As no more than ‘one beggar telling another where to find bread’, I have sought to account for some of the spiritual riches I have received as a member of a mainstream Christian community with ancient roots. It reflects the variety of my experience of life, work, and the upheavals of the world as the third millennium gets under way. Living, if only indirectly with the harrowing facts of war and global injustice has taught me that a personal faith and a lively relationship with God are indispensable to stop me being overwhelmed by despair and helplessness. In an era when our sense of identity is challenged more profoundly than ever by factors beyond our control or understanding, faith in God is the key to triumphing over betrayal and assaults on our humanity.
To some, looking for a contemporary expression of religious belief, prayer and the language of personal devotion may seem quaint, un-modern, irrelevant. Yet, it can nourish and strengthen our full engagement with life, at its best and its worst. There is a great deal of popular literature around today, showing us how to take charge of our lives, manage our problems and realise our ambitions. This has not turned out to be one of those self-help books! Christian teaching is relevant to everything life presents, success or failure. It concerns not just myself, but also God and others. Who I am, who we are, depends entirely on who God is, and how God relates to us. I believe this remains the chief concern in finding meaning in life and making the most of this brief existence.
Jesus speaks of the reign of God as a hidden treasure. Sometimes we must search hard to make right connections between what we believe and what happens to us in life. Living by faith does not make us immune to error, failure or defeat. No-one is perfect. Many are damaged by what life has done to them. But, the more we experience love in bad and good times alike, the more we discover that our Creator wants us all to be made whole, to be freed from fear and lostness, purified of guilt and shame. Human frailty drives many to try and pray when they are afraid or in trouble, which is just as well. However awkward it may be to take this step, God's compassion and love reveals its true power when his children are faced with suffering and evil.
Is prayer as hard as it is made out to be? In any relationship, we explore by trial and error what makes for good communication. We ask questions, we respond, we find ways to strengthen the bond. Prayer is like this too. If we adopt 'religious' good manners, or cling to expected formulae we end up not being our true selves, we just put on a performance. Things stay on a superficial level with God as they often do with other people. This is not a recipe for healthy spiritual growth, nor a basis for right action in the spirit of Christ. The old advice ‘Pray as you can and not as you can't’, encourages us to seek the most natural way to relate to God. It needn't be in noble words. Just to kneel or sit in a composed way looking at an icon, a cross or a lighted candle, not worrying about right words, is enough to get started.
Our desire, and the act of waiting in trust makes a meeting with God possible. Sometimes all we have is longing. Admitting to God that you are lost and want to be found, being honest about your failure to live in love and truth, asking for help will find expression in words as the Spirit moves. The words of nineteenth century Russian Bishop Philaret put this succinctly: "Teach me to pray, pray thou thyself in me." If for any reason you get confused, shaken or lost on your journey, you can always return here.
I’m not alone in thinking that Christian ministry today is very exacting. Traditional expressions of authority are questioned and distrusted, making churches difficult to lead and unite. The burden of conflicting demands and criticism puts the person in the middle under unprecedented pressure. Like other pastors I know, fatigue and emotional pain have overwhelmed me on times, my trust has been betrayed, my confidence knocked, my response to difficult situations has been inadequate. The cost of high ideals is living with the risk of insecurity, failure and disillusionment.
When terrible stories of war confounded me, nothing I could do seemed to make any difference. I couldn’t grasp how God could tolerate such an assault on his image in us. I railed against Him for allowing it to happen. As the world seemed to be falling apart, it seemed I was falling apart too. Trying to pray felt like the most useless thing in the world to do, and the least satisfying. Carrying on doing my duty was a struggle. I no longer knew where I was heading, or what I should do. I clung to the commitments I had made. There were times when I could not honestly face expressing what I felt to anyone, and this made me feel very lonely. The hunger for love and longing for comfort and peace remained, recalled painfully by a smile, a timely word, a look, a touch. However, nothing seemed adequate to my need. God seemed to be out of reach wherever I sought him.
