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Contemporary Monasticism

April 7, 2008

The Margins of a Spiritual Wilderness

We stand at the dawn of a dysfunctional transitional time in which Westerners seem able to express their doubts but not yet their sustaining beliefs; their lack of belief in the way things are but not yet their commitment to change.

Along the margins of the mountain ranges of North America, where unmanageable fortifications and regal satellites of rock surrender to low plains, lies a series of lesser ridges. They are known as the ‘outer range’, and winding through these barren lowlands is what the Native Indians call ‘The Trail’ – the pilgrimage to go beyond the here and now, and on toward the colonies of heaven. To many indigenous cultures ‘the trail’ is widely regarded as the most precious gift we have, and during the autumn of 1994 I remember sitting in the bar of a small town due south of the Adirondack Mountains with an old Indian. That night he told me the story of the ‘coal holders’.

As the seasons changed, when winter would eventually arrive, the tribe would have to move camp. Each tribe would designate coal carriers, and as the fire burned low, when the time came to move on, someone would have to carry the last hot coal to start the next fire at the new campsite. The old man explained that the community needed this fire to cook with, to sleep near, but most importantly this fire was the place of communication. It was the sacred place of storytelling, of dance and song. In short it was the heart of community. For many a weary pilgrim today it may feel like the fire has gone out completely. For those spiritual refugees who have connected to something they know to be true but no longer know where to go to explore and develop that connection our current spiritual climate may seem very cold.

We stand at the dawn of a dysfunctional transitional time in which Westerners seem able to express their doubts but not yet their sustaining beliefs; their lack of belief in the way things are but not yet their commitment to change. Our world is beginning to groan and toil for something beyond the inadequate patterns it has experienced and knows. Humanity is tired and longing for a life liberated by a spirituality that offers hope and gives rise to a world of justice and peace. Our common task, it seems, is to discover a new way of being human. It is this new way of being which intrigues me. I find it unfortunate that ‘church’ has become a by-word for the hypocritical and the insipid. Is it possible that a place can be found where spiritual refugees are able to be heard, can believe and belong without conforming in some way to an institution which makes us feel fraudulent, masking who we really are?

Bonhoeffer’s Monastery Without Walls
More than fifty years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer predicted that the renewal of the Western church would come from a new monasticism whose only connection to traditional monasticism would be Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). New conceptions of church have been a central component of contemporary Protestant mission in the West. This plurality of ideas has led to many different types of church communities. These changes appear to have risen from the conviction that traditional churches are themselves a problem. Many have come to believe that, if the Christian faith is to become a viable alternative within a post-modern culture, then the form of the community of faith must journey towards the blurred edges of the post-evangelical mood and be re-evaluated and reformed. It is a genuine practical concern about the possible manifestations of Bonhoeffer’s new monasticism that has led me to ask: can, in this macro-cultural context, a contemporary monastic movement bring about the kind of reformation of our incarnational religion that will enable Christian people of the West both to relate their faith to the world, and also form, in a micro-cultural context, the kind of community which allows them to explore that faith fully and so bring rest for their souls?

Ronald Roheiser prudently observes that, ‘we, the children of Western culture, post-modern, adult children of the enlightenment, struggle with practical atheism. Our churches are emptying and, more and more, the sense of God is slipping from our ordinary lives.’ An observation I concur with and one that saddens me, as I always get the idea that Jesus is more interested in the ordinariness of our at times mundane difficult existence than anything else. Bonhoeffer seems to be suggesting a return to ‘camp side community’ where the coal carriers of today become the embodiment of the Sermon on the Mount. To push the analogy a little further it may be that in the imperishability of salt we have a guarantee of the permanence of the divine community – that community being a new monastic order. Historical and sociological insights urge theologians to look hard at situations where church praxis is worked out. Ideas in isolation are not enough. Theology needs to be seen in relation to the events which will eventually shape it. Bonhoeffer’s theology is best understood as an account of the continuity of God’s identity interpreted through the identity of Christ – which would then inform the Christian identity through the Sermon on the Mount. Christ then lives in and works through the new monastic community, so demonstrating a Christological pattern of human relationship that affirms the intrinsic value of integrity and faithfulness.

Some scholars say that Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship can be read as theological manuals on Christian community. There are complimentary themes of meditation and immediacy that originate in Bonhoeffer’s work. He suggests that the ‘disciple community does not shake off sorrow as though it were no concern of its own, but willingly bears it.’ The elucidation of such propositions occurs in the way Bonhoeffer develops his doctrine of community. He suggests that when salt loses its flavour it in fact ceases to be salt, suggesting that judgement hangs over the Christian community depending upon whether or not it seasons the world. It would seem that at this moment in history we need the coal carriers more than ever – illusions don’t keep us warm at night.

The new monastic life must embrace both the need for community as the essence of an authentic spiritual journey and the importance and freedom of individual interpretations of that journey. Those wishing to communicate and build relationship with a post-Christian culture need to implement this with some urgency. Only a dying minority have an interest in mediocre uniformity. Many are tired of those who would espouse theoretical knowledge, what is longed for is a sharing of a practical knowledge of how to live as an individual who is part of and co-responsible for a community. Bonhoeffer states that, ‘the community which is the subject of the Beatitudes is the community of the crucified.’ Contemporary missiology is concerned with amalgamating strands – restoring those broken and embracing those which survive. Scholars such as Lesslie Newbigin and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were some of the last voices of modernity who believed community was key to living fully. Mike Riddell and Dave Andrews are two of the first voices giving perceptive insights of how we embrace and build community from within the complexities of post-modernity. At some point we must ask the question; does anything connect across this paradigm shift? I suspect authentic and lasting renewal comes not from a Pentecost experience, but from moments immersed with the fragrance of Gethsemane and Calvary.

