Category Archives: Stillness

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.

What kind of fast?

We are nearly midway through the season of Lent at the moment; in the churches that recognise it, this is the time to remember the 40 days we are told Jesus spent in the Judaean wilderness (Matthew 4.1-11; Mark 1.12,13; Luke 4.1-13) immediately after his baptism. He was, we read, “led by the Spirit into the wilderness.”

Traditionally, we often think of Lent as a time of fasting, of giving things up, of somehow putting ourselves deliberately in the way of temptation in an act of solidarity, perhaps, with the temptations put in the way of Jesus during his time alone in the wilderness. But perhaps there’s another way altogether of looking at this.

Yesterday I wrote of Proverbs 20.24 – “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?” – as a way of accepting our own unknowing, our own inability to comprehend God, or even to go and find him on our own terms. What this comes down to, perhaps, is control, or its relinquishment. We cannot begin to control God; we can’t even control the circumstances of our perceiving God’s presence. It is all grace.

Maybe, just maybe, some of us have allowed the idea of the traditional Lenten disciplines to lead us into the wrong kind of place. We grimly seek control – we choose what we shall give up, be it chocolate or fermented drink or meat or snark or whatever – and self-control, the ability to say no to a square of chocolate, or a pint, or… and we think that by so doing we are growing in holiness. Perhaps we are only growing in wilfulness?

Whatever it was that happened to Jesus in the wilderness seems to have been part of the story, not some anomaly. As Paula Gooder memorably writes, “Jesus and the devil did not sneak away for a bit of illicit tempting: the Spirit led him there.” But why?

Perhaps the whole Lenten thing is about surrender, not control, self- or otherwise? After all, one way to read the accounts of the temptations themselves in Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels is that what Jesus is being tempted to do is to take control – of his sustenance, of his Father’s provision of food or of safety, and ultimately to take control of the levers of political and military power – which last, it is implied, would involve obeisance to the devil, acceptance of all that is wrong and twisted and out of joint in our world. The Scriptures Jesus uses to refute the tempter are, it seems to me, all words of trust and acceptance – the words of one who waits on God, as Psalm 27 sums it up: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

To fast from control may be what this Lent is about for me; to fast from the need to know, the need to have it all sewn up, the way mapped. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, “I think my hope lies in my own littleness.” Not to know may be the best way of being known by God.

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.

(Psalm 131.1)

A trackless place…

I have been in a trackless place, recently. Things I thought I knew had become clouded over, old wounds long healed reopened. A mist had rolled in, and instead of hiding the known ways it had wiped them out, long-trodden paths scoured back to loose sand and the entropy of marram…

As I sat in meeting on Sunday morning, wondering how I could have so lost my way, a Friend rose and gave these words as ministry – just these words, without commentary:

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

(Proverbs 20.24)

The verse struck me like a lightning bolt, as no Scripture had for a long time. It was as though the Friend, or really, through him, God, had spoken directly to me, directly to the confusion and self-doubt, the mirrored memories of pain, the emptiness where not even longing was.

Since then this little isolated verse has grown friends, words in the hollowness where my heart still beat:

These are indeed but the outskirts of his ways;
and how small a whisper do we hear of him!
But the thunder of his power who can understand?’

(Job 26.14)

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

(Psalm 139.17-18)

I wrote a few years ago that,

For myself, I have found I cannot find God by looking, or thinking, much as my whole life may seem to have been spent in a search for – or being distracted from a search for – what is true and is the source of all that is. What God is is unknowable. Anything I might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, not constrained by time, space or any other dimension. The only way I can know God is by not knowing.

Faith is not so much a way of knowing as it is a way of being known. God is so far beyond the reach of our frail and temporary minds that all we can do is keep silence, and wait. Only in that relinquishment of knowing can we hear God, for much as we cannot seek him out, he will find us, and in that finding will come our own real and lived experience, the presence and Light which is within and beyond us, as it is within and beyond all things. In himself God is No Thing, for what he is is without limit or beginning, and is not dependent; yet within him all things live, and move, and have their being – are loved even, and held in love beyond time and distance.

I think my hope lies in my own littleness. I am so small, so transient and partial, against the scattered glory of the night sky…

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! …

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8 1,3-4)

[Forgive the pronouns in this post, by the way – without fooling around inventing made-up words, I can only use pronouns that are gendered, or else wilfully ungendered, and it is hard to speak of an it who loves. God is not a person like you or me: not that he is less than a person, but that he is infinitely more.]

