Friday, August 14, 2020

Church is what?

The period of "doing church" during lockdown was an interesting time. The Dorchester churches were closed of course, as was the Quaker meeting, and while there were various efforts at worship via Zoom, livestreamed sermons and mediations, and other initiatives, by and large - for me at least - the peace of silence, and the practice of the Jesus Prayer, filled the space left with a closeness to God that I hadn't experienced for a long time.

Our experience of church during this current period of uncertain easing of regulations, and imposition of others such as the wearing of face coverings in public gatherings, has been very mixed. As with some shops, there is constant tension and uncertainty around the often ambiguous - if necessary - rules, and continual vigilance, about following one-way routes to and from communion stations, for instance. It has been good to see those we've missed again, and to hear their voices without the interposition of electronics, but in many ways it seems to me that our local Quaker meeting has made the better choice in remaining closed until we are sure that the pandemic is more nearly under control.

What can we learn from these experiences, which come, for me, as a kind of culmination of a quite long process, involving an increasing sense of being drawn to a hiddenness of life and worship, to silence and to stillness? Back in June this year, I wrote:

This seems to be for me more than ever before a time between times. I haven't written much here the last few weeks, not because there's been nothing to say, really, but more because it has come to me without words, this stillness; the waiting so deep that I haven't even been able to find even a cognitive toehold, so to speak, to explain it to myself... this liminal place is for me about more than the result of the current suspension of normal life while we wait for the pandemic to pass.  It is a place God has brought me to, in that hidden way he has. 

These anything but ordinary weeks of near-isolation, bereft of so many of the distractions of ordinary life, have brought me here, against all expectations.

It seems that to remain hidden (Colossians 3:3) with Christ in God, unknowing, is at least for me the narrow path to, and the gift of, God's own presence, where even our own steps are unknown to us: our God who is entirely beyond our own comprehension, whose name can only be a pointer, as Jennifer Kavanagh says, to something beyond our description. In silence itself is our hiddenness, our unknowing, where God waits within our own waiting (Isaiah 30:18).

Where does this leave us? What is to be learned - or to put it another way, what might the Spirit be showing me - of the path ahead? The final sentences of Steve Aisthorpe's The Invisible Church read:
There is a growing realisation that church is what occurs when people are touched by the living Christ and share the journey of faith with others. Whether that occurs in an historic building or online or . . . wherever, is unimportant.
Looking back over past posts here - try a search within this blog (the search box is top left, by the orange Blogger logo) for the word "hiddenness" - I have the uncomfortable sense of being crept up on, in the way that God so often has. In the past, those who sought to follow Christ sometimes came to a time in their lives when they felt drawn, like St Aidan or St Cuthbert, to climb into a coracle and paddle away to some offshore island; or like the Desert Fathers and Mothers, to move out into the all but trackless desert. Perhaps I am at some analogous stage in my life. I don't know. But the kind of qualified solitude that I found during the period of complete lockdown was a healing thing, a kind of unsought wholeness and peace with God, a sense of being in the right place, against all expectations.
I seem to find myself quoting the author of Proverbs here, again and again, when he writes:
All our steps are ordered by the LORD;>how then can we understand our own ways?
(Proverbs 20:24 NRSV)
But it's true; and in accepting that, and in waiting quietly for whatever God may yet reveal, there is a peace and a contentment that I had not anticipated.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Truth

Pontius Pilate infamously asked Jesus, "What is truth?" (John 18:38) and philosophers from Socrates through Kant to Erich Fromm have attempted to give their own answers. But I am coming to believe that the incessant exercise of the human power of reason actually takes us further from truth itself, as much as it may seek to know about it.

John Starke, in The Possibility of Prayer, writes:
Throughout the Gospels we find Jesus resisting the powerful and pompous and going to the outcast and the humble... If we want to experience what God does in us and around us, which is quiet and subtle, we must make ourselves low. Prayer is the regular practice of lowering ourselves to better views of his work... It's a strange irony that prayer is the strengthening of an inner muscle that does nothing more than boast in weakness [2 Corinthians 12:9]
Unless we can be still in prayer, and cease from our anxious reasoning, and surrender to God's presence in the space between one breath and another, one morsel of bread and the next crumb, the experience will slip past us, and the memory fail.

John Bellows wrote:
I know of no other way, in these deeper depths, of trusting in the name of the Lord, and staying upon God, than sinking into silence and nothingness before Him… So long as the enemy can keep us reasoning he can buffet us to and fro; but into the true solemn silence of the soul before God he cannot follow us.
In the true littleness of our silence truth for a moment lifts to us the mirror of God. "Faith", said Jennifer Kavanagh, "is not about certainty, but about trust." In our stillness, our unknowing, our very lowliness, is the very place Jacob found: "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven." (Genesis 28:17 NIV)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

The deep-water swell...

Over the years I've many times found myself speaking about the Jesus Prayer, usually in the wider context of contemplative prayer, and quite often in church contexts someone will come up with the objection, "If all you're doing is saying Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner over and over again, surely that's the 'vain repetition' Jesus warned us against!" (Matthew 6:7, in the King James Version).

Of course, it's an easy objection to answer: if you ask them, most of the objectors don't use the KJV in their regular Bible reading. It's much more likely to be the NIV or the NRSV, where the phrase Jesus used is translated "do not keep on babbling like pagans" or "do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do" - and patently the Jesus Prayer isn't anything like that.

But for all the ease with which one can refute such proof-texting, our objectors do have a point. Occasionally you will find Christian writers, whether in approval or disapproval, referring to the Jesus Prayer (as well as prayers like the Hail Mary, and perhaps even the Kyrie) as a "mantra", by which they seem to mean a phrase that is repeated over and over again, more or less regardless of meaning, in order to bring about some psychological effect, such as reducing stress or "emptying the mind." And of course the Jesus Prayer is not that. Unlike many of the mantras sometimes used by practitioners of transcendental mediation and similar paths, that are also often given in languages unfamiliar to the user, the Jesus Prayer is a prayer.

Almost all the teachers of the Jesus Prayer whom I have encountered make the point somewhere, though they may have different ways of putting it, that the key to this way of praying is intentionality. We mean what we say, and our using it repetitively is much more like the prayer of Bartimaeus the blind man, who "was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, 'Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!' Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, 'Son of David, have mercy on me!'" (Mark 10:46 NIV)

In its simplicity and its self-abandonment, the Prayer comes to resemble, too, the prayer of the  tax collector at the temple, who "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.'" (Luke 18:13 NIV) (The prayers of Isaiah 6, and Revelation 4:2 and 5:11-14 are prayers of repetition also, but of praise rather than of supplication or intercession.)

It is best to approach saying the Jesus Prayer with as few preconceptions as possible. Although I have read widely, and I hope deeply, on the Prayer over the years, I began saying it when I knew very little of the tradition, or the traditional methods, of praying the Prayer. It took hold, as God had obviously intended it should, and became simply part of who I am before God. In fact, although when I was first introduced to the Prayer by Fr. Francis Horner SSM back in 1978, he gave me Per-Olof Sjogren's wonderful book to read, a good deal of what happened in the years following were things for which I had no frame of reference. I only discovered much later that they were commonplace in the experience of those who pray the Prayer.

So we don't need to be afraid, if God calls us on this way of knowing him, to strike out into the deep. After all, even the best maps can do no more than hint at destinations, and maybe warn of shoals; they can convey nothing of the sea-wind, the endless cry of the gulls, the wonderful scent of the waves as they break, or the peace there is in the lift and rock of the deep-water swell...