In other words the Enlightenment (modernity) was the old paradigm; just maybe the new monasticism (post-modernity) could be the new. A principle central to the ideas of post-modern monasteries without walls was an equally essential aspect of any historical monastic order, namely solitude. Solitude is something post-modern people crave but struggle to find. Jesus often retreated to be alone, to find privacy and nourish his soul – to that place where God mystically and tenderly exposes our weakness and nourishes and sustains us. Thomas Merton describes this mystical solitude as contemplation and I believe that this contemplation (solitude) is a helpful eschatological vision to manifest a simplicity that will assist in building an authentic community of faith.

Vows of the Contemporary
Matt Rees believes that this simplicity will come from three ‘essentials’ of the contemporary monastic – community, rule and vows. These ‘essentials’ require the development of shared rhythms, resources and hospitality. Vows of poverty, chastity and obedience have long been a part of the monastic life. A new monasticism needs to re-establish the meaning of the vows through contemporary expression, e.g. vows of generous justice, reckless love and unconditional listening. One should not abandon traditional vows but reinterpret them in ways which will make sense in the post-Christian world.

The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ commits us to live simply, to be committed to ecological stewardship, and to have a deep concern for the poor and marginalised. Bonhoeffer believed that vows give a framework to counter the excessive individualism that permeates our culture, so enabling something Tom Sine calls, ‘the future of God through creative community,’ where our lives, energy and resources are poured outwardly to re-establish a new age of economic justice, a life source for the broken, and rest for the weary. Realisation and experience are vital for the bare bones of this idea to find some flesh, for there too many weary pilgrims asking the question, ‘where can I go?’ For what it’s worth, I would call for the re-shaping of local churches and for small groups to grow around contemporary hermits. I was talking with Ray Simpson of Lindisfarne recently and he told me of a young pastor who admitted to the feeling that somewhere deep inside himself he was called to be a monk, but that he did not know what that meant. When I asked Ray how he answered the man he said that it could mean adopting a new rule or rhythm of life. It might also lead to the church as a whole adopting a set of values and practices which include daily prayer and regular meals together.

These comments are important. This position of not quite being sure where we are travelling, not fully understanding the realisation of a mystery once more I think is a healthy one. We are inundated with varying analysis of the slow haemorrhage of the contemporary church, but to the thinking Christian this is not news. What most disillusioned pew leavers need is practical assistance on what physically is possible as an alternative. Mike Yaconelli, in pastoring a church for people who don’t like church, pioneered a new ecclesiological paradigm. It is something Moltmann calls the ‘Open Church’, and what Bonhoeffer called ‘the Church for others.’ So many have lost faith whilst living in the shadow of the Enlightenment, and so what has developed is a pseudo-spirituality of the individual, where the West, it seems, is seeking to transcend itself. This becomes problematic because it creates isolation and fragments any kind of hope for a communal pattern of living. Yet to embrace the fragmented, marginalized, and flawed people of our communities, who are suspicious of Institutions, might just be part of the mystery which helps reconnect them. Most of my own friends, particularly those who don’t profess any kind of faith seem to want to explore uncharted territory, not to escape, but to find some way back home. The new monastics will be spiritual guides who will listen to stories, and having listened will offer some helpful clues for the general direction to be travelled, maybe offering some hospitality, a meal or a warm bed for the night, before allowing the pilgrim to journey on. Bonhoeffer alluded to this when he said that ‘prayer and action on behalf of others were two essentials that the new monastics would be limited to.’ This new monasticism is not trying to convince the community of faith to return to the historical manifestation and understanding of monasticism, but rather the opposite, that the new order would radically become fully engaged with the world.

Hospitality – Church around the meal table
Jesus did not have a home, he relied on the kindness of strangers for the niceties of life that you and I probably take for granted – a cooked meal, a bath, and a place to rest ones head for the night. In both Jewish and Celtic traditions the household becomes the main expression of ‘church’. Contemporary expressions of monasticism would perhaps encourage household development of prayers and rituals for significant daily happenings, primarily because they are more natural and organic than the evangelical model of cells. With a covenanted, organic, relational, small community in mind, my wife Claire and I decided that our home would become exactly that: a safe haven for a few vulnerable pilgrims to join us in the sharing of our journeys. One of our group describes it so:
Church is about relationship: Church around the meal table allows intimacy, confidentiality and security. Ideas can be voiced, ignorance’s confessed, mistakes allowed for and blessings shared. Time can be given to explore the nature of spirituality, the impact of the previous week’s experiences and points raised by that Sunday’s sermon. Because there is no particular agenda there is flexibility for change and sensitivity to what needs to be spoken about.

Criticising what exists is too easy, and unless we are ready to go beyond theory no reformation will be possible. Communities need to function and be energised. Bonhoeffer suggests that this is part of the completion with the working of atonement, particularly where the family is able to gather together, embracing the invitation to ‘come and eat’. The rhetoric of family values has become hurtful. There is a need for the rebuilding of family systems for it is abundantly clear that our polarities have weakened the community of family. Monastic communities though have always provided space and time for relating. Accountability and liability have always expressed the essence of the Monastic church for our brothers and sisters. As Tom Sine suggests, ‘over the centuries, much of the renewal of the church has come through small communities in which people are organically linked to one another in common purpose.’

