I have nothing to say.
Contemplative prayer is a term which covers many sorts of prayer but is distinct from prayers of asking for things and thinking prayers, wordy set prayers, liturgical prayer etc. Sometimes it is called “Prayer of the heart” because without words we simply take rest in letting go of everything and just being with God, in his Love, just like a loving couple can be in each others’ arms sleeping together, or like the apostle John reclining, resting his head on Jesus’ chest, or a mother holding her child. I have just come to know how physical prayer can be.
Jara pringosa resting among rosemary.
On Holy Saturday I was mediating on a the story of Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb when I began to feel as if my body was praying. I was aware of my own body as if it were very close to other bodies, touching, skin to skin, as if one but each distinct -and, in the empty tomb; sensual, safe and loving but not sexual or even gender related. I was praying through my body – not in my head, or even my heart. The experience is difficult to convey in words but it became a deep, wonderful peace which flowed through my arteries and veins into each cell of my body. These moments of grace are a gift which keep me yearning for more. I have no idea what this was all about – like the Resurrection itself , and like many other Gospel stories which seem highly improbable. Yet now and then, one seems to touch me and make sense in a way I could never have imagined. Prayer can take us to some strange places.
Later on that day before Easter I listened to the beautiful rendering of the great poem of Love of St. John of the Cross by Amancio Prada. The poem is in Spanish and all the translations I have come across in English don’t uplift me in the same way as the Spanish. Even in Spanish this is another text I don’t understand much but I do know it spoke to me about that experience of praying with the body earlier in the morning.
Amancio Prada has set it to music. Here it is in 4 parts (click on Playlist for parts,2,3 and4):
I’m going to take my body with me now, wherever I go.
I packed this little book when I went walking last month working through the first week of Ignatius’ Exercises. I am very familiar with the Exercises having spent weeks on short retreats in my younger days and have worked through the full long retreat (30 days) once and an even longer immersion of about six months several years ago.
God gives us what we need just at the right time. On this occasion it was related to the second meditation in the first week – on one’s personal sin. My upbringing on sin was scanty and thinking myself pretty honest and not in any way belligerent, except with telephone companies, my sins are all to do with sex. However, with my body aging, my heart suggests that the Catholic emphasis on sexual sin seems largely misplaced in the universe of human relationships and much sexual sin is pretty trivial, if not actually rather good for us.
So I spent a day examining my conscience in the way Ignatius suggests – finding in my memory places I have sinned, people with whom I have sinned and the jobs in which I have sinned. The trouble I have is that I know I re-write my own history all the time, so I don’t even turn out to be a real “baddy”.
This mediation begins with asking for what I want and, in this case, it is “ for a mounting and intense sorrow, and tears for my sins.” Not once, in going through these Exercises over the years have I got near to tears.
Three days after I had returned home from my walk, feeling fitter and pleased with myself, I was going to bed when I began to be aware of a surge of emotion within me which grew and grew until I was sobbing uncontrollably. My whole life was before me, not in any details, but with a profound sense of waste, of my failures to take the opportunities and graces and love I had received and the barriers I built to prevent God working through me. But the experience was not at all in my head, nor in my conscience. It was physical, in my body and my heart, my stomach and my lungs. I was not feeling guilty, just an intense, cramping sorrow at my own waste, a profound chest-tightening expiration of toxins. My prayer was being answered, and I now relate it to the answer to my prayer for more compassion.
God works deep within us, like the seed planted in the ground which grows, day and night, just on its own, as Jesus said. Like compassion, sorrow for my sins came into flower and it was not like anything I could have expected nor when I expected. Moreover, I was certain, absolutely sure that I was in God’s hands, loved and cared for.
Since it was lent I hung on to this gift of sorrow for my sinfulness still able to access it easily in prayer. Maybe I was a bit complacent about receiving the gift. Then I visited one of my children who asked me straight out about my divorce 15 years ago, “During the divorce did you want to hurt mum and get her into trouble when you told the people in England things?” This was all over messy financial and property complications.
