Category Archives: Contemplation

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

Drift lines

It is just over a week ago now that I had a cardiac procedure carried out at the Dorset County Hospital, which by great good fortune is just across the road from us, and has an excellent cardiology unit. I was able very carefully to go to meeting last Sunday, feeling tired and somewhat battered, but already in better health than I had been for a long time.

I have written elsewhere about the liminality inherent in life itself. Sitting in meeting last Sunday it came to me that I was conscious of this in a new way now. I had heard on Saturday that a Friend from our previous Area Meeting, a man I had felt close to since being one of his visitors when he applied for membership some years ago, had just died from precisely the condition for which I’d been treated.

Richard Rohr once wrote, in a slightly different context,

The edge of things is a liminal space – a very sacred place where guardian angels are especially available and needed. The edge is a holy place, or as the Celts called it, “a thin place” and you have to be taught how to live there. To take your position on the spiritual edge of things is to learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return. It is a prophetic position, not a rebellious or antisocial one. When you live on the edge of anything with respect and honour, you are in a very auspicious position. You are free from its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways.

Margery Abbott, in her excellent Pendle Hill Pamphlet Quaker Views on Mysticism, writes, 

…mysticism as known within the Society of Friends is our awareness of (or belief in) God’s presence, individually and in the corporate Meeting for Worship, an awareness that results in a changed perception of the world and a willingness to be guided by the Spirit, the Inward Light, the Christ Within. Quakerism is strongly prophetic – it is about listening for that which is eternal and bringing the divine word to the world.

We are liminal creatures, we humans; the difference between us is never so much a difference in liminality as it is a difference in our awareness of it. Over recent months I have been blessed to see this liminality for myself with a new clarity and immediacy. Our lives here seem so all or nothing to us, so identified with who we are, that we forget we live on the shoreline of something so much deeper and wider than we have imagined, the ground of all that has been made. We are just beachcombers, really, walking the drift lines amid the seaglass and old lumber, dazed and entranced by a light we cannot understand.

The practice of stillness…

In the daily practice of stillness we learn not to rely on ourselves, on our thoughts and on our feelings, but instead to rest in the darkness – and perhaps in the apparently complete emptiness – of the magnanimity of the Holy Spirit who gently opens us out into that greater generosity. Its fruit is simply love. It is our personal response to the mystery of God, made known to us in the person of Jesus Christ, for our maturing into full personhood…

The practice of stillness is letting go. In relinquishing our desire to think, we are refraining from imposing meaning. This means that we can be more open to the way things actually are… A moment when we turn over in our hands a stone just picked up represents the state of preliminary receptiveness which is so important if we are to cultivate the deeper intuitive knowing of spiritual truths. Wonder is the necessary check to the tendency for reductionism which characterises both religious and secular forms of knowledge…

…letting go means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to realities which may shape us, and it will perhaps open us to the chaos we fear so much… Finally, this requires us to face our fear that death will be the extinction of the self. That requires the ultimate act of trust and Christian faith. However unwilling we may be to ‘go gentle into that dark night’, faith is to surrender ourselves even now into that which, then, we shall be unable to control. Faith is the letting go into an unknown which will be a birthing more awe-full and more fully life-giving than our first ejection from the womb into the light of day.

Andrew Norman, Learn to Be at Peace: The Practice of Stillness

It seems quite hard sometimes, writing a blog such as this, to find the right tone. I never set out to write one of those confessional blogs, full of day-to-day details of my emotional life and my intimate relationships. But this isn’t a technical blog either, constrained to facts, and opinions about facts. Sometimes I can’t write about the interior life without mentioning aspects of my own life that would be simpler not mentioned at all.

Recently I suffered a minor heart attack, and while medically it was – for someone living, in the 21st century, just across the road from a major hospital – no big deal, it was a disconcerting experience, and one which raised more questions than it appeared to answer. I found, in common with many patients such as myself, that the immediate aftermath of the episode was a strange flat depression, which made it all but impossible to write, or indeed to want to write. It was made somehow more obscure by that fact that, since I am already on the waiting list for an interventional procedure to treat the underlying problem, I found myself in a kind of a medical limbo. I needed to be careful not to make matters worse, and so, while I was relatively restricted in my normal activities, I hadn’t really anything definite to do.

Now that I have a date, next month, for the procedure, I seem to be able to look back over events, trying perhaps to make some kind of sense of the experience itself. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve encountered my own mortality before, and I have found that frailty is only one side of the coin. Reality is not what it seems. That in each of us which is love itself is beyond all the dimensions of time and matter, beyond the reach of thought. Bur it is precisely in this being beyond the reach of thought, even of conscious experience, that hope lies hidden. Unknowing extends beyond a few minutes of sitting quietly. It, itself no thing, underlies all things. It is the unseen source of all that is, and the surest refuge.

