Greet the day with thanks‘Little Rule for a Minor Hermitage’, Practicing Silence, Bonnie Thurston
for safety through the night.
Rekindle and nurture this hearth’s fire.
Care for life on this bit of land.
Work; pray; rest.
Do no harm.
Think about what matters.
Attend to the body.
Welcome guest and stranger.
Take what comes with gratitude.
Give what is needed with gladness.
Greet nights with courage.
Review the day for small joys
overlooked in living it.
Then, trust the darkness.
This lovely little ‘rule’ really needs no commentary from me, so I will say only that I deeply admire Bonnie Thurston for her wise scholarship, especially in the work of Thomas Merton and his interactions with Buddhism, for her evident contemplative life and for her many writings in the field of spirituality. I’ve recommended her ‘primer on prayer’, For God Alone, to many people as one of the wisest and most practical books on prayer I know. Indeed, as someone who knows Buddhism well, she would probably agree that it’s not possible to be wise without being practical, or to be practical without being wise. She is also a sensitive and creative reader of scripture.
As for that little ‘rule’, it also sings with practical wisdom and hints at contemplative depth (trust the darkness). As a rule for ‘minor’ hermitages, it carries a Franciscan accent (joy and littleness) and, in its economy, has a flavour of Zen about it (avoid judgement). I offer it today as something much better than New Year resolutions and will strive to live it as well as I can.
‘It is she, it is Mary, Sophia, who in sadness and joy, with the full awareness of what she is doing, sets upon the Second Person, the Logos, a crown which is his Human Nature. Thus her consent opens the door of created nature, of time, of history, to the Word of God.
God enters into his creation. Through her wise answer, through her obedient understanding, through the sweet, yielding consent of Sophia, God enters without publicity into the city of rapacious men.
She crowns him, not with what is glorious, but what is greater than glory: the one thing greater than glory is weakness, nothingness, poverty.
She sends the infinitely Rich and Powerful One forth as poor and helpless, in his mission of inexpressible mercy. To die for us on the cross.
The shadows fall. The stars appear. The birds begin to sleep. Night embraces the silent half of the earth. A vagrant, a destitute wanderer with dusty feet, finds his way down a new road. A homeless God, lost in the night, without papers, without identification, without even a number, a frail expendable exile lies down in desolation under the sweet stars of the world and entrusts himself to sleep.’
Thomas Merton’s prose poem, Hagia Sophia, daringly suggests that Mary crowns Jesus with something greater than glory and that is his human nature. But it is not just any kind of humanity that she bestows – he is born in poverty, at the margins of the world, in a place not meant for human habitation. He is born anonymously, hidden from view and welcomed only by a small band of social and religious outcasts – shepherds, whose physical marginality prevents their full participation in an observant, devout life. From that point on, Jesus never showed a preference for polite company! Always choosing those with dubious reputations or embarrassing bodies, social transgressors and heretics, collaborators and beggars, Jesus showed again and again what was clear from the start: God chooses what is weak and broken and makes his home there.
But why make this choice? Why not choose a position in society with some influence, some clout? Surely you can do more good if you’re on the top of the pile, from where you can distribute alms, sort out unjust policies, make a reasonable case to reasonable people. Does power always corrupt?
I think there are two reasons for this choice for poverty. One is that Jesus himself made it clear that he was sent to seek and to save that which is lost. It is not that poverty is somehow ennobling, but that it is an injustice caused, at root, by a willingness to see some people as of less value than others, as dispensable. God subverts this injustice at its roots by taking human flesh in poverty and thus identifying fully with those who are so often passed over, disregarded, excluded. In doing this, he invites us to find him there, at the margins of human society rather than at its apex.
The second reason is a more personal, more intimate one. God’s choice of being made known to us in poverty invites us to relate to him from our own place of poverty, of brokenness, of simplicity. When we look to our own woundedness, we find there one whose deepest desire is to heal us. Looking from the places where we are hurting also puts us in a position of trusting openness towards God. When we turn to God, not from a position of assured confidence, but from a knowledge of our need for wholeness, we offer a gift of great value, the gift of our honest, unadorned longing. We give to the humbled one the gift of our own humility. When we give to the one who emptied himself our own emptiness, he fills it with light and peace.
