… because everyone is drawn almost irresistibly back towards this urge to manage.Rowan Williams. Silence and Honey Cakes, 26.
I have been reading Silence and Honey Cakes – a book by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on desert spirituality. It was recommended to me by a lecture in history at a Catholic theological institute.
The above – “this urge to manage” – is a very strong image for me in the first chapter. The withdrawal into the desert is not a withdrawal from a sinful world but an opening of my own sinfulness. And at the core of this is my need to manage people. To set limits on other people’s access to God and to always place myself between God and people. To make myself the spiritual guru, the person with the answers, the person who has it all worked out. To place myself above the other is not an act of love but hubris.
But that is nothing but my sinfulness. And in silence, I hear that most clearly. The desert is not a place but part of my heart that I need to listen to intently. Only when I know what it means to be broken can I really appreciate what it means to be whole – or holy!
Spiritual guidance affirms the basic quest for meaning. It calls for the creation of space in which the validity of the questions does not depend on the availability of answers but on the questions’ capacity to open us to new perspectives and horizons. We must allow all the daily experiences of life—joy, loneliness, fear, anxiety, insecurity, doubt, ignorance, the need for affection, support, understanding, and the long cry for love—to be recognized as an essential part of the spiritual quest.Nouwen, Spiritual Direction
I have been listening to Henry Nouwen’s book on spiritual direction. I have not read much by him so I am super impressed with this book. Especially as an audiobook that I can listen to while doing other things.
So I thought I would share the above. Questioning is important and very much part of the journey into Jesus.
I have been reading Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love. Just a couple quotes:
BEING A NOBODY in a society obsessed with prestige and prosperity is a challenging position; and yet embracing a state of utter nothingness, renouncing the clutter of worldly possessions and the preoccupation with social status, can, in fact, be a totally liberating experience.
Yes, being utter nothingness is very countercultural. There is a sense that being nothing is about being a person – a “no thing”. But in a world of objects that can be measured and valued, being a person is often being nothing.
For if I look at myself, I am really nothing; but as one of mankind in general, I am in oneness of love with all my fellow Christians; for upon this oneness of love depends the life of all who shall be saved; for God is all that is good, and God has made all that is made, and God loves all that he has made.
Yes, being nothing is about oneness with everyone else who is nothing. And about oneness with God who is above all a “no thing”.
Christianly, struggling is always done by single individuals, because spirit is precisely this, that everyone is an individual before God, that “fellowship” is a lower category than “the single individual,” which everyone can and should be. And even if the individuals were in the thousands and as such struggled jointly, Christianly understood each individual is struggling, besides jointly with the others, also within [themselves], and must as a single individual give an accounting on judgment day, when [their] life as an individual will be examined.Practice in Christianity (slightly modified)
I think people sometimes misunderstand Kierkegaard on the issue of being “the single individual”. I have heard him quoted as an individualist who promotes absolute subjectivity. Hardly! The context into which he speaks is Christianity properly understood. The people I have heard accuse him of being an individualist tend to be Biblicists or fundamentalists (even the Catholic variety) who place the individual below doctrine – or, as Kierkegaard might say, “place the abstract over the individual”.
Yes, other people can help – they can be examples, share their insights, and support me within my struggles and journey. I have felt that reality and I am thankful to God for the faithful people He has placed in my life. And I need to be encouraged (and reminded) to be that person for others – to seek spiritual friendship and to allow my gifts (and struggles) to help others. But in the end, I cannot answer for another when Jesus returns. I cannot answer for their life and no one can answer for my life. Maybe the best way is to think of it in terms of being “alone together”?!
God became a Single Individual in Jesus and went to the cross alone for me, so I come before God alone, seeking His love and mercy.
What must be the first step of the self upon this road to perfect union with the Absolute? Clearly, a getting rid of all those elements of normal experience which are not in harmony with reality: of illusion, evil, imperfection of every kind. By false desires and false thoughts man has built up for himself a false universe: as a mollusc, by the deliberate and persistent absorption of lime and rejection of all else, can build up for itself a hard shell which shuts it from the external world, and only represents in a distorted and unrecognisable form the ocean from which it was obtained. This hard and wholly unnutritious shell, this one-sided secretion of the surface-consciousness, makes as it were a little cave of illusion for each separate soul. A literal and deliberate getting out of the cave must be for every mystic, as it was for Plato’s prisoners, the first step in the individual hunt for reality.Underhill, Mysticism
Double points: Absolute sounds like Kierkegaard, and Plato’s cave is a great metaphor for the spiritual life.
