Desert as Icon

Explore the clifftop monasteries of Meteora, Greece

Early on in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis pays tribute to the ecological spirituality and leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew. Francis refers to the spiritual roots of environmental problems as identified by Bartholomew, who invites us ‘to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply give up.”‘ Bartholomew urges us;

to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.

My reflections on Laudato Si’ have been focused on the dimension of spirituality, on the primary motivation for our renewed – converted – relationship with the earth because it strikes me that the tasks in hand are not contentious; carbon reduction, renewable energy, reduced consumption. What is much harder is discovering the motivation to do this. Both Francis and Bartholomew offer much wisdom in this regard.

An Orthodox approach to ecological spirituality is beautifully presented in John Chryssavgis’ book, Creation as Sacrament. Having previously written (equally beautifully) on the Desert tradition, it is not surprising that he returns there to affirm a spirituality which is both ascetical and mystical. It is ascetical in demonstrating a pattern of life that seeks not dominance over creation but respectful, affirming submission to it. In the desert, one must travel light and learn the fundamental disposition of letting go ‘which is necessary to a proper relationship with God, world, and oneself.’ One faces ‘the pain and passion of life in all its intensity’, far from any distraction, pride or pretence.

The desert instills a spirituality that is mystical in that those who enter it do so out of a love for the place and who discover there an icon of Divine Beauty, and I use that word in its specific, theological sense. Icons are kissed, venerated as true, sacramental portals to the reality they present. They are honoured as windows to the divine, but not worshipped as God. This leads us to another vital understanding in an Orthodox approach to the nature of God in the world. God is not absent or distant from the world, but intimately present through his energies. The whole world is energised by divine presence such that it is possible to affirm that the world is part of God but not the whole of God. It is important to affirm that God is both near and far, present both in and beyond what we can see and, therefore, able to sustain and transform the world, including ourselves as part of it.

With these two insights held side-by-side, we both assume full responsibility for our place in the world, and delight in the One whose ‘power sustains’ and whose ‘love restores’ it (Eucharistic Prayer IV, Scottish Liturgy).

In Praise of Passivity

This week, I’m taking a bit of time off, mostly to make some headway on the final stages of some research I’m undertaking. That means that I’m picking up lots of interesting books and finding lots of interesting things to share here, not all of them closely related to the research (I think the technical word for this is ‘distraction’). Today’s little nugget comes from an excellent theologian who deserves to be better known, the English Jesuit Michael Barnes. His specialism is inter-faith encounter and comparative theology but he also writes with a keen eye for the spiritual life: he writes theology as someone who cares about what it does to us (or, to be more accurate, what God does for us through the process of reflecting on our experience of God).

I came across these thoughtful words in his book, Theology and the Dialogue of Religions:

A measure of passivity or patience is intrinsic to Christian personhood. Or, to put it the other way round, a properly Christian response to the God who speaks requires time and discernment.

It has long been my experience that discerning the voice of God in any given circumstance is a work of patient waiting, for that voice is not always clear, not always obvious. And that discernment precedes the further process to which Barnes refers of making a suitable response to that voice. I’ve always felt a little suspicious of claims that these processes are simple and immediate – we hear, we understand, we respond obediently – for the simple reason that I have not found it to be so. I don’t at all reject the possibility that some people do indeed hear the divine voice lucidly but I suspect it’s not true for most of us most of the time. And one of the reasons for that is that life itself is hard to understand.

Take the current crisis as an example. None of us can tell with any degree of confidence what life will be like for us in two months’ time, or even two weeks’ time. Even those with considerable expertise in this field urge caution in suggesting simple solutions or alternatives to our current arrangements. Beyond that, many people are beginning to ask; ‘how will this change us?’, or ‘what will this mean for how we do things in the future?’. We simply don’t know. And that is where Michael Barnes’ insight comes in. Christians have long experience of developing the skills of patient waiting and careful discernment. They are skills that belong to the work of each day and can be honed with the use of a powerful tool like the Ignatian prayer of examen.

This is a simple technique that, over time, allows us to spot patterns of behaviour in ourselves, to refine our awareness of the movements of God’s Spirit in our lives and to learn how to respond faithfully. It is a process of slowing down our assessment of things and overcoming our tendency to make swift judgements about them. One of the things revealed to us in this practice is that some experiences simply take a long time to reveal their significance. What we might at first have thought of as a negative experience might also turn out to have been a moment of deeper learning or greater awareness.

This time of isolation invites us to develop our skills of patient discernment – may we learn how to wait well.

