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 Heart’s Silence is the Essence of Prayer

We are perhaps accustomed to think of contemplative prayer as belonging to those times when we kneel or stand in silence in the presence of God. Certainly the heart’s silence is of the essence of such prayer, but this does not necessarily mean the absence of words, and there will be many times when the recitation of the divine office or some other form of vocal prayer, such as the rosary, will reveal themselves as contemplative in nature. Often, for example, in saying the psalms of the office we may be drawn beyond the words to the very heart of prayer, our attention no longer on the words but on God himself. 

Robert Llewelyn, Prayer and Contemplation

As Llewelyn goes on to point out, these words are perhaps particularly true of the Jesus Prayer; but I am intrigued by his reference to the Psalms in this context. For me, it is not so much reading the Psalms in the context of the daily office that strikes me, but reading them alone, late at night, especially when my heart is troubled about something.

Psalm 25.8-11:

Good and upright is the Lord;

    therefore he instructs sinners in his ways.

He guides the humble in what is right

    and teaches them his way.

All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful

    toward those who keep the demands of his covenant.

For the sake of your name, Lord,

    forgive my iniquity, though it is great…

Psalm 32.1-2:

Blessed is the one

    whose transgressions are forgiven,

    whose sins are covered.

Blessed is the one

    whose sin the Lord does not count against them

    and in whose spirit is no deceit.

Psalm 119.75-77

I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous,

    and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.

May your unfailing love be my comfort,

    according to your promise to your servant.

Let your compassion come to me that I may live,

    for your law is my delight.

What seems to be at the root of this process, for me at any rate, is the sense of the words as so containing the longing, the contrition or the exaltation (Psalm 100, for example) of the heart that they bring the one praying to the end of words themselves. This is why the Jesus Prayer is, in this context, such a complete form of prayer. There can be no Christian, surely, who cannot pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” with sincerity and intentionality. And in its quiet repetition, as Bishop Kallistos Ware says,

Like a drop of ink that alls on blotting paper, the act of prayer should spread steadily outwards from the conscious and reasoning centre of the brain, until it embraces every part of ourselves. 

It is in our very inability, our unknowing, that we find God – or rather, perhaps, that we are open to his finding us. Christ himself, in whose name we pray, taught us (Luke 18.12-14) that it was the tax collector who owned himself a sinner, rather than the Pharisee who was so certain of his place in the economy of salvation, who “went home justified”. That is why contemplation is so bound up in contrition, it seems to me. Only when we have reached the end of ourselves can we find the beginning of the heart’s silence. Ware again:

For the heart has a double significance in the spiritual life: it is both the centre of the human being and the point of meeting between the human being and God.

[from 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]

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]

The Grace of Trust

Looking down 1900ft from the Cabo Girão skywalk, Madeira

There are times when we can do all that a fellow creature needs if only he will trust us. In getting a dog out of a trap, in extracting a thorn from a child’s finger, in teaching a boy to swim or rescuing one who can’t, in getting a frightened beginner over a nasty place on a mountain, the one fatal obstacle may be their distrust. We are asking them to trust us in the teeth of their sense, their imagination, and their intelligence. We ask them to believe that what is painful will relieve their pain and that what looks dangerous is their only safety. We ask them to accept apparent impossibilities: that moving the paw farther back into the trap is the way to get it out – that hurting the finger very much more will stop the finger hurting – that water which is obviously permeable will resist and support the body – that holding onto the only support within reach is not the way to avoid sinking – that to go higher and onto a more exposed ledge is the way not to fall. To support all these incredibilia we can rely only on the other party’s confidence in us – a confidence certainly not based on demonstration, admittedly shot through with emotion, and perhaps, if we are strangers, resting on nothing but such assurance as the look of our face and the tone of our voice can supply, or even, for the dog, on our smell. Sometimes, because of their unbelief, we can do no mighty works. But if we succeed, we do so because they have maintained their faith in us against apparently contrary evidence. No one blames us for demanding such faith. No one blames them for giving it. 

