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