At this moment in our history, when we have been in the midst of a pandemic unlike any other that we have seen in our lifetimes, this startling message is more urgent than ever. First of all, God’s complete identification with the poor and marginalised urges us to find him there once more. The pandemic has exposed the inequalities of our societies in a way that we must not ignore. God takes his place in the food bank queue, not in the privileged security of the wealthy. How can we truly value those who have been devalued by our divided society?
Secondly, our urgent need for faith is never more real than in this time of uncertainty, anxiety and isolation. Again, this faith is not a matter of unshakeable confidence, of constant, sunny optimism, but of a humble trust, a simple longing, a desire to be made whole. In the messy fragility of a new-born baby placed tenderly in an animals’ feeding trough we see the promise of rest for our weary souls, peace and consolation for our troubled and grieving hearts, healing for our wounded bodies. For God has come among us and all shall be well.
There are many faces of Thomas Merton, even if we are only looking at his considerable literary output: poet, mystical theologian, incisive social commentator, prolific correspondent, tireless diarist, inter-faith pioneer, gifted amateur photographer, translator and editor (Clement of Alexandria), writer of introductions (Fenelon), teacher and scholar of monasticism. This latter category may be one of his less well-known areas but is well represented in his excellent book of essays, Monastic Journey and in his more recently published novice conferences, where he shows an extraordinary and wide-ranging knowledge of early and medieval monasticism.
Much better known is his excellent translation of a selection of the sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Wisdom of the Desert. It’s a notable book both for its early popularising of the desert tradition and for its two prefaces; the one he wrote and the one that didn’t make it past the censors by the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki. The latter showed his instinct for what is now rather clumsily called inter-spirituality – the meeting of religions at the point where they concern the disciplined exploration of unnameable things in silence. The Suzuki piece did eventually see the light of day in a later publication, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, but for today, the anniversary of Merton’s death in 1968, I want to offer a couple of small nuggets from Merton’s published introduction to The Wisdom of the Desert which get to the heart of Merton’s approach to the spiritual life.
Speaking of the key desert notion of ‘rest’ or ‘quies’, Merton describes this as being:
Simply the sanity and poise of a being that no longer has to look at itself because it is carried away by the perfection of freedom that is in it. And carried where? Wherever Love itself, or the Divine Spirit, see fit to go. Rest, then, was a kind of simple no-whereness and no-mindedness that had lost all preoccupation with a false or limited ‘self’. At peace in the possession of a sublime ‘Nothing’ the spirit laid hold, in secret, upon the ‘All’ – without trying to know what it possessed.Wisdom of the Desert p. 8
Merton was keen to demystify this way of being in the world and saw ‘rest’ as a less convoluted or exalted way of talking about ‘contemplation’, affording ‘less occasion for spiritual narcissism or megalomania.’ For the desert monks, quies was a state of inner tranquility hard-won in the daily struggles of the desert and carried with them into every action in life – in their manual work and most vitally in their dealings with other people. This tranquil and non-judging attitude towards others is a constant feature of the Sayings and is well-expressed in the following, as translated by Merton:
A certain brother inquired of Abbot Pastor, saying: What shall I do? I lose my nerve when I am sitting alone at prayer in my cell. The elder said to him: Despise no one, condemn no one, rebuke no one, God will give you peace and your meditation will be undisturbed.Wisdom of the Desert p. 40
Although himself a restless person in many ways, Merton was also one who sought to foster quies through unceasing prayer, solitude and conversion of heart. On the day he entered his heavenly resting-place, we honour this latter-day desert monk who explored the place of tranquility within, the point vierge that is ‘stillness, silence, the virginal point of pure nothingness that is the centre of all loves.’