Sunday, July 05, 2020

Receiving Stations

Quietly, I seem to be beginning to understand something of why the penitential nature of the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) leads it on into acting as a prayer of intercession as well.

We are all sinners. Even those we remember as saints were themselves acutely conscious of their own sin - Francis of Assisi would be a good example - in the sense of separation from God, rather than as ones transgressing some list of "naughty things". Our innate tendency to turn from the presence of God into our own private obsessions and insecurities, sometimes called original sin, is something we all hold in common, from the most obviously "religious" to the least, from those whom the world would regard as good, to those it would regard as beneath contempt.

We live, though, in the mercy that is Christ, all of us. "For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." (Colossians 1:16-17 NIV)

In our accepting this solidarity, as it were, with the least of our fellow creatures, as well as the greatest, we are accepting for ourselves also their suffering, their alienation, their grief. Craig Barnett writes:
The religious path is often presented as a way to achieve inner peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering. Much popular spirituality claims that life is meant to be filled with peace and contentment; that pain and anguish are problems that can be overcome by the right attitude or technique. The promise of perfect contentment is seductive, but it can never be fulfilled, because it is based on the illusion that suffering is a mistake.
Suffering, ageing, sickness and loss are not regrettable failures to realise our true nature. They are inherent in the nature of embodied human life and our often-incompatible needs and desires. Any spirituality, therapy or ideology that promises an escape from these limitations neglects the truth that suffering is an essential dimension of human life. Growth in spiritual maturity does not mean escaping or transcending these experiences, but becoming more able to accept and learn from them; to receive the painful gifts that they have to offer.
Our prayer for mercy is answered always by love (Luke 18:9ff), and it is in this love that we, somehow, become as it were aerials for the Spirit, receiving stations for a grace that we may not even ourselves understand.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Only in Silence the Word

Only in silence the word,
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk's flight
On the empty sky.

Ursula K. Le Guin
from The Creation of Éa
I wonder if some of my readers, encountering my last post, might not be tempted to accuse me of lotus-eating. There is little mention of the dark times we have been living through, of the yet again sharpened grief and apprehension of those of us of colour following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and who knows how many others; of the overarching threat of the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, and its endless social, economic and political ramifications throughout the human-inhabited world; of all the other cruelties, injustices and simple misfortunes that are all but lost in the background clutter of news and rumour that frames our thoughts and our emotions day in and day out. But that would be to miss the (sometimes obscured, I admit) point of most of my writing here.

Paul, in addressing the Athenians (Acts 17:16-33) quotes Epimenides: "For in him we live and move and have our being." (v 28) God is present everywhere, and always, and beyond all place and time. He sustains all things (Hebrews 1:1-4). Being itself (John 1:3) is from God, who is the ontological ground of all that is, as Paul Tillich points out in  Courage to Be and elsewhere; in fact throughout all his work, so far as I can see.

To encounter God is to encounter all other beings in the is-ness (Meister Eckhart) of God. Sue Monk Kidd writes (she is using the word solitude here as a shorthand for the contemplative encounter wherever found):
In that moment he [Thomas Merton] understood what solitude had done to him. It had given him his brothers. It will do the same for us. We cannot enter solitude, this great "God Alone-ness" and hold the world at arm's length. In solitude we are awakened more fully to people. The joke is on us.
Michael Ramsey (I have quoted him time and again on this blog) once 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.
Sophrony Sakharov, the exiled Russian writer and teacher on prayer, who had lived and prayed through the purges of Stalin, the Second World War, and much of the Cold War, wrote:
The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside… 
It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…
I am always reminded by this passage of Thomas R Kelly who, writing of solitary prayer, comes very close indeed to restating the hesychast tradition of contemplative prayer himself. He describes how “[the] processes of inward prayer do not grow more complex, but more simple” and he recommends using a short phrase, whether from Scripture or from one’s own imagination, and he advises, “Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.” He goes on to say,
But the time will come when verbalisation is not so imperative, and yields place to the attitudes of soul which you meant the words to express… Behind the foreground of the words continues the background of heavenly orientation, as all the currents of our being are set towards Him. Through the shimmering light of divine Presence we look out upon the world, and in its turmoil and fitfulness, we may be given to respond, in some increased measure, in ways dimly suggestive of the Son of Man… All we can say is, Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the orbit… Sometimes the prayer and this Life that flows through us reaches out to all souls with kindred vision and upholds them in his tender care. Sometimes it flows out to the world of blinded struggle, and we become cosmic Saviours, seeking all those who are lost.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Between Times

This seems to be for me more than ever before a time between times. I haven't written much here the last few weeks, not because there's been nothing to say, really, but more because it has come to me without words, this stillness; the waiting so deep that I haven't even been able to find even a cognitive toehold, so to speak, to explain it to myself.

Psalm 130 holds a hint of it:
Out of the depths I cry to you, LORD;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.
If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you. 
I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning. 
(Psalm 130:1-6 NIV)
One thing has become clear, though, and that is that this liminal place is for me about more than the result of the current suspension of normal life while we wait for the pandemic to pass.  It is a place God has brought me to, in that hidden way he has. The very next Psalm contains the words:
My heart is not proud, LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me. 
But I have calmed and quietened myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content. 
(Psalm 131:1-2 NIV)
It seems to me that this is a whole and healing word for this time. So much that happens in our spirit is hidden from our conscious, busy minds. I for one am always looking for explanations, structures, timescales; but within the pupa case, larval structures break down. The developing adult butterfly, or bee, or whatever, is immobile, undifferentiated. You couldn't guess, unless you were an entomologist, what the silent pupa might become.

The author of Proverbs saw this unformed quality of our life in God, when he wrote:
All our steps are ordered by the LORD;
how then can we understand our own ways? 
(Proverbs 20:24 NRSV)
 Paul, in one of my favourite passages from his writings, saw it, too:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. 
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 
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 
(Romans 8:22-28 NIV)
As the Psalmist wrote, I am content. These anything but ordinary weeks of near-isolation, bereft of so many of the distractions of ordinary life, have brought me here, against all expectations.

It seems that to remain hidden (Colossians 3:3) with Christ in God, unknowing, is at least for me the narrow path to, and the gift of, God's own presence, where even our own steps are unknown to us: our God who is entirely beyond our own comprehension, whose name can only be a pointer, as Jennifer Kavanagh says, to something beyond our description. In silence itself is our hiddenness, our unknowing, where God waits within our own waiting (Isaiah 30:18).

Monday, May 25, 2020

Flow mingled down...

Yesterday I wrote of my sense "that many of the so-called mistakes in our lives, the errors and wrong turnings, are allowed (at least) by the Spirit working in our hearts to bring us to where God can heal us, restore us and turn our steps back to the true North."

I am concerned that I may have implied that too much of this could be due to human wisdom, when of course almost the opposite is true. It is when we are given the grace to let go of human wisdom and trust only God's that we can be led safely through the paths of memory and healing, to understand that in the end "It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees." (Psalm 119:71 NIV)

It is hard for us to understand that there is nothing that we can do to earn the mercy of Christ, and it is harder still perhaps for us to realise that our forgiveness and healing has nothing to do with our finding the right way to say sorry. It was on the cross that all the work was done, all the love poured out in tears and blood. All that we have to do is accept that "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. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" (Galatians 2:20-21 NIV)

Our healing comes from that:

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

(Isaiah 53:4-6 NIV)

These realisations are gifts, and they seem to be received by repentance. Real repentance, clean and wholesome, gentle and life-giving, we seem often to overlook; but it is the opening of our hearts to that sorrow and love of our Lord's self-gift. Just that. Not a means of self-accusation, but a turning, in infinite relief and hope, from ourselves to our saviour.

