On 25th July Jules Evans interviewed the Bishop of London addressing the basis and history of the Contemplative tradition within Christianity. Bp Richard speaks with eloquence and insight into the strengths and weaknesses concerning the authentic spiritual journey into prayer. Rightly he talks of this being a dangerous journey if not joined up to the Christian community, and the danger of a more secular individualist consumptive approach which can be a journey into the shadow and false self. To read the full article click here.
Spirituality Prayer Worship and the Seasons
A great article in the New Statesman, starting with Rowan Williams
The Christianity I was originally formed in was not very ritual-minded: it was both intellectually alert and emotionally intense – the best of a style of Welsh Nonconformity now almost extinct – but tended to look down on physical expression of belief (other than singing, which I suspect was regarded as not really physical). Only when the family joined the Anglican Church when I was in my early teens, after we’d moved to another town, did I discover a sense of worship as a physical art, involving gesture, movement and colour. I still have a vivid memory of my first experience of a solemn Mass with procession at Easter, when I was, I suppose, about 12 – the awareness of a deliberate strategy of involving the senses at many levels.
The mild High Church atmosphere of those years was, for me, an environment that made strong imaginative and emotional sense, and indeed is still the kind of setting where I feel most instinctively at home, rather than in more simply word-oriented styles, or in the heated atmosphere of “charismatic” worship, repetitive song and unstructured prayer – although I’ve learned to be nourished by that, too, in many circumstances. But the ritual that is most significant for me apart from the routines of public worship and the daily recitation of the fixed words of morning and evening prayer owes more to non-Anglican sources.
Readers of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey will recall the somewhat unexpected appearance there of an account of the traditional Greek and Russian discipline of meditative repetition of the “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner”). Practically every Eastern Orthodox writer on prayer will describe this, and many in the tradition also describe some of the physical disciplines that may be used to support it – being aware of your breathing, sitting in a certain way, focusing attention on your chest: “bringing the mind into the heart”, as the books characterise it.
The interest in uniting words with posture and breath is, of course, typical of non-Christian practices also; and over the years increasing exposure to and engagement with the Buddhist world in particular has made me aware of practices not unlike the “Jesus Prayer” and introduced me to disciplines that further enforce the stillness and physical focus that the prayer entails. Walking meditation, pacing very slowly and co-ordinating each step with an out-breath, is something I have found increasingly important as a preparation for a longer time of silence.
So: the regular ritual to begin the day when I’m in the house is a matter of an early rise and a brief walking meditation or sometimes a few slow prostrations, before squatting for 30 or 40 minutes (a low stool to support the thighs and reduce the weight on the lower legs) with the “Jesus Prayer”: repeating (usually silently) the words as I breathe out, leaving a moment between repetitions to notice the beating of the heart, which will slow down steadily over the period.
The prayer isn’t any kind of magical invocation or auto-suggestion – simply a vehicle to detach you slowly from distracted, wandering images and thoughts. These will happen, but you simply go on repeating the words and gently bringing attention back to them. If it is proceeding as it should, there is something like an indistinct picture or sensation of the inside of the body as a sort of hollow, a cave, in which breath comes and goes, with an underlying pulse. If you want to speak theologically about it, it’s a time when you are aware of your body as simply a place where life happens and where, therefore, God “happens”: a life lived in you.
So the day begins with a physically concrete and specific reminder that your own individual existence is breathed through by a life that isn’t your possession; and at moments of tension or anxiety during the day, deliberately breathing in and out a few times with the words of the prayer in mind connects you with this life that isn’t yours, immersing the anxiety and dispersing the tension – even if it doesn’t simply take away pain or doubt, solve problems or create some kind of spiritual bliss. The point is just to be connected again.
