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I have been thinking recently about how prayer/contemplation/meditation resembles going to a gym:

the gym is not an end in itself, it is a means to another end.
You don’t go to the gym for the sake of going to the gym. You go to the gym so that you are generally fit and healthy and have energy i.e. you see the benefits of going to the gym in your life away from the gym. In the same way, when we set aside very focussed periods of practice – either individually or as a group – we do so to see the benefits elsewhere. We ‘practice’ awareness and presence (to God, ourselves, our world) in our prayer periods so that we can take that awareness and presence with us wherever we go and whatever we do.

if you only go occasionally to the gym, even if you work out like a maniac, you won’t see much change.
There’s not much point going to the gym once in a blue moon and doing a major workout; then eating junk food and not exercising for weeks on end before you next go to the gym. You won’t see the benefit. Better to try and find a pattern of exercising that is manageable but regular. Little and often. Better to do a small amount of exercise regularly than a big workout occasionally. In the same way, we need to find a regular rhythm of prayer if we are going to see the benefit (better emotional tone, depth, generosity of spirit, love, wisdom, compassion, peace etc. etc.)

I’m sure there are probably other parallels as well, but these are just a couple I have been thinking about. If any more occur to me I’ll no doubt post them!

From Light to Darkness

conversion-of-st-paulHere’s a copy of the Homily I preached for the feast of the Conversion of St Paul last night at Home:

What can we learn from this story of Paul’s conversion that falls in our lectionary readings for today?

I would like to offer a few thoughts.

Paul’s conversion has often been seen as paradigmatic of conversion – in other words we have looked to narratives like this to give us a sense of what is normative in terms of people coming to faith.

People have therefore had an expectation of a sudden, dramatic divine intervention that brings them to a point of faith.

But I think many of us have come to see that – while that may still happen for certain people – for a lot of us that’s not what coming to faith is like. For many people it’s a much more gradual slow dawning.

In our huddle last week Andy helpfully reminded us that conversion is a lifelong process. It’s not about coming to a point of complete clarity about who Christ is, understanding all the necessary doctrine and giving your mental assent to it.

Let me remind you that in the gospels the disciples responded to a simple invitation from Jesus to “follow me”. There was no detailed explanation of theology. And in fact, as the gospel narratives proceed, the disciples continually misunderstand who Jesus is or what he is doing. Jesus is always saying to them “do you still not get it?”!!

So let me offer a different way of engaging with this story of the conversion of Paul which I hope will be helpful.

Because Paul – or Saul as he was known at that point – had a lot of clarity BEFORE his encounter with Christ. And counter to the way we usually think about it, his encounter with Christ left him in darkness! In fact he was literally blinded.

I think this is a very helpful paradigm for us to engage with.

We often start out very sure and certain – we know who the good guys are and we know who the bad guys are. The world is very black and white. We understand who God is and what God is about. We have all our theology worked out. We have formulated our doctrinal statements and positions and we are quite convinced that these accurately describe the true nature of how things really are.

I want to suggest that in terms of our ongoing conversion, this is early stage faith. And in fact, like Paul, our experience of Christ can often be a blinding.

Everything gets turned on its head and we are left in darkness.

This is important because often we think of the life of faith as moving from vagueness to certainty, or from darkness to light. And in some senses that can be helpful way of looking at things.

But the conversion of Paul suggests that coming to faith and growing in Christ can often mean a movement in the opposite direction – from light to darkness.

Or perhaps I should say ‘supposed light’. Paul was convinced he was right and he was in the light. But he wasn’t.

This should caution us to hold on lightly to our understanding of God. God will not be neatly consigned to our doctrinal formulations! The Spirit is wild and free and blows wherever it wills. We cannot box God in.

So if you feel you are in a state of spiritual darkness or spiritual blindness at the moment take heart!! Don’t be too quick to assume that this is not the work of God. It may well be part of your ongoing conversion.

In huddle last week we were talking about this idea presented by an author whose name I have forgotten who said that God’s work is more often than not done in secret, in hidden-ness, in darkness. We think God is absent, we begin to doubt our tightly held black and white beliefs, we think nothing is going on.

