Treasures in hidden places

At the center of reality is a deep, radical, painful, costly fissure that will, soon or later, break ever self-arranged pattern of well-being… It cannot be helped, and it cannot be avoided… 

This insistence on the reality of brokenness flies in the face of the Enlightenment practice of denial. Enlightenment rationality, in its popular, uncriticized form, teaches that with enough reason and resources brokenness can be avoided. And so Enlightenment rationality, in its frenzied commercial advertising, hucksters the good of denial and avoidance: denial of headaches and perspiration and loneliness, impotence and poverty and shame, embarrassment and, finally, death. In such ideology there are no genuinely broken people. When brokenness intrudes into such an assembly of denial, as surely it must, it comes as failure, stupidity, incompetence, and guilt. The church, so wrapped in the narrative of denial, tends to collude in this. When denial is transposed into guilt – into personal failure – the system of denial remains intact and uncriticized, in the way Job’s friends defended the system. 

The outcome for the isolated failure is that there can be no healing, for there has not been enough candor to permit it. In the end, such denial is not only a denial of certain specifics – it is the rejection of the entire drama of brokenness and healing, the denial that there is an incommensurate Power and Agent who comes in pathos into the brokenness, and who by coming there makes the brokenness a place of possibility. 

Walter Brueggemann, An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible

***

Pain, struggle and suffering are an ordinary part of the human life cycle. The spiritual writer and Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward: A spirituality for the two halves of lifesuggests that there is a key time of suffering out of which we are transformed and change the direction of our lives. In the important process of building our life, establishing our identity, home and relationships, we journey through the first half of life. However, the journey to strive successfully is followed by a second journey, often in midlife, because some experience of falling down, brokenness or failure has us at a crisis point or crossroads. This time is the foundation for spiritual growth, a falling upwards where loss of control broadens our horizons and deepens our lives. 

Justine Allain-Chapman, The Resilient Disciple: A Lenten Journey from Adversity to Maturity 

The life of David in the Old Testament – poet, king, composer, sinner – was marked by repeated personal disasters, repeated brokenness, and yet God found him “a man after my own heart” (Acts 13.22) and Jesus himself acknowledged him as his forebear (Matthew 22.41ff).

Falling, brokenness, whether as a result of one’s own sin, as David’s with Bathsheba, for instance, or, like Job’s, as a result of misfortune or the ill-will of another, is not the end, or the point, of life in Christ, but it may well be essential to it. We cannot get to Easter morning except by way of Good Friday, and we cannot get there except by way of Ash Wednesday. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12.24)

Somehow, as Julian of Norwich suggested, sin may even be necessary for “all to be well”. Certainly the psalmist carries this sense into Psalm 119.67: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.” Time and again I have found its reflection in my own life, when out of some of the bleakest times God has brought blessing, even “the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.” (Isaiah 45.3)

The mercy of Christ is without end, as though his blood were to fill a communion cup, and all the communicant could see, gazing down, was a crystal bottomless pool, the infinity of grace.

The lamp of the Lord

Margaret Silf, writing in The Bible Reading Fellowship’s Lent with New Daylight, says (reflecting on Mark 4.26-29),

To sow a seed, all that is needed is to tear open the seed packet and empty the contents into the ground. It would not occur to us to plant the seed packet along with the seed. The seed doesn’t need any instructions about how and where it should be sown, how tall it will become, or what it will look like when it blooms. 

Contemplative prayer is a bit like that. It takes us into the depths of our being, where God is indwelling. We place ourselves into that stillness. The rest can be safely left to God. Our prayer doesn’t need to give God any instructions as to how it should be answered. It doesn’t need to include a wish list for all the blooms that we want our seed to produce… 

Time spent with God in stillness will sprout and grow in ways we do not understand and cannot necessarily see. It will flourish in its own way, and in its own time, without any help. We don’t have to give it any instructions, nor should we dig it up to see how it is growing…

This makes so much sense in the context of my own experience in prayer. The call I feel to silence and contemplation, to the simple repetition of the Jesus Prayer as both shield and invocation, only deepens. It is a way of unknowing. Jennifer Kavanagh writes:

Faith is not about certainty, but about trust… Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience.

