Archives for category: Depression

Easter Sunday is a day of decision. ‘The women‘, so scripture tells us, decided to go an annoint Jesus’ body with ‘perfumes and ointments‘. Their Sabbath of rest provoked a decision and an action. The purpose of stillness and rest is that we determine to make our way to Jesus. Perhaps it is with a heart heavy with disappointment like these women. What we had imagined was true about God we can no longer believe in. Yet, our fondness for the memory means that we treat it with respect, even in its death and disappearance from our world of apprehension.

Yet, what they expected to find, a sealed tomb, was not what they saw. The entrance stone was rolled away. They confronted a whole new reality. Questions flooded in. Where was the body? Who had taken it? Who had broken the Sabbath rules and ‘worked’ to remove both stone and body, breaking the religious law and rythm of rest and stillness?

Such questions created the threshold upon which fresh opportunity is always born. They rightly resisted a search for immediate answers to satisfy their questioning minds. Rather, they chose to wonder what this might mean. They pondered, they contemplated, they meditated; the best way to live within the space born of stillness, silence and solitude. The characteristics we are invited to explore in this period of lockdown.

Returning to the eleven disciples they told their story, which was met with incredulity, disbelief. So some of them rushed to the tomb to satisfy themselves. Doubt can prove the necessary stimulus to awakening fresh faith. Doubt and disbelief are the friends of faith seekers who face an uncertain future. They are the compost and the fertiliser for fresh growth. The first shoots of which are wonder, astonishment and awe.

It is only as the circles of our certainties are breached that we stand any chance of finding fresh understaning. An understanding that has the capacity to carry us through the day that lies before us. It is the reason Jesus so strongly demanded that NOW is the only moment that natters. Yesterday, with its fond memories and sad regrets, is long past. Whilst tomorrow, with its imagined fears, has yet to arrive. I, and you are marooned within the present moment alone. So our thoughts, constructed by memories of our past and fears for our futures, conspire to distract us from this present moment.

The discovery of an empty tomb was a present reality. It’s meaning or consequences unknown. Yet, Jesus’ erstwhile followers responded from their hearts, with wonder, amazement and astonishment. Something with unknown consequences is always best pondered.

Had a twenty first century media circus arrived upon the scene the good people of Jerusalem and beyond would have been subjected to the views and analysis of endless experts, whose credentials, albeit flashed across TV screens, offer little by way of reassurance that they know anything more than the facts themselves tell me. The noise created by so many voices, disperses the stillness and drowns out any sense of wonder.  Such media easily steals my imagination and populates it with ideas, no doubt well meant, but which have their own irrevocable logic. They bind me and restrict my movement and action.

Today, I personally choose to stand before that open tomb, with the women and the disciples, in an attitude of wonder. The stone rolled away challenges all my assumptions of what I might expect. I can decide to settle for a logic born of the wisdom of others. I can decide to weave my own coherent narrative joining the past, which I’ve observed, with the evidence before me in the present with a proposal about the future, born of my reason. But I choose not to do so.

I gaze upon the the open tomb and allow my imagination to consider that this is a door into an as yet unknown future. One in which I do not seek to satisfy my own need for answers, but one in which I decide to continue asking questions. For if the one who was dead is alive, how can he die again? And if alive, must the imagination draw any line as to what is now possible? I find myself pondering a range of possibilities, none of which I can apprehend until and unless I choose to decide to set out in pursuit of them.

Easter Sunday is the day in history when the world changed. It became different. I too am invited to change. To exchange my spectacles, through which I view life and determine shapes and identities, for a new pair. To consider exchanging the life I’ve known for a different, if quite similar one. To become altogether different in the way I will live from now on. All change requires my decision. No one and nothing changes me. I alone have the capacity to make changes in the way I think and perceive.

I believe it was only because the disciples chose to wonder and to ponder that they were enabled to meet the risen Jesus. Whilst Mary initially perceived Jesus as the gardener, and assumed he might have removed Jesus’ body, it was only as she recognised and responded to a familiar voice that she was able to perceive Jesus. For many of us we all too easily embrace the logic of misbelief and unbelief. In so doing we dismiss the sounds that awaken new neural pathways within our understanding and, in dismissing such sounds, fail to perceive the risen Christ.