But all the time the seed hidden in the darkness of the soil is germinating and growing.

This author suggested that God works in this way because if we were aware of what God was doing we would resist it or try to control it.

And of course the mystics often talk about darkness and the ‘dark night of the soul’ – which we suggested this week was perhaps not the dramatic affair it is often thought of as, but perhaps feels very mundane and ordinary as though nothing were happening.

So while God is undoubtedly light – the scripture refer to God in this way again and again – our experience of this light – which is so bright and so intense, is often one of darkness : we are blinded by the light of God.

Finally, it’s important to say that God didn’t leave Paul this way and God doesn’t leave us this way either.

Paul was blind for some time though. It was a few days before Ananias came and laid hands on him and restored his sight.

Who knows how long your period of darkness will be?

Christian community can help sustain you during this time. Paul went to the house of one of the disciples and then Ananias eventually came.

Sometimes when you are in that state of blindness all you can do is be with your brothers and sisters – stay in the rhythm and flow of a worshipping, Christ-centred community – and see what God brings you.

But when your sight is restored you will see things differently, just like Paul did.

My daughter the Mystic

I took my two year old daughter to a play centre this morning. She loves going there – there’s tons to do : a big slide, ball pools, swings, etc.

One of her favourite things to do there is go on the trampoline. This morning was no exception. As she stood on the trampoline getting ready to bounce she noticed that there was a white cross marking the centre of the trampoline. She moved towards it and then – amazingly – she pointed at the cross and said “Jesus”. I was flabbergasted! So much so that I thought I must have misheard her and so I asked her to repeat what she said and again she pointed at the cross and said “Jesus”.

A little while later we went to the craft area to do some painting. Lily-Anna was doing a little painting and scribbling (she has only just turned two so scribbling is where it’s at right now) and then another little girl came and sat at the painting table. Lily was watching her intently (as she often does with other children). The other little girl was a bit older and therefore a little more advanced with her motor skills. She took one of the paints and painted a big cross in the middle of her paper which was going to form the beginnings of a pattern. Quick as a flash, Lily pointed at the other little girl’s piece of paper and said “Jesus”!!

In the car on the ride home she kept pointing out of the window and saying “Jesus” too!

An important part of contemplation – as I have said in the posts below – is to develop a sense of the presence of God in the ordinary not just the extraordinary; a sense that God is always present but we are too asleep to be alive to that reality. I don’t mind admitting that at the playgroup this morning I was not very conscious of the presence of God, but my daughter obviously was! Why should my awareness be dulled just because I am somewhere like that?

Maybe Christ was on to something when he told us that we must become like little children.

results

It seems to me that one of the shifts we need to make as we move into a more contemplative spirituality is to do with the whole business of ‘results’ in prayer.

When we were young in the faith God was like a cash machine – we entered our pin (=said our prayers/had a quiet time etc.) and expected to see some instant results – God would do the thing we had asked him to or perhaps he wouldn’t and then we would apply one of our well-thought-through theological reasons as to why that might be (we “weren’t praying in line with his will” or something like that).

So as we move into contemplative ways of praying we make a big disconnect here. God is no longer seen as the big cash machine in the sky. In fact we also make a disconnect between the period of prayer and the perceived benefits of praying. What I mean is this – I think we were used to expecting some sort of response from God in the period of prayer itself. i.e. we would have a sense of ‘meeting’ with God (again there is this sense of God primarily being somewhere else and moving towards us (or us towards him) that I mentioned a couple of posts ago), a sense of presence.

In contemplative prayer that is often not the case and the prayer period itself can feel quite unremarkable in many ways. Today for me was a case in point – I sat to meditate this morning and absolutely nothing interesting happened. It was very unremarkable, very average, I was quite distracted etc. But in contemplative prayer we start to disassociate prayer with mushy feelings (or at least we recognise these for what they are) and we look to see change elsewhere – better emotional tone, deeper thankfulness, greater generosity of spirit, gentleness, greater awareness (of God, for example) etc.

The prayer period is like a workout for the soul – it’s not the point in and of itself – we are supposed to see the benefits elsewhere.

