(These 'Ponderings' are available via YouTube: https://youtu.be/leecLTTnHu4)
‘I said to my soul, be still, and let the darkness come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.’ (East Coker, III)
In the first of these ‘Ponderings’ I quoted those lines by T. S. Eliot in connection with the way this pandemic is forcing many of us into a place of loss. That’s been made worse, for some clergy, by the absence of ‘real time’ pastoral contact compounded by that instruction from the hierarchy about not entering churches. This seminal crisis is causing some to experience an existential darkness seeping through their vocation; the very things priests were identified as possessing and ordained to express – an ability to care, an empathic nature, praying the Divine Office in church – all that and more, has been denied. And, despite valiant efforts to nurture their calling, some are feeling let down, lost and fearful.
In that first ‘Pondering’ I said that this period reminds me of the way Christ entered the darkness on Holy Saturday with the light of the Resurrection. I touched on this in my second book, ‘The Mystery of Faith’ when, in Chapter 6, I wrote about Christ’s descent into this darkness, a darkness he allowed to overwhelm him but which, in the end, didn’t overcome him;
‘There’s something of deep significance in Christ’s journey into the realm of Death, for the effect of his redemption works at both a conscious and unconscious level, affecting the whole cosmic order. Carl Jung said it also represents the ego’s deliberate descent into the unconscious where it emerges reborn.
This great event, celebrated in the – neglected – Liturgy of the Burial of Christ, is portrayed in orthodox icons by the image of his descent into that darkness. He breaks into the prison-house of death and drags Adam and Eve, our archetypal ancestors, from sleep into the light of his Divinity. This, arguably, is the great moment of salvation – his victory which redeems all humankind, even back to the beginning. And our ceaseless task is to open ourselves more and more deeply to Christ’s gracious, compassionate invitation to be set free.’ (p.61f)
As both theology and psychology agree in the importance of this event, it’s clearly of primary importance. God needs to descend into our depths and illuminate them with resurrection light, something the icon of the Anastasis reveals. It also reveals just how hard it was for our archetypal parents, Adam and Eve, to receive that light into which Christ had to drag them. It’s in that darkness we encounter our vulnerability, the place where we realise the need for humility, where we open ourselves to the reality of our human frailty. It’s a darkness which we proclaim Christ entered; he has broken open that place by the light of the resurrection, and where Christ has gone, we need to follow despite any fear we may have; for our gospel is that the darkness cannot overcome us. Isn’t that what we should be proclaiming and every parish celebrating?
This year the Paschal Triumph has an importance that we need to take to heart. We may not be able to be with people in their sickness, their suffering or their dying, but we can seek to be in that place of dazzling darkness. Christ invites priests, in particular, to be open to that for, as part of the Holy People of God, we need to lead where all must go. Isn’t our vocation to show the way, no matter how hard, how very hard, it can be? Whatever Christ meant when John records him as saying in the gospel for Good Shepherd Sunday: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”, it’s clear the life he offers comes as a consequence of passing through suffering and death. People won’t hear about that on the TV News – they’ll only hear it if we tell them what we’re discovering.
Death and life are, of course, the twin foundations of our faith – and the former isn’t pleasant! For a priest, at this time, it can be experienced in a variety of ways. Yet, through it all, there is one thing that matters, and that’s our faithfulness to our calling. Not to what we do, for we are denied much of that, but to the call of Christ ‘who was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses also was faithful’ (Heb.3.2). As I said in Enfolded, Christ didn’t save us by his ability but through his disability (p.109). Our faithfulness is, primarily, to the God who calls us and that must mean faithfulness to be open to that call – to prayer. About that, one enclosed sister wrote to me:
‘I think as a monastic I am aware how beneficial the rhythm and routine of the life we live is. ... Unfortunately, it is much easier to form a rhythm when things are normal, so that it is there to fall back on when they aren't’.
