Strange Grace

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When you stop to think about it, grace is actually a strange idea. We learn, from our earliest childhood, that things operate by the laws of cause and effect: if you drop something, it hits the ground; if you disobey someone in authority, there will be consequences. We learn, too, that events have causes. If the cause of a given event is not immediately obvious – it starts raining, for instance – then look harder. There’s a cloud up there somewhere.

It is tempting, for some of us at any rate, to try this with grace. We are blessed: we must have done something right somewhere. Conversely, we still make the category mistake over which Jesus corrected his disciples in John 9.1-5.

The healing of our own hearts is all grace. We so easily live, all of us, clenched in a spiritual version of the cause and effect paradigm: we feel bad, so we must have done something wrong; if we wish to feel better, we need to find the thing that will please God – or at least press the right psychological button – so that we are somehow put right again.

In his book Dying Well: Dying Faithfully, John Wyatt, Professor of Ethics and Perinatology at University College London, points out that the medieval Ars moriendi, Latin texts on the art of dying of presumed Dominican origin,  contain the idea of despair over our past as a temptation we must face. Demons are sometimes shown tormenting the dying with lists of their misdeeds

…in a terrible parody of the words ‘Ecce homo’ (‘Behold the man!’) said about Jesus – ‘Ecce peccata tua’, (‘Behold your sins!’). Part of the subtlety of the accusations is that the demons quote scripture to demonstrate the righteousness of God, the seriousness of the individual sins and failures, and the impending judgement…

If loss of faith is loss of belief and trust, despair is the loss of hope…

In one of the Ars moriendi images, an angel visits a dying man and encourages him by pointing to figures from the Scriptures who repented and received forgiveness…

The medieval writers frequently emphasized the importance of meditating on the figure of Christ on the cross… But there seems to be a deeper mystery than merely being an external observer of Christ’s sufferings… The apostle Paul summed up his own personal hope in these words: ‘…that I may how him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death’ (Philippians 3.10, emphasis added). In some indescribable way we can have the privilege of entering into and identifying with the sufferings of Christ on the cross…

Scott J. Hafemann writes:

In our day of self-help and age of technology and technique, it is important to keep in mind that God is both the initiator and object of this [inner] reconciliation. Our propensity is to view the gospel as our opportunity to reconcile God to us by showing him how much we love him, rather than seeing it as God’s act in Christ by which he reconciles us to himself by demonstrating his own love for us. The gospel is not our chance to get right with God, but God’s declaration that he has already made us right with him. The gospel does not call us to do something for God that he might save us; it announces what God has done to save us that we might trust him.

(The NIV Application Commentary: 2 Corinthians)

God’s love for us, temporary and powerless as we are, somehow reaches us through this spiritual hyperlink that is the cross, and it is the crucified Jesus to whom we turn for mercy.

Mercy is to me the heart of prayer – and not only because it is the Jesus Prayer that is the centre of my own prayer. Cynthia Bourgeault writes:

…When we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional – always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being. Just like [the] little fish swimming desperately in search of water, we, too – in the words of Psalm 103 – “swim in mercy as in an endless sea.” Mercy is God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.

The cross of course is “God’s innermost being turned outward… in love” – and it is at the cross that, in the words of the Vineyard song, we find mercy and grace.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The Grace of Journey

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What we usually call the real world is not Real at all. It is a flaky as they come. Laugh at it; weep over it; pray for it; take every opportunity to expose it; seek to redeem it. But never make the fatal mistake of thinking it is Real.

N. Gordon Cosby, Seized by the Power of a Great Affection (now out of print)

We live in a strange, in-between world, we humans, and mostly it is not at all what it seems. We learn, at school and by contact with most of the adults around us, that what we read of in the newspapers, and are taught in our classrooms, is The Real World, and that we had better pay proper attention to its demands and its particulars. But 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.

