer life, but I wonder if I've always made the point strongly enough that I just can't imagine my life without them at the centre. However disconnected I have become in my faith at various times, the Psalms have held me, kept me going at some level, even if not always fully conscious. The psalmist writes, "If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction" (119.92) and so it has proved to be for me.

[Reading the Psalms] is something that takes time. If you read the Psalms regularly over a long period, if you gradually internalise them, learning them by heart, and allow their words to penetrate to the deepest levels of your mind, what you begin to discover is that  slowly you  are ushered into another perspective altogether different from the one you know only too well, and is assumed by the world around you. What characterises this new way of 'seeing' is  a constant consciousness of a transcendent Other. It is a perspective which will slowly - if you remain attentive to the words of the Psalms and the meanings found in them - reorient your mind, and lead to a different life. That is their silent transformative power.

Patrick Woodhouse, Life in the Psalms 

For me, reading and praying the Psalms is something that has become inextricably wound into my practice of the Jesus Prayer. Perhaps the connection is not immediately obvious, but it has to do with this gradually more indwelling consciousness of God, Woodhouse's "transcendent Other". Thomas Merton writes that
There is therefore one fundamental religious experience which the Psalms can all teach us: the peace that comes from submission to God's will and from perfect confidence in Him.

This, then, gives us our guiding principle in praying the Psalms. No matter whether we understand a Psalm at first or not, we should take it up with this end in view: to make us of it as a prayer that will enable us to surrender ourselves to God.

Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms 
The Jesus Prayer too is a prayer, at its root, of submission to God: as a prayer for Jesus' mercy it is prayed not only in submission, our submission, but in Jesus' own submission to the Father (Luke 22.42). Our surrender is of our own will, even of our own knowing (Proverbs 20.24; Psalm 131). All that we are becomes wound into this continual prayer - not our prayer, so much as Jesus' own prayer that  he offers forever before the Father (Hebrews 7.23-25). It is that which we have become caught up in, fallen indeed into "the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10.31), with all our hearts' longings, our hopes and fears, and all whom we love.

Seen like this, prayer becomes one whole, one movement of the inmost self towards God; one anticipation, almost, of our own final home in Christ: "for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God." (Colossians 3.3)

Friday, November 22, 2019

The Prayer for Mercy

Pain is unpleasant, yes, but it is an unexpected gift. Without it, we’re unable to detect danger, even if it’s present. It may not always feel like it, but medically speaking, pain is a gift, and I would submit to you that spiritually speaking, pain is a gift as well.

The messiness in our lives is either the offspring of pain or the catalyst for pain. But even when we come to understand that messes and suffering are certainties in a sinful world, it doesn’t make them any less painful. If I know somebody is going to punch me in the face, it’s still going to hurt. Just because I know it’s coming doesn’t mean it won’t be painful; it simply means I’ll be prepared. If we look carefully, though, we’ll find that quite often our wounds become great sources of wisdom.

He said not: Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be afflicted; but He said: Thou shalt not be overcome. God willeth that we take heed to these words, and that we be ever strong in sure trust, in weal and woe. For He loveth and enjoyeth us, and so willeth He that we love and enjoy Him and mightily trust in Him; and all shall be well.

We tend often to assume, even those of us who ought to know better, that the Christian life should be serene and untroubled, and that God, if he answers prayer, should do as we ask, and "take away" our suffering and our distress. This is not what we learn from Scripture, nor from the lives of those who seek to live by it. If we have lived much at all, and are honest with ourselves, we know it is not so in our own lives, either.

Suffering seems to be a part of what it is to be human, at least in this life, on this broken world. It cannot be otherwise, even though all the  wealth of the wealthy and the power of the powerful seem ultimately to be directed towards staving that off that for as long as possible.