The ability to relate to one another with out being inhibited is overwhelmingly difficult in large groups. Certain dynamics, where human emotion is embraced and intimacy nurtured, where we share one another’s joys and sorrows, becomes limited when numbers grow. Small groups also enable counter-dependency, and those who have been part of table church have expressed their gratitude for a place where one can question the taken-for-granted nature of the faith community’s beliefs, values and expected behaviours. It seems to provide a helpful sanctuary and refuge for those Alan Jamieson calls the reflective exiles, so helping the process of deconstructing the faith before re-building it. In other words table church and other forms of a new monastic order recognise that some traditional patterns are not helpful and appropriate for journeying into territory. As another of our group shared:
I guess I’m not in a place where I can speak passionately about the physical church. New concepts, new ideas, new pathways always require a period of hibernation. I am there at present.

Embracing the Organic Rhythm of Spirituality

It is essential that pious demands are not placed on people who are not ready to meet them. One must nurture carefully an earthed spirituality to allow a change of course and provide an open door into a new world. Throughout history story telling has been the primary means of communicating matters of significance. I think it was Walter Brueggemann who said that a metastory, if replaced by a personal story, only makes the Biblical story more poignant in connection to our journeying. Storytelling, eating and drinking around a fire – these are all participatory activities where one can learn, be vulnerable, and begin a healing at grass-roots level in the form of community.

For the coal carriers of today walking into the unknown is a risk. We have to live with contradictions, we have to help one another through the wasteland, but more than that we must continue to nurture what it means to follow Christ, and reform who we have become. The new monasticism will, as does table church, personify desire. There will be tempers and frustrations, but they are saturated in passion. As I look around the majority of churches I visit I see mostly the church is trying to create nice people, and the consequence of this is that most are bored. Was there not a promise of not thirsting any more and life in all its fullness? Too many pilgrims still leave church spiritually thirsty and malnourished. Contemporary monasticism is not about efficiency but inclusion. Douglas Coupland advocates this in his work, suggesting that they key happiness is the importance of a safe, open place to discuss and find the meaning of life, where friends and strangers can begin once more the difficult task of finding community in a fragmented world.

As I listened all those years ago to the intoxicating wisdom of my Indian friend, I realised the need to widen my boundaries, to sift my soul of the muck and mire of my religious ego. We are by nature ritual makers, and there is something profound in that rite of passage that allows us to let go of the past. I am not talking here about some emotionally charged resolution that will be disregarded once normality (whatever that is) reigns. Rather I am speaking of our duty to the soul. It is not just culture that is trying to balance religious obligation with secular freedom: there is a paradigm shift of the soul occurring where we wrestle with principles of inner reform. As we talked about ‘the trail’ the old man explained to me that rather than attending church he went to a sweat lodge; rather than accepting bread and wine from a priest, he smoked a ceremonial pipe to come into communion with the Great Spirit; and rather than kneeling with his hands placed together in prayer he allowed the tenderness and beauty of creation to wash over him for cleansing – the smoke carrying his prayers to the heavens.

My old friend did not regard his spiritual beliefs as a religion in the way many Christians do. His practices form an integral and seamless part of his very being. We need the coal-carriers of Christianity to keep the God-man Jesus alive and well – to keep the voice of the soul breathing – to go clear the land for a new culture. As Douglas Coupland suggests, ‘if you are not spending every waking moment of your life radically rethinking the nature of the world – if you’re not plotting every moment boiling the carcass of the old order – then you’re wasting your day.’ There is no blue print for the new monasticism, just many differing expressions of community stumbling together towards God. Initially, I suspect it will only attract those who have lost faith with institutionalised church – those spiritual refugees – searching to find a non-threatening home where their spirituality and search for God can be explored. In time I expect the balance to change. Bonhoeffer’s prediction, prophecy, vision, dream – however we package it – may just be the sign-post which will lead us in the right direction to restore and renew the community of God in the West…I hope so.

© Paul Chambers 2006 (Paul is a member of the Greenbelt Management Group)

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Attentive Prayer – The slowing of life

February 7, 2008

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Attentive Prayer – The slowing of life

In my better moments, I believe that you can foster an attitude of attentive prayer that requires the slowing of life, the silence of heart, the focus of the mind, then prayer as “breathing” kicks in. God becomes bigger the the slowness. This my own personal experience over the last few months.

It seems obvious to me that if you are “reconcilled” to God, then you are in His presence 24/7 and if you are in His presence 24/7 then the God into whose presence you are born is made more aware to the human soul through solitude, silence and attentive stillness. Attentive Prayer!

It is my own personal experience that much organised prayer and the “Quiet Time” for that matter, either focuses on – 1. “The Coming to God” in that moment. The implication from this belief is that we have not been in God’s presence all along,even before we have come to that moment. That we have been absent from his presence. or 2. – the focus on “God coming to us” and the implication here is that God has not been with us before that moment either. That he has been absent from our presence. Clearly both of these focuses are wrong.

We need to take serious that we are “in” given welcome, hospitality, a place of belonging, the real presence of God with us now in this time and space and for eternity. If you like “Given a place at his table”. This being the case then, the greatest ever act of attentive prayer is “silence acceptance” for in silence, nothing of the human condition is exalted, self is overcome and space and time is given to listening for God and resting in his revealed self.

It’s on this spiritual journey that we have embarked. A journey of attentive prayer, which is a living encounter 24/7; openess and awareness to God through the sacrament of daily life is what I’m practicing and inhabiting.

The slowing of life in our busy and highly stressful society energises this approach to attentive prayer, it gives it form and takes it from the realm of a casual meeting and places it in the centre of a relationship where loving hearts commune in total silence and solitude.

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Madame Guyon – (Part 23)

January 25, 2008

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C H A P T E R   XXIII.

AN  EXHORTATION  TO  MINISTERS.

