Kept hidden in God

For much of my Christian life I have found myself caught between longings: a longing to identify myself by belonging, so that I might call myself “a Franciscan” or “a Quaker” or whatever it might be, and a longing to be kept hidden in God, obscure, unremarkable. Even before I had admitted my Christian faith to myself, I read Alan Watts’ Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown, and it was the title, more than the essays themselves, that called to me with a yearning I couldn’t name.

Perhaps my longing to be identified by something greater than myself, by the mantle or habit of someone or some way that I admired, was nothing more, really, than an unwise insecurity. It hadn’t occurred to me, I think, that God’s love for me, which is the only index of value anyone can have in the end, takes less than no account of such things.

All too often, I think, we fail to hear God’s voice in the yearnings of our hearts, probably because we were expecting to hear from someone, or something, outside of ourselves. But if there is, indeed, that of God within each life, where else would we hear God’s voice except in the interior silence? The wind across empty dunes, the movement of cloud-shadows on the wrinkled sea, the night-bird’s cry, awaken longings we cannot name, and yet our hearts know the imprint of the divine that our busy minds cannot frame – perhaps not in the sound heard or in that seen, but in the very movement of the heart that rises in response.

These unsought frequencies from some resonance out beyond our understanding simply cannot be followed in our busy, patterned lives of belonging and being needed, of roles and responsibilities. The more nearly unnamed we can become, it seems, the more likely it is that we shall be able to sit still by the edge of the sea, and wait for the God who is with us always, even to the end of the age.

The deep-water swell…

Over the years I’ve quite often found myself speaking about the Jesus Prayer, usually in the wider context of contemplative prayer, and sometimes in church contexts someone will come up with the objection, “If all you’re doing is saying Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner over and over again, surely that’s the ‘vain repetition’ Jesus warned us against!” (Matthew 6.7 KJV).

Of course, it’s an easy objection to answer: if you ask them, most of the objectors don’t use the King James Version in their regular Bible reading. It’s much more likely to be the NIV or the NRSV, where the phrase Jesus used is translated “do not keep on babbling like pagans” or “do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do” – and patently the Jesus Prayer isn’t anything like that.

But for all the ease with which one can refute such proof-texting, our objectors do have a point. Occasionally you will find Christian writers, whether in approval or disapproval, referring to the Jesus Prayer (as well as prayers like the Hail Mary, and perhaps even the Kyrie) as a “mantra”, by which they seem to mean a phrase that is repeated over and over again, more or less regardless of meaning, in order to bring about some psychological effect, such as reducing stress or “emptying the mind.” And of course the Jesus Prayer is not that either. Unlike many of the mantras sometimes used by practitioners of transcendental mediation and similar paths, that are also often given in languages unfamiliar to the user, the Jesus Prayer is a prayer. Almost all the teachers of the Jesus Prayer whom I have encountered make the point somewhere, though they may have different ways of putting it, that the key to this way of praying is intentionality. We mean what we say, and our using it repetitively is much more like the prayer of Bartimaeus the blind man, who “was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!'” (Mark 10.46 NIV)

In its simplicity and its self-abandonment, the Prayer comes to resemble, too, the prayer of the  tax collector at the temple, who “stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'” (Luke 18.13 NIV) (The prayers of Isaiah 6, and of Revelation 4.2 and 5.11-14 are prayers of repetition also, but of praise rather than of supplication or intercession.)

It is best to approach saying the Jesus Prayer with as few preconceptions as possible. Although I have read widely, and I hope deeply, on the Prayer over the years, when I began saying it I knew very little of the tradition, or the traditional methods, of praying the Prayer. It took hold, as God had obviously intended it should, and became simply part of who I am before God. In fact, although when I was first introduced to the Prayer by Fr. Francis Horner SSM at Willen Priory back in 1978, he gave me Per-Olof Sjögren’s wonderful book to read, a good deal of what happened in the years following were things for which I had no frame of reference. I only discovered much later that they were commonplace in the experience of those who pray the Prayer.

So we don’t need to be afraid, if God calls us on this way of knowing him, to strike out into the deep. After all, even the best maps can do no more than hint at destinations, and maybe warn of shoals; they can convey nothing of the sea-wind, the endless cry of the gulls, the wonderful scent of the waves as they break, or the peace there is in the lift and rock of the deep-water swell…

[An earlier version of this post was first published on The Mercy Blog]

Church is what?

The period of “doing church” during lockdown was an interesting time. The Dorchester churches were closed of course, as was the Quaker meeting – and while there were various efforts at worship via Zoom, livestreamed sermons and meditations, and other initiatives – for me at least the peace of silence, and the practice of the Jesus Prayer, filled the space left with a closeness to God that I hadn’t experienced for a long time.