Resurrection and Enlightenment

What Vision Do We Have for the Deep Sea? | Science | News

There is a Zen koan that is not to be found in any of the classic collections but first came to my attention through Bill Johnston’s writing on it. It goes like this:

In the Sea of Ise, ten thousand feet down, lies a Stone.
I wish to pick up that stone without wetting my hands.
On the stone a name is inscribed. What is the name? On one side of the name it reads, “Cannot get wet.” On the other side of the name it reads, “Cannot get dry.”

The koan is found in the collection of Miscellaneous Koans used by the Sanbo Kyodan lineage and you can find a version of it in Sr Elaine McIness’s book, The Flowing Bridge (p.72) and a lovely interpretation of it in Ruben Habito’s Living Zen, Loving God (p.107). Johnston’s reference to it is in Letters to Contemplatives (p.72).

This koan speaks to me in Eastertide as an expression of the risen life of the one who has descended to the depths. As Christ descended to the deepest darkness and yet was not defeated by death (‘cannot get wet’), and ascended to risen life of wounded, compassionate presence filling all things (‘cannot get dry’), so the one who dies with him is raised with him. What one dies to is a limited self; what one is raised to is an empty-fullness. As the wound-bearing Christ showed, this risen life is not something disembodied and yet it is boundless. It is of great comfort to know the boundlessness of compassion in a time of isolation.

The resurrection is not comprehensible in biological terms, but it is ‘graspable’ in spiritual practice. The ‘descent’ is known to any who enter stillness without thought or theory, and the rising is known by any who are awakened to a compassionate life free from clinging (noli me tangere). Of course, these two movements are not straightforwardly chronological but form a constant and single flow. We enter into that flow in contemplation and we live it in every moment.

The World is not a Cake That I Have to Eat

One of the things that we might be learning as we live through the restrictions of the pandemic is that our primary identity in this world is not as consumers. We find, instead, that our lives consist in many small acts of care and attention. When there are no places to go, thrills to seek or sprees to be undertaken, we see that our day consists in rest, time together, contacts with others, food to be made, messes to be tidied, quiet to be savoured,  life to be lived. It is unspectacular and undramatic. At times, it may be intense, especially where there is sickness and loss, and there is nowhere to go to flee that intensity. So we learn how to abide with it, to sit with it, to go through it rather than round it.

bio silence

The title of this post comes from a wonderful little book by the Spanish priest and novelist, Pablo d’Ors. His Biography of Silence is an account of his attempt to do what I have just outlined – to learn how to live. And his constant teacher in this school is silent meditation.

Meditation – or should I simply say maturity? – has taught me to appreciate the ordinary, the elemental. I will live for these things according to an ethics of attention and care.

Attention is the practice of a steady gaze, unflinching and unjudging. Care is the practice of compassion for all things, breathing or not. Compassion for weakest and also care for the material world; compassion for ourselves and also care taken over the words we speak and thoughts we allow to grow. All of these things are practised in silent meditation where we attend to our breath and our posture, our prayer words and our emerging thoughts, where we learn to open our hearts in compassion. I don’t think this practice is any easier in this time of confinement, but I do think it is more urgent.

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 have  – 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.’


Holy Lives

Having just written about the need for more subtle approaches to talking about God, I feel that I ought to add a major corrective to that argument. It seems to me that any intellectual approach to commending Christian faith, even if it is set in the context of communal ritual practice and contemplation, is insufficient of itself to commend that faith to others. The only thing that can offer a compelling commendation of living faith is the visible transformation of human lives. Pope Francis has recently published a ‘call to holiness’ in his exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate. In this inspiring and challenging text, he insists that ‘throughout the history of the Church, it has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measure not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity.’ (para. 37) He also makes it clear that ‘God is mysteriously present in the life of every person’ (para. 42) and not only in the lives of those who attain perfection.

The key to a life lived towards holiness is a life lived in response to the call to love: ‘Jesus clears the way to seeing two faces, that of the Father and that of our brother or sister. He does not give us two more formulas or two more commands. He gives us two faces, or better yet, one alone: the face of God reflected in so many other faces. For in every one of our brothers and sisters, especially the least, the most vulnerable, the defenceless and those in need, God’s very image is found. Indeed, with the scraps of this frail humanity, the Lord will shape his final work of art.’ (para 61)

