Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Ploughman

There are times when prayer is as exciting as a ploughman plodding across a field that has been ploughed many times before. The ploughman reflects a simple reality; no ploughing, no sowing of seed; no sowing of seed, no harvest of the abundant fruits of the field. Ploughing is hard necessary work, and so is prayer. Most prayer is ploughing, turning up the subsoil of our reality so that the creative and regenerative power of the Word can be sown in the varied fields of the world around us. Hard rocky soil needs hard ploughing to receive the Seed.

The foundation of prayer is relationship; our relationship with our Lord; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Prayer is an ongoing relationship with the Father who delights to hear our prayer, with the Son Who intercedes for us, and with the Holy Spirit who is the very energy that carries our prayer to the heart of the Father. Prayer is only secondarily an emotional experience. On the first level prayer is a responsibility, an act of obedience, a duty that we perform in the company of the Holy Spirit. In going to prayer one might even say, “I am going to do my duty and pray with the help of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is something that the Holy Spirit and I do together.” Like ploughing, prayer is hard work, but not work that we have to do alone.

Obedience, duty, and honour are related concepts that are not popular among modern Western Christians; but these antique virtues are the bedrock of prayer. Prayer does not need to be exciting, or emotionally rewarding; it is just something we are supposed to do. While Benedictines balance Ora et Labora, prayer and work, a simple truth is that often prayer is simply work. This is why St. Benedict says, “Our prayers, therefore, ought to be short and pure, except it be perchance prolonged by the inspiration of Divine Grace: (RB Ch. XX).

Christians live their lives pointed towards the coming of Christ and the full realization of the Kingdom of God when “Death is swallowed up in victory” (I Cor. 15:54b). While we wait, usually plodding along the furrows of our spiritual lives, we would do well to remember St. Paul’s exhortation, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labour is not in vain” (I Cor. 15:58). The command is, “be steadfast, be immovable.” Paul is not here talking about flashy Christian experience. The Greek word for “steadfast” means “sitting, sedentary, firm, immovable.” The Greek word for “immovable” means “not to be moved, firmly persistent.”

That exhortation sets the tone for our spiritual lives, and particularly for prayer. We are to do our duty; to honour God with our obedient response to His call to pray. Such prayer rests on the bedrock of our relationship with Him. We are loved, and we love in return. Out of that love we take up the concerns of the Holy Spirit as He moves us to pray for ourselves and others. I do not mean to imply that there are no joys, no moments of high elevation, even exuberance in prayer. Of course there are! It is just that the plain bread and butter of prayer is faithful obedient plodding up and down the fields of God; ploughing with the Holy Spirit, God’s Ploughman at our side.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Honey and Hemlock

“There is something of benefit to be had even from the profane philosophers—but somewhat as in a mixture of honey and hemlock. So it is most needful that those who wish to separate the honey from the mixture should beware that they do not take the deadly residue by mistake.”1

There was no naiveté in Christ when He came to earth to be born of the flesh of the Virgin Mary His mother. The Pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti, a devout Anglican High Church woman, tells us of the infant Christ Child with great tenderness.

Lord God of Mary,
Whom His lips caress
While He rocks to rest
On her milky breast
In helplessness.2

He is born as a real child, wholly dependent on his mother; the Living Word of God uttering inarticulate baby sounds. All our understanding of the ways of God with man is governed by the paradigm, “God initiates, man responds” There is in such limitation and dependency a tremendous gift of love given for you and for me. God, the Living God, accommodates himself to the limitations of humankind, as the Psalmist says, “He stooped to me and heard my cry.”3 All of our praying is a response to His great gift of love already given.

The Act of Incarnation, the co-inherence of God the Word in the womb of Mary, provides a redemptive answer to Fall and the resulting predicament of humankind. The Fall and Original Sin reveal the inner posture of the human heart, the preference for doing things our own way instead of glad surrender to the God who created us. However rather than being solely the answer to the fallen state of humankind, that Act of Incarnation was predetermined by the joyful choice of God from before the serpent, from before the beginning of time itself. His intention in creating us was to become one with us, “not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by the taking of the Manhood into God.”4 He created us to become one with us, flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, uniting us with him forever and drawing us up to be with Him in the eternal realms. Already as a Christian you have one foot in Paradise.

When God declared His intention to create humankind he said, “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness”5 Having completed His work, “God saw everything that He had made, and behold,” he said, “it was very good.”6 What was it that he proclaimed, “very good?” It was humankind, in the flesh, in the Garden of Eden. It was the pleasure of God to walk with Adam and Eve in the garden. Note that the flesh is only fallen by virtue of its relationship with the soul; not because it is evil in itself. What was the purpose of creation? We were created that He might walk with us, and we with Him.