As I answered him I realised I was re-writing the story again, certainly putting a positive gloss on my behaviour and justifying what I had done. The matter could have rested there. However, I was still in this second meditation and could see my self manipulation, my self deception at work. I had a “mounting sorrow” for my actions and a growing awareness of how often I rely on my skill in covering-up for myself my real capacity to damage others. How false was my premise, ” thinking myself pretty honest and not in any way belligerent”!
And so another chip comes off the ego which cracks a bit more. I begin to make sense of Ignatius’ mediaeval imagery “I look at myself as though I am a running sore.” How long will this go on and how many more times on the Exercises? It doesn’t seem to matter. In God’s hands these things happen just at the right time. Good Friday is all about His love for sinners.
I have wondered if God loves me and what would that mean, anyway. There are moments when I am filled with love and wonder at the beauty and goodness of all creation. In large cities like Paris or Madrid I often marvel at the harmony in which so many people share such a small place, with huge systems of transport and sewage and food supply and at how rarely people bounce off each other in busy shopping places like Oxford Street.
There have been times, even, when I have glimpsed and tasted the absolute and infinite love of God which renders everything else unimportant. Recently, though, I’ve been aware that experiencing God’s love for all His creation is not the same as experiencing God’s love for me. I even wondered if I have ever been aware that God loves me.
For most of my life the message, from the Church, from teachers and from employers, and latterly from my own children has been about how they would prefer me to be. In particular, people closest to me, whom I know love me, are those who most want me to be clever, hard-working, tidy, attentive, rich and generous (together), good fun, helpful, omnipresent and understanding. I am often nowhere near how people would like me to be. Add to this a comprehensive training in examining my conscience and confessing my sins – from the age of 6 – and it is not surprising that I have lived a life trying to be what others tell me they want of me. And worse, failing even in this, for most complain that I am incompliant.
It has taken me all my life to discover silence and taste the deep peace of solitude.
“In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.” Mother Theresa
It is in this silence, this nothingness and emptiness that self is picked out and picked up like the pearl without a price. In that moment I am just who I am, the work of a craftsman who looks at the work of his hands in delight.
I wonder sometimes if I have any idea of what is going on when I pray. This is especially true when lapsing into God’s presence I find myself tumbling, as if in a washing machine, (or, often, in a clothes drier) in muddied waters or arid confusion. I try to settle down and wait, sit it out or walk it off, for as long as it takes. I do nothing other than be: helpless and trusting that there is more to prayer than this.
I know I have had rewards in the past, little miracles, touches of love and moments of pure grace. These intermittent rewards keep drawing me on, promising more. And always, I keep on hoping for more, addicted to the glimpses of light I have seen.
R.S. Thomas is a poet who, for me, makes twilight wordfalls, which generate faint illuminations and direct my inner sight to the deeper world within. This poem, “Somewhere” loosens within me the knottedness of my prayer life and seems to speak of this obsessive journey for the “one light”, possibly the only addiction we need.
Something to bring back to show
you have been there: a lock of God’s
hair, stolen from him while he was
asleep; a photograph of the garden
of the spirit. As has been said,
the point of travelling is not
to arrive, but to return home
laden with pollen you shall work up
into the honey the mind feeds on.
What are our lives but harbours
we are continually setting out
from, airports at which we touch
down and remain in too briefly
to recognise what it is they remind
us of? And always in one
another we seek the proof
of experiences it would be worth dying for.
Surely there is a shirt of fire
this one wore, that is hung up now
like some rare fleece in the hall of heroes?
Surely these husbands and wives
have dipped their marriages in a fast
spring? Surely there exists somewhere,
as the justification for our looking for it,
the one light that can cast such shadows.
A prayer adapted from words of Mother Theresa of Calcutta.
I trust in God that I am here, exactly where I am meant to be:
And that I won’t forget the infinite numbers of possibilities which are born through Faith.
And that I will use the gifts I have received and share the Love that has been given to me.
And I am happy to know that I am a child of God and I long for this Presence to live inside my bones and loosen me up and set me free so that I will sing and dance and love and pray…… and enjoy,
With my heart open to each and every person I meet today.