Isaac of Nineveh had this to say:

Repentance is given us as grace after grace, for repentance is a second regeneration by God. That of which we have received an earnest by baptism, we receive as a gift by means of repentance. Repentance is the door of mercy, opened to those who seek it. By this door we enter into the mercy of God, and apart from this entrance we shall not find mercy.

[The title of this post is taken from Isaac Watts' hymn 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross'] 

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Back to the North

I sometimes think that many of the so-called mistakes in our lives, the errors and wrong turnings, are allowed (at least) by the Spirit working in our hearts to bring us to where God can heal us, restore us and turn our steps back to the true North. Yes, it is true that at times these wrong turnings may bring us to where we may find great pain and loss, where dreams and ambitions may come to nothing; but sometimes physical healing may first necessitate surgery!

John O'Donohue wrote (thanks to Barbara for the quote):
One of the qualities that you can develop, particularly in your older years, is a sense of great compassion for yourself. When you visit the wounds within the temple of memory, you should not blame yourself for making bad mistakes that you greatly regret. Sometimes you have grown unexpectedly through these mistakes. Frequently, in a journey of the soul, the most precious moments are the mistakes. They have brought you to a place that you would otherwise have always avoided. You should bring a compassionate mindfulness to your mistakes and wounds.
This is not a new idea. Throughout the Psalms there are hints, and more than hints, of this possibility, but it finds its clearest expression in Psalm 119. For instance, (Psalm 119:67,71 NIV) "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word... It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees."

I have found that these Spirit surgeries are very often mercifully hidden from us at the time. Perhaps we could not cope with the truth of them; perhaps the knowledge might allow us to avoid the error, and hence the healing also. We cannot know. But that unknowing may be a part of the process itself. Ecclesiastes 11:5 reads, "As you do not know the path of the wind, or know how life enters the body being formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things." Proverbs 20:24 is even more pointed: "A person’s steps are directed by the LORD. How then can anyone understand their own way?"

Further on in the passage Barbara quotes, O'Donohue suggests revisiting the remembered time and finding again the state of mind ("inhabit the rhythm" he says) but for myself I am not sure of this. Too easily I become caught up, going back obsessively like a man picking at an old scar. For me, it is the Spirit's leading that is everything. In prayer, especially in a contemplative or other prayer form that allows space for the Spirit to move freely - and this is one of the great benefits of Quaker worship - the Spirit can bring us directly into whatever anamnesis will contribute immediately to our healing, and perhaps more, to our self-forgiveness.

James Nayler is often remembered among Friends for all the wrong reasons, but some of his later writings were among the most beautiful and most powerful of early Quaker texts. He touched keenly upon just what we are considering here:
Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee. Art thou wounded in conscience? Feed not there, but abide in the Light which leads to Grace and Truth, which teaches to deny, and puts off the weight, and removes the cause, and brings saving health to Light. (Quaker faith & practice 21.65)
But perhaps the best words to end with are Barbara's own, from the conclusion of her own post:
We are poor sods just trying to find our way home, after all. Let's forgive ourselves and cast ourselves into that Ocean of Mercy held out to us.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Sink down to the seed

Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. (John 12:24 NIV)



Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, "All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever." And this is the word that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:22-25 NIV)

One of the things people - myself included - seem to find most difficult in these days of the pandemic is enforced inability to act. It is as though we long to do something - anything! - to break out of this inaction. But strange, powerful things happen in stillness. Seeds lie dormant over winter in order to germinate germinate in spring; insect larvae, quiet in their pupae, become butterflies, or bright beetles that scamper in sunlight.

The quiet heart, if it accepts inaction, can allow God's wonders to come to be. Waiting is an act of patience, an openness to what may come. St Romuald's brief rule for Camaldolese monks ends,

Empty yourself completely and sit waiting,
content with the grace of God,
like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing
but what his mother brings him.

And Isaac Pennington put it:

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

(Quaker faith & practice 26.70)


Thursday, May 14, 2020

Into your hands...

Yet you, LORD, are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8 NIV)

In you, LORD, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
deliver me, LORD, my faithful God. (Psalm 31:1-5 NIV)

In the stillness of worship, "shielded" in this pocket of light just before summer, the blessedness of being helpless in God's hands has never been clearer. Jesus it was who said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." (Matthew 5:3-4 NIV)

To trust in God when all human ingenuity and will are exhausted is not defeat, except perhaps from the point of view of some iron-jawed self-determination, but courage before the inevitable. In the acceptance of what is, there are vast estates of beauty, expanses of sheer gift, where the grace of God flows like healing rivers, bearing us up into the the light, into the peace of God, far beyond all we can understand. (Philippians 4:7)

It is well, it is well with my soul... (Horatio Spafford)

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Dark Tales

This evening is particularly quiet. The leaves of the hazels at the back of the garden are hardly moving, and light from the west is casting clean shadows of the roofline on to the trees. This spring the weather is so beautiful - even the rainy days have a clean, healing quality about them - that the threat of the current pandemic seems hard to believe, a dark tale from another time, perhaps, or from a dystopian fiction...

I will extol the LORD at all times;
  his praise will always be on my lips.

I will glory in the LORD;
  let the afflicted hear and rejoice.

Glorify the LORD with me;
  let us exalt his name together.

(Psalm 34:1-3 NIV)

It's interesting, isn't, how David phrases this? If the poet was indeed David (this is one of the psalms whose attribution is most likely to be accurate) then of course he would know about affliction, but the psalms in general are stunningly honest about this kind of thing. In one of my favourite passages from Psalm 119 we read,

[67] Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word...
[71] It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.

(Psalm 119:67,71 NIV)
Why might this be? We are familiar enough, though very often we struggle to apply it to our own lives, with the concept Paul expresses in Romans 8:28, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." All things, not just the convenient ones, or the pleasant ones. Of course, the verse is not saying that all things are good - some things, like the situation in which we all find ourselves at the moment, patently are not good at all. But the anonymous poet of Psalm 119 seems to go even beyond the apostle.

I have come to recognise, from periods in my own life of desolation and functional solitude (being alone in the sense not always of physical isolation, but of being cut off from understanding and comfort: "You have taken from me friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend." (Psalm 88:18)) the power of this kind of prayer, and how actually to pray the Psalms, to take their words and make them one's own, brings strength and refuge, comfort even, in dark places. I don't think it is hyperbole to say that at these times in my life I would not have come through had it not been for the Psalms.

In some deep mystery these words in the psalms prefigure the cross of Christ, and it is there that understanding begins to break through. Jesus called his disciples to "take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it." (Matthew 16:24-25 NIV) Peter wrote "To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps." (1 Peter 2:21 NIV)

It's really important to understand that none of these insights were my own doing. None came about through any particular insight or perspicuity of mine, still less through any imagined godliness: it was all sheer gift. Nor am I saying that the ultimate healing of wounds of the spirit - such as we all are suffering in these perfect days of springtime, as the earth stretches and heals from the long years of environmental abuse and exploitation - comes purely through the prayerful acceptance of suffering. My survival may, in my own instance, have come that way - but it was only after the passage of many years, and through skilled and patient help, that their effects have finally begun to be something like healed. But their value - that is another matter entirely. One of the hardest things to take is the illusion of the pointlessness of one's own suffering; the realisation that it is not, after all, a waste of life and hope, but a way into endless life and indestructible hope, through and not despite the Cross is what brings us at last to that refuge David described in Psalm 63:6-8,

On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Resurrexit!

