Saturday, June 24, 2017

On Common Ground

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

2 Corinthians 4.16-18 NRSV

Words are odd and slippery things. We need them to communicate, obviously, and we actually seem to need them to think. The discipline of psycholinguistics is all about this, which I find fascinating. (It’s one of those subjects which, had I another couple of lifetimes to hand, I might like to study formally.) It seems that words – language – are deeply embedded in the structure not only of our thinking minds, but of our physical brain. Perhaps it is not surprising that, since we are in some way made “in the image of God”, there should be in the very pattern of our making something to correspond, like a tiny model almost, with the opening words of St. John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

John 1.1-3 NRSV

Of course this has, at least potentially, profound implications for how we read Scripture. We are not to read it like a set of instructions for, say, a washing machine. God is not telling us to do all the things the people in the Bible thought he might, throughout the long history of the people of Israel and beyond, be telling them to do.

One of the great tragedies and errors of the way people have understood the Bible has been the assumption that what people did in the Old Testament must have been right ‘because it’s in the Bible’. It has justified violence, enslavement, abuse and suppression of women, murderous prejudice against gay people; it has justified all manner of things we now cannot but as Christians regard as evil. But they are not there in the Bible because God is telling us, ‘That’s good.’ They are there because God is telling us, ‘You need to know that this is how some people responded. You need to know that when I speak to human beings things can go very wrong as well as very wonderfully.’ God tells us, ‘You need to know that when I speak, it isn’t always simple to hear, because of what human beings are like.’

Rowan Williams, Being Christian

We are capable, though, of hearing. There is something in us that responds directly, at a level somehow other than conscious reasoning, to these words of Scripture, this Word, in a way that actually doesn’t seem to occur in the same manner with other texts. This is seen most clearly in the practice of Lectio Divina. (The Wikipedia article here is very well worth reading.) The reader moves through the stages of Lectio, reading, meditation (in the sense of “pondering”), prayer and contemplation, of which last the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Contemplative prayer is silence, the “symbol of the world to come” or “silent love.” Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love. In this silence, unbearable to the “outer” man, the Father speaks to us his incarnate Word, who suffered, died, and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus.

There is something going on here far more than meets the eye. We are dealing with things we cannot really understand, though we may touch them by faith. Jennifer Kavanagh writes:

Faith is not about certainty, but about trust… Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience.


So by the presence of the Word, words become experience. Something happens, far down perhaps in the nature of being human, that corresponds to the nature of being itself. We may see and understand not more than temporary things; but there is that in us that responds to, resonates with, “what cannot be seen” – and here God meets us on common ground at last.

Friday, June 23, 2017

A Pillar of Cloud

I have not posted here for longer than usual. As I wrote back in April, I have been caught somehow between worlds. Mother Mary Clare SLG wrote, in Encountering the Depths (SLG Press, 1981):

In the life of prayer, the process of re-orientation of ourselves towards God, we have to learn how to acknowledge that we are sinners; not by emotional self-deprecation, nor by psychoanalysis, though this may be a necessary way towards true self-knowledge, but by looking towards God with hands empty and open to receive his mercy. He will then lead us on to the next thing he has in store for us. In prayer, that is to say, in true theology of living, repentance does not mean misery, but genuine conversion of heart…

If we really want to pray, we have to give time to learning its lessons. We are free to love, and every moment of the day is God’s good time. We must be realistic, and give ourselves time to realise what we are truly seeking. Perhaps we all tend to worry too much about ourselves in prayer…

I have discovered increasingly how much I need community; not just a loose association of people who have come to live not far from each other, but the Eucharistic community that is the church. My life, outwardly at least, has been marked by wandering and change; I have not stayed long with many of the communities I have found myself part of. The one constant has been the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and in a sense all the turns and apparent blind alleys of my journey have been its outworkings. Certainly, it has been at times of crisis that I have been most aware of clinging to the Prayer as to a life raft, to carry me through the waves – but even, perhaps especially, the Jesus Prayer is a prayer quite explicitly prayed in the understanding that the pray-er is a member of a community of faith. For me, increasingly, there is more than meets the eye in this community thing.

