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.