Blessed

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

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

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

Psalm 118.26-29 NIV

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

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

Advices and queries 4 reads,

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

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

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

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

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

Helplessness or Prayer?

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Romans 8.26-27 NRSV

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

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

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

A Strange Pilgrimage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost all of us have begun a pilgrimage recently.

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

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

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

This pilgrimage begins with staying home…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lake of Stillness

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

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

Ruth Burrows writes:

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

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

Little Things

Thankfulness works in the Christian community as it usually does in the Christian life. Only those who give thanks for the little things receive the great things as well. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts prepared for us because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think that we should not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be seeking the great gifts. Then we complain that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experiences that God has given to other Christians, and we consider these complaints to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the small (and yet really not so small!) gifts we receive daily. How can God entrust great things to those who will not gratefully receive the little things from God’s hand?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

This is a passage that should, I think, be read and re-read by those of us who are involved in any way in the contemplative life. We are all so deeply infected, from childhood if not before, with our culture’s ideals of progress and achievement, that we find it all but impossible to accept that our “daily gifts” are enough, are really God’s good and sufficient gifts for the life of prayer into which we have been called; and we continually abandon them in favour of fantasies of a spiritual life we imagine somewhere out beyond us, on some higher level to which we should aspire.

These things are not God’s way, I feel. God calls us in the little things, in the touch of the moving air, bird-shadows on cropped grass, in the quiet places; what he may call us to may be equally unspectacular, or it may be some far more public action or communication. That is not so much a matter of our choice, but of discernment.

I sometimes dislike using the term “mystic” or “mystical” to describe the life of inner prayer. Quite apart from any woo-woo connotations, it can seem to imply someone special, a guru of sorts, set apart from ordinary people and their lives. Contemplative prayer, whether done corporately in meeting for worship or in the silence of one’s own room, is none of those things. If it is a hidden path, it is one hidden in plain sight, and those who follow it are – they are, they don’t just appear to be – profoundly ordinary people, with ordinary lives apart from their inescapable calling to the interior life.

Henri Nouwen wrote,

Hiddenness is an essential quality of the spiritual life. Solitude, silence, ordinary tasks, being with people without great agendas, sleeping, eating, working, playing … all of that without being different from others, that is the life that Jesus lived and the life he asks us to live. It is in hiddenness that we, like Jesus, can increase “in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people” (Luke 2.51). It is in hiddenness that we can find a true intimacy with God and a true love for people.

This ordinary hiddenness is the natural home of one called to the life of prayer: not the mountain top, not the university (unless she happens to be an academic) nor the monastery (unless he happens to be a monk) but the ordinary occasions of life among others, the quietness of simple things, the lives of the sparrows in the shrubbery, the wren in the hedge.

[Some parts of this post were first published in another form on The Mercy Blog]

Without Assurance

In her little book Practical Mystics, Jennifer Kavanagh quotes Rufus Jones’ definition of mysticism as “the attitude of mind which comes into correspondence with a spiritual world-order which is felt to be as real as the visible one.”

This comes very close to my own experience; what I have loved above all about the Quaker way is this sense of practical, hands-on, experimental mysticism. To the extent that it roots itself, and all its works, in such an experimental faith, it seems to me, Quakerism does well; to the extent that it does not, it outruns its Guide, basing its actions and pronouncements merely on our own limited human notions of right and wrong, and of social or political expediency.

Charles F Carter (Qfp 26.39) wrote in 1971:

True faith is not assurance, but the readiness to go forward experimentally, without assurance. It is a sensitivity to things not yet known. Quakerism should not claim to be a religion of certainty, but a religion of uncertainty; it is this which gives us our special affinity to the world of science. For what we apprehend of truth is limited and partial, and experience may set it all in a new light; if we too easily satisfy our urge for security by claiming that we have found certainty, we shall no longer be sensitive to new experiences of truth. For who seeks that which he believes that he has found? Who explores a territory which he claims already to know?

In another book of hers, A Little Book of Unknowing, Jennifer Kavanagh writes:

…Faith is not about certainty, but about trust…

We have seen that there is little about which we can be certain. Certainty may be undermined by limitations of the current state of knowledge; the subjective nature of experience; the fluid quality of the material world; or the intervention of unforeseen events. But beyond these aspects of the world about which we often assume knowledge, there is a dimension of life to which rational explanation simply doesn’t apply. Most people would admit that there is much that we cannot apprehend through reason or through the senses. We might know a fact with our brains, but not be able to understand what it means, to fully experience its reality – the age of a star or the trillions of connections within the human brain – some things are too big, too complex, for us to conceive. Einstein, who knew a thing or two about factual knowledge, felt that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. There is a dimension which co-exists with the material, rationally grounded world, is not in opposition to it or threatened by scientific development but happily stands alone in the context of everything else. This is the world of religious experience.

This, it seems to me, is crucial. Unknowing is essential to true faith, and indispensable for any kind of practical experience of the Light. When we tie ourselves down with dogmatic statements and attitudes, be they overly literal interpretations of historical creeds, or uncompromising assertions of some atheist position or other, we close the door on the Spirit, cutting off the light from shining into the darkness of our own limitations.

Kavanagh (ibid.) quotes Dorothee Sölle:

The crucial point here is that in the mystical understanding of God, experience is more important than doctrine, the inner light more important than church authority, the certainty of God and communication with him more important than believing in his existence or positing his existence rationally.

When we come into the silence, whether of our own life of prayer and reflection (Advices & Queries 3or of meeting together for worship, bereft of words and notions, it is only that direct experience that will, if we let it, be our sure guide, and will lead us, quite without the intellectual assurance we too often crave, into truth, unity and love.

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]