I’ve written a couple of posts recently about the life and teaching of Fr Lev Gillet, who used the nom de plume ‘A Monk of the Eastern Church’. In the Western parts of the Christian world, we tend to have a fairly fixed idea of what a monk is: they wear habits, keep themselves to themselves and live in big old monasteries in a monastic community. None of these things was true for Fr Lev for most of his life. He did live in a monastery for a time and he did often (though not always) wear his clerical attire (though rarely with the monastic veil) but he lived a busy life, travelling around Europe and to Lebanon, leading retreats, preaching, reading in the famous old reading room for the British Museum, meeting friends… In what sense, you might ask, was he a monk? Is ‘monk’ in the Eastern church simply a synonym for ‘celibate’?
To be a monk in the Eastern sense is primarily to be one whose life is give to prayer – alone with the Alone (monos pros monon, hence ‘monachos’) – and the celibate life is at the service of this primary call. Many monks do live in communities, large or very small, and some serve parishes. Monks who are chosen to serve as bishops continue their calling while serving the wider church as teacher, pastor and priest. So Lev Gillet’s monastic life was in no way compromised by his living in Notting Hill or Paris for it was an interior life devoted to the vision of God in purity of heart.
Thomas Merton discerned something very similar. Although he did live in a monastery, or latterly in a hermitage in its grounds, he insisted that the monk was primarily a ‘marginal person’ who has ‘broken through the inevitable artificiality of social life’. A monk was someone not associated with the establishment or hierarchy (desert monks were famously suspicious of clergy!). Merton saw that this calling could be followed by anyone, irrespective of their ‘canonical status’ and gained further insight into the inner nature of this way of living through his conversations with Buddhist monks on his Asian journey. For them, the monk’s journey deeper into the monastic life was not a matter of fulfilling certain training criteria but of the deepening of wisdom [please note, those selecting candidates for ministry…]. It’s also important to note that the word ‘monk’ is not gendered in this use and is, indeed, used of all monastics in certain Buddhist orders.
So for Merton, the calling to be a true ‘monk’ is open to anyone who, in their inner life, sits light to the expectations of social existence and conforms only to the image of Christ, the marginal one who, inwardly free from other ties, could be the universal brother. This seems to me to be a calling worth embracing and living out in as many different ways as there are people willing to respond to it.
Today is the anniversary of the death of Charles de Foucauld who, in many ways, opened up the path to the possibility of dialogue between Christianity and Islam. On the face of it, Charles’ life was not one marked by success: in his lifetime he saw no new monastic foundations and no new followers, and his death, though in many ways a martyrdom, remains something of a mystery. But after his lifetime, his example did inspire many to follow in his way of utter simplicity, universal fraternity and faithful ‘hiddenness’. Indeed, his influence extends to Pope Francis, whose latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, owes much to the spirituality of Charles.
In the realm of dialogue with Islam, which is surely one of the most vital works of inter-faith understanding in our day, Charles’ influence on one of this dialogue’s most significant pioneers, Louis Massignon, is immense. Charles’ approach was one built on fraternity, but also on the fundamental necessity of conversion. Indeed, his own conversion to a fuller embrace of the Christianity of his birth was directly a result of his encounter with Muslims. Although his desire in living among the Tuareg of Algeria was to bear, for them, the presence of Christ, his desire was to understand, not to make converts. He lived without any European or Christian companions and sought simply to be present among the people as a hermit whose simple dwelling was known as a place of hospitality as well as brotherhood.
Although not seeking to make converts, Charles embodied the truth that dialogue depends on conversion – one’s own. We cannot enter into a truthful dialogue unless we are committed to allowing ourselves to be changed by it, probably in ways we cannot anticipate. The same could, of course, be said of all Christian life, that it is a constant process of growth, of conversion, of being conformed ever more closely to the image of Christ. But there is something particular about inter-faith dialogue, which brings us face to face with God through language and practices that are not our own, challenging our assumptions and revealing to us new insights that might not have been shown to us if we had chosen to remain with what is familiar.
In dialogue, do we also seek the conversion of the one with whom we are in dialogue? No, but it is likely that they have also entered into this transformative space with the same commitments as we have. Our responsibility, however, is only ever towards our own attitude and our own readiness to be converted by the God we will meet in new ways through our sister or brother.
