Category Archives: Prayer

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.

Blessed

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
From the house of the Lord we bless you.
The Lord is God,
and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will praise you;
you are my God, and I will exalt you.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures for ever.

Psalm 118.26-29 NIV

Today is the day known as Palm Sunday in the calendars of the liturgical churches, when Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, (Matthew 21.1-11) is remembered in readings and the Eucharist. Only a few days later he was to be crucified, having been hailed as, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…”

The name of the Lord is the name of God, the Tetragrammaton, the pulse that underlies being itself, and in this name we encounter Christ (John 1.1ff) Michael Lewis puts it like this: “The name of Jesus is the image of the ineffable Name, just as Jesus is the Image of the invisible God.” (The Name of God: The Revelation of the Merciful Presence of God)

Advices and queries 4 reads,

The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus. How do you interpret your faith in the light of this heritage? How does Jesus speak to you today? Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action? Are you learning from his life the reality and cost of obedience to God? How does his relationship with God challenge and inspire you?

Ben Wood, in a long post, Spiritual Practice with Jesus & Mary Oliver, which I’d strongly recommend you click through and read in its entirety:

If Jesus is the model we should have in mind, what do the Gospels tell us about him? What kind of practical action did he favour?  Principally, Christlike action begins, not with an esoteric notion of spiritual practice, but with attentiveness… [Jesus] was soaked in every deep structure of the human experience, not by transcending his time and place, but by sinking down into it. Begin at home, he seems to say. You cannot find love and grace through novelty or travel. Only stillness and rootedness will do…

When we seek to find the bottomless meaning in every moment: in a spider’s web caught by the sun, in the face of another, the deep grey of the sky; there is the Kingdom. We need not leave home to be spiritually at home. We need not go far to be in the arms of love.

To remain still is hard, when our worship, whether filled with the sound and poetry of the Palm Sunday liturgy, or in the silence of Meeting, is made impossible in fellowship and sharing by the necessary isolation of life in a pandemic, and we itch and squirm with anxiety and the frustrated impulse to “do something, anything!” But it is only in the stillness and in the staying put that we hear the name of God, in the echo of the chasms between the particles that dance in the atoms of all that is.

Helplessness or Prayer?

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

It is easy, especially at a time like this, with even the most ordinary facets of life interrupted and suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic and our precautions against it, to feel we have no idea how to pray, that we are helpless, and unsure if prayer is even a thing to do. So many of us are helpless in practical terms, or at least feel the little we can manage to do or donate is insignificantly small.

But here we are, and each of us can pray, after our calling. It truly doesn’t matter whether we can find the right words, or any words, so long as our hearts are with our neighbours, in the broadest sense of that word (Luke 10.25ff), and our loving attention is with God. It is all we can do. It may well be the very best we can do. Our grief, our very helplessness, are the things that God’s mercy in Christ can use (Matthew 5.1-12).

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” ― Julian of Norwich, writing in the time of the Black Death.

A Strange Pilgrimage

For all of us, these are strange times. Quite apart from the worries about our lives and livelihoods, and those of the ones we love, so many of the things that formed the sweet centre of our lives have been torn away. We hope that it is a temporary tearing away, but even that is not certain. For people of faith, perhaps the most painful loss is that of meeting together for worship. The loss of fellowship, teaching, reassurance and sacrament, at the very time we need them most, is hard to bear. There are few roadmaps for where we are.

Writing on the Patheos Progressive Christianity channel, Erin Wathen says,

…sometimes, painful as it is, cancelling is the responsible, compassionate thing to do, and anything else is just hubris. Think of this illness as the black ice of liability. If there is a blizzard, you might be able to get to church. But if you can’t clear the sidewalks and the parking lots, do you really want to invite people into a hazard situation–the invisible threat that is just under the surface? This is like that. Sure, folks who are not sick are going to feel like they should still come to church. But they could be carrying something they don’t know they have yet, and pass it right on to their elderly or immunocompromised neighbor.

