Thursday, 30 April 2015

Centering Prayer: Some Reflections

                                            An Old Woman Praying by Nicolaes Maes

Some Christians think that Centering Prayer is an invaluable way to deepen their spiritual lives, others think that it is the work of the devil and many more have never heard of it. For the benefit of the latter I shall briefly summarise it based on this leaflet (pdf)
The Guidelines
1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
3. When engaged with your thoughts*, return ever-so gently to the sacred word.
4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.
On the subject of choosing the 'sacred word'-
The sacred word expresses our intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.
The sacred word is chosen during a brief period of prayer asking the Holy Spirit to inspire us with one that is especially suitable for us. Examples: God, Jesus, Abba, Father, Mother, Mary, Amen. Other possibilities: Love, Peace, Mercy, Listen, Let Go, Silence, Stillness, Faith, Trust, Yes.

The practice is recommended for 20 minutes a time, twice a day. Its proponents argue that it is based on an ancient Christian practice referred to in, for example, the medieval English work The Cloud of Unknowing which is true so far as it goes. It is no coincidence, however, that this practice emerged and was publicised at a time when Eastern meditation techniques based on Hindu or Buddhist mantras were gaining many adherents in the West. Indeed it is strikingly similar to Transcendental Meditation which also recommends two twenty minute periods with eyes closed. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with Christianity appropriating and Christianising this or that aspect of non-Christian cultures, philosophies or practices, The key question is always: does this provide a bridgehead to advance Christianity into new areas or a breach to permit non-Christian beliefs to invade the Church? In the case of centering prayer we can only answer that question when we have some sense of its benefits or risks.

Some critics contend that repetitive prayer is wrong and unbiblical. In that I think that they err. Repetitive prayer in a variety of forms has been a continuous practice of the Christian Church, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, for at least 1800 years most widely today in the forms of the Holy Rosary and the Jesus Prayer. The experience of the Church is that such prayers confer immense spiritual benefits on those who use them, on the Church as a whole and on the wider world. There is, however, a difference between  prayer based upon a sentence or phrase which contains a clear meaning and a particular aspiration and praying a single word with no specific content attached to it. It is the difference between active and passive. There is a place for passive prayer within Christianity but it needs to be recognised as a particular category and cannot claim close affinity with its more active cousins.

I suppose the first question to be asked about any form of prayer is- what is purpose does it serve? The first word of the prayer which Jesus gave us is 'our' as in Our Father. This teaches us, among other things, that God does not wish to save us as mere individuals but as individuals in community. All Christian prayer has both a vertical direction towards God and a horizontal one towards our neighbours particularly to those in the family of faith. To pray passively, opening ourselves up to the still small voice of God in our hearts, is a means to strengthen us in our active lives of faith. Practically all the great contemplative pray-ers of the Catholic faith such as St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila were enormously active and creative people who contributed largely to the Christian life of their time. When the emphasis lies in the personal benefits of centering prayer rather than in the contribution it can make to the life of loving service demanded of all Christians then it veers towards a sort of quietist form of therapy which produces undoubted personal benefits like calmness. There is nothing wrong with therapeutic meditation but it is not a form of prayer.

For a prayer to be Christian it requires both its form and content to be in harmony with the faith of the Nicene Creed. The person praying is establishing or strengthening her personal relationship with the Father, through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. It cannot then be a matter of indifference what word or words they use in that prayer. The word is only unimportant if it is a sort of background noise to lull the active mind to sleep while the rest of the person rests in a sort of zone of self-induced calm. What a pray-er should seek is a living connection with the living God and the tradition and experience of the Church suggests that pre-eminently the name of the Lord serves that function. Not because it has some magic mystical power but because every time a Christian uses it it calls up within them consciously and unconsciously a memory of all that they know and love about Him and this activates the heart in a movement of love towards Him. The name of the god-bearer Mary can also have a similar effect because by a special gift of the Lord she has been privileged to convey Jesus to us and us to Jesus. This is not to say that other words should never be used but I suggest that we impoverish our prayer when we exclude the names of Jesus and Mary from it.