The Matrix series of movies touches this concept, in more ways perhaps than one, but for me the crucial expression is in CS Lewis’ luminous fable:

“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”

Susan looked at him very hard and was quite sure from the expression on his face that he was not making fun of them.

“But how could it be true, Sir?” said Peter.

“Why do you say that?” asked the Professor.

“Well, for one thing,” said Peter, “if it was real why doesn’t everyone find this country every time they go to the wardrobe? I mean, there was nothing there when we looked; even Lucy didn’t pretend there was.”

“What has that to do with it?” said the Professor.

“Well, Sir, if things are real, they’re there all the time.”

“Are they?” said the Professor; and Peter did not know quite what to say.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

All true pilgrimage follows a path that runs along the fault-line between the real and the illusion, between the world of the senses and what underlies it, between space and time, and the eternal. Dee Dyas, director of the Centre for Pilgrimage Studies at the University of York, in examining the nature of  Christian pilgrimage today, and its origins in Scripture and elsewhere, distinguishes three strands that constitute the practical outworking of life’s journey itself as pilgrimage: moral pilgrimage – our journey of obedience to God; physical, or place, pilgrimage – our journey mapped onto the paths of the geographical world and its holy places; interior pilgrimage – our journey towards communion with God through prayer, solitude and contemplation. In a sense, all three of these question reality as social consensus. Our journey to God takes us along the thin places of the mind, as well as of geography, and pilgrimage is really no more than a way of understanding that, of making it tangible, somehow.

Pilgrimage, too, is a way to understand the grace by which God reveals to us the truth by experience and Scripture. Life is gift, and its journey. Pilgrimage is itself all grace: the gift of landscape and distance, the mercy that prayer is even possible. Kathleen Dowling Singh writes:

Grace is the end of illusion, the realisation of a far more expansive and complete sense of being, the peace that quite literally passeth understanding. The word “grace” itself finds its derivation in the Old French for “kindness”… The word… has the connotation of a blessing, a quality of the sacred, and implies beauty, ease, and fluidity. Grace seems endlessly responsive to our longing for it… grace and gratitude have their origin in the same source. That source is Spirit, the Ground of Being. Grace is the experience of finally, gratefully, relaxing the contraction of fearful separation and opening to Spirit as our own radiant splendour: knowing it, feeling it, entering it, as it enters us.

The Grace in Dying

Of Hiddenness and Pilgrimage

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I wrote some years ago, “I feel an intense hunger for hiddenness; I long to be like a wren, living out its life deep in an ivied hedgebank, hardly seen among the dense leaves and underscrub. Somehow all this has to do with the heart, too: mine is too full to accomplish anything outwardly, still less to write more for the time being…”

Hiddenness is alien to our culture, and yet I often think that nothing lasting can really be achieved in the spiritual life without its being hidden from the illumination of being public. At times, it needs to be hidden even from ourselves – as Jesus said, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6.3-4 NIV)

This is one of the things that gives me such a longing for the contemplative life itself. To pray, to study, with no possibility of reward, no reputation, no recognition. But I think there may be more to it than that.

I think music subsists as much in its silences as in its sounds: beyond the attack and decay of a note is the time before it was sounded, and the time after. Beyond its pitch is an infinity of vibrations that are not sound: beyond its scale degree are uncountable microtones, many of them well outside the range of human hearing.

We are this kind of thing ourselves – there was a time when each of us was not, and there will be a time after us, and yet our limited lives are shot through with eternity. A bit of the Spirit – who, being spirit, cannot be divided – is in each who lives, human or otherwise (Psalm 104.30), and so the perishable will somehow put on imperishability (1 Corinthians 15.42ff), and we shall “become word in an awareness of hidden things” (John the Solitary) – not in these glimpses, reflections in broken water, but in steady truth and certain rest.

