Category Archives: Contemplation

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)

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.

In all directions at once?

I see… an infinite web of relationship, flung across the vastness of space like a luminous net. It is made of energy, not thread. As I look, I can see light moving through it as a pulse moves through veins. What I see “out there” is no different from what I feel inside. There is a living hum that might be coming from my neurons but might just as well be coming from the furnace of the stars…

Where am I in this picture? … How could I ever be alone? I am part of a web that is pure relationship, with energy available to me that has been around since the universe was born.

Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light – not captured in any of them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them – but revealed in that singular, vast web of relationship that animates everything that is.

…it is not enough for me to proclaim that God is responsible for all this unity. Instead, I want to proclaim that God is the unity – the very energy, the very intelligence, the very elegance and passion that make it all go. This is the God who is not somewhere but everywhere, the God who may be prayed to in all directions at once. This is also the God beyond all directions, who will still be here (whatever “here” means) when the universe either dissipates into dust or swallows itself up again. Paul Tillich’s name for this divine reality was “the ground of all being.” The only thing I can think of that is better than that is the name God revealed to Moses: “I Am Who I Am.”

Barbara Brown Taylor, The Luminous Web

This is, as Taylor points out a little later, not pantheism at all. She is not saying that God is everything, still less that everything is God, but that God is “above all and through all and in all” as Paul the apostle saw (Ephesians 4.6b). God is not a distant being, who occasionally deigns to interfere in the thing that he has made, but “the only One who ever was, is, or shall be, in whom everything else abides.” (Taylor, ibid.)

The question arises, of course, how one might pray to such a God. “In all directions at once”, says Barbara Brown Taylor. But what does that mean? We are so prone to think of prayer as messages between separate parts of a mechanism – us here, God there, the ones we are praying for somewhere else. But if we are not separated like that? If we, and those we pray for, and who pray for us, are in God, and God in us, then our connection is God, and what affects each of us affects each other, because it affects God.

If we really believed this, really saw it to be true, how could we go on living our selfish, antagonistic lives? How could we feel that our loss is another’s gain, or vice versa? This morning’s ministry was all about community, and the communion of community – that by living in love, in a community of love, we are witnesses, and more than witnesses: we are signs of the Kingdom, loci of Kingdom infection in the world. But perhaps we do not so much build community as realise community, and in realising it, make it real to ourselves and among each other.

To pray, in such circumstances, is then a very different thing from any conception of posting letters across time and space.

Simon Barrington-Ward writes of Silouan the Athonite:

…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, [contemplative 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.

Prayer, as Daniel O Snyder writes in Friends Journal“is itself a field of engagement.” As St Silouan discovered, contemplative prayer, the practice of stillness and silence, is anything but disengagement, anything but a way out of dealing with the pain and the grief of the world, but is a way of welcoming them into one’s heart without defence, and being made in oneself a channel of God’s grace, Christ’s mercy.

Singing in the Shadows

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.

(Psalm 63.6-8 NIV)

The night is increasingly a time of prayer for me. I don’t mean that I stay wilfully awake in order to pray, but that prayer has become a refuge and a homecoming, the place I find myself when I’m awake in the night, as happens increasingly, whether through age or, as seems more likely somehow, as a natural part of what is happening while I am sleeping.

A quick search online reveals any number of articles on prayer before sleeping, waking early in order to pray, prayers for a good night’s sleep, the problem of falling asleep while praying… but little or nothing that I could see about what happens during sleep itself. However, an article I found on the Orthodox Prayer site gives a clue that my experience may not be quite unheard of:

At night time you can also say the Jesus Prayer as you try and go to sleep. There will come a time when you will actually pray while you sleep. At the time of falling asleep we enter a path that leeds into our deepest consciousness. This occurs between the time we are awake and asleep. Its the ideal time to send this prayer deep into your heart. Rejoice when the first thing you want to do when you awake in the morning is to repeat the prayer.

There is a term used in sleep medicine, hypnagogia, which refers to the state between waking and sleeping, when, among other effects, repetitive tasks or experiences sometimes dominate mental imagery when falling asleep. (Gamers are familiar with what is called the Tetris effect, when images from gaming flood their mind as they fall asleep, or in idle moments of unfocused time.) Something similar may be at work here, but then again, if experience is to be trusted at all, waking is more like an uncovering of prayer that has been present, flowing beneath dreams, beneath the currents of the sleep cycles.

It is as easy to be drawn away into reductionist, quasi-scientific attempts at explaining phenomena like this as it is to become unmeshed in superstitious notions of divination and so on. But, “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)

Surely our very sleeping is threaded with the Spirit’s searching, as our defences and distractions disengage in the dark hours? I know my own dreams have been shot through with light of late, unexpectedly, as the traces of old griefs and paths of remembering are questioned by a sure and accurate love that is not of my making.

The Jesus Prayer, says Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, “more than any other,” helps us to be able to “stand in God’s presence.” In sleep God is present as at all times; but there is nothing to resist our knowing that, if in sleep we “cling to” him. The prayer goes on – it becomes itself the song of the shadow of God’s boundless love.


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.

Cynthia Bourgeault, Mystical Hope

I sometimes think of the baptism of Jesus as being in some way related our own call to prayer. Jesus didn’t need to be baptised himself, as John the Baptist was quick to point out (Matthew 3.13-17) – “In his birth the Son enters into our vulnerability and contingent existence. Now in his baptism he joins himself to our hurt and mixed-up spiritual condition. This process of God meeting us in our vulnerability and suffering will culminate on the Cross…” (from the Franciscan blog Praise and Bless, January 12 2008)

In our prayer, if we are praying contemplatively rather than “for” something, we are praying as representative of the whole human race; coming into the very presence of God with, in a sense, all of humanity hard-coded into the very cells of our being. Our prayer then is for Christ’s mercy on all of humanity, all of creation really (Romans 8.19-27); we are literally interceding, standing between God and all that he has made, out there in the wind of the Spirit. This is why the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, has so long a history as a prayer of intercession as much as of contemplation, and why to think of it as a narrowly personal prayer of individual penitence is to misunderstand its intention.

Paul touches on this in his letter to the Christians at Colossae, also. He writes, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 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 1.15-17 NIV)

Christ is our mercy – it’s in him that things remain in being, and are loved. Night has long fallen, on this winter’s evening in Dorset, and only a few lights are slipping through the almost leafless trees, confused and mingled with the reflections of the lights in the room. Inward? Outward? Perhaps it’s only in our own minds that there is a distinction. We are little, temporary things, wave-crests lifted for a moment on unquiet waters, and then subsumed. We are eternal, loved and kept and one with the isness of God. Both these things are true, and our love holds all to whom we have made ourselves open in prayer – how could it be otherwise? – in the light of the mercy that is shown to us; and that is enough, all we are called to do, all in the end we can do anyhow. Kyrie eleison.

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]