Orthodox Spirituality and the Jesus Prayer: an introductory session

UPDATE: Many thanks to a correspondent for highlighting this link to an interview with Kallistos Ware, starts at c 7 minutes, here.

Orthodox Spirituality 

– Some resources for Spiritual Directors

Diocese of Liverpool Spiritual Directors Course, 14th May 2020

Introduction:

Orthodox prayer (not ‘spirituality’ which is modern western term) may be characterised as:

  • ecclesial
  • visual/incarnate/physical
  • liturgical
  • theological
  • disciplined
  • monastic

For a basic introduction to the Orthodox Churc, the book of that name by Timothy Ware (now Bishop Kallistos Ware) hasn’t been matched.

General Theology and Spirituality

If I had to recommend one book on Orthodox spirituality it would be this, an anthology with commentary it is profoundly ecclesial and theological, it is not outwardly abut ‘spirituality’ which is, in any case a modern, western, individualistic, way of thinking. For any directee moving them towards a fuller and deeper immersion on Christian orthodoxy (as distinct from Orthodoxy) is vital. This is a really helpful book for that. Part Three on Contemplation is an essential guide to an orthodox and Orthodox understanding of prayer and what we now call the ‘spiritual life’.:

The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Texts from the Patristic Era with Commentary

Oliver Clément

New City1993

This is the best, encyclopaedic scholarly guide available. Paints the whole picture, ecclesial and theological. Not for the faint-hearted but brilliant:

Orthodox Spirituality

Dumitroe Staniloae

St Tikhon’s Seminary Press 2003

Lossky is really excellent, this is very accessible and readable:

The Vision of God

Vladimir Lossky

ST Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1983

Orthodox theology is not a thing of the past, it is a vibrant living tradition, anything by Andrew Louth is worth reading, this is especially helpful. There isa very helpful chapter on the ‘English assimilation of Orthodoxy’ with material on St Silouan and Fr Sophrony. Louth’s starting point is the Philokalic tradition and so locates that at the start of the ‘modern’ period.

Modern Orthodox Thinkers – From the Philokalia to the present

Andrew Louth

SPCK 2015

This is a really excellent anthology, one for the prayer-desk, or side of the bath! Bite-sized and readable chunks of great spiritual writers within the tradition:

The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology

Tr E Kadloubovsky and EM Palmer

Matthew the Poor is. a monk and spiritual father of the Monastery of Macarius the Great in Egypt He has been the centre of a remarkable renewal of monastic life in the Coptic Church, this is a very accessible book:

Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way

Matthew the Poor

St Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2003

Fasting

It is impossible to understand Orthodox spirituality without recognising the importance of fasting and our neglect of it in the western church, just search for ‘prayer’ in the Bible and you will see its intimate relationship to prayer for Scripture. There are some of my thoughts on fasting my blog:

https://educationpriest.wordpress.com/2018/03/04/there-is-no-lent-without-fasting-fasting-the-mother-of-prayer/

https://educationpriest.wordpress.com/2018/12/02/serious-christianity-fasting/

Icons and Iconography

Just as it is impossible to imagine Orthodox spirituality without fasting, so it is impossible to imagine Orthodoxy without icons. the literature on icons is vast. Much of it really superb, so just two books in my hight recommended category as a starter:

***** If you only read on ebook on this ison or on icpns on general this ought to be it. It will touch your soul deeply:

The Rublev Trinity

Gabriel Buge

St Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2007

A beautiful book to look at, full of deep theology and spirituality:

***** The Meaning of Icons

Vladimir Lossky

St Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1982

The Silouan / Athonite Tradition

The monasteries and hermitages on Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain, are hugely influential on Orthodox spirituality, we are fortunate in the UK in having a monastery in that tradition here at Tolleshunt Knights in Essex – well worth a visit. Founded by Archimandrite Sophrony it is is now led by Achimandrite Zacharias and the following books will be helpful in accessing that:

Arch Sophrony had been taught by Staretz Silouan (1866-1938) . This is a must read.  Very recommendable to directees. The source books on now Saint Silouan are:

Wisdom from Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Silouan

St Vladimir’s Seminary Press (1974)

Monk of Mount Athos

St Vladimir’s Seminary Press (1974)

For a general view of Mount Athos this account of renewal of the monastic tradition on the Holy Mountain is very good indeed:

Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise

Graham Speake

Yale University Press 2002

For Sophrony himself (all very readable and accessible):

His Life is Mine

Archimandrite Sophrony

Mowbray 1977. (now St Vladimir’s Seminary Press

On Prayer

Archimandrite Sophrony

St Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1998

We Shall See Him As He Is

Archimandrite Sophrony

Saint Herman Press1988

Archimandrite Zacharias is, I think, a little denser and less readable but worth persevering with:

The Hidden Man of the Heart: The Cultivation of the Heart in Orthodox Spiritual Anthroplogy

Archimandrite Zacaharias

Mount Thabor Publishing 2008

The Enlargement of the Heart: ‘Be ye also enlarged’ 2 Cor 6:13 in the Theology of St Silouan the Athonite and Elder Sophrony of Essex

Archimandrite Zacharaias

Mount Thabor Publishing 2006

Remember Thy First Love: the three stages of the spiritual life in the theology of Elder Sophrony

Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist Essex 2011

Books abut Archimandrite Sophrony’s teaching:

I Love Therefore I Am:  The Theological Legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony

Nicholas V Sakarov

St Vladimir’s Seminar Press 2002

Christ, Our Way And Our Life:  A Presentation of the Theology of Archimandrite Sophrony

Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist Essex 2012

Other useful Texts

Surprisingly readable, this is very accessible, definitely one to recommend to Directees:

From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings

Ed Jean Daniélou

St Valdimir’s Seminary Press 2001

One of the classic texts of the monastic tradition eastern and western, very readable, highly recommended:

The Ladder of Divine Ascent

John Climacus

Classics in Western Spirituality Paulist Press1982

This is useful to give a picture of the reception of Orthodoxy in the West (particularly in Paris) in the period following the Russian revolution and the Second Word War, it helps to understand the competing jurisdictions and the complications of ecclesiastical politics as well as the culture, all within a biography of one, person. Not an easy read but good:

Lev Gillett: A Monk of the Eastern Church

Elizabeth Behr-Sigel

Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius 1999

Rowan Williams can sometimes be a hard read, Dostoevsky can be equally difficult, so this may not encourage to look at this book, but it actually locates Dostoevsky within the Orthodox tradition and is just brilliant:

Dostoevsky: Language Faith and Fiction

Rowan Williams

Baylor University Press 2008

Likewise Sergei Bulgakov is probably (in my view) the greatest Orthodox theologian of the 20th century. he is really excellent on the place of the holy Spirit in the Christian life. A little more dense than the Dostoevsky book this is worth persevering with especially a sit shows an Orthodox engagement with political realities.

Sergei Bulgakov: Towards a Russian Political Theology

Ed with commentary by Rowan Williams

T and T Clark 1999

Liturgy

Orthodox worship has to be experienced. It is a rich tapestry of icons, movement, vesture, music, texts. Looking at any written text of Orthodox worship is totally inadequate. They are deeply doxological and the communion of saints is tangible. It may be worth looking at some to get that sense, or tor reflect on, but the best thing is to find an Orthodox church and go.

There is no single Orthodox ‘service book’, each language tradition ha sits own books which for any one service will be many. Some western or uniate groups have produced service type books (eg Byzantine Daily Worship or Isabel Hapgood’s Orthodox Service Book) but they are totally inadequate to appreciate Orthodox liturgy. Two publications that provide some indication of the richness may be worth flicking through but I don’t particularly urge you to get them:

The Festal Menaion

Faber and Faber 1969 now from St Tikhon’s Seminary Press

The Lenten Triodion

Faber and Faber 1978 now from St Tikhon’s Seminary Press

The Pilgrim

The Jesus Prayer has become popular and known in the West mainly via two texts, ‘The Way of A Pilgrim’ and ‘The Pilgrim Continues His Way’. The texts are Russian and  probably 19th century. They are a short and easy read and really the foundation text for us, well worth recommending. The easiest and most accessible translations are by R.M. French. It’s the first version I read as teenager and I was deeply moved by then. They also give some indications to Directors in working with individuals, the balance of the Jesus Prayer with the reading of the Gospels is hugely significant. It is available on Kindle and now in one volume, slightly dated and sometimes criticised for romanticising the translation:

The best scholarly edition with really important essays on the origins of the text and its various versions is in the Classics in Western Spirituality series:

The Pilgrim’s Tale

Ed. Aleksie Pentkovsky

Paulist Press1999

There are other editions which are new translations:

The Way of A Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way

Tr Helen Bacovin

Doubelday 1978

This is useful for a close reading of the text with some helpful notes, I would recommend French or Bacovin for a first unadulterated read which I think is the best way to read it to start with, the story, the narrative is compelling without any notes, this might be useful for a later read:

The Way of A Pilgrim: Annotated and Explained

Tr and annotated: Gleb Pokrovsky

DLT 2001/2003

The Philokalia

The Philokalia: The Complete Text (four volumes, a fifth is promised)

Tr GEH Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware

Faber and Faber 1979 – 1995

From my blog: Reading the Philokalia: A Beginner’s Guide

https://educationpriest.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/reading-the-philokalia-a-beginners-guide/

Reading the Philokalia (2)

https://educationpriest.wordpress.com/2019/07/15/reading-the-philokalia-a-beginners-guide-update/

The Wikipedia article on the Philokalia is very good:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philokalia

Dumitru Stãniloae and His “Philokalia”

An article on the number of Philokalia and particularly the Romanian version:

http://www.maciejbielawski.com/dumitru-staniloae-and-his-philokalia.html

On translations of the Philokalia:

The Philokalia Englished

This is probably the best academic study of the Philokalia available. Excellent. A good read, ecumenical and very useful for those offering Spiritual Direction.

Reviewed by Pieter Dykhorst here.

The Philokalia: a Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality

Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif, eds., Oxford University Press, 2012, 349 pp

Anything by Andrew Louth is worth reading, here is a good essay on the Philokalia

This doctoral thesis is fascinating:

Authority and Tradition in Contemporary Understandings of Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer

The Jesus Prayer

If you search for Jesus Prayer in Amazon there is much available, all of it is good as far as I know, these are my highly recommended:

Praying the Jesus Prayer – A Beginner’s Guide

The Body in Prayer: Prostrations and the Jesus Prayer

Rowan Williams Promoting the Jesus Prayer as Answer to Modern Angst:

On Practicing the Jesus Prayer

St. Ignaty Brianchaninov

*****  Written by a recently deceased Anglican bishop this is one of the most accessible books on the JP, and is HIGHLY recommended, very good as a first suggestion to directees: 

The Jesus Prayer:  A Way to Contemplation

Simon-Barrinton Ward

*****  Also by SBW this one with Brother Ramon is another highly recommended. Ramon is a slightly neglected author at the moment well worth reading:

Praying the Jesus Prayer Together

Simon Barrington-Ward and Brother Ramon SSF

Adapted from previous year’s notes for this session:

The Jesus Prayer

The words:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner. (full version)

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. (shorter version).

Greek: Kyrie Iesou Christe: eleison me

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector: Luke 18:9-14

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”13 But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled.

Useful definitions:

Hesychasm  (ἡσυχασμός): “stillness, rest, quiet, silence”): mystical tradition of prayer the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches of the Byzantine Rite. Based on Christ’s injunction in the Gospel of Matthew:  “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray”.  Hesychasm in the tradition has been the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God (theoria).

Some quotes from the Philokalia (an ancient collection of teachings of the eastern monastic fathers which has passed from Greek to Russian to an English translation in two volumes by Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Faber and Faber 1951).

St Isaac of Syria (7th century):

Try to enter your inner treasure-house and you will see the treasure-house of heaven. For both the one and the other are the same, and the one and the same entrance reveals them both. The ladder leading to the kingdom is concealed within you, that is, in your soul. Wash yourselves from sin and you will see the rungs of the ladder by which you can ascend thither.

St Gregory of Sinai (14th century) 

In the morning force you mind to descend from the head to the heart and hold it there, calling ceaselessly in mind and soul: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me!’ until you are tired. Transfer you mind to the second half, and say, ‘Jesus, Son of God, have mercy upon me!’ Having many times repeated this appeal, pass once more to the first half. But you should not alternate these appeals too often through laziness; for just as plants do not take root if transplanted too frequently, neither do the movements of prayer in the heart if the words are changed frequently.

When you notice thoughts arising and accosting you, do not look at them, even if they are not bad; but keeping the mind firmly in the heart, call to Lord Jesus and you will soon sweep away  the thoughts and drive out the instigators – the demons – invisibly scorching and flogging them with this Divine Name. Thus teaches John of the Ladder. saying: with the name of Jesus flog the foes, for there is no surer weapon against them, either on earth or in heaven.

The Monks Callistus and Ignatius (14th century)

Prayer practised within the heart, with attention and sobriety, with no other thought and imagining, by repeating the words ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,’ silently and immaterially leads the mind to our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.  By the words ‘have mercy on me,’ it turns it back and moves it towards him who prays, since he cannot as yet not pray about himself. But when he gains the experience of perfect love, he stretches out wholly to our Lord Jesus Christ alone, having received actual proof of the second part (that is, of mercy). Therefore, as someone has said, a man calls only: ‘Lord Jesus Christ!’ his heart overflowing with love.

“Seven times a day I praise you” (Ps. 119:64) – live-streaming a day of worship in the Oratory

“Pray constantly”, said St Paul (1 These 5:17), using two simple words to describe something that would exercise the minds of many, and thousands of volumes of books by Christians, through the centuries. Almost all modes of spirituality and Christian practice (Jesus Prayer, Divine Office, Little Hours especially, Practice of the Presence of God) aim to help us remember God and that we are in the Divine Presence always. To pray constantly.

I have been doing a bit of live-streaming of the liturgy during the lockdown as I celebrate it each day in the little Oratory at home (which is how I use an old lean to on the house). It’s been good to have a few old and new friends join me for that. Several have asked for more. I am something of an introvert and although I arrange the live-streaming in such a way so as not to focus on me (I hope) it does feel a little intrusive and less relaxed so I won’t be doing this all the time (you will be relieved to know) but as a one off on Friday 17th April I am going to live stream all the set prayers for a day.

