Thursday, 28 November 2013

Of prayer and snakes

A quickie... Out for a lunch of dim sum today, and a visit to my favourite Chinese shop. A customer was buying incense sticks. As the friendly assistant wrapped them she asked: "So, do you pray?" When were you last asked that in a shop? Or anywhere? I even sometimes feel shy about asking that of a new directee and take great care to wrap it up as a nice "open question". 

I couldn't resist taking a picture of this sign, which made me smile. And synchronously (is that a word?) this quotation from St John Chrysostom came my way this morning and made me think...

The Lord, however, does want them [i.e. his disciples] to contribute something, lest everything seem to be the work of grace, and they seem to win their reward without deserving it. Therefore he adds: You must be clever as snakes and innocent as doves...

The Lord counselled the disciples to be not simply clever or innocent; rather he joined the two qualities so that they become a genuine virtue. He insisted on the cleverness of the snake so that deadly wounds might be avoided, and he insisted on the innocence of the dove so that revenge might not be taken on those who injure or lay traps for you. Cleverness is useless without innocence.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Perpendicular Pronoun

Narcissus (JW Waterhouse, detail): the first selfie. And we all know what happened to him...
HALO often tells of a former colleague who was very fond of talking about himself.  He also had a piercing voice and a strong regional accent (I won't say which) so that anyone walking past his office would hear a stream of "I, I, I..."  Fairness compels me to add that HALO will often go on to say in the same breath that I'm doing exactly the same whenever I post on this blog.  It's true, isn't it: the temptation to write about what I've been doing (translate that as: aren't I wonderful doing all these great things? See how in demand I am) or what I'm going to do (i.e. please, please come and boost my ego and tell all your friends so that more people know how great I am...)

I've never much liked that Sunday school thing about the Cross being "I" crossed out. I'd rather think of the Cross as the ultimate living mirror where I see myself reflected in the loving, truthful eyes of Christ. But I do need to watch how I use that perpendicular pronoun. (Spot the irony: five of them in this paragraph so far, not including the one in quotes. I am, though, deliberately using it rather than "we" to own what I'm writing as applying to me. So that's all right, isn't it..?). See, the danger isn't just of being turned into a pretty flower by a pool if I make myself too much the centre of my attention and my universe. It flows into how I use the word "my" too. And yes, here's Screwtape:

We teach them not to notice the different sense of the possessive pronoun - the finely graded differences that run from "my boots" through "my dog", "my servant", "my wife", "my father", "my master" and "my country" to "my God"... And all the time the joke is that the word "Mine" in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything.

The monastic tradition reminds us to consider speaking of "our" rather than "my".  In his early diaries  Thomas Merton wrote about putting on "our" socks and shoes after wading through a stream. That's the "our" of community - and also the "our" of "I and Thou"; the "our" of the Suscipe again - "everything is yours; dispose of it according to your will."  Love, reminds Ignatius "consists in a mutual sharing of goods" (Spiritual Exercises #231). And lest we think this might not be a joyous thing, read this:

It used to be
That when I would wake in the morning
I could with confidence say,

‘What am ‘I’ going to

That was before the seed

Cracked open.

Now Hafiz is certain:
There are two of us housed
In this body,Doing the shopping together in the market and

Tickling each other
While fixing the evening’s food.

Now when I awake
All the internal instruments play the same music:

‘God, what love-mischief can ‘We’ do
For the world

- Hafiz

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Folding the map

Map with sea-monster, 1572, Sweden
I heard this poem by W H Auden today on the radio. I was immediately struck by the words "stand up and fold your map of desolation", and of course I thought of Ignatius and his rules for discernment: though we can't change desolation and have to wait for it to take its course he urges us to practise agere contra - to move against the numbing, deadening impulse to turn back from the journey, to turn  in on ourselves, poring over the map; but (as Augustine said too in one of his sermons) to keep on walking. That's what this poem spoke of to me, anyway...

Underneath an abject willow,
Lover, sulk no more:
Act from thought should quickly follow.
What is thinking for?
Your unique and moping station
Proves you cold;
Stand up and fold
Your map of desolation.

Bells that toll across the meadows
From the sombre spire
Toll for these unloving shadows
Love does not require.
All that lives may love; why longer
Bow to loss
With arms across?
Strike and you shall conquer.

Geese in flocks above you flying.
Their direction know,
Icy brooks beneath you flowing,
To their ocean go.
Dark and dull is your distraction:
Walk then, come,
No longer numb
Into your satisfaction.

(Twelve Songs VII)

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Still thinking...

London Bridge
... about generosity. Almost a year ago I wrote here about praying while walking over London Bridge. I cross the bridge often these days, and did so yesterday on a cold, wet and windy Wednesday lunchtime. I paused as I always try to do if I'm not in a tearing hurry (risking being mistaken for a tourist, though I didn't have a camera!) and looked at the steady flow of the rain-flecked grey-brown water though the arches of the bridge. I thought again about the precious  offerings people have thrown into the river they saw as holy so many centuries ago...