As Christians we are followers of Christ, as Paul explained: "Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Ephesians 5.1-2) Jesus himself pointed out that "whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14.27)

But there is more to this than a stoic acceptance of the inevitability of pain. As I have experienced it, certainly, pain can act as a call to prayer like nothing else. The Psalmist knew this: "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… It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees." (Psalm 119.67-68,71)

The trouble, of course, with prayer in suffering is that a conventional understanding of prayer won't work, mostly. What are we to pray for? That our affliction be "taken away"? And if it is not, what then? A few brave and compassionate souls might ask that their suffering might somehow be subtracted from that of ones for whom they pray, something like Charles Williams' idea of "substitution and exchange". But that implies, perhaps, a knowledge of others' sufferings, and the capacity to enumerate them, that may just not be there. Great pain, physical, emotional, or spiritual - especially perhaps spiritual - has a way of wiping all else from the mind of the sufferer. The whole world becomes one's pain; or one's pain becomes one's whole world. I don't really know which it is.

This is where, once again, contemplative practice comes in; and where the great benefit of already having a contemplative practice begins to show itself. One cannot very easily learn, I think, even so simple a practice as the Jesus Prayer in the midst of one's pain. But I have found that even in the worst of times I can cling to the Prayer as to a bit of floating wreckage in a storm - and it is here that, perhaps, the strangest thing of all takes place. For even in the most consuming pain one's loves and one's concerns are still there, in the depths of the heart: it's just that they are no longer visible, as it were, to a conscious mind almost entirely overwhelmed with distress. But if even the least splintered plank of prayer remains afloat - or perhaps if it does not, to the tormented mind - then the work of the cross still goes on in the  darkness. The prayer of the heart touches, even then, the existence of those whom we, however obscurely, love, though we no longer even know their names. The mercy of God is limitless, because it is Christ: and the prayer for mercy is always answered (Luke 18.35-33). 

Monday, November 18, 2019

The pattern of love...

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:

"Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, 'Here I am - it is written about me in the scroll -
I have come to do your will, my God.'"

Hebrews 10.5-7
Sacrifice is one of those divisive terms in the Scripture, upon which edifices of theology have been erected, building up, and demolishing, elaborate and at times oppressive doctrines of atonement and satisfaction. But actually it is quite simple, as Jesus' own life demonstrates. Sacrifice is to do the will of God, and all other sacrifice takes place within that overarching purpose; and it is so in our own lives as we go on seeking to become more like our saviour.

All that we are to become reflects Jesus' own choices at every turn, finally shown in the olive grove at Gethsemane when he prayed, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done." (Luke 22.42) It is this sacrifice which is present again with us in every Eucharist; but it is the choice that is ours in each of our own lives.

This sacrifice of choice, if I may be forgiven for using the phrase, lies at the heart of our following Christ, but it is not necessarily and in every case a choice, like Jesus', for personal pain and deprivation - inevitable though that may be somewhere along the line. It may in any particular case be a choice for something we want to do. A priest who wants to serve a country parish may in fact be called so to serve; just because she does not want to be a missionary in some far-off place that does not mean that that is necessarily God's will. I think our choosing God's will is likely to be found in much smaller choices than this: the discernment is likely to emerge unsought, almost, from the concatenation of little choices, each one quite simple - if not necessarily easy! - in itself.

The pattern of love is to move towards trust. This is what lies at the heart of all our following - as Jesus was prepared in his love for his Father to move towards trust even at the cost of his life, so each of us moves towards him in trust; and so the Kingdom is built out of our small acts of trust and love, one by one; imperceptibly, often, but inevitably (Hebrews 12.28).

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Food for the Journey

This morning's Eucharist was one of those occasions when the Spirit's presence was so tangible that one could almost have imagined it as a cloud filling St Peter's nave, like the cloud in 1 Kings 8.10-11 at the dedication of Solomon's Temple. I don't know that there was anything, any occasion, to explain it, but the action of the Eucharist became a holy ordering, a dance almost, with all of us as parts of that greater unity, the music seeming only to make audible for a moment the flowing pattern beneath the words and movements of the liturgy.

This was a pilgrim Eucharist, too: a moment on the path of each of us when the compass is reset, the course laid in. Our priest distributed the bread with the words, "The Body of Christ, food for the journey..." and the tiny, holy thing lay in the palm of my hand like a letter from home, bearing directions, and the very presence of our Companion.

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


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).