Most of us do not yet know our own essential nature. Maybe we can feel the pain of limitation and the unease of contraction and the longing for liberation beyond self, but we cling to what’s familiar…

It is wise to know our own depths, to plumb and explore them, to allow our hearts to break open, to allow our minds to investigate that which they would rather deny, to allow ourselves to contemplate impermanence, to take death in – our own and the deaths of those we love…

Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Aging

We cannot find God by thinking about God, for God cannot be thought. Of course, we can, rightly, think about the consequences of God for human beings, and we can even think about what God is for us, but we cannot find our way to God by taking thought. Strictly speaking, we cannot travel to God either, though we can travel to places where we might be more likely to encounter God than some others – this is the point of pilgrimage. The journey itself becomes our way of finding God, rather than our destination.

God is the Ground of Being itself – as Paul said, quoting Epimenides, “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.28 NIV). There is, as George Fox famously remarked, “that of God” in each of us. And yet we are so often no more aware of God than of the air that, while sustaining our every breath and heartbeat, presses down on each of us with its tons of unfelt weight. Which is why we need practice, discipline, or even circumstance: contemplation, pilgrimage, or great joy or grief, to get our thinking, discriminating, judging selves out of the way of God.

Perhaps that is where the connection which I feel so deeply, almost instinctively, between pilgrimage and hiddenness comes in: that the thinking self tends to retreat in face of solitude and obscurity. I think this instinct may very well lie behind many of the classical forms of the monastic life – the habit, the taking of a monastic name (so that Darren Smith, for instance, becomes, say, Brother Bartholomew, on profession), even still in some cases the tonsure. The religious gives up their outer, secular identity in order more truly to become their own, inner identity in Christ. But these matters do not trouble – nor do they protect – those of us who are ordinary, secular laity. We have to find other ways – pilgrimage; such contemplative disciplines as the Jesus Prayer, centering prayer, Christian mediation, that can safely and reasonably be practiced among the duties of our everyday lives; or solitude, the simple choice to live alone.

Brother Ramon SSF, the Franciscan hermit and contemplative. wrote, in a small book now sadly out of print, Praying the Jesus Prayer (Marshall Pickering 1988), these words which so well connect today’s and yesterday’s posts on this blog:

It is difficult to speak of the aim or goal of [contemplative] prayer, for there is a sense in which it is a process of union which is as infinite as it is intimate… The meaning and design of the Jesus Prayer is an ever deepening union with God, within the communion of saints. It is personal, corporate and eternal, and the great mystics, in the Biblical tradition, come to an end of words. They say that “eye has not seen nor ear heard”, they speak of “joy unspeakable” and “groanings unutterable” and “peace that passes understanding”.

But there are some things which we can say, which are derivative of that central core of ineffable experience. We can say that such prayer contains within itself a new theology of intercession. It is not that we are continually naming names before God, and repeating stories of pain, suffering and bereavement on an individual and corporate level, but rather that we are able to carry the sorrows and pains of the world with us into such contemplative prayer as opens before us in the use of the Jesus Prayer. God knows, loves and understands more than we do, and he carries us into the dimension of contemplative prayer and love, and effects salvation, reconciliation and healing in his own way, using us as the instruments of his peace, pity and compassion.

Thus we can say that the “prayer of the heart” unites us with the whole order of creation, and imparts to us a cosmic awareness of the glory of God in both the beauty and the sadness of the world. The process of transfiguration for the whole world has begun in the Gospel, but it will not be completed until the coming of Christ in glory. And until that time we are invited, through prayer, to participate in the healing of the world’s ills by the love of God. And if we participate at such a level, then we shall know both pain and glory. The life and ministry of Jesus in the gospels reveal this dimension, for Jesus was at one and the same time the “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”, and the transfigured healer, manifesting the glory of the Father upon the holy mountain.

Cliffs of Fall

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Among some people, many of them perhaps surprisingly Quakers, there can arise the sense – when we are enmeshed in times of uncertainty and nightmare, with the rise of far right political attitudes, widespread and all too often accepted racism and misogyny, the economic worries attending Britain’s leaving the European Union, global warming, a housing crisis – that it is an almost criminal waste of time to attend to things like contemplative prayer, silence, and pilgrimage, rather than political agitation, campaigning and protest.

