Category Archives: Contemplation

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, walking 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.

Coinherence

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]

Walking through Wonders

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

It’s strange how easily utilitarian our seeing can become: we walk through wonders, searching for the next sandwich. Of course we need to eat, God knows we do (Matthew 6.31-33) – but there are plenty of sandwiches without turning away from the shores of glory to look for them.

Sometimes I’m appalled by my own emptiness of heart, my impatience and covetousness, and the ease with which I make excuses for them. William Blake saw that

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

That the doors of perception are clotted with cultural preconceptions, half-learned assumptions and pre-packaged descriptions became a staple of the times I grew up in, and much of the exploration of other systems of religion and thought, and tinkerings with brain chemistry, were aimed at doing something about it. (The best explanation of this quest I know is Aldous Huxley’s own book The Doors of Perception.) But it is only in the stillness of prayer that I have found them to clear, almost of themselves. The Spirit can speak in silence beyond all words or thoughts, and to remain in silence allows everything to appear as it is, without effort or mental gymnastics or chemical interference.

But how? Paula Gooder speaks of a waiting that “does not demand passivity but the utmost activity: active internal waiting that knits together new life.” Contemplative stillness, the openness of the heart’s own doors to “God, who searches the heart, [and] knows what is the mind of the Spirit” (Romans 8.27), is the simplest and the hardest thing. (For me, the Jesus Prayer seems to be the way, but there are many others.)

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

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

Grace in Stillness

Wakeful long after midnight, I looked out in the early hours to see frost forming in the air between the trees, over the grassy bank above the reservoir: little clouds and tendrils of mist sparkling where the last few lights still burning caught them aslant, like some gift of stillness…

I picked up my phone, and quickly noted down these few words, somehow trying to remember what I’d seen. It was quite warm in the room, and yet the still cold touched me with a kind of grace. Things are not the same in an air frost, without becoming. Silence is not the absence of noise, merely, but the place where change is, before things change, or else remain. It is only necessary, and the hardest thing, to keep very still.

Dionysius, known as the Areopagite, wrote

…the mysteries of God’s Word
lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
Amid the deepest shadow
they pour overwhelming light
on what is most manifest.
Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
they completely fill our sightless minds
with treasures beyond all beauty.

We don’t often think of scripture in terms like this. Our minds (mine is, at least) are so often full of critical preconceptions, scraps of imperfectly digested doctrine, the wrack and spindrift of credal formulae, that we can’t listen in stillness. It is written in Psalm 119, “Your word, Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues through all generations…” (Ps 119.89-90 NIV) It is only when we keep still enough that we can make any sense of passages like this, or indeed Psalm 46.10, “Be still and know that I am God…”

Only when something like this happens, and we are awake in the night and we stumble, half-sleeping, across the grace of stillness can we open our hearts to these “treasures of darkness” (Isaiah 45.3 NRSV). Or else we take up the quiet yoke of some discipline like lectio divina or Gospel contemplation. Otherwise, the rattling of our minds’ junkyards will always keep us from hearing, and we’ll miss the place from which John’s opening words make sense, “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…” (John 1.1-3 NRSV)

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

 

The Source of Our Hope

In the October 2017 issue of Friends Journal, Quaker psychotherapist Daniel O Snyder writes:

If you travel in Quaker circles, I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this advice. But there is another aspect to [nonviolence] that I believe is just as critical and a profound source of hope. It is this: The very same dynamics of nonviolence that bring about transformation in the political world are also at work in the inner world. The nonviolence model can also revolutionize how we understand prayer, the second leg of the stool. We are accustomed to thinking of prayer as a place of comfort, and certainly it is that. We are accustomed to the idea that prayer grounds and seasons our outward action, that it refreshes the soul and prepares us to return to the fields of outward engagement. That too is important. But there is yet another critical feature of this leg of the stool that we sometimes fail to consider: prayer itself is a transformational process both in the inner world of the one who prays and in its outward fruits. Transformational work crosses the inward–outward barrier; it may even erase it. Prayer is essential to the praxis of faith because prayer is itself a field of engagement.