Lo, how far we have fallen, and how far all creation has fallen with us. We have a world of mixed honey and hemlock so mingled that it is hard for us to separate out the honey from the hemlock and not take the hemlock by mistake. If the truth be told we have developed a perverse taste for the bitter tang of hemlock. I grieve that I am so sinful, not that I am any different from you. I grieve that we are corporately so sinful; that we share the heritage of Adam and Eve for good and for ill.

Take seriously the extent of the Fall. Self-knowledge is a necessary precondition for the restoration of our relationship with the God who loves us; self-knowledge of the depth of our fall on a personal and corporate level. To encounter the love of God, one must first discover that God is holy, and that humankind at best is a mixture of honey and hemlock. When the Son of Righteousness, the outraying of the glory of God, arises in our souls, His brilliant light throws all of our darkness into clear relief. That is painful, and I often find it so. We are dangerous people who live in a dangerous world, and only by grace received through faith will we come through to safety.

That is the flip side of the coin. The other side is that we were created for fellowship with God and that He has provided the way for our restoration. We have no righteousness of our own, but Christ has become for us our “righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”7 Our baptism as individuals into Christ initiates the process of restoration in us, but it is a process that must be affirmed and accepted by us. Only the ability to say “No!” to the offer of grace guarantees our freedom of choice.

We are baptized not only into Christ, we are also baptized into the Body of Christ, we are baptized into community, we are baptized into the household of God. As we draw closer to Him we draw closer to each other. As deep as the depth of our fall, so great and greater is the power and glory of our redemption through the redemptive work of Christ upon the Cross. One cannot separate the Persons of the Trinity. It is not that God sent his Son as a surrogate; no, God Himself is born one of us and dies upon the cross. God dies to vanquish the death in us and bring us to life. “God has died in the flesh, and hell trembles with fear.”8 O Lord God intra tua vulnera absconde me, in your wounds hide me. Ne permittas me separari a te, do not permit be to be separated from Thee.9

You will hear Eastern writers like Gregory Palamas and others tell us that the purpose of the Incarnation is what they called theosis, that is that we become partakers of the divine nature, but I think the purpose is simpler than that. The purpose of the Incarnation is intimacy with God, that we might be with him; theosis, transformation, is a result of our growing intimacy with God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

When we say that Christ is our righteousness we own that God gives His righteousness, the righteousness of Christ, to sinners if we trust in Him, and that by acceptance of Him and His righteousness, in lieu of our own, we are restored to right relationship with Him. That is to say, in more theological terms, we are made just, we are justified by grace through faith. One of the wonders of this state in which we find ourselves is that even though we are from time to time keenly aware of the things that we have done, and the things that we have left undone, nonetheless He loves us and keeps company with us out of His mercy, His steadfast and active love towards us. When He has won our hearts, when we surrender our hearts to Him, everything else will follow. Faith in His redemptive work takes a surrender of the heart. Faith in His redemptive work takes the courage to acknowledge that we cannot redeem ourselves, and the humility to accept His labour on our behalf.

The way is not one of passivity, but of active acceptance and co-operation with the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. In the Prologue to the Rule, St. Benedict of Nursia writes, “In drawing up its regulations, we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome. The good of all concerned, however may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love. Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love. Never swerving from God’s instruction, then, but faithfully observing God’s teaching … until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in the eternal presence.”10

However as children of the Anglican Reformation, let us remember that the basis on which we deserve to share in the eternal presence is not our own efforts, but the grace of Christ who is made for us “righteousness and sanctification and redemption,” and that as we lift our souls aloft to God, He delights for the sake of Christ to pour that free gift of grace upon us.


1 Gregory Palamas, The Triads, I i. 20
2 Christina Rossetti, “A Christmas Carol”, Christina Rossetti:
The Complete Poems
,(London: Penguin, 2005), p. 383
3 Psalm 40:1 BCP
4 Quincunque Vult, BCP, p. 865, (The Creed of St. Athanasius).
5 Genesis 1:26 ESV
6 Genesis 1:31
7 Romans I Corinthians 1:10
8 An Early Christian sermon
9 The Anima Christi
10 The Rule of St. Benedict, The Prologue

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Bottomless Well

Some of us by nature are caregivers; it is in our blood, in the very fibre, muscle and bone of our being. It is not just that there are those who need our care. We ourselves need to care, to mend and heal, to rescue and restore. I suspect that trait in one degree of another is found in most people. Natural care givers often hold suspect those who have no apparent need to give care, and recognize as pathological those who instead of giving care, victimize those who either need care or give care. That proclivity is not just pathological, it is wicked.

