On Experts

During Morning Prayer in Lent, Old St Paul’s has a tradition of an additional reading from the early Mothers and Fathers of the Church. This morning, I used one from an excellent compendium of readings from the patristic period by the late Cardinal Tomas Spidlik, who knew a thing or two about this era and about Eastern Christian spirituality. The book is called ‘Drinking from the Hidden Fountain‘ and today’s reading was from the 6th century monk and teacher, Dorotheos of Gaza.

It comes from his discourse on ‘consultation’ where he meditates on Proverbs 11:14 – ‘Those who have no guidance fall like leaves but there is safety in much counsel.’ He is confident that all who seek God will find guidance and urges that we seek wise counsel in every area of our lives. For Dorotheos, speaking out of the heart of monastic experience, this is above all an exercise of humility:

Learn then, brothers and sisters, to enquire; be convinced that not to set one’s own path is a great thing. This is humility, this is peace of soul, this is joy!

We should not undertake the path towards God alone. There is wisdom to draw on from those who have walked the path before us, or for a longer time, or with such wholehearted intent and luminous insight that we can trust their guidance.

In a different realm, it is interesting that many have highlighted the need to hear trusted voices in the midst of a pandemic when, until very recently, such expert voices have been called into question by some with a political agenda. Perhaps this is also a time to seek out the wise counsel of those who can speak reliably to us about the spiritual life. Words of encouragement, support and insight are always welcome. Right now, they are essential.

I have told you all this so that you may know how much rest and tranquility we may haveĀ  – and that will all security – by not settling anything by ourselves, but by casting everything that concerns ourselves upon God and on those who, after God, have the power to guide us.

 

quotations are taken from Dorotheos of Gaza; Discourses and Sayings Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, 1977, translated and introduced by Eric P. Wheeler

A Word from the Hermitage

‘All monks, as is well known, are unmarried, and hermits more unmarried than the rest of them … One might say that I had decided to marry the silence of the forest. The sweet dark warmth of the whole world will have to be my wife. Out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is only heard in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world. So perhaps I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves.’

Image result for merton day of a stranger

So wrote Thomas Merton in his ‘Day of a Stranger’, which was a short piece he wrote in response to a question about what his day was like in his hermitage in the woods above the Abbey of Gethsemani. I’ve drawn much inspiration from this passage over the years and today one phrase stood out for me for the first time: ‘the sweet dark warmth of the whole world‘. He sees the whole world in the little patch of forest that is his home and he finds the centre of that world in a still point of pure nothingness. Every place, every person, is a microcosm and an instance of the whole. And at the heart of each microcosm is that point of utter simplicity. It is the same point in each of us – we are connected by that vast, spacious sea of silence which Merton describes as the centre of all other loves. Love is the space we create to receive the other.

As we find ourselves forced to make a physical space between ourselves and others, we might find a way to nurture that inner space which connects us. Alone in our homes in this time of ‘social distancing’, we are no less present to the whole world, and it to us. And I don’t mean the ‘running commentary’ of global 24 hour news but the much deeper-running current of stillness that is our true point of contact with all that is.

‘What I wear is pants. What I do is live. How I pray is breathe.’

 

Entering the Desert

As expected, the Scottish Episcopal Church has now suspended all public worship until further notice. For local congregations, this means that we must find new ways of maintaining our life as a community of faith by offering care, support, prayer and worship in ways that will draw on all our creative resources.

Many have commented that, especially as we’re already in the time of Lent, we are entering a spiritual desert, by which I mean that we are entering a privileged place of spiritual opportunity, a place of interiority and trust, a place where external characteristics of religious observance are largely stripped away. Our spiritual ancestors knew this place well and we can still draw on their wisdom, whether it’s the monastic pioneers of the deserts of the Middle East, the medieval Carmelites or modern explorers like Charles de Foucauld or, in a more interior sense, Simone Weil. But there are also fellow-travellers from other traditions, and as we begin this new phase of desert life, I offer one such companion – the poet and translator David Hinton.

Image result for david hinton deserts

Hinton is best known for his work in translating Chinese poetry and religious (Taoist and Buddhist) texts but he also writes his own poetry and prose reflections on the natural world. He has a lovely sequence of poems about the deserts he knows best in the West of the United States. Like all good desert explorers, he knows that there is no real division between the inward and outward deserts – one intensifies our awareness of the other. I offer a couple of excerpts:

Empty mind
is a mirror
gazing our, the old
masters say. It
seems easy

enough. But all
night long, stars shimmer
light-years
deep in my gaze. Who

could be that

vast? And at dawn
I’m sure
it’s not me

mirroring
desert, but wide-
open desert
mirroring whatever

it is
I am.

And here’s another one that appeals to me:

Yellow sky-
parched grasses
and sky. The less

this desert
is, the more I

want to live my life
over again. Ideas

confuse
me. They
leave every-
thing out.

It seems to me that we can trust this time of desert wandering to be a teacher for us. More than that, we can trust that it is also holy ground, a place where the Eternal meets us and invites us deeper into the mystery of I Am.