Some more unhurrying chase…

The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

John 1.29-34

Jesus, here at the beginning of the narrative of John’s Gospel, is hidden in plain sight, among the crowd assembled to hear John the Baptist’s preaching.

There will be many echoes of this first scene as we read through the Gospel. Jesus is hidden and unseen before he is revealed. He is hidden at the wedding in Cana, working a miracle through Mary. He is hidden to the woman at the well. He hides from the crowd by the lake. He goes in secret to the festival. He is hidden from the man born blind.

Epiphany is about learning to see who Jesus is: about discovering the glory that at first is hidden…

Stephen Croft, Reflections for Daily Prayer

It is very dark. Outside the window the few lights on the other side of the reservoir are patterned by the leaves that move in the cold breeze of night – ivy leaves, and the few last persistent bramble and hazel leaves, dry now, and prone to fall and scuttle before the least breath of wind like quick erratic footsteps along the path.

So much is hidden from us. Half the time it’s our own fault, with our minds filled with expectations and demands, obligations and insecurities. And yet there are so many hints of a coming epiphany – our ordinary days are filled with uncertain glimpses of a steady light – dry sounds behind us that might be leaves, or some more unhurrying chase we dare not dream…

Richard Rohr writes that “[t]he path of prayer and love and the path of suffering seem to be the two Great Paths of transformation… The ordinary path is… both centre and circumference, and I am finally not in control of either one.”

Epiphany is grace only. The crowds along the Jordan River that day could do nothing to compel the Messiah. Only John the Baptist’s listening prayer allowed him to be revealed.

Rohr again:

Once we see God’s image in one place, the circle keeps widening. It doesn’t stop with human beings and enemies and the least of our brothers and sisters. It moves to frogs and pansies and weeds. Everything becomes enchanting with true sight. We cannot not live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded and infused by God. All we can do is allow, trust, and finally rest in it, which is indeed why we are “saved” by faith—faith that this could be true.


In all directions at once?

I see… an infinite web of relationship, flung across the vastness of space like a luminous net. It is made of energy, not thread. As I look, I can see light moving through it as a pulse moves through veins. What I see “out there” is no different from what I feel inside. There is a living hum that might be coming from my neurons but might just as well be coming from the furnace of the stars…

Where am I in this picture? … How could I ever be alone? I am part of a web that is pure relationship, with energy available to me that has been around since the universe was born.

Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light – not captured in any of them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them – but revealed in that singular, vast web of relationship that animates everything that is.

…it is not enough for me to proclaim that God is responsible for all this unity. Instead, I want to proclaim that God is the unity – the very energy, the very intelligence, the very elegance and passion that make it all go. This is the God who is not somewhere but everywhere, the God who may be prayed to in all directions at once. This is also the God beyond all directions, who will still be here (whatever “here” means) when the universe either dissipates into dust or swallows itself up again. Paul Tillich’s name for this divine reality was “the ground of all being.” The only thing I can think of that is better than that is the name God revealed to Moses: “I Am Who I Am.”

Barbara Brown Taylor, The Luminous Web

This is, as Taylor points out a little later, not pantheism at all. She is not saying that God is everything, still less that everything is God, but that God is “above all and through all and in all” as Paul the apostle saw (Ephesians 4.6b). God is not a distant being, who occasionally deigns to interfere in the thing that he has made, but “the only One who ever was, is, or shall be, in whom everything else abides.” (Taylor, ibid.)

The question arises, of course, how one might pray to such a God. “In all directions at once”, says Barbara Brown Taylor. But what does that mean? We are so prone to think of prayer as messages between separate parts of a mechanism – us here, God there, the ones we are praying for somewhere else. But if we are not separated like that? If we, and those we pray for, and who pray for us, are in God, and God in us, then our connection is God, and what affects each of us affects each other, because it affects God.

If we really believed this, really saw it to be true, how could we go on living our selfish, antagonistic lives? How could we feel that our loss is another’s gain, or vice versa? This morning’s ministry was all about community, and the communion of community – that by living in love, in a community of love, we are witnesses, and more than witnesses: we are signs of the Kingdom, loci of Kingdom infection in the world. But perhaps we do not so much build community as realise community, and in realising it, make it real to ourselves and among each other.

To pray, in such circumstances, is then a very different thing from any conception of posting letters across time and space.

