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!

Maundy Thursday

No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:  

“What no eye has seen,
   what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”
    – the things God has prepared for those who love him –  
these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. 

1 Corinthians 2:7-9

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

John 1:1-5

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 

John 17:20-23

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. 

John 14:26-27 

Christ is a mystery, far more than the Jesus of the Gospel stories, far more than the Jesus who is so often preached today as friend, companion, saviour. And yet that was the Jesus the disciples knew; and the contemporary preaching of him is quite true, if occasionally limited. Perhaps it is that word “saviour” on which our awareness of the mystery begins to turn. John’s Gospel could maybe be thought of as the explication of that mystery, the unpacking of what lies beneath much of the first three (the synoptic) Gospels.

Only in prayer, as I draw close to the presence of Christ within, do I feel I begin to understand. The presence of Christ in anything we know – his earthly form, the Eucharist he left us, our own selves in prayer – is a mystery known only by faith, as the Spirit reveals him to us. As Jesus himself said, (John 14:1) “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” Only be still, and know that Christ is Immanuel, God with us…

Gerard Manley Hopkins came very close, when he wrote:

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

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

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.

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)…”

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.