Category Archives: Scripture

Sinking Down

We understand the Bible as a record arising from… struggles to comprehend God’s ways with people. The same Spirit which inspired the writers of the Bible is the Spirit which gives us understanding of it… (London Yearly Meeting 1986 – Quaker faith & practice 27.34)

We do Scripture, and ourselves, a disservice if we read it as a manual of instructions, or else simply as a history book. The reach of the Bible is vast in terms both of its chronological scope and its range of purposes. What is consistent is its record of people’s encounters with God; the terms in which they express them are drawn inevitably from the the societies in which they lived, societies very different from our own.

When we pick up the Bible we can be greatly helped by the apparatus of Biblical criticism, and still more by Biblical theology, but the study of Scripture is only a small part of our own encounter with it. George Boobyer, Qfp 27.30:

An intelligent analytical and critical approach [to the Bible] has its rightful place. We then stand over the Bible as subjects investigating an object. An inversion of this subject–object relationship is, however, possible. We then approach the Bible not mainly to criticise, but to listen; not merely to question, but to be challenged, and to open our lives penitentially both to its judgments and to its liberating gospel.

Pathways to God are many and varied. Friends, however, along with a great company of other seekers, have been able to testify that this receptive personal response to the biblical message, and especially to the call of Jesus, leads to joyous self-fulfilling life, and to a redemptive awareness of the love and glory of God.

It is this prayerful approach to the Bible that allows the healing touch of God’s word to unknot our hearts, that dissolves our separateness from people, from creatures living and otherwise, from God. To sit still with a passage of Scripture, really still, may be transforming.

There is an ancient practice, known as Lectio divina, that is a formal way of doing just this. Of course it is not necessary to follow a formal pattern at all, so long as we are aware what we are doing, and do it deliberately; but it is vitally helpful to understand how others over many years (since c. 300 AD) have approached the Bible in order to encounter God. Basically, it may be likened to first, the taking of a bite, a short passage, of Scripture (reading); then chewing on it (meditation); savouring its essence (prayer) and, finally, “digesting” it and allowing it to make itself a part of the body (contemplation).

Jean Khoury writes (Lectio DivinaCTS 2006)

God’s action in us does not take place on the surface. It is oriented towards the depths. This action infiltrates our deepest being and frees it, making it subtle and deifying it. This is why deep silent prayer, mental prayer, is founded on lectio; precisely because lectio opens up the way for God so that he may go ever deeper in us through mental prayer. The effort of lectio opens the door to the divine beam of contemplation…

This is a process not at all unlike the stillness we find in meeting for worship. We are relinquishing, once we have reached the stage of contemplation, our own will and our own critical faculties, and allowing the seed that has been sown in us to grow and breathe and act in us – cf. Isaac Penington, Qfp 26.70:

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.

Lord, hear my voice…

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.

Psalm 130

This last week or more I have been quite unwell, with a sudden, painful and exhausting illness that has left me incapable of anything useful at all really. (I’m getting rather better now – not to worry!) Not for the first time I was struck that, above all, physical pain is boring. It hoards for itself all one’s energy and attention, and gives nothing back. Prayer of a sort is possible, entirely essential, yet even the attention required for something so simple as the Jesus Prayer is recaptured by the pain by the simple expedient of increasing, or at least appearing to increase.

Now, I’m writing this not to complain – others have far worse to contend with, over far longer timescales, which must bring their own perspective – but simply as a heads-up, and to myself, a reminder. Physical pain is not the worst thing, far from it, but it is appallingly effective at capturing the limelight, especially when it manages to prevent sleep as well, and so its ally exhaustion makes impossible even the last shreds of resolve.

The paradox of the title of this post from Psalm 130 is that a voice is really what one doesn’t seem to have at times like these. Not a physical voice, or the sort of voice usually associated with mental prayer. But there is something, something that calls out “of the depths”, and there is a piece of oneself, far down, that holds onto the Lord, and even onto his remembered word, through everything. The problem is, I find, becoming and remaining conscious of that – or wanting to, and being unable.