Looking at the tradition which centering prayer claims to draw inspiration from, The Cloud of Unknowing, the key passage (at the end of chapter 7) is this-
And if thee list have this intent lapped and folden in one word, for thou shouldest have better hold thereupon, take thee but a little word of one syllable: for so it is better than of two, for ever the shorter it is the better it accordeth with the work of the Spirit. And such a word is this word GOD or this word LOVE. Choose thee whether thou wilt, or another; as thee list, which that thee liketh best of one syllable. And fasten this word to thine heart
This seems to be a straightforward enough source to draw upon but I think that it overlooks two key points. Firstly the preceding passage includes this-
Yea, and so holy, that what man or woman that weeneth to come to contemplation without many such sweet meditations of their own wretchedness, the passion, the kindness, and the great goodness, and the worthiness of God coming before, surely he shall err and fail of his purpose. And yet, nevertheless, it behoveth a man or a woman that hath long time been used in these meditations, nevertheless to leave them, and put them and hold them far down under the cloud of forgetting, if ever he shall pierce the cloud of unknowing betwixt him and his God
(apologies for the old English the more modern translations are still under copyright)
Clearly the author has in mind that what we call centering prayer is a late stage in a process of growth in prayer life which is preceded by, among other things, a contemplation of our own sinfulness and the goodness of God. One arrives at the 'sacred word' after perhaps years of contemplation and prayer which helps us to discover just what that singular word might be. To begin centering prayer without this preliminary process might or might not be a good idea but it clearly isn't what the author of The Cloud of Unknowing had in mind.

The second thing overlooked is the monastic context of this form of prayer. Those who used it also prayed the Divine Office (based on the psalms) seven times a day, went to Mass daily, were subject to the authority of a Rule and an Abbot (or Abbess), and had a confessor and/or spiritual director. Not only this but all parts of their lives, including their prayer lives, had a community dimension. Even hermits prayed the Office as a part of the praying Church not purely as individuals. It is certainly reasonable to adapt monastic forms of prayer to the use of people living in the world but that does not mean plucking out this or that attractive aspect of it and dumping all the rest as unappealing. The Church is possessed of much wisdom in such matters and these forms have come into existence and endured because they serve a good purpose. Not least they remind us of the 'our' of the Our Father.

My conclusion is that the practice of centering prayer is valuable and Christian only where the person who uses it situates it within the context of, as it were, a cloud of related practices. Each person should have their own little Rule. Ideally they should not choose that Rule for themselves but accept it from a wise spiritual director or at least from an Institute or organisation steeped in the prayer life and practices of the Church.That Rule should include daily reading or chanting of the psalms. The argument that much of the content of these psalms is difficult or even repugnant to the modern mind is no reason not to use them. Prayer at times ought to be hard work, we do have to make an effort, it is a struggle. Repeated reading of the psalms with the mind of the Church enables us in time to crack the nut and get to the sweet kernel within, if that takes years or decades well then let it take years or decades. The Rule should also include frequent resort to the sacraments since these give us strength and reaffirm our rootedness both in Christ and the community of the Church. And the Rule should make it plain that the object of centering prayer is to know God better, to love Him more and to serve our neighbours with all our strength.

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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Seeing God, Making God Visible.

The saints are the true interpreters of holy Scripture The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out.
Pope Benedict XVI

The organ for seeing God is the heart. The intellect alone is not enough. In order for man to become capable of perceiving God, the energies of his existence have to work in harmony.
Pope Benedict XVI

The Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI can accurately be described as an intellectual or, at any rate, an academic. Anyone who reads his books (and you really should) can have no doubt that he has a formidable mind which he feeds by wide reading and nourishes by deep reflection upon what he has read. He is then better placed than most of us to know that by the intellect alone we cannot see God. His life and work also stands as an eloquent and elegant refutation of the lie that Christians must abandon their intelligence in order to embrace their faith. Our discursive, cogitative, enquiring mind forms part of our God given personal apparatus as it were and so must play its part in our search for and encounter with Him but the part must not be substituted for the whole.