The stone has been rolled away; the tomb is empty. Today suggests that we have everything to play for in an as yet unrealised tomorrow.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
 I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Easter Saturday probably best equates to the lockdown in which we, like many other nations, find ourselves. There is an unnatural silence due to an absence of what we’d assumed until very recently were the actual sounds of normal life. We are left wondering if those sounds will ever return. Or has covid-19 ended once and for all the busy life we’d become so familiar with and habitualised? Now, as never before in our life experience, we have both time and space and it’s a luxury we’re not sure we want or can effectively utilise.

Time has been too easily squeezed into a narrow definition; that of ‘utility’. What can I achieve in the time that I have? How many ‘widgets’ might I produce? How much money might I accumulate? How far can I progress my career? All the while adding more demands, and with each demand increaed pressure, upon what can only ever be a finite quantity; 24 hours in any day.

This misunderstanding of time as utility confuses our rational mind. Now that we have the time many of us have longed for, we discover we are all too easily bored. At a loss of knowing what to do with boundless, albeit finite, time. This is because even our so called ‘free time’ we treated as utility. Whilst we longed for ‘vacation time’ and days off, we couldn’t help but rush to fill such space and time with holidays, theatre visits, bingeing on streamed TV series and the like.

There was never sufficient time to give any thought to consider investing time in doing nothing. This was after all  to waste a utility; nothing gives rise to nothing, which, by virtue of its ‘nothingness’, cannot be objectively measured and therefore enjoyed. Must enjoyment always relate to objective criteria? Nothing appears to give little useful sensual feedback for my empty selfhood struggling to find and express itself.

Living as a contemplative, committed to prayer here in St. Cuthbert’s Oratory, I have many times had to wrestle with the anxiety that my life amounts to at best very little, at worst nothing whatsoever. For where can I locate the objective measure for my value? ‘Oh’, I hear my imagined critics saying with some disdain, critics who I’m sure include members of my own family, ‘what a waste of a life. Such a promising start; Oxford and national Christian leadership. Now all squandared by simply doing nothing‘.

I fight back against all such tormentors of the mind, for if they take hold, and resistence is a perennial struggle, then I am cast into the deepest depths of despondency. My self confidence drains away. My focus is entirely upon myself rather than remaining fixed upon Jesus. Like Peter I slip beneath the cold, tempestuous waters of a Galileean lake out of fear that my life decision has left me to drown in the arrogance of my own presumption.

Yet, all those who treat time as utility can also all too often remove their gaze from God in their quest to find how they might make the most of time as utility. Many are convinced they are furthering God’s cause. However, scripture is clear, God’s cause is in no need of any help; never has been and never will be. Surely Easter, the consummation of God’s incarnate sojourn, is evidence, if any were required, that God’s cause remains entirely at God’s discretion. There is and never was any need to look for human encouragement or involvement.

That’s why nothing is perhaps the best response once one has made one’s peace with God. The ‘lending God a hand‘ mentality reveals to me an all too human need to fill my time with some worthy cause from which I might draw down some sense of my own purpose and value. Yet, my ultimate value has been disclosed by the ends to which God went to woo and win my heart. I contributed nothing to God’s decision to do so, nor to God’s strategy and method in accomplishing this great redemptive miracle.

So, why does Easter Saturday resonate so closely with our current lockdown staus? It is beacuse for this one day all of creation holds its breath. God, in the expression of Jesus, has died and is gone. The whole universe is teetering on the edge of the abyss of despair and destruction. Satan is already making plans for his coronation and entering into his assumed kingship. This can ony be to the detriment of all humanity. For one whole day the promise remains just that; a promise! Only Easter Sunday will provoke a galactic sigh of relief. It will reveal that God remains true to God’s word, even though not to do so is an impossibility for God by God’s own admission. Yet, it’s Saturday, and Sunday has not yet arrived; nor has Jesus.

Whilst Jesus is in the tomb, or visiting Hades with a message of Good News, there is nothing humanity can do. It is indeed the very essence of Sabbath. A period of looking to and waiting upon God. Waiting with the bated breath of uncertainty. We can only contemplate our complete impotence to change our circumstances, however much we hope and dream we might. We remain dependent upon the intervention of God alone. Yet, this is forever true, even when not facing a life changing pandemic. It’s simply that now the volume of the silence has been turned up.