CS Lewis The World’s Last Night

I have been struck recently by the truth of this passage for my own relationship with God. The times in my life when I have come through the most difficult circumstances have been those times when I have been most conscious of the infinite trustworthiness of God. Quite literally, if I had not trusted God’s grace and mercy, especially as Paul explains it in chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans, I couldn’t have come through to be sitting here writing this. And yet, of myself, I am not capable of that kind of trust, when all the evidence of sense and intellect points to the radical untrustworthiness of the whole situation. To trust God enough to walk out on what appears to be thin air is only possible through prayer; to trust God enough to pray rather than run is sheer grace, an act simply inaccessible to the unaided human will.

The priest, abolitionist and ex-sea captain and slave trader John Newton, who knew a thing or two about desperate situations, wrote sometime before 1779:

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
   That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
   Was blind, but now I see. 

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
   And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear
   The hour I first believ’d! 

Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,
   I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
   And grace will lead me home…

All that is is gift. There is nothing else. The air we breathe, the slender band of temperatures in which we can survive, the earth beneath our feet, the steady beating of our hearts – we brought about none of this by our own will or intention, and we cannot sustain any of it by our own will or intention either. Whatever happens, we cannot fall out of God, who holds all time, all things, within the love that is his istigkeit, his own being:

I saw that [our Lord] is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good, as I understand. 

And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… 

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the creator and protector and the lover. For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have perfect rest or true happiness, until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me.

Julian of Norwich, Showings, Ch. 5

[Originally published on The Mercy Blog, 5/1/2019]

Prayer beneath the Cross

As we move into the new year, we find ourselves – at least I do – looking at the broken condition of the world, with its shame and confusion, its poverty and intolerance, its extremism and cruelty, wondering what on earth is going on, and whether, in view of the increasingly desperate findings of climate science, whether there will be an earth to be going anywhere in a few years’ time. Jesus is Lord? Really?

Tom Wright:

Jesus is the Lord, but it’s the crucified Jesus who is Lord – precisely because it’s his crucifixion that has won the victory over all the other powers that think of themselves as in charge of the world. But that means that his followers, charged with implementing his victory in the world, will themselves have to do so by the same method. One of the most striking things about some of (what we normally see as) the later material in the New Testament is the constant theme of suffering, suffering not as something merely to be bravely borne for Jesus’ sake, but as something that is mysteriously taken up into the redemptive suffering of Jesus himself. He won his victory through suffering; his followers win theirs by sharing in his. 

(Simply Jesus)

There is more than one way to read Wright’s words here, and he has left it, perhaps deliberately, for us to navigate our own path through the ambiguity. Those of us who are called to a more outwardly active response to the world may indeed find ourselves living out Jesus’ victory in terms of physical suffering at the hands of the rulers and authorities of this present darkness (Ephesians 6.12), as so often happens in non-violent protest. But I think there is more to it than this. The beginning of this chapter of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus contains advice about living honestly and justly within the existing social framework of his time, not revolution. Sometimes of course resistance to outright injustice may be inescapable, but this is not what Paul is writing about. He goes on to say (6.10-12):

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

We in the West all too often see heaven as “somewhere else” – a distant land far away from earth, where good people go on death to be with God, and are then very puzzled by this idea of “forces of evil in the heavenly realms”. But as Tom Wright explains in the book I quoted above, “In ancient Judaism and early Christianity, heaven and earth, God’s world and our world, overlap and interlock in various ways that put quite a different spin on all sorts of things.” Spiritual forces of evil are real forces nonetheless; more real, perhaps, than their earthly expressions in terms of armies, secret police, and mob rule.