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 him, which profoundly impressed those who know him.

For all of us in our lesser ways, [contemplative prayer], as well as bringing us into something of this kind of alternation which St. Silouan so strikingly experienced, also leads us on with him into an ever-deepening peace. You can understand how those who first taught and practiced this kind of prayer were first called “hesychasts”: people of hesychia or stillness.

Prayer, as Daniel O Snyder writes in Friends Journal“is itself a field of engagement.” As St Silouan discovered, contemplative prayer, the practice of stillness and silence, is anything but disengagement, anything but a way out of dealing with the pain and the grief of the world, but is a way of welcoming them into one’s heart without defence, and being made in oneself a channel of God’s grace, Christ’s mercy.

Walking through Wonders

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

It’s strange how easily utilitarian our seeing can become: we walk through wonders, searching for the next sandwich. Of course we need to eat, God knows we do (Matthew 6.31-33) – but there are plenty of sandwiches without turning away from the shores of glory to look for them.

Sometimes I’m appalled by my own emptiness of heart, my impatience and covetousness, and the ease with which I make excuses for them. William Blake saw that

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

That the doors of perception are clotted with cultural preconceptions, half-learned assumptions and pre-packaged descriptions became a staple of the times I grew up in, and much of the exploration of other systems of religion and thought, and tinkerings with brain chemistry, were aimed at doing something about it. (The best explanation of this quest I know is Aldous Huxley’s own book The Doors of Perception.) But it is only in the stillness of prayer that I have found them to clear, almost of themselves. The Spirit can speak in silence beyond all words or thoughts, and to remain in silence allows everything to appear as it is, without effort or mental gymnastics or chemical interference.

But how? Paula Gooder speaks of a waiting that “does not demand passivity but the utmost activity: active internal waiting that knits together new life.” Contemplative stillness, the openness of the heart’s own doors to “God, who searches the heart, [and] knows what is the mind of the Spirit” (Romans 8.27), is the simplest and the hardest thing. (For me, the Jesus Prayer seems to be the way, but there are many others.)

Prayer is opening oneself to the effective, invisible power of God. One can never leave the presence of God without being transformed and renewed in his being, for this is what Christ promised. The thing that can only be granted by prayer belongs to God (Luke 11.13). However such a transformation does not take the form of a sudden leap. It takes time. Whoever persists in surrendering himself to God in prayer receives more than he desires or deserves. Whoever lives by prayer gains an immense trust in God, so powerful and certain, it can almost be touched. He comes to perceive God in a most vivid way. Without ever forgetting our weakness, we become something other than we are.

Mary David Totah OSB, Deepening Prayer: Life Defined by Prayer

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

Grace in Stillness

Wakeful long after midnight, I looked out in the early hours to see frost forming in the air between the trees, over the grassy bank above the reservoir: little clouds and tendrils of mist sparkling where the last few lights still burning caught them aslant, like some gift of stillness…

I picked up my phone, and quickly noted down these few words, somehow trying to remember what I’d seen. It was quite warm in the room, and yet the still cold touched me with a kind of grace. Things are not the same in an air frost, without becoming. Silence is not the absence of noise, merely, but the place where change is, before things change, or else remain. It is only necessary, and the hardest thing, to keep very still.

Dionysius, known as the Areopagite, wrote

…the mysteries of God’s Word
lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
Amid the deepest shadow
they pour overwhelming light
on what is most manifest.
Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
they completely fill our sightless minds
with treasures beyond all beauty.

We don’t often think of scripture in terms like this. Our minds (mine is, at least) are so often full of critical preconceptions, scraps of imperfectly digested doctrine, the wrack and spindrift of credal formulae, that we can’t listen in stillness. It is written in Psalm 119, “Your word, Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues through all generations…” (Ps 119.89-90 NIV) It is only when we keep still enough that we can make any sense of passages like this, or indeed Psalm 46.10, “Be still and know that I am God…”

Only when something like this happens, and we are awake in the night and we stumble, half-sleeping, across the grace of stillness can we open our hearts to these “treasures of darkness” (Isaiah 45.3 NRSV). Or else we take up the quiet yoke of some discipline like lectio divina or Gospel contemplation. Otherwise, the rattling of our minds’ junkyards will always keep us from hearing, and we’ll miss the place from which John’s opening words make sense, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him…” (John 1.1-3 NRSV)

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]