The discipline of Lent, is not only a time for reexamination and spiritual stocktaking, as it were, but more than this, a heart-following of the way of the Cross. It seems to lead me to find myself again following a path not of some dramatic exterior solitude or renunciation, but an inner eremitism. And this in itself has some features of a little model of the way of the Cross.

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. One 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. 

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

Somehow though the call to this kind of giving up, not of chocolate or of social media, but of the right to know – “All our steps are ordered by the Lord, how then can we understand our own ways?” (Proverbs 20.24) – is more than simple obscurity. What the Fredettes write applies to the contemplative life however lived, whether in community or in solitude. 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 not much more than a way of standing still enough to act as some kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of God’s mercy in Christ. A few verses later in Proverbs (20.27) we read, “The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord, searching every inmost part.” The light is Christ’s, and the signals of his mercy are to us no more than signs; but like the signs in John’s Gospel, they seem to be effective in ways we cannot understand.

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

Angels in Desolation

I was brought up to be a perfectionist: to get it right, preferably first time, or just not to bother. I carried the attitude through into adult life, where it made me unhappy, driven and, at least when it came to farming, effective. But spiritually it was disastrous. Sin crippled me. Not that I was that much more (or less) of a sinner than the next person, nor that my sins were any worse (or any less bad) than theirs, but that the fact of their having been done at all made me incapable of living with myself, incapable of believing I was livable with by anyone, including God. My perfectionism had made me, spiritually speaking, stinking rich in self-regard. Not self esteem, you understand, but self-regard; not self-satisfaction, but self-attention. I could not reach God for the mounds of my own self analysis, my continual self appraisal, just as the rich young man in Mark 10.17-27 couldn’t see over his bank balance, and his land, and his possessions.
The maturing contemplative is too poor to be concerned with spiritual progress. If there is a measure of spiritual progress, it will be found in the rib cage of failure: in our debilitating faults, our defeats, our wounds, our solidarity with those who are marginalised from every circle of meaning they belong to. This seems to be the way divine love works, to seek out and indwell where we hurt most. This is the obscure realisation of receptive mind.  Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation and Liberation
Two things rescued me, right in line with Martin Laird’s words here. Firstly, the continued practice of contemplation, which I somehow managed – more or less – to stick to through thick and thin; and secondly, a series of disasters and let-downs, beginning with a farm accident that put an end to my farming career, and eventually to my ability to work full-time at all, and ending only when I was able to move away. The confluence of those things led to a remarkable discovery: God was closer to me than ever. Not just that he hadn’t abandoned me when things came unglued, but that he seemed closer than ever. He wasn’t of course. He’d been there all along; but my heart, being shattered, was somehow opened, not only to God but to all creation in its brokenness, its pain (Romans 8.22-25). I have come to recognise, from these periods in my own life of desolation and functional solitude (being alone in the sense not necessarily of physical isolation, but of being cut off from understanding and comfort: “You have taken from me friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88.18)) the truth of what Laird is trying to say in the passage I quoted above. But there is another strand in the Psalms which is found in its fullest form only in Psalm 119; and that is the recognition of suffering itself as somehow a route to the mercy of God in Christ. It was during these darkest times that I first came to notice these passages clearly, though I must have read them in passing often enough, and to cling to them as to a bit of floating wood in a shipwreck. The three passages occur close together in this longest of Psalms, between v. 67 and v. 75:
67 Before I was afflicted I went astray,     but now I obey your word. 68 You are good, and what you do is good;     teach me your decrees… 71 It was good for me to be afflicted     so that I might learn your decrees… 75 I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous,     and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. 76 May your unfailing love be my comfort,     according to your promise to your servant.
This was for me the key to the whole thing: the way that my loneliness, defeat and distress made sense, how it did in fact connect with the Gospel – which is after all to be translated “Good News” – and how through some deep mystery it connected intimately with the Cross, and with the utter stripping of the Cross. It is only in that condition that we can dare to know nothing, because there is nothing else but Christ, and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2.2) Desolation is a place that seems somehow dear to God, oddly enough. It was in the wilderness that God revealed himself to Abraham and to Jacob, to Moses and to Elijah; and it was into the wilderness that he called his Son – drove him, according to Mark – to face his own temptation to self-reliance, and in the wilderness that the angels ministered to him. It is only in the wilderness, it seems to me, that we have little enough to cling to that we can see what has been before us since long before we were conceived: that God is nearer to us than our own breathing, than the earth beneath our blistered feet.

