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]

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…”

Strange Grace

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When you stop to think about it, grace is actually a strange idea. We learn, from our earliest childhood, that things operate by the laws of cause and effect: if you drop something, it hits the ground; if you disobey someone in authority, there will be consequences. We learn, too, that events have causes. If the cause of a given event is not immediately obvious – it starts raining, for instance – then look harder. There’s a cloud up there somewhere.

It is tempting, for some of us at any rate, to try this with grace. We are blessed: we must have done something right somewhere. Conversely, we still make the category mistake over which Jesus corrected his disciples in John 9.1-5.

The healing of our own hearts is all grace. We so easily live, all of us, clenched in a spiritual version of the cause and effect paradigm: we feel bad, so we must have done something wrong; if we wish to feel better, we need to find the thing that will please God – or at least press the right psychological button – so that we are somehow put right again.

In his book Dying Well: Dying Faithfully, John Wyatt, Professor of Ethics and Perinatology at University College London, points out that the medieval Ars moriendi, Latin texts on the art of dying of presumed Dominican origin,  contain the idea of despair over our past as a temptation we must face. Demons are sometimes shown tormenting the dying with lists of their misdeeds

…in a terrible parody of the words ‘Ecce homo’ (‘Behold the man!’) said about Jesus – ‘Ecce peccata tua’, (‘Behold your sins!’). Part of the subtlety of the accusations is that the demons quote scripture to demonstrate the righteousness of God, the seriousness of the individual sins and failures, and the impending judgement…

If loss of faith is loss of belief and trust, despair is the loss of hope…

In one of the Ars moriendi images, an angel visits a dying man and encourages him by pointing to figures from the Scriptures who repented and received forgiveness…

The medieval writers frequently emphasized the importance of meditating on the figure of Christ on the cross… But there seems to be a deeper mystery than merely being an external observer of Christ’s sufferings… The apostle Paul summed up his own personal hope in these words: ‘…that I may how him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death’ (Philippians 3.10, emphasis added). In some indescribable way we can have the privilege of entering into and identifying with the sufferings of Christ on the cross…

Scott J. Hafemann writes:

In our day of self-help and age of technology and technique, it is important to keep in mind that God is both the initiator and object of this [inner] reconciliation. Our propensity is to view the gospel as our opportunity to reconcile God to us by showing him how much we love him, rather than seeing it as God’s act in Christ by which he reconciles us to himself by demonstrating his own love for us. The gospel is not our chance to get right with God, but God’s declaration that he has already made us right with him. The gospel does not call us to do something for God that he might save us; it announces what God has done to save us that we might trust him.

(The NIV Application Commentary: 2 Corinthians)

God’s love for us, temporary and powerless as we are, somehow reaches us through this spiritual hyperlink that is the cross, and it is the crucified Jesus to whom we turn for mercy.

Mercy is to me the heart of prayer – and not only because it is the Jesus Prayer that is the centre of my own prayer. Cynthia Bourgeault writes:

…When we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional – always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being. Just like [the] little fish swimming desperately in search of water, we, too – in the words of Psalm 103 – “swim in mercy as in an endless sea.” Mercy is God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.

The cross of course is “God’s innermost being turned outward… in love” – and it is at the cross that, in the words of the Vineyard song, we find mercy and grace.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The Restless Heart

Lord, you are great!
And worthy of our praise!
Your strength and your wisdom
Are beyond measure.

We long to praise you,
though we are burdened by our mortality.
We are conscious of sin,
we long to praise you.
For you have so made us that we long for you,
and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you…

Lord, I shall seek you by calling to you,
In calling to you I shall believe, for your Word has come to us.
My faith will call out to you, my Lord.
Faith is your gift to me, through Jesus…

Confessions: St Augustine tr. Benignus O’Rourke OSA

We cannot help it – we are strangers and pilgrims by our very nature (1 Peter 2.11 AV) – a people called out from among those who live only among material longings, to long for God. How this happens is probably a mystery. Certainly it is grace. We are called; and yet that invitation is for all, even for those who do not answer (Revelation 3.20). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote:

What does it mean to be holy? Who is called to be holy? We are often led to think that holiness is a goal reserved for a few elect. St Paul, instead, speaks of God’s great plan and says: “even as he (God) chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4). And he was speaking about all of us. At the centre of the divine plan is Christ in whom God shows his Face, in accord with the favour of his will. The Mystery hidden in the centuries is revealed in its fullness in the Word made flesh. And Paul then says: “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19)…

We cannot settle down in a broken world. This is what lies at the heart, I think, of the Bodhisattva Vows of Mahayana Buddhism – a compassion that will not abandon the suffering of created things.

As strangers, we cannot be at home among the pain and injustice that are an inescapable part of this time-bound world into which we were born. As pilgrims, we wander in search of the mercy of God. Like Augustine, we call to God, though our longing itself is through grace. Our weakness, our lack, our longing, is the place where grace finds us: “But [God] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12.9 NIV)

Thus I have found myself called back again and again to the Jesus Prayer. Laurence Freeman once wrote that “sinners make the best contemplatives.” The sense of being separated, marginalised, is in itself a grace, strangely. Jesus himself said that he came (Luke 5.32) not to call the righteous, but sinners. Perhaps it is in accepting this that we open ourselves to the grace and mercy of God in Christ, regardless of our external circumstances. It is no coincidence that the classical form of the Jesus Prayer ends with the words, “a sinner.” To me it seems that knowing oneself as imperfect, fallible, poor in spirit (Matthew 5.3) is essential to living in that mercy.

As I wrote a while ago, our prayer, as contemplatives, is not something that is for ourselves alone, nor even – as if that were not sufficient – simply our response to our perceiving of the immensity of God’s love. I think this cannot be emphasised strongly enough. We need to understand that our life of prayer, especially if we are called to the contemplative life, is not a solipsistic, “self-actualising” activity, or some kind of relaxation technique aimed at producing a pleasant, stress-free state of mind, still less a quest for any kind of psychedelic experience. The contemplative vocation is as much as anything a call to intercession, and to a life lived in the shadow of the Cross.

In the end, our only destination is mercy. Like Ironside’s Door, it may look different from either side: we cry to God for his mercy – but having received it, we realise it was freely given all along.