Category Archives: Contemplation

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.

 

The Desert in the City

Micah Bales has an interesting blog post, published today, entitled Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?

He writes:

Can a desert spirituality emerge in the midst of daily life, work, and family? What can I do to cultivate this kind of presence, awareness, awokeness? … Perhaps, like the 4th-century desert fathers, we can find a community of prayer in the midst of our spiritual wilderness.

For me, the best introduction by far to the subject of desert spirituality is Rowan Williams’ Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the DesertDiscussing the often misunderstood theme of flight into the desert, he says:

Certainly the desert monks and nuns are in flight from the social systems of their day, from the conformity and religious mediocrity of what they find elsewhere. But they are clearly not running away from responsibility or from relationships; everything we have so far been considering underlines that they are entering into a more serious level of responsibility for themselves and others and that their relationships are essential to the understanding of their vocation.

The desert nun did not grant herself the luxury of evading their own or the world’s problems simply by running away, nor by immersion in human company and conviviality. It was the direct encounter with God in prayer that was the heart of her vocation.

Micah Bales wrote, in another recent post, of the necessity to be prepared to “like Jesus… let go of every guarantee, every promise – even the promise of God’s presence and protection – in order to live in the naked reality of God’s kingdom.” It is this encounter with naked reality, I believe, that lies at the heart of the desert vocation, as it does at the heart of the original Quaker vocation, as Isaac Penington explained:

The sum and substance of true religion doth not stand in getting a notion of Christ’s righteousness, but in feeling the power of endless life, receiving the power, and being changed by the power. And where Christ is, there is his righteousness.

For myself, the answer is always found in prayer and stillness. I cannot ever begin with thought, or with my own emotional reaction to a situation, or to another’s words, or I am lost before I begin. (Incidentally, this is I think where political debate so often goes wrong!) When we fall silent before God, knowing our own unknowing, our own inability to say or do anything from a pure heart, then we are in position at last to recognise the truth of Thomas R Kelly’s words:

In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.

Our lives as Friends, or indeed as anyone who attempts to live out the contemplative life, will tend inevitably towards the desert, it seems to me. The more we place stillness at the centre of not only our worship, but of our own prayer, the more open we are to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. Meister Eckhart put it best, as I quoted, via Barbara Brown Taylor, yesterday:

Leave place, leave time,
Avoid even image!
Go forth without a way
On the narrow path,
Then you will find the desert track.

It is Enough

Sometimes when I attempt to explain the practice of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, especially to Friends, someone will react along the lines of, “Oh, I hate this morbid preoccupation with sins! Surely we all need more self-esteem, not less?”

Now, while of course I sympathise with the bruised heart demanding comfort, not condemnation, I think this objection is an understandable misunderstanding. In the original Greek, as taught in the Philokalia onwards, the word for sinner is ἁμαρτωλόν (hamartolón) – a word which is not, in the Eastern Orthodox context, chiefly concerned with transgressing one of a list of Naughty Things, but with the sense of failing to be what one might be, of missing the mark. And this is a sense of sin to which I can all too readily relate!

Sin in the Orthodox Christian understanding is “missing the mark” (the literal meaning of the Greek word for sin, hamartia), falling short of the glorious purpose for which God created mankind. It is also understood as separation from God, since intimate communion with God is the normal state of mankind from which most people have fallen. Sin is imperfection, anything which fails to live up to the fullness of life in Christ for which man was created.

The Bible sometimes uses legal metaphors to refer to sin, likening it to crime, that is, crime against God’s law. For Orthodox Christianity, while making use of legal imagery, the more dominant imagery used for sin is also drawn from Scripture, and that is that sin is a kind of disease, an affliction for which salvation is the cure.

The Orthodox Wiki

In Pure Land Buddhism there is a useful, rather delightful term, bombu nature. Attractive though the word may be, the concept is a relentlessly honest summing-up of the human condition. Kaspalita Thompson writes:

Recognising our bombu nature is a hard thing to do – it means really looking at what motivates our actions, and how we are compelled by greed, and hate and delusion. It means noticing when all the stuff we have pushed into our long black bag [in Jungian terms, our shadow] starts to leak out and taking responsibility for that, and it sometimes means looking into the long bag itself and seeing what is there, in the darkest places of our psyche.

