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)