So today, let us reflect upon how we can make peace with our doing nothing. That is the nothing that opens the cavernous space, an opportunity, to contemplate God and yearn for the fulfilment of God’s promise. The scale of that promise exceeds my ability to enter any comprehensive description save that it is the fulfilment of all things; it is the total fulfiment of myself.

My today will involve morning prayer, consideration of the mercy of God, the silent contemplation of Jesus, all those things whose utility is non-measurable this side of eternity. Yet also all those things that provide the heartbeat for any healthy Christian disciple. Like the disciples hidden somewhere in Jeruslaem, fearing their discovery and destruction, we too must wrestle with the promise of God and fight to maintain our prayer of hope for the resurrection of life beyond Covid-19, a life I pray that, just as the disciples and the emergent Christian church dscovered, can never go back to what it had been prior to that first Easter weekend.

Lord grant me to greet the coming day in peace.

Help me in all things to rely upon your holy will.

In unforseen events let me not forget that all things are under your care. Amen

Today is Good Friday. Unusual this year for we are all under lockdown in our own homes. The normal church services are only available online. Yet, one benefit arising from our restricted movement is more time to reflect upon the events surrounding our redemption.

Such reflections may well prove both helpful and necessary for our peace of mind. In many conversations, now all conducted over the internet, it is clear that this is a time of anxiety for people. Legitimate anxieties such as how might I earn income, how vulnerable am I to catch covid-19, the pain of being unable to gather with immediate family or friends? Others face the pressures of living within a confined space, with no means to find time and space alone.

On rare excursions out, the world has changed. Few cars, social distancing maintaining gaps between neighbours and friends, and long, queues snaking around supermarkets. Everything is different and this very quickly begins to play upon our fears and stir up anxieties within.

Finding and sustaining faith during such times can prove challenging. Much depends upon the level of intimacy we have built between ourselves and Jesus over the years. This sudden change in our life experience can only highlight for us the character of the friendship we enjoy with God.

Today many of us will reflect upon the long and brutal walk Jesus was forced to take. Bearing the instrument of his own torture and death upon his back, he was experiencing the greatest test to his faith to date. Like Abraham had to hold a knife aloft above his only son, bound in readiness for sacrifice, so Jesus must face this the greatest test to his self professed claim to be the Son of God and his total confidence that God would neither fail nor forsake him.

Many of us find ourselves in just such a situation. This is a season of our own Passion or season of enduring suffering, the actual meaning of the word. We are invited to persevere and the ‘not knowing’ what the future holds for any of us can unleash a host of ‘demons’ that continually torment our minds and depress our mood.

Our confidence can only lie in recognising that in agreeing to follow Jesus, a voluntary decision that is within the power of everyone of us to take or reject, we also agreed to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. Therefore, today of all days, whilst sombre in tone, is also a source of our instruction and encouragement. We are only living where Jesus has been before us.

Whilst painful, this is a safe place. Our lives are hid with Christ in God. And whilst we cannot know the future in any practical detail, we do know, like Jesus, that our lives are ultimately in safe hands, those of our God and Creator. What we have to do is turn our gaze from considering the many possibilities that flood our minds about our unknown tomorrows and direct our full attention to how and where we are today.

The remarkable thng about Jesus, who remember had never experienced resurrection and only had his Father’s promise to go on, maintained a very present focus. In the Stations of the Cross, which many traditions will contemplate today, Jesus, amidst the beatings and his stumbling beneath the weight of the cross, has time to comfort both Mary his mother and the women of Jerusalem. The point being he remained focussed upon the present. This was true once crucified and raised aloft as he took time both to forgive those who’d engineered and carried out his execution as well as welcome a penitent thief into paradise, an eternal embrace conducted within the social distancing execution demanded.

All I can ever respond to is my present. However, my mind fills with thousands of anxieties as I imagine, and seek to navigate my future. Sadly tomorrow does not exist. Only NOW is real. Naturally the circumstances of my now will raise the specter of those issues I have willfully buried beneath the busyness my normal life affords. But maybe, these days of enforced solitude are an opportunity not simply to clean the house and tidy the garden, for those fortunate enough to have one. They are perhaps a heaven sent opportunity to dig up and dust off all those unresolved fears. Time to consider what it is I really need to worry about and why.

