Category Archives: Jesus Prayer

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]

A Little Way

Practice – one’s practice, a good practice, adopting a practice – is a word more usually associated, in my experience, with Buddhist than with Christian life. But is is an essential concept. In a sense, everyone involved with a religious path in any way has a practice, even if it is to do nothing more than “go to church” (or Meeting!) once a week or so.

In the contemplative life, the concept of practice becomes central. Whatever one finds called to do, be it Lectio Divina, Centering Prayer, Christian Meditation as defined by WCCM, the Jesus Prayer or anything else, needs to be done regularly. It usually helps to have at least the bare bones of a framework (an opening and a closing prayer, maybe a psalm or other passage from Scripture, if not an actual Office), a place to pray, and a time. Contemplative Outreach, the centering prayer people, have this to say:

Contemplative practices facilitate and deepen our relationship with God. The more we practice and allow the transformation process to happen, the more we are able to experience the Indwelling Presence in everything we do. Contemplative practices give us the eyes to see and the ears to hear God calling us to the banquet that is our lives, as they are.

For some time now I have been actively and critically considering my own practice, and trying, with the help of some wise and prayerful friends here and there, honestly to understand where my path is taking me. In order to understand this, I’ve had to try to think where it has taken me up till now, and it occurred to me that not only might it be helpful to me to write it down, it might just prove helpful to anyone reading this blog to see what has worked and what has not, and, perhaps most importantly, how hidden my own path has been much of the time, from others perhaps, but mostly from myself.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I have been praying the Jesus Prayer for at least 40 years, off and on, fairly faithfully for the last thirtyish of those; but the real foundation of where I find myself today was laid when I returned to full-time farming in 1989 or 90. Now dairy farming, especially modern large-scale dairy farming, is about as time-bound an occupation as you are likely to encounter. Everything revolves around the daily (often mid-morning) visit of the wholesaler’s milk tanker, which largely determines the (normally twice-daily) times of milking, in order that the morning’s milk may be cooled and ready for collection by the time the tanker arrives. Everything else – routine work, vet visits, sleep, eating, and prayer – fits around milking times. I found that the only way to work in a daily practice was to get up early enough for a time of Bible reading and prayer before morning milking. (In the winter at least, this was in the middle of the night for most people!)

Any practice built up like this has to be simple, flexible, and strong. There just wasn’t time for a conventional office, with books and multi-coloured ribbon markers and ring-binders; I had to come down to something that worked with a Bible, a holding cross, and possibly a notebook, that I could use with a mug of hot coffee in my hand, and a cat on my lap, next to the warm kitchen range. My practice came down to reading a passage from the New Testament or the prophets, and a Psalm, often one of the 8-verse sections of Psalm 119, and a brief meditation on that, followed by 20 minutes of the Jesus Prayer, ending with the Grace. Since then, I have kept coming back to this strong, simple outline; I have had various attempts at a daily office, now that I have time for such things, but it has never “taken”, and I have always found that I returned to my simple routine, enhanced sometimes my another such period in the early afternoon.

For a long time this worried me. I should, I thought, follow a daily office of some kind. I ought, I felt, to have a more liturgical routine. But it just doesn’t work for me, somehow.

One of the passages from Psalm 119 I have kept returning to over the years has been vv 65-72:

Do good to your servant
according to your word, Lord.
Teach me knowledge and good judgment,
for I trust your commands.
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your word.
You are good, and what you do is good;
teach me your decrees.
Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies,
I keep your precepts with all my heart.
Their hearts are callous and unfeeling,
but I delight in your law.
It was good for me to be afflicted
so that I might learn your decrees.
The law from your mouth is more precious to me
than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.

A first glance this talk of affliction being good for one might seem to be redolent of hair shirts and things like that, but there is another way altogether of reading this passage. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5.4) The psalmist here is just telling the truth: through any honest attempt at faithfulness under any, I imagine, kind of affliction, but especially through the deprivation of many of the usual channels of following one’s faith, we are blessed, whether it feels like that at the time or not. (Is this perhaps some small part of why faith seems to grow, or to be potentiated, under persecution?)

