Category Archives: Unknowing

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)

Outstaring the Ghosts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone taking the eremitic vocation seriously is bound to feel helpless, quite impotent, in fact. Hermits are determined to help, to make a positive difference, but how? What can one person do, hidden and alone? Sometimes, solitaries may feel blameworthy because they live lives which shelter them from much of the suffering that so harshly mars the existence of their brothers and sisters. Love and compassion well up in them… but is it enough? What should one do and how? This is where passionate intercessory prayer and supplication spontaneously arises.

The challenge is to live a life given over to praying for others while accepting that one will seldom, if ever, see any results. No one will be able to ascertain how, or even if, their devoted prayers are efficacious for others. It is a terrible kind of poverty – to live dedicated to helping others, yet never know what good one may be doing. All that hermits can do is hope that they are doing no harm. Believers leave all results to the mercy of their God. Others rely on the interconnectedness of all humanity, trusting that what affects one, affects all. This is a form of intercession expressed less by words than by a way of life.

A Camaldolese monk once wrote: “Prayer is not only speaking to God on behalf of humanity, it is also ‘paying’ for humanity.” Suffering is part of the hermit’s vocation. One of the most acute forms is to never know whether one’s chosen lifestyle is worthwhile or has any value for others. Hermits enter into the darkness, the dusky cloud of unknowing, and walk without any light beyond that which is in their own hearts. Often, unbeknownst even to themselves, they have become beacons for others.

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

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

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

[Originally published on The Mercy Blog]

Aerials, signs…

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Divine action is not something material: it is invisible, inaudible, unexpected, unimaginable, and inexplicable by any analogy taken from this world. Its advent and its working within us are a mystery… Little by little, divine action grants to man increased attention and contrition of the heart in prayer…

The spirit of prayer comes upon man and drives him into the depths of the heart, as if he were taken by the hand and forcibly led from one room to another. The soul is taken captive by an invading force, and is willingly kept within, as long as this overwhelming power of prayer still holds sway over it.

Theophan the Recluse, quoted in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, ed. Timothy Ware & Chariton of Valamo

Palm Sunday has a way of reminding us that we are all capable of both more good and less good than we had thought. The crowd who welcomed Jesus on the way into Jerusalem, the disciples who vowed to lay down their lives for their Lord, were the same people who later allowed themselves to be whipped up into demanding the release of a terrorist called Barabbas rather than Jesus; the same disciples who ran from the arresting officers; the same Peter who, having earlier sworn to die with him. swore he knew nothing of Jesus. We are no different; and yet there is a grace we do not suspect, working beneath all that we do, if we are open to the gift of the Spirit in us.

Bernard of Clairvaux wrote:

I admit that the Word has also come to me and has done so many times. But although he has come to me, I have never been conscious of the moment of his coming. I perceived his presence, I remembered afterwards that he had been with me; sometimes I had a presentiment that he would come, but I was never conscious of his coming or his going…

Where he comes from when he visits my soul, and where he goes, and by what means he enters and goes out, I admit that I do not know even now, as John says, you do not know where he comes from or where he goes [Jn 3.8]. There is nothing strange in this, for of him was it said, Your footsteps will not be known [Psalm 77.19]…

It was not by any movement of his that I recognised his coming; it was not by any of my senses that I perceived he had penetrated to the depths of my being. Only by the movement of my heart, as I have told you, did I perceive his presence.

We are not in the Jerusalem of the first century: we are in a strange, liminal place, all of us, and have been for a long while – since the first Easter. We do not know, any more than Bernard of Clairvaux knew, how exactly it is that the Spirit comes to be present in us, and yet

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)

We find ourselves walking through the world unarmed, vulnerable, available; with the prayer of Jesus himself in our hearts always, the Spirit interceding for us with sighs too deep for words. Being present to all we encounter as prayer, rather than needing consciously to say prayers, we are present as aerials, signs, receiving stations. The mist covers the distances, and our vision is not good; but Paul knew this, too:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

(1 Corinthians 13.12-13)

A longer path…

Being the kind of person I am, I am prone to what I really would wish to call self-doubt; but which is in fact doubt in my calling, and so ultimately, I suppose, doubt in the faithfulness and capacity of the God who calls me. Let me try and explain.

In my better moments – and they are all too often no more than moments – I know perfectly well that what I am called to is contemplative prayer. I don’t mean to “do” contemplative prayer, as one might do yoga or pilates, but to give what I am to it. Despite the incessant stumbling and wandering of my life till now, I may in some dim way have always been aware of this, impossible though I have often found it to believe it, still less to be faithful to it.