My own reflections have helped me see more clearly than ever that so many of the ‘givens’ of my pre lockdown life are the shadows of idols that merely distract me from living a full and complete life. Too many of the aspirations I pursue prove empty promises. They simply evaporate the moment I lay hold of them and prove themselves to be of no lasting or substantial value; they are no help when I face more signifcant questions such as who I am and who has my back in this crisis?

Media directs our gaze toward government, yet what can they do? Despite their essential assurances to quel potential social meltdown, they, like us, are mortal and have no knowledge of what the future holds. Daily briefings from government ministers and an array of ‘experts’ remind us that they are only ever talking about the present, for, as I’ve said, the present is all that any of us can deal with.

So like Jesus, trudging toward Golgotha under the weight of his greatest fears, we are to follow the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength‘.

If we solely look to government this only presents us with the classic misdirect of the illusionist, for we fail to see the source of our help and health, who is God alone. So as we enter this Easter weekend, let’s take the time to place those unrealised fears, stirred by an unknown tomorrow, into the hands of God and pray for both ourselves and those throughout the world who share these troubling times with us.

‘For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world. Amen’

There is a story about one of the great Desert Fathers, Moses the Black:

Abba Moses

“It happened that Abba Moses was struggling with the temptation of fornication. Unable to stay any longer in the cell, he went and told Abba Isidore. The old man exhorted him to return to his cell. But he refused, saying, ‘Abba, I cannot.’ Then Abba Isidore took Moses out onto the terrace and said to him, ‘Look towards the west.’ He looked and saw hordes of demons flying about and making a noise before launching an attack. Then Abba Isidore said to him, ‘Look towards the east.’ He turned and saw an innumerable multitude of holy angels shining with glory. Abba Isidore said, ‘See, these are sent by the Lord to the saints to bring them help, while those in the west fight against them. Those who are with us are more in number than they are.’ Then Abba Moses, gave thanks to God, plucked up courage and returned to his cell.”

Interestingly, a few lines later in the same collection we read this:

“A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’”

What Abba Moses had learned from Abba Isidore he was the able to share himself: “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” It is a simple, seemingly unremarkable, bit of counsel. Unremarkable, because it seems as if it is basically counsel to do nothing: sit in your cell. That certainly doesn’t seem like much, and it certainly doesn’t seem like a great ascetical labor or warfare. But within this simple commandment is hidden a rather remarkable and profound bit of wisdom.

When we are battling against temptation, we often start casting about trying to figure out what we can do to make it stop. How do we win this fight? How do we make the temptations go away? These are the thoughts that plague us and drive us, like Moses, looking for relief, for something to do.

But, perhaps counter-intuitively, the very first thing we must learn is not to do anything. “Go, sit in your cell.” Don’t, that is, do anything. Why? Because you don’t yet know what to do, and anything you do will be the wrong thing. At this point any action that we would undertake would be something that we have learned int he past, something out of our old, fallen habits and activities, and these are the very things that got us where we are in the first place, i.e. enslaved to the passions. So, the very first thing that we must do is to do nothing but sit in our cell, not act according to old habits and responses, but to simply wait and watch. And immediately, if we do this, we will learn that this sitting in the cell is not nothing but a very definite and profound something. For to sit in the cell is itself a great act of faith.

If we go sit in our cell, we will discover that the thoughts are still there and that the temptations will not magically go away as if God were to wave a magic wand over us. But if we persist in sitting still, neither running from the thoughts nor giving into them, then the cell will begin to teach us everything, as Abba Isidore promised. It will teach us that the very things within us to which the temptations appeal, our passions, are not truly satisfied with the things with we are tempted, but will, if heeded, leave us defeated, empty, and filled with despondency as they have always done. Furthermore, it will show us the very things that drive these passions and give fuel to the temptations: our fears, lust, desires, and a seeking for comfort and consolation in things that can never comfort or console us. Ultimately, if we persist in sitting in our cell, we will be led to the One and only One who can truly give us comfort and consolation, the One who said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

