Prayer of St Ephraim – Idle Talk

When it comes to the four corrosive spirits identified in St Ephraim’s prayer, surely the fourth – idle talk – is the one that resonates most in our context. If you read the texts of the desert monastics – remember that this prayer comes from that tradition – you will be struck by the number of times the elders have nothing to say when approached for a word by their disciples. This comes from a place of humility: who is to say that the words we are formulating here and now are the right ones for this moment? Should we open our mouths if we are uncertain about what we are about to say? Indeed, there is much to be said for a little more uncertainty in our public utterances. And, although some of the few words they did use found their way into the collections we now treasure, they were not intended for broadcast, but were spoken into a very specific situation that was discerned for the edification of the disciple. You could say that the ‘word’ spoken by the spiritual mother or father was the polar opposite of a social media post, which is more likely to be designed to say something about the author than to edify the seeker.

File:El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) - Christ Blessing ('The Saviour of  the World') - Google Art Project.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The warning to pay heed to our speech comes, of course, from the conviction that it is a powerful medium. It has the capacity to heal and encourage as well as to wound or belittle. In the context of spiritual discernment, a well-placed word can open our eyes to the divine or reveal us to ourselves. So the concern about idle talk is partly the need to avoid a careless word that may inadvertently cause harm but it may also be expressing a more general sense that speech per se may be devalued by trivialising it. This is most notably the case when it comes to a disregard for truthfulness in our speech but we might also ask if the sheer volume of unimportant chatter might have a devaluing effect on this precious gift of speech.

More positively, truthful, moderate and edifying speech might be nurtured within us by a more careful attention to silence and to a certain relishing of the life-giving words of scripture that form the basis of our meditations.

Prayer of St Ephraim – Lust for Power

In reflecting on this wonderfully compact and challenging Lent prayer, it’s tempting to skip over this phrase and see it as referring only to those who are actually in a position to wield power. This would, of course, be to ignore the fundamental truth that power is always relative and there are far too many instances of those with little formal power in the bigger scheme of things who have used the power they do have negligently or abusively: men over women, adults over children, clerics over laypeople, majorities over minorities. To pray that the Master of our life take from us all lust for power is to pray that our eyes are opened to the way our power or influence is experienced by others so that we use whatever power we do have constructively and compassionately, for the wellbeing of all and in the pattern of the One who emptied himself. Jesus used his power to heal and forgive, and to teach in a way that invited response from his disciples rather than handing down fully-formed teachings. Parables are an example of teaching that empowers the student in the search for the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.

Even if we do not feel ourselves to be people with any significant power to exercise, it may be that we subconsciously strive for a different kind of power – the power of knowledge. We might imagine that the world is what we think it to be, that it conforms to our theories or concepts about it. In this way, we control the world by our preconceptions, potentially closing our mind off to different views. This is also a temptation in the world of faith, where we might conflate our thoughts about God with the reality of God, who is beyond all conceptuality. There is a lovely story in the Apophthegmata Patrum that addresses this problem:

One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said,. ‘You have not understood it.’ Las of all he said to Abba Joseph, ‘How will you explain this saying?’ and he replied, ‘I do no know.’ Then Abba Anthony said, ‘Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he said “I do not know.”‘

p.4 The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, tr Benedicta Ward, Kalamazoo 1975

One of the ways in which we learn to allow the Master of our life to wean us off our lust for power is to find ourselves more ready to say ‘I do not know’.

Prayer of St Ephraim – Sloth and Despondency

The Prayer of St Ephraim(see previous post) is a reliable and concise companion for Lent, an embodied act of penitence and faith and a simple guide to the ascetical life. It puts its finger on some of our most stubborn problems and offers for their healing some of the most life-giving virtues. So I’m going to offer some reflections on these problems and remedies over the next few weeks.

Today, we visit the first two problems identified in the prayer – sloth and despondency. They are the noon-day demon of akidia – listlessness or torpor – and my guess is that, if you’re anything like me, it’s a demon that’s been hanging around rather a lot recently. I think that the combination of constant, low-level anxiety, much reduced social interaction, disrupted routines and lack of access to so many of the things that nourish us that are the result of a pandemic and its necessary mitigating measures can be the breeding-ground for the sluggishness and inertia that characterise akidia. As well as inertia, akidia can manifest itself in restlessness, a desire to be anywhere but here, an inability to sit still, as Evagrius points out in his Praktikos (ch 12). St John of Sinai, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, described it as one the the deadliest of all vices and that it seems to set in whenever we begin the work of prayer, which is particularly tricky as prayer is one of the chief remedies he recommends against it! Alongside prayer, he recommends the singing of psalms, manual labour and, above all, ‘a firm hope in the blessings of the future’. I suppose that one of the causes of this despondency is a narrowing of our horizons, a turning in on oneself, so the ability to see beyond the current circumstances begins the process of lifting us out of our listlessness.