The mature practitioner (not me) will discover a steady clarity in the vision of self and world, and, in “advanced” states, an awareness of unbroken inner light, with the strong sense of an action going on within that is quite independent of your individual will – the prayer “praying itself”, not just human words but a connection between God transcendent and God present and within. Ritual anchors, ritual aligns, harmonises, relates. And what happens in the “Jesus Prayer” is just the way an individual can make real what is constantly going on in the larger-scale worship of the sacraments. The pity is that a lot of western Christianity these days finds all this increasingly alien. But I don’t think any one of us can begin to discover again what religion might mean unless we are prepared to expose ourselves to new ways of being in our bodies. But that’s a long story.
This week is Passion Week which is the last week of Lent where we prepare to enter the drama, liturgy and emotion of Holy Week (Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday). In this week Christian pilgrims are encouraged to remember the story of Christ’spassion as the story from the joy of Palm Sunday through to the desolation of Good Friday and then the shock and joy of Easter Sunday. So if you get anytime to yourself this week, try to reflect on preparation for the next Sunday to Sunday.
In the last two weeks some of us have begun to explore the ‘Pilgrim Course’ of the Church of England looking to support people to explore the Christian Journey. In Moot and also in Bank City Churches we are using the element exploring The Lord’s Prayer over the 6 weeks of Lent and its material in the first two weeks has been good.
In the last session we explored the theme of ‘Your Kingdom Come, Your Will be Done, on Earth as in Heaven.’
The content again has been good, but I have again been struck by the difference between vision and practice. This section focuses on Justice and I quote:
The Christian life is lived in a rhythm of worship and service. That service includes a love of justice and equity, and a commitment to work for these to be manifest throughout life globally. We cannot divorce faith from politics, or the local from the international. Justice must be applied universally, to everyone and by everyone. (p.25)
When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we are asking for our world, our communities and our loves to be marked by the justice that God loves so much. As Christians we long for God’s kingdom to come but also do everything that we can to ensure that we live justly now. (p.27)
As an Anglican Christian, I am struggling a little with this vision and actual practice. Does the Church of England really live this way of being Christian? We have an appalling legacy of colluding with slavery, misogyny and homophobia to name but a few. We have dressed up this injustice as theology and tradition, and I am really slightly shocked that the Pilgrim Course has been so focused on Justice. Of course I totally agree with this, but is it really at the heart of being an Anglican Christian?
I still hear terrible things being said about Women and the Episcopate (and I can’t wait for their to be Women Bishops to redress the Old Boys Network) let alone the 26 years the Church has been listening to LGBT people and still is deeply divided on this issue with mild to extreme forms of homophobia. We in Moot have been accused by more fundamentalist Anglican Churches as being ‘unsound’ or heterodox or even of not being a ‘gospel believing church’ precisely because we affirm this vision of universal justice at the heart of God’s nature and God’s Kingdom.
So I suppose the challenge is ours, to hold onto the vision of God’s justice and God’s Kingdom when some of the Church really does not live this way and actively resists and represses people. So I applaud the Pilgrim Course and I long for the day when we don’t exclude various social groupings in the name of biblical truth and Church tradition…
The Pilgrim Course continues, Wednesday lunchtimes in Moot at 1-2pm, and 6.15-7.30pm St Mary Le Bow.
So we begin Lent with the ancient Ashing Service, which marks the first day of Lent, 46 days before Easter. As a season for reflection and for fasting of some description inspired by the life of Jesus who went into the desert to mediate and prayer away from the distractions of life.
The Ashing Service derives its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of adherents as a celebration and reminder of our human fragility and mortality. The ashes used are typically gathered from the burning of the palms from the previous year’s Palm Sunday. So if you have this come earlier (5.20pm) to burn these crosses to be used for the ashing. Ashes were used in ancient times to express mourning. Dusting oneself with ashes was the penitent’s way of expressing sorrow for sins and faults. An ancient example of one expressing one’s penitence is found in the Book of Job. Job says to God: “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. The other eye wandereth of its own accord. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, calls for repentance this way: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes. The prophet Daniel recounted pleading to God this way: “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.
So if you are around on Wednesday at 5.30pm, do come and join us.