I remember attending a Hibs v. Dundee match in 1968 where, in one of those rare moments of silence in a game, Dundee’s great goal scorer, John Duncan, was heavily tackled, right in front of me. The Easter Road stadium resounded with a crack as his tibia broke.
Many years later at a passover meal I was reminded of that moment when the matzo was broken with a sharp crack. Matzos break with the same sound as bones break. My memory reminded me of the moment the player broke his leg. The scriptures, especially John’s gospel, make it clear that Jesus did not have any of his bones broken. At the last supper Jesus broke the unleavened bread, undoubtedly with a sharp “crack!”.
Broken bones or not, we have made a lot of doctrine and talked a lot of Theology about the Last Supper but these words leave no room for misinterpretation. When I was walking through Spain on the Way of St. James last month, bread was the core of my diet along with fruit picked on the roadside. So whenever I sat down to eat, I would take the local bread and break it very consciously recalling Jesus’ words. The walk was over 500 miles and I can’t remember just when I began to do this but it was early on.
For days and weeks, sitting on stones or walls, or benches or trees I broke my bread letting the Last Supper of Jesus fill me. In the doing itself images began to give way to presence, simply being subsumed in the act of breaking the bread into a oneness for which I have no words. I had emotions of all sorts from tears to joy and always peace, deep quiet peace and a heart touched by Love. Maybe we should throw our breadknives into the recycle bin and use our hands to break bread always.
When I would find a Mass, I would go to it, pleased to join others in this memorial act which brings us together always as one in Christ.
It seemed fitting to me that other pilgrims would share the bread although I know they were not always Catholics. Breaking the bread is not about breaking bones at all, or breaking anything for that matter: it is about making One.
This is a quote from Gerald May’s “Dark Night of the Soul”
On reading the above I ask myself why, then, are we not more dedicated to the pursuit of this, the most powerful of all our desires and the only one which can lead us to entire satisfaction?
I sense that our spiritual appetite should be much more demanding, persistent and urgent than it is, like sexual desire, hunger and thirst. In May’s book he looks at two great saints, St. John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila who use just such metaphors to describe this, our most ultimate of all desires: so some human beings certainly experience this greatest of love-drives. So why not everyone?
The answer is most likely that we are all always immersed in this desire. It is constantly active in our very essence, in our hormones and the urges we feel, and in each and every and all of our passions and desires.
The answer probably lies in ourselves and, in particular, in our relentless seeking for love’s fulfilment in which and through which life itself begins and belongs.. We may need to ask how successful we are in pursuing this desire through our everyday hungers and thirsts and desires for union and intimacy, for here is certainly where we will encounter our deepest desire for love, for God. We will not experience this longing as a drive apart, but it will be recognised in the ferocious, niggling, persistent and daily urgings we feel within us: through these God speaks to us.
St. John and St. Theresa, like St Augustine before them and many others in Christianity’s mystical tradition have found after much searching that God is to be encountered, not as separate from ourselves but in our own being, indwelling as we dwell in Him: through an interior life of prayer ( see The Interior Life) εν Χριστώ.
Love-making God, present in you both,
To Whom being-present, each is by grace,
Entwine this couple in your Singleness,
That each may, in union, become much less than now
And each may Be, be more in you and you in They.
God, maker of Love, bless this couple with abundance,
The abundance of Nature, oceans of truth and fearlessness,
Explorers discovering the wildness of over-flowing Life,
Bless them with amazement and in your blinding Light
Seduce and guide them into each and You and Us.
God, lover of all, create with each and both
Make incarnate your design for their together Being
Complete their com-promise. Imagine what you Will in them
To make substancial Life and Peace and Home.
God of undescribable Love,
Let Joy be near at hand when Hope is thin or weariness weighs
Grant that endurance, humility, surrender, letting-go and even death
Be known as stepping-stones to more, to harmony to wrapped-round union –
That blending where even Trinity has no inner boundaries,
Where Father is Mother is Child and Spirit, One.
God, who makes us love and loves in us,
Wed us all and bless this couple as a model of your Love
Love which endures all passing imperfections, flaws and trials.
Wed us all to you and bless this couple, your own good children.
We rejoice with You in them and pray that always in each,
together as each, we meet You in them. Rejoice.