Angels in Desolation

I was brought up to be a perfectionist: to get it right, preferably first time, or just not to bother. I carried the attitude through into adult life, where it made me unhappy, driven and, at least when it came to farming, effective. But spiritually it was disastrous. Sin crippled me. Not that I was that much more (or less) of a sinner than the next person, nor that my sins were any worse (or any less bad) than theirs, but that the fact of their having been done at all made me incapable of living with myself, incapable of believing I was livable with by anyone, including God. My perfectionism had made me, spiritually speaking, stinking rich in self-regard. Not self esteem, you understand, but self-regard; not self-satisfaction, but self-attention. I could not reach God for the mounds of my own self analysis, my continual self appraisal, just as the rich young man in Mark 10.17-27 couldn’t see over his bank balance, and his land, and his possessions.
The maturing contemplative is too poor to be concerned with spiritual progress. If there is a measure of spiritual progress, it will be found in the rib cage of failure: in our debilitating faults, our defeats, our wounds, our solidarity with those who are marginalised from every circle of meaning they belong to. This seems to be the way divine love works, to seek out and indwell where we hurt most. This is the obscure realisation of receptive mind.  Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation and Liberation
Two things rescued me, right in line with Martin Laird’s words here. Firstly, the continued practice of contemplation, which I somehow managed – more or less – to stick to through thick and thin; and secondly, a series of disasters and let-downs, beginning with a farm accident that put an end to my farming career, and eventually to my ability to work full-time at all, and ending only when I was able to move away. The confluence of those things led to a remarkable discovery: God was closer to me than ever. Not just that he hadn’t abandoned me when things came unglued, but that he seemed closer than ever. He wasn’t of course. He’d been there all along; but my heart, being shattered, was somehow opened, not only to God but to all creation in its brokenness, its pain (Romans 8.22-25). I have come to recognise, from these 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 truth of what Laird is trying to say in the passage I quoted above. But there is another strand in the Psalms which is found in its fullest form only in Psalm 119; and that is the recognition of suffering itself as somehow a route to the mercy of God in Christ. It was during these darkest times that I first came to notice these passages clearly, though I must have read them in passing often enough, and to cling to them as to a bit of floating wood in a shipwreck. 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, defeat and distress made sense, how it did in fact 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, and with the utter stripping of the Cross. It is only in that condition that we can dare to know nothing, because there is nothing else but Christ, and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2.2) Desolation is a place that seems somehow dear to God, oddly enough. It was in the wilderness that God revealed himself to Abraham and to Jacob, to Moses and to Elijah; and it was into the wilderness that he called his Son – drove him, according to Mark – to face his own temptation to self-reliance, and in the wilderness that the angels ministered to him. It is only in the wilderness, it seems to me, that we have little enough to cling to that we can see what has been before us since long before we were conceived: that God is nearer to us than our own breathing, than the earth beneath our blistered feet.

Lady of silences, pray for us…

We are nearly at the beginning of Lent, late this year. Last year we were already a fortnight past Ash Wednesday by today’s date, at the end of the second week, nearly – where Eliot wrote,

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness…

The silences of Lent begin “with the voice of God, singing the praise of Jesus, the Son. Just as this affirmation calls Jesus into the wilderness (Mark 1.9-13), so it calls us, too.” (Jane Williams, The Merciful Humility of God) Here, after thirty or so presumably uneventful years, was the beginning of the fulfilment of Simeon’s words to Mary in the temple (Luke 2.34-35). Yet she remained, throughout her Son’s trial and crucifixion, that “Lady of silences…” as she entered her own most terrible wilderness (John 19.25-27). “Here is your mother…” Not a word.

“Remember that you are dust…” The priest’s words echo over the beginning of Lent, calling us to listen to our own frailty, our own finiteness. “And to dust you shall return.” The dust of the wilderness, from which we were made, dry in the singing heat that rises from the parched dust, dry as the rock from which it was worn by the wind, by the sun.

Lady of silences, pray for us. As the weight of the words raises our dust in the dry heat, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

[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)…”

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]

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…”