IF all who labored for the conversion of others sought to reach them BY THE HEART, introducing them immediately into prayer and the interior life, numberless and permanent conversions would ensue.  On the contrary, few and transient fruits must attend that labor which is confined to outward matters, such as burdening the disciple with a thousand precepts for external exercises, instead of leading the soul to Christ by the occupation of the heart in Him.

If ministers were solicitous thus to instruct their parishioners, shepherds, while they watched their flocks, would have the spirit of the primitive Christians, and the husbandman at the plough would maintain a blessed intercourse with his God; the manufacturer, while he exhausted his outward man with labor, would be renewed with inward strength; every species of vice would shortly disappear, and every parishioner would become spiritually minded.

2. O when once the HEART is gained, how easily is all the rest corrected! this is why God, above all things, requires the HEART.  By this means alone, we may extirpate the dreadful vices which so prevail among the lower orders, such as drunkenness, blasphemy, lewdness, enmity and theft.  JESUS CHRIST would reign everywhere in peace, and the face of the church would be renewed throughout.

The decay of internal piety is unquestionably the source of the various errors that have appeared in the world; all would speedily be overthrown, were inward devotion re-established.  Errors take possession of no soul, except such as are deficient in faith and prayer; and if, instead of engaging our wandering brethren in constant disputations, we would but teach them simply to believe, and diligently to PRAY, we should lead them sweetly to God.

O how inexpressibly great is the loss sustained by mankind from the neglect of the interior life!  And what an account will those have to render who are entrusted with the care of souls, and have not discovered and communicated to their flock this hidden treasure!

3. Some excuse themselves by saying, that there is danger in this way, or that simple persons are incapable of comprehending the things of the Spirit.  But the oracles of truth affirm the contrary: “The Lord loveth those who walk simply.” (Prov. xii. 22, Vulg.) But what danger can there be in walking in the only true way, which is Jesus Christ, giving ourselves up to Him, fixing our eye continually on Him, placing all our confidence in his grace, and tending with all the strength of our soul to his purest love?

4. The simple ones, so far from being incapable of this perfection, are, by their docility, innocence, and humility, peculiarly qualified for its attainment; and, as they are not accustomed to reasoning, they are less tenacious of their own opinions.  Even from their want of learning, they submit more freely to the teachings of the divine Spirit; whereas others, who are cramped and blinded by self-sufficiency, offer much greater resistance to the operations of grace.

We are told in Scripture that “unto the simple, God giveth the understanding of his law” (Psalm cxix. 130, cxviii. 130, Vulg.): and we are also assured, that God loves to communicate with them: “The Lord careth for the simple; I was reduced to extremity and He saved me.” (Psalm cxiv. 6, cxv. 6, Vulg.)  Let spiritual fathers be careful how they prevent their little ones from coming to Christ; He himself said to his apostles, “Suffer little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. xix. 14.)  It was the endeavor of the apostles to prevent children from going to our Lord, which occasioned this command.

5. Man frequently applies a remedy to the outward body, whilst the disease lies at the heart.  The cause of our being so unsuccessful in reforming mankind, especially those of the lower classes, is our beginning with external matters; all our labors in this field, do but produce such fruit as endures not; but if the key of the interior be first given, the exterior would be naturally and easily reformed.

Now this is very easy. To teach man to seek God in his heart, to think of Him, to return to Him whenever he finds he has wandered from Him, and to do and suffer all things with a single eye to please Him, is leading the soul to the source of all grace, and causing it to find there everything necessary for sanctification.

6. I therefore beseech you all, O ye that have the care of souls, to put them at once into this way, which is Jesus Christ; nay, it is He himself that conjures you, by all the blood he has shed for those entrusted to you. “Speak to the heart of Jerusalem!” (Isa. xl. 2, Vulg.)  O ye dispensers of his grace!  preachers of his word!  ministers of his sacraments!  establish his kingdom! — and that it may indeed be established, make Him RULER OVER THE HEART!  For as it is the heart alone that can oppose his sovereignty, it is by the subjection of the heart that his sovereignty is most highly honored: “Give glory to the holiness of God, and he shall become your sanctification.” (Isa. viii. 13, Vulg.)    Compose catechisms expressly to teach prayer, not by reasoning nor by method, for the simple are incapable of that; but to teach the prayer of the heart, not of the understanding; the prayer of God’s Spirit, not of man’s invention.

7. Alas! by directing them to pray in elaborate forms, and to be curiously critical therein, you create their chief obstacles.  The children have been led astray from the best of fathers, by your endeavoring to teach them too refined a language.  Go, then, ye poor children, to your heavenly Father, speak to him in your natural language; rude and barbarous as it may be, it is not so to Him.   A father is better pleased with an address which love and respect have made confused, because he sees that it proceeds from the heart, than he is by a dry and barren harangue, though never so elaborate.  The simple and undisguised emotions of love are infinitely more expressive than all language, and all reasoning.

8. Men have desired to love LOVE by formal rules, and have thus lost much of that love.  O how unnecessary is it to teach an art of loving!  The language of love is barbarous to him that does not love, but perfectly natural to him that does; and there is no better way to learn how to love God, than to love him.  The most ignorant often become the most perfect, because they proceed with more cordiality and simplicity.  The Spirit of God needs none of our arrangements; when it pleases Him, He turns shepherds into Prophets, and, so far from excluding any from the temple of prayer, he throws wide the gates that all may enter; while wisdom is directed to cry aloud in the highways, “Whoso is simple let him turn in hither” (Prov. ix. 4); and to the fools she saith, “Come eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled.” (Prov. ix. 5.)  And doth not Jesus Christ himself thank his Father for having “hid these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them unto babes?” (Matt. xi. 25.)