If we take away from our awareness of our lives as lived in the long shadow of the New Testament, anything to explain what it is so many Christian communities do each Sunday, it seems to me we should take something like this (adapted from a post here back in 2008):

We Christians are a Eucharistic community. Jesus was born of a woman, a real, live, flesh and blood woman, and though he died, rose, and underwent the transformation of the Ascension, he remains real, live, flesh and blood, and Saviour. He gave us a concrete, physical Eucharist of bread and wine, not only to remember that, but to actually make our relationship with him, and our relationship with each other and sisters and brothers in him, real. We eat his flesh and drink his blood; he becomes, by the ordinary process of digestion, our own flesh and blood. We are what we eat.

We can only give the material world back its power when we realise that we are a Eucharistic community, in literal, living, breathing fact, and not as an abstraction. Otherwise we risk becoming to ourselves ghosts, living in a world of concepts and categories: how then can we treat anyone, or any part of creation, with respect, let alone reverence?

During our increasingly frequent periods here on the Isle of Wight, we have, more often than not, worshipped at one or another of our local Anglican churches, rather than driving across the Island to the one Quaker meeting in Newport; and taking part, with something approaching regularity, in the familiar rite of the Eucharist, is reminding me of these old insights. It is all too easy for me, at any rate, to “worry too much about [myself] in prayer” – but to lose myself in these accustomed patterns is another kind of homecoming. What matters to me, increasingly, is to be part of a community which takes seriously its life as a laboratory of the spirit, its sense of being a place where the long responsibilities of prayer are made real in the life of a place and of a people. That this may at times be centred in a form of words, and of definite actions, sometimes makes things simpler, strangely. Perhaps allowing this to be for me what it is, is another kind of repentance, understood as “waking up to the true reality of our condition before God and responding to this grace by returning – not just once, but again and again – to the path of holiness.” (Zaleski, op cit.)

When we pray the Jesus Prayer as a way of coming into the Presence of God, we should not forget that it is not always an easy or painless way. We cannot approach the infinite clarity, truth and power of God without becoming aware of the abyss that separates us. This is why, in the understanding of many of its early teachers, we cannot really undertake to practise the Jesus Prayer seriously unless we first realise our own poverty and our need of God’s mercy and are willing to ask for it ceaselessly, as long as we live.



Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ascension Day

...the prayer of baptized people is going to be a prayer that is always moving in the depths, sometimes invisibly – a prayer that comes from places deeper than we can really understand. St. Paul says just this in his letter to the Romans: ‘The Spirit helps us in our weakness… that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’ (Romans 8.26). The prayer of baptized people comes from a place deeper than we can penetrate with our minds or even our feelings… and therefore it is a prayer that may often be difficult and mysterious… Prayer, in other words, is more like sneezing – there comes a point where you can’t not do it. The Spirit wells and surges up towards God the Father. But because of this there will be moments when, precisely because you can’t help yourself, it feels dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, hard to speak about.

Rowan Williams, Being Christian

So, as we come to this fortieth day of Easter, when we remember that mysterious scene at the opening of the Acts of the Apostles, it seems right somehow to look again at this odd calling we find ourselves in. The disciples of Jesus were just like us: they wanted to know when their Lord would finally sort things out, put an end to Roman tyranny and all that went with it, and the messy, broken state of human life itself. “Lord,” they said, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus’ reply, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set…” reminds me of his sharp rejoinder to Peter when the latter queried John’s role in the kingdom, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”

There is a lot not to know about being a Christian, it seems to me. We are often accused of thinking we know all the answers – and maybe some fundamentalists do think so – but really the way of Christ, while we follow it on earth, is a way of mystery and darkness more than anything else. “Faith”, said Jennifer Kavanagh, “is not about certainty, but about trust.”

For myself, I have found cannot find God by looking, or thinking, much as my whole life may seem to have been spent in a search for – or being distracted from a search for – what is true and is the source of all that is. What God is in himself is unknowable. Anything I might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in human understanding, nor to be constrained by time, space or any other dimension. The only way I can know God is by not knowing, and by not knowing allowing myself to be known. Jennifer Kavanagh, a few pages on from the passage above, goes on to say that,

Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience.