St John also describes the root causes of this affliction as lying in our disobedience, or lack of commitment to the path we have chosen. As a spiritual affliction, the remedy then lies in the regular remembrance of our fundamental choice to follow in the way of prayer. We can do this by offering short but regular moments of prayer in the course of a day, perhaps requiring only the recitation of a line from the Psalms at frequent intervals. This may then pave the way for longer times of prayer as the despondency begins to leave us. We will know when it passes because we will feel energised, not exhausted, by being just where we are, drawn once more to the stillness in prayer that we know to be life-giving.

The Prayer of St Ephraim

Lord and Master of my Life:

Take from me the spirit of sloth,

Despondency, lust for power, and idle talk. (bowing low)

And give your servant instead

A spirit of chastity, humility, forbearing, and love. (bowing low)

O Lord my King,

Grant that I might see my own shortcomings

And not judge my fellows:

For blessed are you to the ages of ages. (bowing low) Amen.

Text from John McGuckin’s Prayer Book of the Early Christians

Check in to the Field Hospital

Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916

The painter Stanley Spencer served in the ambulance brigade in the Balkans in the Great War and he depicted a scene from his experience in a painting with the less-than-memorable name; ‘Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916’. Spencer was deeply religious, as you will probably be aware, and there can be no mistaking the references in his painting to a nativity scene, with animals looking in on a lit central focal point. But in this case, the animals are stretcher-pulling horses rather than the ox and ass, and the central scene is not a birth, but a kind of re-birth being worked by surgeons attending to a wounded soldier. Other wounded soldiers wait their turn on the travoys lined up in the foreground.

This image came to mind when I first heard Pope Francis use one his favourite metaphors for the church, which is that of a field hospital. It’s a vivid and compelling image, especially when combined with Spencer’s painting, because it is not merely a place of healing, but a place of healing situated in the most extreme context – the battlefield. This accentuates the urgency of the need for healing and the gravity of the injuries that are presented there, injuries sustained in the fray of human violence and human failure, in the place where our longed-for peace has been forsaken. It feels like an extreme image, but I think its intensity is needed to wake us up to the wounds that cry out for attention in our day. What are these wounds? I would suggest, on a corporate level, they are the wounds of our separations and disconnections from one another, the wounds that result from insular or self-serving thinking, wounds that manifest themselves in the refusal to see our actions as having any impact on the lives of those who do not appear to be like us. They are the wounds of inequality, chauvinistic nationalism, persistent misogyny, structural racism and, perhaps above all, the failure to recognise the image of God in the other.

In many respects, these wounds are the ones suffered by the leper who came to Jesus in today’s Gospel. On top of the undoubted physical dimensions of his condition are the communal ones. He is shunned, distanced, separated, excluded, reviled, and, in the religious context, regarded as unclean – perpetually incapable of participating in the life-giving and restorative rites of the temple. That’s why Jesus, moved with urgent, gutsy and angry compassion, sends him to the priests to shame them for their shrivelled, petty sense of purity.

There are other kinds of wounds, and many of them are the result of internalising the stigmas the come from sources we feel to have authority over us. For the leper, his experience of having been excluded from normal human interaction may well have taken root deep within his own sense of self, leading to a sense of unworthiness and shame. He may even have blamed himself for his abased position in society. Jesus overcomes this with two powerful movements that flow from his infinite mercy: he reaches out and he touches. He transgresses the isolated position he is given by religious social norms and declares the leper to be a brother, an equal, a beloved child of God – and all of that with a simple touch.

For us, these internalised wounds are legion: low self-esteem, lack of confidence, self-loathing, resentment, self-righteousness, deep insecurity. They eat away at us from the inside and inhibit our free interaction with others. These wounds, no less than the ones that manifest themselves in our bodies, are crying out for a field hospital where they may be tended and soothed, put into remission so that our lives may not be dominated by their constant presence.

I think it is this category of injury that Lent addresses most powerfully. If the church is a field hospital, then Lent is the time of that hospital’s greatest therapeutic activity. We are reminded at this forthcoming time of blessed restoration that the word for salvation might just as appropriately be translated as healing. And if the church is more of a field hospital than a courtroom, then we need not fear the pain that might come from allowing our wounds to be exposed to the healing light and the fresh, invigorating wind of the Spirit. Think less of the hot breath of an accusing judge and more of the cool breeze of an alpine sanitorium. We know that some cures may sting a little, but their pain is fleeting and gives way to relief. In the same way, the church offers some simple practices that bring us inner healing: confession, self-awareness, humility, fasting, resolute silence in prayer that chooses to stay put rather than give way to the myriad distractions that lay claim to our attention.

Lent will be upon us in a couple of days. I invite you to check in to the field hospital for some restoring therapy. The prescription is for slow reading, moderated consumption, much silence, constant prayer, steady resolve, and the willingness to be touched by the one who reaches out to us in love, the one who says to us, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’

Come and See – Reflections on Online Mass

‘Come and see’ is the invitation issued by Philip to a sceptical Nathanael who doubts the likelihood of a promised saviour coming from a nowhere town like Nazareth. Philip doesn’t offer exegesis or philosophical arguments, but a simple invitation to have a look, to pay attention to what’s there. In issuing this invitation, he is not doing something novel but repeating what Jesus had already said to the first two disciples he called. In their case, they were curious about where he was staying (actually a subtle hint at the theology of abiding that would follow later, but that’s for another time) so Jesus just said, ‘come and see’.

