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]

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)…”

Cliffs of Fall

dscf1753

Among some people, many of them perhaps surprisingly Quakers, there can arise the sense – when we are enmeshed in times of uncertainty and nightmare, with the rise of far right political attitudes, widespread and all too often accepted racism and misogyny, the economic worries attending Britain’s leaving the European Union, global warming, a housing crisis – that it is an almost criminal waste of time to attend to things like contemplative prayer, silence, and pilgrimage, rather than political agitation, campaigning and protest.

In the months immediately before the outbreak of war in 1914, Evelyn Underhill was at work on her little book Practical Mysticism. The commencement of hostilities prompted her to write a quite lengthy preface addressing this very question, which seems to me as fresh and as pertinent today as it was over a century ago. She wrote:

…the title deliberately chosen for this book–that of “Practical” Mysticism–means nothing if the attitude and the discipline which it recommends be adapted to fair weather alone: if the principles on which it stands break down when subjected to the pressure of events, and cannot be reconciled with the sterner duties of the national life. To accept this position is to reduce mysticism to the status of a spiritual plaything… It is significant that many of these [spiritual] experiences are reported to us from periods of war and distress: the stronger the forces of destruction appeared, the more intense grew the spiritual vision which opposed them. We learn from these records that the mystical consciousness has the power of lifting those who possess it to a plane of reality which no struggle, no cruelty, can disturb: of conferring a certitude which no catastrophe can wreck. Yet it does not wrap its initiates in a selfish and otherworldly calm, isolate them from the pain and effort of the common life. Rather, it gives them renewed vitality; administering to the human spirit not–as some suppose–a soothing draught, but the most powerful of stimulants. Stayed upon eternal realities, that spirit will be far better able to endure and profit by the stern discipline which the race is now called to undergo, than those who are wholly at the mercy of events; better able to discern the real from the illusory issues, and to pronounce judgement on the new problems, new difficulties, new fields of activity now disclosed.

Leaving aside the somewhat rhetorical prose that was common to writers of her time, Underhill seems to me to have put her finger on something of immense value for us who find ourselves living among such difficult and puzzling times.

In a book first published in 1977, the Russian contemplative, intercessor and writer on prayer Sophrony Sakharov wrote:

It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…

We should take comfort, I think, from words like these. The Quaker writer and blogger, Craig Barnett, recently published an essay on his Transition Quaker blog, in which he says:

…the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ – allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings.

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

There words of Craig’s carry their weight far beyond purely Quaker life: the “quiet, unrecognised life of prayer”, whether lived in an enclosed monastic community in the depths of the country, on the remote Dorset coast where I farmed for years, or in a flat above a back street corner shop in Leicester or Sunderland, will always look from some points of view more “like failure or foolishness” than anything else. But we need, I think, to recover a right sense of the seriousness of our calling. As Walter Wink once wrote, “history belongs to the intercessors.” And in their silent identification with the pain and loss, the cruelty and the hopelessness, of our world, contemplatives may in fact be among the most effective intercessors God has.