Receiving Stations

Quietly, I seem to be beginning to understand something of why the penitential nature of the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) leads it on into acting as a prayer of intercession as well.

We are all sinners. Even those we remember as saints were themselves acutely conscious of their own sin (Francis of Assisi would be a good example) in the sense of separation from God, rather than as ones transgressing some list of “naughty things”. Our innate tendency to turn from the presence of God into our own private obsessions, addictions and insecurities, sometimes called original sin, is something we all hold in common, from the most obviously “religious” to the least, from those whom the world would regard as good, to those it would regard as beneath contempt.

We live, though, in the mercy that is Christ, all of us. “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1.16-17 NIV)

In our accepting this solidarity, as it were, with the least of our fellow creatures, as well as the greatest, we are accepting for ourselves also their suffering, their alienation, their grief. Craig Barnett writes:

The religious path is often presented as a way to achieve inner peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering. Much popular spirituality claims that life is meant to be filled with peace and contentment; that pain and anguish are problems that can be overcome by the right attitude or technique. The promise of perfect contentment is seductive, but it can never be fulfilled, because it is based on the illusion that suffering is a mistake.

Suffering, ageing, sickness and loss are not regrettable failures to realise our true nature. They are inherent in the nature of embodied human life and our often-incompatible needs and desires. Any spirituality, therapy or ideology that promises an escape from these limitations neglects the truth that suffering is an essential dimension of human life. Growth in spiritual maturity does not mean escaping or transcending these experiences, but becoming more able to accept and learn from them; to receive the painful gifts that they have to offer.

Our prayer for mercy is answered always by love (Luke 18.9ff), and it is in this love that we, somehow, become as it were aerials for the Spirit, receiving stations for a grace that we may not even ourselves understand.

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

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!

Holy Saturday

Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

John 19:38-42

I love these two, Joseph and Nicodemus. Faithful men, they remained where they had been called, members of the Sanhedrin; and yet they quietly acted out of their conscience and their compassion, regardless of the risks, and brought Jesus to a decent, peaceful burial. Naomi Starkey writes:

Disciples (whether secret or not) are needed in positions of power and influence in society. They can use their power and influence to do good deeds, which may run counter to the values of that society, while not casting those disciples in the role of revolutionaries. Those whose calling is to campaign on the front line against injustice, should refrain from judging those who work behind the scenes.

They remain content to be who they are, and yet their courage and their love enable them to carry God’s grace and tenderness into a place of unimaginable liminality, the very hinge of the world’s turning.

As Justine Allain-Chapman writes, “The darkness in the tomb was a mysterious darkness and through the night of Saturday it gave way to a new dawn… A tomb in a garden hewn out of rock was the place where Jesus’ suffering was at an end and his body was laid to rest… Mary’s womb and this tomb are spaces where God watched over, protected and delivered new life.”

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a place of pilgrimage like few others, and it is all but impossible to visit it except in a warm and hurried crush of bodies, curious and devoted, all longing to stay longer and pray, even just to look; and yet within the tiny central Aedicule, where tradition locates the tomb itself, to this day there is a curious quiet over this packed and holy place. Visiting a few years ago, I found myself there, alone among countless fellow pilgrims, still in that circulating throng, within a cool stillness that I haven’t yet been able to describe. Perhaps there are no words, just as Scripture finds no words to tell what happened between Joseph and Nicodemus leaving the closed tomb, and Mary Magdalene’s arriving in the early hours of Sunday morning. And yet in that unspoken place, all time and being are rewritten, and all things made new.

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.

Wednesday in Holy Week

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. 

Romans 8:9-11

Of course we shall all die. We have this in common, tax collectors and astrophysicists, lay and ordained, good and bad, black and white, and every human possibility of birth or nurture. We are all going to die, sooner or later, and some of us much sooner than we had anticipated. Sometimes the ghostly drone of our approaching mortality is barely audible beneath the birdsong and lovers’ cries; sometimes it roars in our ears like a waterfall; but it is there.

We are so frail, each of us, so easily broken. A few years and we are gone anyway, scraps of memory on the ebbing tide, that choking ache in an old friend’s chest long after midnight – then only the odd printed reference, maybe, letter in a tin box under the bed, ghost link on the web.

And yet.

To have been faced with the imminent likelihood of one’s own death, as I have been blessed to be once or twice, is to know that that frailty is only one side of the coin. Reality is not what it seems. The loneliness of our human separation, our differentiation, is mere uncertainty. The light that opens in that moment is so sure, so utterly dependable – more solid and certain than the chalk and flint of Mount Olivet – that in the end, truly, it’s OK, in the most absolute way possible. That in each of us which is love itself is beyond all the dimensions of time and matter, beyond the reach of thought, but there, at the centre of every heart.

We never were alone, and love is a very good name for God – for that Source and centre of all in which all things from galaxies to wood mice grow, and are held: that Ground of Being out of which, finally, we can never fall, but which will call us home to endless light, and the healing of all wounds.

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

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.

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.

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)…”

When we were still powerless…

I have been struck before by the parallel between the Quaker practice of holding someone or something in the Light – being simultaneously and intentionally aware of them, and of the presence of God – and what I have come to call contemplative intercession.

Theophan the Recluse wrote:

Divine action is not something material: it is invisible, inaudible, unexpected, unimaginable, and inexplicable by any analogy taken from this world. Its advent and its working within us are a mystery… Little by little, divine action grants to man increased attention and contrition of the heart in prayer…

The spirit of prayer comes upon man and drives him into the depths of the heart, as if he were taken by the hand and forcibly led from one room to another. The soul is taken captive by an invading force, and is willingly kept within, as long as this overwhelming power of prayer still holds sway over it.

(Quoted in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, ed. Timothy Ware & Chariton of Valamo)

Time and again, recently, I find myself woken in the night by the recollection, or the sudden awareness, of the need, or pain, of someone, human or otherwise. Often these are ones of whom I know very little in a factual sense. I cannot “pray for them” in the conventional sense of making explicit petitions on their behalf to an anthropomorphised conception of God in my own mind – how could I? – but I can keep them close in my heart as I sink into my awareness of the constant steadfast love of God, and of his unfailing presence that sustains all things (Hebrews 1.3). (For me, the Jesus Prayer is enough engagement for what is left of my conscious mind, enough to help keep it out of the way.)

The heart being the place where God’s love meets us (Romans 5.5-6) it meets too there the one whom we are holding in our heart. Nothing else seems to be needed. It is the simplest, and yet in my little experience, the hardest and most painful thing. But it is good, and wholesome, and given by God in that place which is so far nearest, most open to his own love as it reaches us by his Holy Spirit.

[Originally published on The Mercy Blog, 9/1/2019]