Category Archives: Darkness

Dark Tales

This evening is particularly quiet. The leaves of the hazels at the back of the garden are hardly moving, and light from the west is casting clean shadows of the roofline on to the trees. This spring the weather is so beautiful – even the rainy days have a clean, healing quality about them – that the threat of the current pandemic seems hard to believe, a dark tale from another time, perhaps, or from a dystopian fiction…

I will extol the LORD at all times;
his praise will always be on my lips.

I will glory in the LORD;
let the afflicted hear and rejoice.

Glorify the LORD with me;
let us exalt his name together.

(Psalm 34:1-3 NIV)

It’s interesting, isn’t, how David phrases this? If the poet was indeed David (this is one of the psalms whose attribution is most likely to be accurate) then of course he would know about affliction, but the psalms in general are stunningly honest about this kind of thing. In one of my favourite passages from Psalm 119 we read,

[67] Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word…
[71] It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.

(Psalm 119:67,71 NIV)

Why might this be? We are familiar enough, though very often we struggle to apply it to our own lives, with the concept Paul expresses in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” All things, not just the convenient ones, or the pleasant ones. Of course, the verse is not saying that all things are good – some things, like the situation in which we all find ourselves at the moment, patently are not good at all. But the anonymous poet of Psalm 119 seems to go even beyond the apostle.

I have come to recognise, from periods in my own life of desolation and functional solitude (being alone in the sense not always of physical isolation, but of being cut off from understanding and comfort: “You have taken from me friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88.18)) the power of this kind of prayer, and how actually to pray the Psalms, to take their words and make them one’s own, brings strength and refuge, comfort even, in dark places. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that at these times in my life I would not have come through had it not been for the Psalms.

In some deep mystery these words in the psalms prefigure the cross of Christ, and it is there that understanding begins to break through. Jesus called his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25 NIV) Peter wrote “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21 NIV)

It’s really important to understand that none of this was my doing. None of it came about through any particular insight or perspicuity of mine, still less through any imagined godliness: it was all sheer gift. Nor am I saying that the ultimate healing of wounds of the spirit – such as we all are suffering in these perfect days of springtime, as the earth stretches and heals from the long years of environmental abuse and exploitation – comes purely through the prayerful acceptance of suffering. My survival may, in my own instance, have come that way – but it was only after the passage of many years, and through skilled and patient help, that their effects have finally begun to be something like healed. But their value – that is another matter entirely. One of the hardest things to take is the illusion of the pointlessness of one’s own suffering; the realisation that it is not, after all, a waste of life and hope, but a way into endless life and indestructible hope, through and not despite the Cross is what brings us at last to that refuge David described in Psalm 63:6-8,

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.

This morning in the silence…

This morning in the silence I was struck by the fact that – although I often feel that I struggle with maintaining a little life of prayer and “keeping low” in what some would describe as the privilege of my life here in the quiet west country – in many ways this is no more than our human susceptibility to what is traditionally called temptation. We are frail, temporary creatures, and we react in often very predictable ways to our own circumstances.

When we find ourselves in hardship, whether through poverty, ill-health or any other trouble, we tend towards bitterness, which keeps us from appreciating, or even seeing, let alone gratitude for, God’s blessings; though admittedly they may be hidden and obscure, “treasures of darkness” (Isaiah 45.3 NRSV).

When we find ourselves living peaceful lives of relative comfort (what the Bible often refers to as “prosperity”, rather than the Fortune 500 variety!) we tend towards complacency, as though we could somehow take credit for our good fortune – a point of view that a sudden illness will quickly correct. They are God’s blessings anyway, and he knows why he has given them to us for a while.

It’s coming to seem to me that all we can do is grow where we are planted (1 Corinthians 7.17-24) and remain there to grow the best fruit we can.*

George Fox, as so often, has a word for this:

Keep in the wisdom of God that spreads over all the earth, the wisdom of the creation, that is pure. Live in it; that is the word of the Lord God to you all, do not abuse it; and keep down and low; and take heed of false joys that will change. (Qfp 19.32)

as does the Psalmist:

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.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time on and forevermore.