In the months immediately before the outbreak of war in 1914, Evelyn Underhill was at work on her little book Practical Mysticism. The commencement of hostilities prompted her to write a quite lengthy preface addressing this very question, which seems to me as fresh and as pertinent today as it was over a century ago. She wrote:

…the title deliberately chosen for this book–that of “Practical” Mysticism–means nothing if the attitude and the discipline which it recommends be adapted to fair weather alone: if the principles on which it stands break down when subjected to the pressure of events, and cannot be reconciled with the sterner duties of the national life. To accept this position is to reduce mysticism to the status of a spiritual plaything… It is significant that many of these [spiritual] experiences are reported to us from periods of war and distress: the stronger the forces of destruction appeared, the more intense grew the spiritual vision which opposed them. We learn from these records that the mystical consciousness has the power of lifting those who possess it to a plane of reality which no struggle, no cruelty, can disturb: of conferring a certitude which no catastrophe can wreck. Yet it does not wrap its initiates in a selfish and otherworldly calm, isolate them from the pain and effort of the common life. Rather, it gives them renewed vitality; administering to the human spirit not–as some suppose–a soothing draught, but the most powerful of stimulants. Stayed upon eternal realities, that spirit will be far better able to endure and profit by the stern discipline which the race is now called to undergo, than those who are wholly at the mercy of events; better able to discern the real from the illusory issues, and to pronounce judgement on the new problems, new difficulties, new fields of activity now disclosed.

Leaving aside the somewhat rhetorical prose that was common to writers of her time, Underhill seems to me to have put her finger on something of immense value for us who find ourselves living among such difficult and puzzling times.

In a book first published in 1977, the Russian contemplative, intercessor and writer on prayer Sophrony Sakharov wrote:

It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…

We should take comfort, I think, from words like these. The Quaker writer and blogger, Craig Barnett, recently published an essay on his Transition Quaker blog, in which he says:

…the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ – allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings.

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

There words of Craig’s carry their weight far beyond purely Quaker life: the “quiet, unrecognised life of prayer”, whether lived in an enclosed monastic community in the depths of the country, on the remote Dorset coast where I farmed for years, or in a flat above a back street corner shop in Leicester or Sunderland, will always look from some points of view more “like failure or foolishness” than anything else. But we need, I think, to recover a right sense of the seriousness of our calling. As Walter Wink once wrote, “history belongs to the intercessors.” And in their silent identification with the pain and loss, the cruelty and the hopelessness, of our world, contemplatives may in fact be among the most effective intercessors God has.

The Restless Heart

Lord, you are great!
And worthy of our praise!
Your strength and your wisdom
Are beyond measure.

We long to praise you,
though we are burdened by our mortality.
We are conscious of sin,
we long to praise you.
For you have so made us that we long for you,
and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you…

Lord, I shall seek you by calling to you,
In calling to you I shall believe, for your Word has come to us.
My faith will call out to you, my Lord.
Faith is your gift to me, through Jesus…

Confessions: St Augustine tr. Benignus O’Rourke OSA

We cannot help it – we are strangers and pilgrims by our very nature (1 Peter 2.11 AV) – a people called out from among those who live only among material longings, to long for God. How this happens is probably a mystery. Certainly it is grace. We are called; and yet that invitation is for all, even for those who do not answer (Revelation 3.20). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote:

What does it mean to be holy? Who is called to be holy? We are often led to think that holiness is a goal reserved for a few elect. St Paul, instead, speaks of God’s great plan and says: “even as he (God) chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4). And he was speaking about all of us. At the centre of the divine plan is Christ in whom God shows his Face, in accord with the favour of his will. The Mystery hidden in the centuries is revealed in its fullness in the Word made flesh. And Paul then says: “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19)…

We cannot settle down in a broken world. This is what lies at the heart, I think, of the Bodhisattva Vows of Mahayana Buddhism – a compassion that will not abandon the suffering of created things.