Our experience of church during this current period of uncertain easing of regulations, and imposition of others such as the wearing of face coverings in public gatherings, has been very mixed. As with some shops, there is constant tension and uncertainty around the often ambiguous – if necessary – rules, and continual vigilance about following one-way routes, to and from communion stations for instance. It has been good to see those we’ve missed again, and to hear their voices without the interposition of electronics, but in many ways it seems to me that our local Quaker meeting has made the better choice in remaining closed until we are sure that the pandemic is more nearly under control.

What can we learn from these experiences, which come for me as a kind of culmination of a quite long and often unconscious process, an increasing sense of being drawn to a hiddenness of life and worship, to silence and to stillness? Back in June this year, I wrote on The Mercy Blog:

This seems to be for me more than ever before a time between times. I haven’t written much here the last few weeks, not because there’s been nothing to say, really, but more because it has come to me without words, this stillness; the waiting so deep that I haven’t even been able to find even a cognitive toehold, so to speak, to explain it to myself… this liminal place is for me about more than the result of the current suspension of normal life while we wait for the pandemic to pass.  It is a place God has brought me to, in that hidden way he has. 

These anything but ordinary weeks of near-isolation, bereft of so many of the distractions of ordinary life, have brought me here, against all expectations.

It seems that to remain hidden (Colossians 3.3) with Christ in God, unknowing, is at least for me the narrow path to, and the gift of, God’s own presence, where even our own steps are unknown to us: our God who is entirely beyond our own comprehension, whose name can only be a pointer, as Jennifer Kavanagh says, to something beyond our description. In silence itself is our hiddenness, our unknowing, where God waits within our own waiting (Isaiah 30.18).

Where does this leave us? What is to be learned – or to put it another way, what might the Spirit be showing me – of the path ahead? The final sentences of Steve Aisthorpe’s The Invisible Church read:

There is a growing realisation that church is what occurs when people are touched by the living Christ and share the journey of faith with others. Whether that occurs in an historic building or online or . . . wherever, is unimportant.

Looking back over my own earlier writing I have the uncomfortable sense of being crept up on, in the way that God so often has. In the past, those who sought to follow Christ sometimes came to a time in their lives when they felt drawn, like St Aidan or St Cuthbert, to climb into a coracle and paddle away to some offshore island; or like the Desert Fathers and Mothers, to move out into the all but trackless desert. Perhaps I am at some analogous stage in my life. I don’t know. The kind of qualified solitude that I found during the period of complete lockdown was a healing thing, an unsought wholeness and peace with God, a sense of being in the right place, against all expectations.

I seem to find myself quoting the author of Proverbs here, again and again, when he writes:

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

(Proverbs 20.24 NRSV)

But it’s true; and in accepting that, and in waiting quietly for whatever God may yet reveal, there is a peace and a contentment that I had not anticipated.

No Path Around

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Galatians 6:14

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:10-11

It is to the cross that the Christian is challenged to follow his/her master. No path to redemption can make a path around it.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Unless You Become Like This Child

 

To continue in prayer leads on to the cross. There really isn’t any way past that, nor an honest way to make it seem less painful. Perhaps truly to pray is to become a small incarnation, a tiny model of our Lord; then to pray might mean simply to take up the cross ourselves, since it is a refusal to turn away from the pain that runs inextricably through existence, like a red thread in the bright weave of what is. Easter is not a metaphor, and resurrection lies only on the far side of the cross that is no more than absolute surrender, helplessness entirely embraced at whatever the cost.

The cross means abandoning all that makes for our own safety, every last attempt at self-preservation; “For,” as Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians (3.3), “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” In slightly more practical terms, what seems to be happening in inward prayer is that the pain and grief that accrues in the soul like silt, so often both unsought and unrecognised, simply as a result of our living out our lives in the world as it is, is accepted, borne up into the presence of Christ in us and nailed, as it were, to the cross of our willing defencelessness. In prayer we no longer seek “a path around” our own suffering, and that of all that we love, but are willing that it be lived out in and through our own surrender. Only this way, it seems to me, can we allow the mercy of God to come to birth in our lives, and in the lives of those for whom we pray. Cynthia Bourgeault:

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… Mercy is God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.

The greatest of these…

…we can say that while a theory such as deconstructionism cannot tell us that God does not exist, it does enable us to recognise three things about our God-talk:

  1. It is impossible to escape from language and objectively say whether what we believe is true or not. Faith cannot be bypassed.
  2. Human language is unable to describe the external realities of God with any precision. As we have seen, this does not make language useless; it simply means that we have to accept its limitations.
  3. Religious language or talk about God and the spiritual realm is therefore inherently provisional and approximate in nature.

