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