The resurrection, an event recorded in all four Gospels, referred to in the New Testament epistles, including the earliest of Paul's, and attested to in Acts, is one of those stumbling blocks that naturalistic readers find least easy to accept, and that embarrass even some committed Christians. Yet Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15 most strikingly, but elsewhere as well, makes the resurrection of Christ the cornerstone of our hope.

Michael J Gorman writes,

For the apostle Paul, the resurrection of Christ was not merely one among many Christian convictions; it was the one that guaranteed the significance of all others and provided the rationale for the life of faith, hope and love expected of those who live in Christ. From Paul's perspective, to deny or misinterpret the resurrection is to undermine the entire Christian faith.

In his response to the Corinthians who denied the resurrection of the dead, Paul argued logically that if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, he says, "your faith is vain; you are still in your sins" (1 Cor 15:17). That is, Christ's death on the cross for sins (see 1 Cor 15:3) has no saving significance without the resurrection. It is merely the Roman crucifixion of a false messiah...

We must stress here one key point that contemporary Christians often fail to understand or try to avoid: that Christ's resurrection was a bodily resurrection. Paul was a Pharisee, not a Platonist, and he did not believe in the immortality of a body-less soul. Bodily resurrection does not mean simply the resuscitation of a corpse, but neither is it merely a metaphor for Christ’s ongoing existence in the Church as His body, or something similar.

Paul's Corinthian audience was apparently confused about the corporeality of resurrection, too, so the apostle develops some elaborate analogies to help the Corinthians understand that bodily resurrection means transformation, and thus both continuity and discontinuity with respect to our current bodily existence (see 1 Cor 15:35-57).

So much of our Christian hope makes little sense without the Spirit. As I mentioned in my last blog post, "The same Spirit which inspired the writers of the Bible is the Spirit which gives us understanding of it..." (London Yearly Meeting 1986 - Quaker faith & practice 27.34) But if Tom Wright is correct, there is abundant textual and historical evidence that makes perfect sense if a physical resurrection is a matter of fact, and very little sense otherwise.

Henri Nouwen, in one of the Daily Reflections published on the Nouwen Society's website, wrote:

The resurrection of Jesus is the basis of our faith in the resurrection of our bodies.  Often we hear the suggestion that our bodies are the prisons of our souls and that the spiritual life is the way out of these prisons.  But by our faith in the resurrection of the body we proclaim that the spiritual life and the life in the body cannot be separated.  Our bodies, as Paul says, are temples of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 6:19) and, therefore, sacred.  The resurrection of the body means that what we have lived in the body will not go to waste but will be lifted in our eternal life with God.  As Christ bears the marks of his suffering in his risen body, our bodies in the resurrection will bear the marks of our suffering.  Our wounds will become signs of glory in the resurrection…

John Ortberg is well aware of the staggering implications of a belief based on such a claim:

There is a second revolution. This time we know the revolutionary's name. We know where he lived. We know how he lived. We know what he taught. We know how he died. This is, Jesus said, the way life works. You have to be willing to sacrifice something if anything is ever going to be the way it is supposed to be. No sacrifice, no harvest. Only it isn't seeds this time; this time it's you.

What got released on [Easter] Sunday was hope. Not hope that life would turn out well. Hope that called people to die: die to selfishness and sin and fear and greed, die to the lesser life of a lesser self so that a greater self might be born. And many people did. This hope changed things. Because of their belief in the resurrection of the body. Because of Sunday.

A hope that is not only undefeated by the possibility of death; a hope that calls us to die, metaphorically or literally, is an indefatigable hope, a faith and a hope that endures all things (1 Corinthians 13); a hope that in the end is indistinguishable from love. It is out of this love that we can pray, and out of his glorious risen life that our Lord Jesus is in truth the Christ, the mercy of God:

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16 NIV)

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Sinking Down

We understand the Bible as a record arising from… struggles to comprehend God’s ways with people. The same Spirit which inspired the writers of the Bible is the Spirit which gives us understanding of it... (London Yearly Meeting 1986 - Quaker faith & practice 27.34)

We do Scripture, and ourselves, a disservice if we read it as a manual of instructions, or else simply as a history book. The reach of the Bible is vast in terms both of its chronological scope and its range of purposes. What is consistent is its record of people's encounters with God; the terms in which they express them are drawn inevitably from the the societies in which they lived, societies very different from our own.

When we pick up the Bible we can be greatly helped by the apparatus of Biblical criticism, and still more by Biblical theology, but the study of Scripture is only a small part of our own encounter with it. George Boobyer, Qfp 27.30:

An intelligent analytical and critical approach [to the Bible] has its rightful place. We then stand over the Bible as subjects investigating an object. An inversion of this subject–object relationship is, however, possible. We then approach the Bible not mainly to criticise, but to listen; not merely to question, but to be challenged, and to open our lives penitentially both to its judgments and to its liberating gospel.

Pathways to God are many and varied. Friends, however, along with a great company of other seekers, have been able to testify that this receptive personal response to the biblical message, and especially to the call of Jesus, leads to joyous self-fulfilling life, and to a redemptive awareness of the love and glory of God.

It is this prayerful approach to the Bible that allows the healing touch of God's word to unknot our hearts, that dissolves our separateness from people, from creatures living and otherwise, from God. To sit still with a passage of Scripture, really still, may be transforming.

There is an ancient practice, known as Lectio divina, that is a formal way of doing just this. Of course it is not necessary to follow a formal pattern at all, so long as we are aware what we are doing, and do it deliberately; but it is vitally helpful to understand how others over many years (since c. 300 AD) have approached the Bible in order to encounter God. Basically, it may be likened to first, the taking of a bite, a short passage, of Scripture (reading); then chewing on it (meditation); savouring its essence (prayer) and, finally, "digesting" it and allowing it to make itself a part of the body (contemplation).

Jean Khoury writes (Lectio Divina, CTS 2006)

God's action in us does not take place on the surface. It is oriented towards the depths. This action infiltrates our deepest being and frees it, making it subtle and deifying it. This is why deep silent prayer, mental prayer, is founded on lectio; precisely because lectio opens up the way for God so that he may go ever deeper in us through mental prayer. The effort of lectio opens the door to the divine beam of contemplation...

This is a process not at all unlike the stillness we find in meeting for worship. We are relinquishing, once we have reached the stage of contemplation, our own will and our own critical faculties, and allowing the seed that has been sown in us to grow and breathe and act in us - cf. Isaac Pennington, Qfp 26.70:

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Distance

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3 NIV)

This is, for many of us, intrinsically a hidden time. We live in varying degrees of isolation, most of us not at work in the physical sense, with most of our usual means of society closed to us - church, the pub, trains and buses, the everyday chat of shop and office - and we are confined to distance.

We fret to escape lockdown. We talk - at a distance - of what we may do when this is all over, where we'll go, whom we'll see. Some of us bend the rules; a few of us break them, and find themselves rightly in trouble with the police.

But Henri Nouwen wrote, in Bread for the Journey,

The largest part of Jesus' life was hidden. Jesus lived with his parents in Nazareth, "under their authority" (Luke 2:51), and there "increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people" (Luke 2:52). When we think about Jesus we mostly think about his words and miracles, his passion, death, and resurrection, but we should never forget that before all of that Jesus lived a simple, hidden life in a small town, far away from all the great people, great cities, and great events. Jesus' hidden life is very important for our own spiritual journeys. If we want to follow Jesus by words and deeds in the service of his Kingdom, we must first of all strive to follow Jesus in his simple, unspectacular, and very ordinary hidden life...

Hiddenness is an essential quality of the spiritual life. Solitude, silence, ordinary tasks, being with people without great agendas, sleeping, eating, working, playing ... all of that without being different from others, that is the life that Jesus lived and the life he asks us to live. It is in hiddenness that we, like Jesus, can increase "in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people" (Luke 2:51). It is in hiddenness that we can find a true intimacy with God and a true love for people.