Indeed that seems to be the crux of the matter for me. It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting myself out of the way of that channel of loving gift that is Jesus himself. To pray “in the name of Jesus” is nothing more nor less than this; and it is with some such thought that the Jesus Prayer is so often referred to as “the prayer of the Name”.

We are caught up, by our baptism – and by that term I mean our entry into the life of the spirit, whether or not physical water is involved – into a life more than our own. All we are is, as Paul said, “hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3.3) Rowan Williams continues (ibid.):

...we receive life from others’ prayer and love, and we give the prayer and love that others need. We are caught up in a great economy of giving and exchange. The solidarity that baptism brings us into, the solidarity with suffering, is a solidarity with one another as well… We are ‘implicated’ in one another, our lives are interwoven…

And so our prayer, whether we are aware of it or not, covers life itself, the broken, weeping, glorious becoming that is being made. We are not separated, and our breath is breathed with the breath of God.


[Also published on Silent Assemblies]

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

On not knowing how to pray...

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

When we pray the Jesus Prayer as a way of coming into the Presence of God, we should not forget that it is not always an easy or painless way. We cannot approach the infinite clarity, truth and power of God without becoming aware of the abyss that separates us. This is why, in the understanding of many of its early teachers, we cannot really undertake to practise the Jesus Prayer seriously unless we first realise our own poverty and the need of God’s mercy and are willing to ask for it ceaselessly, as long as we live.

When we say the words “Have mercy on me, a sinner” – for the prayer always implies those words, even if the form we use does not include them – we must be ready to recognise that we are, in fact, sinners, in need of God’s forgiveness and healing. We must also be ready to believe that God will never refuse to grant us forgiveness, that his mercy is inexhaustible. At least we must be willing to try and believe that even if we are not quite able to do so. The Prayer of Jesus is a prayer of repentance. It is a prayer of sinners, not the virtuous.


I wrote myself, elsewhere:

Once we find ourselves on the way of the Jesus Prayer, 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 – amartia, apparently means something much more like “missing the mark” than “doing bad stuff”, as does the equivalent Hebrew term, syn

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.


The country is rightly grieving over the events in Manchester on the evening of May 22nd. Christians and others all over the world must be struggling to know how to respond in prayer to events like this, which deliberately target the innocent and vulnerable in the cruellest way. It feels presumptuous, sacrilegious almost, to offer to God anything we might be able to frame in words. But to offer to God the brokenness of our hearts, our pain and confusion, our sense of injustice and our helpless concern for the victims and those who love them… perhaps this is possible without words, or with the barest framework of words, such as those of the Jesus Prayer.

We cannot know how God may use such a prayer as this. Simon Barrington-Ward writes of St. Silouan:

...he began to recognise that [his sense of darkness and isolation] was in part the oppression of the absence of the sense of God and the alienation from his love over the whole face of the globe. He had been called to undergo this travail himself not on account of his own sin any more, but that he might enter into the darkness of separated humanity and tormented nature and, through his ceaseless prayer, be made by God’s grace alone into a means of bringing that grace to bear on the tragic circumstances of his time. He was praying and living through the time of World War I and the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of all that led to the Holocaust [not to mention the Russian Revolution, and at the very end of his life, Stalin’s Great Purge]. And with all this awareness of pain and sorrow, he was also given a great serenity and peacefulness and goodness about him, which profoundly impressed those who know him.

For all of us in our lesser ways, the Jesus Prayer, as well as bringing us into something of this kind of alternation which St. Silouan so strikingly experienced, also leads us on with him into an ever-deepening peace. You can understand how those who first taught and practiced this kind of prayer were first called “hesychasts”: people of hesychia or stillness.