I know this is a bold claim: prayer is, within its own dynamic and apart from outward action, a type of intervention. There are obvious problems with this claim. Karl Marx named the biggest one: religion (when it is reduced to mere piety) is an opiate, drugging us into complacency. I’m not talking about piety. Here’s another problem: prayer is often taken to mean a type of pleading, an appeal for special intervention. I’m not talking about a request for outside help. Now, here is another: prayer is imagined as being exclusively inward, going to the Well, or a return to Sanctuary. Prayer is a refueling station. This one may be closer to home for many of us Quakers. It is supported in much of our literature, such as in Thomas Kelly’s wonderful line, “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul.” Further on in A Testament of Devotion, however, in a passage that could be easily overlooked, he laments the necessities of time: “linear sequence and succession of words is our inevitable lot and compels us to treat separately what is not separate.” Kelly, like many earlier Quakers, had awakened to an interconnected world.

We Quakers are children of the Enlightenment. We were born into a world that was already defined for us before we got here. Like Kelly, we submit to the necessities of our inward–outward language, but we do not have to accept the worldview it enshrines. I have found that regular discipline in prayer ultimately cracks open my assumptions about the nature of self and world. The Divine Comforter is also a Divine Disturber who relentlessly overthrows the internalized regime of my idols. There is a peace and a deep quietness that comes, but it is on the other side of God’s nonviolent revolution of the soul. Small wonder that Margaret Fell warned that the Divine Encounter “will rip you up and tear you open.” Prayer is serious business if we are willing to submit to its alchemy.

Daniel Snyder has here put his finger on something I have struggled to say for a long time on this blog and elsewhere: prayer is not merely a way to make myself feel better, not a plea for God to rearrange reality by supernatural intervention, not merely a way to recharge the batteries before another burst of political activism, but is itself a field of engagement.”

Snyder goes on:

Most of us trust the power of prayer implicitly despite being trapped in a worldview that doesn’t allow us to see how it could possibly make a difference. We “hold each other in the Light” and trust that it matters that we do so. Most of us also have stories of openings, resolutions of difficulties, even physical healings that we may not talk about for fear of being thought naïve, gullible, or worse. It’s time we gave up our shyness about such things. Prayer matters. Serious and committed inner work not only prepares us for faithful outward action, it is itself a type of engagement. As Walter Wink writes in his extraordinarily important work Engaging the Powers, “history belongs to the intercessors.” If in addition to study groups learning about nonviolence, every meeting also had committed prayer groups, holding our country in the Light, we would be adding another essential leg to the stool. We are not just refueling in order to return to a field of engagement, we are showing up for the Divine Encounter, presenting ourselves as willing subjects for transformation and as willing instruments for transformation in the world. Prayer has a way of shifting not only how we see the world but also how we see ourselves. We are called to love the world as we have been loved, to confront the world as we have been confronted, to forgive as we have been forgiven, and to be instruments of its healing as we ourselves have been healed. Only the forgiven truly know how to forgive, and only the healed know how to heal. Prayer restores savor to the salt; it returns us to our essential nature. As saltiness is the essential nature of salt, so is ours the Indwelling Spirit. Grace is the ground of our being and the source of our hope.

We cannot know the use of such a prayer as this. 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.

The Action of Prayer

…[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.

The autobiography of St Therese of Lisieux culminates in a celebration of this power of prayer: she compares it to the lever of Archimedes which is able to raise up the world… This power of active contemplation belongs to every Christian, is realised in every Christian who participates in the fullness of the Christian vocation…

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

I was so pleased to discover Sister Mary David’s comments here. As I have proved on this blog over the years, it is hard to write of the life of prayer without seeming to assume a kind of sanctity or something which I most definitely lack, or without seeming (as sometimes in a Quaker context!) to be making excuses for not getting out there in the real world among the muck and brass of politics and protest. But there really is more to it than that.

The problem seems often to be that when writing of spiritual realities one is simply dealing with things that cannot be proved or demonstrated. The life of the spirit is not like that. When George Fox wrote, “and this I knew experimentally”, he didn’t mean that he had tested his propositions according to the scientific method: he meant that he had experienced the presence and guidance of Christ directly.

