The greatest of these…

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

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

Dave Tomlinson, The Post Evangelical (emphasis mine)

Faith is not about certainty, but about trust…

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

Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience. 

Jennifer Kavanagh, A Little Book of Unknowing

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

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

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

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

The practice of contemplation is good not only for us but also for the entire world. Many testimonies throughout the contemplative tradition bear witness to this. Not least among these is that of the author of The Cloud of Unknowing: “This is the work [the practice of contemplation] of the soul that pleases God most. All the saints and angels rejoice in this work and hasten to help it with all their might… All the people living on earth are marvellously helped by this work, in ways you do not know.”…

Typically the first great motivator on this pathless path is the sense that this appeals strongly to something within us. The other great motivator is despair. There are times in our lives, sometimes lasting rather a long while, when just being silent and still is the least painful thing we can manage right now, when all our effort is crushed into barely surviving, just keeping one nostril above water. After discovering that pain itself has a silent centre and that our own pain is not private to us, however deeply personal it is, something opens us from within, especially if we are too poor to desire any such opening should ever happen (but we cannot make ourselves poor in order to make this happen.)

What brings us to the practice of contemplation does not matter. What matters is that we give ourselves to this practice at least once a day…

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

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.

Love in Time of War

If we are called to contemplative prayer and mean to respond to that call, we must face the fact that this will require a great deal of us – the sacrifice of time, courage to persevere, patience to endure the pain of deepening self-knowledge, fortitude in times of temptation, faith when the way is obscure, and the love which is ready to make every new surrender as the Spirit calls… It has been well said that contemplatives war against the real enemy, and ultimately against the only enemy, for whereas in the world we are up against effects, the contemplative is brought face to face with causes, with the ultimate truths which lie behind the visible… 

And do we realise that as we grow older and the vigour of mind and body begin to decline, this is the work which the Holy Spirit desire to entrust increasingly to the faithful, the work which the author of The Cloud [of Unknowing] does not hesitate to describe as the most far-reaching and deepest work of all? 

Robert Llewelyn, Prayer and Contemplation

I wrote a few months ago here of the difficulty inherent in being called into the contemplative way, especially as one who is – despite their undoubted membership of the Body of Christ, and of the community that is inextricably part of that – not living as part of a formal religious community. I wrote then,

This life of inner solitude and hiddenness – for it is hidden from our own selves within as well as outwardly – is in many ways lived for others. We stand out in the wind, and in some mysterious way we relive Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai, when the Israelites said to him, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” 

The ghosts we outstare are not our own merely; somehow in the silence of prayer we find ourselves confronting the ghosts of those we live amongst, touching the shadows that our post-Enlightenment age casts across all our lives, touching, as did the monks of Mount Athos during the years of the Stalin’s purges and Hitler’s atrocities, the dark skirts of chaos and cruelty that brush continually against our civilisation.

It would be easy, at least as an observer, to romanticise this struggle, but in truth it isn’t remotely glorious in itself. Like physical hardship, it is messy and unpleasant, and for the one caught up in it, it is a place of fear and of self-doubt. One cannot see the way ahead, and the outcome of even the least moment of prayer is hidden from the one praying. But God is merciful, and in the midst of this inner work there are glimpses of the uncreated light between the shadows among which we all too often move, and our prayer does, as I wrote once, “tend… always to stillness, to wholeness of mind and spirit, to the peace of God, beyond our understanding…” It is that same peace, ultimately, that we seek for those with whom our prayer and our lives are inextricably caught up, simply by virtue of the love of our shared humanity.

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]

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]