There is only One who is a bottomless well. Through the Christ flows the water of the Spirit, the gift of the Father’s love. All the rest of us lesser caregivers fall into one of two major categories; the shallow well that taps ground water, and the well spring that has tapped a source deeper than itself.

The caregiver that functions as a shallow well is soon drained of inner resources and only slowly filled by fresh rain water seeping through the soil. The shallow well, giving of its own fleshly strength and human power, gladly gives all it has but then sits depleted, empty and tired, very tired of caring. Some shallow wells are slowly repleted, others once depleted sit as dry holes for times upon times; their care giving days are over.

The caregiver that functions as a wellspring has tapped into the deeper artesian spring of God’s love and presence and even if depleted is quickly filled. Contrasting the earthly and heavenly well there is One who said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13,14).

There are some limits to caregiving that must be recognized. Even Christ the Caregiver is limited by the freedom of will that is an intrinsic right of those for whom He cares. He allows us to say “No!” We ourselves are bound by the same reality in our offers to care for others. On another level there is no comparison of His ability as a caregiver with our lesser ability. It is not for nothing that He is called the Redeemer, and we the redeemed. His caregiving becomes incarnate in our caregiving but subject to our humanity and limitations, but by the grace of God we are what we are and His grace in us is not in vain. Caregivers give care only by virtue of their connection with the Christ in the power of the Spirit.

Being filled with this amazing water of the Holy Spirit requires both inflow and outflow. Without the inflow that comes through worship, praise, prayer and reflection on God’s word the well soon dries up. It is necessary to drink daily and drink deeply. Without outflow, without giving care the water becomes stagnant and the well itself becomes dank and drear. The one who actively leans upon Him is like a tree planted the water that sends out its roots by the stream. The one who drinks deeply of His Presence is like a deep well of water springing forth and giving life to those who need care.

A Response to a Query:

There is a fine line between giving care and trying to fix the problems of others. In our family we have discovered the Crusader Rabbit syndrome. Crusader Rabbit is large, white, fluffy bunny that takes his sword, his shield and his lance, mounts his white stallion and charges down on a problem situation (or person) and attempts to fix things. The problem is that fixing things is not our responsibility, but loving and giving care is. Generally when Crusader Rabbit mounts his white horse and charges down he is about to get knocked off his horse.

I think it is a good thing to volunteer, unlike the shrunken soul who said that the best advice he ever received was to never volunteer. You have remarked that “As a child I was told not to speak unless spoken to and to wait until I was asked to do something.” As a child I remember the dictum, "children should be seen and not heard", (and I might, add “and preferably not seen either!”). That kind of attitude was a vestige of those halcyon days when the governess presented the children to the parents after dinner for inspection, but for little else. Children should be respectful, but so should adults, even of children. On a simple level even respectful children would bless their parents by volunteering to wash the dishes or walk the dog.

As for your living arrangement. There are so many mixed motives and emotions in any family living arrangement. What's done is done. However there is here a matter for some serious and persistent prayer. The question is not "What should I have done?", but, "What should I do now?" The mind of man plans his way but the Lord directs his step.

Canon Rob+

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Riding on the Glory Train

We were young then, I'm not speaking metaphorically; it was forty years ago at the very beginning of my ministry. It was the first major trip that my wife Diana and I took together; “Europe on Five and Ten Dollars a Day,” two Eurail passes, a sense of adventure, and a lot of faith. We made no reservations, simply boarded the train and when it stopped at a place we wished to visit we took out our guide book, or consulted whatever government tourist office there was, and trusted to the blessings of God. The result was joy and the beginning of memories that would last a lifetime.

In one glorious month we boarded the Paris – Rome Express, then from Rome to Venice, Zürich, Heidelberg, down the Rhine to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Belgium, Luxembourg, then over the English Channel to London. As the Glory Train rolled on one particular memory stands out. We were sitting in a dining card on the overnight train from Venice to Zürich, crisp linen table clothes and precisely folded linen napkins, heavy silver service, curried chicken, and outside the window the grand panorama of the Alps passed in magnificent parade with a majesty and overwhelming beauty that we had never seen before. We were riding on the Glory Train.

In a way the Glory Train is a metaphor for the unfolding of Christian Life with arduous climbs up spiritual alps, dizzying descents in valleys, and a multitude of stops along the way, some wonderful, some not, all different, all just part of the journey. Some of the stops are grey and dingy, even nasty, others musty, dusty places we never want to visit again. Riding the Glory Train takes a combination of faith and an understanding of the nature of Christian life.

