Descending into the heart…

…when we descend into the heart we go down through what I have called the layers of our inner life. In the first layer are all the relatively superficial things, the thoughts and feelings which are going on in us… the things our minds are concerned with. Below these are the layers of deeper, more hidden things: our secret fears and guilty feelings, our deep anxieties… layers which we are aware of, and layers which we are not aware of or feel unable to face or enter.

As we make a habit of descending into the heart we become conscious that we are going down through all these layers which make up our inner world, some of which are unknown even to ourselves. As we enter our heart, we bring this inner world down into the heart, not in the sense that we continue to be preoccupied with it, but so that we can place it before God. We lay down before God all the thoughts and feelings and all the deeper things that are within us, and leave them there.

This then becomes one form, the deepest form, of the prayer of confession…

Alexander Ryrie, Prayer of the Heart

This is very close to what I was trying more clumsily to say the other day, when I wrote of losing my way in trackless places of the spirit. Lent this year is for me coming to be all about this form of confession, this laying down before God the deeper, secret layers of grief and anxiety that are there I suppose in all our lives, but which this Lent God is patiently uncovering, master archaeologist of the Spirit that he is (see Romans 8.26-27).

Of course Paul’s words, “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” bring us right through confession to the place of intercession, as Sandy Ryrie explains:

It is similar with our intercessions. There will be within us concerns and worries and thoughts about other people and situations… and circumstances that are bothering us. When we descend into the heart we do not just give up or ignore these people or things as irrelevant. We taken them down into the heart and lay them before God, leaving them before God and entrusting them to him. We do not go on thinking and worrying about them, nor try to persuade God to do something about them, but just leave them before him, waiting on him, allowing him to act.

Standing before God with the mind in the heart thus becomes the deepest form of both our confession and our intercession.

Ryrie, ibid.

The Jesus Prayer, says Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, “more than any other,” helps us to be able to “stand in God’s presence.” But in the wide field of contemplative prayer, there are other tracks we could follow, centering prayer (which is the contemporary equivalent to the prayer described in The Cloud of Unknowing), or Christian meditation, for instance. What matters here, at least as I am being led this Lent, is that opening ourselves to the Spirit in weakness and in stillness, allowing ourselves naturally to descend with the mind into the heart, into the presence of God in Christ.

A longer path…

Being the kind of person I am, I am prone to what I really would wish to call self-doubt; but which is in fact doubt in my calling, and so ultimately, I suppose, doubt in the faithfulness and capacity of the God who calls me. Let me try and explain.

In my better moments – and they are all too often no more than moments – I know perfectly well that what I am called to is contemplative prayer. I don’t mean to “do” contemplative prayer, as one might do yoga or pilates, but to give what I am to it. Despite the incessant stumbling and wandering of my life till now, I may in some dim way have always been aware of this, impossible though I have often found it to believe it, still less to be faithful to it.

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing has this to say:

If you ask me by what means you are to achieve this work of contemplation, I beseech almighty God of his great grace and his great courtesy to teach you himself. For I would have you know well that I cannot tell you… [W]ithout God’s work, no saint or angel can think of desiring it. And I believe that our Lord will deign to bring about this work to those who have been habitual sinners as particularly and as often – yes, and more particularly and more often – as in others who by comparison… have never caused him much grief…

Yet he does not grant this grace or bring about this work in any soul that is incapable of it. On the other hand, no soul that lacks this grace is capable of receiving it, no, whether it be the soul of a sinner or of an innocent person…

You have as much of it as you will and desire, neither more nor less, and yet it is not a will or a desire, but something, you do not know what, that stirs you to will and desire you do not know what…

Let it do the working, and you will be the material it works upon; just watch it, and let it be…

And if this is so, then trust firmly that it is God alone, entirely by himself, who stirs your will and your desire, without intermediary, either on his part or on yours.