Dave Tomlinson, The Post Evangelical (emphasis mine)

Faith is not about certainty, but about trust…

Any attempt to define or describe God is to distort, to impose our own limitations of time and space. Although we can ascribe to God such qualities as good, true and loving, we have to recognise that these are mere pointers, and we might want to learn to think of God without adjectives. The word “God” itself is a pointer to something beyond our description. 

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. 

Jennifer Kavanagh, A Little Book of Unknowing

For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.

A Spearing (ed., tr.) The Cloud of Unknowing and other works

Contemplation is an odd way of life. In terms of prayer, it is precisely this unknowability, in linguistic terms, of God made real, touchable. There are times when it can feel like the most foolish endeavour, this sitting in the dark, holding by threads of faith, of love, to a God that only the heart truly knows. And yet – there is a third pillar, hope (1 Corinthians 13.13). But, as Paul the apostle put it, “hope that is seen is not hope at all.” (Romans 8.24) The writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11.1) “But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 1.13.13) Only by love, only by love.

This might seem a curious, inturned occupation, though. What is it for? If there is all this love, what good does it do? Martin Laird:

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…

Contemplation is part of an Easter faith. It cannot be any other way. The stillness of Easter Saturday follows the unimaginable grief of Good Friday, but then again… More often than not, I think, we who pray may not reach the full light of Sunday morning in this life. But it does not matter, really, if love is our meaning. There is no getting past Paul’s words to the Corinthians, once again, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

The Power of the Name

In the Hebrew tradition, to do a thing in the name of another, or to invoke and call upon his name, are acts of weight and potency. To invoke a person’s name is to make that person effectively present. One makes a name alive by mentioning it. The name immediately calls forth the soul it designated; therefore there is such deep significance in the very mention of a name.

Everything that is true of human names is true to an incomparably higher degree of the divine Name. The power and glory of God are present and active in his Name. The Name of God is numen praesens, God with us, Emmanuel. Attentively and deliberately to invoke God’s name is to place oneself in his presence, to open oneself to his energy, to offer oneself as an instrument and a living sacrifice in his hands…

This Hebraic understanding of the Name passes for the Old Testament into the New. Devils are cast out and men are healed through the Name of Jesus., for the Name is power. Once this potency of the Name is properly appreciated, many familiar passages acquire a fuller meaning and force…

It is this biblical reverence for the Name that forms the basis and foundation of the Jesus Prayer. God’s name is intimately linked with his Person, and so the invocation of the divine Name possesses a sacramental character, serving as an efficacious sign of his invisible presence and action. For the believing Christian roday, as in apostolic times, the Name of Jesus is power…

Kallistos Ware, The Power of the Name: The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus ), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

John 20:24-28

I have come to realise, over the 40-odd years I have (more or less faithfully) prayed the Jesus Prayer, that these words are no more than a simple statement of fact. As long as the prayer is with me – and it does after a time become part of one’s breathing, one’s walking, one’s dreaming even – then one is in the presence of God, and all one’s actions, good and bad – and they will not all be good, believe me – will somehow be drawn together in God, so that, as it says in Proverbs 20.24, “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?” It doesn’t seem necessary to understand; all that does seem necessary, these days, is to pray, truly.

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

Home Early!

The term “dark night of the soul” is used widely enough for it to be easy to think we know what it means. It is often taken to be a period of depression, or a simple crisis of faith. But it seems to me that John of the Cross, whose phrase it is, meant something more than that. Prayer can lead us, or God can drop us through some loss or grief, or even joy, into what amounts to a direct experience of the limitation of thought, of rational apprehension. Things occur which we cannot describe, even to ourselves; which in fact we cannot really know, in the sense of being able to form an idea of them.

This is more than mere disorientation. As we learn to cope with distraction in prayer – with the interruption of random thoughts, or trains of thought, not by attempting to suppress them (impossible!) but by letting them go, paying no attention to their passing – we gradually come to find ourselves in a wide, spacious expanse for which there are no words, and which has no dimensions. St Bonaventure wrote, “God is an intelligible sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere… It is within all things, but not enclosed; outside all things, but not excluded.” Martin Laird comments, “To glimpse this, however fleetingly, is to realise that we are and have always been immersed in unfathomable Vastness that is at the same time as familiar and unremarkable as a bar of soap. This is our home.”

To attempt to grasp this “unfathomable Vastness” is as fruitless as trying to grasp the ocean with a pair of pliers, and just as frustrating. It cannot be grasped, or understood. It can only be lived in. Once this necessity is somehow accepted, then the darkness hides no longer: the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. The unfathomable Vastness is a field of glory, touched everywhere by the breath of grace. We are home early!

Good Friday

For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. 

Romans 14:7-9 

For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!