Here in Advent all we can do comes down to waiting. Darkness is heavy over the land, and tonight the fog is coming down. Through the bare trees beyond this lighted window the little distances are closing in. What we cannot see, what we have not heard, waits under the dark as it has always done. The dark has not overcome it. In the love that is its light is the seed of Christ, who comes in the shadow of the womb’s pulse long days before birth. Isaac Penington knew this:

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.

Quaker faith & practice 26.70

Sparrows and stillness: reading Qfp Ch. 1

Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

Quaker faith & practice 1.02: Advices & queries 7

Friends have become very familiar with the last two sentences of this – the query part – as a kind of watchword for open-mindedness and tolerance in all that we do, but too often, I think, we forget some of the implications of the advice part.

Mystical experience, the direct, unmediated encounter with God central to Quaker worship and 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.

David Johnson writes ( A Quaker Prayer Life, 2013) “Quaker prayer arises from a life of continuing devotion. We learn by experience.” To turn our hearts to silence, to “stand still in the Light”, on a regular, daily basis does indeed open out our awareness to the presence of God in the small, everyday circumstances of life – blue tits in the bird bath, sycamore seeds spinning along the breeze, the distant, resonant clang of scaffolding poles dropped onto a lorry. We all rest in God, human and otherwise, and the ground of being is our inevitable home. We cannot fall out of what is: we can only be transformed, and even dying is only another kind of transformation within that ground. All that is needed is to learn to know this, moment by luminous moment, among the drifting leaves and the still incessant chirping of sparrows in the bushes along the hospital grounds.

A Life with Ravens

Anyone taking the eremitic vocation seriously is bound to feel helpless, quite impotent, in fact. Hermits are determined to help, to make a positive difference, but how? What can one person do, hidden and alone? Sometimes, solitaries may feel blameworthy because they live lives which shelter them from much of the suffering that so harshly mars the existence of their brothers and sisters. Love and compassion well up in them… but is it enough? What should one do and how? This is where passionate intercessory prayer and supplication spontaneously arises.

The challenge is to live a life given over to praying for others while accepting that one will seldom, if ever, see any results. One one will be able to ascertain how, or even if, their devoted prayers are efficacious for others. It is a terrible kind of poverty – to live dedicated to helping others, yet never know what good one may be doing. All that hermits can do is hope that they are doing no harm. Believers leave all results to the mercy of their God. Others rely on the interconnectedness of all humanity, trusting that what affects one, affects all. This is a form of intercession expressed less by words than by a way of life.

A Camaldolese monk once wrote: “Prayer is not only speaking to God on behalf of humanity, it is also ‘paying’ for humanity.” Suffering is part of the hermit’s vocation. One of the most acute forms is to never know whether one’s chosen lifestyle is worthwhile or has any value for others. Hermits enter into the darkness, the dusky cloud of unknowing, and walk without any light beyond that which is in their own hearts. Often, unbeknownst even to themselves, they have become beacons for others.

Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life

This calling to a life of interior solitude (see my other recent post here) has been growing on me more and more strongly, and becoming clearer, in recent years. The essence of this way is not so much physical solitude – though it does necessarily involve what Caroline E Stephen (Quaker Faith & Practice 22.30) called “a due proportion of solitude” – but an interior hiddenness which avoids excess or conspicuousness, or seeking for roles or causes.

The ravens of the title are of course the ones who brought Elijah bread and meat in the wilderness (1 Kings 17.2-6). A life with ravens is a life dependent upon God not only for existence but for meaning. The shadows that fell across the Kerith Ravine were the shadows of God’s purpose, and the loneliness to which he had called Elijah was sustained by the ravens of God’s grace.

I wrote elsewhere, “It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting myself out of the way of that channel of loving gift.” The hiddenness to which I am increasingly drawn is a way of getting out of the way – of standing still enough to act as a kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of mercy.

The dark and puzzling times in which we live can so easily draw us into taking sides, feeling we must “join the fight” against this or that injustice, or “struggle” against forces beyond our control or understanding which threaten the very existence of humanity. These military metaphors contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety and guilt, where nothing we can do is ever enough, and any rest or stillness is a betrayal of our comrades-in-arms. But grace is not mediated by aggression, and peace may not be found by way of war. Craig Barnett wrote:

…the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ – allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings.

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

Hiddenness appears to me to be not so much a matter of hiding away as hiding in plain sight, just as true simplicity is often more about the avoidance of a complicated life than the embrace of a heroic primitivism! To be “quiet and unrecognised” is deeply counterintuitive to a society driven by opposition and notoriety, and  threatens the paranoia so assiduously cultivated by mass media who, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.

To face not only the suffering of our sisters and brothers, human and otherwise, but the misunderstanding of our own inner political selves, and to embrace them in our love and our compassion, within the awareness of the presence of God, is a peculiar form of prayer. It is more like a form of penance, really. But it is in this contemplative practice itself that we make real the mysterious interconnectedness of all that is made, and through which our own solitary prayer seems to bring healing and hope in even the “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23) itself.