Even during his active ministry, Jesus continued to return to hidden places to be alone with God. If we don't have a hidden life with God, our public life for God cannot bear fruit...

If indeed the spiritual life is essentially a hidden life, how do we protect this hiddenness in the midst of a very public life? The two most important ways to protect our hiddenness are solitude and poverty. Solitude allows us to be alone with God. There we experience that we belong not to people, not even to those who love us and care for us, but to God and God alone. Poverty is where we experience our own and other people's weakness, limitations, and need for support. To be poor is to be without success, without fame, and without power. But there God chooses to show us God's love.

Both solitude and poverty protect the hiddenness of our lives.

We are in a time of solitude and poverty, all of us: even if we are stuck in a crowded house with three generations and someone with frank symptoms; even if we have a good pension, or a conveniently work-from-home job. The things we depended upon for our identity, our place in society, for our sense of our selves, have gone as surely as they go for those living the vowed religious life, or for those who have lost home and livelihood in some personal disaster. We are bereft.

digitalnun, in this morning's Easter post, writes:

This morning, as we think about those women meeting Jesus as they come away from the tomb, it may be helpful to consider the obvious. They did not find Jesus where they expected to find him. They found him - or rather, he found them - where they did not expect, as they were coming away, disappointed at not being able to fulfil the task they had laid upon themselves. Sometimes we have to learn that what we think is important isn't; that what God wills is ultimately best for us all; and that we shall meet God at a time and place of his choosing, not ours. We just have to be ready - and that is undoubtedly the hardest task of all.

We grieve for our closed churches, our empty meeting houses. But perhaps there is something going on behind the scenes. Perhaps if we keep very still, the shy Spirit may touch us in the distance, closer than breathing, with the softest wing of grace.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

The glory of the risen Christ broke through the darkness on this morning, long ago, and is with us now, forever...

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:5 NIV)

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Stillness between

Today is a stillness between pain and glory, abject death and life beyond life, the light that shone before the worlds blazing in the garden tomb before dawn.

But today you can't see it. Today is empty, a hollow place between, the most liminal of all times in history.

Richard Rohr wrote:
Limen is the Latin word for threshold. A "liminal space" is the crucial in-between time—when everything actually happens and yet nothing appears to be happening. It is the waiting period when the cake bakes, the movement is made, the transformation takes place. One cannot just jump from Friday to Sunday in this case, there must be Saturday! This, of course, was always the holy day for the Jewish tradition. The Sabbath rest was the pivotal day for the Jews, and even the dead body of Jesus rests on Saturday, waiting for God to do whatever God plans to do. It is our great act of trust and surrender, both together. A new "creation ex nihilo" is about to happen, but first it must be desired. . . .

Remember, hope is not some vague belief that "all will work out well," but biblical hope is the certainty that things finally have a victorious meaning no matter how they turn out. We learned that from Jesus, which gives us now the courage to live our lives forward from here. Maybe that is the full purpose of Lent.

Richard Rohr, from Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent
Night has fallen, the Easter Saturday, over a land in stillness, a waiting that is written out in lockdown and shielding, the frailty of what we are on earth never more apparent than today. Who could imagine what the dawn will reveal?

Friday, April 10, 2020

Shock and Discontinuity

It's a curious stillness, this afternoon, remembering the olive trees on the hill outside Jerusalem, looking down over the Kidron Valley - the gaps between the trees where, not many hours ago, Jesus had pleaded that there might be another way; anything but this; that now was over, finished.

This silence has not yet pattern. There is a kind of stasis field around Good Friday afternoon, time suspended almost, beyond the torn curtain, the instant of shock and discontinuity among all that was made.

This Good Friday, of all Good Fridays, we are between worlds, waiting for we know not what. Discontinuity. Not knowing, yet the mercy of that death spreads like a stain, unbounded, in the empty places after that cry, "Tetelestai!" It has only just begun.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5 NIV)

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Maundy Thursday

A few years ago I posted the text of this beautiful hymn, 'Godhead Here in Hiding', by St Thomas Aquinas, and it occurred to me that this was just the kind of Maundy Thursday to post it again:
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.

On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men,
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.

I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he;
Let me to a deeper faith daily nearer move,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.

O thou our reminder of Christ crucified,
Living Bread, the life of us for whom he died,
Lend this life to me then: feed and feast my mind,
There be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.

Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican;
Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what thy bosom ran—
Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.

Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with thy glory’s sight. Amen.

(St Thomas Aquinas, tr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ)

We are stripped, we humans, like bare wooden tables in the empty naves of our common lives - we have nothing to say, nothing to ask for, except the mercy of our Christ, who said this night,
I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. (John 14:18-20 NRSV)

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Blessed

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
From the house of the Lord we bless you.
The Lord is God,
and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar. 
You are my God, and I will praise you;
you are my God, and I will exalt you. 
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures for ever. 
Psalm 118.26-29 NIV
Today is the day known as Palm Sunday in the calendars of the liturgical churches, when Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, (Matthew 21.1-11) is remembered in readings and the Eucharist. Only a few days later he was to be crucified, having been hailed as, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord..."

The name of the Lord is the name of God, the Tetragrammaton, the pulse that underlies being itself, and in this name we encounter Christ (John 1.1ff) Michael Lewis puts it like this: "The name of Jesus is the image of the ineffable Name, just as Jesus is the Image of the invisible God." (The Name of God: The Revelation of the Merciful Presence of God)

Advices and queries 4 reads,
The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus. How do you interpret your faith in the light of this heritage? How does Jesus speak to you today? Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action? Are you learning from his life the reality and cost of obedience to God? How does his relationship with God challenge and inspire you?
Ben Wood, in a long post, Spiritual Practice with Jesus & Mary Oliver, which I'd strongly recommend you click through and read in its entirety:
If Jesus is the model we should have in mind, what do the Gospels tell us about him? What kind of practical action did he favour?  Principally, Christlike action begins, not with an esoteric notion of spiritual practice, but with attentiveness... [Jesus] was soaked in every deep structure of the human experience, not by transcending his time and place, but by sinking down into it. Begin at home, he seems to say. You cannot find love and grace through novelty or travel. Only stillness and rootedness will do... 
When we seek to find the bottomless meaning in every moment: in a spider’s web caught by the sun, in the face of another, the deep grey of the sky; there is the Kingdom. We need not leave home to be spiritually at home. We need not go far to be in the arms of love.
To remain still is hard, when our worship, whether filled with the sound and poetry of the Palm Sunday liturgy, or in the silence of Meeting, is made impossible in fellowship and sharing by the necessary isolation of life in a pandemic, and we itch and squirm with anxiety and the frustrated impulse to "do something, anything!" But it is only in the stillness and in the staying put that we hear the name of God, in the echo of the chasms between the particles that dance in the atoms of all that is.

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Helplessness or Prayer?

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Romans 8.26-27 NRSV

It is easy, especially at a time like this, with even the most ordinary facets of life interrupted and suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic and our precautions against it, to feel we have no idea how to pray, that we are helpless, and unsure if prayer is even a thing to do. So many of us are helpless in practical terms, or at least feel the little we can manage to do or donate is insignificantly small.

But here we are, and each of us can pray, after our calling. It truly doesn't matter whether we can find the right words, or any words, so long as our hearts are with our neighbours, in the broadest sense of that word (Luke 10.25ff), and our loving attention is with God. It is all we can do. It may well be the very best we can do. Our grief, our very helplessness, are the things that God's mercy in Christ can use (Matthew 5.1-12).