In a remarkable introduction to his enduringly attractive Orthodox Spirituality, The Monk of the Eastern Church rehearses an appreciative litany of great mystic saints of the Church, East and West, ancient and modern, institutional and marginal. He does not neglect the ‘deeply Christian, and therefore Orthodox’ insights of such ‘Evangelical’ Christians as George Fox, Nicholas Zinzendorf, John Wesley, William Booth and Sadhu Sundar Singh. He speaks with approval of the early Anglican Franciscan, ‘Father William, the saintly hermit of Glasshampton’ as an ‘Eastern spiritual type’.
His deeply inclusive vision of spiritual unity across traditions is matched in the Anglican world by another quietly remarkable spiritual teacher of the 20th century, Canon Donald Allchin. I’ll say more about him some other time.
Gillet succinctly summarises his approach to spiritual ecumenism thus:
A genuine and intense spiritual life is the shortest and safest way to re-union.
Always balancing scripture, theology, liturgy and the practice of contemplation, Gillet offered a view of ecumenism which was ahead of its time and is perhaps only now beginning to come to the fore. His was a deeply evangelical mysticism, a deeply mystical gospel-based spirituality. He was well-known for his reflections on Gospel texts, delivered simply, directly and from a place of contemplative stillness (he advised preachers to say one thing only – take heed!). It is from shared silence and shared reflection on the Gospels that ecumenism must not only begin but always return. Gillet used to advise inquirers to remain in their own church because Christ was to be found there.
If, as Gillet insists, the aim of human life is union with God and deification, then our union as churches separated by the events of history must flow from this primary aim. Surely, those who are drawn closer into union with God are thereby drawn closer into union with one another and with all.
Over these last few months, I’ve found myself revisiting writers whose works on prayer and faith have been a constant inspiration to me throughout my adult life. There are relatively few of these, and it won’t surprise those who know me to hear that Thomas Merton is one of them, along with William Johnston. But perhaps the most constant of these constant companions is Lev Gillet, who wrote under the pseudonym, A Monk of the Eastern Church, and this is for one very simple reason. He wrote a short book called, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus which was and is for me a concentrated, practical, scriptural and wise guide to the practice of the Jesus Prayer, a prayer which has also been a constant companion since my early 20s. Of course, Gillet wrote many more books, and among the ones I cherish most are his commentary on the Christian Year; The Year of Grace of the Lord, his excellent introduction to Orthodox Spirituality and his reflections on priestly ministry; Serve the Lord with Gladness.
But I knew only the outlines of his life until I recently began to read the excellent biography by Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, who knew him well. She introduces us to the fertile milieu of the community of Russian exiles in Paris in the ’20s and ’30s which produced so many remarkable figures – Lossky, Bulgakov, Evdokimov, Schmemann, Mother Maria – and to the rich ecumenical context of Gillet’s own ministry. Of course, his writings show his continued appreciation of the Western Catholic tradition of his birth and early ministry, but I was less familiar with his contact with radical Protestant figures like Wilfred Monod, founder of the Fraternité spirituelle des Veilleurs. He was also deeply shaped by his contact with the early psycholanalytical movement and his appreciation of the wider intellectual landscape of the time. His embrace of Orthodoxy was not a retreat into an exotic enclave but an expression of his profoundly ecumenical and evangelical calling, a calling to find in Christianity’s common early roots a revitalisation based on an encounter with the living Christ within the spirit-filled life of the liturgical community. He found there a warmth and an authentic voice of a Christianity that was at once scriptural and mystical, ritually patterned and free.
Gillet also engaged very closely with Anglicans, not least through the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, and his quiet influence is still palpable among those Anglicans who treasure their contact with the Eastern churches.
In this uncertain time of lockdowns and restrictions, Gillet’s teaching on the Jesus Prayer offers hope and substance – a means of continuing the church’s Eucharistic offering internally: ‘We shall present the Holy Name to God as though it were bread and wine’ (On the Invocation para. 48) and ‘Jesus always remains the bread of life which we can receive as food, even when we do not partake of any sacramental elements’ (para. 50). It is a means whereby we invoke ‘the breaking-in of Christ into our earthly existence’ (para. 51). I thank him for his wisdom and encouragement in these hard times. Memory Eternal!