That I fret, and mistrust myself, is, as I say, more a lack of trust in God than anything else. Certainly it is not anything that could be mistaken for humility, for, as the Cloud author points out, God seems to have a delight in calling to this life those of us who have all too often frequented dubious places in our time; presumably this is something like humour on his part, or else a tendency to demonstrate the unknowability of his will, the sheer giveness of his grace in Christ.

Sister Mary David Totah goes further:

…[W]e have been looking at making action more contemplative, finding a contemplative dimension in our actions. But there is a real sense in which prayer is itself an action, an action whose fruit and extent cannot be measured or assessed; its ways are secret, not only secret from others but also secret from ourselves. The greater part of the fruit of our prayer and contemplation remains hidden with Christ in God…

Prayer is opening oneself to the effective, invisible power of God. One can never leave the presence of God without being transformed and renewed in his being, for this is what Christ promised. The thing that can only be granted by prayer belongs to God (Luke 11.13). However such a transformation does not take the form of a sudden leap. It takes time. Whoever persists in surrendering himself to God in prayer receives more than he desires or deserves. Whoever lives by prayer gains an immense trust in God, so powerful and certain, it can almost be touched. He comes to perceive God in a most vivid way. Without ever forgetting our weakness, we become something other than we are.

Mary David Totah OSB, Deepening Prayer: Life Defined by Prayer

To do this sort of surrendering might seem to require a quite remarkable degree of trust in God; but the brilliance of Sister Mary David’s insight here is that it is in surrendering that we are given the degree of trust we need. Someone once said something to the effect that the longest journey begins with a single step; perhaps the journey deeper into what I once described as the saltmarsh of the spirit begins with each day’s step into prayer, into surrender. That tiny glimpse of faithfulness may open the little salt-bleached wicket gate of the heart onto a longer path than we can know.

What kind of fast?

We are nearly midway through the season of Lent at the moment; in the churches that recognise it, this is the time to remember the 40 days we are told Jesus spent in the Judaean wilderness (Matthew 4.1-11; Mark 1.12,13; Luke 4.1-13) immediately after his baptism. He was, we read, “led by the Spirit into the wilderness.”

Traditionally, we often think of Lent as a time of fasting, of giving things up, of somehow putting ourselves deliberately in the way of temptation in an act of solidarity, perhaps, with the temptations put in the way of Jesus during his time alone in the wilderness. But perhaps there’s another way altogether of looking at this.

Yesterday I wrote of Proverbs 20.24 – “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?” – as a way of accepting our own unknowing, our own inability to comprehend God, or even to go and find him on our own terms. What this comes down to, perhaps, is control, or its relinquishment. We cannot begin to control God; we can’t even control the circumstances of our perceiving God’s presence. It is all grace.

Maybe, just maybe, some of us have allowed the idea of the traditional Lenten disciplines to lead us into the wrong kind of place. We grimly seek control – we choose what we shall give up, be it chocolate or fermented drink or meat or snark or whatever – and self-control, the ability to say no to a square of chocolate, or a pint, or… and we think that by so doing we are growing in holiness. Perhaps we are only growing in wilfulness?

Whatever it was that happened to Jesus in the wilderness seems to have been part of the story, not some anomaly. As Paula Gooder memorably writes, “Jesus and the devil did not sneak away for a bit of illicit tempting: the Spirit led him there.” But why?

Perhaps the whole Lenten thing is about surrender, not control, self- or otherwise? After all, one way to read the accounts of the temptations themselves in Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels is that what Jesus is being tempted to do is to take control – of his sustenance, of his Father’s provision of food or of safety, and ultimately to take control of the levers of political and military power – which last, it is implied, would involve obeisance to the devil, acceptance of all that is wrong and twisted and out of joint in our world. The Scriptures Jesus uses to refute the tempter are, it seems to me, all words of trust and acceptance – the words of one who waits on God, as Psalm 27 sums it up: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

To fast from control may be what this Lent is about for me; to fast from the need to know, the need to have it all sewn up, the way mapped. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, “I think my hope lies in my own littleness.” Not to know may be the best way of being known by God.