There are many unknowns here. There is unprecedented territory ahead, and nobody can say how long it might last…

Practice Sabbath. For some, this shutdown of life as we know it is going to cause significant economic hardship… care for your neighbor as best as you can. In the meantime, recognize if your own discomfort is just inconvenience, and keep that perspective. Recognize that downtime can be a gift– an imposed sabbath of time to sit still and be with your family, without the usual rush of places to be and things to accomplish. Read together; prepare meals together (can you share with a neighbor?); maybe even binge watch some Netflix together. When’s the last time everybody was home for this long? Talk about what you can learn from this season. Talk about your blessings. Play a game. Make something. Listen to music. It really doesn’t matter. Any of these things can be worshipful in their own way, if by ‘worship’ we mean rest and renewal by way of connecting with God and others.

In an article entitled Our Pilgrimage Begins With Staying Home, Greg Richardson writes:

Almost all of us have begun a pilgrimage recently.

Some of us are experienced pilgrims. We prepare for a pilgrimage by deciding on our itinerary and choosing what to pack. It is important to have the proper equipment, like strong walking shoes.

Many of us like to plan as completely as we can. We want to know what we are going to experience before we experience it. Some of us carry a detailed guide book to ensure we are as comfortable and as safe as possible.

The pilgrimage we have joined together is a little unusual for us. We probably feel like we did not have enough time to get ready. Most of us have little idea where we are going and how we will get there. There is no dependable guide book full of details about this journey.

This pilgrimage begins with staying home…

Like Chaucer’s pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, each of us has our own tale.

Other concerns and decisions seem to fade into the background. Questions which monopolized our time and attention before no longer seem so significant. We may learn what we thought motivated us are not the lessons we most need to learn.

A pilgrimage is a journey, not a destination. Our pilgrimage begins and each step is sacred space. We learn its lessons along the way, overcoming obstacles and dealing with challenges…

When we stay home we find ourselves surrounded by the familiar. Most of us have fewer distractions.

Now we share a pilgrimage in which we stay home. We are not traveling to a distant country or visiting foreign places. Each day brings us to a new part of our journey and we see it in new ways.

The challenge for us is not about keeping up with a parade of new people and places.

Our pilgrimage begins as we take time to pay attention to the stories within us…

This voyage of discovery, our pilgrimage of staying home, will introduce us to who we can become.

We did not choose to take this trip and we did not have time to plan or prepare for it…

In our local meeting, our warden has undertaken to keep the Meeting House open for those rental groups who still want to meet – especially those holding one-to-one sessions to care for vulnerable adults – but more than that, she has promised to sit quietly in the empty meeting room for the hour from 10.30 am that we usually meet, and has invited Friends, in their own homes, to join her. This seems to me to be an immense kindness, and a sign of love and hope for us all. Meantime, whatever practice we have of regular prayer and attention – and now might be a good time to establish one if we don’t have one in place – let us all, wherever we are, hold each other, and all who serve and who depend upon our meetings, in the light of the “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Dante, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII) more than ever before.

The Lake of Stillness

One of the problems sometimes voiced around the practice of prayer actually has nothing to do with its practice at all, but more to do with its metaphysics. What I mean is that all too often someone will feel that they cannot pray because they don’t understand “how it works”, or because they can’t quite fathom whom they’re supposed to be praying to.

But prayer is the most natural thing. In the stillness of our own heart – whether in Quaker Meeting for Worship, when we are deeply involved in liturgical worship, or when we are alone and quiet – our awareness rests in a stillness that is infinitely more than ourselves, however we might want to describe that. (Actually it might be better if we didn’t try to describe it, at least to ourselves!) In our heart also are those we love, whether personally,  or generally, as in awareness of those who suffer, friends who are ill or alone, the anguish of war or our anxiety for the planet. All our stillness becomes a place where the concerns of our heart lie in the greater stillness within which we worship, like pebbles on the floor of a vast, silent lake.

