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

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]