My first experience of the Office was at Douai Abbey and of the monks singing the whole of the Office. That experience marked me indelibly and even though I am not a good singer (as you will find if you tune in at all), I love to sing and find it relaxes me in ways that simply reciting the Office does not. Somehow it engages different parts of my brain. When (in another life) I was doing a lot of driving, if I stopped and sang an Office it felt far more refreshing when I started driving again than if I had simply recited it, and reading to myself in my head never seems like praying the liturgy at all, but on trains, buses and planes is usually necessary.

Since Holy Saturday, and partly because for live-streaming the text is more accessible, I have been singing the Divine Office, the texts are in the Universalis app which does charge but only a very small amount. The Universalis website sadly uses a different translation of the psalms. The antiphons and hymns I use are in the setting of the music for the Office that I have done and is available here (a revised edition should be available in the not too distant future and will be posted on this blog very soon). The booklet below this post puts them together in order with the usual texts and music for this single day of live-streaming, you will need the booklet together with the psalms, readings and prayers from Universalis to be able to follow everything. Please note I use a different set of Collects – translated from a French Cistercian source (from Proclaiming All Your Wonders, Dominican Publications).

I wrote yesterday about the joy of coffee, tea and lunch breaks in our Zoom driven working days. I have always maintained little spaces to pray at least one daytime Office and that has kept me going through many hard times in my working life. If you haven’t discovered it yet do give it a go.

So, the timetable for the day:

5:30 am Office of Readings/Vigils (two nocturns the Mid-Day prayer psalms as in Universalis – but omitting sections of psalm 119 – providing the second group of psalms) a triple alleluia antiphon for all psalms. The psalms at Vigils are sung to traditional plainsong tones.

I will switch off live streaming between each Office/devotion – a chance for me to get a cup of tea or check the dog doesn’t need to go out …

6:15 am Rosary the Luminous Mysteries

I would normally celebrate Mass at 6:30 but am doing that later in the day, at 12:15, in the Octave.

7am Lauds (Morning Prayer)

Jesus Prayer

About 7:45am Prime with Martyrology – Psalm 119 (118) shared across the Little Hours in a day – see the booklet for the text.

I should point out that this is a rather luxurious lockdown schedule. On normal working days I would tart at 5:20 combine Vigils and Lauds (or Sing Mattins/Morning Prayer when praying BCP or CWDP), go straight into Mass, then Prime. Rosary and Jesus Prayer prayed as I drive.

10am Terce

12 noon Sext and Eucharist

2:00 None

4:30pm Vespers

6:30 Devotions on Hebrew Heroes – Deborah –

and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament

7pm Compline

Again normally on a working day Vespers would be either stopping on the way home or as soon as I get home, often quite late, and Compline much later, ideally just after dinner but sometimes just before bed, ideally at 9 to 9:30.

BOOKLET:

Serious Christianity for families (1)

I am profoundly grateful to my friend and fellow priest in the diocese of Liverpool. Mother Hannah Lewis, for this first blog on spirituality as a single mum. I would be deeply grateful to anyone else who would like to contribute to this series from the perspective of their own family life:

Called to a life of prayer (while following vocations as a religious, single mum and priest)

Benedict instructs his communities, during the day, to recite brief, simple, scriptural prayers at regular intervals, easy enough to be recited and prayed even in the workplace, to wrench their minds from the mundane to the mystical, away from concentration on life’s petty particulars to attention on its transcendent meaning. (Joan Chittister: commentary on the Rule of Benedict, chapter 16 18th February http://www.eriebenedictines.org/daily-rule)

What is prayer for me?

I first remember trying to pray when I was a young child, although all I can remember is a vague desire without any detail. Almost 50 years later, I’m still aware of a desire to pray, an itch that has nagged at me for most of the intervening period of time, and which sometimes I feel like I’ve almost succeeded in scratching. As I’m currently going through one of those phases when I feel like I am praying more or less as I’d like to be, Richard suggested it might be good to share some of my experience of what helps (and what hinders) my prayer life with others. I also thought I’d write about some of the development and the ups and downs of my prayer life as its all part of me learning what helps and hinders. If some of this reads as self-indulgence, forgive me; likewise if some of it makes no sense. Prayer is possibly the most intimate thing to talk about; a communion with my nearest and dearest (Jesus) with its share of mysteries beyond words (and silly moments you had to be there for, and magical unspoken moments of connection as well as a lot of banal, trivial, everyday encounters hugely meaningful to me but perhaps not to anyone else). 

Perhaps a first step for me was the discovery of the concept of a Daily Office – set written order of service for different times of day, based around the reciting of the psalms. In particular, it was my first encounter with compline or night prayer (in the candlelit crypt of a retreat house) that really gripped me – the office putting into words what I felt and wanted to say but didn’t know how to. Or it might have been a few years earlier, during choral evensong in my college chapel when I discovered the words of evensong could carry me somewhere beyond myself even when I was exhausted (coping as a Deaf person with undiagnosed underactive thyroid in a busy hearing world), stressed out of my mind with essay writing or revision and/or too busy partying to stop and pray for myself.  With hindsight – and a lesson that has needed to be reinforced on a regular basis as I tend to forget – these experiences enabled me to learn that prayer isn’t all about me, what I do and don’t do, and do and don’t feel, and in fact it does not start with me. It’s no accident that the first words of the first morning office are ‘O Lord, open our lips’ – until the Lord opens our mouths and hearts and minds we can’t begin to pray. 

Twice, in particular this lesson has been reinforced. The first time while training for ministry was by a spiritual director when I was bewailing the lack of time to pray – when she suggested I could pray for the time to pray as a first step. A prayer that was answered as I found myself not so much with time magically increasing so that I could pray, but the desire stirring in me to make prayer a higher priority and therefore pushing aside other things so that I could find time to pray. The second was much more recently – last year in fact  – well established in my current pattern of prayer, I began to wonder (and worry) if it was all ‘just words’ because I was too tired, stressed, mind racing on a million other things to ‘mean it’ and think about what I was doing. But I was drawn to read Ruth Burrows “The essence of prayer” and she gently, but firmly, repeats in different ways that prayer is about what the Spirit is doing in us, we don’t need to ‘feel’ anything for it to ‘work’ and all we need to do is ‘turn up’, be present in all our distracted busyness. And so I became aware that while, all too often, it was a poor offering on my part, every now and then the clouds would clear and I would suddenly realise that  this regular ‘turning up’ kept me plugged into the deep running stream of God’s love and that when I needed it, it was there.

The other part of the ‘prayer starts with the Spirit and not with us’ is the reminder I need that it’s a two way thing. I want to talk to Jesus and Jesus wants to talk to me. One little step on my part is so often met by a great, open armed stride on his part. If I give a little bit of time and attention – yet as much as I am able to give at that moment – like the widow’s mite – it will be accepted and welcomed and celebrated.

Journey to where I am now

Morning has always been my best time for prayer. Obviously it’s also the best time for sleep and the two desires are often in conflict.  Before Child (and before iPhone) it was slightly easier, it was a matter of a morning routine of alarm, snooze, snooze, tea, shower, breakfast and prayer (from Celebrating Common Prayer which I first prayed regularly and learned to love when I was a youth worker with a large Anglo Catholic ministry team). Having a ‘prayer space’ (an armchair and a coffee table with candles/icons/bits of natural objects/ nice coloured cloths for the season as well as somewhere to keep the necessary pile of books) has always helped me. Sometimes it’s been in the corner of my study, sometimes in a corner of the bedroom – it’s a space that becomes a visual prompt and a necessary part of the day. Days that don’t start there somehow feel wrong. Night prayer back then was last thing before sleep, compline from memory (with only the short psalm 134) – one of the bonuses for me from praying evensong and compline regularly in my early 20s was that so many of the words stuck in my memory and only needed a prompt to recall. It’s much harder to memorise things now I’m in my late 40s. 

Pregnancy was a major shock to my prayer life – severe pregnancy sickness made morning prayer impossible and exhaustion meant I usually fell asleep while reflecting on the day during the first part of compline. During these months, a single verse stuck on repeat was the sum of my articulated prayer: Isaiah 40.31 “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” It didn’t feel like things got any better either as I disappeared into the thick fog of motherhood with a baby and then a toddler. But again with the benefit of hindsight there is one thing I’ve realised about my prayer life during those years, and one thing I wish I’d thought of then. 

The thing I’ve realised is that the maternal habit of ‘pondering’ and ‘treasuring’ and ‘brooding’ over our children (otherwise known as ‘baby brain’ ) can be understood as prayer if we accept that prayer starts with the Spirit and not with us. I look back and in amongst the struggles I remember quiet moments breastfeeding at all hours of day or night and other moments when I sat dozing with a sleeping child on my shoulder because they had a cold and couldn’t sleep lying down and the odd times when playing the repetitive toddler games wasn’t boring but a fun moment of connection and I am deeply, deeply thankful that smartphones weren’t a thing in the early 2000s so I wasn’t distracted at these moments but fully, if sleepily, present. Reflecting on these moments now, I am reminded of the number of times we are told in Luke’s gospel account of the birth and childhood of Jesus that ‘Mary pondered these things in her heart’. 

In the absence of being able to keep the office, I might not have felt like I was praying but looking back I realise that the Spirit was praying within me.

The thing I wish I’d thought of then was expanding my use of relevant scripture verses beyond that one I could remember by sticking bits up around the house. Psalm 63 for example – “O God, you are my God, eagerly I seek you, my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you as in a barren and dry land where there is no water” would sit nicely near the kettle and teabags and cups as a prompt to pray when I made a cuppa. Not the full office, or even formal morning prayer, but a means of staying connected while those years of alternating full on child care and sleep passed.

The next step for me, still with a pre-school child in tow, but with brain fog/ baby brain receding a little and in response to a desire to re-find my prayer life was in reading Angela Ashwin (Heaven in Ordinary) and Norvene Vest (Friend of the Soul). Ashwin reminded me about making decisions how we use time (and decide our priorities), which for me meant (and has continued to mean) that time for prayer is up there along with cooking a meal and making sure clothes are clean, above other things like tidying or hoovering. This decision has also meant learning not to care what other people might think of the state of my house, which has been a spiritual journey in itself. 

Vest was my introduction to Benedictine spirituality, and the aim of a balanced life where prayer, work and study are integrated in pragmatic ways. At the time it was chapter 31 (on the work of the cellarer) that really caught my attention. Handling everything as if it were ‘sacred vessels of the altar’ meant that folding clothes, and washing up, could become prayer prompts – sometimes consciously interceding for others, sometimes doing them with love and attention as a way of offering prayer.

         Life then took an unexpected turn with the agony of my marriage break up – and many sleepless nights when I started praying vigils (from the Benedictine Daily Prayer: A shorter breviary – the first, 2005 edition) out of a desperate need to find a way to cope. I also memorised the Venite (Psalm 95) to pray in the shower as that was the only place I could find space for prayer and I needed to use someone else’s words because I had none of my own. 

         It has been a slow rebuilding of both my emotional life and my prayer life from the ruins of that time – it has taken years not months. Along the way, I did an Ignatian retreat in daily life (otherwise known as the 19th annotation version of the 30 days retreat). This meant 9 months (more than 30 weeks) of sitting with God and scripture for 45 mins a day and meeting with my spiritual director once a week. This enabled me to reconnect with Jesus in a new way, and realise for the first time at heart level that I was truly and unconditionally loved by God. But it also re-established the habit of a more formal daily prayer time first thing in the morning (alarm set an hour early, which often meant earlier bedtime for me – part of my call to prioritise prayer). If my daughter (then aged 7-8) came in during that time I gave her my phone to watch YouTube and asked her to respect my prayer time (which she usually did, occasionally she came to join me in the corner and sat on my lap and said she was praying too)

My current pattern of prayer

         Following on from this morning prayer time became a necessity and after trying a number of options I’ve settled back on Celebrating Common Prayer and its echoes of the time I spent praying it regularly with others. I continued the habit of setting an alarm earlier than I need to, making a cup of tea and getting stuck in. As I was drawn to pray more and more I started exploring the idea of praying throughout the day, first through memorising the Angelus as midday prayer and then came across Richards’s blog as an eye opener that you could work full time and pray Terce, Sext and None. I pray a shortened version of the classic little hours: 8 verses of psalm 119 (apart from Sunday when I pray the first 32 verses in a single midday office), opening and closing responses, hymn, short verse, response and collect.

I made my own small portable prayer book by sticking pages into an old pocket diary, with bookmarks to provide seasonal variations (I do love seasons). This helped to make the prayer work within what I could do – it’s easy to carry everywhere so I’m praying on the train, praying in the car (while parked!), at my desk, everywhere I am – I have tried to get into the habit of always carrying my midday prayer book so I always have the means to say the office when I can. The days when I miss one of the hours, I add the portions of psalm 119 to the hours I do keep.

         Evening prayer has always been difficult for me to pray alone and for years I only said it when I was able to attend the office in church somewhere. It’s such a challenging time of day – both low energy and busy – with offspring home from school, cooking dinner, juggling all sorts of things. But again I felt a desire to fill that gap, particularly as things at home changed with a growing child and getting to evensong/ evening prayer even once a week became almost impossible.  Reflecting on what was working for me, prayer wise, made me realise that what I needed was a daily thing I could link in with evening prayer so it became a habit. And the one thing I do on a daily basis in the evening is cooking tea. So I now use BCP evening prayer as my basis as I can remember everything except for the psalm and the single reading I use (the gospel for the day). I keep a prayer book on the dining room table (no kitchen table), start tea, pop next door to say the psalm and gospel and continue with the magnificat and preces while cooking (omitting the creed), pop back for collect if possible, but if not use the other two collects, and finish. It works for me, and following Burrows, its still prayer – making myself present and available and pondering even though it’s a multi-tasking kind of prayer.  

         The day finishes with compline, usually in bed from memory supplemented with a (self-printed from CW online) booklet for psalms 4 and 91, which, despite saying almost every day for several years in a row now I have still failed to memorise. If I am very tired I might use the Dominican Compline app and listen to them chanting compline (listening for me involves reading as well as hearing, so I can’t do it with eyes shut, sadly). If I am very, very tired, I will start saying it from memory and fall asleep while ‘reflecting on the day’. Either way the day ends, as it began, consciously being present to God. 

Other thoughts.

         My prayer is always evolving; I build in regular reflection on practice as part of my rule of life. If I notice that I am missing one or more office on a regular basis I look at why. Sometimes it’s a question of carry on trying, and whatever was blocking it (health, energy levels, extra busy, extra teenage demands) passes naturally. Sometimes there’s something I need to change for a season, either in my expectations or in the details of what I do. 