The distinguishing characteristic of riding on the Glory Train is that we actually believed that you could do Europe on five and ten dollars a day. Retrospectively we were right. Forty years of Christian living, uphill, downhill, through dank and dangerous places, sometimes cresting over lofty mountains, then gaining speed on the descent to some valley floor, marks the rhythm of Christian living. I am not naive. Some of those places were very painful, one or two are tender to the touch even to this day.

For each of those experiences there is a reason. Sitting on a spiritual hotplate, at the very least, makes own loath to sit back down there again. There is a rhythm to Christian life. One can't live on the mountain tops, and one shouldn't get trapped into living in the valleys. Christian life is not static but always in motion, it is a journey with a destination, and it has hills, valleys, trestle bridges, tunnels, and passages across level plains, but always it is a forward motion. In Christian Life one lives on the Glory Train, not on any of the various places of interest or dread that flash by the windows. All the stops along the way are temporary, every last one of them, and only one thing is eternal.

Over all I have learnt that I am loved. I have learnt that the Engineer on this mountain railroad of life is worthy of my trust. He is my Redeemer, Christ Jesus my Kinsman-Redeemer. That title is not just smoke from some infernal steam engine spewing out grit and ashes. I have learnt that I am loved and that He redeems the years the locusts have eaten. He redeems the past. Let me be very specific. He redeems my past, my very own past, and I have learnt that my life is a salvation history, an ongoing work of God the Father, through Jesus the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit. I have discovered that this is no empty joke. I have discovered that I am Riding on the Glory Train, and this train has a destination. This train is bound for heaven.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I Hear the Grating of an Old Saw

I hear the grating of an old saw, back and forth, back and forth, tearing at my soul. Old guilts, old stupidities, old moments of awkward stubbornness, things long ago confessed and forgiven. Faintly I discern the scent of brimstone. There is a fell hand upon the saw, but once discerned, with a mocking leer upon his face he drops the saw and withdraws a pace or two awaiting another day, another unguarded moment when he can grasp the old saw of accusation and work away, back and forth, back and forth.

This is a common experience of many Christians. The old guilts and stupidities are seldom the most dramatic requiring soul shaking repentance, but rather the lesser ones that reflect inner weakness, inner vulnerabilities to temptation, words spoken lovelessly, harsh actions, moments of hurt pride and anger, and a myriad of drives springing from the flesh that we neither desire nor intend to fulfill.

In a flash of insight we see ourselves as a moral puddle and like the publican we beat our breasts and cry, “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.” It is there, at that very spot, that we have something surprising to do. So you see yourself? Well and good! Now in this very moment extend acceptance to yourself, not as you ought to be, but as you are in the reality of this moment. Why? Certainly not because you are such a fine fellow or such a lovely woman. No! You know with painful clarity that you are not. No! Accept yourself because God the Father accepts you for the sake of Jesus His Son. You see yourself and you are seen by the One who loves you most and accepts you. You are accepted! You are accepted just as you are without reservation. Transformation comes later, but in this precious moment you are accepted. Who are you to refuse to accept one whom God Himself has accepted even if that one is you yourself.

This crux is what the ancients would call a pons asinorum, a bridge of asses; a bridge we mindless donkeys fear to cross, but once crossed, the crossing comes with blessed relief. In crossing over, a light dawns. So that is what I am. So what! I see myself; but I also see myself as forgiven and accepted. The grinding back and forth of the old saw of accusation and guilt stops with a sudden jerk and the enemy withdraws with the gnashing of teeth. Rejoice! You are accepted.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Spiritual Doldrums

Sailors in the tropics are familiar with the doldrums, an equatorial zone where the winds fail and the sails hang listless. The doldrums are dangerous. When the wind fails the ship wallows helplessly in the sea, forward motion is impossible, drinking water becomes dangerously low and the stores of food begin to vanish. At the worst the end could be death, at the best a freshet of wind springs up and deliverance is at hand. The spiritual equivalent is described by Teresa of Avila. She says, “At other times I find myself unable to formulate a single definite thought, other than quite a fleeting one, about God, or about anything good, or to engage in prayer, even when I am alone; yet none the less I feel that I know Him.” (The Life of Teresa of Jesus, Image Books, Ch. XXX). Even in the doldrums she holds fast her faith in her Lord.