I am coming more and more, exponentially really, to discover that persisting in surrendering myself to God in prayer is the centre of all that I am called to do. But in order to do this without coming apart, as it were, I do need to be part of a eucharistic community, in literal fact. Just as the life of prayer opens one “to the effective, invisible power of God”, the Eucharist is the making of that power real in a way that the heart can rely on, rest in, be fed by. Besides,

The liturgy is a great school of prayer. It is part of the environment of prayer and can provide the structured means by which a prayerful life is supported. We are initiated into prayer by the prayers, psalms, hymns of the Church, the Mass of each day, the great poem of the liturgy which spreads itself throughout the year. The Liturgy of the Hours has been compared to a drip putting a steady flow of nutrient into a person’s system.

ibid.

Without this environment, this structure of support, this continual nourishment I am in danger of drying up. Practically, something must be done. I have at times described myself as “Quanglican”; it is becoming urgent that I put that into practice as a regular way of life, rather than as an occasional refreshment. What this will look like in practical terms I am not yet certain. I do know that, for me, it is fast becoming an indissoluble part of the surrender to which I seem to find myself increasingly to be called.

[First published on The Mercy Blog]

The Language of the Heart

We are creatures of the word, we humans. We know ourselves by our names first of all, and our least thought comes ready dressed in words. And yet it is in silence that we draw close to God, becoming open in the stillness to the presence that is always with us, nearer than our own breathing.

The apostle John wrote,

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. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

John 1.1-4 NRSV

In contemplative prayer, we drop below the threshold of thought, and yet words remain, perhaps reflections of the words we have spoken since we learned to speak. The stream of consciousness passes, glittering with words, fragments of thoughts, commentary, witterings. How hard it is not to look, not to be caught by the glittering surfaces that flicker past. This is why, in Centering Prayer, in Christian Meditation, above all in the Jesus Prayer, it is words (or a word) themselves that are used to still the twinkling stream.

But why would that work?

It seems to me that there are two kinds of language, at least as they are at work here: the language of thoughts, and the language of the heart. There is a phrase often used in the literature around the Jesus Prayer, “Keep the mind in the heart before God.” This does not mean “get out of your mind and into your emotions” – anything but. As Cynthia Bourgeault writes,

According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality, emerging from some unknown profundity, which plays lightly upon the surface of this life without being caught there: a world where meaning, insight, and clarity come together in a whole different way. Saint Paul talked about this other kind of perceptivity with the term “faith” (“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” [Hebrews 11.1 KJV]), but the word “faith” is itself often misunderstood by the linear mind. What it really designates is not a leaping into the dark (as so often misconstrued) but a subtle seeing in the dark, a kind of spiritual night vision that allows one to see with inner certainty that the elusive golden thread glimpsed from within actually does lead somewhere.

So, in placing the attention into the field of these words, whether the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, or intent that underlies the chosen “sacred word” of centering prayer, the words themselves, as the means of attention in fact, descend quite naturally and peacefully into the heart.

This, of course, explains why those who practice the Jesus Prayer so often continue to use the terminal words a sinner (they are omitted in some versions), for it is, at least in my experience, only in repentance that the heart is purified sufficiently so to be blessed.

The great spiritual directors of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have explained in figurative language how the structure of the human soul enables the mind to be drawn upwards (the will consenting) to its own apex, at which point it comes into contact and communion with God’s descending Spirit. This “apex”, which can equally well be described as the “centre”, is that “place of the heart” wherein we dwell in the state of prayer. To enter that state it is necessary for the heart to be purified by repentance (represented in the baptism of Jesus by John), so that it may reflect, as in a clear mirror, the Holy Light that pours on it from above. Then, by God’s mercy, the soul will, in the course of time, in this life or in some other dimension as yet unknown, become so perfectly commingled with that Light that, as Julian says, there will seem to be no difference – although there must still remain a clear distinction – between the reflection and its heavenly Source.

Lois Lang-Sims, The Mind in the Heart – Thoughts on Prayer

All this sounds perhaps either dry and academic, or mystical to the point of dottiness, depending on the point of view of the reader! But it is a simple thing really. The Jesus Prayer, like the nembutsu, is a prayer for simple people.

Mystical experience, the direct, unmediated encounter with God central to Quaker worship, and to all contemplative prayer, is not a strange or technical exercise, reserved for professional clergy or vowed monastics, but an ordinary, straightforward thing common to our identity as human beings. There is, after all, that of God in each of us: all that is necessary is to become aware of it, and somehow to live within that awareness, which is all that the phrase “the mind in the heart” is trying to say, really.