Craig Barnett writes:

The religious path is often presented as a way to achieve inner peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering. Much popular spirituality claims that life is meant to be filled with peace and contentment; that pain and anguish are problems that can be overcome by the right attitude or technique. The promise of perfect contentment is seductive, but it can never be fulfilled, because it is based on the illusion that suffering is a mistake.

Suffering, ageing, sickness and loss are not regrettable failures to realise our true nature. They are inherent in the nature of embodied human life and our often-incompatible needs and desires. Any spirituality, therapy or ideology that promises an escape from these limitations neglects the truth that suffering is an essential dimension of human life. Growth in spiritual maturity does not mean escaping or transcending these experiences, but becoming more able to accept and learn from them; to receive the painful gifts that they have to offer.

It feels slightly odd, after so long, to find myself – not arrived, but – content with the path God has set me on. It has taken a long time, and all the while I have tended to feel that anything I had done was provisional, that it might do until something better came along. Of course while I was actively farming it was different – there wasn’t much I could do except accept my little practice as good enough. Of course that’s it. It is good enough. Any practice of ours cannot be more than that. It was only when I was injured, and had to give up farming, that I thought I ought to be “doing more” in the way of a practice, a rule. And in any case dairy farming is not an elderly man’s occupation; I’d have had to retire, or change career, sooner rather than later. I suppose in some dim recess I was aware of this, and thought of my little practice as provisional. Well, in a sense it still is. All the work of faith in our present life is provisional – this strange contentment lies in the realisation of that, and in the acceptance that, in very truth, “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?” (Proverbs 20.24)

A Simple Thing

One of the things that has always touched me about the Jesus Prayer is its simplicity. It is not in any way a mode of prayer reserved for religious professionals, nor one that requires training or qualifications. How do you pray the Jesus Prayer? Well, you say Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Rinse. Repeat. And that, really, is all there is to it, despite the many books that have been written about the practice and theology of this ancient prayer.

Jesus once said,

I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do…

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

(Matthew 11.25-6, 28-30 NIV)

I am occasionally made anxious by some recent writers on the contemplative tradition, and the terminology with which they surround contemplative prayer – “dualistic thinking”, “non-dual consciousness” and so forth – it can come to sound as though one needs a degree in comparative religion and a master’s in psychology. I do sort of know what they are getting at, yet I yearn for the simplicity of the Jesus Prayer and its tradition. A prayer that is as appropriate for a farmer as for an academic, for a taxi driver as for a nun or a monk – now that is something I can rejoice in, as we are all carried together into the Light.

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

A still voice…

I have often wondered why hills seem to be so popular with prophets and mystics. Moses climbed Mount Sinai, as explained in Exodus 19,

At the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain…

Jesus “went out to the mountain to pray; and… spent the night in prayer to God.” (Luke 6.12) In fact he made a habit of it: “many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” (Luke 5.15b-16)

George Fox climbed Pendle Hill,

As we went I spied a great high hill called Pendle Hill, and I went on the top of it with much ado, it was so steep; but I was moved of the Lord to go atop of it; and when I came atop of it I saw Lancashire sea; and there atop of the hill I was moved to sound the day of the Lord; and the Lord let me see atop of the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered.

(from Fox’s journal, quoted in Quaker faith & practice)

Part of it may simply be that climbing a hill is an act, not of some naive attempt to get physically closer to a God conceived of as “up there”, but of deliberately putting ourselves in the way of hearing from God. It may be the same impulse that leads us to silence and stillness in the awareness of God’s presence. A prayer like the Jesus Prayer, the “prayer word” in Centering Prayer, or the word “maranatha” in Christian Meditation, at least in part, seeks to do the same thing, to lead us to a state of inward withdrawal from the world of getting and doing into a condition of inner receptiveness, as Jesus explained:

But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

(Matthew 6.6)

(For what reward could God give us better than the gift of God’s presence?)