All of this will be learned only if we sit in our cell and do not act according to all of our typical reactions, which were, as I said, formed in the same processes that shaped and defined our former way of being as slaves to sin. The new way of being, in Christ, will be formed and shaped in the cell like life in the womb. For that is what the cell is, a virginal womb awaiting the Word. Real spiritual life, then, is not something we produce ourselves within ourselves. Our work is to sit, waiting in faith, with patience and hope. And this sitting and waiting is not nothing but a profound something. It is the plaintive cry of the Psalmist. It is the Virgin maiden awaiting, though she does not know it, the arrival of the archangel. And it is even, mysteriously, the watching, piercing gaze of the Father looking for the arrival of the prodigal. For it is God himself, already in us, awaiting our arrival to the heavenly home, our deep heart.

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a man, a recovering alcoholic, who was experiencing a series of traumatic events in his life. In the past his response to such trauma would have been the obvious reaction to drink, looking for comfort and consolation in alcohol. The temptation is ever present, it doesn’t magically go away when someone stops drinking, and the temptation was present as he spoke. My simple and direct counsel to him was not to drink. That might seem like a simple negative, something not to do. It is, rather, the simple and yet profound wisdom of Abba Moses: “Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” Not drinking means sitting in the cell. And if that is undertaken as a simple act of faith it will become the womb from which the new life in him will be born.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote:

“The space within us reaches out, translates each thing. For the essence of a tree to be real for you, cast inner space around it, out of the space that exists in you. Encircle it with restraint. It has no borders. Only in the realm of your renouncing can it, as tree, be known.”

True ascetical life is, to use the poet’s words, “the space within us.” And it is only in this “realm of your renouncing” that anything can be known. Sitting in your cell, not drinking, not looking for comfort and consolation in our old habits and sins, makes the inner space within us a fertile womb which can become, like the Mother of God’s, border-less and more spacious than the heavens when it receives the infinite Word. And it is only there and then that we can know him, and knowing him truly know ourselves for the first time.

Post by Fr. John, Orthodox Church of St John of Chicago.

It’s now clear that COVID-19 is a deadly serious global pandemic, and all necessary precautions should be taken. Still, C. S. Lewis’s words—written 72 years ago—ring with some relevance for us. Just replace “atomic bomb” with “coronavirus.”

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

I hear the question often, ‘why retreat?’ It sounds like a negative concept suggesting defeat and withdrawal. And the spiritual life is never easy, so if I acknowledge retreat it only further undermines my confidence in approaching a dimension of reality that lies beyond reason.

There is a common phrase, ‘Two steps forward, one step back‘. It speaks of the slow place of progress in any sphere of life. However, when it comes to Retreat I reverse it and suggest that in taking time with God it’s always, ‘One step back and two steps forward‘!

A retreat affords us the space to do three critical things that inspire and enable personal development.

First, a retreat affords me that rare luxury of space away from my ‘normal’. Familiar sights, sounds and responsibilities easily focus my attention on what isn’t working. I find it hard t imagine anything beyond what has emerged as the normality of my life experience. If there are elements I don’t like my natural human response is to project blame anywhere but onto myself. Yet I alone have the keys to structuring my life, regardless of the bum hand I feel life has dealt me or the people who ‘just don’t understand me‘ and now conspire to make my life miserable. In the space a retreat offers I have an opportunity to de-clutter my brain and rediscover objectivity. Remember perspective, whilst feeling like reality, is never anything more than ONE perspective, albeit my own strongly held one. I can change my perspective, though it takes a plan and time to do so.

Second, a retreat focuses my attention upon key content. Most of the time my brain is like an eight lane highway along which myriad thoughts trundle, backwards and forwards. Trying to make the time to ignore the traffic noise and narrow my focus onto one thought that might offer a key to unlocking my overarching mood is rare in the pace at which we live life, and our electronic availability. We can be ‘on air’ 24/7 if we want. It’s a discipline to maintain a work period distinct from leisure and family time. It’s a double discipline to resist reaching for phone and tablet first thing in the day to scan messages and social media content. When I dumb down the traffic flow and become attentive to one theme over a day, I am surprised how many fresh insights I gain across a wide range of personal concerns.