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvellous for me.

(Psalm 131.1)

A trackless place…

I have been in a trackless place, recently. Things I thought I knew had become clouded over, old wounds long healed reopened. A mist had rolled in, and instead of hiding the known ways it had wiped them out, long-trodden paths scoured back to loose sand and the entropy of marram…

As I sat in meeting on Sunday morning, wondering how I could have so lost my way, a Friend rose and gave these words as ministry – just these words, without commentary:

All our steps are ordered by the Lord;
how then can we understand our own ways?

(Proverbs 20.24)

The verse struck me like a lightning bolt, as no Scripture had for a long time. It was as though the Friend, or really, through him, God, had spoken directly to me, directly to the confusion and self-doubt, the mirrored memories of pain, the emptiness where not even longing was.

Since then this little isolated verse has grown friends, words in the hollowness where my heart still beat:

These are indeed but the outskirts of his ways;
and how small a whisper do we hear of him!
But the thunder of his power who can understand?’

(Job 26.14)

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

(Psalm 139.17-18)

I wrote a few years ago that,

For myself, I have found I 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 is unknowable. Anything I might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, not constrained by time, space or any other dimension. The only way I can know God is by not knowing.

Faith is not so much a way of knowing as it is a way of being known. God is so far beyond the reach of our frail and temporary minds that all we can do is keep silence, and wait. Only in that relinquishment of knowing can we hear God, for much as we cannot seek him out, he will find us, and in that finding will come our own real and lived experience, the presence and Light which is within and beyond us, as it is within and beyond all things. In himself God is No Thing, for what he is is without limit or beginning, and is not dependent; yet within him all things live, and move, and have their being – are loved even, and held in love beyond time and distance.

I think my hope lies in my own littleness. I am so small, so transient and partial, against the scattered glory of the night sky…

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! …

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8 1,3-4)

[Forgive the pronouns in this post, by the way – without fooling around inventing made-up words, I can only use pronouns that are gendered, or else wilfully ungendered, and it is hard to speak of an it who loves. God is not a person like you or me: not that he is less than a person, but that he is infinitely more.]

The Weight We Carry

Alistair McIntosh has a remarkable article in the current issue of Friends Journal, entitled ‘A Perilous Neglect‘. (It’s behind a paywall, unfortunately, and it wouldn’t be fair of me to reproduce it in full here, tempted as I am!)

McIntosh recounts meeting a woman on a long bus journey in the Scottish Highlands who was living as a canonically defined hermit in a remote village where she devoted herself to contemplative prayer. She explained that her particular calling was to prayer as a ministry to those suffering torture.

He goes on to recall meeting a Naval chaplain recently returned from a tour of duty with the special forces in Afghanistan, who had had to explain to the men in his care what happens to the human spirit under torture (an occupational hazard for them): “You may find yourself broken—quite beyond imagination—by the forces brought to bear upon you. You may find yourself stripped down to where the only thing that’s left is God.”

Alistair McIntosh goes on to conclude his longish article by saying:

Our [Quakers’] full name is not “The Society of Friends.” Our full name… is “The Religious Society of Friends.” We must remind ourselves of that, and try to educate those who sit in on our meetings likewise: especially if they come to us in unawareness of our wellspring; especially, if they hope to find in us their own image, or are hurting from some spiritual abuse sustained elsewhere.

While welcoming diversity, and angels coming unawares, we must retain our watchfulness around our meetings’ spiritual lives. As Isaiah (21:11-12) put it in an oracle:

“Watchman, how far gone is the night? Watchman, how far gone is the night? The watchman says, Morning comes but also night. If you would inquire, inquire; Come back again.”