If we can offer to those who suffer, those who grieve, this peace that God gives to us in prayer, and return ourselves to “the darkness of separated humanity and tormented nature”, then perhaps we shall have done what we we can – unless we find ourselves, like the Liverpool taxi drivers who drove over to Manchester to offer free lifts home to stranded Liverpudlians, in a position to do something practical ourselves. Until then, we can only pray as we are led. Christ, have mercy…


[Also published on Silent Assemblies]

Monday, May 22, 2017

At the Cross

Many people these days, some Quakers among them, seem to find it easy enough to conceive of God – or at least a god – as the source and ground of existence, and perhaps the Spirit – or at least a spirit – as humankind’s sense of God’s presence among us or within us. But Jesus – with or without his Christ title – seems all too often too much to take. It is hard to reduce to a metaphor or to a spiritual influence one who had so demonstrably historical an existence, and it is hard to confine to a distant historical figure one to whom the New Testament so stubbornly refers as Lord, saviour, risen one, logos…


I am not theologian enough to attempt an effective Christology, let alone one in the space of a blog post – Rowan Williams, among recent writers, does this most succinctly and comprehensibly in his God With Us (2017) – but I do know that my own encounter with God in prayer would not be possible without Jesus. Let me explain, if I can. God as the metaphysical ground of being seems to me to be a proposition without which nothing makes sense at all, and yet God in this sense is on the one hand so abstract, and on the other so vast and so beyond comprehension, that addressing him (it?) in prayer would be like engaging in conversation with the Standard Model of particle physics, only more so. Subjectively, for me at any rate, the Spirit is too much like the New Testament image of the wind –  pneuma – invisible and intangible, except as it affects what it touches. But Jesus… If Jesus somehow embodied the love, and the presence, of God, and if his crucifixion remains a sign and a medium – a sort of spiritual hyperlink – to the love of God, then everything would be different. Is different, if my experience is anything to go by.




The cross is an example to us but also an example for us. It is, in the old sense of example, a ‘sample’ of the love of God. This is what the love of God is like: it is free and therefore it is both all-powerful and completely vulnerable. All-powerful because it is always free to overcome, but vulnerable because it has no way of guaranteeing worldly success. The love of God belongs to a different order, not the order of power, manipulation and getting on top, which is the kind of power that preoccupies us… It allows us to say that the love of God is the kind of love that identifies with the powerless; the kind of love that appeals to nothing but its own integrity, that doesn’t seek to force or batter its way through. It lives, it survives, it ‘wins’ simply by being itself. On the cross, God’s love is just what it is…


God’s love for us, temporary and powerless as we are, somehow reaches us through this spiritual hyperlink that is the cross, and it is the crucified Jesus to whom we turn for mercy.


Mercy is to me the heart of prayer – and not only because it is the Jesus Prayer that is the centre of my own prayer. Cynthia Bourgeault writes:


…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 [the] 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.


The cross is “God’s innermost being turned outward… in love” – and it is at the cross that, in the words of the Vineyard song, we find mercy and grace.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

[Also published on Silent Assemblies]

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Junctures and Crossroads

It is a startling thing to consider how a particular decision, quite insignificant in the hour it takes place, can secretly hide the truth of a spiritual destiny. Without that decision, a completely different life would have been lived. The choice, trivial and optional at the time it occurs, is part of a soul’s destiny. An entire life, in other words, can reside at an unsuspected, secret juncture when a seemingly unimportant impulse is obeyed. Once the decision is made, the hour releases the bolt on a great interlocking network of influences and events that would not take place but for that choice. Perhaps we do not pay sufficient attention to the importance of such junctures and crossroads… 
Fr Donald Haggerty, The Contemplative Hunger

For some weeks now I have been living between worlds. Outwardly, I am much the same man I was before, but inwardly something has changed, and the sense of what it might be in only gradually dawning on me. Long ago, as I recalled recently, I stepped onto the contemplative path almost without realising it. But, as Eve Baker notes, “contemplatives… are useless people” and I was brought up always to be useful as an artist, a poet, a musician: always to consider what treasures I might be able to bring back from the land beyond the grey wind to illuminate the lives of others, and to ornament my own in their eyes.

Almost it would seem an instinct of nature, the manner in which contemplatives flee from attention to themselves. But perhaps it is not so much a flight or an escape as a profound inclination that they are following. What we see externally as their tendency to self-effacement and concealment reflects a desire to be released from the concern for self. 
Haggerty, ibid.

Over the years, the inclination to solitude and concealment has popped up often enough, as I’ve noted before; but I have been too quick always to dismiss it, to leave its demands as being too extreme, too far beyond the practicalities of the moment, and life has gone on much as before, filled with pleasures and obligations, weariness and some wonder.