(Psalm 131)

(* Unless indeed we are direct victims of abuse or injustice, in which case God’s call is presumably to come out of there, and our duty to follow; but that is another story.)

The Kraken Wakes

For some reason we think that spiritual progress is marked by lack of struggle in life. [My] purpose… is to emphasise that this is simply not the case. Spiritual progress is learning to confront struggle in a new way so that we don’t struggle with the fact that life is fraught with struggle. But the practice of contemplation will expose us to many things we would rather not see but need to see if we are going to grow. Even something as potentially debilitating as depression or obsessive-compulsive behaviour finds healing salve in the practice of contemplation…

These, too, can be vehicles by which the mystery we call God breaks through and shines in awareness.

Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation

Anyone practicing the Jesus Prayer (and I believe this to be equally true of any other discipline such as Centering Prayer, the contemplative use of Holy Rosary, or Christian Meditation) will find sooner or later that they are led into waters whose floor shelves steeply away into the abyss, far out of their depth in pain and the memories of pain. At times like this the Jesus Prayer (or its equivalent) functions more like a bit of floating wreckage that we can cling to than any kind of structured prayer, though that is what it is.

The godly king of ancient Israel, Hezekiah, confronted with the besieging Assyrian army, received a letter from their king and commander-in-chief Sennacherib renewing his threat to sack Jerusalem, and warning him not to trust in God’s protection from his forces. Hezekiah’s reaction was not to surrender, nor to return boast for boast, but to go “up to the house of the Lord and spread [the letter] before the Lord.” (Isaiah 37.14)

So too the contemplative who is confronted with the siege ramps and archers of their own brokenness, their shame and the traumas they had thought to forget. There is nothing to be gained by trying to force these armies of the unconscious back to the land of repression, nor in giving way to fantasies, or running from prayer into some comforting pleasure or another. These are not distractions we can dismiss lightly, but very krakens of the mind’s deeps. Like dear King Hezekiah, our trust, even here, is in the Lord. At even the very end, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.” (Job 13.15 NIV) In our discipline our trust holds fast – the floating wreckage of our prayer is more than we can imagine. Like Hezekiah, the angel of the Lord will come to our defence by a way we had not suspected, our peace will come from a direction we had not seen, and like Elisha’s servant we shall see “the hills full of horses and chariots of fire” (2 Kings 6.17 NIV).

The fire of love can burn even in the midst of the storm, and we shall hear Jesus’ own voice, gentle and half-asleep, speaking peace and stillness to the waves. (Mark 4.35-41) Benignus O’Rourke’s words remind us,

Sometimes when people meditate or pray without words they are accused of trying to anaesthetise themselves to deaden their pain. But what we really do in our quiet prayer is to face the pain, engage with it, and transform it into energy for loving.

Finding Your Hidden Treasure: The Way of Silent Prayer

Outstaring the Ghosts

The psalmist says, ‘You hide those who trust in you in the shelter of your presence.’ For ‘hide’ we might read ‘heal’. To sit with with our buried hurts and pains in the presence of the Lord is to allow ourselves to be healed by him. We no longer become involved in trying to sort them out, nor do we recoil from them. We sit quietly. We are beginning to have the confidence to outstare our ghosts.

Sometimes when people meditate or pray without words they are accused of trying to anaesthetise themselves to deaden their pain. But what we really do in our quiet prayer is to face the pain, engage with it, and transform it into energy for loving.

Benignus O’Rourke, Finding Your Hidden Treasure: The Way of Silent Prayer

Richard Rohr wrote, in one of his Daily Meditations (back in 2010 – it’s long been taken down):

We have put our emphasis on trying to love God, which is probably a good way to start—although we do not have a clue how to do that.  What I consistently find in the mystics is an overwhelming experience of how God has loved them.  God is the initiator, God is the doer, God is the one who seduces us.  All we can do is respond in kind, and exactly as Meister Eckhart said, “The love by which we love God is the very same love with which God has first loved us.”

