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.

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)…”