It is comforting to know that even an experienced saint like Teresa who has received so many spiritual favours and visions, still goes through times of spiritual aridity and confusion. Part of the genius of Teresa is her incessant introspection, an introspection which at its best leads her into deeper knowledge both of God and herself, but at other times can drive her into deep depression. What tends to happen in the midst of the spiritual doldrums is that those with less experience and insight than Teresa drift mindlessly without the wind of the Spirit. This may go on not just for a few hours, or for few days, but for endless weeks. The doldrums make nonsense of the naïve Pelagian view that we can lift ourselves to God by our own spiritual bootstraps. The first thing we need to pray for in the doldrums is the gift and grace of introspection in the presence of the Lord. In the doldrums only the wind of grace will fill the sails.

What is not immediately apparent is that during all of this Teresa is living not in isolation, but in community. In community she is called to exercise leadership and authority; but also in the extended community of the Church she herself accepts, even seeks out the leadership and authority of her confessors, who are not always constructive in their criticism of her, yet still she persists. With humility she submits her habitual introspection both to her confessors and to the doctrine of the Church knowing that unchecked introspection can be dangerous.

For us the development of the practice of introspection can take several avenues. One of the basic methods is working out our feelings in a spiritual journal. Addressing each entry to the Lord is one way of keeping ourselves not only honest, but also fair with ourselves as well as with others. Rereading journal entries after the times of distress cool down can be very instructive. God had once observed that it is not good for man to be alone. Isolation is spiritually dangerous. Find someone to share with, if not a confessor or spiritual guide, then some other faithful Christian, or even a small group that can walk the journey with you.

Teresa is also sustained by the daily cycle of prayer within the community. The rhythm of the Hours of Prayer, the frequency of Eucharist, her persistent habit of recollection, thatr running dialogue with her Lord, weave together a background that stabilizes and balances her life of prayer, and in the doldrums keep her feet in motion even when her mind is running on disconnect. She knows from long experience that it is necessary to hold one's soul aloft to God that He may pour His blessing upon it. When you are in the spiritual doldrums tend to the basics and work on the discipline of praying one daily office a day.

It is significant that Teresa does not solely lay the blame for the doldrums on herself, or even on some vague and nebulous outside circumstances but clearly and specifically identifies the source for the doldrums as a function of spiritual warfare. Learn to detect the scent of brimstone. There is a deceiver who seeks to steal our joy and lead us away from our security in Christ Jesus. One of the enemy's most successful gambits in our modern age is the inculcation of a subtle scepticism that denies the reality of his presence. When that fails, he goes to the other extreme and attempts to instil fear, but greater is He who is in you, than he who is in the world. In Teresa's experience when the enemy is seen and countered by prayer or by a simple sacramental act like making the sign of the cross, the enemy flees to await a more opportune time.

There is another dimension to the spiritual doldrums, but one that is unlike the doldrums feared by those who sail the southern seas. Spiritual doldrums, while they must be met and dealt with are also part of the normal rhythm of spiritual life. Spiritual life has its ups and downs and the rhythm is not to be feared, but understood. While is important to deal with the doldrums, sometimes we take ourselves to seriously. When the wind lags in the sails sometimes the solution is to pick up a good book, listen to some uplifting music, or fill your mind with visions of beauty, then take time to do one of the daily offices and thank God for all his good gifts.

Monday, June 28, 2010

When Life Gets Tough

In many respects the last month or so has been very difficult, partly due to a hectic schedule that includes not only the ordinary round of priestly duties, but also the remodeling of our new home and the threat of moving hanging over our heads. Complicating the schedule has been the postponement of the consecration of a Ugandan friend of ours as a bishop for the Diocese of Kinkiizi.

Perhaps the underlying factor that makes things less than bearable has been the persistent and aggravating pain in my shoulder and the recovery process and physical therapy for a torn rotator cuff and snapped bicep tendon. One result has been many nights where pain prevented a good night’s rest. Even as I type this the nagging pain pulls at my consciousness with every stroke of the keyboard.

There are also a number of other factors, family matters, and the loss of a dear friend who died suddenly and much too soon. I always remember Roseanne Roseannadanna who said, “It’s Always Something.” That was also the title of her memoir of her struggles with the cancer which eventually took her life. “It’s always something” turns out not to be much of a joke when the pressure is on.

My list is not much different than anybody else’s and some of you have even more painful and grievous things to bear. Some insensitive soul pointed out that God only gives us what He knows that we can bear, but that individual was probably well past their immediate pain and was forgetting what the moment was like.