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing has this to say:

If you ask me by what means you are to achieve this work of contemplation, I beseech almighty God of his great grace and his great courtesy to teach you himself. For I would have you know well that I cannot tell you… [W]ithout God’s work, no saint or angel can think of desiring it. And I believe that our Lord will deign to bring about this work to those who have been habitual sinners as particularly and as often – yes, and more particularly and more often – as in others who by comparison… have never caused him much grief…

Yet he does not grant this grace or bring about this work in any soul that is incapable of it. On the other hand, no soul that lacks this grace is capable of receiving it, no, whether it be the soul of a sinner or of an innocent person…

You have as much of it as you will and desire, neither more nor less, and yet it is not a will or a desire, but something, you do not know what, that stirs you to will and desire you do not know what…

Let it do the working, and you will be the material it works upon; just watch it, and let it be…

And if this is so, then trust firmly that it is God alone, entirely by himself, who stirs your will and your desire, without intermediary, either on his part or on yours.

That I fret, and mistrust myself, is, as I say, more a lack of trust in God than anything else. Certainly it is not anything that could be mistaken for humility, for, as the Cloud author points out, God seems to have a delight in calling to this life those of us who have all too often frequented dubious places in our time; presumably this is something like humour on his part, or else a tendency to demonstrate the unknowability of his will, the sheer giveness of his grace in Christ.

Sister Mary David Totah goes further:

…[W]e have been looking at making action more contemplative, finding a contemplative dimension in our actions. But there is a real sense in which prayer is itself an action, an action whose fruit and extent cannot be measured or assessed; its ways are secret, not only secret from others but also secret from ourselves. The greater part of the fruit of our prayer and contemplation remains hidden with Christ in God…

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

To do this sort of surrendering might seem to require a quite remarkable degree of trust in God; but the brilliance of Sister Mary David’s insight here is that it is in surrendering that we are given the degree of trust we need. Someone once said something to the effect that the longest journey begins with a single step; perhaps the journey deeper into what I once described as the saltmarsh of the spirit begins with each day’s step into prayer, into surrender. That tiny glimpse of faithfulness may open the little salt-bleached wicket gate of the heart onto a longer path than we can know.

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.]

Singing in the Shadows

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.

(Psalm 63.6-8 NIV)

The night is increasingly a time of prayer for me. I don’t mean that I stay wilfully awake in order to pray, but that prayer has become a refuge and a homecoming, the place I find myself when I’m awake in the night, as happens increasingly, whether through age or, as seems more likely somehow, as a natural part of what is happening while I am sleeping.

A quick search online reveals any number of articles on prayer before sleeping, waking early in order to pray, prayers for a good night’s sleep, the problem of falling asleep while praying… but little or nothing that I could see about what happens during sleep itself. However, an article I found on the Orthodox Prayer site gives a clue that my experience may not be quite unheard of:

At night time you can also say the Jesus Prayer as you try and go to sleep. There will come a time when you will actually pray while you sleep. At the time of falling asleep we enter a path that leeds into our deepest consciousness. This occurs between the time we are awake and asleep. Its the ideal time to send this prayer deep into your heart. Rejoice when the first thing you want to do when you awake in the morning is to repeat the prayer.

There is a term used in sleep medicine, hypnagogia, which refers to the state between waking and sleeping, when, among other effects, repetitive tasks or experiences sometimes dominate mental imagery when falling asleep. (Gamers are familiar with what is called the Tetris effect, when images from gaming flood their mind as they fall asleep, or in idle moments of unfocused time.) Something similar may be at work here, but then again, if experience is to be trusted at all, waking is more like an uncovering of prayer that has been present, flowing beneath dreams, beneath the currents of the sleep cycles.

It is as easy to be drawn away into reductionist, quasi-scientific attempts at explaining phenomena like this as it is to become unmeshed in superstitious notions of divination and so on. But, “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)

Surely our very sleeping is threaded with the Spirit’s searching, as our defences and distractions disengage in the dark hours? I know my own dreams have been shot through with light of late, unexpectedly, as the traces of old griefs and paths of remembering are questioned by a sure and accurate love that is not of my making.

The Jesus Prayer, says Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, “more than any other,” helps us to be able to “stand in God’s presence.” In sleep God is present as at all times; but there is nothing to resist our knowing that, if in sleep we “cling to” him. The prayer goes on – it becomes itself the song of the shadow of God’s boundless love.