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Madame Guyon – (Part 22)

January 25, 2008

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C H A P T E R   XXII.

ON  INWARD  AND  OUTWARD  ACTS.

ACTS are distinguished into external and internal. External acts are those which appear outwardly, and bear relation to some sensible object, and have no moral character, except such as they derive from the principle from which they proceed.  I intend here to speak only of internal acts, those energies of the soul, by which it turns internally towards some objects, and away from others.

2. If during my application to God, I should form a will to change the nature of my act, I should thereby withdraw myself from God and turn to created objects, and that in a greater or less degree according to the strength of the act: and if, when I am turned towards the creature, I would return to God, I must necessarily form an act for that purpose; and the more perfect this act is, the more complete is the conversion.

Till conversion is perfected, many reiterated acts are necessary; for it is with some progressive, though with others it is instantaneous.   My act, however, should consist in a continual turning to God, an exertion of every faculty and power of the soul purely for Him, agreeably to the instructions of the son of Sirach: “Re-unite all the motions of thy heart in the holiness of God” (Eccles. xxx. 24,); and to the example of David, “I will keep my whole strength for thee,” (Psalm lix. 9, Vulg.) which is done by earnestly re-entering into ourselves; as Isaiah saith, “Return to your heart” (Isa. xlvi. 8, Vulg.)  For we have strayed from our heart by sin, and it is our heart only that God requires: “My son give me thine heart, and let thine eye observe my ways.” (Prov. xxiii. 26.)  To give the heart to God, is to have the whole energy of the soul ever centering in Him, that we may be rendered conformable to his will.  We must, therefore, continue invariably turned to God, from our first application to Him.

But the spirit being unstable, and the soul accustomed to turn to external objects, it is easily distracted.  This evil, however, will be counteracted if, on perceiving the wandering, we, by a pure act of return to God, instantly replace ourselves in Him; and this act subsists as long as the conversion lasts, by the powerful influence of a simple and unfeigned return to God.

3. As many reiterated acts form a habit, the soul contracts the habit of conversion; and that act which was before interrupted and distinct becomes habitual.

The soul should not, then, be perplexed about forming an act which already subsists, and which, indeed, it cannot attempt to form without very great difficulty; it even finds that it is withdrawn from its proper state, under pretence of seeking that which is in reality acquired, seeing the habit is already formed, and it is confirmed in habitual conversion and habitual love.  It is seeking one act by the help of many, instead of continuing attached to God by one simple act alone.

We may remark, that at times we form with facility many distinct yet simple acts; which shows that we have wandered, and that we re-enter our heart after having strayed from it; yet when we have re-entered, we should remain there in peace.  We err, therefore, in supposing that we must not form acts; we form them continually: but let them be conformable to the degree of our spiritual advancement.

4. The great difficulty with most spiritual people arises from their not clearly comprehending this matter.  Now, some acts are transient and distinct, others are continued, and again, some are direct, and others reflective.  All cannot form the first, neither are all in a state suited to form the others.  The first are adapted to those who have strayed, and who require a distinct exertion, proportioned to the extent of their deviation; if the latter be inconsiderable, an act of the most simple kind is sufficient.

5. By the continued act, I mean that whereby the soul is altogether turned toward God by a direct act, always subsisting, and which it does not renew unless it has been interrupted.  The soul being thus turned, is in charity, and abides therein; “and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God.” (1John iv. 16.) The soul then, as it were, exists and rests in this habitual act.  It is, however, free from sloth; for there is still an uninterrupted act subsisting, which is a sweet sinking into the Deity, whose attraction becomes more and more powerful.  Following this potent attraction, and dwelling in love and charity, the soul sinks continually deeper into that Love, maintaining an activity infinitely more powerful, vigorous, and effectual than that which served to accomplish its first return.

6. Now the soul that is thus profoundly and vigorously active, being wholly given up to God, does not perceive this act, because it is direct and not reflective.  This is the reason why some, not expressing themselves properly, say, that they make no acts; but it is a mistake, for they were never more truly or nobly active; they should say, that they did not distinguish their acts, and not that they did not act.  I grant that they do not act of themselves; but they are drawn, and they follow the attraction.  Love is the weight which sinks them.  As one falling into the sea, would sink from one depth to another to all eternity, if the sea were infinite, so they, without perceiving their descent, drop with inconceivable swiftness into the lowest deeps.

It is, then, improper to say that we do not make acts; all form acts, but the manner of their formation is not alike in all.  The mistake arises from this, that all who know they should act, are desirous of acting distinguishably and perceptibly; but this cannot be: sensible acts are for beginners; there are others for those in a more advanced state.  To stop in the former, which are weak and of little profit, is to debar ourselves of the latter; as to attempt the latter without having passed through the former, is a no less considerable error.

7. “To everything there is a season” (Eccles. iii. 1): every state has its commencement, its progress, and its consummation, and it is an unhappy error to stop in the beginning.  There is no art but what has its progress; at first, we labor with toil, but at last we reap the fruit of our industry.

When the vessel is in port, the mariners are obliged to exert all their strength, that they may clear her thence, and put to sea; but they subsequently turn her with facility as they please.  In like manner, while the soul remains in sin and the creature, many endeavors are requisite to effect its freedom; the cables which hold it must be loosed, and then by strong and vigorous efforts it gathers itself inward, pushes off gradually from the old port of Self, and, leaving that behind, proceeds to the interior, the haven so much desired.

8. When the vessel is thus started, as she advances on the sea, she leaves the shore behind; and the farther she departs from the land, the less labor is requisite in moving her forward.  At length she begins to get gently under sail, and now proceeds so swiftly in her course, that the oars, which are become useless, are laid aside.  How is the pilot now employed? he is content with spreading the sails and holding the rudder.