What does that mean exactly? To be a human is to be more than a pure intelligence. To be fully engaged in human life is to involve our whole selves, our 'energies of existence.' If we do not love or feel compassion or understand things with our heart then we are not using every part of ourselves, we are attenuating ourselves. It is unwise to believe or feel or do anything which our intellect cannot give consent to but the mind alone does not provide us with a powerful enough motivating force to actually do or to dare very much in life. It is an inadequate definition to say that a Christian is a person who believes in the divinity of Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary. It needs to be added that a Christian is a person who has a loving relationship with God through Jesus (and if they are wise a loving relationship with Mary also.) So what Father Benedict is saying is that to see God with all the fullness possible to us we must use all the humanness that has been granted to us, that is mind and body, emotions and feelings, soul and spirit, everything. The more we look the more we see and that looking is more than just thinking.

When we engage our whole selves in the relationship with God then all that we are becomes capable of being transformed by Him through that relationship. Each of us recognises from personal experience that simply knowing something to be true with our minds is not sufficient to decisively affect our conduct. Indeed whole industries are built on the fact that our desire for chocolates or shoes has more power over us than our knowledge that we need to buy considerably fewer of these things than we actually do. St Paul put it like this 'With my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.' (Romans 7:25)  To see God is to immerse ourselves in Him through prayer, the sacraments, reading the Scriptures, living in communion with the Church community and in love with all our neighbours. He is both within all these things and more and transcendent to every created thing so that no true perception of Him can be anything other than multidimensional and experienced through all of our faculties.

Which brings us to 'totally transfixed.' What the Holy Father is referring to are those saints who respond to an insight which they have had of God, found in the Scriptures, and reflect it in the way they live their lives. That is, having seen God themselves they seek to make Him visible to others through the things they do and say. The 'energies of their existence' have worked in harmony to bring about clarity of vision but this is not a purely self centred thing because the energies of their existence continue working in order to share that vision with the world. The two commandments cited by Jesus; 'Love God and love your neighbour' are simply different faces of the one commandment 'be transformed by God.' When with all the energies of our existence we see Him then these same energies can be put at His disposal to do His work in Creation and that work is always a labour of love and service, above all to the weakest and most vulnerable.

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Saturday, 18 April 2015

Fearing God

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
    all those who practise it have a good understanding.
Psalm 111:10

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’
Luke 5:8

For about 1800 years most Christians would have understood the idea of fearing the Lord to mean just what it said on the tin. Over the past couple of centuries or so the tendency has been for many theologians, pastors and teachers to explain away the notion of fear and replace it with something altogether more cuddly. Two main strategies have been employed, to emphasise that perfect love casts out fear and to re-cast the word 'fear' to mean 'awe.' Both approaches are perfectly sound so far as they go but effectively unbalance doctrine by being deployed as primary explanations rather than as auxiliaries to add to our understanding of the plain meaning of Scripture.

The first argument rests on the words of the Beloved Disciple There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.(1 John 4:18) It is worth noting the contrast between beginning and reached perfection. If every mention of fear is immediately counterbalanced with the effects of perfect love it will have the same effect as telling a child on the first day of primary school not to worry because whatever they do they will get a university degree in due course since perfect education means prizes for all. Perfect love is not our starting point fear of the Lord is. By following the path which this fear indicates we may hope, by the grace of God, to attain to final perfection but if we dispense with the fear then we cannot realistically hope to attain the perfection.

Secondly, to contain the entirety of the meaning of 'fear' within the idea of 'awe' is to have an incomplete understanding. One might feel awe in the presence of a President or Queen, a Mount Fuji or a Niagara Falls. That is, one recognises that one is in the presence of something commanding power or respect or possessing grandeur and feels impressed beyond measure. Such a response is perfectly reasonable when encountering or contemplating the One who created and sustains the universe and everything in it but awe can only ever be a part of that response not the whole of it. We need to take into account that God is not an impersonal force of nature, He is the Living God with whom we have a personal relationship. His power and majesty has a direct connection with us personally, we depend upon Him. Who we are and what we do is not a matter of indifference to Him and His justice and truth are not a matter of indifference to us.