I read the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8) at Morning Prayer and was struck by this:
(This is a wilderness road.)
Philip proclaims Jesus on a wilderness road. Not in a cultural setting or a religious community – in the wilderness.
I have been reading a book about desert spirituality. The author makes the point that fundamental to this form of asceticism is the relationship between mentor and student, abbot and disciple. It is a personal teaching by example. I guess we would call it spiritual mentoring. I really like that picture and that approach – a spiritual relationship with a mentor that is personal and practical. A wilderness road for the modern context?
I was thinking about a Merton quote this morning before saying Morning Prayer:
I need solitude for the true fulfillment which I seek – that of being ordinary.A Search for Solitude, 27
In those moments of solitude and silence I have during the day, I wear no masks. When I am alone with God, I am truly me. All the pretence is gone. All my pain and suffering is laid open before the Heart of Jesus.
Yet that solitude and silence requires effort on my part. I need to slow down, take a breath, and be intentional about my focus. It is much easier to have my mind filled with the everyday – the worries, the hurts, and the constant need to be in control or at least seem to be in control. That moment of silence requires effort!
Prayer was the very heart of the desert life, and consisted of psalmody (vocal prayer – recitation of the Psalms and other parts of the Scriptures which everyone had to know by heart) and contemplation. What we would call today contemplative prayer is referred to as quies or “rest.” This illuminating term has persisted in Greek monastic tradition as hesychia, “sweet repose.” Quies is a silent absorption aided by the soft repetition of a lone phrase of the Scriptures – the most popular being the prayer of the Publican: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!” In a shortened form this prayer became “Lord have mercy” (Kyrie eleison) – repeated interiorly hundreds of times a day until it became as spontaneous and instinctive as breathing.Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, 20
The repeating of a single phrase while breathing is a great way to pray. I find, especially at night, it is super relaxing but it also focuses me on Jesus. But what I really like about the above quote is that “sweet repose” and liturgical prayer live alongside each other. As it should be!
I have been wondering about revising my rule of life. I think it is too prescriptive rather than descriptive. So I have been reading a book about how to create a rule of life, Crafting a Rule of Life. I think I need to read the book with an open mind and not just look for validation. But the following from the introduction does very much say what I have been thinking:
A rule of life is descriptive in that it articulates our intentions and identifies the ways in which we want to live. And when we fall short of these intentions, the rule becomes prescriptive, showing us how we can return to the path that we have set for ourselves and recapture our original vision.Stephen A. Macchia, Crafting a Rule of Life
I would like to be more descriptive in my spiritual life. For me, it can all become very legalistic and “against the Spirit”. I do not make myself more (or less) acceptable to God by what I do. The rule of life needs to grow out of a desire for holiness – to be transformed in Jesus. My rule of life needs to express a relationship that is beyond the rule not somehow encapsulated by it.
Also I am not a monastic. I am not called to the religious life. My rule needs to reflect my context. And it needs to actually work in my context. No good prescribing the whole sevenfold office when I struggle to pray ones a day.
So I am going to work on this for a while. I might share more about the process and maybe even the end result. Pray for me!
I have been thinking (and reading) about the first step in the Threefold Path of mysticism: purification or purgation. (As an aside, when I googled it I got a lot of results for “laxatives”!)
This aspect focuses on discipline, particularly in terms of the human body; thus, it emphasizes prayer at certain times, either alone or with others, and in certain postures, often standing or kneeling. It also emphasizes the other disciplines of fasting and alms-giving, the latter including those activities called “the works of mercy,” both spiritual and corporal, such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless.
In essence, it is a step of negation – of stripping the body of its attachment to this world. And in a positive sense, it is a step of focusing on the things of God and, of course, on God Himself. All in a desire to experience the presence of God. Sometimes purification, in this sense, is a choice of the individual, sometimes it is due to circumstances. The aim is union with God and a fuller experience.
I am very encouraged by how God uses “darkness” to draw people closer to Himself. Often in suffering and pain, God reveals Himself to the individual. God reveals Himself on the cross and the individual is called to see Jesus in their cross and suffering. I am called to embrace my suffering and pain as a moment of revelation or experience of God.
God reveals Himself as Light in the darkness. And only in complete darkness can I only see Him.