to be read in conjunction with the previous post: Contemplative Living
Excerpt from Tokens of Trust – An Introduction to Christian Belief, by Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury)
For the Christian tradition, eternity is above all a joy in the sheer reality of God – not an absorption in some ‘final absolute’ but a living relation, more like personal relation than anything else, yet somehow different because set in the heart of the exchange of life and joy within the Trinity. Eternity requires contemplation; a word that can make Christians panic a little from time to time – yet all it means is bringing ourselves into the light, beginning the process of acclimatizing to love, actually.
It has been said that prayer is not primarily a matter of getting ourselves where we can see God so much as getting ourselves where God can see us – that is, getting ourselves into the light of his presence, putting aside our defenses and disguises, coming into silence and stillness so that what stands before God is not the performer, the mask, the habits of self-promotion and self-protection but the naked me. But that’s why the path of contemplation has always been seen as one of darkness as well as light. When we undertake to spend that sort of time in that sort of way before God, we undertake to let go of most of what usually makes us feel safe or good. The deepest challenge of the calling to contemplation, especially for those who make it a lifetimes work, is that it may never feel useful and readily justifiable. It’s taken on not for a simple set of results but for the sake of truth, for the sake of eternity.
Like heaven itself contemplation demands everything and gives everything; it is about stripping and it is about letting yourself more and more be clothed with Christ, taken into his prayer and love. As any contemplative will say, the church is going to wither and dry up unless there are some who take on this calling in a public and evident way; monks and nuns and hermits are not picturesque extras in the church but people who show something of its very heart and put into sharp perspective the fussiness of most of our plans and projects. The life given to this unsparing attention and focus on eternal joy is, paradoxically, one of the most utterly draining and demanding lives there could be; yet it shows what the truth is worth. It means letting go of the images we are used to, moving beyond ideas and pictures of God that belong in our comfort zone. It means letting go of the emotions that we’d like to have, letting go of what we think makes us happy – not to cultivate misery but to get used to the idea that real joy might be so strange and overwhelming that we’d fail to recognize it unless we had put some distance between us and our usual comforts and reassurances. At the prosaic and daily level, it can involve a great deal of sitting there facing frustration and self-doubt of the most acute sort: God calls me to delight and eternal fulfillment – so why exactly am I sitting here twiddling my thumbs, shifting from buttock to buttock, and wondering where, what and who God is?
Bit by bit, the props are being taken away. In the work of one of the very greatest masters of Christian contemplation, St John of the Cross in sixteenth-century Spain, the picture is of a journey into deeper and deeper darkness, a sense of being completely lost, imaginatively and emotionally. We face not only dryness and boredom but spells of desolation and fear that can be shocking in their intensity. As John says, we have to pass through midnight before it turns towards dawn. Only when the last traces of self-serving and self-comforting have been shaken and broken are we free to
receive what God wants to give. Only then shall we have made room for Gods reality by disentangling God from all – or at least some – of the mess within our psyches. Prayer is letting God be himself in and for us.
Not many are called to the lifetime’s work of the contemplative; but all believers are called to the same journey of letting God be himself for us. It’s really an outworking of the first and second of the Ten Commandments – there shall be no other gods before the true God and no images to be worshipped in place of God. All of us to some degree use God to fill the gaps in our needs and preferences – which means that all of us are guilty of making images and putting false gods in place of the true one. God is God; he is not obliged to conform to our expectations. And because the reality is so immeasurably greater than any mind or heart or imagination can take in, we must let go in order to make room.
Once again, the Christian conviction about God as Trinity helps us to live with some of the puzzles here. Our calling is to be taken up into the relation of the eternal Son to the Father; but the life of the Trinity is not a case of external relationships between individuals – so that relation of intimacy and exchange is not going to be like one between human persons. We ought not to be surprised or wrong footed if in our prayers we do not have the feeling that we are simply talking to another person just like us. If we are somehow included in Christ’s relation to God the father, it will not be as if we were relating to an individual on the other side of the room. Something is
going on that is deeper than that, but no less personal, no less a real relationship, but something that doesn’t depend entirely on how we feel and what we think: a pouring-in of God’s love that will steadily transform us from inside. We are growing into mature life – growing into a grateful and secure awareness of ourselves that is always reaching out in what may feel like a blind love and searching for an Other beyond words and ideas, receiving always the influx of gift that makes us what we are, yet normally unable to say quite how this works. Praying in Christ, in the way a writer like St John of the Cross sketches it, is being carried on an invisible current of love that is sometimes discernible to us, but often (painfully) not. We can only trust that growth is happening; we know that it is happening only as we test our slowly expanding capacity to face truth, to accept our failures, to go on questioning ourselves because we trust that God will not let go of us.
In other words, the path of contemplative prayer is a working out of the whole vision we have been thinking about, the process that the creeds try to codify – moving deeper into trust as we discover what it means to be the object of an eternally trustworthy love. It is the outworking of what Martin Luther and his followers called ‘justification by faith’ – the belief that it is trust that sets you right, not achievement, success, performance, but the confidence that something has been shown and shared with us in the history that the bible records which makes it possible for us to risk putting our hands into the hands of God. And when we pray, that is what we do; we put out our hands, as relaxed and open as we can make them, free, aware, without fantasies and projections, into a darkness that is Gods welcoming touch.
When we say ‘Our Father’, when we come to God with Jesus’ words on our lips and Jesus’ Spirit in the depths of our being, trying to purge ourselves of all the things that just make us feel better or safer, when we step further towards the truth – then we understand what I ‘believe’ means. Then, in what the seventeenth-century poet Henry Vaughan called the ‘dazzling darkness’ of God, we start to become human in the fullest possible way. The work of a lifetime, but at the same time a gift that we have not earned and never shall…