In Dogen’s instructions on conduct in the meditation hall, from which the above quotation comes, he is keen to protect practitioners from an excess of stimulation. Interestingly, he also considers the possibility of someone entering the hall while intoxicated with wine accidentally! His better known ‘Rules for Zazen’ (Zazen Gi) underline the need for a space that is calm and quiet and this is because zazen is quite the opposite of seeking an intense ‘spiritual’ experience. It is a matter of living one’s life fully even when it does not present us with anything of very great interest – ie most of the time! If one chases any sort of ‘experience’ at all as a goal in life, there is a very strong danger that we will constantly imagine that fulfillment lies elsewhere, and that is a sure-fire route towards disappointment. Zazen is nothing more or less than the living of life itself – fully, consciously, openly.
What, then, of Christian worship? What is its primary purpose? Is it even wise to talk about worship as having a purpose at all? There is a real risk that we see liturgy as a kind of spiritual stimulation, a ‘high’ to keep us going through the drudge of the week until the next boost comes along. We might see that in terms of a mental insight, an aesthetic experience, a sense of community, an extraordinary encounter with the divine. None of these things is bad, but what if they don’t come our way?
It seems to be against everything that we imagine to be necessary for church growth to suggest that worship should understimulate rather than overstimulate us, but I think I’m going to try now to make a case for just that!
I think that our patterns of prayer and ritual can have a very positive role in forming our approach to life as a whole, and if they are to do that well, they need to be capable of seeing us through monotonous, unappealing and uncomfortable aspects of life as well as joyful and exciting ones. To do that, they need to school us in the art of finding equilibrium and stability, of staying put and paying attention, of receptiveness and subtle awareness. If our liturgical or ritual life aims only to provide us with excitement, stimuli or points of interest, we might end up seeking these rather than giving ourselves fully to the longer and slower work of patient attentiveness.
So what might the ritual practices be that can nurture this quality of balance?
First of all, repetition is our friend in this approach to ritual prayer. Repeated texts and gestures instill in us habits of attention and focus. And it’s not as if these things are devoid of content – what more theology do we need than that contained in the Jesus Prayer?
Secondly, the use of liturgical chant provides a steady pulse to our prayer, aids memory and reduces the temptation of over-expression, which is another kind of stimulus. I would love to see the chanting of liturgical texts become the norm once more for most of our liturgical services, even small-scale ones (and it really is no less virus-emitting than speech!).
Thirdly, the use of aesthetics that promote focus will help us with our attentive stillness. I strongly believe that church buildings should be beautiful, not to provide sensory stimulation alone but to enhance the sense of harmony and attention. This might suggest a simpler aesthetic with clean lines and few points of distraction but I think that other approaches can offer the same thing. For example, I do not find a Greek church with icons everywhere to be over-stimulating and I think this is because the form of the building itself is usually very simple, with a focal point on the apse, emphasised by the Royal Doors in front of it. There is only one altar and usually a minimum of furniture. And the icons themselves are an invitation to attentiveness – they do not provide drama and ‘interesting detail’ but stillness and presence.
Finally, all ritual prayer should be offered with care; not hurried or sloppy but measured and unfussy. There is a particular onus on the one presiding to embody that sense of collected presence and careful attention, not getting in the way of the community’s prayer and in no way self-promoting. This does not mean that clergy and worship leaders need to leave their personality at the door, but simply remember that they are not the focus of attention. That’s one of the reasons our church strongly favours the use of liturgical vestments – they are not my clothes expressing my personality. Each person praying also might pay attention to how they are present in the liturgy, perhaps even if they are participating from home through a screen.
I want to be clear that I am not rejecting any aspect of liturgy that is emotionally uplifting, simply suggesting that this should not be sought out as the highest expression of our prayer and that we would do well to nurture habits that sustain us through every moment of life rather than offering an escape from it.