OSP Miscellany 003

It’s a pretty good principle for anyone who has wants to respond to the interest shown by others in questions of faith. ‘Come and see’ implies that faith is a matter of learning from watching, a kind of apprenticeship, rather than an abstract or theoretical thing. ‘Come and see’ also implies that the one issuing the invitation has something to show rather than something to explain and that ‘something’ is the practice of faith in our real lives. Explanations are important, but they can only ever be secondary to that primary concern of a real life lived faithfully.

But the reason I want to dwell on this phrase for a while this morning is that it also could be heard in the context of the form of communal worship that we are currently experiencing. In the absence of our physical presence together, we each come and see from our own homes and we are also aware of many who have done just that without previously having been in the space from which this Mass is being offered. I am sure that most of us have spent some time asking what this means for one of the fundamental aspects of practicing our faith, the gathered community offering the sacrifice of the Mass in person and receiving, in the tangible form of bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ.

I’m not going to attempt a full-blown theology of the Eucharist in its online manifestations – it’s beyond my competence and our collective patience – but I would like to offer some reflections about how this online experience resembles and differs from our usual experience of the Mass. Let me say one obvious thing first of all, which is that the online experience can never replace the physical gathering of God’s people, the full bodily experience of worship and the actual reception of the holy gifts, which we take into ourselves in the form of real food. Faith engages us as whole persons, not only as brains on sticks. We pray for the conditions that will allow us to gather safely once more, conditions that will mean that we are no longer under such serious threat from a terrible disease.

So what remains intact, or largely so, when we worship in this way? We are still praying together, still giving thanks together, still hearing God’s Word and responding to it, still connecting with one another through a shared experience, still offering ourselves as a living sacrifice, still looking upon the one who comes to us as the Lamb of God. We are still marking together the seasons of the Christian Year as they take us once again through the great mysteries of faith. And although we cannot do so together, we may still pray with our bodies, making the sign of the cross, bowing, standing, or adopting whatever prayerful posture allows us to attend well to the liturgical drama in which we are no mere spectators, even if our primary mode seems to be one of looking. Seeing a familiar space and familiar actions, hearing familiar words and chants, we are enabled to access the deep habits of praying together that have formed us over years. And if this way of praying together is newer for us, we may still acquire such habits through the gift of our prayerful attention. We may not be able to attend physically, but our practised attention is still called for as we participate from our own homes.

What is missing, of course, is our bodily proximity to one another and our full awareness of the common action we offer as our liturgy. We miss also the physical reception of the holy gifts, and here, I want to say a word or two about the practice of spiritual communion. You may be aware of this idea, which is quite ancient, and allows us, whatever our circumstances, to pray that may receive Christ in a spiritual manner even if we cannot do so physically. One well-known prayer for spiritual communion goes like this:

My Jesus, I believe that You are present in the Most Holy Sacrament. I love You above all things, and I desire to receive You into my soul. Since I cannot at this moment receive You sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace You as if You were already there and unite myself wholly to You. Never permit me to be separated from You. Amen.

And pleased be assured that, when I receive the Eucharist here at this Mass and every day in the week to follow, I am praying that I do so in communion with all of you. I am conscious that, even if I am alone in this place, I am not offering this Eucharist alone, but in union with the whole Body of Christ. It is, after all, Christ who is the One who is offered here and it is Christ who is making the offering. He is the priest of this one, holy, living sacrifice and he is not confined by walls or distance. The whole creation is offered and the whole creation transformed every time we join our voices in humble and joyful thanksgiving. The Holy Spirit is not locked down.

The Holy Eucharist remains, in the words of the Second Vatican Council, the source and summit of our faith, even in these difficult times. But it also compels us to see our whole lives as eucharistic, every action and every interaction as the practice of a Christ-like faith, every contact we have with one another as an expression of the living Christ who is present in the gathering of two or three, however they do that. So when we hear again the words ‘do this in remembrance of me’, we are not only repeating the prayerful actions of Jesus at the mystical supper, but, perhaps above all, we are committing ourselves to Christ-like lives, giving ourselves thankfully in the daily work of healing a divided world, forgiving as we have been forgiven, embodying the presence of Christ each moment of each day.

Bonnie Thurston’s ‘Little Rule’

Greet the day with thanks
for safety through the night.
Rekindle and nurture this hearth’s fire.
Care for life on this bit of land.
Work; pray; rest.
Avoid judgement.
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.

‘Little Rule for a Minor Hermitage’, Practicing Silence, Bonnie Thurston

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.

Wheeling Women Artists: Bonnie Thurston - Weelunk

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.

Crowned with Poverty – Sermon for Christmas Midnight

Dom Donald's Blog: 'Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, who crowns Christ' Merton

‘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.