         The most recent development, in Lent 2019, was the reintroduction of a daily period of silence as it was something I felt the need of. I use Thomas Keating’s lovely gentle method of what he calls Centering prayer (as described in Open mind, open heart which, again, is about being present and trusting the Spirit to do her thing (whether you feel it or not). With the constant ‘mental load’ of a mum (sit quiet and every little thing you are trying to remember about shopping and cooking and appointment booking comes up in your head) it has been a challenge, but what this method taught me was to drop everything into the river of God’s love, trusting that it will come back up in due course. 

Summary of key things I’ve learned:

  • Prayer starts with God and the Holy Spirit and not with me. If I begin by trying to listen and be open to God in my daily life, then I find myself drawn to develop a pattern of prayer that is right for me at this stage of life. If I start with a pattern of prayer I think I ‘ought’ to follow, it doesn’t work. 
  • I need to make the pattern of prayer into a habit so it (mostly) happens whether I feel like it or not. This means tying it to things that happen anyway (getting out of bed, break and meal times, bed time) and doing whatever is needed to ensure I can keep that pattern.  In my case means prayer books and bibles and booklets all over the place so I can pray where I find myself without having to gather materials (I dislike praying from an app as I am too easily distracted into responding to messages or ‘just checking twitter one more time’).
  • I adapt, adapt, adapt as needed to make the office work for me (and the lectionary – there is a limit to how much scripture my brain can cope with in any one day). It was liberating and affirming to discover that there is no single ‘Benedictine prayer book’ because all Benedictine communities adapt the office and the pattern of psalms to their own circumstances. 
  • I need to accept that some of the times in my life formal prayer is harder than others. I found it helped to know that I was being prayed (by God) in that time, and making the most of the moments of ‘pondering’ to try and be present in some way. 
  • I need to be prepared to push other things aside to make room for prayer. At the moment I am aware that my iPhone doesn’t help me focus on prayer so I am trying to put it down away from me when I pray. With varying success. 
  • Visual prompts and set aside prayer spaces help me a lot, so however we change rooms around, and if/ when we move to another house I know I need to create that space when thinking about using the rooms. 
  • I have found patience and persistence as well as flexibility helps – my pattern of prayer has taken years, not weeks or months to develop into something sustainable in the busy-ness and it is still evolving as job and teenager change and evolve. 

Despite the challenges, I have loved the journey of being called to a life of prayer in this way and look forward to where it takes me next.

Celebrating the Eucharist Daily

Underneath the large church at Taizé is the crypt. A door from there leads to a corridor and the Orthodox chapel. Every day, before Morning Prayer,  Brother Pierre-Yves Emery of the community celebrates the Eucharist with the one or two people who turn up.

It is the simplest possible form of Eucharist but one of the richest experiences in my life of celebrating Mass. When I am at Taizé I am privileged to concelebrate this Eucharist. When I first did so I was terrified. Pierre-Yves, a Reformed pastor, does not use any books but extemporises the Collect and the Eucharistic Prayer (using the typical Hyppolitan structure of contemporary liturgies). He speaks no English and we communicate in liturgical latin and my weak French. Pierre Yves divides the Eucharistic Prayer up and I pray my bits in English, always dividing the consecration of the bread or wine between us, one of us getting the anamnesis, the intercessions, the epiclesis and so on. Praying, as an international ecumenical community not for a local bishop but for the Archbishop of Canterbury, the ecumenical Patriarch, the bishop of Rome, the Secretary General of the World Council of Churches, and the leaders and pastors of all the churches.

Beginning in silence, in the dark, after greeting the assembly we sing a three fold Kyrie before Pierre-Yves extemporises a Collect, often on some theme from the gospel of the day. The Liturgy of the Word is read, with a psalm chanted simply and three Alleluias before and after the gospel. After a long period of silence we all go and stand around the altar in the small sanctuary area beyond the iconsostasis. The chalice and paten already have the bread and wine in them. After the Eucharistic Prayer we pray the Lord’s Prayer, sing a simple Agnus and are invited to receive. The paten and then the chalice are passed around the small circle. An extemporised prayer follows communion before a dismissal. It is very beautiful indeed.

IMG_4907

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In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that God will give us ‘our daily bread’. For many Christians this has been read as an invitation to celebrate the Eucharist daily. For Anglo-Catholics the daily celebration of Mass was an essential part of the tradition for many. The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen made a point of celebrating Mass each day wherever he was, always carrying a supply of hosts with him.

I think the diminution of the daily Mass in many Anglo-Catholic parishes is one of the signs and causes of our diminishment as a movement, and I do everything I can to encourage my sister and brother priests to restore daily celebration.

It is my great joy to celebrate every day. I carry a travelling kit with me and when staying with friends and colleagues will often celebrate simply at a coffee or dining table. I love to celebrate with family and friends at the dinner table using a little of the wine and bread that will be eaten as part of the meal afterwards. I also, at home, have the joy of a little Oratory in an old tool shed attached to the house, the altar consecrated by the diocesan bishop.

The following two attachments are my current practice for celebrating the Eucharist daily. The longer document printed and in an A5 folder on the altar and the other a people’s card for those who join me.

If I am joined by someone who sings I like to use the very simple musical setting of EP H. On days when there is a Proper Preface I tend to use one of the other Eucharistic Prayers. The collection of Eucharistic Prefaces translated by Fr Alan Griffiths for the Ambrosian rite is a rich resource (We Give you Thanks And Praise). The prayers are enriched with intercession as suggested here. I normally begin and end with a Taizé chant. In this Kingdom season “The Kingdom of God is justice and peace…” is especially suitable.

Eucharist OSH People’s Card

(Text reproduced below)

Eucharist OSH Altar Book

B2LspLLWTCOOWGW9UPLavA
sm08cgUMS%aTHTvNLg9LpA

Eucharist

in the Oratory of the Sacred Heart

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Blessed be the kingdom of the Holy and Undivided Trinity,

Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

After the greeting:

And also with you.

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Kyries

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The Gloria on Principal Feasts and Festivals

Glory to God in the Highest

and peace to his people on earth

Lord God, Heavenly King

Almighty God and Father

we worship you, we give you thanks

we praise you for your Glory!

Lord Jesus Christ , only Son of the Father,

Lord God, Lamb of God,

You take away the sins of the world

have mercy on us

You are seated at the right hand of the Father

receive our prayer.

For You alone are the Holy One

You alone are the Lord

You alone are the Most High

Jesus Christ

with the Holy Spirit

in the Glory of God the Father.

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The Collect

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The Readings the book, chapter and verses are announced but without conclusion

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Before and after the Gospel, Alleluia is said or sung

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The Creed on Principal Feasts

We believe in one God,

the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is,

seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father;

through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,

was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures;

he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,

the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,

who has spoken through the prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,

and the life of the world to come. Amen.

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The Peace

The peace of the Lord be always with you;

All And also with you.

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The Preparation of the Gifts

With this bread that we bring

All we shall remember Jesus. 

With this wine that we bring

All we shall remember Jesus.

Bread for his body,

wine for his blood,

gifts from God to his table we bring.

All We shall remember Jesus.

Blessed be God,

by whose grace creation is renewed,

by whose love heaven is opened,

by whose mercy we offer our sacrifice of praise.

All Blessed be God for ever.

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Eucharistic Prayer H

The Lord is here.

All His Spirit is with us.

Lift up your hearts.

All We lift them to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

All It is right to give thanks and praise.

It is right to praise you, Father, Lord of all creation;

in your love you made us for yourself.

When we turned away you did not reject us,

but came to meet us in your Son.

All You embraced us as your children
and welcomed us to sit and eat with you.

In Christ you shared our life

that we might live in him and he in us.

All He opened his arms of love upon the cross 

and made for all the perfect sacrifice for sin.

On the night he was betrayed, at supper with his friends

he took bread, and gave you thanks; he broke it and gave it to them, saying:

Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you;

do this in remembrance of me.

All Father, we do this in remembrance of him: 

his body is the bread of life.

At the end of supper, taking the cup of wine,

he gave you thanks, and said:

Drink this, all of you;

this is my blood of the new covenant,

which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins;

do this in remembrance of me.

All Father, we do this in remembrance of him: 

his blood is shed for all.

As we proclaim his death and celebrate his rising in glory,

send your Holy Spirit

that this bread and this wine may be to us

the body and blood of your dear Son.

All As we eat and drink these holy gifts 

make us one in Christ, our risen Lord.

May this Sacrifice of our reconciliation we pray, O Lord,

advance the peace and salvation of all the world.

Be pleased to confirm in faith and charity your pilgrim Church on earth,

with your servant N our bishop (N and N his assistants),

and the leaders and pastors of all the churches.

Remember in kindness people of all faiths and none,

that the whole human family may live together in peace and harmony.

Remember Elizabeth our Queen and the leaders of the nations,

grant peace and prosperity to all, the protection of our planet,

and an end to violence and war.

Remember [N and N and] all who have asked our prayers,

those who have no one to pray for them by name and those whose needs are hidden.

Remember [N and N] and all who have gone before us,

welcome them into the light of your face

and grant us, with them, a place of refreshment, light and peace.

With the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph her spouse,

[Saint N and ] with angels and archangels,

with Thrones and Dominions, with all the hosts and powers of heaven

and with your whole Church throughout the world

we offer you this sacrifice of praise

and lift our voice to join the eternal song of heaven:

All Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of pow’r and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.

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Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

Your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins,

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from e-vil.

For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours,

now and for ever. Amen.

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Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,
have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,
have mercy on us.

Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,
grant us peace.

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God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people:

Jesus Christ is Holy, Jesus Christ is Lord:

to the glory of God the Father.

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The bread of heaven in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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The cup of life in Christ Jesus.

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Prayer After Communion

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Concluding Chant

We have seen the true light,

we have received the heavenly Spirit,

we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.

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Easter

Alleluia to God be glory in the Church

and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.

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Serious Christianity: a review of the St Stephen’s House Office Book

It is impossible for me to hear or sing the stunningly simple Peregrine Tone of Gregorian chant without thinking of Holy Trinity church in Winchester. There, as an undergraduate in the mid 1980’s, Julian Chilcott-Monk taught me to sing plainsong from Procter and Frere’s A Manual of Plainsong. The Peregrine, the ‘wandering’ tone is the simplest of all the tones and hauntingly beautiful.

The recovery of Plainsong in Anglican liturgy in the nineteenth century was an essential part of the the Catholic-Revival. Wherever I have introduced some sort of chant liturgy it has brought young adults to church. A ‘Compline Choir’ I ran once sang only the music of Compline week after week ending with drinks in a local pub. Everyone that came was between 20 and 30 years old.

There is a profoundly contemplative quality to chant. It demands our attention to text and music and draws us away from our own mental roundabouts.

Many, like me have spent years collecting books of chant from second-hand bookshops and clergy clearing their libraries at retirement. This is interesting. Often there are so many variations in editions that it is impossible to use multiple copies with a group.

I am, therefore, deeply grateful to St Stephen’s House, the Anglo-Catholic theological college in Oxford for publishing their Office book. It is a great contribution to the much needed new revival of catholic Anglicanism and I hope that it will be well used and much bought. There are still, I am told, plenty of copies left but it was a limited print and there will be no re-print. Please email officebook@ssho.ox.ac.uk to order.

The Office book was compiled by Fr Kyle McNeil and is a superb piece of work. He deserves much congratulation and thanks. There is a fine foreword by the Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, who draws attention to the obligation on the clergy to pray the Office, the value of a physical book which “locates us in the material world of specific things, such as time and place, that are themselves part of the scandalous immediacy of encounter with God.” Bishop Martin continues:

“The book’s location in a stall or similar place of prayer in church calls us daily onto the threshold of sacred space, not only does the journey there witness to a habit of prayer, it also opens up the possibility that we might invite and inspire others to join us in the routine of prayer.”

There is also a fine introduction which places the praying of the Office in the context of the priestly life and gives practical information for the praying of this book. This is fundamentally a ‘Prayer Book Office’ but makes use of the 1963 Revised Psalter which lightly adapts the Prayer Book psalms to accord with better scholarship on the Hebrew text, and intelligibility to the modern reader. It loses none of the beauty. It is assumed that the contemporary liturgical year and calendar of Common Worship is being followed but enriched with some additional material for saints and a few other celebrations.

All psalms and canticles are pointed to be sung to the traditional plainsong/Gregorian tones. A complete collection of Office hymns for Morning and Evening Prayer is also provided each with the traditional Sarum (rather than Roman) form of the plainsong music. For many of us some of these hymn melodies will be too complex to sing either alone or with a small group but it is good to see these ‘authentic’ melodies present and other, simpler melodies in the book could generally, be used in their place.

The texts of antiphons for the Benedictus and Magnificat for the entire liturgical year are also provided and these are pointed for simple tones. The canticles are given in Solemn and Simple tones and the Venite and Gospel Canticles are given in four sets of tones to be used a week at a time over a four-week cycle.

No other reference is made to lectionary provision other than to state:

“The Church of England’s lectionary is highly complex … It should be consulted separately, or an alternative lectionary employed.”

A sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. As I have written on this blog recently.

For those wanting to pray a ‘traditional language’ office the provision of Collects in one place is extremely helpful and very usefully enriched by some collects not provided for in any form in Common Worship. Today’s Memoria of Saint John Bosco being a very good example. These are translated into traditional language liturgical English. These are generally well done although a smile of amusement might be needed on occasion. For St John Bosco “young men and maidens” certainly caused me to smile.

Innovations in the book are the provision of a set of Old Testament Canticles for use at Matins in place of the Benedicte which is reserved for Feasts and Solemnities. I am a great fan of the Benedicite with its creation emphasis and the repetition of it and the Te Deum don’t worry me, but I know that this is an issue for many people. However, it does mean that only one setting of Benedicite is given which seems very light. For Evensong a set of New Testament Canticles (as used in the Roman Office) is given in traditional language so that those who pray Compline every day can reserve the Nunc Dimittis for that. Both of these provisions are very helpful.

The Te Deum is reserved for its traditional Roman / western place, at the end of the Morning Office on Feasts and Solemnities, rather than the Anglican practice between the readings. It is provided in just one setting.

The traditional anthems to the Blessed Virgin Mary are provided in Latin with their Versicles and Responses and collects.