UPDATE : I have changed the language of my original post to ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ (rather than ‘inner’ and ‘outer’)

I was on a bus earlier today and couldn’t help but notice a woman who was looking at a leaflet about the Quakers. In many ways she looked exactly like you would expect someone who is interested in the Quakers to look like. Of course that’s a horrible generalisation and I don’t really want to stereotype people – in fact I know Quakers who don’t at all fit the mould, if there is a mould.

But it did make me wonder, generalisations apart, whether there is a certain type of person who is drawn to the contemplative, interior path. The woman on the bus looked like the kind of person who didn’t want to push out into life too much, wasn’t looking to take from life, push the boundaries, achieve etc. – I think I would call this the ‘outward movement’ i.e. pushing out and taking.

Instead (and I realise how awfully judgemental this is of me but I found it helpful in thinking it through) she looked like the kind of person who was quite happy with her lot in life, wasn’t looking to expand and take new territory, but instead felt the pull inwards – I think I would call this the ‘inward movement’.

There does seem to be this inward and outward movement in the development of our spirituality. Richard Rohr talks about it in terms of the two halves of life – the first half is about pushing out and achieving, the second is about letting go. Ronald Rolheiser talks about leaving and returning home. Eckhart Tolle sees this sort of pattern in the universe itself – expansion (the big bang) and contraction (the universe contracting).

Is mystical spirituality only for people who are tired or disillusioned with the outward movement (or have just done it and finished with it)? I hesitate for a couple of reasons which are quite personal….

1. I was told a number of years ago that prayer was all about personality and that I shouldn’t bother with silence because I’m not an extrovert and contemplative prayer is just for introverts. I foolishly believed this at the time and it held me up for ages.

2. Following on from that I feel that I am experiencing both the inward and outward movements concurrently. I am tired with the expansionist, ego-driven, outer movement and feel drawn deeper inwards but at the same time I am still pushing out in different ways (for example I am setting up the StillPoint Centre in Oxford this year).

So…is it unfairly generalising to suggest that contemplative prayer is only for people who are on the inward movement? Do you know many contemplatives who are ‘pushing out’ in life? Or is this all a load of nonsense!

Following on from my previous post about God’s absence/presence I have been thinking about how this relates to Charismatic expressions of Christianity.

One might think that Charismatic spirituality is very much in tune with the presence of God – after all it has quite an immanent view of the Holy Spirit who is seen as being very present to people, to the extent that they will physically respond (shaking, falling over etc.).

BUT – in my opinion, Charismatic spirituality is still guilty of conceiving of God as being  predominantly somewhere else. Yes, God might come close (and this is seen as God presencing himself where he was not present previously)  – but these are fleeting moments, normally only possible in highly-charged corporate gatherings, and then God is gone again, leaving us wanting and waiting for more.

The challenge remains to remove the blockages to our awareness of God’s continual presence.

God is not somewhere else

Really interesting to be back at my old church last night. I went for a couple of reasons – principally because my friend (and my daughter’s Godfather) – Alan – is now the curate there. He was preaching and I haven’t had chance to hear him before now as there’s always a clash with our community gathering. He was good!

Anyway – it gave me an opportunity to reflect a little on my spiritual journey over the last few years since I was there. I’ve grown tired of expending negative energy and it’s not my place to judge others so that’s not what this is about. Nevertheless something helpful occurred to me.

It seems to me that many conservative forms of Christianity are predicated on the idea that God is always somewhere else. We are waiting for God to come to us and the problem to be overcome is how to get God to ‘show up’ – we have got to get closer to God or get God closer to us. And there are all kinds of ways we hope we might be able to go that.

I used to think like that too. But over the last few years there has been a seismic shift going on in my spirituality. Now I would say that God is always present. The problem then is not about getting God to come to us (and at this time of year we are particularly mindful of how the incarnation reveals God’s presence with us) but about waking up from our sleep and becoming mindful and aware of God’s already-present presence. The problem is not that God is not here, the problem is that we are not aware of God being here.

Spiritual practice helps deepen our awareness of God being right here, right now.