Finally, a well led retreat will encourage me to determine what simple, practical and manageable steps I can take to ensure what I have encountered on my retreat does not disappear as my mind resumes its journey on a highway to nowhere. Such practical steps are the stepping stones that establish a pathway leading me toward a fuller engagement with God and a deeper understanding of myself, God, neighbour and personal context.

Retreat for me has become a regular means of ensuring my overall well being. I increasingly know that I can make life work for me and not simply get up to work for life. Hence I am pleased to announce that the Retreat days here in the Oratory have been posted for the next year. There’s a wide range of subject matter and taking time out to benchmark where you are at and to audit your spiritual well being is something that can only add value to the quality and content of your daily life.

I was speaking with someone last week passing through one of life’s many transitions, and we identified the challenge of facing our fear.

Fear is an unpleasant feeling that troubles our whole physiology. It is born of something that lies beyond our control, often in the future and yet it troubles us deeply in the NOW. It impacts mood and our ability to get on with life. It dominates our thinking and can steal our sleep.

We all face fear of various degrees at different times. I well remember my mum expressing her deep fear of how to cope as the undertakers removed dad’s body from her home. There was terror in her eyes, even as she attempted to engage with the grief she felt from the loss of her husband of sixty three years.

Whilst that’s extreme, many focus upon their anxiety of what tomorrow might NOT bring due to lack of wealth, health or stealth. Problem is, as the gospel makes clear, I can only worry about today, since I’ve not yet reached tomorrow. Most fear it seems to me is a consequence of future thinking.

Money, or lack of it, is a common cause of fear. However, if I look back over my many years that have brought me to this point I have not been without all that I’ve needed. True I may have aspired to more or coveted by comparison with others, yet how can I possibly complain? A roof over my head, food to eat and the second of two perfect marriages, can a guy get any luckier?

Fear stalks us because it directs our attention to serve a situation that has not, and may never, arrive. I remember taking Katey, my first wife, with me on a working trip to Zimbabwe. We took some holiday whilst there and spent our tenth wedding anniversary up a tree house on safari. And this was a real luxury tree house let me tell you. We couldn’t afford the trip on paper, yet had we waited for when we could, Katey would never have enjoyed it, dying from MS in her early fifties. At that stage we didn’t know of her future MS diagnosis.

The future is a fickle mistress to serve. I know many people who even in their eighties are worried their savings will run out. They’ve saved faithfully for a rainy day, and failed to enjoy all the sunny ones now behind them. I know in actuarial terms I have just a 9% chance of reaching 100 years old. Making provision for my nineties is not on my ‘To Do’ list!

It is when facing our fear that we address the one limitation we place upon life’s enjoyment. We face it only once we acknowledge it, own it and choose to share it with people we trust. There may be real substance to our fear, yet we can do little about resolving our future apart from living as best we can today in both the service of God and of others.

 

The Third Essential of Prayer is Presence. As one writer succinctly describes it, ‘Being present with the presence’. Now this may sound confusing, yet when Jesus promises to be with us always, ‘even to the end of the age’ this is the invitation to presence.

 

Often our humanity associates presence with feelings. Yet feelings are emotional states of response. My approach to God will prove different when feeling content and secure to when I have raging toothache. Often we make judgements about church worship, even whole church congregational gatherings, simply upon the feelings they induce. Nothing wrong with feelings per se, but be warned, they are an untrustworthy measure of reality.

 

Presence is an ever present truth and reality for God is with us always. The issue is will I rest in that reality, regardless of the flow of my feelings with undistracted mind and by my senses that continually send it information?

 

To acknowledge the reality of God and God’s presence, despite my ever changing circumstances, is to stand in the presence of God. It is no diversionary tactic, for the reality of such circumstances doesn’t change. What changes is the way in which I choose to frame them. I can look at them from the fears, anxieties or pleasures which they induce. Or I can perceive the presence of God, living the Godward side of my experience. This is quite the journey.

 

As my first wife, Katey, battled with MS, we managed our own journeys from different perspectives. Katey experienced the loss of physical and mental ability that accompanied the deepening hold progressive MS had upon her whole being. I fought anger, resentment, a sense of abandonment by God whom I’d served faithfully as far as I could tell. We both became consumed with our own presence, our physicality. We lived from a collapsing ego, unable to craft a world of any sense within which we might define ‘self’ in a meaningful way. And we proved a handful to others, most of whom, understandably, took a large step back from us and our situation.