For those using the book outside of Oxford notes are given to adapt the rank of various Oxford specific celebrations.

I have very few criticisms of this book, it is an outstanding piece of work, handsomely produced. I would have liked to see provision for the Circumcision of Christ on January 1st in accord with Anglican and long-standing western custom, rather than an additional feast of Our Lady. It would have been useful to have the Prayer Book Collects in their traditional order and form as an appendix. But these are minor quibbles.

I am especially happy to see provision made for the Interior Life of Our Lord (on January 19th) and The Interior Life of Our Lady (on October 22nd). These are often seen as precursor devotions to the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts but in fact they reflect something rather more about the imitation of Christ and his mother.

These commemorations of the interior lives are important because they emphasise the inner conversion that is at the heart of the Christian life. They also relate to the Sulpician tradition of training priests that has its origins in the French school of spirituality of Bérulle and Fr Olier. His beautiful prayer is an important part of the Manual of the Sodality and is worth praying by any ordained person. I know that it is a prayer much loved by Fr Robin, Principal at St Stephen’s House and many of the fine priests trained there in his time as Principal.

I hope that the SSH Office Book will be much prayed and form a significant part of the seriousness needed for a revival of the catholic stream in the Church of England:

O Jesus, living in Mary,

come and live in thy servants,

in the spirit of thy holiness,

in the fullness of thy might,

in the truth of thy virtues,

in the perfection of thy ways,

in the communion of thy mysteries.

Subdue every hostile power in thy Spirit,

for the glory of the Father.

Amen.

Jean Jacques Olier

Beginning Contemplation: Review of ‘How to Sit With God’

How to Sit With God – A Practical Guide to Silent Prayer Jean-Marie Gueullette Tr Kieran J. O’ Mahony Veritas, 2018

Jack is twenty-nine, he has been married for seven years and has two children under five. He and his wife both graduated with very good degrees from one of the UK’s best universities. They married that same year and moved to the northern town where they now live and work in full-time ministry for a ‘non-denominational church’.

Jack and his wife are fictionalised versions of many individuals and couples I have come to know in recent years. Their friends have high powered jobs in the City, Civil service or industry. But they became involved in large evangelical churches while at university, took part in summer activities and placements in various parts of the country. They have heard and responded to God calling them to ministry in places they would never have been to otherwise.

I am almost overwhelmed with awe when I see the sacrifice that couples and individuals like this have made. This is taking the option for the poor seriously.

It is not easy in so many ways. The energy and enthusiasm of a large church full of committed young people makes it easy to sustain faith, to feel confident and buoyed up. But the realities of life in places where there are no or few young people at church; where the levels of neediness, mental health issues and all the associated factors of poverty are the dominant reality can eat away at that.

Conferences, visits to and from friends, inspiring podcasts can all help. However, moments of spiritual renewal and refreshment can sometimes make the thirst seem greater at other times.

That’s the question Jack came to me with having followed me on Twitter. How can I sustain my prayer, my relationship with Jesus in the daily grind, the relentless cycle of family, children, pastoral work, ministry?

Like many others, Jack’s family are experimenting with forms of daily prayer. They bought Northumbria Community Office books, and tried other online materials – but found them unsatisfying.

Jack feels a need for silence – not just as an escape from family life! – but in his prayer.

I made two suggestions. For daily prayer just reading Scripture as it is. Beginning with psalmody, as much or as little as wanted at each sitting, and then readings from a ‘bible in a year’ plan.

My other suggestion was around finding some time every day for contemplative practice. Sitting still with God.

I wish I had found Jean-Marie Gueullette’s book How To Sit With God, when I first met Jack. Gueullette is a French Dominican priest teaching at the University of Lyon. I know nothing more about him. His book is an excellent introduction to Christian contemplative prayer. It is wise, unpretentious and practical. I have already bought multiple copies to share.

As I read How To Sit With God, I marked with a pencil important passages and quotations. My copy is very heavily underlined throughout. This is a rich source of teaching. Gueullette begins by showing how the prayer he is suggesting is the simplest possible form of prayer. This simplicity will have a strong appeal to those who are looking for an un-churchy, un-adorned gospel. Jesus in the raw.

Perhaps even more attractive to those formed by conservative evangelicalism will be Gueullette’s emphasis on faith as the fundamental requirement for contemplative prayer. In this short (176 page) book he goes on to describe how to do this prayer and places it within the context of struggle and discipline There is no pretence that this will be easy. He shows how it is one way of praying among others and finally gives an overview of the place of this prayer in Christian history.

It is this final section of the book that is weakest for the purposes for which I want to use it. here, Gueullette is writing very much from his tradition and nation. After the early centuries of Christian history is exclusively Roman Catholic and heavily weighted to France, with sections on Francis de Sales and the seventeenth century French spiritual tradition. That said the English mystics get surprisingly strong treatment in the main text of the book. In particular the Cloud of Unknowing; the source of English Benedictine spirituality (in the English Benedictine Congregation), Augustine Baker, and in its twentieth century flowering in the spiritual letters of Dom John Chapman of Downside. Although as Gueullette points out Baker lived in northern France for significant parts of his adult life and so might well be said to represent, partially at least, French spirituality.

My only other criticism of this book is Gueullette’s reference point in those Christians who have sought, and discovered, a practice of silence and stillness in the traditions of the Far East. I agree with everything he says about the need to be aware of the religious beliefs that underpin some of the practices, making them unsuitable for Christians. However, he never refers to the secular practices of mindfulness that are not rooted in an alien metaphysic. It may be simply a refection of his context in French Catholicism. Again, for my purposes this material is not useful. Most of the people I work with have not investigated Far Eastern traditions but come from evangelical Protestant traditions.

Method

Gueullette presents the method of prayer he is describing simply and beautifully. Quite simply:

It consists of saying a word inwardly while sitting calmly.

(page 17)

Gueullette suggests words such as: Father, Abba, Jesus, Lord, God, Kyrie Eleison, Adonai. Fundamental to his teaching is that the word

… must be a name for God, not an idea about God or a description of God such as ‘love’ or ‘goodness’.

(page 17)

Throughout the book Gueullette stresses that this is a practice for a lifetime, and will bear fruit over many years. He distinguishes the practice from that of repeating a phrase or verse of the psalms or other parts of Scripture through the course of the day (as suggested by John Cassian).

Twenty five minutes a day is the time suggested for silence. Interestingly Gueullette suggests staying faithful to that amount of prayer even when the desire to sit for longer comes. For him it is important to be free of ‘feelings’ as the driver of prayer.

To those who think rules like this rob us of spontaneity he is clear that this practice is principally about faithfulness and discipline:

Faithfulness calls for a certain discipline, which today can appear contrary to authenticity or spontaneity. yet we are ready to accept it when it comes to dieting or keeping fit! In the case of physical exercise, as in the spiritual life, one can only progress at the cost of daily effort. It is not the extraordinary experience that make the life of prayer, but the humble fidelity to it every day, lived over many years.

(page 108)

Posture

Very few books on prayer are helpful on posture. This is extremely unfortunate because it is so important. When I began my first degree, in World Religions, I remember arriving at Buddhist monasteries, Mosques, Hindu Mandirs, Sikh temples and almost the first thing were told was how to sit, what posture to adopt. More than that, detailed instruction would be given on prayer and meditation at the very outset.

Gueullette knows what he is talking about when it comes to posture. He is clear on the role of the spine and pelvis and in using the abdomen (the diaphragm) for breathing.

It is mainly the spine that helps us stay awake: without being tense or stiff it stands, resting on the pelvis, supported by our breathing.

(page 28)

There are good descriptions of using prayer stools and meditation cushions with the lotus, half-lotus or sitting positions. Whatever posture is adopted the author is clear that it is sitting that is essential, and he quotes another English mystic, Richard Rolle:

It is the quiet sitting that makes the soul wise.

(page 27)

Breathing

At the heart of sitting still is an activity we are engaged in as long as we are alive. Breathing. In this fascinating lecture at St Vladimir’s Seminary Bishop Alexander of the Orthodox Church in America shows how the roots of using the breath in prayer have textual evidence as early as the 5th to the 6th centuries. Again How To Sit With God gets this exactly right. Breath is not something for the author, that requires too much attention, but is significant. The ‘letting go’ that is the end of the out breath is particularly significant. If we think at all about breathing we tend to think of it as something that requires equal effort on the out and in breath but in fact once the contraction of the ribs that is the out-breath has reached its limit the air naturally fills the lungs again:

We do not need to look for air, we just have to empty the air inside us. … You just have to let go, to stop exhaling so that breathing in takes place spontaneously.

(page 36)

Theology of Sitting Still

Gueullette carefully addresses the apparent contradiction between faith and works in his explanation of this method of prayer. For him God’s action is paramount. His key conversation partner is, not surprisingly Augustine. Fundamental to his view is that:

The methods under discussion here act upon us and not upon God.

(page 45)

and

The one who prays does not seek to feel the presence of God, but rather is called upon to believe it.

(page 59)

Distractions

One of the key issues facing anybody who tries to sit still and be with God, or even follow the breath in Mindfulness practice is thoughts. What are often called ‘distractions’. Gueullette helpfully quotes Abbot Chapman at length:

We want to use our will to ‘want God’, and not to keep our thoughts in order. We want to be ‘wanting God’, and detached from everything else. hence we want to let our thoughts run about by themselves … and not to control them; in order that our will may turn wholly to God. the result is naturally that, while our will is making its intense (but also imperceptible) act of love, our imagination is running about by itself, just a sir does in a dream; so that we seem to be full of distractions, and not praying at all. But this is contrary of the fact. The distractions, which are so vivid to us, are not voluntary actions, and have no importance; whereas the voluntary action we are performing is the wanting God …

(quoted on page 60)

For busy people

If you lead a very active lifestyle and feel there are never enough hours in the day, you are the ideal candidate for silent prayer.

(page 62)

Gueullette is clear that like breathing, thinking is what we do when we are alive, it is:

the signs of cerebral activity and it is not really helpful to dream of a time when the brain would no longer function.

(page 75)

Lifestyle

Gueullette suggests ways in which this form of prayer will change our lives. Getting up earlier. Watching less television. Creating a place for prayer at home. Silent prayer will have ethical consequences in our lives.

Seriousness

Silent prayer is then a fight at every moment, where, each time the name is repeated, it is necessary to take oneself again in hand and to bring oneself back in the presence of God.

(page 124)

I understand the author’s (or translator’s) use of ‘struggle’ to describe this prayer, however, I am not entirely sure it is the most helpful image. “while the struggle is real, it is at the same time delightful” he says. Which seems to capture the balance better. I prefer to think of this as a serious business, a work. And like all hard work it is deeply satisfying; often most when most difficult.

It is always different after silence

Some time in 2013 a large group of headteachers came to visit Trinity, the school where I was Head in Lewisham. We had been practising Mindfulness as a school for three years. One of the places we used silence most effectively was in the Restorative Meetings that replaced sanctions on poor behaviour. One Year 11 (15-16 year old) pupils was describing this to the group and how when things became stuck in those meetings often someone suggests a time of Mindfulness using a five minute sand timer: “It is always,” she said, “different after the silence.”

Silence changes things. More importantly silence changes us. It make us more loving, more able to be attentive to others, to children, partners, those we minister to and with. As Gueullette so clearly shows silence isn’t the only way of prayer. It need not replace other forms of prayer and worship but take place alongside them in our lives.

Jack has been practising silent prayer in this way for almost 18 months now, “It has changed my life,” he says. It is always different after silence.

Serious Christianity 8: Making a Retreat – Treasures of Darkness

In the last fifteen years or so I’ve enjoyed working with Christians from Pentecostal churches and introducing them to elements of my own tradition that are new to them, just as they have challenged and encouraged me in my understanding and experience of the faith. Among the greatest gifts I have received from them is the gift of fasting as a serious discipline of prayer. I wrote about this on my previous blog and will move that post to this blog in due course: for now, it is here.

One of the elements in my own practice that I am often asked about is retreats. Where should I go? What do you do?

Below is a a long piece in three parts. In the first I make some observations about retreats. It is not a “How To” guide to retreats, jut some random thoughts I have had while being on retreat this week (the week of Advent 3, 2019). The second part is a rambling, stream of consciousness note-book of this retreat. I have been making retreats since I was fifteen. For many of the retreats I’ve made I have kept a notebook. I have twenty-seven of them, some more complete than others. They are not really journals, often consisting of not much more than a series of quotes on whatever I have been reading or reflecting on. I’m not sure they show much ‘progress’ as such but they do show change. They are very useful sources of quotes, thoughts and research over the years.

I am not expecting anyone to read every word of the notebook below. Scan it and it will give you the pattern of what I do and the way I keep a notebook. I have edited for publication, omitting some of the self-reflection on my life at the moment and my experiences in prayer as well as mentions of the living. Occasionally I have added rather more explanation than I would for myself.

I decided that the best way to answer “What do you do on retreat?” is the format here, a sort of timetable with notes. I realise that I probably learned this style from the journals of Thomas Merton, of which this is a pale imitation.

I have removed references to intercessory prayer although that is a big part of what I do on retreat. The formal prayer elements of the retreat (Office, Mass, Meditation, Rosary, lectio) should be understood within the opportunity this intense Christian living gives for spontaneous praise and, especially important for me, expressing this in tongues. This is an important part of retreat for me. The opportunity retreat provides to pay attention more closely is always a spark for praise.

I read a lot in an ordinary week so a retreat is a chance to read intensely too. Often I have picked a book (part of the Philokalia, Camus’ The Rebel, Julian of Norwich, The Imitation Of Christ, Wesley’s Hymns, The Rule of the Jerusalem Community, Herbert’s poetry, have all been topics in the past). Sometimes I choose a biblical book, Romans, Revelation, the Gospel of John, the Psalms have all been retreat topics. 

This year has been Isaiah – all 66 chapters. But the length hasn’t seemed to matter using Robert Alter’s beautiful translation, Hebrew Scriptures (an essential translation). On retreat I have read multiple chapters in place of the lectionary readings at each Office and used in-between time for study.

I also generally have a fiction book on the go for reading just before sleep. Oh, and the ever present in my life: poetry.

“It is quite cogent how psalms in choir, how prophecy and gospel, how all great poetry, nurtures prayer; equally cogent are prayer and poetry. They can do without one another, and often do, but not as well. Like kissing cousins, you have to keep them apart sometimes or they will get to scrapping, get in each other’s way, get to too much kissing.”