Any form of contemplative prayer will bring us face to face with this imperfect, often broken, nature that is ours by dint of simply being human. Mother Mary Clare SLG discusses this at length in her book Encountering the Depths (SLG Press 1981). She says,

When we are not attentive listeners it is not only our own personal relationship with God that will be diminished, but even possibly the direct communication between God and another person. Our dissipation of mind, instability and lack of courage to face ourselves, or to be vulnerable to others, frustrates God’s intention that our prayer be a clear pathway to the discernment of the needs of each other.

The most difficult and decisive part of prayer is acquiring this ability to listen…

In prayer, as in all our lives, we a

re in need of God’s mercy. If we are honest, our imperfection, our incompleteness, somehow, is at the root of who we are. When we pray, “have mercy on me, a sinner”, we are not striking a pose, nor beating ourselves up for masturbating, or eating chocolate. We are simply being realistic. In her TED talk The Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown says,

This is what I have found: To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen … to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.” And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we’re enough.

And strangely, this is what accepting ourselves as hamartolón, this is what accepting our bombu nature, accepting ourselves as above all in need of mercy comes down to. We are enough, because we are loved by God. We are enough because we rest in the ground of being, incomplete as we are; because we have been given the grace to know our need of mercy, and to ask for it. It is enough.

On Common Ground

Words are odd and slippery things. We need them to communicate, obviously, and we actually seem to need them to think… 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…

A new post on The Mercy Blog.

A Pillar of Cloud

 

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…

A new post on The Mercy Blog – follow the link to read the rest of the post.

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.

Irma Zaleski Living the Jesus Prayer: Practising the prayer of the heart

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 The Mercy Blog]

Fields of Grace

We do not manufacture our own existence. However much we may seek to emulate Frank Sinatra doing it his way, the best we can do with our “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver) is to improvise a little over the chords we have been given. We live by grace, by gift.

Satya Robyn writes, “Every day we are provided with oxygen, a place to live, food that has been grown and prepared by strangers, love from our friends and families… ” She goes on to speak of the humility that comes with this realisation: a humility that is “a very realistic appraisal of our conditions and of our [imperfect] nature which leads to a natural sense of contrition. Contrition is the gate through which grace can enter.”

All that exists rests in the ground of being. It cannot be otherwise – that is what being means. At the very root, the fundamental source of what is, we must come to isness itself, Meister Eckhart’s Istigkeit. It matters more than we might think how we describe it, as Rhiannon Grant discusses in her recent talk for the Nontheist Friends Network conference at Woodbrooke, and yet as she points out there is behind all our words that which is forever beyond words, and cannot be held by them. I suspect that this is the insight behind the opening of 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. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.1-5)

When things come into being, then we can encounter them, speak of them, but not before. Perhaps this is why Jesus, the Christ, the anointed of God, could say to Philip – who had asked him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” – “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14.8-9) It is only in whatever process of coming-to-be is represented by the term “incarnation” that we can encounter God. (A Buddhist might say, in parallel, that it is only in the person of a Buddha that we can encounter the Buddha Field – only in the living encounter with Amitabha in the Nembutsu, say, can we come to the Pure Land.)

But not being able to put into words the ground of being, isness, God, as apophatic theology rightly asserts, doesn’t mean at all that these encounters are not possible; it is only that entirely unmediated encounter is not possible, as Moses found when he could not see God face to face (Exodus 33.17-23). In the silence of meeting for worship, in the stillness between the words of the Jesus Prayer, is the Light. It is within each of us, closer than our own heartbeat, nearer than the beautiful chemistry by which we breathe and live. William Penn saw this so clearly:

If you would know God and worship and serve God as you should do, you must come to the means he has ordained and given for that purpose. Some seek it in books, some in learned men, but what they look for is in themselves, yet they overlook it. The voice is too still, the Seed too small and the Light shineth in darkness. They are abroad and so cannot divide the spoil; but the woman that lost her silver found it at home after she had lighted her candle and swept her house. Do you so too and you shall find what Pilate wanted to know, viz., Truth. The Light of Christ within, who is the Light of the world and so a light to you that tells you the truth of your condition, leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvellous light; for light grows upon the obedient. It is sown for the righteous and their way is a shining light that shines forth more and more to the perfect day.

Qfp 26.44