Too early in our lives, perhaps most of us are taught to distrust our truest insights and best impulses. We come under such pressure to conform to the imperatives of our culture – and, growing up in the 1950s, I encountered a culture with strong gender demarcations and role models – that even with the most enlightened parenting we grow up doubting the deepest parts of ourselves. Those of us with a calling to the saltmarshes of the spirit are perhaps doubly vulnerable: growing up into our teens and twenties, it is a brave young person who will dare to be more than a certain amount weird.

Gradually, though, I have found this call to give everything for what I am coming to understand is the simple presence of God growing stronger, not less. I cannot defend or justify this, nor advance any arguments for its advantages. It involves no obvious sacrifices, as far as I can see, nor outer heroics or spectacular renunciations. Like the impulse itself, it is an inward thing.

Eight years ago now, I wrote:

All this stuff about prayer boils down to this. What I am really doesn’t matter. There isn’t any holiness in me. Of myself, I really am not, truly, anything more than little, and ordinary; and anything praiseworthy about me only consists in the extent to which I am prepared to acknowledge that, and to live in the shadows, quietly, like the ivy I love so much. All my health and growth depends on accepting that… 
It’s time to let go of a lot of things; and yet it isn’t a time for heroic gestures, grand austerities, but for little turnings to that hidden track that leads out between the trees, away from the lights and the music and the excited voices.

Progress in the life of the spirit doesn’t seem to be measurable in the way worldly progress can be measured. It is hard to write honestly of this. But truly to pray is to become a small incarnation, a tiny model of our Lord; this is why to pray is to take up the cross ourselves, since it is the refusal to turn away from the pain that runs inextricably through existence, like a red thread in the bright weave of what is. Easter is not a metaphor, and resurrection lies on the far side of the cross that is absolute surrender, helplessness entirely embraced. The cross means abandoning all that is my will, every last attempt at self-preservation; “For,” as Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians (3.3), “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…

Friday, December 30, 2016

We are most temporary...

God’s operations, his manner, and his swiftness are simply unable to be discerned. As the Creator’s working abound more and more with us, they will absorb our own self-efforts. 
It seems as though the stars shine more brightly before the sun rises and gradually vanish as the light advances. They have not really become invisible. A greater light has simply absorbed the lesser light. 
This is also the case with your self-effort in prayer. Since God’s light is so much greater, it absorbs our little flickers of activity. They will grow faith and eventually disappear until all self-effort to experience God is no longer distinguishable. 
I have heard the accusation from some that this is a “prayer of inactivity”. They are wrong. Such charges come from the inexperienced… 
The fullness of grace will still the activity of self. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that you remain as silent as possible… 
God’s presence is not a stronghold to be taken by force or violence. His is a kingdom of peace, which can only be gained by love. God demands nothing extraordinary or difficult. On the contrary… 
Jeanne Guyon, Experiencing God Through Prayer

Our prayer, it seems to me, has everything to do with our experience of God. If we basically lack this experience, our minds being filled with ideas about God (“notions” as the early Quakers would have said), we shall understand prayer as something – some demand or supplication – addressed to a being within a known universe, whereas the God of direct experience is not that kind of being at all. In fact “being” in not really a term that applies to God. God is the ground of being, and the universe, all that exists, exists in, and is contingent upon, God; and Christ is one name for that becoming known. The opening verses of John’s Gospel explain this perfectly well.

We are small and contingent parts of all that has come into being, and we are most temporary. We cannot know God as we know each other. To think that we can is a category mistake, and so is thinking that because God cannot be so known, there is no God. Of course there is no such thing as God, but that is not because there is no God: it is because God is not a thing. Things are merely things God does.

All we can do is find some way – whether it be sinking down into the silence of our joined worship, down to the seed of which Isaac Penington spoke, or whether it be the a practice like watching the breath, centring prayer, or the Jesus Prayer or the Nembutsu – of ceasing to try and know or be or do anything, and let God’s Spirit come into the heart in God’s own time. All we can do is be still; all we can give is love.