Galatians 2:19-21

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.” (Psalm 22:1-2) There can be few psalms, apart from Psalm 23, which come so instinctively to our lips. When all we have dreamed of and planned for comes unglued, when our closest friends have turned away, when our very bodies betray us, these are the words we find ready, just as Jesus did on the cross.

There is always a point at which we shift internally from pouring our energy into doing what we can, striving to make something happen, to knowing that we are in a mysterious new territory where we are urged and invited to hand over our life, or someone else’s, to God. This may not always be a situation that will lead to death, of course, but one where letting go of our claim and handing it over to God’s grace is what brings about change and unexpected new life.

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

“Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” Paul’s insight that in God we live and move and have our being (Acts 17.28) is not merely a quotation from Epimenides, nor even a theological formulation, but a plain statement of existential fact. “Paul is describing an immediate encounter. God is not merely over us, ruling us, but we are actually embraced by him, we exist in him, within his being.” (Emilie Griffin, Wonderful and Dark is this Road: Discovering the Mystic Path) Jesus, despite the cross and all that came after, fell not out of God but into the hands of his Father; yet even he could not see that far, it seems, in those last hours of pain and desolation. Nor must we expect to: death is real, and terrible – and yet it is not the end, but the beginning. All that is, and ever has been, rests in grace; we are not lost, but found, and the infinity of mercy that is God’s love in Christ is not a strange thing to be sought after, but our own true home at last. We have only to be still, this night, and wait.

Maundy Thursday

No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:  

“What no eye has seen,
   what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”
    – the things God has prepared for those who love him –  
these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. 

1 Corinthians 2:7-9

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

John 1:1-5

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 

John 17:20-23

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. 

John 14:26-27 

Christ is a mystery, far more than the Jesus of the Gospel stories, far more than the Jesus who is so often preached today as friend, companion, saviour. And yet that was the Jesus the disciples knew; and the contemporary preaching of him is quite true, if occasionally limited. Perhaps it is that word “saviour” on which our awareness of the mystery begins to turn. John’s Gospel could maybe be thought of as the explication of that mystery, the unpacking of what lies beneath much of the first three (the synoptic) Gospels.

Only in prayer, as I draw close to the presence of Christ within, do I feel I begin to understand. The presence of Christ in anything we know – his earthly form, the Eucharist he left us, our own selves in prayer – is a mystery known only by faith, as the Spirit reveals him to us. As Jesus himself said, (John 14:1) “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” Only be still, and know that Christ is Immanuel, God with us…

Gerard Manley Hopkins came very close, when he wrote:

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Tuesday in Holy Week

[Holy Week] turns upside down our notions of what real power is and how it is held. It turns upside down our notions of how life-giving change is brought about and the role suffering plays in bringing about that life-giving change… 

The king who rides a donkey, nor a war horse, turns our notions about how to bring about peace upside down. Jesus knew the danger he was in and offered himself to us as a pattern for living in dangerous times, personally and politically. We choose who to follow and the choice to follow Jesus is an inner decision to choose life. Jesus didn’t show us that he could wield power over life and death, but that in the face of death and destruction it is possible to choose life In the occupied territory of our world, with pain and hatred, we can live differently, live liberated. 

This journey has to be taken for oneself and on a donkey, at peace with oneself and others. Inner peace can bring about external peace, but not force it. There will be times when it feels successful, as it did for Jesus and his followers on Palm Sunday, and times when there is danger and humiliation. Both are to be encountered on the way of peace. 

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

This is a profound insight. The changes so many of us long for, especially in a world threatened by climate change, extremism, and the dangerous posturing of political leaders, will not be brought about by violent protest, vandalism, and aggressive rhetoric. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie and Betsie ten Boom and Martin Niemöller in Nazi Germany, Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela in apartheid-era South Africa, were not failures because of their imprisonment, mistreatment and in some cases death at the hands of despotic regimes. Jesus was not messing about when he told his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16.24-25)


In Freelance Christianity: Philosophy, Faith, and the Real World, Vance G Morgan writes:

In its Latin roots, to “convert” means to “turn around,” but this turning is more often like a sunflower following the sun in its slow course across the sky than a dynamic and once for all event… a steady rain, even a gentle drizzle, is better for my plants and grass than an inch-and-a-half-hour downpour. Beneath the layers of violence, hatred, ignorance and despair, something holy is lurking. Let the gentle drizzle and drops upon the heart release it.

St Seraphim of Sarov, a forest hermit and contemplative in 18th century Russia, famously advised his visitors, “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.” The practice of the Jesus Prayer, indeed of any form of contemplative prayer, is precisely like Vance Morgan’s gentle drizzle. This quiet repetition may accomplish, by the grace and mercy of Christ, more than we can imagine.

As Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote:

More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of…
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God…

Morte d’Arthur