As strangers, we cannot be at home among the pain and injustice that are an inescapable part of this time-bound world into which we were born. As pilgrims, we wander in search of the mercy of God. Like Augustine, we call to God, though our longing itself is through grace. Our weakness, our lack, our longing, is the place where grace finds us: “But [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12.9 NIV)

Thus I have found myself called back again and again to the Jesus Prayer. Laurence Freeman once wrote that “sinners make the best contemplatives.” The sense of being separated, marginalised, is in itself a grace, strangely. Jesus himself said that he came (Luke 5.32) not to call the righteous, but sinners. Perhaps it is in accepting this that we open ourselves to the grace and mercy of God in Christ, regardless of our external circumstances. It is no coincidence that the classical form of the Jesus Prayer ends with the words, “a sinner.” To me it seems that knowing oneself as imperfect, fallible, poor in spirit (Matthew 5.3) is essential to living in that mercy.

As I wrote a while ago, 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.

In the end, our only destination is mercy. Like Ironside’s Door, it may look different from either side: we cry to God for his mercy – but having received it, we realise it was freely given all along.

Thin Places

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The term “thin place” has occasionally been overused, but it does seem to me to contain a truth that has everything to do with pilgrimage. Iona, Lindisfarne, the ruined priory of Llanthony in the Black Mountains of Wales: these are places whose transparency to the divine goes back to the earliest days of the faith in these islands – perhaps beyond. Alex Klaushofer calls them sites “where the boundary between heaven and earth [is] permeable”; Mark D Roberts says, “a thin place is defined as a place where God’s presence is known with particular immediacy.”

Michelle Van Loon writes of getting lost with her husband in Jerusalem, and ending up at the Western Wall, the last intact remnant of the Temple that was destroyed in AD 70, during the First Jewish-Roman War:

We were standing in a thin place.

Many of us have had these experiences even when we haven’t travelled a step. These moments during a time of worship or prayer, during a period of great sorrow or trial can undo us with an overwhelming awareness of God’s nearness, holiness, and love. Eternity invades time, and the membrane between heaven and earth seems thin as silk. It takes a pilgrim to breathe the atmosphere there.

To me, this is the very essence of pilgrimage. Perhaps such places are not reachable without an inward journey; which can, it seems, be brought about as much by stillness and prayer as by an outward, physical journey.

I have found the thinnest of places along the shore of Lake Galilee, on the beach where Jesus is said to have cooked breakfast for the disciples (John 21.12), on the morning when he restored Peter. I have found the membrane drawn thin as the green light under the trees in the grounds of Walsingham Priory. And I have found the silent air in my own room barely concealing the nearness of God. Pilgrimage contains its own homecoming, even in the journey itself.

CS Lewis suggests that our own soul may be shaped, like a key, to unlock a particular door in the house with many rooms (John 14.2). Each of us is utterly unique, and the route of our pilgrimage, whether it is as apparently well-trodden as the Camino de Santiago, or as well-hidden as our own room (Matthew 6.6), is our own thread in God’s nearness, kept somehow for each of us alone. I think sometimes that these places carry such a charge of numinosity for each of us because they are, like God, outside time as we understand it – without duration, still, inaccessible to understanding or to thought.

Essays

I have begun a small collection of essays on prayer – see “Essays” in the menu across the top of the page. These are drawn from various writings of mine, blog posts, articles, and teaching materials, published, or in some cases not published, over the years. I haven’t chosen to link to each of the places where they first appeared, as I have edited them to make them more useful to the general reader, and have left out many bits and pieces that depend upon their original context, and that would make no sense here.

Let me know in the comments if there’s a subject you miss from among my old posts on my earlier blogs, and I’ll try and include something of it here.