This morning’s meditation led me to Psalm 94:19. In the Revised Standard Version it reads, “When the cares of my heart are many, thy consolations cheer my soul.” Why the Revised Standard Version? Well for a start it preserves the personal address to God, “Thy.” The one who hears the cares of our hearts is the one who loves us and makes himself personally known to us, even as we, in the midst of our distress are personally known to Him. The Psalmist shares with us those “cares of the heart,” which are common to God’s children, and to all who are far away from Him. I note that the Psalmist’s list of cares is different than mine, but that doesn’t really matter, cares are cares, and even though we don’t always experience the depth of those “cares of the heart”, the experience of cares creeps up on us unsought. Blessed be the God of all mercy that we don’t live there all the time, and that life has its moments of love and great gladness.

What the verse said was, “When the cares of my heart are many, thy consolations cheer my soul.” It is a prayer, but more than a prayer, it is a confession, an acknowledgment of grace being received. Exactly what are the consolations that cheer our souls? First and foremost is the very Presence of God Himself that given the slightest opportunity breaks through the distress of the present moment. In that Presence we are invited to calm and quiet our souls like a weaned child at its mother’s breast. And if we allow, perhaps even seek it out, we are not bereft of companionship of those who love us; a quiet conversation, the sharing or memories, or even the voice of a friend calling to let us know that we are cared for. There is possible in the most difficult of times an invitation into the calm gladness of God, that joy that is not rooted in our subjective experiences, but in the very presence of God Himself. By grace we are invited to step outside of ourselves, to allow some holy distraction in music, drama, or other arts that offer a respite from too much introspection. Wherever we find beauty and truth we find the glory and presence of God.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Golden Lion

The track ahead led through a swampy area over the submerged ruins on an ancient road toward the opposite bank. Several slimed steps emerged from below the surface of the dark waters up to the top of the bank. Climbing up the steps I stood for a moment pondering the parting of the ways that were before me. To the right lay an old rutted cart path that wove its way into a damp, dark, and murky forest. Another smaller path, single, simple, went up the hill before me.

Thinking that the cart path looked the most likely to lead somewhere I struck off down the road. Only a dim and grey light filtered down through the over-arching branches. I felt an inner caution; several pathways branching off one side or the other would offer themselves. An inner voice old me not to worry, I would know where the danger lay. As I travelled on several avenues beckoned me, but at once a sense of antipathy, almost dread, warned me away. Going on a little further a grotesque birdlike spectre loomed over me bidding me enter a branch leading further off beneath the shadows of the trees. From that offered pathway a faint, subtle, stench of death drifted on the air. The sense of dread deepened and I backed away. The old rutted cart path and all its branches led nowhere that I wanted to go.

I returned to the river bank and looked again at the small path leading up over the hill before me. The path itself was narrow, but on either side was a broad margin dotted with tiny meadow flowers, pink, white, perfectly formed, presenting a cheerful alternative to the old cart path that I had abandoned.

The path led up over the crest of a small rise and emerged from the forest into bright light. Before me a broad slope led gently down to the sea. The sky was blue, the air freshly warm, the scene serene, the horizon infinite. As soon as I set forth down the slope to the sea I saw before me an immense Golden Lion standing on the sandy shore. Love and awe, desire, awoke in my breast and I hastened forward and lost myself in His embrace. It was Love Himself that met me, embraced me, filled me with a deep and reverent joy. With great gladness I lost myself in Him.

Thus I awoke from sleep, but the numinous Presence of the Lion enveloped me with a warm radiance that endured throughout the next hour, despite the distractions of my morning ablutions. He who loved me most of all said to me, “You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you” (Isaiah 43:4), and I knew the truth that He dwelt in me, and I in him, twined together in the harmony of love.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Unitive Experience: A Personal Reflection

While I do not “feel” God all the time I acknowledge that when I turn my gaze toward Him most often His Presence comes rushing in. I have always attributed that to the experience of the Holy Spirit six weeks after my conversion. It was an experience of complete abandonment in the Presence of God. It came unsought, pure infused grace after a year of wrestling with purgation. Infused grace is that grace which comes as pure gift, poured on one seemingly without conscious preparation. Purgation is a season of self-discovery under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit and ends in penitence and confession.

The purgative stage was cyclical and I was through sorrow and the experience of guilt and alienation from God gradually led to such a place of self-awareness that I abandoned all and cast myself in utter trust on the mercy and love of God. The moment of surrender and final confession opened a door into an immediate sense of the Presence of God without guilt, and without recrimination.

I had no words for the deeper experience that came six weeks later. Eventually Charismatic theology and the words of Scripture would identify the experience as the Baptism with the Holy Spirit. Such an identification however falls short in understanding the essence of the encounter. An older theology would have understood it as an experience of being rapt in God that issued in a sense of being at unity with God, of oneness, a lostness in the enrapturing Presence that for those moments removed me from all awareness of my surroundings and held me tossed to and fro in the ocean of God’s boundless love. The circumstances are not as important as the event itself. It happened in the midst of a superficial community that was accepting at least that such things could and should happen. But the experience itself was intensely personal and removed me emotionally, spiritually, and it seemed physically from the community itself.