To spread the sails, is to lay ourselves before God in the prayer of simple exposition, to be moved by his Spirit; to hold the rudder, is to restrain our heart from wandering from the true course, recalling it gently, and guiding it steadily by the dictates of the Spirit of God, which gradually gains possession of the heart, just as the breeze by degrees fills the sails and impels the vessel.   While the winds are fair, the pilot and the mariners rest from their labors.   What progress do they not now secure, without the least fatigue!  They make more way now in one hour, while they rest and leave the vessel to the wind, than they did in a length of time by all their former efforts; and even were they now to attempt using the oars, besides greatly fatiguing themselves, they would only retard the vessel by their useless exertions.

This is our proper course interiorly, and a short time will advance us by the divine impulsion farther than many reiterated acts of self-exertion.  Whoever will try this path, will find it the easiest in the world.

9. If the wind be contrary and blow a storm, we must cast anchor in the sea, to hold the vessel.  This anchor is simply trust in God and hope in his goodness, waiting patiently the calming of the tempest and the return of a favorable gale; thus did David: “I waited patiently for the Lord, and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry.” (Ps. xl. 1.)  We must therefore be resigned to the Spirit of God, giving ourselves up wholly to his divine guidance.

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Madame Guyon – (Part 21)

January 25, 2008

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C H A P T E R   XXI.

THE  SOUL  ACTIVE  WHEN  SELF  IS  STILL.

SOME persons, when they hear of the prayer of silence, falsely imagine that the soul remains stupid, dead, and inactive; but it unquestionably acts more nobly and more extensively than it had ever done before; for God himself is its mover, and it now acts by the agency of his Spirit. St. Paul would have us led by the Spirit of God. (Rom. viii. 14.)

It is not meant that we should cease from action; but that we should act through the internal agency of his grace.  This is finely represented by the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the wheels, which had a living Spirit; and whithersoever the Spirit was to go, they went; they ascended and descended as they were moved; for the Spirit of life was in them, and they returned not when they went.(Ezek. i. 18-21.) Thus the soul should be equally subservient to the will of that vivifying Spirit which is in it, and scrupulously faithful to follow only as that moves.   These motions never tend to return in reflections on the creatures or self; but go forward in an incessant approach toward the end.

2. This activity of the soul is attended with the utmost tranquility.  When it acts of itself, the act is forced and constrained, and, therefore, it is more easily distinguished; but when the action is under the influence of the Spirit of grace, it is so free, so easy, and so natural, that it almost seems as if we did not act at all. “He brought me forth also into a large place; He delivered me, because He delighted in me.” (Ps. xviii. 19.)

When the soul is in its central tendency, or in other words, is returned through recollection into itself, from that moment, the central attraction becomes a most potent activity, infinitely surpassing in energy every other species.  Nothing, indeed, can equal the swiftness of this tendency to the centre; and though an activity, yet it is so noble, so peaceful, so full of tranquility, so natural, and so spontaneous, that it appears to the soul as if it were none at all.

When a wheel rolls slowly we can easily perceive its parts; but when its motion is rapid, we can distinguish nothing.  So the soul which rests in God, has an activity exceedingly noble and elevated, yet altogether peaceful; and the more peaceful it is, the swifter is its course; because it is given up to that Spirit by whom it is moved and directed.

3. This attracting Spirit is no other than God himself, who, in drawing us, causes us to run to Him. How well did the spouse understand this, when she said, “Draw me, we will run after thee.” (Cant. i. 4.)  Draw me unto Thee, O my divine centre, by the secret springs of my existence, and all my powers and senses shall follow Thee!  This simple attraction is both an ointment to heal and a perfume to allure: we follow, saith she, the fragrance of thy perfumes; and though so powerful an attraction, it is followed by the soul freely, and without constraint; for it is equally delightful as forcible; and whilst it attracts by its power, it carries us away by its sweetness.  “Draw me,” says the spouse, “and we will run after thee.” She speaks of and to herself: “draw me,” — behold the unity of the centre which is drawn! “we will run,”— behold the correspondence and course of all the senses and powers in following the attraction of the centre!

4. Instead, then, of encouraging sloth, we promote the highest activity, by inculcating a total dependence on the Spirit of God, as our moving principle; for it is in Him, and by Him alone, that we live and move, and have our being. (Acts xvii. 28.)   This meek dependence on the Spirit of God is indispensably necessary, and causes the soul shortly to attain the unity and simplicity in which it was created.

We must, therefore, forsake our multifarious activity, to enter into the simplicity and unity of God, in whose image we were originally formed. (Gen. i. 27.) “The Spirit is one and manifold, (Wisdom vii. 22,) and his unity does not preclude his multiplicity.  We enter into his unity when we are united to his Spirit, and by that means have one and the same spirit with Him; and we are multiplied in respect to the outward execution of his will, without any departure from our state of union.

In this way, when we are wholly moved by the divine Spirit, which is infinitely active, our activity must, indeed, be more energetic than that which is merely our own.  We must yield ourselves to the guidance of “wisdom, which is more moving than any motion,” (Wisdom vii. 24,) and by abiding in dependence upon its action, our activity will be truly efficient.

5. “All things were made by the Word, and without Him was not anything made, that was made.” (John i. 3.)   God originally formed us in his own image and likeness; He breathed into us the Spirit of his Word, that breath of Life (Gen. ii. 7) which He gave us at our creation, in the participation whereof the image of God consisted.   Now, this LIFE is one, simple, pure, intimate, and always fruitful.

