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.
The Spiritual Canticle of John of the Cross.
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.
Delayed reaction to prayer.
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.
A mounting and intense sorrow, and tears for my sins
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.
Revealed through prayer: what I hide from myself.
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.
Solitude and silence.
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.
A Reading of R.S. Thomas, “Somewhere”
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.
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!”.
What Jesus then said was, “Do this in memory of me.”
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.
In doing, memory brings us into Christ.
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.
“….every part of us is, at its core, a desire for love’s fulfillment. Though we seldom recognise it, our senses seek the beauty, the sweetness, the good feelings of God. Our mind seeks the truth and wisdom of God. Our will seeks to live out the goodness, the righteousness of God. Our memory and imagination seek the justice and peace of God. In other words, we yearn for the attributes of God with every part of ourselves. Human beings are two-legged, walking, talking desires for God.”
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?
God in all things, in you and in me.
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.
“In turning to God we must first acknowledge that whatever and however he is, he is mystery. We can never, with our finite minds, adequately grasp who he is. If you are searching for a clear and precise notion of who God is, you will not find him in reading this book. And if ever you do find a neat and clear definition, you may be sure that it is false. God is mystery: but that does not mean he is totally unintelligible. We can come to know a mystery and grow in knowledge of it, but the more we enter into the mystery of God, or more accurately, the more the mystery of God takes hold on us, the more we realize that he is mystery.
The truth about God, that he is mystery, is of fundamental importance. Being fundamental, any religion which ignores this truth will certainly lead us astray. We may construct a most elaborate and ingenious religious system, but if it is not grounded in this basic truth that God is mystery, then our elaborate system becomes an elaborate form of idolatry. We are constantly tempted to make God in our own image and likeness. We want to control and domesticate him, giving him perhaps a position of great honour in our hearts, home and country, but we remain in control. God is uncontrollable, beyond anything we can think of or imagine. ‘God’, I once heard someone say, ‘is a beckoning word.’ He calls us out of ourselves and beyond ourselves, he is our God of surprises, “always creating anew.”
“In speaking of our relationship to God and to Christ we have to make use of analogies, but no analogy is ever adequate. We speak of ‘Christ living in our hearts’ and ‘making his home in us’, and such analogies are useful, but it is more true to say, ‘We must live in the heart of God, we must make our home in Christ,’a heart which is always greater than anything we can think or imagine, a home that embraces the whole Universe.” (From : Gerald W. Hughes SJ, God of Surprises, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1985, pp. 31 and 161)
Jesus is Baptised. Pouring cold water on my God thoughts.
Baptism – the right to catechise a child.
I don’t remember my baptism but I do know that what I learned of the catechism, by heart, from the age of 5, has stuck. Or it did stick until recently. I’ve not forgotten it but I now see how the answers to questions nobody else asked me in the next 60 years have sat heavily and undigested in a corpulent, almost inert, soul. Once I had been baptised, I could be catechised.
God is everywhere and unchanging. Really?
I learned that God is the biggest and the best so much so that he is unchanging and everywhere. I remember learning this when I was five. The idea stuck and only now, sixty years later do I see how this concept of an unchanging God left little room for a living relationship with God. It was not just because I lived my childhood in Glasgow that I was brought up in a fog. The urge was felt by many to impart doctrine as if it were nourishment for the spiritual life . I was fed a spiritual Atkins’ diet – all meat and fat, no fruit or veg.
Doctrine became the sculpture of God in man’s own words. This is now fully acknowledged in the new Catechism which says that ” Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God. ” (42) In this Catechism the only mention I have found of God as unchanging (260) is a quote from Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, a mystic’s prayer where “unchanging” refers, of course, to “constancy in love”. A living relationship with God is constantly changing, forever directed to light and love and fresh air, in which we are formed and reformed by the Spirit and God is moved by us and grows with us. God changes: we change.
The Baptism of Jesus
Today on Pray as you Go (The UK Jesuit daily prayer/meditation page), in usual Ignatian fashion, listeners were invited to contemplate this unique event where Father, Son and Spirit manifest themselves when Jesus tells John the Baptist that his Baptism is necessary: Jesus receives the Baptism, an acceptance of repentance, an acknowledgement of inner change. Here, as with so many Gospel stories, like the virginal conception of Jesus, doctrine makes contortionists of us all but prayer, the act of contemplation where words and thoughts are set aside, can fill us with light and love, peace and joy.
“Letting be” the doctrinal complications, pushing all logic aside, I am filled with wonder. I sense an invisible current running through me when I listen to the Baptism story. I know what it means to say, “This is my child, in whom I am well pleased.” It is to say nothing, nothing in words. It is an embrace of the heart full of love, acceptance and joy. Love invades and flows through me for my own children, for all young people, for all of humanity. I am swept up in an ocean of love which is alive with the movement of this God, of Father, Son and Spirit.
This Baptism drowns me in the Trinity which is changed by my presence, by yours and by all creation.
How do I know that my life is changing God?
I had a special, close relationship with a woman who had a son. She read the Daily Mail faithfully in spite of which she had a quick, intelligent wit and was especially gifted with a discerning eye for fashionable clothes. She was a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher.
Her son turned punk and shaved his head. He became a central member of a graffiti team and an expert in planning night excursions to paint motorway bridges and train depots.
One day, on a train entering Paris she surprised me by saying, “This work you see all around here, on the trains and the walls, will one day be treasured as fine art.” She was referring to the graffiti which was everywhere. Her eyes had been opened for her by the delinquent behaviour of her son. Her love for him allowed her to discard her firm belief that graffiti was anti-social and see the beauty of the paintings sprayed onto the walls alongside the railway.
The Trinity, present at Jesus’ Baptism.
I have no Idea what this is.
Immersing myself in the scene at Jesus’ baptism, there is no mystery to the Trinity, no intellectual puzzle. Like a succulent strawberry cream cake it is as well not to linger on an analysis of the ingredients, just on taste and satisfaction. The Trinity tastes good: just as it should.
Here present at this Baptism by John, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit collaborate in John’s call to repentance. In our being with them they change, or rather God is changed, just as a couple are changed when a baby arrives. We enter into the Trinity and it is never again the same.
I can assent to all the official Doctrine as required, but as Pope Francis said when baptising children on the Feast of Jesus’ Baptism, “Some of the babies are crying because they are uncomfortable or hungry. Mothers, if they are hungry give them something to eat..” Let’s not feed children with doctrine, just with love and milk , preferably,from the breast in this wonderful communion to which we are all invited.