Basically such an experience is word based and perhaps even the result of acquired grace. For me the experience was preceded by avid and disciplined reading of the New Testament and by exposure to the psalms, particularly expressions like the old Scot’s Psalter tune for Psalm 42, “As pants the heart for cooling streams When heated in the chase, So longs my soul, O God, for Thee, And Thy refreshing grace.”

Some of the mystics would have identified it as an experience of initiatory grace. Initiatory grace is that grace we sometimes experience at the very beginning of our spiritual journey giving us a foretaste of spiritual delights and drawing us on into disciplines that prepare us for acquired grace. Although acquired grace is itself a gift, it is experientially the immersion in the Presence that comes in response to quiet discipline.

Certainly it was initiatory grace, but it marked me forever and left within me a spiritual and emotional receptor, a doorway for the Presence of God. It had nothing to do with worthiness. “I am not worthy that You should come under my roof, but speak the word only and Your servant shall be healed.” To my sorrow and occasional confusion I grieve that I am so slow in responding obedience, but I hasten to add that whatever obedience I have is responsive by nature. The experience left me with a sense of unity with God that fades and then is renewed in the ebb and flow of my experience of God’s love and grace in rhythm with my ongoing process of self-discovery and penitence. The experience of unity with God has also marked me with a willingness for abandonment with God. I would not want to be tempted to abandon the experience of the Presence which comes as pure gift, even in those times when on the surface it seems to be acquired grace.

I have had dark nights of the soul since then, some of them unsought, some blundered into. What I have learned is that God loves me, in tune, out of tune, at all times and delights to have me know that love. His love precedes and transcends my transformation. The issues of the human soul move very slowly and God will not await our timing but takes us to His bosom, as we are, in transition, in partial and sometimes inadequate, very inadequate states of sanctification. That is what the blood of Christ is for, cleansing and purifying even as it makes this union with God a possibility.

I am at a loss to describe the experience of His Presence. I feel enveloped. I would say I feel loved, but how does one feel loved? To be sure it is subjective, but nonetheless it is so persistent and sometimes so pervasive that it cannot be denied. It is Divine hands upon my shoulders, Divine breath breathed deeply in. It is comfort, peace, and at times physical warmth. It is more than subjective. It is an inner knowing, a receiving of the immanent God, “a golden breathable medium.” I relax into it and am still. I pick up the Scripture or my Psalter, or a book written by another child of God and feel the Presence spilling from the pages into my very soul. I pick up my pen and write, or write even on the computer knowing all the time that He is with me. I experience Him with the same clarity that I experience the others whom I love.
I acknowledge that it is not something that I have done although on another level I have allowed myself to thirst for Him and for His Presence. How should it be otherwise? The words of an old hymn come back, “I sought the Lord and afterward I knew He moved my soul to seeking Him seeking me.” At times I have hesitated. At other times I have drifted away. But, by grace, in the final analysis I respond to Him with the words of Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Fait Accompli

When faced by an uncomfortable or potentially painful task I have often been comforted by one particular sentence in C. S. Lewis’ book Perelandra. To place that sentence in its context, the C. S. Lewis character “Ransom” is faced with horror, dread and potential death as he contemplates physical conflict with the Unman, a demonized and brutal fallen academic. All of a sudden an awareness steals upon him, a certain knowing that, “About this time tomorrow you will have done the impossible.” 1 The background to this event is the knowledge that he has gone through this in different contexts before. Haven’t we all.

Now in facing surgery later this morning, the anesthesiology, the surgery itself and the aftermath (which one comforter characterized as “mega painful”); I am aware that I have gone through these kinds of challenges before and by grace I have come through them. This is I suppose an entwinement of faith and courage, although I hadn’t consciously thought of is before. It is very true that this is a fait accompli, that by this time tomorrow I “will have done the impossible.” All that remains is an awareness, a setting aside of the threat of pain, and a substitution of the knowledge that he who bore a painful death for me will carry me through again as he has so many times before.

But let me insert a little reality here, borrowing an evaluative method from my doctor’s assistant. She asked, “On a scale of one to ten, how painful is it?” At that moment I said quite truthfully “Eleven.” After a change of medications, on the same scale, it was about a three. To apply this to the level of apprehension this morning on a scale of one to ten, this rates about a three, or at moments a four. To say nothing of past emotional and spiritual challenges, I have been through many needles, I.V.s, several colonoscopies (the day before is the worst thing about colonoscopies), and two knee surgeries before. He who carries me through these will carry me through again in His wounded hands. About this time tomorrow I will have come through and will be on the road to recovery.