"All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well." ― Julian of Norwich, writing in the time of the Black Death.

Monday, March 23, 2020

On not messing around...

A lot of talk about mysticism and spirituality can be heard as giving you an escape route. Life is difficult but let’s take our glasses off so things look a bit more vague. But the proper definition of mysticism means we can see the nature of suffering more clearly, not less. It doesn’t make it easier, it makes it clearer...  
Let’s be very careful about telling ourselves a cheery story. Because the future may not turn out very cheery. There is no guarantee whatsoever that things will turn out well in the ordinary sense. But we can live, day by day, out of a sense of the worthwhileness of our being, and therefore of our decisions. And to live with that sense of worthwhileness of who we are, that’s where hope resides.  
Rowan Williams, in a talk on mental health, mysticism and spirituality, reported by Jules Evans
These words of Williams' seem extraordinarily prescient, somehow, looked at from the vantage point of strangeness in which we all live at the moment.

I have rather deliberately refrained from joining the online chorus of speculation and extrapolation regarding our present crisis: so much has been said, and why would I have anything valuable to add it it? But on the subject of prayer, especially contemplative prayer, in a time like this, we have one much wiser than I to help us.

Julian of Norwich, the revered English anchoress, counsellor of Margery Kempe and favourite of TS Eliot and Thomas Merton, was not only perhaps England's greatest mystical writer, but she was one of the most radical and daring theologians and spiritual directors of any time, not just of her own.) In her Revelations of Divine Love, (tr. Clifton Wolters) she writes:
[Christ] 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... 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... [And this] 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...
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.
Now, we may be living under the shadow of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but Julian of Norwich lived in the time of the Black Death, a pandemic in which around 45-50% of the population died from bubonic plague; her own town of Norwich was particularly badly affected. Her words were not written lightly, or in any Pollyanna-ish spirit. When she recorded Christ's words to her in her most famous vision, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well..." she was not messing around.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

A Strange Pilgrimage

For all of us, these are strange times, and the strangest Lent we have known. Quite apart from the worries about our lives and livelihoods, and those of the ones we love, so many of the things that formed the sweet centre of our everyday lives have been torn away. We hope that it is a temporary tearing away, but even that is not certain. For people of faith, perhaps the most painful loss is that of meeting together for worship. The loss of fellowship, teaching, reassurance and sacrament, at the very time we need them most, is hard to bear. There are few roadmaps for where we are.

Writing on the Patheos Progressive Christianity channel, Erin Wathen says,
...sometimes, painful as it is, cancelling is the responsible, compassionate thing to do, and anything else is just hubris. Think of this illness as the black ice of liability. If there is a blizzard, you might be able to get to church. But if you can't clear the sidewalks and the parking lots, do you really want to invite people into a hazard situation–the invisible threat that is just under the surface? This is like that. Sure, folks who are not sick are going to feel like they should still come to church. But they could be carrying something they don't know they have yet, and pass it right on to their elderly or immunocompromised neighbor.
There are many unknowns here. There is unprecedented territory ahead, and nobody can say how long it might last... 
Practice Sabbath. For some, this shutdown of life as we know it is going to cause significant economic hardship... care for your neighbor as best as you can. In the meantime, recognize if your own discomfort is just inconvenience, and keep that perspective. Recognize that downtime can be a gift– an imposed sabbath of time to sit still and be with your family, without the usual rush of places to be and things to accomplish. Read together; prepare meals together (can you share with a neighbor?); maybe even binge watch some Netflix together. When’s the last time everybody was home for this long? Talk about what you can learn from this season. Talk about your blessings. Play a game. Make something. Listen to music. It really doesn't matter. Any of these things can be worshipful in their own way, if by 'worship' we mean rest and renewal by way of connecting with God and others.
In an article entitled Our Pilgrimage Begins With Staying Home, Greg Richardson writes:
Almost all of us have begun a pilgrimage recently. 
Some of us are experienced pilgrims. We prepare for a pilgrimage by deciding on our itinerary and choosing what to pack. It is important to have the proper equipment, like strong walking shoes. 
Many of us like to plan as completely as we can. We want to know what we are going to experience before we experience it. Some of us carry a detailed guide book to ensure we are as comfortable and as safe as possible.
The pilgrimage we have joined together is a little unusual for us. We probably feel like we did not have enough time to get ready. Most of us have little idea where we are going and how we will get there. There is no dependable guide book full of details about this journey. 
This pilgrimage begins with staying home... 
Like Chaucer's pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, each of us has our own tale. 
Other concerns and decisions seem to fade into the background. Questions which monopolized our time and attention before no longer seem so significant. We may learn what we thought motivated us are not the lessons we most need to learn. 
A pilgrimage is a journey, not a destination. Our pilgrimage begins and each step is sacred space. We learn its lessons along the way, overcoming obstacles and dealing with challenges... 
When we stay home we find ourselves surrounded by the familiar. Most of us have fewer distractions. 
Now we share a pilgrimage in which we stay home. We are not traveling to a distant country or visiting foreign places. Each day brings us to a new part of our journey and we see it in new ways. 
The challenge for us is not about keeping up with a parade of new people and places. 
Our pilgrimage begins as we take time to pay attention to the stories within us... 
This voyage of discovery, our pilgrimage of staying home, will introduce us to who we can become. 
We did not choose to take this trip and we did not have time to plan or prepare for it...
In our local Quaker meeting, the warden has undertaken to keep the Meeting House open for those rental groups who still want to meet - especially those holding one-to-one sessions to care for vulnerable adults - but more than that, she has promised to sit quietly in the empty meeting room for the hour from 10.30 am that we usually meet, and has invited Friends, in their own homes, to join her. This seems to me to be an immense kindness, and a sign of love and hope for us all.

Our local churches, Catholic and Anglican, Baptist and United (Methodist/URC), as well as the independent evangelical churches, have suspended worship for the time being, in line with government advice. Where possible, church buildings are being kept open for prayer and reflection, the sanctuary lamps burning, the blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle.

Meantime, whatever practice we have of regular prayer and attention - and now might be a good time to establish one if we don't have one in place - let us all, wherever we are, hold each other, and all who serve and who depend upon our meetings, in the light of the "the Love that moves the sun and the other stars" (Dante, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII) more than ever before.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners...

[This is an expanded version of a post on my other blog, Silent Assemblies]

Friday, March 13, 2020

Agnus Dei

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem...

John the Baptist's words, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me..." (John 1.29-30) seem to bring us to the centre of the Lenten fast:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 58.6)
Dr Marijke Hoek writes:
Whether our daily walk and the good works that he has prepared for us lie in pastorate, law, enterprise, IT, education or elsewhere, mercy is meant to shape all our vocations. Daily expressions of mercy express the nature of his Kingdom. Mercy restores a broken person to a meaningful life in community. Mercy can define the character of our justice. Mercy needs to be the hallmark of our virtual and our actual presence. Whatever sphere we operate in, we need a spirited wisdom that is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, impartial, sincere and full of mercy (James 3.17). Living faithfully, Christ's reign invades the world, not hindered by our own 'shady lives' but rather displayed in it.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul says, "He [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together." (Colossians 1.15-17)

Christ is the mercy of God, the Lamb who wipes away every tear, and breathes into his people's hearts a peace beyond the understanding of mind and thought. In Cynthia Bourgeault's brilliant little book Mystical Hope, she writes:
So when we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional - always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being. Just like that little fish swimming desperately in search of water, we too - in the words of Psalm 103 - 'swim in mercy as in an endless sea.' Mercy is God's innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love. 
When we pray the Jesus Prayer, perhaps what we are actually asking for is for Christ the mercy of God to take away the mist of sin that prevents us from being able to be aware of his unbroken being-with-us. There is an academic argument that the Aramaic expression "maranatha", so often translated as, "our Lord, come" could also read, "our Lord has come". (The NRSV gives this as an alternative reading.) In the quiet of the Prayer, what is so often understood as an eschatological aspiration gently turns, for we who are praying, into a statement of fact.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

A Spring of Tears (a reblog)

Once we find ourselves on the way of the Jesus Prayer, or indeed any contemplative discipline, we discover that it is not by any means a comfortable shortcut, a way out of confronting the pain and emptiness of the world. As we begin to travel this path, to pray the Prayer consistently, we find that we become more and more aware of our own pain, and the darkness that lies within our own hearts. To cry out continually, "have mercy on me, a sinner", as did the tax-collector in Luke 18.10-14, breaks down the defences we have built up against looking directly at ourselves in the clear mirror of repentance.