William Penn summed it up,

And you, young convinced ones, be you entreated and exhorted to a diligent and chaste waiting upon God, in the way of his blessed manifestation and appearance of himself to you. Look not out, but within… Remember it is a still voice that speaks to us in this day, and that it is not to be heard in the noises and hurries of the mind; but it is distinctly understood in a retired frame. Jesus loved and chose solitudes, often going to mountains, to gardens, and sea-sides to avoid crowds and hurries; to show his disciples it was good to be solitary, and sit loose to the world.

Quaker faith & practice 21.03 

[also published on The Mercy Blog]

Naming the mystery?

Prayer is not about unveiling an impersonal source of our being, nor about gaining access to some sort of basic cosmic energy, nor about diving into a greater whole. Prayer is meeting the Father’s eyes and discovering that he loves us, cares for us, and journeys at out side.

Luigi Gioia, Say it to God: In Search of Prayer: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2018

This is the sort of statement that irritates some people, Friends and liberal Christians alike, who do indeed feel they wish to see God in impersonal terms like these. The problem is one of language, of course (see much of God, words and us, ed. Helen Rowlands), but also of rather more than the bare use of that term might suggest. Too much use of the personal may awaken in some unfortunate memories of simplistic caricatures of faith taught in Sunday schools, evangelistic rallies and elsewhere, while the often studied, mannered use of the impersonal may cramp and inhibit those of us whose own natural speech uses the concepts of a Trinitarian God as the inevitable expression of their experience of faith.

Craig Barnett, quoted in God, words and us, writes,

Most Quakers who use the word ‘God’ are not speaking of an ‘old man in the clouds’, or the omnipotent and omniscient supernatural God of the philosophers. Liberal Quakerism has inherited from the wider mystical religious tradition an understanding of spiritual reality as ultimately mysterious and unnameable, This tradition uses the word ‘God’ not as the name of an external ‘being’ but as a signpost that points towards our experience of spiritual reality…

For many people the word ‘God’ has so many unpleasant association with authoritarian or dogmatic religion that it is definitely unhelpful for them. For others, it is the most natural word to express their own experience and its continuity with traditional Quaker spirituality or with other religious paths. There is no right answer here: it is simply a matter of our personal histories and sensibilities, which may also change over time in response to different experiences.

Writing in the 22 March 2018 issue of The Friend, Cap Kaylor says, in their article ‘Christ, mystery and faith‘,

Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, the deeper narrative from which Quakerism sprang is the Christian narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who functioned both as archetype and engine for the early Quakers. For most of our history Friends have had no trouble identifying with that Christian narrative.

The Religious Society of Friends began as a reform movement within Christianity, and for the early Friends there was no confusion when it came to identifying the Light with the historical person of Jesus. They lived and moved in a society that was saturated with a Christian ethos. The very stones around them proclaimed a Christian culture that we can no longer take for granted as they could. Embedded within a Christian milieu they found their meaning and their mission in the gospels.

We are now faced with a dilemma. That Christian milieu has long since faded, and seeds that were planted early in our own history have left Quakers uniquely vulnerable to the stresses and challenges of a materialistic and aggressively secular civilisation. The historic channels through which Christian faith has typically been transmitted were scripture, tradition, and sacramental ritual. They weave together to form the narrative that is the Christian community’s collective memory of the Jesus event.

To a certain degree, part of the uniqueness of Quakerism has been its rejection of scripture, tradition and ritual as the principle sources of religious authority. In their place, Friends have historically elevated the individual’s experience of the Inward Light as primary. But it might now be asked whether the very thing that made Quakerism unique within Christianity is now making it uniquely vulnerable. Without scripture, tradition or sacramental ritual, what is left to re-link us to the original narrative that gave shape and substance to what began as an explicitly Christian mysticism?

We could do without a reliance on scripture, ordained ministry, or ritual while we lived in a Christian society that provided us with commonly held ethical presuppositions and a vocabulary to interpret our spiritual experiences. But that time has now past. However, without the force of at least an ostensibly Christian culture, where is the Religious Society of Friends to look for its identity and its engine?