Paul Quenon (In Praise of the Useless Life)

That is, I realise, quite a lot of words. I try and make sure that my retreat reading is not new, first-time, reading, but going deeper with stuff I have read previously. I didn’t quite manage that this year with some of the commentary on Isaiah but, of course, Isaiah is not new to me!

Please don’t read anything here (apart from one or two comments, notably on alcohol) as my saying this is how you should do your retreat. It’s how I do it, some of the ideas might work for you some not.

Finally, I end with a section of photographs of the books I have used on Isaiah for those who are interested.

Where?

There are various ‘retreat houses’, generally these are best for led retreats where there will be talks each day and a set fee. I have enjoyed leading this style of retreat very much but I prefer a bit more solitude when I am on retreat.

– Monasteries

Most of my retreats have been made at monasteries of one sort or another. Most have guest houses. It is good to have worship going on to join in with. Some guest houses are pretty sociable places so that they may not suit everyone.

– Walsingham

I have made my retreat at the Shrine of Walsingham four times. Always off season in November. It actually works quite well. Meals will involve talking in the refectory and some other chatting around the place, the Bull has to be resisted but the accommodation is good, there are plenty of walks nearby and a pattern of worship to join in with.

– Cottages

Borrowing, or if you have the money, renting a cottage somewhere is another option. I quite like self-catering, a balance to the reading, and being in the middle of nowhere. I’ve done this a few times as well and it has worked.

– Monastery of the Holy Trinity at Crawley Down

This is where I have made most retreats although with a. gap of a few years at one stage. There is a guest wing with shared bathrooms that works well although the walls are paper thin so chanting or praying out loud wouldn’t go down well. The community’s worship has Orthodox influences and is very prayerful, there are very many walks in the neighbourhood. They also have hermitages in the woods which are perfect in every way.  As described below.

As I write I am staying in one of the three hermitages at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Crawley Down in West Sussex. I have been visiting the monastery since I was eighteen. Usually staying in the guest wing but occasionally in one of these hermitages in the woods. They are self-contained with a little kitchen, shower room and one room with a bed for everything else. They overlook the largest of the ponds in these woods, created for the iron smelting works that was here in the sixteenth century. Now the only disturbances in the woods are the dog walkers from the nearby housing estates.

Food is provided for residents of the hermitages in Red Riding Hood style baskets just before lunch each day.  A hot lunch and enough food for an evening meal and breakfast. 

I am self-catering, mainly because I am trying to sort out some food allergies that have been bothering me for the last few weeks. But it has the advantage of allowing fasting without fuss.

The monastic community, the Community of the Servants of the Will of God, pray Vigils, Lauds, Eucharist, Sext, Vespers each day and shared Jesus Prayer several evenings a week. Sometimes I join them for some or all of that. This time I am doing my own thing liturgically.

– Home

Some people make retreats at home. Sometimes there is no choice. I don’t think it is as ideal as being away from home but there could be ways of turning off the phone and internet and making space.

When / how long?

The pressure to cut away a retreat time is enormous. I really think six or more days are needed. But just before I came away I was persuaded to do Sunday cover on what had been due to be the last day of my retreat. It is hard. Even more so for those with families and children. Obviously any time, even a few hours or one day is better than nothing, but generally I think the longer the better. There is a rhythm to a week or more that doesn’t seem to work for shorter periods. That rhythm includes a squirming point when I wonder why I am wasting my time and just want to go home.

Books?

Some writers on retreats suggest that only the Bible, or a single devotional book should be allowed. Catherine de Hueck Doherty, author of the brilliant Poustinia, is a great advocate of this approach. But I am a disciple of Thomas Merton. Reading his journals it is hard to imagine him without a pile of books. Perhaps this love of books stems from the Benedictine influence on my teenage years.

 A little like my changing ideas about education I think the more content-rich retreats have borne more fruit than the more ‘sit and do nothing’ retreats. Anyway, even with a lot of reading there is still plenty of time for sitting and being still (see notes on times below). 

I am, however, increasingly cautious about all the reading so many of us do in the great mystics as if we are going to achieve such heights or depths. Better that we spend as much time digesting the words of Scripture and leave spiritual experiences for God to decide. Pursuing such experiences is certainly very much against the tradition. Even contemplative prayer is a gift from God, a grace, for Christians. Not a technique to be developed. The New Testament is full of the wonderful gifts of the Spirit that we can expect to receive in prayer and as a normal part of our Christian lives. The ‘dark night of the soul’, is not something we should seek and is very different to the ordinary sadnesses, depressions and low moods of everybody’s life.

Fasting

It won’t always be possible to fast on retreat, probably only if you are self-catering. I have written about the importance of fasting before. For the Bible fasting and prayer are almost inseparable. If you can fast for part of the time on retreat it really is worth trying. This year (see below) I did two one day total fasts. I think it really changes and intensifies the experience of prayer and creates a certain spaciousness, as well as time. It adds to the sense of seriousness and that this is not a holiday.

“August 14, 1967. Vigil of the Assumption Said Mass quietly at the hermitage and fasted in the morning. (In the evening made too much rice and creole and am weighted down with it.”

Thomas Merton 

“Fasting clears the head and lessens the angustia, also brings order into one’s life.”

Thomas Merton

Sleep

Sleep deprivation is never a good idea. I need seven hours sleep a night, with, ideally one lie-in (9-10 hours) a week. I normally get this on a Saturday, so leave Morning Prayer, often even til after breakfast. On Saturdays I only pray one day-time Hour.

I usually get up at 5am so need to be in bed by 9:30 for sleep at 10 to get my full quota. On retreat this week I am getting up at 3:30 and aiming to get to bed at 8.

The reason I am doing that is the quality of time in the early hours and my energy in it. If I stayed up later in the evening instead it would be an extended preparation for sleep, my energy would be low. In the morning my energy is higher, there is a feeling of a whole day beginning, of movement into light that makes the prayer and quiet powerful. I was so excited for that on the first  morning this week like a child on Christmas Day I was awake by 2:20.

While I am here I am also getting a nap in the afternoon, just 30 minutes or so gives me extra sleep.

“February 7, 1966. F[east] of St. Romuald I don’t know what happens to time in the hermitage. Three and four hours in the pre-dawn go by like half an hour. Reading, meditation, a few notes, some coffee and toast–there is not much to show for it, but it is probably the most fruitful part of the day.”

Thomas Merton

Alcohol

There is a scene in the TV series Rev where the hero goes on retreat. I don’t remember the details, but there is a priest-friend with him and I think they both open their cases to reveal the bottle of gin or whiskey they have with them. For many of us what makes this funny is its truth. In the guest wing of the very monastery I am writing in I have drunk the pre-mixed gin and tonics another priest guest had brought with him. 

I find that even two glasses of alcohol interfere with my prayer – I can tell the difference and, as Herbert says and I have so often ignored, “take not the third glass.”

If we can’t do without alcohol on retreat we have to ask ourselves some serious questions.

E-communications

I take a break from Twitter and Facebook on retreat. But I do phone home daily and check texts and FB Messenger. This week I have heard two pieces of bad news which have been a cause for intercession, I am glad I heard them when I did. The internet has aided my study of Isaiah. It’s a tool. The test for me is to the extent that something enhances my prayer, or lessens the peace of my prayer.

Retreats are not …

Pilgrimages

Read Chaucer. I don’t think I have always got this right myself. I was looking at the pack for a pilgrimage I led from StAndrew, Earlsfield a few years ago. It is pretty full on liturgically. I wouldn’t put so much into a pilgrimage now. A pilgrimage is a social occasion and there should be plenty of time and space for that.

– Conferences

When we started our Sodality we called our annual three-day get together a retreat. We are now calling it our Annual Residential. If there is an intention to socialise, build community, talk, it is probably not really a retreat but a Spiritual Conference.

– Holidays / Time off

I often hear people say they need a retreat because they need rest. Only you can decide how much rest you need. But I would offer a challenge. That rest should be built into our weekly, monthly and yearly patterns separate to retreat time. The weekly sabbath rest is an important biblical principle. Holidays should not be missed. If you are so exhausted that you are desperate for rest probably time off is needed not a retreat. I would draw a subtle difference where there is spiritual exhaustion and renewal of the spirit is needed not total rest. Of course, if you need rest and genuinely the only way you are going to get it is to call it a retreat, then do so.

Meditation

In the Notebook section below I refer to ‘Meditation’. I don’t especially like this word, or even ‘Mindfulness’ (despite spending much of my life teaching it). They both sound too much like a method, a technique. 

In this time, I just sit. I sit in the lotus or half-lotus position on a zafu (meditation cushion) because it is the most stable posture I know. I can easily sit like this for 45 minutes and on retreat with massaging of my legs for an hour or more. The posture gives it a sort of intentionality, energy; it is not just sitting doing nothing. I like the Japanese term shikantaza “just sitting”, to describe this “methodless method”.  As I sit, the breathing naturally deepens but the breath is not the object. Neither is God, as if he is to be sought. He is present. What he chooses to do or not do is his business, not mine. I offer him this time as free gift.

“I am inclined to think that the more a thing is a “practice,” the less it is a prayer. You cannot do without practice, of course, but the better you get at it the more you forget practice and go beyond.”

Paul Quenon

I also sit on the zafu for the Office, but use a prayer stool for the Eucharist and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, this enables me to prostrate more easily. When using the Jesus Prayer I sometimes stand and bow deeply to touch the floor at each invocation and prostrate with my forehead on the ground every 25 invocations. That helps my energy levels and keeps my body loose when I have been sitting for a long time. I often pray the Rosary while walking.

So all of this is quite a physical business!

Hard Work?

Well, I have probably put you off completely if you are new to this. If this all seems too much like hard work, I suppose yes, I am saying this is hard work. Paul Quenon, monk of Gethsemane in his brilliant book, In Praise of the Useless Life (quoted often here, as also his collections of poetry) comments on his following of the Rule of Saint Benedict:

“I follow—or stumble along—the “Benedictine way,” which approaches life mostly in terms of prayer, work, and reading. To follow all three of these essential principles to the fullest is real work, and indeed at times a hard battle! Key phrases found in the Rule of St. Benedict are “the labor of obedience,” “the strong, bright weapons of obedience,” “the instruments of good works.” It is only when the work of obedience is advanced and matured that we “run the way of God’s commandments in the unspeakable sweetness of God’s love.”

But he also goes on to talk about the ‘Holy Game’ and the element of play. I often say that liturgy, worship, is a rehearsal for the way God wants the world to be. A retreat is a bit like that too. It is liturgical time. God’s playground for us. Hard work can, of course, be relaxing and rewarding. I have ended this week’s retreat invigorated and energised. Making a good retreat, like doing anything ‘well’ can be deeply satisfying and very far from exhausting

Not Just for Clergy

While working with the leaders of the Anglican Religious Communities earlier this year I had an interesting conversation with the Abbot of Mucknell about the many guests they welcome there. 95%, he said, are clergy. And this is a complete reversal to the situation twenty years ago. I checked with other community leaders where there are significant guest facilitates. They all confirmed that the vast majority of guests are now clergy. There may, of course, be many explanations for this. The pressures of work. People being too busy to visit for weekends. But I wonder if those of us who preach and teach do so about retreats often enough?

***

ADVENT RETREAT 2019

“In the hermitage, one must pray or go to seed. The pretense of prayer will not suffice. Just sitting will not suffice. It has to be real–yet what can one do? Solitude puts you with your back to the wall (or your face to it!) and this is good. One prays to pray. And the reality of death.”

Thomas Merton

PART TWO – RETREAT JOURNAL

DAY 1

It’s a long drive from the north-west to West Sussex, but the lane to the monastery takes the retreatant through a half mile or so of woodland before arriving. That last stretch is always a powerful letting go. Once I’d arrived and received the warm welcome I got on with unpacking  and setting up the hermitage.

3:30 arrive

4:15 Eucharist – 

Mass said, the Eucharistic presence. It is you, Jesus, it is you present as gently as you can be, like the hand on the shoulder, not imposing. You are the guest as so often you were, invited here by words and signs.

Next to you. I place mum’s picture. She is not here, but she is present. In my breathing that she gave me. As you are, Jesus. breathing in: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God. Breathing out: have mercy on me a sinner.

Meditation

5:15 Evening Prayer Isaiah 1 -2

Followed by reading of the commentaries on the reading

Learn to do good,

seek justice.

Make the oppressed happy,

Defend the orphan,

argue the widow’s case.

1:29ff is the opposite of Psalm 1: a garden without water, a tree whose leaves wither.

6:30 Supper – soup and cheese

7:00 Reading (on Isaiah)

7:45 Compline – Isaiah 3-4

Followed by reading the commentaries

Chapter 4 unlike most translators Alter has this as poetry

5And the LORD shall create over all the sanctuary of Mount Zion 

and over its solemn assemblies 

a cloud by day 

and an effulgence of flaming fire by night, 

for over all the glory there shall be a canopy. 

6And a shelter it shall be 

as a shade by day from heat 

and a covert and refuge from pelting rain.

8:30 lectio divina on tomorrow’s Gospel Reading and first draft of my ‘todaysgospel’ tweet.

9:15 bed

DAY TWO

3:30 Rise, two cups of tea

Jesus Prayer with prostrations 20 minutes or so

“On me a sinner”: words that don’t make me feel shame, but human. Knowing the stupid things I have done. Love never diminished by any of them. There is a stage in friendship when you do or say something stupid, when your friend knows you for a fool, a sinner: and it matters but makes no difference. Or rather it does. It deepens. Then we can be undefended.

4:00. Vigils Isaiah 5 – 6

Opening parts of CWDP Morning Prayer

With the history psalms (104/105) forming two nocturns 

“Here I am, send me.”

Not a happy message:

“Go and say to this people: 

‘Indeed you must hear but you will not understand, 

indeed you must see but you will not know.’ 

10 Make the heart of this people obtuse 

and block its ears and seal its eyes. 

Lest it see with its eyes 

and with its ears hear 

and its heart understand 

and it turn back and be healed.”

Reading the commentaries.

A walk in the woods (20 minutes or so)

I put my cloak on. Envying Jewish friends their prayer shawls. “He shall cover you with his wings.”  (Ps 91:4) I am immersed in dark. Wrapped in light.