What this means can be seen in the encounter between the Prophet Isaiah and the Almighty-  I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!(Isaiah 6:5) This is very similar to the reaction of St Peter quoted above. I think that the concern to explain away the notion of the fear of God springs from the perception that this gives the idea that God is an angry, unpredictable deity who constantly requires propitiation lest He break out into an irrational and ungovernable rage. Yet what we see from Isaiah and St Peter is that their fear springs from a knowledge of themselves and their own weaknesses. It is not the irrationality of God that worries them it is that they recognise His perfect justice and truth and they know that their own sinfulness renders them wholly unfit to be in His presence. Classical Greek philosophy suggested that the maxim know thyself was the beginning of wisdom. Scripture suggests that knowing ourselves in relation to God is the beginning of wisdom. It is when we see the gulf between ourselves as we are before Him and as we should be before Him that we feel fear.

This is not a fear that we should explain away, it is a fear that we should nourish. It is a searchlight into our hearts exposing our inadequacies and prompting us to change. That process of change forms the content of our relationship with the Triune God. We seek to become mirrors so that we reflect Him, our sins are transformed through Him into virtues our weaknesses into strengths. We attain more closely to perfection and so to the casting out of fear. Yet if we do not begin with fear we can never fully understand our imperfections and attempt to do something about them. Dispensing with fear can only be done by embracing ignorance of both God and ourselves. Knowledge of both is the essential root of of our recognising the need we have for salvation and for a saviour.

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Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Shakespeare & the Apostles

Agincourt, Imagination and the Bible

 Then he took the twelve apostles aside, and warned them, Now we are going up to Jerusalem, and all that has been written by the prophets about the Son of Man is to be accomplished.  He will be given up to the Gentiles, and mocked, and beaten, and spat upon; they will scourge him, and then they will kill him; but on the third day he will rise again. They could make nothing of all this; his meaning was hidden from them, so that they could not understand what he said.
Luke 18:31-34

King of France
With pennons painted in the blood of Harfleur: 
Rush on his host, as doth the melted snow 
Upon the valleys, whose low vassal seat 
The Alps doth spit and void his rheum upon: 
Go down upon him, you have power enough, 
And in a captive chariot into Rouen 
Bring him our prisoner.
Constable of France.
 This becomes the great. 
Sorry am I his numbers are so few, 
His soldiers sick and famish'd in their march, 
For I am sure, when he shall see our army, 
He'll drop his heart into the sink of fear 
And for achievement offer us his ransom
Henry V, Act III, Scene 5

The Apostles do not come well out of the Gospels. They seem to have a near perfect ability to misunderstand or not comprehend Jesus. It is tempting to dismiss them as unusually dense or at least woefully ignorant. It does not help much if we remember that we know the end of the story and they didn't, that we have the benefit of the reflections on Jesus and His mission in the Epistles and two thousand years of Christian thought and they had to make do with very much less. The reason this is not helpful is because it is a purely intellectual exercise on our part. Most readers of the Gospels, Christian or not, are emotionally invested in Jesus, often to a great degree, and it hurts us when we see Him desperately trying and usually failing to make those closest to Him understand who He is and what He is doing. That emotional wound, that empathy which we feel, cannot really be touched simply by engaging in the mental exercise of adding up the things which the Apostles could have known and could have understood and comparing it with what our Lord was asking them to know and understand. Emotional wounds need to be treated with emotional medicines.

(enter Shakespeare)
One way of reading Scripture is to immerse oneself in it imaginatively. If we try to see the events unfolding before us not through the eyes and with the feelings of a 21st century person but as near as we can manage it with the feelings of the historical participants then our perspective will change. For most of us it will not be possible really to enter into the thought processes of the Apostles, the holy women or the Pharisees because their thinking was dominated by a framework of assumptions and experiences that only professional historians could really reproduce. Their feelings, however, would be akin to ones that we ourselves are familiar with because the lapse of two thousand years has effected no change in the human emotional range whatever it may have done to the world of ideas. In this context Act III, scene 5 of Henry V becomes a useful tool. Why? It is set on the eve of the battle of Agincourt, the flower of French knighthood and nobility is preparing itself for a foreseen victory. In that they are wise, they possess the greatest warriors in Christendom, they are fighting on their own soil and they heavily outnumber the English. It is not vainglorious or foolish of them to expect to be victorious, quite the reverse they have no reason to expect anything else. Yet, as it happens, on that October day in 1415 they experienced a crushing and humiliating defeat. Shakespeare, I think, captures well their attitude and does not portray it as he might have done as being hubristic. This makes the contrast with what follows all the sharper.
(exit Shakespeare pursued by angry Frenchmen)