Prayer has a way of undercutting our assumptions and our intellectualising, our “notions” as early Friends would have said. We are so much less than we think we are, and beside the realities we encounter in prayer our ideas and our preconceptions seem, to be honest, often slightly silly.

Luigi Gioia goes on to say,

In the end the source of authentic peace and truth will have to be looked for within. The real source of certainty as well…

Here is a Professor of Systematic Theology at the Pontifical University in Rome saying something that would not have sounded inappropriate in the mouth of an early Quaker! Prayer, if it is anything, is an authentic encounter with that which is far beyond the personal as we understand it, not because it is less than personal, but because it is infinitely more. For that, my own understanding fits precisely the Triune God of the creeds. When I pray the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, I am not reciting a formula; I am praying, in the Spirit, to Christ. There are no other words for that. We humans need sacraments: we need something, whether shared silence or shared bread and wine, to link us and heal us and remake us, to make real, to ground, our experience in the flesh in which we are made. Prayer needs this grounding – it cannot live as bodiless esotericism. It needs breath, warmth, life.

Gioia again,

Not that [in prayer] pain, worry, sin, selfishness, shame, guilt, magically disappear. Not that we lose our solidarity with all our brothers and sisters who do not pray or who do not believe. On the contrary, authentic prayer makes us more compassionate: we start feeling not only our pain but the pain of our brothers and sisters as well, we start perceiving the inward groans of humanity and even of the whole of creation [Romans 8.19-23]. What changes, however, is that these groans, this pain, these worries, this shame, this guilt, become prayer, feed prayer, so that love and hope are inexplicably infused into them and they lose their bitterness, their ability to hurt us, to trouble us: in hope we were saved and when we hope we become able to wait with patience, because all things work together for good for those who experience God’s love in prayer [Romans 8.28]…

Descending into the heart…

…when we descend into the heart we go down through what I have called the layers of our inner life. In the first layer are all the relatively superficial things, the thoughts and feelings which are going on in us… the things our minds are concerned with. Below these are the layers of deeper, more hidden things: our secret fears and guilty feelings, our deep anxieties… layers which we are aware of, and layers which we are not aware of or feel unable to face or enter.

As we make a habit of descending into the heart we become conscious that we are going down through all these layers which make up our inner world, some of which are unknown even to ourselves. As we enter our heart, we bring this inner world down into the heart, not in the sense that we continue to be preoccupied with it, but so that we can place it before God. We lay down before God all the thoughts and feelings and all the deeper things that are within us, and leave them there.

This then becomes one form, the deepest form, of the prayer of confession…

Alexander Ryrie, Prayer of the Heart

This is very close to what I was trying more clumsily to say the other day, when I wrote of losing my way in trackless places of the spirit. Lent this year is for me coming to be all about this form of confession, this laying down before God the deeper, secret layers of grief and anxiety that are there I suppose in all our lives, but which this Lent God is patiently uncovering, master archaeologist of the Spirit that he is (see Romans 8.26-27).

Of course Paul’s words, “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” bring us right through confession to the place of intercession, as Sandy Ryrie explains:

It is similar with our intercessions. There will be within us concerns and worries and thoughts about other people and situations… and circumstances that are bothering us. When we descend into the heart we do not just give up or ignore these people or things as irrelevant. We taken them down into the heart and lay them before God, leaving them before God and entrusting them to him. We do not go on thinking and worrying about them, nor try to persuade God to do something about them, but just leave them before him, waiting on him, allowing him to act.

Standing before God with the mind in the heart thus becomes the deepest form of both our confession and our intercession.

Ryrie, ibid.

The Jesus Prayer, says Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, “more than any other,” helps us to be able to “stand in God’s presence.” But in the wide field of contemplative prayer, there are other tracks we could follow, centering prayer (which is the contemporary equivalent to the prayer described in The Cloud of Unknowing), or Christian meditation, for instance. What matters here, at least as I am being led this Lent, is that opening ourselves to the Spirit in weakness and in stillness, allowing ourselves naturally to descend with the mind into the heart, into the presence of God in Christ.