My mind felt muddled and it was hard to pick out anything that felt "good enough" for me to offer God in gratitude - was this humility? Timidity? Or a reluctance to let go... and what's that about? In the end I simply said the Suscipe prayer: "Take and receive... Everything is Yours, do with it what You will. Give me only Your love and Your grace."  Sometimes - often - it feels a scary prayer; at other times it feels comforting to hand the whole sorry muddle over to God: "You sort it. Please." I suppose how I feel about the prayer depends on how I'm feeling about God. 

And then... The Gospel at Mass was the parable of the talents. It struck me that the man who hides his pound away and takes no risks with it does so not out of greed or laziness, but out of fear: fear of a harsh lord who will punish him if (when!) it all goes pear-shaped. So, before I think about what I'm doing, or might do (and those are questions much on my mind right now) with what I've been given, I need to consider what kind of Giver I believe in. And I mean believe in, not just have thoughts about.  How can I find the grace to be generous - how can I even ask for it - if I don't trust in a generous God?

The parable is set in the context of expectation of the Kingdom. So, Whose Kingdom are you longing, praying, waiting for? Whose Kingdom are you helping to build?

As Gerard Hughes wrote (I think it's in God of Surprises):

Invariably we create a God in our own image.
Because we do not love him very much, we are led to think he does not love us much.
Because we do not worry much about him, we imagine that he does not worry very much about us.
Because we are not very happy with him, we conclude that he is not very happy with us.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013


The Spiritual Exercises #5. The "bottom line" for the exercitant, and for us all.

A quick post - a bright and frosty morning that is pure gift. My mind and heart seem to be being nudged towards thoughts of generosity today: here are two of the nudges.

First, iBenedictines' post from Monday. If I'm longing to be found loveable and attractive (don't we all?)  at least I can let God turn it into a prayer for the attractiveness of generosity. 

And then Quinn Creative this morning, about setting your ideas free. I realise how stingy I can be with my ideas as thought they were really "mine" and I'd created them! Quinn challenges and inspires me.

And finally, Michael Leunig.  This poem has been a favourite (challenging too!) over the years:

When the heart
Is cut or cracked or broken
Do not clutch it
Let the wound lie open
Let the wind
From the good old sea blow in
To bathe the wound with salt
And let it sting.
Let a stray dog lick it
Let a bird lean in the hole and sing
A simple song like a tiny bell
And let it ring
Let it go.
Let it out.
Let it all unravel.
Let it free and it can be
A path on which to travel.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Wondrous doings

Waxing Moon
... is, of course, a phrase from the evening hymn, which says:
The Sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren 'neath the western sky

I've got one of those star-gazing apps on my phone, which tells you the names of the stars and planets you can see. It shows you the outlines of the creatures of the constellations - wonderful to see the celestial zoo above your head. We're in Suffolk this week, with its wide, clear starscapes - Venus and Jupiter in view, and the Milky Way ("Walsingham Way"), which as I've often said here I can't see at home. We've had rain and cloud, but also a couple of bright, almost frosty evenings when the stars seem so bright and close. I can wander about, holding my phone over my head, mapping my way though the heavens. 

And I've found another use for the app! Indoors, and held upside down. Sometimes I say Night Prayer using my phone (I've got a Breviary app too...) and then I switch to the star-map. If you hold it down it shows you what's beneath you and above the heads of those on the other side of the planet. I can see where the Sun is, and imagine my friends enjoying its rays in the parts of the world where it's daytime. In the solitude of darkness it's sometime comforting (even for an introvert!) to think of daytime things - work, play, conversations, creativity - happening. And of course the many parts of our fragile world where our prayer is needed. 

"I believe in the Sun even when it is not shining". These words were found scratched on the wall of Auschwitz. How dare I compare my trivial concerns with the suffering of whoever wrote this? But the words still comfort me. On especially dark, moonless nights it can be hard to believe in the Sun. But eventually a sliver of the waxing Moon will appear, catching the Sun's hidden rays and reflecting them to us, holding faith for us. Or the bright Evening Star. 

Of course this isn't really - or should I say only - about the sights of the night sky: "the Sun and Moon, your beautiful works - but they are your works, not you yourself." (St Augustine). It's about the light of the risen Christ, the light that no darkness can quench. The light we long for in this dark, fragile November season. 

PS to "Struggle"

... And inspired by Greenpatches' recent post. I'm reading David Steindl-Rast's The Music Of Silence - about the monastic hours  and how they can help us mark the changing moments or "seasons" of the day. This comes from his chapter on Vigils, the pre-dawn service, and I read it in bed at 3am today. It was one of those times when my tired body was out of synch with my refusing-to-relax mind so I didn't have the energy to get up and post this straight away. And I'm now feeling too lazy to type out the relevant paragraphs so a couple of screenshots will have to do, if that's OK with you. You can click to enlarge if you need to.