So, maybe this is the time to look at your Rule of Life and check what norm you have created in relation to praying, and not simply saying, the Divine Office each day. Occasions when we enter the wonder of Christ’s prayer to the Father through the Spirit not just twice, but maybe four or more times a day. But any prayer – especially meditation – can become boring, especially when it doesn't seem there's any consolation in it. But Christian meditation – or contemplation – isn’t passive ‘quietism’ but desiring to be where Christ is; and whether that’s in the joy of heaven or the darkness of hell, we’re called to be there. Whatever we experience (and it’s not the experience we’re to desire, but God) we’re called to be faithful to the way that leads to divine union. As sister pointed out:
“Learning to inhabit boredom when it is around is important; not easy, but we get into patterns of distracting ourselves when things are not very exciting. If we can sit with boredom and restlessness when they are there and realise that they are normal – we don't need to feel a failure or guilty, just sit with the discomfort. We are being pushed to realise that our value is in being and not doing – doing flows from being – and it is uncomfortable for people. On the whole we take our identity and value from what we can do, and for lots of people having the usual opportunities for doing taken away is very uncomfortable! We don't really know how to be alone and unoccupied. We will face an apparent void we think, nothing there, if we are not 'doing'.”
That clearly speaks of the way our life is united with Christ’s oblation ‘of himself once offered’ – and an oblation isn’t a pleasant thing! It’s bloody and involves the apparent loss of everything that makes life meaningful but, as I said in Enfolded, ‘We follow one who was a failure in the sight of most of his contemporaries, yet who could never have been a failure in the sight of his Father. Jesus wasn't formed for success but for faithfulness’ (p.57). It’s the way of the saints: of Theresa of Lisieux who wrote in ‘Autobiography of a Soul’:
‘He allowed my own soul to be plunged into the thickest gloom. The thought of heaven which had been so sweet from my earliest years became for me a subject of torture. The trial did not merely last for days or weeks. As I write, it has gone on for months and still I am waiting for relief. I wish I could explain what I feel, but it is beyond my power. One must have passed through the tunnel to understand how black its darkness is.’
She had wanted to be a priest and now God allowed her a share in Christ’s passion whereby she had to live by faith – and love – alone. It’s the way of St John of the Cross who, thrown into a dungeon by his Carmelite confreres because they didn’t approve his reforms, produced from that place of deprivation some of the greatest poetry ever written. Who said:
“Never give up prayer, and should you find dryness and difficulty, persevere in it for this very reason. God often desires to see what love your soul has, and love is not tried by ease and satisfaction.” – St. John of the Cross, Special Counsels: Degrees of Perfection #9
Perhaps this pandemic is forcing us to face what lies beneath the surface of our lives, inviting us to consider where we look for our primal meaning. Without so many of the norms of ministry we might experience a sense of being overwhelmed by darkness. One of the reasons why it’s important to continue to offer Christ’s oblation is that it’s concerned with overcoming the darkness of death – it unlocks the gates of Hades and, with great tenderness, sets prisoners free. Unfortunately – and misleadingly – some say of that day that it’s when Christ ‘rested’, a day of “dead silence” (Pastoral Letter, Archbishops of Canterbury and York, 2018) when nothing happened. But, lying at the heart of the Paschal Mystery, it’s the greatest day of salvation, the day when what is most important occurs.
Feelings of loss and confusion can drive us away from our calling, yet it’s precisely at this moment we need to be present to prayer. Present to the Spirit moving within us as we open our heart – with all its messy emotions – to God whose ongoing work of salvation will be occurring at the deepest levels. Prayer which isn’t just the words we utter but what happens in a heart inclined to God; which goes on gently even when we’re unconscious of it. We have to set up the rhythm – like the rhythm of breathing – because prayer is the heartbeat of life.
It may be that this pandemic is forcing us into places we would never enter by our own efforts. Now, like the contemplative, God invites us to enter the worlds lostness with the flickering light of Christ. Not our flame but his, carried in our heart. We may fail at times, fall flat on our faces or even run from this calling, but it’s fundamental to the nature of priesthood. All we need to do is be there, in the darkness and despair with the light of Christ’s love. He does the work.
April 30th 2020