We in the West have generally grown up thinking of sin as committing acts contrary to some kind of code, or list, of Bad Things that must not be done. But the Desert Mothers and Fathers don't seem to have looked at sin like this at all. The Greek word used for sin, αμαρτία - hamartia, apparently means something much more like "missing the mark" than "doing bad stuff", as does the equivalent Hebrew term, syn. Irma Zaleski says, "They were thinking of the condition of those who are... not centred rightly, who are not in the right relationship with God. The root of sin - the ground from which all individual sins spring - is our alienation from God. Repentance, then, should not be... viewed primarily... in terms of guilt - of punishment and repayment - but in terms of metanoia: a Greek word meaning "conversion"... turning away from ourselves and recentring ourselves on God."

If we can get past the musty atmosphere of "owning up" which we have come to associate with repentance, and see it as taking an accurate view of ourselves in relation to God, and in relation to what we ourselves could be were we only open to love God as God loves us, then we begin to see that there really is very little difference between us and anyone - anyone - else. The seeds of cruelty and selfishness are sown deeply in all our hearts, and we cannot stand in judgement over another, no matter what they have done. This is hard, not only to identify with the pain of the victims, but with the cruelty of the victors and the perpetrators of darkness.

Zaleski again:
The way of the Jesus Prayer has been called "white martyrdom." It is the way of the Cross, because there is no greater pain than to stand in the total poverty of our human weakness, to see clearly our misery, our inability to be good. The temptation to judge ourselves, to hate ourselves, would be irresistible if we did not know and had not experienced the merciful, healing power of Jesus.

But, because we have met Christ and have experienced his compassionate, loving presence, we can surrender all judgement to him and be at peace. We can accept ourselves as we are. We can love ourselves and also love others. Because we have discovered that the judgement of Christ is not the judgement of an inquisitor or a tyrant but of a Good Physician, we are able to go to him and show him all the bleeding, cancerous places of our bodies and souls - not so he may punish us, but so he may heal us.
The longer we go on walking in the way of the Prayer, the more clearly we realise that the gulf we have discovered separating us from God is the same gulf that separates our neighbours from God, and the longing for God that leads us onwards is the same longing, the same sense of incompleteness, of - as the existentialists termed it - alienation, that drives the restless and destructive addictions of humanity.

Once realised, once seen for what it is in the bright Light that the Spirit shines into our deepest hearts, this sadness of separation - the core of true repentance - becomes a spring of tears, welling up for ourselves and for all people. It may be sadness, but it is what St John Climacus called "a bright sadness". And we see that our separation is not different from that separation of anyone, and that our prayer for mercy, for union, for reintegration with God, carries with it the love, and the pain, that God has somehow through all this given us for all who suffer, human or otherwise, pain and separation. Our praying of the Jesus Prayer has become in itself intercession: as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote: "[Christ] is able for all time to save completely those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them." (Hebrews 7.25)

[Reblogged, slightly edited, from a post first published in January 2016]

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Merest Faithfulness

Sometimes, especially in Lent, I feel we Christians have a tendency to confuse the idea of repentance with our (or our parents'!) ideas of ideas of child-rearing - "Now, say you're sorry!" - instead of a condition, an existential position over against God. It can be all too easy to reduce the idea of an examination of conscience to a placing of ticks against a long list of dreary transgressions, rather than an embracing of our own reality in the light of God's mercy.

In the Greek of the Philokalia, the word for sinner is not, in the Eastern Orthodox context, chiefly concerned with transgressing one of a list of Naughty Things, but with the sense of failing to be what one might be, of missing the mark.
Sin in the Orthodox Christian understanding is "missing the mark" (the literal meaning of the Greek word for sin, hamartia), falling short of the glorious purpose for which God created mankind. It is also understood as separation from God, since intimate communion with God is the normal state of mankind from which most people have fallen. Sin is imperfection, anything which fails to live up to the fullness of life in Christ for which man was created. 
The Bible sometimes uses legal metaphors to refer to sin, likening it to crime, that is, crime against God's law. For Orthodox Christianity, while making use of legal imagery, the more dominant imagery used for sin is also drawn from Scripture, and that is that sin is a kind of disease, an affliction for which salvation is the cure. 
The Orthodox Wiki
The silence of contemplative prayer, and the inner solitude it necessarily involves, have a way of bringing us to recognise, whether we seek it or not, the imperfection, the brokenness and the hollowness of our human nature apart from God. Mother Mary Clare SLG writes (Encountering the DepthsSLG Press 1981):
On the path of spiritual progress we must not be afraid to feel within ourselves some of the violent passions and fears which we believe prayer can expose to Christ's reconciliation. As Christians we cannot escape the burden of sharing in the sorrows of mankind. This kind of prayer is both costly and a privilege, for as we learn to see our part in the burden of man's sin, something of the prayer of the Christ is re-enacted in us... Listening is a fundamental ingredient of this condition... When we are not attentive listeners it is not only our own personal relationship with God that will be diminished, but even possibly the direct communication between God and another person. Our dissipation of mind, instability and lack of courage to face ourselves, or to be vulnerable to others, frustrates God’s intention that our prayer be a clear pathway to the discernment of the needs of each other. 
The most difficult and decisive part of prayer is acquiring this ability to listen…
And yet, "difficult and decisive" as it may be, this inward listening seems to be very simple; it develops inevitably from the merest faithfulness to a regular contemplative practice. (For me it is the Jesus Prayer, but there are many other options, as a web search will soon reveal - this Wikipedia article is a good place to start.) From this attention comes a repentance that is clear-eyed and healing. God's mercy is above all realistic and without illusion; it is "the Love that moves the sun and the other stars" (Dante, ParadisoCanto XXXIII) that brings us from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, and it is the love that will move the stone from the tomb on Easter Morning, a great while before dawn.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

The Lake of Stillness

One of the problems sometimes voiced around the practice of prayer actually has nothing to do with its practice at all, but more to do with its metaphysics. What I mean is that all too often someone will feel that they cannot pray because they don't understand "how it works", or because they can't quite fathom whom they're supposed to be praying to.

But prayer is the most natural thing. In the stillness of our own heart - whether in Quaker Meeting for Worship, when we are deeply involved in liturgical worship, or when we are alone and quiet - our awareness rests in a stillness that is infinitely more than ourselves, however we might want to describe that. (Actually it might be better if we didn't try to describe it, at least to ourselves!) In our heart also are those we love, whether personally,  or generally, as in awareness of those who suffer, friends who are ill or alone, the anguish of war or our anxiety for the planet. All our stillness becomes a place where the concerns of our heart lie in the greater stillness within which we worship, like pebbles on the floor of a vast, silent lake.