 

Discovering we had nothing within to address such circumstances, that we were empty shells of humanity, we paused through exhaustion. Like Jacob we wrestled long through the darkness of our night. It was only as dawn began to appear above the horizon, the dawning of a recognition of God’s presence in the bleakest of contexts, that we both sensed something of God’s presence. God was not some external, impotent fraud outside and unable to intervene within our situation. God had always been accompanying us within this the bleakest experience of our life to date.

 

Presence is in the acknowledgement of God’s presence. It is neither something we can strain to grasp nor an escape from our challenging circumstances. It is the recognition that God is with us and God’s invitation is that we stand with that truth. The battle is always with my preconceived and usually preferred perspective on God and God’s work in the world. Yet, this can only ever prove to be a perspective. I have to discover the willingness and then the practice of re framing my life around the fact that God is always present. It is my walk of faith that can bring me to the place where I acknowledge that, regardless of such circumstance. This leads to the next important wrestling match; how to allow perfect love to cast out all fear! More of that later.

 

If you enjoy these blogs follow along with my daily devotions at Voice of Hope.

The Second Essential of Prayer

Once we have achieved an appreciation and something of a practice of ‘Stillness, Prayer essential #1, what are we to do in this new found yet soon to become familiar Stillness? The second essential is Attentiveness. Attentiveness has two meanings.

Meaning One

I guess we all recognise the demand to pay close attention to our context, ‘Driving requires attentiveness to road and traffic conditions‘, i.e. not the time to write a complex rebuttal to a disagreeable proposal. Once in the Stillness therefore it is not the stillness itself that is the objective of our prayer. It is the context to which such Stillness has introduced us.

As I sit in summer mornings enjoying the swelling sounds of the dawn chorus I can hear a cacophony of enjoyable birdsong filling the air. However, as I apply attentiveness, I distinguish blackbird from song thrush, robin from goldfinch. Naturally the ability to distinguish such sounds is dependent upon a certain amount of work carried out in familiarising myself with the different songs of British garden birds, and would prove of little value on a trip to Malaysia. Which goes to show that the attention we have given over our life to discerning and distinguishing the character and the ways of God is the foundation upon which we establish prayerful attentiveness. I hear yet must learn to discern what it is I am hearing, an act of attentiveness.

Meaning Two

However, attentiveness also means attending to the interests and comfort of others as in, ‘They live in constant, kindly attentiveness to each others needs‘. In approaching God it is not simply that I anticipate or demand that God in some interventionist and measurable way attends to my ever swelling bandwidth of ‘needs’. Rather that I attend to the ‘needs’ of the Divine. Can I really suggest that an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God has a ‘need’ of my attentiveness? Regardless, I do. And that’s because God’s will in the earth is expressed through the obedient action of those who determine to love and serve God. God is voiceless and shapeless without an engaged, redeemed humanity.

Purpose

God is purposeful in that there is always an end as well as a present in view. For me prayer once was a response to the present with little objective focus upon the end in view. In fact God thinks from the end backwards, in which case the present is rather more incidental than essential. Whilst this might feel like it reduces human value, it cannot, for such value can only ever be established with the end in view, i.e. I have been created human, in the image of God for the purpose of growing up into maturity in Christ. Over investment in the realities of the present can only lead to stunted growth, in other words a deformity or abnormality perhaps in the aspiration that I’m invited to share alongside God.

Attentiveness affords me the opportunity to discern the present in light of the end in view. I recover perspective.

Illustration

As my first darling wife, Katey, battled with MS, the initial prayer focus was consumed with the present; an assumed need that she be physically healed. I’ve no doubt God does intervene and physically heals today. We had both prayed and seen medically confirmed healing through the vehicle of prayer. Indeed we had experienced such healing ourselves. However, physical healing is incidental and not the end God has in view. This end is most certainly about healing, yet healing as wholeness or completion, where only death affords us the key to such completion.

Whilst Katey and I, and a concerned congregation, threw every prayer we had at seeking to determine a new, or different, present, we paid little attention in discerning the distinct word of God in the season. In fact we assumed we were mounting a raid against Satan to rescue Katey from what can only have been the devil’s work.

