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.

Monday in Holy Week

I have never liked the passage from the general confession in the Book of Common Prayer, “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.”

The God I love is not a headmaster filled with anger, insecurity and hubris; he is love, and his humility is so great that he took up our own frail flesh and died a most humiliating and agonising death that we might live. The Prayer Book itself in fact realises this, and addresses God as “the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.” God loves our love, which, in its purest form, is simply a reflection of his, as the moon’s light is of sunlight. But we misdirect the clear mirror our hearts were made to be. We miss the mark (the literal meaning of the Greek word for sin, hamartia) and “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him [the suffering Servant] the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53.6)

Simon Barrington-Ward writes:

Pastor Daenstedt [Martin Niemöller’s successor at the Dahlem Dorfkirkche in Berlin] expounded the real nature of the relationship with the eternal divine spirit into which, in the person of Jesus Christ, we had all been brought. We were studying 2 Corinthians 5, and the mysterious saying in verse 21, ‘For our sake God made him [Christ] to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ When we were all puzzled by this, Daenstedt exclaimed, with genuine surprise in his voice, ‘But this is the heart of our whole life as Christians! It is saying that in the man Jesus Christ, God entered, as nowhere else, into the depths of our human tragedy, our utter frustration, and brokenness. In Jesus Christ also, we could enter into our true destiny, our freedom, our fulfilment, our ultimate joy, our final transformation, beyond death, to be made part of the new creation to come. This is “der süsse Austausch,” the “sweet exchange.”‘

…I saw that our whole life could eventually come to be ‘hidden with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3.3) and that this was also our ultimate goal. I later learnt the Greeks were to call it theosis, or deification, that is to say, being united by the Spirit through the Son with the Father and so with the triune God, making us ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1.4) so that in the transformed life to come the whole creation could be drawn on, byt the Holy Spirit, through God’s entering into our human life in the person of Christ – the Logos or ‘Word’ of God – into the very being of God.

“Hidden with Christ in God” – that’s what lies at the core of my own experience of this. To be present, really present, to God’s love is to be hidden (apparently absent, perhaps) from the world of getting and spending, pride and fear. We, and our little loves, disappear in that great love as the moon’s mirror disappears in the blaze of the noonday sun.

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]

The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give up all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you. 

RS Thomas, ‘The Bright Field’, in Collected Poems, 1945–1990

These are dark times, with the prospect of constitutional crisis, economic unrest, and of leaving the EU without a working exit agreement looming over us like dark cloud-shadows. And things are no better, it seems, for our old allies in the US.

Writing of Christian mindfulness in the context of pilgrimage – a discipline in which she recommends the Jesus Prayer, by the way – Sally Welch writes:

Mindfulness is not a fair-weather method of meditation, of making space to encounter God; nor are we taught that to ignore suffering or evil makes it go away. We are told to face up to it, to acknowledge its existence, but then to put it from us, ‘for it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ (Mark 7.21)… 

Nor must we use any past experiences to project frightful outcomes, but must simply call upon God to support us. ‘You have given me the shield of salvation, and your right hand has supported me; your help has made me great,’ says Psalm 18.35. G.M. Hopkins, that master of descriptive beauty, echoes this truth in his reminder that ‘all things counter, original, spare, strange’ can teach us God’s grace; that they were created by him to shine forth with his beauty, strange though it may seem to us. So, too, our times of suffering are not undertaken alone but in the company of Christ who can redeem all things.

When I read that last sentence, it was as though a door opened for me – of course! This was the experience I have had over and over again in the most difficult times of my life: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with …” (Psalm 23) For me, the simple recitation of the Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner – has been enough to keep the eyes of my heart open to his presence.

In this way, suffering, and the fear of suffering, become Eucharistic. The presence of Christ is not confined to the sacrament, surely; and he is with us in suffering through the Cross. As Jane Williams writes:i

‘Glory’ is found in relating, in the unbreakable witness of Son, Father, and Spirit to the reality that everything flows from love.This is too simple to be credible. It is so simple that it becomes obscure and baffling. Even more baffling is John’s insistence that the Cross is the most obvious and visible manifestation of Jesus’ power. John 3.14, 8.28 and 12.32 all speak of Jesus being ‘lifted up’. ‘exalted’, on the Cross, and in each case this enigmatic statement comes in the context of a statement or discussion about the relationship between Father and Son. Indeed, John 3.14 is followed by the famous: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ (John 3.16). Somehow, the Cross is the power of the merciful humility of God, hidden in plain sight. Here, if only we could see it, is the origin of the universe, in the unbreakable love of the Father and the Son.

But our word ‘Eucharist’ comes from the Greek for thanksgiving (“taking bread, he gave you thanks…”) and thanksgiving – and this is very strange – is all caught up in suffering. We can see it beginning to appear in Psalm 119.71-75:

It was good for me to be afflicted
    so that I might learn your decrees.
The law from your mouth is more precious to me
    than thousands of pieces of silver and gold…
Your hands made me and formed me;
    give me understanding to learn your commands.
May those who fear you rejoice when they see me,
    for I have put my hope in your word.
I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous,
    and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me…

Its clarification, as it were, though, is in Paul’s letters. Romans 8.17: “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory”; 2 Corinthians 1.5: “For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ”; and sealed together with the words I keep coming back to, from Romans 8.28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

We are not alone under the leaden skies of January – and above, as it always does, the sunlight strikes silver from the upper surface of the thickest clouds. This is no sentimental silver lining. The cold rain is still as cold, and the shadows as dense; but they are not the end of the story – far from it.

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

Of Hiddenness and Pilgrimage

sdr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Aging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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