Do Not Enter the Hall Smelling of Onions! Or, should Liturgy be stimulating?

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.

Dōgen - Wikipedia

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.

From Crisis to Continuity – Navigating the ‘New Normal’

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The title of this piece might wrongly give the impression that I’m about to offer a range of excellent ideas to manage the change from an emergency phase of dealing with COVID-19 and its fallout to a more sustained phase of adjustment to longer term realities. What I really want to do, however, is simply to recognise the fact that this newer phase is, in many ways, more difficult than the first, and to seek a conversation about the spiritual challenges of this strange in-between territory. The first weeks and months of our response to the COVID crisis felt challenging, but there was a certain sense of solidarity in the face of a new threat and a degree of energy that comes from problem-solving. I think that, at the time, many of us were unaware of the likely duration of the measures we need to put in place to reduce the risks from the virus, and even if we were more realistic about that timescale, the actual experience of living without many of our usual social support systems is new to us and brings unexpected challenges, and it’s difficult to find adequate alternatives. I suspect I’m not alone in finding that I have more ‘extrovert’ tendencies than I had imagined!

Here are a few of the things I think are quite challenging:

  • The loss of the dozens of ‘casual contacts’ we have each week with colleagues, friends, congregation members and acquaintances. So much happens in these brief encounters that is hard to replicate with more time-consuming and formal arranged meetings.
  • In addition to this lack, there are also constraints that come with forms of communication that we can use. I don’t need to say anything more about the ‘zoom fatigue’ we have all come to recongise well, but I think that the loss of body language, eye contact and the sense of the ‘atmosphere’ of a room also add to the narrowing of our range of communication tools.
  • The sense that we are living with significant constraints and have no idea of when it may be safe to do without these measures. This also means that we can be reluctant to make a complete adjustment to different ways of doing things as we live in hope that the situation is temporary. Mentally, we may be living with a constant sense that this is less-than-ideal and that’s rather tiring.
  • The sense that there is a threat ‘out there’ is also demanding on our psychic energy. And if we have any level of suspicion or censoriousness of one another, that places further burdens on out ability to live and relate normally.
  • There are, of course, additional challenges facing church congregations in this current phase, such as the difficulty of offering a liturgy that feels like it’s including those who are virtually or physically attending. But perhaps the biggest question of all is how we find the right balance between individual and corporate dimensions of religious expression. The latter faces the constraints we’ve already mentioned and the former may be struggling as a result of a certain neglect in nurturing a mature inner life that could be said to characterise a religious culture that has placed so much emphasis on the gathered community of faith.

This suggests to me that, as well as continuing to nurture the faith community in novel and demanding ways, churches might do well to address some of that neglect of the inner life. I don’t think that liturgical worship alone (or any other kind for that matter!) can address this lack. Part of what’s needed is a shift in spiritual culture and part is a fuller awareness of the practices and insights of lived spirituality. Here are one or two suggestions:

  • It seems important to me that we begin with the presumption that we are each fully responsible for our own life of faith. Along with this presumption is the assurance that we each have all that we need to fulfill this responsibility. This is not an arrogant assertion of the primacy of the individual – we all know the immeasurable value of drawing on the wisdom of others – but a realisation that no one else can live our lives for us. Indeed, when we take that full responsibility, we realise ever more fully the impact of our choices and decisions on others. A deep exploration of the inner life always turns us outwards because it can only ever be undertaken in an attitude of deliberate self-forgetfulness.
  • None of this is to say that any of us should do without the help of others, and my second suggestion would be that the company of an experienced guide is vital. What it does mean, though, is that we take responsibility for seeking that help. An experienced guide is not necessarily one who has particular ‘credentials’, but one who practises the inner life with both seriousness and a lightness of heart.
  • A spirituality to sustain us in these times will be one that nurtures patience and one that concentrates on the ordinary, non-spectacular, everyday miracle of simply being alive. Stillness, breathing, imageless contemplation, one-pointedness and regularity of practice are key components of such a spirituality.
  • We should all feel confident in reading and interpreting the texts that belong to our spiritual tradition and, perhaps, also those of other traditions. One of the main responsibilities of those who are regarded as teachers within a faith community is to nurture such confidence and encourage regular, reflective reading as an individual and shared practice. For Christians who are unable to join in regular communal worship at the moment, the reading of scripture and the classic ‘canon’ of spiritual texts connects us with the living stream of wisdom.

Although these modest suggestions are offered as ideas for sustaining spiritual life in this time of constraint, I would hope they are of value at any time. I am also conscious that the list is not exhaustive so please do share ideas!

Desert as Icon

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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

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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.