The devil having broken and deformed the divine image in the soul by sin, the agency of the same Word whose Spirit was inbreathed at our creation, is absolutely necessary for its renovation.  It was necessary that it should be He, because He is the express image of his Father; and no image can be repaired by its own efforts, but must remain passive for that purpose under the hand of the workman.

Our activity should, therefore, consist in placing ourselves in a state of susceptibility to divine impressions, and pliability to all the operations of the Eternal Word.  Whilst a tablet is unsteady, the painter is unable to produce a correct picture upon it, and every movement of self is productive of erroneous lineaments; it interrupts the work and defeats the design of this adorable Painter.  We must then remain in peace, and move only when He moves us. Jesus Christ hath life in himself, (John v. 26,) and He must give life to every living thing.

The spirit of the Church of God is the spirit of the divine movement. Is she idle, barren, or unfruitful?  No; she acts, but her activity is in dependence upon the Spirit of God, who moves and governs her.  Just so should it be in her members; that they may be spiritual children of the Church, they must be moved by the Spirit.

6. As all action is estimable only in proportion to the grandeur and dignity of the efficient principle, this action is incontestably more NOBLE than any other.  Actions produced by a divine principle, are divine; but creaturely actions, however good they appear, are only human, or at least virtuous, even when accompanied by grace.

Jesus Christ says that He has life in Himself: all other beings have only a borrowed life; but the Word has life in Himself; and being communicative of his nature, He desires to bestow it upon man.  We should therefore make room for the influx of this life, which can only be done by the ejection and loss of the Adamical life, and the suppression of the activity of self. This is agreeable to the assertion of St. Paul, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new,” (2Cor. v. 17;) but this state can be accomplished only by dying to ourselves, and to all our own activity, that the activity of God may be substituted in its place.

Instead, therefore, of prohibiting activity, we enjoin it; but in absolute dependence on the Spirit of God, that his activity may take the place of our own. This can only be effected by the consent of the creature; and this concurrence can only be yielded by moderating our own action, that the activity of God may, little by little, be wholly substituted for it.

7. Jesus Christ has exemplified this in the Gospel.   Martha did what was right; but because she did it in her own spirit, Christ rebuked her.  The spirit of man is restless and turbulent; for which reason he does little, though he seems to do a great deal. “Martha,” says Christ, “thou art careful and troubled about many things; but one thing is needful; and Mary hath chosen that good part which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke x. 41,42.) And what was it Mary had chosen? Repose, tranquility, and peace.  She had apparently ceased to act, that the Spirit of Christ might act in her; she had ceased to live, that Christ might be her life.

This shows how necessary it is to renounce ourselves, and all our activity, to follow Christ; for we cannot follow Him, if we are not animated by his Spirit.  Now that his Spirit may gain admittance, it is necessary that our own should be expelled: “He that is joined unto the Lord,” says St. Paul, “is one spirit.” (1Cor. vi. 17.)   And David said it was good for him to draw near unto the Lord, and to put his trust in him. (Psalm lxxiii. 28.)  What is this drawing near?  It is the beginning of union.

8. Divine union has its commencement, its progress, its achievement, and its consummation.  It is at first an inclination towards God.   When the soul is introverted in the manner before described, it gets within the influence of the central attraction, and acquires an eager desire after union;  this is the beginning.  It then adheres to Him when it has got nearer and nearer, and finally becomes one, that is, one spirit with Him; and then it is that the spirit which had wandered from God, returns again to its end.

9. Into this way, then, which is the divine motion, and the spirit of Jesus Christ, we must necessarily enter.  St. Paul says, “If any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of his” (Rom. viii. 9): therefore, to be Christ’s, we must be filled with his Spirit, and emptied of our own.  The Apostle, in the same passage, proves the necessity of this divine influence. “As many,” says he, “as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” (Rom. viii. 14.)

The spirit of divine filiation is, then, the spirit of divine motion: he therefore adds, “Ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the spirit of adoption whereby ye cry Abba, Father.” This spirit is no other than the spirit of Christ, through which we participate in his filiation; “The Spirit beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.”

When the soul yields itself to the influence of this blessed Spirit, it perceives the testimony of its divine filiation; and it feels also, with superadded joy, that it has received, not the spirit of bondage, but of liberty, even the liberty of the children of God; it then finds that it acts freely and sweetly, though with vigor and infallibility.

10. The spirit of divine action is so necessary in all things, that St. Paul, in the same passage, founds that necessity on our ignorance with respect to what we pray for: “The Spirit,” says he, “also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us, with groanings which cannot be uttered.”  This is plain enough; if we know not what we stand in need of, nor how to pray as we ought for those things which are necessary, and if the Spirit which is in us, and to which we resign ourselves, must ask for us, should we not permit Him to give vent to his unutterable groanings in our behalf?

This Spirit is the Spirit of the Word, which is always heard, as He says himself: “I knew that thou hearest me always;” (John xi. 42;) and if we freely admit this Spirit to pray and intercede for us, we also shall be always heard.  And why?  Let us learn from the same great Apostle, that skillful Mystic, and Master of the interior life, where he adds, “He that searcheth the heart, knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit; because he maketh intercession for the saints, according to the will of God” (Rom. viii. 27): that is to say, the Spirit demands only what is conformable to the will of God.  The will of God is that we should be saved, and that we should become perfect:  He, therefore, intercedes for all that is necessary for our perfection.

11. Why, then, should we be burthened with superfluous cares, and weary ourselves in the multiplicity of our ways, without ever saying, let us rest in peace.  God himself invites us to cast all our care upon Him; and He complains in Isaiah, with ineffable goodness, that the soul had expended its powers and its treasures on a thousand external objects, when there was so little to do to attain all it need desire. “Wherefore,” saith God, “do you spend money for that which is not bread; and your labor for that which satisfieth not?  Hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.” (Isa. lv. 2.)