The mystics’ overwhelming experience is this full body blow of the Divine loving them, the Divine radically accepting them.  And the rest of their life is trying to verbalize that, and invariably finding ways to give that love back through forms of service, compassion and non-stop worship.  But none of this is to earn God’s love; it’s always and only to return God’s love.  Love is repaid by love alone.

Our prayer, as contemplatives, is not something that is for ourselves alone, nor even – as if that were not sufficient – simply our response to our perceiving of the immensity of God’s love. I think this cannot be emphasised strongly enough. We need to understand that our life of prayer, especially if we are called to the contemplative life, is not a solipsistic, “self-actualising” activity, or some kind of relaxation technique aimed at producing a pleasant, stress-free state of mind, still less a quest for any kind of psychedelic experience. The contemplative vocation is as much as anything a call to intercession, and to a life lived in the shadow of the Cross.

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

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. No 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.

What the Fredettes write applies, of course, to the contemplative life however lived, whether in community or in physical solitude. The contemplative life has always been to a great extent a life lived in hiddenness, and in our own time, when the culture of celebrity and notoriety is continually whipped up by the press and social media, it is deeply counterintuitive to seek to live this way. These days relatively few of us live in true solitude, and still less of us in the more or less enclosed forms of community traditionally inhabited by contemplatives – the Carthusians, for instance, or the Poor Clares – and so we live not so much hidden lives as lives hidden in plain sight, ordinary, unrecognised and quiet. This hiddenness is really more a way of just getting out of the way – of standing still enough to act as a kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of mercy.

This life of inner solitude and hiddenness – for it is hidden from our own selves within as well as outwardly – is in many ways lived for others. We stand out in the wind, and in some mysterious way we relive Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai, when the Israelites said to him, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”

The ghosts we outstare are not our own merely; somehow in the silence of prayer we find ourselves confronting the ghosts of those we live amongst, touching the shadows that our post-Enlightenment age casts across all our lives, touching, as did the monks of Mount Athos during the years of the Stalin’s purges and Hitler’s atrocities, the dark skirts of chaos and cruelty that brush continually against our civilisation. Yet our prayer does, as I wrote yesterday, “tend… always to stillness, to wholeness of mind and spirit, to the peace of God, beyond our understanding…” It is that peace we seek for those with whom our prayer and our lives are inextricably caught up, just by being frail, temporary human things.

[Originally published on The Mercy Blog]

The sowing of seeds

This has been a strange Easter. For us, it has been marked indelibly by the death of a old and dear friend on Easter Saturday evening. In his excellent post for Easter on the Britain Yearly Meeting website, Alistair Fuller writes:

The story of Holy Week and Easter, seen as a whole, is vivid and unsettling. It contains within it themes of friendship, betrayal and political tension. There is state-sponsored murder, and the violent pendulum swing of public opinion from adoration to condemnation. There are moments of loneliness, desolation, unspeakable cruelty and profound courage. There is falling and failing, of many kinds. And there is tenacious and unflinching love.

And Easter itself is not quite the sunlit miracle story we might remember. There is no gospel telling of anything that might be described as ‘the resurrection’, but rather a jagged and untidy collection of stories and moments of encounter.

It has been so for us, and yet, as Fuller goes on to say, it has been full “of the unconquerable aliveness of the love encountered in and through Jesus.”

Marcelle Martin, in her 2016 book Our Life Is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journeywrites of the process known by early Quakers, George Fox in particular, as “The Refiner’s Fire” (from Malachi 3.2: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap…”):

Experiences of the Light are challenging when they show us ways we have not been living in accordance with God’s love and truth. Western cultures teach people from infancy to onward to push divine guidance to the back of our awareness, and most people quickly learn to block perception of the indwelling Presence of God. Reversing this and consciously opening our hearts and minds to spiritual truth is not easy. It takes patience and courage to still our minds, turn within, and wait in a receptive way for the Light to show us how we have been resisting divine Love and Truth in the particulars of our thinking, our relationships, our way of living, and our participation in the world. Seeing this can be surprising…

[Quoting Sandra Cronk] “The process of entering into a deep relationship with God is also the process of uncovering ourselves… In the light of that love, deep re-patterning can take place in us.”