Lady of silences, pray for us…

We are nearly at the beginning of Lent, late this year. Last year we were already a fortnight past Ash Wednesday by today’s date, at the end of the second week, nearly – where Eliot wrote,

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness…

The silences of Lent begin “with the voice of God, singing the praise of Jesus, the Son. Just as this affirmation calls Jesus into the wilderness (Mark 1.9-13), so it calls us, too.” (Jane Williams, The Merciful Humility of God) Here, after thirty or so presumably uneventful years, was the beginning of the fulfilment of Simeon’s words to Mary in the temple (Luke 2.34-35). Yet she remained, throughout her Son’s trial and crucifixion, that “Lady of silences…” as she entered her own most terrible wilderness (John 19.25-27). “Here is your mother…” Not a word.

“Remember that you are dust…” The priest’s words echo over the beginning of Lent, calling us to listen to our own frailty, our own finiteness. “And to dust you shall return.” The dust of the wilderness, from which we were made, dry in the singing heat that rises from the parched dust, dry as the rock from which it was worn by the wind, by the sun.

Lady of silences, pray for us. As the weight of the words raises our dust in the dry heat, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

Grace and pain, and love

The practice of contemplation is good not only for us but also for the entire world. Many testimonies throughout the contemplative tradition bear witness to this. Not least among these is that of the author of The Cloud of Unknowing: “This is the work [the practice of contemplation] of the soul that pleases God most. All the saints and angels rejoice in this work and hasten to help it with all their might… All the people living on earth are marvellously helped by this work, in ways you do not know.”… 

Typically the first great motivator on this pathless path is the sense that this appeals strongly to something within us. The other great motivator is despair. There are times in our lives, sometimes lasting rather a long while, when just being silent and still is the least painful thing we can manage right now, when all our effort is crushed into barely surviving, just keeping one nostril above water. After discovering that pain itself has a silent centre and that our own pain is not private to us, however deeply personal it is, something opens us from within, especially if we are too poor to desire any such opening should ever happen (but we cannot make ourselves poor in order to make this happen.) 

What brings us to the practice of contemplation does not matter. What matters is that we give ourselves to this practice at least once a day…

Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation and Liberation

Contemplation, like pain, is not a private enterprise. This may seem an odd statement. After all, we speak of “my practice” as though it belonged to us; we say, “I am in pain” as though we were enclosed in it as in our own room. But grace does not allow this kind of solipsism. We pray as somehow representative of all that is involved in being human – the generations of DNA, the common rhythm of our breathing – and we suffer in the same way. My pain is inextricably bound up in yours, merely by our common inheritance of a nervous system, and emotions. How can we not love, even our enemies, when we are of the same flesh, the same breath? The very word, “compassion” is derived from the Latin for “suffering with”.

Contemplation is such a simple thing, and yet its power, for us and for all whom our hearts embrace, is without any limit I have been able to discern. Insofar as it liberates us from the illusion that God is something we lack, for which we have to look, and restores us to the plain awareness that “God is the all-loving, groundless ground of being” (Laird, ibid.) it is obviously limitless. The gradual opening out of the patient practice of whichever stream of contemplative prayer we find carries us is not a thing that can be measured, or predicted, however. It is all grace. Our whole path is gift, God’s uncountable mercy. As Martin Laird points out in the passage I’ve cited above, we cannot even take things away in the order to bring it about. It isn’t ours to bring about.