Marriage and the Spirituality of Union

I was delighted to be involved in the decision of our church (The Scottish Episcopal Church) to open the sacrament of marriage to people of the same sex. I don’t want to rehearse any of the ‘for’ or ‘against’ arguments for the simple reason that these arguments are mostly made on entirely different grounds and, therefore, rarely find points of contact. This partly because, in dealing with traditional material, some focus on content and some on intent. But I wonder if there is some potential for a more illuminating conversation based not so much on hermeneutical principles as on mystical theology. In other words; how does participation in the sacrament of marriage enable a more Christlike life? Here are one or two thoughts:

  • Joyful self-giving to the other mirrors the divine love which delights to seek out the beloved.
  • In many different ways, this love opens out in hospitality and in caring for others, including children.
  • Marriage is a school of virtue, enabling an ever-deepening exploration of what it means to give way to the other in mutuality and humility.
  • The union of one person with another is reflective of the union of the holy Trinity and, therefore, of the divine will for the Church and for all humanity – ‘that they may be one.’
  • The promise of faithfulness speaks of, and is sustained by God’s faithfulness to humanity, even in times of the most severe trial. Faithfulness is expressed powerfully in the willingness to forgive.

Of course, this is a pattern of loving that is not restricted to marriage, but it is expressed sacramentally in marriage as an icon of the fundamental pattern of all Christlike relationships. It seems to me that the gender of the partners does not play a fundamental role in this way of speaking about marriage and that is why I strongly resist any suggestion that we are changing our theology of marriage in extending it to people of the same sex. I will continue to preach the same sermons with the same cheesy jokes in the marriages I conduct, whatever the sex of the partners. What is a Christian marriage? One that gradually shapes us in the way of loving that Christ exemplified for us.

Meaning and Meaninglessness


It is a truism that human beings are meaning-making mammals, which I take to mean that we have a propensity to see patterns in things and, more than that, to see such patterns as having significance or value. But I was made to think again about how Christianity talks about meaning by two unconnected thoughts from yesterday. One was a highly amusing and thought-provoking speech given to graduands at the University of Western Australia by one its alumni, the comedian and singer-songwriter, Tim Minchin. The two things that stood out for me were his statements that life has no meaning (and that we should just get on and live it) and that it was foolish to make grand plans (it’s better to be fully focussed on what we are doing now). I find myself largely agreeing with him, though knowing his antipathy towards religion, he might be surprised to hear me say this.minch

Indeed, I think his insights speak of a deep spirituality. To take the second point first, the kind of focus Minchin was describing is powerfully represented in religious traditions as ‘watchfulness’ or ‘mindfulness’. Just think of the desert Fathers and Mothers with their clear focus on the simple spiritual disciplines of each day, or the prologue to St Benedict’s Rule for Monks which speaks of the urgency of ‘today’ as being the time in which we are called to live lives that are full of divine light and wisdom. The practices of meditation in many religious traditions also speak of this kind of full presence in the present.

The first piece of advice regarding meaning may seem more problematic for Christians. Surely it is without question that our faith presents a view of life that shows it to have meaning. Well, I think it rather depends what we mean by ‘meaning’. If we mean that our lives fit into some larger scheme or that every thing that happens to us happens in order to bring about some pre-planned outcome, I am not sure that this fits into my notion of ‘meaning’ in the Christian sense. Indeed, I think it is highly problematic to see every event in life as having a ‘meaning’ that is just waiting to be discovered: it is not always possible to make sense of senseless acts or events and it can give us serious problems if we try to do so. ‘Meaning’ in this sense can be seen as the notion that every thing that happens refers to something else – this means that – whereas the focus on present things I mentioned above is more about this means this. In other words, the insight that comes from wisdom allows us to see more clearly what is there. This is entirely consistent with Christian theology and practice.

I think I would rather speak in terms of ‘value’ or ‘worth’ that ‘meaning or ‘sense’. I think it is a profoundly Christian insight to say that life has value, that lives have value. Those humanists who do not come from a religious perspective are content to let that statement stand on its own self-evident merits. Christian humanists are more likely to offer theological or spiritual weight to this statement by talking of the giftedness of life and its fundamental orientation towards joy, praise, wonder and love. So life has meaning or purpose in the sense that it has direction – outward, towards fullness, towards goodness, towards compassion, towards creativity.

The second thought reinforced much of what Tim Minchin had to say. It was an article the Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality by the priest and academic, David Perrin OMI in his article on mysticism. He rejects a focus on a totalising system (‘meaning’) and urges instead a gathering of life-giving fragments ‘that do not necessarily need to be connected to a common ontological foundation’ ‘such that our love relationship with God and our world is constantly renewed.’ I think this all offers us some interesting common ground for religious and non-religious people to start talking!