Thursday, 30 September 2010

Beyond Words.

Going beyond them (words, I mean) is what we are exploring in a group which has just started at St. Andrew’s, Waterloo, in central London (Wednesdays at 6.45pm). We are discovering the ancient Christian monastic tradition of lectio divina: sacred reading or, in other words, reading with the heart rather than the mind. The process takes seriously the belief that scripture (and this applies to the sacred writings of all major religions) is food. Of course it can, and should, be food for the intellect (an unintelligent faith is not worth living) but it must, above all, be food for the soul, for the heart, or we are hardly alive at all.

Traditionally, monks and nuns practiced lectio divina alone, perhaps walking around the cloister. There were four stages with Latin names: lectio (reading a short Bible passage slowly), meditatio (ruminating on the passage, entering into it imaginatively), oratio (prayer in any form which might arise from your ruminating) and finally contemplatio (resting quietly, beyond words, in trustful silence). Recently (well since the 1970s) this monastic practice has been adapted for use by us ordinary folk who go about our daily lives in the world (carrying our cloister within us) and practicing in a group is one of the adaptations.

There are dangers about doing it in a group however. The temptation to turn it into more of an intellectual exercise is greater. Cynthia Bourgeault says, “You’re not there to share or discuss or debate. It’s much more like a group meditation that shares its space with a scriptural text. Speaking happens, but the words are always framed in silence and must never overpower it.” We began with some basic stuff about contemplative prayer (see my blog post on February 27th this year) to get us in touch with the space, silence, stillness at the heart of each one of us.

Then we entered into the story in John’s gospel about Jesus at a well in Samaria asking a Samaritan woman to draw water for him to drink. (Chapter 4 verse 6). I am reminded now of words from Charles Wesley’s famous hymn, “Jesus lover of my soul”
Thou of life the fountain art;
Freely let me take of thee;
Spring thou up within my heart,
Rise to all eternity.

PS I have borrowed the title of this post from a book by my friend and colleague Patrick Woodhouse which sets out passages from the Gospel of Luke with helpful suggestions about using them for lectio divina.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Creative responses

The audience was anxious, worried, and it showed when their turn came to put questions to the panel members: instead of questions there were rants. What subject was getting them so rattled? ‘The Future of Climate Change’ was the title of a meeting at St. John’s Church, Waterloo on Wednesday addressed by an impressive panel including Phil Bloomer (OXFAM), Paula Clifford (Christian Aid), Claire Foster (Ethics Foundation) and Mark Dowd (Operation Noah and a journalist).

Faced with an almost daily news diet of overwhelmingly urgent, global problems making us feel anxious, guilty, angry, the temptation to give up and find the nearest bucket of sand can be strong. Perhaps Mark Dowd was most attuned to the audience’s level of guilt and anxiety. Practical actions - giving money for example - are, he suggested, prayers - sacraments even. “How much shall I give to the Pakistan Flood relief effort? Oh dear! I’m sending a cheque for the paltry sum of £50! What good is that?” But whatever the amount, it is still a sacrament of care.

It is counter-intuitive to relax when faced with an emergency but think about finding yourself trapped in a bog or quicksands: start flailing about and you increase your risk of death. Relax – that is, first forget about survival and accept the situation you are in – and you vastly increase the possibility of coming up with a creative solution to get you out of it.

Solutions for some people might include a dedicated life of heroic action in a great cause. Not so for most of us. Faced with global problems and headline-grabbing disasters, the appropriate response feels woefully inadequate. But each response, no matter how apparently trivial is a sacrament. Rants about the state of the world get us nowhere. Cynthia Bourgeault in her book The Wisdom Jesus writes:
“.... surrender [to what is the case here and now] is an act of spiritual intelligence resulting in a markedly increased capacity for creative response.”

Sunday, 19 September 2010

How to become a saint

Today the Pope makes Cardinal Newman a saint (well, almost - today he becomes Blessed Newman. He'll have to wait a while before he becomes St. Newman) Speaking earlier to children, the Pope urged them to aspire to sainthood.

So how do you become a saint? According to Paul (before the church made him an official 'saint') you don't become one: you are one. Writing to Christians in Corinth, Colossae and Philippae, he begins each letter with Dear Saints (or words to that effect).

Wouldn't we all like to be better people? Aren't most of us fed up, from time to time, with the way we are: our failure to love and care for our fellow human beings? "Oh! I'll never be a saint," we say, usually thinking of some outstanding person whose life is either an inspiration or a rebuke to us. "We feebly struggle, they in glory shine" goes the line from the famous hymn, 'For all the saints'.

But suppose the churches (all of them, not just the Roman Catholics) have got it wrong. Suppose it's not a question of finally getting there: after years of struggle and self-denial finally arriving at saintliness? Suppose it's really a question of discovering who we really are and letting that wonderfully profound, disturbing discovery permeate our whole being? True, the discovery might lead some of us into a life of struggle but not feebly: joyfully.

The whole point of this blog, as the title suggests, is that this realisation, this aliveness happens now; not in some static future but in each fluid, ever-changing Now. It can only happen in each Now. To be sure some of us are far more gifted than others but that is a matter of genes, not spirituality.

(Saint) Irenaeus said, "The glory of God is a human being fully alive". Not, you notice, being good but being full of life.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Praying for the Pope

The Pope has asked me to pray for him. Not me personally, you understand: he was speaking to several million others at the same time. But if God has (presumably) already given a chap all he could possibly want what could I ask for on his behalf? Fortunately, I don’t understand ‘praying for’ someone as asking for things on their behalf – ‘praying with’ them would come nearer the mark. But even that is difficult to grasp imaginatively. The Pope’s life (not to mention his personal, psychological formation) must be about as far from mine as one human being can get from another.

Or is it? Somewhere under there, under all the flummery, all the media hype and the ecstatic adoring crowds, under all the theological training and expertise, under the deeply assimilated assumptions of the Roman Catholic church, under the Vatican bureaucracy (and presumably the personal attentions of private secretaries and serving nuns), somewhere under all that is a simple human being. He, Joseph Ratzinger, born of a woman, is exactly like me. We were both born. We shall both die. Now I am getting close to someone I can feel compassion for and with: someone sharing oxygen with the rest of the planet, made of the same stuff that originated with the Big Bang.

Giles Frazer, the Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral (London UK) said in a radio interview this morning:
“Ecumenical relationships work in practice but they don’t work in theory”.
He was referring to the fact that, in the Vatican’s eyes, he is not a priest (being of the Church of England) but that doesn’t stop him having good relationships with Roman Catholic clergy. It strikes me that in theory lots of relationships should not work but they just do because we ignore the theory.

I think I can confidently say, I am never going to meet the Pope but I can feel compassion for and with him because I can ignore the theory that the Roman Catholic church possesses unchallengeable truth. May we both know the peace that passes all theoretical understanding.