Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Contemplative Life

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 22, 2019

Constant craving

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

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

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Rest for the weary and unclear

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer is the means we have been given, all of us, to bring to God these long memories of pain, and glimpses of sudden and frightening hope; and it is, in the long run, the means we have been given to receive his comfort. It is the great gift of contemplative prayer that we need not understand, need not find the right words - or any words - to explain to God or to ourselves what it is that weighs so heavily on our hearts, to hear Jesus' own invitation to
Come to me, all you that are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11.28-30)

Friday, July 05, 2019

All prayer is...

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

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