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]

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…”

O Radix Iesse

O Radix Iesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before whom kings will shut their mouths,
whom the nations will implore:
Come to deliver us, and do not now delay.

In Praying the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann writes,

…in the Psalms the use of language does not describe what is. It evokes into being what does not exist until it has been spoken. This kind of speech resists discipline, shuns precision, delights in ambiguity, is profoundly creative, and is itself an exercise in freedom. In using speech in this way, we are in fact doing in a derivative way what God has done in the creation narratives of Genesis. We are calling into being that which does not yet exist (compare Romans 4.17).

Unlike the language of fact and description we use in everyday talk, in the speech of politics and commerce, law and engineering, the Psalms are not seeking documentation and control, information processing. They are in the highest sense poetry – in which case perhaps Brueggemann misses the point when he says they “resist discipline, shun precision” – for then their discipline and precision are of another order entirely. They are a use of language parallel to (at least in a derivative way) God’s speaking of the Word that brings all things to existence – the Word, in fact, who was with God in the beginning, “the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.” When we use language like this we are drawing, and drawn, closer and closer to Christ in the the Word, the mercy, that he is. As a poet of more discipline and precision than I dare to attempt once wrote,

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

TS Eliot, Four Quartets, 1, Burnt Norton, section II

And the dance that Christ is Lord of is life, and light, and becoming. “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 1.4,5) If we remain in Christ (John 15.7) ultimately the dark will not overcome us, either, for all that that light lies, like the light of eternity, on the far side of dying. He comes, indeed, to deliver us, and will not delay – already, his word accomplishes his purpose; it will not return to him empty… (Isaiah 55.11)

“I Surrender All”

sdr

In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.

Thomas R Kelly, Quaker faith & practice 2.10

The spiritual hunger of the contemplative can be satisfied only by a full surrender of the soul to God. The longing of a contemplative soul finds its completion precisely in this deeper offering and surrender to God. The manner in which God draws this surrender in prayer is a mysterious aspect of each contemplative life. It has its unique variations in each life, but one essential fact is that a complete surrender of the soul is demanded by the nature of love. The need to offer all to God becomes a dominant urge within the contemplative soul and, indeed, within prayer itself. God seems to find circumstances in which the contemplative soul is faced with this need as the only manner in which it can live out its hunger for God. The surrender that takes place in prayer is often simply a response to what God has shown as an exclusive option for a soul if it is to plunge ahead in its relationship of absolute love for God.

Donald Haggerty, The Contemplative Hunger

I have found that, as Fr. Haggerty in fact goes on to say, there is no roadmap for this interior process, no way to predict when one might be brought up against an instance of this kind of surrender. It is not something that could be taught in some imagined course on the contemplative life, or foreseen by a perceptive spiritual director, except in the most general sense. As Haggerty says,

We [come to] release our natural grip on possessiveness, our clinging to passing things that are bound to disappear eventually from our lives. We have to learn at times not to defend ourselves against those losses when they come…

We cannot bargain with God over this kind of surrender, I find. There may be unlooked-for compensations further along this line, strange blessings in place of what we have relinquished. Or quite unexpectedly, what we have given up may be restored to us, maybe in another form. But we can never see these things ahead of time, and we can never ever say to God, “I’ll give up this if you’ll give me that.” That isn’t how it works.

But God is gentle, beyond our understanding or expectation. He does not demand these surrenders, nor force them on us. We come to realise that “God wants nothing but complete surrender, although he will never make an absolute demand for it (Haggerty).” Circumstances, it is true, may take things from us – an illness, an accident, a betrayal may take away things we have held dear – but there is always the opportunity not to surrender them to God, but to fight to recover them, to demand compensation, to find someone or something to blame… Sometimes, though, I have discovered, there is a real inward hint ahead of time: “If you accept this course of action, there will be consequences,” almost as clear as a heard voice. The stronger the call to whatever it is, the more radical the choice, the clearer the inward hint. It is never explicit – one does not know what the consequences may be, in my experience – but it is there, along with the absolute sense of rightness of the possible action.

The realness of these things is inescapable. The call to surrender, to trust against trust in God, is not remotely imaginary. René Voillaume wrote:

All the great Christian contemplatives are unanimous in their testimony: whatever the spiritual path, the union with God is perceived by them as real, a more existential reality, more solid, more full of being and certainty than any other experience of the physical world. In this sense, it is true to say that contemplatives are the most realistic of men.

There are many times in one’s life, though, that these instances of surrender are simply absent, and when they do appear they can be so unexpected as to seem momentarily unreal. They come not usually as answers to prayer, but in the context of prayer – sometimes fervent prayer, maybe not of petition or intercession, but of longing contemplation. I have found them in the smallest occasions of life, as well as at the great crossroads of change and pilgrimage. The one thing that does seem to be common to them all is that they are done in the shadow of the Cross. They are ways to lay down one’s life, with all that that phrase entails. They are ways to pain; and, like the Lord we follow, we cannot see beyond that to whatever unimaginable Resurrection may lie on the other side.

There is something, too, of the forgiveness of the Cross about these strange occasions God brings to us. These losses may come through the action, or inaction, of someone else. Our acceptance of the surrender may open the door to harm, intentional or unintentional, at the hands of someone else. Then they become opportunities not only of renouncement, relinquishment, of some known good, but of love and forgiveness; in the utter mystery of God, love and forgiveness not only of our oppugner, but of ourselves. They can thus be strange acts of cleansing, healing even – a glimpse of purgatory on earth, if that is not a presumptuous suggestion.

Oddly, these occasions of loss – and that is what they are, make no mistake – are also occasions of grace. They lie under the great overarching promise of Romans 8.28, “[a]nd we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” and they can be, like all losses rightly accepted, windows into the purposes of God himself. Weak though our vision is in this life (1 Corinthians 13.12), we can glimpse through them something of the vast economy of Heaven, the fields of blessing and redemption that lie beyond the final door, the last living surrender to God in the arms of Sister Death.

Strange Grace

img_20180419_133516968

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.