Suddenly I remember. thirty six years ago. My friend Danny (long since dead). Staying over, in the morning he passed me his talit to put on. Hugging me as the wool embraced me with its black bands and titzit. I pulled the crown together and kissed it as I had seen him do. Then we prayed. He in his tefillin, me in his talit. Shacharit and Matins simultaneously. Psalms we shared, melodies different. A cacophony for sure. When he died we had lost touch. I didn’t hear about it for months. Yet now I feel as close to him as when he put the talit around me and breathed on my face, his breath rich from the cheap wine we’d stayed up drinking. I wrap my cloak around me and weep. Strange how our little griefs can stand in for all our griefs.

Jakob Kr

Meditation – 45 minutes

Jesus Prayer with Prostrations

Blessed Sacrament Exposed – Adoration 30 minutes or so

7:45 Lauds / Morning Prayer Isaiah Chapters 7-8

Reading the commentaries

8:30 Prime

10:00 Terce Isaiah Chapters 9-10

Eucharist

12:00 Sext Isaiah Chapters 11-12

Reading the commentaries

Rosary – walking up and down outside in my cloak.

“The presence of Our Lady is important to me. Elusive but I think a reality in this hermitage. Here, though I do not agree with the medieval idea of Mediatrix apud Mediatorem [the Mediatrix with the Mediator] (without prejudice to her motherhood which is a much better statement and truth). Her influence is a demand of love, and no amount of talking will explain it. I need her and she is there. I should perhaps think of it more explicitly more often.”

Thomas Merton

Meditation – 30 minutes

Lunch – main meal of the day

Snooze – walk

2:30 None Isaiah 13-14

4:00 Adoration

5:00  Evening Prayer Isaiah Chapters 15-17

Meditation

Supper – soup and cheese

7:00 Compline Isaiah Chapters 18-21

lectio on the following day’s gospel

8:30 bed

DAY TWO

Part way through Vigils, about 4:30, a cock starts crowing on the farm next door. It continues for about 15 minutes.

The rain is falling hard. Rain in the woods always seem louder, deeper than anywhere else.

Merton’s festival of rain:

“What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows! Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.”

Thomas Merton

The hermitage is cosy and very warm from the night storage heaters.

I open the large glass doors. It’s not that cold but it feels a shock.

I put my cassock and cloak on, the warmest clothes I have. Take the umbrella provided and walk in the woods. Enjoying the rain.

It is pitch black but I walk slowly on paths I know pretty well, barely needing to use the torch. I get to the little weir at the end of the pond. Although it is not a large fall of water it makes a suitably crashing noise in the dark and quiet – the thunder of waters. 

ISAIAH

Two pieces of advice are really helping me read Isaiah. The first is in Leslie Hoppe’s New Collegeville Bible Commentary volume on Isaiah. Like scholarship on the Psalms, the academic world has moved on from the granular source-critical stance. It is easy to get hung up on which sections are first, second or third Isaiah. Hoppe takes the canonical, final form seriously and identifies five sections of relatively similar length. She doesn’t mention it but, of course the psalms are also in five books, Matthew’s Gospel is sometimes seen as being in a pattern of five. Do all these reflect the final form of the Five Books of Moses, the Torah?

Each of Hoppe’s five sections relate to Jerusalem, making that the dominant motif.

1

Chapters 1 -12 Jerusalem’s Future

2

Chapters 13 – 27 Jerusalem and the Nations

3

Chapters 28 – 39

Judgement and Salvation for Jerusalem

4

Chapters 40 – 55 Jerusalem’s Liberation

5

Chapters 56 – 66 The New Jerusalem

Each section begins with an oracle of judgement and ends with a word of salvation.

Although the salvific endings are balanced by the final verse of the book which is dark indeed. Alter points out that when this section is read as the Haggadah (the second reading following the Torah) in the synagogue, verse 23 with it message of hope is repeated after verse 24 to end on a positive note.

Hoppe also identifies the two main motifs of the book as firstly, the typically Isaianic phrase for God “the Holy One of Israel”, what is so very clear is that this holiness consists not just or only in the being of God but in the justice he requires of his people. It is all too easy to think of social justice as something we read into Scripture. In fact justice is woven deeply into it.

The second motif is that of Jerusalem/Zion.

Hoppe recommends reading the text straight through without commentary.

This is a recommendation also made by Nicholas King in his Bible (which is a translation of the Septuagint). King makes ten recommendations which I won’t repeat in full here. However some key phrases:

  • Concentrate on the beauty of the prophet’s language
  • The entire scroll belongs together and should be read as a whole
  • In the text consolation only comes in the Exile, when Israel is recalling in a mess
  • Don’t sit on the fence or remain uninvolved
  • Allow your unhealthy images of God to be systematically demolished

Motyer in his The Prophecy of Isaiah, also divides the book other than by source critical means. His reading of Isaiah is profoundly Christological, he sees three themes: 

1 The Book of the King Chapters 1-37

2 The Book of the Servant Chapters 38-55

3 The Book of the Anointed Conqueror Chapters 56 – 66

Although this christological reading is helpful it does feel imposed on the book contrasting with the way in which Hoppe’s analysis emerges from the actual text.

Hoppe on Chapters 3 and 4: the wealthy are to blame for Israel’s fate. Strong portrait of the bejewelled rich. 

SERAPHIM: are serpents, angelic tradition is post-biblical

At  Vigils chapters 5 and 6. Six is the first real revelation to the prophet and includes the burning al image. I am so used to that image, and to thinking of it metaphorically that I think of it as painless.

Alter does this brilliantly, I like his “Woe to me, for I am undone” so much stronger than NRSV “I am lost”. Alter also refers to Alexander Pushkin’s poem “The Prophet” based on this chapter. It is stunning, here it is.

The Prophet

By Alexander Pushkin

Translated by A.Z. Foreman

My spirit was athirst for grace.

I wandered in a darkling land

And at a crossing of the ways

Beheld a six-wing’d Seraph stand.

With fingers light as dream at night

He brushed my eyes and they grew bright

Opening unto prophecies

Wild as a startled eagle’s eyes.

He touched my ears, and noise and sound

Poured into me from all around:

I heard the shudders of the sky,

The sweep of angel hosts on high,

The creep of beasts below in the seas,

The seep of sap in valley trees.

And leaning to my lips he wrung

Thereout my sinful slithered tongue

Of guile and idle caviling;

And with his bloody fingertips

He set between my wasting lips

A Serpent’s wise and forkèd sting.

And with his sword he cleft my chest

And ripped my quaking heart out whole,

And in my sundered breast he cast

A blazing shard of living coal.

There in the desert I lay dead

Until the voice from heaven said:

“Arise O Prophet! Work My will,

Thou that hast now perceived and heard.

On land and sea thy charge fulfill

And burn Man’s heart with this My Word.”

Source

7am I return from my walk. My cloak is soaking wet. I am breathless. Partly the fear: is there a mad axe-man in the woods? Standing on the bridge over the weir is breath-taking too. There are lights on in the next door hermitage and in the monastery in the distance. I am grateful for these companions in prayer. The monks too have prayed Vigils and are now back in their cells before Lauds.

I am grateful that I found this place when I was eighteen, for the times I have spent here. For the lives lived here. Later I will go to the monastery cemetery and pray for the dead. Gruff but loving Brother Mark, provider of tea and digestives. Charles the friend of the community who spent many years living and praying here. Fr Brian, the sweetest and warmest of smiles but brightly intelligent. My memories of him are mainly from his days at the monastery at Hove.  And Fr Gregory, so long Superior. About him complicated memories and feelings. On all the things that divide our church he and I disagreed. But he in many ways created the life here and all the gospel that it holds. As Isaiah knew it is a messy world. As today’s gospel (Matthew’s genealogy) makes clear:

Tamar

Rahab

Ruth

Wife of Uriah

Jeconiah and his brothers

After the walk I still need exercise, that helps with the sugar-hunger too. So 20 minutes of prostrations with Jesus Prayer works up a sweat.

8:45 

Light comes late on this dull December day. The dawn chorus just penetrates the sound of the rain. But as the trees emerge I am singing the Canticle from Baruch at Morning Prayer:

“The woods and every fragrant tree

Have shaded them at God’s command.”

Interesting essay by Torsten Uhlig in Interpreting Isaiah ed David G Firth et al

On the motif of ‘hardening’ of the heart in Is 6 (and elsewhere).

Brueggemann on Isaiah Chapters 7 and 8:

Two possible readings: historical or christological (virgin birth etc) but he offers a third;

The offer of faith

“Faith is to resist circumstances and to continue ‘a more excellent way’ a way with no guarantees beyond promises and the One who makes those promises.”

“The non-negotiable verdict of the prophet still lingers: No faith … no future.”

Hoppe; 

8: 7b-9

Wordplay

‘If you do not make yourself firm [in the Lord]

You will not be affirmed.’

Same Hebrew root as ‘mn from which we derive Amen

Isaiah 65:6 literally translated is that the Lord is “the God of Amen” [Alter makes the same point, notes]

Revelation 3:14: Jesus is “the Amen”

Immanu el

7:14, 8:8 and 10

Even here in the hermitage news comes in. One of my dearest friends is taken into hospital with a suspected stroke. The new Archbishop of York is announced; Stephen Cottrell. The very best of news.

Perhaps I should turn my phone off completely but somehow it seems better to have the world in here too.

Isaiah 10:20 “lean on him”

Brueggemann suggests old gospel song:

What a fellowship, what a joy divine

Leaning on the everlasting arms

What a blessedness, what a peace is mine

Leaning on the everlasting arms

Leaning, leaning

Safe and secure from all alarms

Leaning, leaning

Leaning on the everlasting arms

What have I to dread, what have I to fear

Leaning on the everlasting arms?

I have blessed peace with my Lord so near

Leaning on the everlasting arms

Leaning, leaning

Safe and secure from all alarms

Leaning, leaning

Leaning on the everlasting arms

YouTube:

Mahalia Jackson https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=3Mb0XA2BDx0

Lunch: avocado, tuna fish, mayonnaise – beef Bologna’s and peas – cheese – Brazil nuts, coconut and chocolate

11:3 

RSV: his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord

Alter: his very BREATH is in the fear of the Lord

Chapter 12 a short hymn of praise which is Canticle 27 on CWDP.  Although with the first verse omitted:

“I acclaim, You, O Lord, though you raged against me,

“Your wrath has withdrawn and You comforted me.”

How we sanitise it all!

None: Isaiah 13 – 14

Ch 13: 6 Shaddai

14:4b ceases  Heb. = Shabbat / rest

14:10-11

The oppressor is overturned

Complete reversal

Brueggemann “The reception committee of impotence is already gathering to greet the next oppressor. And so Jews maintain by such poetry the capacity to wait, to resist, and not to give in.”

Reflection on all the wrath in Isaiah: what might God be angry with me about?

The sort of anger we feel for those we love.

Vespers: Isaiah 15-18

Supper Chicken soup

Compline: 19-21

Containing, appropriately for the time of day:

Watchman, what of the night.

Beautiful Hebrew (Alter)

Shomer mah milaylah

Shomer mah mileyl 

“One must concede that this entire short prophecy is far too fragmentary to allow us to guess what it is about.” !

7:45 bed

DAY THREE

3:30 an owl outside, somewhere very close

I open the curtains, important to be surrounded by the dark as I pray

But aware as I do so that my light is polluting it

Vigils Isaiah 22–27 

(speeding up my reading so that there is more time to reflect on the whole thing at the end of the week)

Reading aloud from Alter’s translation which works very well,

I also brought AV with me and thought I might read that at the liturgy, but that doesn’t seem to be needed

Fasting today, just water, first food Thursday lunchtime, my fasts have been inconsistent since Lent, I need to get back on this. It intensifies the prayer, creates a space for it and an energy.

26:9:

With my life-breath I desired you by night,

With my spirit within me I sought you.

There is nothing quite like praying in the night. Tonight is still and dark. Not even the sound of rain. Just animals moving, the occasional bird. 

These chapters from Isaiah this morning and yesterday afternoon have been especially challenging to understand.

Briggs is very comforting on this:

“First, you cannot study everything. Much of chapters 13–33 is obscure. I rather like Walter Brueggemann’s comment regarding chapter 21, that it is ‘extraordinarily enigmatic and elusive and, given our present understandings, almost completely beyond comprehension. I take comfort in the surmise that likely the only people who attend to this poem are those, like myself, who attempt to write a commentary that does not permit skipping over the material.’ So we take comfort in that too, and skip over large sections.”

Key chapters demanding study:

6, 7 (especially 7.14), 9, 40, 53, 61,

And would require inclusion in a bible study, sermon series

Isaiah 7

“The Lord commissions Isaiah in v 3, and gives him an oracle to take to King Ahaz in vv 7–9. This includes the striking word-play, which translates rather nicely into English: ‘If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all’ (v9:‘imlo’ta’aminu/kilo’te’amenu) or, as NT Wright has suggested rather more idiomatically, ‘Trust or bust.’ In fact, when this Hebrew text was translated into Greek (in the Septuagint version as used by the early church), this line became, ‘If you do not believe, neither shall you understand.’ As such, it was often cited by Augustine in his famous description of Christian faith as the pursuit of the mysteries of God, captured in the Latin phrase, fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding).”

Briggs

Read 2 Kings 16.5–20, on Ahaz’s reaction to Isaiah (he tries to make a deal with the Assyrians)

See Is 36-37 for where the historical events come to a head

See also 2 Chronicles 32 and 2 Kings 19

Briggs: chapter 6 does not function (whatever some commentaries suggest) as the opening call, chapters 1-4 prepare the way for it:

First, 5.7b carries a careful word-play, literally: He expected justice (mishpat) but behold: bloodshed (mispach) Righteousness (tsedaqah) but behold: a cry! (tse’aqah)

In ch 5 the NRSV ‘ah’ is inadequate ‘woe’ is better

6:11 ‘Till, when, O Master?’ How long, O Lord. 

Is highly significant.

