Friday, August 30, 2019

Only begin...

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

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

What Karen and Paul Fredette write of the solitary life is true of a contemplative life lived in community, too, whether formally or informally:
Anyone taking the eremitic vocation seriously is bound to feel helpless, quite impotent, in fact. Hermits are determined to help, to make a positive difference, but how? What can one person do, hidden and alone? Sometimes, solitaries may feel blameworthy because they live lives which shelter them from much of the suffering that so harshly mars the existence of their brothers and sisters. Love and compassion well up in them... but is it enough? What should one do and how? This is where passionate intercessory prayer and supplication spontaneously arises. The challenge is to live a life given over to praying for others while accepting that one will seldom, if ever, see any results. No one will be able to ascertain how, or even if, their devoted prayers are efficacious for others. It is a terrible kind of poverty - to live dedicated to helping others, yet never know what good one may be doing. All that hermits can do is hope that they are doing no harm. Believers leave all results to the mercy of their God. Others rely on the interconnectedness of all humanity, trusting that what affects one, affects all. This is a form of intercession expressed less by words than by a way of life. A Camaldolese monk once wrote: "Prayer is not only speaking to God on behalf of humanity, it is also 'paying' for humanity." Suffering is part of the hermit's vocation. One of the most acute forms is to never know whether one's chosen lifestyle is worthwhile or has any value for others. Hermits enter into the darkness, the dusky cloud of unknowing, and walk without any light beyond that which is in their own hearts. Often, unbeknownst even to themselves, they have become beacons for others.  
Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life
Our question may be, though, how can we be sure that this is a vocation, that it is God who is calling us to this odd way of life? I don't think we can be certain, really, at least not before we begin. In John's Gospel Jesus says to his first disciples, "Come and see!" (John. 1.28-29) and later on in the same Gospel, the Samaritan woman Jesus meets at the well uses the same phrase, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?" (John 4.29) It's all we can do, ourselves. Just begin. A year, twenty years, down the line you'll still be beginning. Each day, the sun rises, always beginning again. It always does. And so the heart opens, always from the beginning again. There is nothing else it can do, in prayer. Only God is the constant ground of our being, and his mercy is everlasting (Psalm 100.5).

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Loop-Dance of the Three-in-One

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

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

Monday, August 05, 2019

The Heartland of Prayer

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

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