Prayer is indeed, as Paul points out, spiritual warfare. But this is Jesus’ war: it is fought with weapons of love and suffering, not of conflict and destruction. Our struggles in prayer (and they are struggles, make no mistake) are not fought by curses and invective against the “enemy”, nor by long rants advising God what he should do to whom; but by taking into ourselves, in the shadow of the Cross, the pain and grief of the suffering world, bringing them to our crucified and risen Lord for his healing, his mercy. As St Isaac of Nineveh recounted,

An elder was once asked, “What is a merciful heart?” He replied: 

“It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation. 

For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.”

[Originally published on The Mercy Blog, 31/12/2018]

Before I was afflicted…

Walter Brueggemann writes, in Praying the Psalms, of their use of the “language of disorientation and reorientation… as old in the Bible as the call to Abram and Sarai to leave their place and go to another” – where of course they are not only relocated, but transformed, as their new names, Abraham and Sarah, remind us and them. Brueggemann goes on to associate disorientation with “the wrong place”, characterised in the Psalms with the image of “the pit” – as for instance in the opening of Psalm 28:

To you, Lord, I call;
you are my Rock,
do not turn a deaf ear to me.
For if you remain silent,
I shall be like those who go down to the pit.
Hear my cry for mercy
as I call to you for help,
as I lift up my hands
towards your Most Holy Place.

Reorientation Brueggemann associates with the image of finding safe refuge under the protective wings of God – for instance in Psalm 61:

…lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the foe.
I long to dwell in your tent for ever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.


or perhaps even more tellingly in Psalm 63:

On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me.

As Brueggemann points out, this need not be understood as escapism: it may simply be the acknowledgement of “that the resources for life are not found in “us” but will have to come from another source outside of self. It is the recognition of the disoriented person that a new orientation must come as a gift.” (ibid.)

I have come to recognise, from 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 power of this kind of prayer, and how actually to pray the Psalms, to take their words and make them one’s own, brings strength and refuge, comfort even, in the darkest places. I honestly believe that at these times in my life I would not have come through had it not been for the Psalms.

But there is another strand in the Psalms’ treatment of suffering that I have not seen in Brueggemann’s account, and which is found in its fullest form only in Psalm 119; and that is the recognition of suffering as in itself somehow a route to healing and restoration. It was in this darkest time that I mentioned in the last paragraph that I first came to notice these passages clearly, though I must have read them in passing often enough. 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 and distress made sense, how it did after all 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. I had not at that time read the Catechism of the Catholic Church – not that I have read the whole thing now! – and so I was unaware of this passage:

The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one mediator between God and men”. But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, “the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” is offered to all men. He calls his disciples to “take up [their] cross and follow (him)”,[Mt.16:24] for “Christ also suffered for (us), leaving (us) an example so that (we) should follow in his steps.”[1Pet.2:21] In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering. Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.[St. Rose of Lima]

Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC618 [some refs. abbreviated]

This is one of those passages which some may find hard to take; but I can honestly say that it was quite simply my own experience. In turning to Christ in the Jesus Prayer, in these words from Psalm 119, and psalms like 61 and 63, the suffering that I had come into became, once accepted for what it was, itself the means of my endurance.

It’s really important to understand that none of this was my doing. None of it came about through any particular insight or perspicuity of mine, still less through any imagined godliness: it was all sheer gift, as Brueggemann recognises. Any resources for this kind of survival must come from beyond the self, which is of course why it is so widely recognised that in matters of mental health the first and often the most vital step is to talk to somebody! Nor am I saying that the ultimate healing of these wounds of the spirit comes purely through the prayerful acceptance of suffering. My survival may, in my own instance, have come that way – but it was only after the passage of many years, and through skilled and patient help, that their effects have finally come to be something like healed. But their value – that is another matter entirely. One of the hardest things to take is the illusion of the pointlessness of one’s own suffering; the realisation that it is not, after all, a waste of life and hope, but a way into endless life and indestructible hope, through and not despite the Cross (as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief…”) is what brings us to that refuge, “in the shadow of [his] wings…”