For me, the reality has been less straightforward than it is or some. Due to some quirk of nature or nurture – my mother, who brought me up as a single parent, was a painter and sculptor – I never did “learn to block perception of the indwelling Presence of God” to the extent that most people seem to. As I wrote a couple of years ago, “I have known since childhood the power of solitude, of lonely places; and I have always been most at home alone in the grey wind, without a destination or timetable, or sitting by myself in a sunlit garden, watching the tiny velvety red mites threading their paths on a warm stone bench.” Listening for that indwelling presence has been at times terrifying, at times joyful, but it has never been entirely possible to escape, hard as I occasionally tried, especially in my mid-twenties. I am at least as susceptible as anyone I know to self-deception and wishful thinking, to being untrue to myself and to God, and to looking outside myself, at the external aspects of thought and practice among people of faith, trying to distract myself from the work of the Spirit in my heart. But it is less easy to distract the Holy Spirit, and so I have been called back again and again to these uncomfortable, at times downright dangerous, places, out in the saltmarshes of the heart.

Parker J Palmer saw this as clearly as anyone, having lived through these difficult times himself:

Inner work is as real as outer work and involves skills one can develop, skills like journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendship, and prayer…

TS Eliot wrote:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
This Easter it is true. Loss and grieving get caught up inextricably into prayer, and prayer into what Jesuits call the prayer of examen. It is harder than ever to distract myself, but the indistractible Spirit is gentle, too, and
…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)
I wrote a few weeks ago how I had been startled in meeting by a Friend’s ministry – just these few words, from Proverbs 20.24,

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

that spoke directly to my condition. It is hard to see how our steps are “ordered by the Lord,” but all that is really left, this Easter, is to trust, and to remain still. In Isaac Penington’s words,

…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.

Look what love has done to me…

Richard Rohr, in his series on hope in the darkness, writes:

What I’ve learned is that not-knowing and often not even needing to know is—surprise of surprises—a deeper way of knowing and a deeper falling into compassion. This is surely what the mystics mean by “death” and why they talk of it with so many metaphors… Maybe that is why Jesus praised faith even more than love; maybe that is why St. John of the Cross called faith “luminous darkness.” Yes, love is the final goal but ever deeper trust inside of darkness is the path for getting there.

My good friend Gerald May shed fresh light on the meaning of John of the Cross’ phrase “the dark night of the soul.”  He said that God has to work in the soul in secret and in darkness, because if we fully knew what was happening, and what Mystery/transformation/God/grace will eventually ask of us, we would either try to take charge or stop the whole process. No one oversees his or her own demise willingly, even when it is the false self that is dying. God has to undo our illusions secretly, as it were, when we are not watching and not in perfect control, say the mystics…

As James Finley… says, “The mystic is not someone who says, ‘Look what I have done!’ The mystic is one who says, ‘Look what love has done to me. There’s nothing left but God’s intimate love giving itself to me as me.’”

I seem myself to be travelling through this kind of territory again. The change that autumn brings is a constant reminder that God – and life in God consequently – is more verb than noun.

I know that I am continually being reminded at the moment that the word sacrament can equally well be rendered as “holy mystery”, and that, at least in the understanding of the Eastern Orthodox communion, the seven traditional sacraments of Catholic Christianity are only the main ones: that God can hallow what he will hallow, and that he touches humanity through many material means at different times. How this occurs is a mystery, but it does. The light of this evening, almost still after the earlier storms, is one.

I don’t seem to be able to predict things at all on the far side of this blessed gathering dark. All I know is that trust is at the centre of any response that may be being asked of me. The shadows lengthen with that lovely softening of dusk, and as the light diminishes, so a kind of night vision becomes inevitable and almost easy, for

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8.28)

 

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 are 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.