Ministry should be not about the “me,” not even about the “we,” but about an opening to the flows of God. If we turn into a therapy group, or use unprogrammed meetings as a platform for our egos, we undermine the roots of what gives life, and with it, our reputation.

Our task—just as much as it was the task of the hermit nun, or even the military chaplain—is watching like that watchman, and waiting, and holding things in God. As a Friend in Glasgow Meeting told me many years ago, “It is perilous to neglect your spiritual life.”

This, of course, is what drew me to Quaker life and ministry in the first place. For me it was not the political activism – there are plenty of political activist groups without dragging religion into it – nor the silence – there is a highly developed understanding of silence in the shared contemplative traditions of the Anglican and Catholic churches – but this sense of prophetic, watching prayer, of “holding things in God”, that has been developed among Friends over the years to an extraordinary degree.

But this is not some private, do-it-yourself spirituality – it is an essential part of what we are as Friends, and a vital expression of that Quaker cliché about not abolishing priests, but the laity. We carry a grave responsibility in our ministry of prayer which, as Alistair McIntosh says, we neglect at our (and many others’, come to that) peril.

Prayer is experienced as deeper than words or busy thoughts. ‘Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts’, said Fox. It is marked by a kind of relaxed readiness, a ‘letting-go’ of the problems and perplexities with which the mind is occupied, and a waiting in ‘love and truth’: the truth about oneself, the truth about the world, deeper than the half-truths we see when we are busy in it about our own planning and scheming, the love in which we are held when we think of others more deeply than our ordinary relations with them, the love that at root holds us to the world. Prayer is not words or acts, but reaching down to love: holding our fellows in love, offering ourselves in love; and being held by, being caught up in love. It is communion, an opening of the door, an entry from the beyond. This is the point where secular language fails, for this cannot be spoken about at all: it can only be known.

Harold Loukes, 1967, Qfp 2.23

John Barleycorn must die…

In some ways, acting the part of the firebrand prophet is easy and gratifying. There can be a perverse pleasure in tearing down rather than building up; watch any toddler at work on a brick model! It is, after all, usually easier to identify a problem than to fix it, simpler to lambasted those in leadership than it is to lead. But if the kingdom of God is about participation in a God-soaked loving community, we must always be more ready to live in love with others than to confront them. Wherever we find people of peace, we should seek to work alongside them, settle among them, share our peace with them, receive the gift of their hospitality, and be ready to extend ours. Wherever possible, we “seek the welfare of the city” [Jeremiah 29.7] in ways that are positive, contributory and participative.

Chris Webb, God-Soaked Life: Discovering a Kingdom Spirituality

Change is difficult. A human life is finite, and nothing in creation, as far as we can tell, from the little velvety red mites that run in the sunshine on old stonework, to the galaxies themselves, lasts forever. How easy and rewarding it is to look at any series of political, or even natural, events and to cry, “We’re all doomed, I tell you, doomed!”

The thing that Jesus called “the kingdom of God” is, as it was in Jesus’ own day, a tremendously disruptive thing. No wonder it didn’t please those who already had a handy niche in the military-commercial-religious complex that ruled the Middle East of those days. No wonder all too many religious people in our own time find it easier to make mired alliances with political powers than to preach the good news of the kingdom.

We cannot know how these things will turn out. Our civilisation has proved itself, over the last few centuries, to be incredibly resilient. Attempts to bring it down, whether from within or from without, have singularly failed. The Axis powers were spectacularly wrecked on the rocks of their own military hubris, and night drew down the Iron Curtain across the tattered remnants of the proletarian revolution. Epidemics and economic crises have shaken it, but somehow it goes on, scars and all. Gamaliel, St Paul’s teacher, knew that there is more than politics to the way things go, and human plans count for little in the end (Acts 5.35-39).

One day of course it will all end, just as each of us will die in our day. Unless the as yet unimaginable supervenes, our own sun will change and die, and this arm of our galaxy will no longer have our odd and glittering species, here on our blue sphere of home, to watch and sing of its countless stars along the Milky Way.