Oh! did we but know the blessedness of thus hearkening to God, and how greatly the soul is strengthened by such a course!  “Be silent, O all flesh, before the Lord” (Zech. ii. 13); all must cease as soon as He appears.  But to engage us still farther to an abandonment without reservation, God assures us, by the same Prophet, that we need fear nothing, because he takes a very special care of us; “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb?  Yea, she may forget; yet will not I forget thee.” (Isa. xlix. 15.)  O words full of consolation!  Who after that will fear to abandon himself wholly to the guidance of God?

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Madame Guyon – (Part 20)

January 25, 2008

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C H A P T E R   XX.

PRAYER  DIVINELY  EXPLAINED.

BOTH devotion and sacrifice are comprehended in prayer, which, according to St. John is an incense, the smoke whereof ascendeth unto God; therefore it is said in the Apocalypse, that “unto the angel was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints.” (Rev. viii. 3.)

Prayer is the effusion of the heart in the presence of God: “I have poured out my soul before the Lord,” said the mother of Samuel. (1 Sam. i. 15.)  The prayer of the wise men at the feet of Christ in the stable of Bethlehem, was signified by the incense they offered.

2. Prayer is a certain warmth of love, melting, dissolving, and sublimating the soul, and causing it to ascend unto God, and, as the soul is melted, odors rise from it; and these sweet exhalations proceed from the consuming fire of love within.

This is illustrated in the Canticles, (i. 12,) where the spouse says, “While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof.” The table is the centre of the soul; and when God is there, and we know how to dwell near, and abide with Him, the sacred presence gradually dissolves the hardness of the soul, and, as it melts, fragrance issues forth; hence it is, that the Beloved says of his spouse, in seeing her soul melt when he spoke, “Who is this that cometh out of the wilderness, like pillars of smoke perfumed with myrrh and frankincense?” (Cant. v. 6; iii. 6.)

3. Thus does the soul ascend to God, by giving up self to the destroying and annihilating power of divine love.  This is a state of sacrifice essential to the Christian religion, in which the soul suffers itself to be destroyed and annihilated, that it may pay homage to the sovereignty of God; as it is written, “The power of the Lord is great, and he is honored only by the humble.” (Eccles. iii. 21.)  By the destruction of self, we acknowledge the supreme existence of God.  We must cease to exist in self, in order that the Spirit of the Eternal Word may exist in us: it is by the giving up of our own life, that we give place to his coming; and in dying to ourselves, He himself lives in us.

We must surrender our whole being to Christ Jesus, and cease to live any longer in ourselves, that He may become our life; “that being dead, our life may be hid with Christ in God.” (Col. iii. 3.) “Pass ye into me,” sayeth God, “all ye who earnestly seek after me.” (Eccles. xxiv. 16.)  But how is it we pass into God?  In no way but by leaving and forsaking ourselves, that we may be lost in Him; and this can be effected only by annihilation, which, being the true prayer of adoration, renders unto God alone, all “blessing, honor, glory, and power, forever and ever.” (Rev. v. 13.)

4. This prayer of truth; it is “worshipping God in spirit and in truth:” (John iv. 23.) “In spirit,” because we enter into the purity of that Spirit which prayeth within us, and are drawn forth from our own carnal and human method; “in truth,” because we are thereby placed in the truth of the all of God, and the nothing of the creature.

There are but these two truths, the ALL and the NOTHING; everything else is falsehood.  We can pay due honor to the ALL of God, only in our own ANNIHILATION; which is no sooner accomplished, than He, who never suffers a void in nature, instantly fills us with Himself.

Ah! did we but know the virtues and the blessings which the soul derives from this prayer, we should not be willing to do anything else;  It is the pearl of great price; the hidden treasure, (Matt. xiii. 44,45,) which, whoever findeth, selleth freely all that he hath to purchase it;   It is the well of living water, which springeth up unto everlasting life. It is the adoration of God “in spirit and in truth:” (John iv. 14-23:) and It is the full performance of the purest evangelical precepts.

5. Jesus Christ assures us, that the “kingdom of God is within us:” (Luke xvii. 21:) and this is true in two senses: first, when God becomes so fully Master and Lord in us, that nothing resists his dominion, then our interior is his kingdom; and again, when we possess God, who is the Supreme Good, we possess his kingdom also, wherein there is fulness of joy, and where we attain the end of our creation.  Thus it is said, “to serve God is to reign.” The end of our creation, indeed, is to enjoy God, even in this life; but, alas! who thinks of it?

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Madame Guyon – (Part 19)

January 25, 2008

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CH A P T E R   XIX.

ON  DISTRACTIONS  AND  TEMPTATIONS.

A DIRECT struggle with distractions and temptations rather serves to augment them, and withdraws the soul from that adherence to God, which should ever be its sole occupation.  We should simply turn away from the evil, and draw yet nearer to God.  A little child, on perceiving a monster, does not wait to fight with it, and will scarcely turn its eyes toward it, but quickly shrinks into the bosom of its mother, in assurance of its safety. “God is in the midst of her,” says the Psalmist, “she shall not be moved; God shall help her, and that right early.” (Psalm xlvi. 5.)

2. If we do otherwise, and in our weakness attempt to attack our enemies, we shall frequently find ourselves wounded, if not totally defeated: but, by remaining in the simple presence of God, we shall find instant supplies of strength for our support.  This was the resource of David: “I have set,” says he, “the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth; my flesh also shall rest in hope.” (Psalm xvi. 8,9.)  And it is said in Exodus, “The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.” (Exod. xiv.