[isn’t this what we all say in the midst of uncertainty / suffering]

And the answer is “until …:

And the gloom only rises in chapter 40

Briggs thinks of the putative three authors as three movements in a symphony

40 marks a shift to the servant, answering who will answer God’s call (ch 6) but mostly this is plural (except see 53)

55 – 66 ‘Unspectacular postscript’

61 a return to the anointed servant

Briggs: “It has always struck me as a relatively neglected aspect of the book of Isaiah that it wants to offer us such a broad range of visions of the life of faith among the people of God. The difficult bit today is holding on to the whole range and, even more, it is rightly discerning where in this vast narrative we find our own situations illuminated”

Briggs:

“It is, I suspect, easier to be visionary when you are heading somewhere or about to engage in some dramatic new project than it is when you are back home, working with the long-term issues of faithful living in the same old place. But it is dangerous to lift the Second Isaiah emphasis on vision and newness and transpose it to today without recognizing that a lot of our Christian living is about faithfulness in the place where God has put us, and that this kind of long-term and comparatively unspectacular faithfulness is just as important for many people much of the time.“

Corporate nature of the text:

“When preaching on ‘the armour of the Lord’ from Isaiah 59.15b–20, for example, I was struck by the way in which God’s armour is appropriated for the church as a whole community in Ephesians 6 rather than each individual wearing the full armour of God: it is as a whole church that we are corporately engaged in the mission of God as it is pictured in the book of Isaiah.”

In Firth et al Lyndsay Wilson on Wisdom in Isaiah: Proverbs 25:1 locates the collection of wisdom sayings in the time of Isaiah, some scholars even think Isaiah may have been among the wisdom school before entering the prophetic school; Isaiah certainly seems to inc some wisdom language, and a wisdom approach to Torah.

Vigils reading: 24-27 the apocalyptic

Strong movement 24 25

24 full of desolation yet even in the middle of the destruction some praise:

“It is they who shall raise their voice, sing gladly,

In God’s grandeur they shall shout from the sea”

And then trust emerges in ch 25:

God’s steadfast faithfulness

The Lord shall prepare a banquet

He swallows up the mantle (shroud)

He wipes away tears

Look! This is our God!

In whom we hoped and he has rescued us

More Trust in ch 26:

“a steadfast nature You guard in peace”

Jenni Williams  (‘The Kingdom of our God’)

“Essentially, this is what trust looks like: it is not so much  a state of mind as a choice about how to act.”

Brueggemann has it as:

(26:12) Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace:

In peace because they trust in you.

Jenni Williams draws attention to 26:12

“O Lord, grant peace to us,

For our every act you have wrought for us.”

How does God do our acts?

Is it all working out as God intended? Despite our need for repentance?

Keep coming back to this idea of God’s wrath (so strong in much of Isaiah) what might God be angry with me for/about?

Anger is what we feel for those we love and care about; it is easiest to show those we are close to. God being angry does not diminish his love for us!

Lauds Isaiah 28 – 30

The first antiphon for today:

My soul has yearned for you in the night,

And as the morning breaks, I watch for your coming.

As the night vigil moves to daylight.

The first psalm 88 with all its darkness

“in a palace of darkness in the mighty deeps

Will your wonders be known in the darkness

But as for me, Lord, I cry to you;

Even in the dawn my prayer comes early before you.

My best companion is now the darkness.”

Eaton

I love that last line. “My best companion is darkness”. Grail has it as “my only companion”. Sadly CWDP has an alternate reading: “hid my companions out of my sight.” Which seems to be from Coverdale.

S29:11-12 “Pray, read this.”

Ambrose recommended Augustine read Isaiah first when he was close to coming to faith; is this the origin/inspiration for tolle, lege must look up the Vulgate.

[Just done so, lege, but not tolle]

30:15 

In quietness and stillness you shall be rescued,

In calm and trust shall your valour be,

But you did not want it.

The final phrase is often omitted when quoting this!

***

A brighter day. Jesus P and prostrations outside as the sun breaks through the trees.

Early yet but hunger not too bad. The sugar high of the weekend was over after two days normal diet.

The perfect thing about praying outside is the sound of the water from the air. Pretty small scale really but definitely a torrent in sound.

***

On Is 28 Williams points out the wisdom language: pay attention, hear, instructed, teachers, counsel, wisdom: final words His Wisdom is great.

8:30 Prime

10am Terce Isaiah 31-32

Long walk in the sunshine.

Over the bridge across the weir the first house is interesting. Now a significant mansion with extensive grounds (it sold recently for £3m), it was once two labourers cottages.

The woodland  is called Furnace Wood and the house just Furnace. In the mid sixteenth century for about 75 years the area was the site of an iron foundry and blast furnace; latter in the eighteenth century bronze smelting was added for a short time. The woodland provided the fuel and there is evidence of coppiced chestnut still in some of the gardens of the houses that now occupy part of the site.  The pond is man-made for the furnace and at some later date there may have been a water mill. The dam decayed and the pond drained towards the end of the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century the dam was re-built after the land had been sold with the invitation to create a trout pond, and indeed it is now used by a local fishing club.

On the side of the house a small plaque has appeared since I last walked this way. It commemorates Alfred Towes who died in the First World War and had previously lived in the house.

With very little googling it is easy to discover a little more about him. Born in about 1880 he was one of probably 10 children. His family lived in the house for just a few years before moving on. At some point he and his wife, Alice, moved to New South Wales, where address is available, when he signed up in 1917  he was listed as a gardener.  Travelling back to Europe he lasted only a week at the front before being killed. At some point, by 1921 his wife (and children?) moved back to England to a house that still stands, the Laurels at Copthorne, just a couple of miles from the house where Alfred had lived.

I check the phone directories and there are still Towes’s listed, perhaps his direct descendants or those of his brothers.

Of such dreams and tragedies are our human lives made.

The town of Mosman where Alive and Alfred lives is close to Sydney harbour. The plot they lived at looks very beautiful, even if it didn’t then have the swimming pool it has now. Was it a dream come true to them? In contrast to the nightmare of war he returned to Europe for? When Alice moves back to England did it seem like she had left her dream?

Reading Isaiah this week and getting my head around the shifts of Empires 2700 years ago I note that not much has changed. Those armies sweeping the Middle East in Isaiah’s time were made up of Alfreds with their dreams and tragedies too.

It doesn’t make me sad. Just glad to have located a human story. And as I walk in the woods, despite the aircraft flying over from Gatwick, they are idyllic, I image the sounds and smells of a blast furnace here half a millennium ago.

Read more local history here.

Eucharist

Sext Isaiah 33-36

Isaiah 33:17

A king in his beauty your eyes shall behold

Your heart shall murmur in awe.

Prose passage beginning Isaiah 36 see 2 K 18:13 to 2 K 20:19

Slept for 40 minutes: I wondered whether I would be able to make on an empty stomach; but no problem!

None Isaiah 37 – 40

38:10ff is one of the Canticles in the Roman Office (Tuesday II) and is rather fine “I said in the noon time of my days …” but it doesn’t appear in CWDP

ch 40 Comfort, comfort marks the beginning of what many call second or Deutero Isaiah

Hoppe makes an important point that Isaiah is using two images for Jerusalem’s future, one male and one female. The servant is male; Jerusalem is female. From here to 66 the “reader hears the story of a woman’s life from her abandonment by her husband and consequent childlessness to their recon isolation and the birth of many children.”

Going through the Canticles in CWDP and marking up a Bible with the verses used; they are quite chopped about; obviously any imprecation stuff omitted, but also anything particularly related to judgement. It gives a slightly swayed view of Isaiah, and indeed, of God.

There are 15 Canticles from Isaiah in CWDP, 16 in the Roman Office, 9 of them are similar texts but most not identical. CWDP chops the verses around much more and is much freer in creating Canticles by doing this. Both remove or don’t include texts about God’s wrath or judgement. It is a rather sanitised version of the prophet.

I hadn’t realised that in the Extended Vigil Office in the Roman rite several of the Isaiah canticles are repeats of those found at Morning Prayer.

Vespers Isaiah 41 – 42

11 Look, they shall be shamed and disgraced, 

all who are incensed against you, 

they shall be as naught and shall perish, 

those who contend with you. 

12You shall seek them and shall not find them, 

those who battle with you. 

They shall be as naught and as nothing, 

those who war against you. 

13For I am the LORD your God, 

holding your right hand, 

saying to you, 

Do not fear, I am helping you.

Hoppe makes an important point about 42:14

God in feminine role:

Now, I cry out like a woman in labour,

Gasping and panting.

Compline Isaiah 43 – 44

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. 

I have called you by name, you are Mine. 

2Should you pass through water, I am with you, 

and through rivers—they shall not overwhelm you. 

Should you walk through fire, you shall not be singed, 

and flames shall not burn you. 

3For I am the LORD, your God, 

Very tired after not eating at all. It will be hard to get through to tomorrow lunchtime. But it does create a kind of spaciousness/lightness about the prayer.

DAY FOUR

3:30 Rise. A deep sleep but my head is pounding. It is always difficult to drink enough water when fasting. 

Finish lectio and tweet todaysgospel. Read Rachel Mann’s Rossetti book for today and tweet sentence from that.

Hunger strikes and sudden feeling of despair. Why am I wasting my life like this? Six days away from home, fasting, getting up in the middle of the night, when I get back I have four services on Sunday. On Monday I shall spend the day seeing sorcerers for Spiritual Direction. I could be with the people I love. Relaxing, enjoying the build up to Christmas.

I start Vigils heavily, unwillingly. But immediately the words strike.

In the darkness (very dark and rain outside) I pray “Reveal among us the light of your presence.”

And the psalms (104, 105) the story of creation and salvation speak.

Then the magnificent power of Isaiah, especially in the translation by Alter which reads aloud so well. In fact it makes RSV/NRSV/CWDP seem very flat indeed.

Vigils Isaiah 45-49

So many powerful lines and sections. This second movement of the book (‘second Isaiah’) really does contain the greatest poetry.

45:3

I will set before you treasures of darkness

And hidden store,

So that you may know I am the Lord.

Treasures of darkness is such a beautiful phrase. It will stay with me. Darkness will be the strong memory of this retreat. The long December nights. And they have produced treasures. Just as the darkness of our lives can.

45:15

Indeed, You are a God who hides

God of Israel, Rescuer.

47:5

Sit mute and come into darkness.

Another powerful line. Sit in silence.

49:15ff

15Does a woman forget her babe, 

have no mercy on the child of her womb? 

Though she forget, I will not forget you. 

16Why, on My palms I have inscribed you, 

Hoppe on 49:15: “It is difficult to find a more touching image of God’s love anywhere else in the Bible.”

Wow. So by the end of Vigils I feel the exact opposite of the emptiness I felt an hour ago. There is fullness. Perhaps I should give up everything and live as a hermit!

Such are the whims of our feelings. So taking that advice and after all those words I will take the prophets advice. Silence. Lights out. The Blessed Sacrament with a single candle. Adoration.

Sit mute and come into darkness. Invites the Holy One who sets before me the treasures of darkness from his hidden store, the God who hide.

Walk. In the dark and rain in the woods. To the weir. The thunder of mighty waters.

While I am out the day arrives. Sheep and geese emerge in the middle of the field next to my hermitage. On the wooden bridge I wallow in the all-consuming sound of water.

Walking in the woods I am also wallowing in the deep mud. Even though it is quite short the bottom 12” of my cloak are mud spattered. Memories of funerals. Once dry it will brush clean.

Back at the hermitage I had thought when I woke up hungry that I would break my fast at breakfast time. But now, praying and walking, I am enjoying the lightness. I will eat at lunchtime. I’ll fast again tomorrow, Friday, but will break my fast first thing on Saturday. Food will make me sleepy and I don’t need that for the drive north on Saturday afternoon.

Home stretch now on Isaiah. I will finish the read aloud at the Offices today, making tomorrow lighter liturgically. And also finish the verse by verse commentaries (Brueggemann, Williams, Hoppe) and begin to think about the bigger picture. The idea of Isaiah as a symphony with movements has really helped me, as has the five-fold division, rather than the somewhat artificial constructions of Deutero – Trito – Isaiah and as one writer put it the obvious need for Quarto- and Quinto- !

Strong themes from Isaiah so far:

Trust

Darkness

Hiddenness

Sin/judgement – God’s anger

Jerusalem

Morning Prayer (later than planned, my walk it turns out was 45 minutes, glad I didn’t have a clock/phone with me).

Reading: Isaiah 50 – 52

Strongest verse: 51:17

Awake, awake,

Rise up, Jerusalem,

You who have drunk from the hand of the LORD

The cup of his wrath

We are so phobic to the idea of God’s wrath, this must be something we have to reckon with. Isaiah is full of it!

The Suffering Servant in 51 -53

Prime

Terce Isaiah 53–55

53: the first of the songs of the suffering servant, powerful reminder of how these passages fit into the wider prophecy and record of rescue/salvation. These would make good canticles, a shame they are not used as such anywhere.

53:4-5 (Alter)

3Despised and shunned by people, 

a man of sorrows and visited by illness. 

And like one from whom the gaze is averted, 

despised, and we reckoned him naught. 

4Indeed, he has borne our illness, 

and our sorrows he has carried. 

But we had reckoned him plagued, 

God-stricken and tormented. 

5Yet he was wounded for our crimes, 

crushed for our transgressions. 

The chastisement that restored our well-being he bore, 

and through his bruising we were healed.

Hoppe: about 40 allusions or citations of this text in the NT

Sitting in these woods that would have been alive with the sound of a blast furnace a few centuries ago 54:16 is pertinent:

It is I who created the smith,

Who fans the charcoal fire ….

Walk

Up to All Saints’ Church in Crawley Down, sadly locked but in the churchyard there is a Towes grave. Frederick. Local history sites suggest this is / could be Alfred’s cousin. He died in 1921 but it is a military grave, so perhaps he died of injuries sustained in the war. No sign of a grave for Alfred’s wife. I may look in the church yard at St. John’s Copthorne on the way home.  A find a grave search finds nothing for here other, so perhaps she remarried?

Sext Isaiah 56 – 58

56:3 following the foreigner and eunuch accepted into Israel, no opposition between Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures here

Fasting: is not this the fast I choose

Good corrective balance on a day I am indeed fasting:

Do I give my bread to the hungry?

Clothe the makes?

Lunch: Avocado, tuna, cream cheese, boiled egg; chilli con carne and peas – cheese and fig jam – Brazil nuts, coconut and dark chocolate 

and the immediate effect of lunch after 42 hours total fast: Sleep.

3pm None Isaiah 59 – 61

60

Partly CW Canticle 34

Alter:  “Rise, O Shine for your light has come. Often thought of with the next two chapters, as the core of Truro Isaiah, this poem picks up the motif of transcendent light from Second Isaiah and transforms it into an enthralling poetic vision of Zion magnificently restored. This vision is dramatically developed in the next two verses, in which the whole earth is imagined engulfed in darkness, and Zion’s brilliant dawn offers light for humankind.”