Somehow I find a holding cross does help the soul to wait, even when the mind can’t make sense of anything much at all. This little piece of olive wood (mine came from the groves around the Mount of Olives many years ago) is nothing in itself, but it seems to make a kind of bridge over this period of uselessness, and to connect in the most healing way possible with Christ’s own suffering. I can’t speak more of this: the conscious mind is aware only of flickering shadows, but the heart knows, and it knows what that bit of wood means. And that is enough.

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 Long Pilgrimage

Over the years I have had more than thirty homes. Eight of the moves, starting before I was able to walk, were fitted in before I was 20, thanks to my peripatetic mother. I must have caught the bug, for I simply carried on, as jobs and personal circumstances moved me around the country; my church affiliations have changed too – not quite so often! – sometimes along with my address. And yet I have longed for contentment, envied those whose settled lives enabled them simply to stay put and watch the seasons change, and the years bring the patterns of history across a settled landscape.

Michelle Van Loon, in her moving book Born to Wander: Recovering the Value of our Pilgrim Identity, quotes Søren Kierkegaard:

Faith expressly signifies the deep, strong, blessed restlessness that drives the believer so that he cannot settle down at rest in this world, and therefore the person who has settled down completely at rest has also ceased to be a believer, because a believer cannot sit still as one sits with a pilgrim’s staff in one’s hand – a believer travels forward.

Pilgrimage, though, is more than moving on. Van Loon (ibid.) distinguishes three “parallel, sometimes overlapping streams” of pilgrimage in Scripture:

  • Moral pilgrimage focuses on everyday obedience to God.
  • Physical pilgrimage emphasises a bodily journey to a holy site in order to seek God.
  • Interior pilgrimage describes the pursuit of communion with God through prayer, solitude and contemplation.

Restlessness, as Michelle Van Loon points out, is potentially a powerful compass. As she reminds us, St Augustine of Hippo wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” My own restlessness has been an odd alternation between my own self-will, and (often misplaced) longings, and God’s calling me back on to the path to “communion with [him] through prayer…” Again and again I am reminded of Proverbs 20.24: “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?”

But how can we know that we are on the right path? Gradually, I am coming to the conclusion that we cannot. When God called Abram, he merely said, we are told, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you” (Gen 12.1) “The land I will show you…” Not the land I have shown you, the land to which I have given you directions and a grid reference. “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…” (v. 4) And Abram wandered around all over the place, from adventure to misadventure, not knowing the way; but in the end he came to the place where God could say to him, “Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northwards and southwards and eastwards and westwards…” (Gen 13.14) and Abram saw the land to which he had been called.

We cannot know the way; but our steps are indeed ordered by the Lord, if we love him, and will only draw near to him in prayer. He simply says, as he always does, “Go”, or even “What is that to you? Follow me!” (John 21.21)

Silence is a curious thing…

Silence is a curious thing. It is not by any means merely the absence of noise, but a stripping away of much that occupies our waking minds – thought, conclusion, classification, knowing. We operate in definitions, boundaries, alternatives, and what we encounter in silence lies beyond all distinctions.

We sit in meeting for worship, held in the presence of Friends, or alone, our minds quietened with our own practice, be it watching our breath, or something like the Jesus Prayer, and our discursive, directed mind falls away to a background murmur (or gabble, if we’re having a bad day!) to leave a brilliant darkness, an unknowing awareness that is permeable to the Spirit; it is a place where we may find ourselves exclaiming, with Jacob (Genesis 28.16), “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”

More and more I am convinced that to remain hidden (Colossians 3.3) with Christ in God, unknowing, is at least for me the narrow path to God’s own presence, where even our own steps are unknown to us (Proverbs 20.24); God who is entirely beyond our own comprehension, whose name can only be a pointer, as Jennifer Kavanagh says, to something beyond our description. In silence itself is our hiddenness, our unknowing, where God waits within our own waiting (Isaiah 30.18)…

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