Ruth Burrows writes:

We must remember that prayer takes place at the deepest level of our person and escapes our direct cognition; therefore we can make no judgement about it. It is God’s holy domain and we may not usurp it.  We have to trust it utterly to God… We must be ready to believe that ‘nothingness’ is the presence of divine Reality; emptiness is a holy void that Divine Love is filling…

Eckhart Tolle, in a moving response to a questioner at a public meeting makes the point that to be conscious is to suffer, and to be involved with the suffering of all beings, within the “one consciousness” that is the ground of being itself. And this is the point; simply to be there, to be with all that is, consciously. How that “makes a difference” is not the point; our heart knows, and in that conjunction within stillness prayer is.

A Retired Life

I have sometimes struggled with the temptation to suspect that by following a path into a kind of lay contemplative life, I am in some way dodging the difficult work of, on the one hand, traditional intercessory prayer, praying through lists of people and situations, describing them in detail to God, and asking him to bring about certain resolutions; or on the other hand, dodging the difficult work of activism, protest, demonstration, civil disobedience or whatever – or at least volunteering to do Useful Things in my faith community.

In Quaker faith & practice we read:

Those of you who are kept by age or sickness from more active work, who are living retired lives, may in your very separation have the opportunity of liberating power for others. Your prayers and thoughts go out further than you think, and as you wait in patience and in communion with God, you may be made ministers of peace and healing and be kept young in soul.

London Yearly Meeting, 1923

I would want to add the word “calling” to the first sentence here: “kept by age, sickness or calling…” Throughout history, even in times of great social need, the calling to a retired life of prayer and contemplation has been recognised. Julian of Norwich, for instance, lived during the time of the Black Death that swept Europe in the Middle Ages, yet seems to have lived out much of her life as an anchoress, devoted to prayer, contemplation, writing, and probably what we would call these days counselling, or spiritual direction.

Not for the first time I have been struck by the power of the Jesus Prayer as a form of intercession. Paul writes in Romans 8.26-27 of how “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” The heart filled with the Jesus Prayer will indeed be filled with these wordless groans, with “sighs to deep for words” (NRSV).

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 his, 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 practised this kind of prayer were first called “hesychasts”: people of hesychia or stillness.

Of course all this is by grace, entirely by grace, God’s life and presence given to us freely in Christ. We are called into this. I honestly don’t think we could choose these things for ourselves. Even if we could, they would fall into disuse by our own inertia. We would become bored with the Prayer, terrified by the darkness and the identification with the pain and alienation of the world. Why would we choose such a path, hidden as it is too, mute and inglorious?

Barrington-Ward again:

After all, the whole prayer becomes an intercession. Soon I find that I am on longer praying just for myself, but when I say “on me, a sinner” all the situations of grief and terror, of pain and suffering begin to be drawn into me and I into them. I begin to pray as a fragment of this wounded creation longing for its release into fulfilment… I am in those for whom I would pray and they are in me, as is the whole universe. Every petition of the prayer becomes a bringing of all into the presence and love of God…

What is required here has to be a retired life, given for the greater part to prayer and silence. How this will work out in each of our lives cannot be prescribed. It will have to be worked out with fear and trembling, in the mercy of the Prayer itself, and it will probably look quite different for each of us. In my own case, calling and sickness, or at least weakness from past injuries, work together in God’s own synergism to reinforce my calling to a retired life.

I think we have, if we find ourselves called to the Jesus Prayer – or indeed any other contemplative practice – and the life that is lived within that practice, to be prepared to walk into the dark, as it were, unknowing, and see how things turn out. The path may be quite straightforward; or it may be quite scandalously tangled and broken. That is not for us to choose. All we have to do is walk in it, I think.

[An earlier version of this post was first published on The Mercy Blog]

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.)