1Rise, O shine, for your light has come, 

and the glory of the LORD 

has dawned over you. 

2For, look, darkness covers the earth, 

and thick mist, the peoples, 

3but nations shall walk by your light,

 and kings by your dawning radiance.

60:15

19No more shall the sun be your light by day, 

nor the moon’s radiance shine for you, 

but the LORD shall be your everlasting light 

and your God become your splendour. 

20No more shall your sun set, 

your moon shall not go down. 

But the LORD shall be your everlasting light, 

and your mourning days shall be done.

See Rev 22:4-5

And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. Revelation 22:5

61v2

A day of vengeance for our God

The start of 61 forms CW Canticle 35

But This half verse is omitted:

Which is such a shame:

Lord, avenging God

Avenging God appear.

Psalm 93 (Grail)

The end of ch 61, verse 11, is, unusually used in two CW Canticles nos 35 and 36

61:4

Hoppe calls this ‘the priesthood of the poor’

Then listening to Bach. Really listening, not doing anything else. As Chrysogonus Waddell advised me in 1992. He took me to see Merton’s hermitage when I was at Gethsemane and so somehow Bach is always associated with hermit times in my mind.  I listen to settings of Isaiah, one I don’t remember listening to before of the Do not be afraid text.  Fürchte dich nicht. Very beautiful. 

And then Goldberg.

4:30 To revive me and getting the energy flowing Jesus Prayer and prostrations, then Adoration

Raining hard outside.

“January 2, 1966. Feast of Holy Name of Jesus It has been raining steadily for almost 36 hours. This morning toward the end of my meditation the rain was pouring down on the roof of the hermitage with great force and the woods resounded with tons of water falling out of the sky.”

Thomas Merton 

6pm Vespers Is 62 – 64

62: 4b ff

Part of CW Canticle 36, some very unCW language in Alter:

And your land shall be bedded

As a young man beds a virgin,

Your sons shall bed you …

Alter’s note says:

The One Bedded. Again, the transliteration, Beulah, became an English name. Most translations render it as “espoused,” but that is too formal and too decorous. This passive form of the verb baʿal does indicate a woman who has a husband (the noun baʿal), but it has a sexual connotation: Zion, the woman who has been forsaken, will now enjoy consummation again. The sexual implication of the term is clearly suggested in verse 5: “and a bridegroom’s rejoicing over the bride / shall your God rejoice over you.” 5. your sons shall bed you. This sounds inadvertently like incest (in the next line of poetry, it is rather God’s relationship with Israel that is analogous to the bridegroom’s relationship with the bride), but the intended idea is that the desolate land, personified as a woman, will be plowed and cultivated by its sons, as a young man is intimate with a virgin and makes her fruitful.”

63:1

In ensanguined garments (Alter): nice play on words

63:2

Alter: “the association between wine and blood is not only because of the colour red but also because a kenning for wine in biblical poetry, inherited from the Ugaritic is ‘blood of the grape’ (see Gen 49:1)”

And of course Eucharistic for Christians

Supper: Soup, cheese and Piccalilli, Brazil nuts, coconut and dark chocolate.

Short walk in the dark, wind and rain. Which at least ensures there are no dog walkers about. Pretty much had the woods to myself in this weather.

Meditation

9pm Compline Isaiah 65-66

And so Isaiah finished, at least the read aloud through is. And just wonderful it has been, never wearisome. Alter’s poetic sense is perfect, there is a lovely sharpness to his English and a sense of rhythm and metre. The language is spare.

And here to end with a koan from 65:1-2

I yielded oracles 

when they did not inquire, 

I was found 

when they did not seek Me. 

I said, “Here I am, here I am” 

to a nation not called by My name.

I spread out My hands 

all day long

Alter’s note: “2. I spread out My hands. This phrase continues the paradox of the previous verse because spreading out the hands is a gesture of prayer, and it is as though God, not the people, were praying.”

I didn’t expect this theme of darkness and hiddenness in Isaiah. He is a mystic – more than a visionary.

I shall chew on this.

65:13-14

Look, My servants shall eat 

and you shall hunger. 

Look, My servants shall drink 

and you shall thirst. Look, 

My servants shall rejoice 

and you shall be shamed. 

14Look, My servants shall sing gladly 

with a cheerful heart, 

and you shall cry out for heart’s pain 

and from a broken spirit howl.

This is a piece of great poetry, brilliantly tr by Alter. But also harsh.

A lot of Isaiah seems to be about consequences. And we don’t like that, we don’t want to be rejoicing while others mourn. Yet the end of the book precisely describes that contrast.

Chapter 66 v10ff provides CW Canticle 38 (and Divine Office Vigil canticle for Christmas and the Presentation), entirely suitable for this with its mention of babies and mothers.

9:30pm bed

DAY FIVE

3:30am Rise

And it is still raining. People often comment on the ubiquity of rain in Merton’s journals. One reason must surely be quite simple: when you live in a one storey building the sound of the rain on the roof is significant, magnified by trees and making a difference to the possibility of a walk getting out of a small building.

Strangely, despite the restrictions it imposes the rain feels like a friend. Comforting, consoling, protecting. A barrier to others coming into the woods.

Rain Mass 

Enormous choir 

in monotone Ordinary 

of rain 

poured down massive chant. 

Sacred Mass 

soon slacked off 

in soft diminuendo, 

soaking into mute, 

sated grass.

Paul Quenon

Two cups of tea. 

Fasting day today. Which I will break after Morning Prayer tomorrow.

Jesus Prayer with Prostrations

Then I can’t resist it. I go straight out before Vigils to walk in the dark “fired by love’s urgent longing”. Walking straight to the weir without torch.

Dark and thundering sound. God gives treasures of darkness.

I am wearing my cloak for the walk.

THE COWL–

solemn as chant, 

one sweep of fabric 

from head to foot. 

Cowls hanging 

on a row of pegs–

tall disembodied spirits 

holding shadows 

deep in the folds 

waiting for light, 

for light to shift 

waiting for a bell 

for the reach 

of my hand 

to spread out 

the slow wings, 

release the shadows 

and envelope 

my prayer-hungry body 

with light.

Paul Quenon

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High 

and abides under the shadow of the Almighty,

Shall say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my strong-hold, 

my God, in whom I put my trust.’

Psalm 91

When I get back to the hermitage it is nearly 6am. No Vigils. The water has prayed all the words I need. Rain and weir. Darkness absorbing them.

Meditation

Adoration

In the morning I come before you 

watching and waiting 

watching 

then 

waiting 

waiting 

and 

watching 

tired of watching 

I wait. 

When I waited 

enough 

I watch. 

When watch and wait 

are not enough 

I disregard enough 

for You are 

enough. 

When You are 

enough 

I am 

enough 

when I am 

enough 

You are 

enough 

enough 

that You are 

watching and waiting 

and my 

watching and waiting 

is Your 

watching and waiting.

Paul Quenon

7:15 Morning Prayer

“fasting is more of a celebration for me. There is an interior silence, a clear-headedness you do not get except by fasting. We are a society of gluttons.”

“fasting is excellent and clarifies the mind.”

Thomas Merton

8am Prime

9am Terce

Today feels lighter, clearer. The Office shorter without long chunks of Isaiah.

Final day before leaving tomorrow gives it a poignancy. Could I live like this for a month, a year ? Who knows. I don’t see any way of that happening.

“To come into solitude to discard both illusions, public and private, and to seek God, and to have no (exterior) self and no aims or claims, or pretensions, this is “right” (if the word means anything here)–it is what solitude means. But the problem is precisely that I still tend to come into solitude with an impure love, that is to say with “aims.” And with the “I” that can have aims. Time and quiet do much to dispel all this nonsense.”

Thomas Merton 

Jesus Prayer with prostrations

More tea. I must be careful how much I drink.

July 13, 1967 Fasting again but this time drank some tea, which makes all the difference in so far as keeping one’s mind alive goes.”

Thomas Merton 

In the afternoons Turmeric tea is best, or Mint. They feel like food!

The fasting is so helpful. But the question is how to do it on a Friday when Ftiday evening is normally a sociable time? Doing it on another day would break the link with the crucifixion. I could eat just lunch on a Thursday but with a Wednesday fast that doesn’t give time to recover and often lunch is hard at work. Fasting is kind of nakedness. It leaves everything bare. It also reveals the shallowness and unreality of ‘moods’.

12 noon Sext and Eucharist

The total fast before receiving Communion makes a very beautiful offering. Eating nothing until receiving.

In today’s Gospel Mary says here I am. 

That’s what Isaiah says (6:8), that is abandonment. 

Send me.

Adoration

With those two key prayers:

My Lord God,

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think I am following your will

does not mean that I am actually doing so.

But I believe that the desire to please you

does in fact please you.

And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore will I trust you always though

I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.

I will not fear, for you are ever with me,

and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Father,
I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures –
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

Mon Père,

Je m’abandonne à toi,

fais de moi ce qu’il te plaira.

Quoi que tu fasses moi, je te remercie.

Je suis prêt à tout, j’accepte tout.

Pourvu que ta volonté se fasse en moi,

en toutes tes créatures,

je ne désire rien d’autre, mon Dieu.

Je remets mon âme entre tes mains.

Je te la donne, mon Dieu, avec tout l’amour de mon coeur,

parce que je t’aime, et que ce m’est un besoin d’amour de me donner,

de me remettre entre tes mains sans mesure,

avec infinie confiance

car tu es mon Père.

Charles de Foucauld

2pm None

Adoration

Ending with Jesus Prayer with prostrations

Walk: past Furnace into the two private roads that grew up there in the pre WW2 period. Many grand houses but still some wooden framed bungalows that used to be weekend homes. The simple bungalow that is the heart of the monastery buildings would have fitted in well. That makeshift quality is always something that has attracted me to the monastic community here. Nothing is picturesque. Even in my little hermitage the crockery is the sort of stuff that would be thrown out after the jumble sale. No earthenware monastic look!

Charles de Foucauld wrote:

“I no longer want a monastery which is too secure, I want a small monastery, like the house of a poor workman who is not sure if tomorrow he will find work and bread, who with all his being shares the suffering of the world.”

Final few hours now. Reading Isaiah unadorned. Reflecting on the dark. So strong a theme as the solstice arrives just as my retreat ends. It is so appropriate after a dark year to look forward to days growing longer, light to strengthen. 

THE NIGHT OF DESTINY 

In my ending 

is my meaning 

Says the season. 

No clock: 

Only the heart’s blood 

Only the word. 

O lamp 

Weak friend In the knowing night! 

O tongue of flame 

Under the heart 

Speak softly: 

For love is black 

Says the season. 

The red and sable letters 

On the solemn page 

Fill the small circle of seeing. 

Long dark—

And the weak life 

Of oil. 

Who holds the homeless light secure 

In the deep heart’s room? 

Midnight! 

Kissed with flame! 

See! See! 

My love is darkness! 

Only in the Void 

Are all ways one: 

Only in the night 

Are all the lost Found. 

In my ending is my meaning.

Thomas Merton 

6pm Vespers

Rosary and Adoration

As a Friday evening entertainment I watched Seeking God: the Way of the Monk a 1995 film about Christ in the Desert Monastery. It is wonderful but very dated. The community is much more traditional now with normal habits and Latin chant. But shows a certain phase in their life Abbot Philip as wise then as he is now. Distrustful of mystical experiences. Yes indeed!

8pm Compline

Meditation 

 9:30 bed 

DAY SIX

No alarm set

Woke at 3:30 exactly. Rain still thundering down.

Today’s gospel is Mary hastening to Elizabeth.

Finishing my retreat what do I need to do immediately?

5:30 Morning Prayer

It was Paul Bayes’ book that made me start saying the creed daily at Matins and Evensong. Saying these words in the dark is very powerful. Against the face of dark we say the words. Against all evidence. We trust. Just as Jerusalem’s citizens seeing the destruction of everything they held dear must have felt. God’s judgement is clear. 

6:30 Eucharist 

Still dark.

I can’t stay. The days will get longer. The night will retreat.

There is no war that will not obey this cup of Blood.

Yet in the middle of this murderous season 

Great Christ, my fingers touch Thy wheat 

And hold Thee hidden in the compass of Thy paper sun.

There is no war will not obey this cup of Blood,

This wine in which I sink Thy words, in the anonymous dawn! 

I hear a Sovereign talking in my arteries 

Reversing, with His Promises, all things 

That now go on with fire and thunder. 

His Truth is greater than disaster. 

His Peace imposes silence on the evidence against us.

from SENESCENTE MUNDO

Thomas Merton 

I prayed the whole of the poem as the invitation to communion and the line:

Here in my hands I hold that secret Easter.”

After each of the words of consecration.

The whole poem is in the collection In the Dark Before Dawn.

Breakfast : breaking the fast: avocado with Piccalilli. Cheese omelette, cheese with fig pickle, Brazil nuts, coconut and dark chocolate 

Prime

Preparing to leave

Car packed

Hermitage cleaned

Sheets and linens swapped

Monastic life is always detail and routine. These packages of sheets, linens, towels and cloths carefully labelled:

10am Terce 

10:30 prayer in the community chapel

11am Monastery Mass

DEPARTURE 

Surprise: How much Merton / Gethsemane there has been this week. Hermitage, rain and dark are pretty much central to his stuff I suppose.

Immersing myself in Isaiah has been total joy. I shall do some more of this between now and Epiphany. But it is so central to the gospel that having a clearer picture of it is already making a difference to my praying of the liturgy.

What I fantasise about taking away with me from this retreat:

  • getting up in the night, wallowing in darkness, aloneness
  • rain
  • The rhythm of the double Wednesday-Friday fast
  • Total immersion in Scripture
  • The sound of the weir

What I can take away with me:

  • Isaiah, I think of him, whatever some scholars say, as one man, speaking with different voices. Passionate. Poet. But matter of fact about God’s wrath. It is the consequence of human actions. God bears no grudge. Is not malicious.
  • Isaiah as mystic. Lover of the night and darkness. Chewer on koans. 
  • Something about how Jesus as suffering servant / rescuer (Saviour) is so intimately related to Jerusalem, even in this ancient prophecy. Church/Jerusalem are Jesus. 
  • God’s wrath so important. This is a koan for me. 
  • Fasting: going to try Mondays and Wednesdays and fast til the evening on Fridays. 

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Books used