If we read the Agincourt section of Henry V then none of its participants appear to be behaving in an excessively foolish manner, they do not irritate us by their denseness. If we read the Gospels in a similar way then we can see that the Apostles, particularly on the eve of the Passion found themselves emotionally in a place analogous to that of the French nobility. They expected a triumph and had good reason for such an expectation. In Jesus they recognised the promised Messiah, the Anointed One of God. Their understanding of these titles was that as a descendant of King David and Solomon our Lord would restore the kingdom of Israel to its ancient glories driving out the occupying Romans and humbling their insolent neighbours. A restored Israel would be rich and powerful and all the world would acknowledge the might of Israel's God. That Jesus had the power to be just such a Messiah they could not doubt, had He not displayed His power over sickness and death and had not His words shown a wisdom greater even than Solomon's? That Jesus did not intend to use His power in such a fashion they could not grasp. That is to say they may have intellectually grasped that His words pointed in a different direction but, rather like our attitude towards them, they could not emotionally grasp the significance of His mission because in their heart they desired something different. It would require the horror of the Passion and the joy of the Resurrection to flood into their inmost being before they could be open to understand as keenly with their hearts as with their minds what it was that Jesus stood for.

If we enter into their emotional lives then not only can we understand them better but we can also feel more deeply for ourselves the impact of the Easter events. Then, like the Apostles, it will be only natural that these events become for us the foundation of all that we are and do in the world. It should not be understood, however, that I am suggesting that we should read the Gospels only in an imaginative way. The scriptures can and should be read in a variety of different ways- as narratives, as literal truth, as metaphorical truth and so on- since only then can they yield to us all the treasures which they contain. Moreover, they should always be read with the mind of the Church, two thousand years of Catholic reflection and meditation have preceded us and we should draw upon this resource looking towards it for guidance and support particularly where we encounter passages and sayings which are difficult to understand or to integrate with scripture as a whole.

Nonetheless the imaginative reading of scripture has enormous potential to help us release our inmost energies. This does not only apply to the Gospels, the Exodus story of Israel escaping from bondage has often exercised great influence over those suffering oppression precisely because they can enter imaginatively into the sufferings of the Hebrews and see in their salvation a source of hope for their own plight. Personally too I recall that in the days after my mother died I read the Book of Job and what I saw there spoke to me and moved me and changed me in ways which had not been possible before because I could now see his loss and pain through the eyes of my own bereavement. The Bible has been called the Book of Life and it is that in this sense: your life can be found within its pages and that life by it and by prayer and the Holy Spirit can be transformed from darkness into light.

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Saturday, 11 April 2015

Thoughtfully Detached

I have started a new blog on WordPress, Thoughtfully Detached, The aim of this at least to start with is to look at some of the stuff that happens in the world from the standpoint of morality and ethics. My starting point, of course, is Catholic values but it is not intended to be an overtly religious or spiritual blog. When arguing in the public sphere at a time when much of the public is non-Christian or anti-Christian I think that it is important to set out Catholic philosophical positions in a way that can command maximum support and so effect change for the better in the world. I will not conceal my Catholicism or decline to discuss religious or spiritual matters as they arise but the primary purpose of the blog will be to make plain that an alternative perspective to the normal Conservative/Liberal dichotomy exists and does make sense. My first substantive post, Is Democracy A Good Thing?, is an indication of the sort of thing I have in mind.

I don't intend to abandon this blog. Illness has prevented me from posting anything here for a while but hopefully I will revive enough to resume posting here soon. The reason why I've started the new blog before resuming this one is that here in the UK we are going through a General Election process and it seems timely enough to begin a more political series of posts. Anyone who likes Catholic Scot will be more than welcome at Thoughtfully Detached but if it doesn't interest you please be patient and by the grace of God normal service will resume here shortly.