Paul explained in his letter to the Christians in Rome that “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8.28) Love for God enfolds all those others, human and otherwise, who, like us, have their very being in the “groundless ground” of God, and so does God’s endless work for good flow through us to all whom we love. It is so simple. There is nothing to it. As TS Eliot said, it is “Quick now, here, now, always – A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything)…”

Love in Time of War

If we are called to contemplative prayer and mean to respond to that call, we must face the fact that this will require a great deal of us – the sacrifice of time, courage to persevere, patience to endure the pain of deepening self-knowledge, fortitude in times of temptation, faith when the way is obscure, and the love which is ready to make every new surrender as the Spirit calls… It has been well said that contemplatives war against the real enemy, and ultimately against the only enemy, for whereas in the world we are up against effects, the contemplative is brought face to face with causes, with the ultimate truths which lie behind the visible… 

And do we realise that as we grow older and the vigour of mind and body begin to decline, this is the work which the Holy Spirit desire to entrust increasingly to the faithful, the work which the author of The Cloud [of Unknowing] does not hesitate to describe as the most far-reaching and deepest work of all? 

Robert Llewelyn, Prayer and Contemplation

I wrote a few months ago here of the difficulty inherent in being called into the contemplative way, especially as one who is – despite their undoubted membership of the Body of Christ, and of the community that is inextricably part of that – not living as part of a formal religious community. I wrote then,

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.

It would be easy, at least as an observer, to romanticise this struggle, but in truth it isn’t remotely glorious in itself. Like physical hardship, it is messy and unpleasant, and for the one caught up in it, it is a place of fear and of self-doubt. One cannot see the way ahead, and the outcome of even the least moment of prayer is hidden from the one praying. But God is merciful, and in the midst of this inner work there are glimpses of the uncreated light between the shadows among which we all too often move, and our prayer does, as I wrote once, “tend… always to stillness, to wholeness of mind and spirit, to the peace of God, beyond our understanding…” It is that same peace, ultimately, that we seek for those with whom our prayer and our lives are inextricably caught up, simply by virtue of the love of our shared humanity.

The Heart’s Silence is the Essence of Prayer

We are perhaps accustomed to think of contemplative prayer as belonging to those times when we kneel or stand in silence in the presence of God. Certainly the heart’s silence is of the essence of such prayer, but this does not necessarily mean the absence of words, and there will be many times when the recitation of the divine office or some other form of vocal prayer, such as the rosary, will reveal themselves as contemplative in nature. Often, for example, in saying the psalms of the office we may be drawn beyond the words to the very heart of prayer, our attention no longer on the words but on God himself. 

Robert Llewelyn, Prayer and Contemplation

As Llewelyn goes on to point out, these words are perhaps particularly true of the Jesus Prayer; but I am intrigued by his reference to the Psalms in this context. For me, it is not so much reading the Psalms in the context of the daily office that strikes me, but reading them alone, late at night, especially when my heart is troubled about something.

Psalm 25.8-11:

Good and upright is the Lord;

    therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.

He guides the humble in what is right

    and teaches them his way.

All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful

    toward those who keep the demands of his covenant.

For the sake of your name, Lord,

    forgive my iniquity, though it is great…

Psalm 32.1-2:

Blessed is the one

    whose transgressions are forgiven,

    whose sins are covered.

Blessed is the one

    whose sin the Lord does not count against them

    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

Psalm 119.75-77

I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous,

    and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.

May your unfailing love be my comfort,

    according to your promise to your servant.

Let your compassion come to me that I may live,

    for your law is my delight.

What seems to be at the root of this process, for me at any rate, is the sense of the words as so containing the longing, the contrition or the exaltation (Psalm 100, for example) of the heart that they bring the one praying to the end of words themselves. This is why the Jesus Prayer is, in this context, such a complete form of prayer. There can be no Christian, surely, who cannot pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” with sincerity and intentionality. And in its quiet repetition, as Bishop Kallistos Ware says,

Like a drop of ink that alls on blotting paper, the act of prayer should spread steadily outwards from the conscious and reasoning centre of the brain, until it embraces every part of ourselves. 

It is in our very inability, our unknowing, that we find God – or rather, perhaps, that we are open to his finding us. Christ himself, in whose name we pray, taught us (Luke 18.12-14) that it was the tax collector who owned himself a sinner, rather than the Pharisee who was so certain of his place in the economy of salvation, who “went home justified”. That is why contemplation is so bound up in contrition, it seems to me. Only when we have reached the end of ourselves can we find the beginning of the heart’s silence. Ware again:

For the heart has a double significance in the spiritual life: it is both the centre of the human being and the point of meeting between the human being and God.

[from The Mercy Blog]