All being rests in the palm of God. The ground of existence itself is the Spirit within each of us, the light in our eyes, the love that swings our hearts down the street of years. Christ announced the kingdom in first century Palestine, only to be judicially murdered as some kind of subversive. But something inexplicable happened, and the world changed forever. Love goes on. It is the power behind the stars, the driving force of light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We have but to wait, and pray – John Barleycorn will always prove the strongest man at last…


An unanswerable, illogical convincingness…

CS Lewis, to his brother, on reading The Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich; and on Lewis’s deepest conviction that “all shall be well.”

21 March 1940

I have been reading this week the ‘Revelations’ of Mother Julian of Norwich (14th century); not always so profitable as I had expected, but well worth reading. This is a curious vision ‘Also He showed me a little thing, the bigness of a hazelnut, in my hand. I thought, What may this be? And it was answered, it is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for me thought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for littleness.’ Now that is a good turn given to the monkish (or indeed Christian) view of the whole created universe: for to say that it is bad, as some are inclined to do, is blasphemous and Manichean—but to say that it is small (with the very odd dream twist ‘so small it might fall to bits’), that seems just right. Very odd too is her doctrine of ‘the Grand Deed’. Christ tells her again and again ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ She asks how it can be well, since some are damned. He replied that all that is true, but the secret grand deed will make even that ‘very well’. ‘With you this is impossible, but not with Me.’

My mood changes about this. Sometimes it seems mere drivel—to invent a necessarily inconceivable grand deed which makes everything quite different while leaving it exactly the same. But then at other times it has the unanswerable, illogical convincingness of things heard in a dream and appeals to what is one of my deepest convictions, viz. that reality always escapes prediction by taking a line which was simply not in your thought at all. Imagine oneself as a flat earther questioning whether the Earth was endless or not. If you were told ‘It is finite but never comes to an end’, one would seem to be up against nonsense. Yet the escape (by being a sphere) is so easy—once you know it. At any rate, this book excites me.

From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II
Compiled in Yours, Jack

In my late teens and early twenties, I became acutely aware of my own spiritual longing, and yet, much as I read DT Suzuki,  Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley and even Thomas Merton, somehow the connection between what I read and my own experience was absent. I was not at this time a Christian, and I found that I simply could not understand the medieval Christian mystics, Julian of Norwich, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Richard Rolle, Margery Kempe and others I tried at various times to read. It was really not until I was nearly 30, and, at a very low point in my life staying at St Michael’s Priory at Willen, near Milton Keynes, that, when I was introduced to the Jesus Prayer by Fr Francis Horner SSM, something finally clicked.

Why did the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) “work” for me when other approaches, when the Cloud of Unknowing or Buddhist techniques, did not? As much as anything, I think, it gave me a way to pray – actually to pray, rather than attempting to mediate, or to produce in myself some kind of altered consciousness – when I had not any theological background. or even church experience or basic Bible teaching, or indeed anything like a cultural background in any faith, to support me, or to provide a context for this journey of the spirit on which I found myself. There was just the “naked intent” inherent in the words of the Prayer.

I have no way of knowing how Fr Francis came to “prescribe” that form of prayer, nor to point me to Per-Olof Sjögren’s little book on it, whether it was grace, insight, or whether he recommended it to everyone, but the Jesus Prayer has remained my companion ever since, through all my sometimes tangled journey of faith. It made in me, and continues to make in me, precisely that “unanswerable, illogical convincingness…” that Lewis wrote of in regard to Mother Julian’s vision of the hazelnut.

I am reminded, too, as I was most strongly in meeting this morning, of Isaac Penington’s words in Quaker faith & practice 26.70, where he describes this experience of quietness (hesychia) leading to illumination and the awareness of the presence of God that comes so often in answer to the Jesus Prayer:

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.