Ruth Burrows writes:
We must remember that prayer takes place at the deepest level of our person and escapes our direct cognition; therefore we can make no judgement about it. It is God's holy domain and we may not usurp it.  We have to trust it utterly to God... We must be ready to believe that 'nothingness' is the presence of divine Reality; emptiness is a holy void that Divine Love is filling...
Eckhart Tolle, in a moving response to a questioner at a public meeting makes the point that to be conscious is to suffer, and to be involved with the suffering of all beings, within the "one consciousness" that is the ground of being itself. And this is the point; simply to be there, to be with all that is, consciously. How that "makes a difference" is not the point; our heart knows, and in that conjunction within stillness prayer is.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

To Pray as We Are

The Jesus Prayer is also called the Prayer of the Heart. In Orthodoxy, the mind and heart are to be used as one. St Theophan tells us to keep our "mind in the heart" at all times. Heart means the physical muscle pumping blood, and emotions/feelings, and the innermost core of the person, the spirit. Heart is associated with the physical organ, but not identical with it. Heart means our innermost chamber, our secret dwelling place where God lives. "The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace; all things are there." So says St. Macarius. Someone said the heart is a dimension of interior consciousness, awareness, where we come in touch with an inner space, a space of no dimensions. This consciousness is timeless, the place where tears reside and deep contact with the present moment abide, and from which restful movement comes. Acting out of our heart means to act lightly, with vigour and enthusiasm. When not in that inner awareness, we are restless, agitated and self-concerned. There is within us a space, a field of the heart, in which we find a Divine Reality, and from which we are called to live. The mind, then, is to descend into that inner sanctuary, by means of the Jesus Prayer or wordless contemplation, and to stay there throughout our active day, and evening. We descend with our mind into our heart, and we live there. The heart is Christ's palace. There, Christ the King comes to take His rest.

Albert S Rossi,  Saying the Jesus Prayer
There is that in the Jesus Prayer that lives in the very brokenness of the human heart. When we pray the Prayer, we are not trying to pray as we would like to be, or as we think someone else might think we ought to be, but as we actually are. If our hearts are full of pain, full of the darkness of temptation or of betrayal, distracted, covetous, or grieving, then that is how we will pray. This is one reason why, incidentally, I always use the form the the Prayer that includes the final phrase "a sinner" - for that is who I am, and the two words include all these emotions, and more. For in acknowledging myself a sinner, I am acknowledging my identity, my solidarity even, with the rest of humanity, fallen as we are, and even with the rest of creation in the mysterious brokenness it shares with us, in the pain of the mouse in the owl's claws, of the grasslands in drought. And so the Prayer becomes a prayer for all who suffer, human or otherwise; a true intercession, a stepping into the mercy of God on behalf of all that is.

Perhaps this intercessory dimension of the Jesus Prayer may help to explain the difficulty sometimes encountered in its practice. I don't mean the ordinary kind of distraction, shopping lists or fantasies drifting across the field of prayer, but a real and painful struggle that sometimes makes it all but impossible inwardly to pronounce even the words of the Prayer. This kind of struggle seems not to be written of much in recent literature, though it crops up often enough in the writings of St Macarius (300-391AD) and others of his period. In his now out of print booklet Praying the Jesus Prayer (Marshall Pickering 1988) Brother Ramon SSF, though, wrote,
The Christian is well aware of the fact that the world is also evil. There is a falseness and alienation which has distracted and infected the world, and men and women of prayer, by the power of the Name of Jesus, stand against the cosmic darkness, and enter into conflict with dark powers. 'For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.' The power of the Jesus Prayer is the armour against the wiles of the devil, taking heed of the apostle's word: 'Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.' [Ephesians 6.12,18 RSV]
But I don't want to make too much of this aspect of the use of the Prayer. It does happen, and so it is as well to be aware of it, but it is not what the Prayer is all about. We are praying for the mercy of God in Christ, and it is only through the cross of Christ that God's mercy can heal us, and the wounds for which we pray. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." (John 1.5 NIV) In the repetition of the Jesus Prayer, we are ourselves walking the way of the cross, playing our own small part in its mercy.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

The Little Things

Thankfulness works in the Christian community as it usually does in the Christian life. Only those who give thanks for the little things receive the great things as well. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts prepared for us because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think that we should not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be seeking the great gifts. Then we complain that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experiences that God has given to other Christians, and we consider these complaints to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the small (and yet really not so small!) gifts we receive daily. How can God entrust great things to those who will not gratefully receive the little things from God’s hand?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
This is a passage that should, I think, be read and re-read by those of us who are involved in any way in the contemplative life. We are all so deeply infected, from childhood if not before, with our culture's ideals of progress and achievement, that we find it all but impossible to accept that our "daily gifts" are enough, are really God's good and sufficient gifts for the life of prayer into which he has called us; and we constantly abandon them in favour of fantasies of a spiritual life we imagine somewhere out beyond us, on some higher level to which we should aspire.

These things are not God's way, I feel. God calls us in the little things, in the touch of the moving air, bird-shadows on cropped grass, in the simplicity of prayer.

My heart is not proud, Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.
   But I have calmed and quietened myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content...

(Psalm 131.1-2)

Monday, February 03, 2020

An Ordinary Path

The mystical capacity of the human mind needs to be strengthened again. The capacity to renounce oneself, a greater inner openness, the discipline to withdraw ourselves from noise and from all that presses on our attention, should once more be for all of us goals that we recognise as being among our priorities.

Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, Truth and Tolerance
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Too easily, perhaps, we consider the life of contemplative prayer to be restricted to a special vocation in itself. In this limited view, anyone who remains in the world cannot possibly aspire to a deeper contemplative encounter with God. But this is clearly a wrong notion. A discipline and a commitment to prayer are required, an effort of much self-giving, more than we may have lived yet, but certainly a deeper life of prayer is open to every soul. God surely wants this inasmuch as he desire love from us and union with us. It is not necessary to examine our qualifications or suitability.

Fr. Donald Haggerty, The Contemplative Hunger
I sometimes dislike using the term "mystic" or "mystical" to describe the life of inner prayer. Quite apart from any woo-woo connotations, it seems to imply someone special, a guru of sorts, set apart from ordinary people and their lives. Contemplative prayer, with due respect to those who worry about its influence on the Christian life, is none of those things. If it is a hidden path, it is one hidden in plain sight, and those who follow it are - they are, they don't just appear to be - profoundly ordinary people, with ordinary lives apart from their inescapable calling to the interior life.

This, perhaps, is why I find myself drawn to the Jesus Prayer - Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner - before other kinds of contemplative disciple. It is so simple, made up as it is from two Gospel passages (Luke 18.13 and Mark 10.47). Twelve words are not too many to remember, and the prayer requires no particular location nor special equipment. Ordinary words, easy to repeat, whether in 20 minutes alone with the Bible, a cat and a cup of coffee, or in a few moments waiting at the traffic lights.

Henri Nouwen wrote,
Hiddenness is an essential quality of the spiritual life. Solitude, silence, ordinary tasks, being with people without great agendas, sleeping, eating, working, playing ... all of that without being different from others, that is the life that Jesus lived and the life he asks us to live. It is in hiddenness that we, like Jesus, can increase "in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people" (Luke 2:51). It is in hiddenness that we can find a true intimacy with God and a true love for people.
This ordinary hiddenness is the natural home of the contemplative: not the mountain top, not the university (unless she happens to be an academic) nor the monastery (unless he happens to be a monk) but the ordinary occasions of life among ordinary people, the ones for love of whom Jesus died.