Exhausted and momentarily exhausted and disillusioned, where a moment is as a thousand days if not years, it was out of broken dejection, and the aloneness and sense of abandonment that followed in the melting away of an exhausted and confused congregation, that we together began to pay attention to God and seek to discern the voice of God. The end remained the same, ‘To you have I lifted up my eyes, you who dwell in the heavens: my eyes like the eyes of slaves, on the hand of their lords…our eyes on the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy…Have mercy on us Lord, have mercy‘.

We again reminded ourselves we are God’s property, albeit fearfully and wonderfully made. That God alone has the word of life and so it was to the Lord we directed our gaze. No longer consumed by physical disease we waited and began to develop an attentiveness to who God was in this set of circumstances and discern God’s unique words for us both. We found comfort even as we knew pain and disappointment. Attentiveness is a long way from the soothing balm of a hot bath of scented bubbles.

Such attentiveness was not primarily to provide us with any emotional satisfaction for we discovered that feelings are untrustworthy and in no way confirmed if God were present or not. Attentiveness was finding the capacity to rest in the reality that God’s will might be done in the earth and in the outworking of that will we discover God and deepen our understanding and appreciation of God, even as and when mortality brings death at an age my humanity might never understand and rail against.

Conclusion

So in the Stillness we learn to become attentive to God. Our own will, aspiration, assumption and perception will readily seek to occupy that Stillness. Only problem with this is that it must inevitable drown out the still small voice who is Jesus. I say ‘learn’ for not one of us can accomplish attentiveness without a disciplined commitment to practice; Intuition + Practice = Performance. Discerning different songs within the overwhelming orchestration that is the dawn chorus takes both knowledge and discipline, and is of course continually accompanied by doubt. In all such attentiveness it remains to me to discover what it is the Master says, where saying is not essentially an audible word. And where attentiveness may require nothing more of me than attentiveness itself.

‘if the Lord had not been on our side…then the waters would have engulfed us, the torrent gone over us…Blessed be the Lord who did not give us a prey to their teeth…Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth’.

Don had a rare combination of strengths—common sense, administrative ability, thoughtful reflection—all wrapped in the gentlest of spirits. He was also in perfect health. Or so we thought, until he went out for a run and had a fatal heart attack.

nativityWhat I remember most about his funeral was the terror that ran through me as I thought about God in this context. Who is this deity who kills off the best people, or at least allows them to die? What else might this deity do?

Yes, such questions may be futile or, horrors, bad theology. It hardly mattered on that day. What mattered was that I felt a real fear of God—fear with an echo of awe.

“Fear of the Lord” pops up often in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. It’s a strange phrase, especially for spiritual directors. We’ve seen how fear keeps spiritual directees from living into the freedom that we, and I daresay God, wish for them.

Some commentators interpret the word fear in that phrase as referring to awe or reverence. That would be nicer. But I think it diminishes the echoes of awe within fear, and fear within awe, that I felt at Don’s funeral.

This strange dance between fear and awe shows up more often than we might think. Looking back on my own life, I can see the extravagant love of God, masterfully weaving the strands of my story. That inspires awe. I also see where the pursuit of God’s call has torn those threads apart: loss of income, boatloads of self-doubt, few tangible results. That inspires fear.

Many people have noted how the beauty of the night sky takes their breath away. That is awe. Yet the sight of the universe can unnerve as well, pulling the rug of our own perceived significance out from under us. More fear.

The awe-fear dance can overwhelm us. It was clearly too much for Job, the biblical character who, oppressed by tragedy upon tragedy, responded by asking God to just go away.Let me alone, for my days are a breath,” he says (Job 7:16–19). “What are human beings, that you make so much of them, … test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle?”

Perhaps it’s normal, even human, to feel both awe and fear in the presence of something greater or more beautiful than ourselves. Of course, we could just let the whole thing go—and let God go. Maybe Job had the right idea.

But that would ignore our deepest desire: to draw close to the One who, we are told, is the source of something even greater than awe and fear—compassion. So we continue on, embracing all aspects of our experience of the Divine: even the fear that, far from being obsolete, is part of the journey that leads to love.

John Backman

A regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman is the author of Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths, 2012). He recently completed the spiritual direction training program at Linwood Spiritual Center.

 

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