One challenge that I have been mastering this time around is the surrender of my long and tightly grasped independence and allowing others to help me. As Henry Suso says “No matter how much one abandons oneself, one repeatedly finds more of oneself to abandon.” What snaps into present consciousness is my unsympathetic step-mother screaming at me and barring the door as I stood on the porch bleeding from a head wound. “Don’t bleed on the rug!” was all the empathy I received and the very clear knowledge that the carpet was, on a scale of one to ten, an eleven in her world, and I was less than a zero. Even as a young teen I could figure that out, but I also know that on a scale of one to ten, my heavenly Father’s care and love for me is a thousand to infinity.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Incarnation and Personal Transformation

At the beginning of Lent we are challenged with the task of self-evaluation and the call to personal transformation. The key is in the nature of the Incarnation of God the Son in human flesh; a perfect incarnation “complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us a regards his manhood.”[1] It is not just that Christ came down and became one with us in the Incarnation; that is only half of the story. St. Athanasius carefully says, “Who although he be God and Man, yet he is not two, but one Christ; One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of the Manhood into God.”[2] In that two-fold motion; in his coming down and becoming Incarnate in human flesh and in his taking of that same flesh into God; we find the secret of our own transformation. While we work out our own salvation in fear and trembling it is the Christ who works in us to will and to do of the Father’s good pleasure.[3]

Of the Incarnation Charles Williams tells us, “At the beginning of life in the natural order is an act of substitution and co-inherence. A man can have no child unless his seed is received and carried by a woman; a woman can have no child unless she receives and carries the seed of a man – literally bearing the burden. It is not only a mutual act; it is a mutual act of substitution. The child itself for nine months co-inheres in its mother; there is no human creature that has not sprung from such a period of an interior growth.” [4] That co-inherence, and the resulting union of Christ in us, carries with it the gift of transformation, for it is in this that Christ Jesus has given us the gift of his own glory and identity, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”[5]

There is a frequent misunderstanding that transformation can be achieved by human effort and discipline, but that is incorrect; transformation is a gift given to us as a result of our relationship with God. Two traditional words are used to describe this transformation. In the Western Church we are accustomed to the term sanctification, that is we are made holy; but in the Eastern Church this is referred to as theosis, or deification, designating that His divine nature is imparted to us and transforms us, that is that we become godly. The means of this theosis is in prayer, praise, and worship, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” [6] As we lift our souls, our very personhood, up to God, He pours His transforming grace upon us. The phrase “we are being transformed” is a present participle, and in Greek it is metamorpho’o, from which we get the word metamorphosis; we are being changed in a gradual ongoing process as we behold the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus.

It is not that we behold the very essence of God, but rather that we behold His radiance. The distinction is like beholding the radiance of the Sun, rather than burning our eyes by directly beholding the Sun itself. I am mindful of St. Gregory Palamas’ distinction between essence and divine energies, the former in immutable transcendence, the latter incarnate in humanity. Palamas would remind us that in beholding not the essence of God, but the radiance of God, we ourselves enter into deification and take on that same radiance. It is the radiance of Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” [7]

When we kneel at the feet of the radiant Christ whom we adore, “we receive into ourselves the likeness of whatever we look upon.”[8] Lest we misunderstand the nature of this and make the assumption that this is only a mystical and spiritual exercise rather than practical one involving concrete personal responses on our part, Jesus, who is the God of love,[9] says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”[10]

If we are to be deified, we are to take on the identity of the God of love and let His love become fully incarnate in us. This has a direct effect on all of our relationships, but also on what we in the West think of as our sanctification, “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[11] To be deified, to be sanctified, and made holy, is to be transformed into that Love which is a key element of the very nature of God.
[1] Council of Chalcedon, 451 A.D.., Act V, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 864
[2] The Creed of Saint Athanasius, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 865
[3] Philippians 2:12,13
[4] Charles Williams, “The Descent of the Dove”, in Charles Williams Essential Writings in Spirituality and Theology, ed. Charles Hefling, Cambridge:Cowley, 1993), pp. 145-148
2(Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love)
[5] John 17:22-23, ESV
[6] 2 Corinthians 3:17,18
[7] Matthew 17:1,2
[8] Gregory of Nyssa
[9] I John 4:16
[10] John 15:12-17
[11] Galatians 5:14