I guess that if we were each asked to describe our perfect paradise, we would all come up with something slightly different. Depending on our temperament, we might go for peaceful seclusion or bustling conviviality, warm Mediterranean climes or cool northern skies, music to dance to or silence to soothe us. So if we are more disposed towards something a little quieter, we might be put off by the recurring image in the gospels of the Kingdom of God as a wedding feast. To those so inclined, I would simply offer the observation that, even at the noisiest wedding, there’s always a quiet corner where you can find others taking a break from the inevitable carnage of an Orcadian Strip the Willow.
Whatever our preferences, I think there are fundamental truths in the image of the wedding feast which are enduring. The first is that the image of our ultimate destiny as a thoroughly communal affair rings true. We are made to interact with each other; we are made to learn the art of living a good life in the company of others; we are made to find ourselves when we move beyond self-concern and into love for our neighbours; and we are made in the image of God who is not solitary but relational. And in this time of restriction, we crave our vital social connections more than ever. But I’m intrigued that Jesus chose the image of a wedding feast as his basic paradigm of the Kingdom of God. Why not a family or a community or a nation? Well, apart from the fact that these social realities are fraught with complexities of their own and each risks a sort of exclusive or restrictive dimension, there is something about a wedding feast that these other groupings doesn’t quite capture. Above all, the wedding feast introduces a note of unrestricted joy that is not necessarily present in these other examples.
I don’t think we talk enough about joy in the spiritual life. We seem more disposed towards thinking of the sterner virtues, or the instructive possibilities we find in hardship, or the notion of heroic sacrifice and we can dismiss joy as frivolous in comparison. But joy is also a kind of sacrifice in the sense that it is a giving up of po-faced self-control in favour of self-forgetting delight. It is a letting go of self-importance so that we may truly and simply enjoy the gifts that someone else brings to the party. It replaces the anxiety that can so diminish our spiritual wellbeing with light-heartedness and delight.
I think there’s something almost comic in today’s parable when it recounts the terribly worthy excuses given by those who not only refuse the first invitation but even continue their joyless sulk when the messengers draw their attention to the smell of the best food being prepared under their very noses. Enough with your partying, they say – we’ve got work to do. We are people of substance and have no time for your trivial interruptions to the serious business of commerce. Where the wedding feast speaks of abundance for all, a time out of the grind of daily life, those who refuse to come are concerned only with their own gain. One of the miserable so-and-sos who does turn up even refuses to put on a festal garment in an act of self-righteous reproach to the celebrating partygoers.
But for all its comic impact, the parable sets before us a rather stark reminder of the choices we must make day by day. As with all parables, it is not intended to make a single point but confronts each one of us with a deeply existential question. In this case, the question is about what we truly value. Are we too concerned with our own security or self-image to let ourselves go for the sake of another? Are we so much invested in our own advancement that we shun the gifts offered to us by someone else? Does our own little world take precedence over the much bigger reality that opens up before us when we allow the stranger to take a place at the table alongside us?
In these difficult days of constraint and anxiety, there is always a risk that our world will shrink in the way it did for those who refused the invitation to the wedding banquet. There is a risk that we prioritise our own nation or tribe over the greater family of humanity. There is a risk that faith becomes a private matter rather than a fundamentally communal reality. And there is a risk that our bigger vision takes second place to our more immediate concerns.
In the face of these constraints, Christians continue to offer participation in a wedding feast. Every day, we set a table in the face of our fears and place there bread to strengthen our bodies and wine to cheer our hearts. For now, the feast may not be as sumptuous as we would like, but it is a feast nonetheless. It bids us rejoice; it invites us to set aside self-concern in order to meet one another and, in doing so, to meet the God who is our bounteous host. Whatever else we do, we must continue to offer this joyful sacrifice because, in doing so, we offer a foretaste of the coming kingdom and we learn the art of being together at a table where none is left behind. This Holy Table points simultaneously in two directions: it draws us away from self-concern and towards the heavenly banquet; and it draws us away from self-concern towards those who are hungry here and now. It is, at the same time, the gate of heaven and the serving counter of the Steps to Hope van that parks outside our door. The Liturgy here and the Liturgy after the Liturgy are one joyful sacrifice. How could we resist an invitation to such a feast?