There seemed no limit to the amount of attention from others I could absorb. I was aware I was straining their good will. When I realised I was having a negative effect on people, I was driven back into myself, just when I most needed to break out of self-enclosure, to voice my emptiness and dread. Everyday relationships were a trial. My distress seemed to echo the bewildering cruelties of the world. I tried to lose myself and cope with inner pain by absorption in 'normal' things; working harder and playing harder. It did not drive the darkness away. I realised that for some people, a heart attack or a breakdown ironically provides a needed respite. Having a robust constitution meant that I had to struggle on in quiet despair until I muddled my way back to the light.
The greatest blessing was people who could listen with objectivity and warmth, and be trusted to share the inner pain and darkness. Finding help was something I resisted at first as I denied the problem out of shame. I realised eventually that I had hidden things from myself and others. I forgot that nothing can be hidden from God. Anger, fear and distrust of God, bewilderment in the face of life's insoluble problems are not too much for him to cope with. All is accepted. Recognising this was a step forward. Until I arrived here, each day was just a matter of survival.
Being held together in hard times by priestly duty may not sound exciting or commendable, but it has long precedent. Recitation of the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer is a valuable traditional clergy obligation. The Psalms used in the offices have been called the prayer book of Jesus, since he grew up knowing and using them. They embrace the whole spectrum of human emotion and thought. They bring all of life to God in prayer, no holds barred. Their gift might be a telling phrase of trust looking beyond a painful moment to God. The text of a Psalm can shock with vitality, reading like the script of something happening now, or a running commentary on it. They are a lifeline in hard times. I shall always be thankful for knowing them and recommend regular Psalm reading to everyone.
I owe a great deal to several monastic communities in whose lives I shared as a guest. Their hospitality and the nurturing discipline of their worship was an inspiration. They taught me what it means simply to be in God's presence, in times of prayer and in the affairs of daily life together. For over twenty years I have been treated like a member of the family by a small community of contemplative sisters of the Society of the Sacred Cross, who live at Ty Mawr Convent in the exquisite countryside of East Gwent. Often, I have been carried along by their prayer when my own has been lacking. They are in the front line of apostolic ministry without needing to do more than be there praying, ready to listen to others. There could be few greater contrasts between their lifestyle and mine, yet our shared foundations run deep.
The writer Elie Wesel, a Jewish holocaust survivor, tells the story of a court of Rabbis who tried God for crimes against humanity. They found Him guilty and sentenced Him to death for genocide. After the sentence was pronounced, there was a deep silence, broken only when someone said "Let us pray". Faced with divine omnipotence, and a world which did not make sense from any moral and spiritual angle, their prayer would not have given them comfort, but it was the only thing they could do. If they could not pray, even to a God that seemed to have let them down, who did not answer their prayers, they would no longer be truly human, no longer fully themselves. St Augustine said: "Thou O Lord hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee." The struggle to be whole, to be truly human, centres around learning to let God fill the void with his infinite love, and learning simply to be in His presence.
"Let us pray" is a right response, and is a healing response, provided we do not think that prayer is a matter of living up to assumptions and expectations we have acquired. The world around us is full of false ideas about God and prayer. Things don’t always turn out the way we think they should when we pray. God’s perspective on life is not ours. As the Dali Lama once said, with characteristic humour: “Sometimes not getting the answer to prayer you want is the best stroke of luck you have.”
Prayer involves our persistence in search for truth and wisdom in God’s presence. When we pray we need to be sure the God we open our hearts to is not some facet of our selves which we have erected as an idol. Biblical teaching, especially the story of Jesus, contains much needed correctives to false images of God and false ambitions in our relationship with God. Right belief about God is essential to prayer and health. Saying: "We believe in one God", can be a surprising encouragement. Once baptized, this confession is part of who I am, who we are. When I am least sure of myself, the faith of others carries me.
When I doubted and questioned everything I believed, I had no escape from leading worship, preaching and teaching. Wesley's edict to his doubting self was: "To get faith, you must preach faith." This urged me on. Sometimes, being 'a man for others' is the last thing you feel you want to be. The same is true for those who are parents or carers. The faith and love of the community, of the family hold up the one in the middle. Above all, the patience and compassion, the trust, honesty, and devotion of my wife and children held me up, even when they didn't understand what I was going through. Their love, and the warmth and laughter of our family gatherings was the most tangible extended hand of God's mercy to my troubled soul.
During this turbulent time, I led a regular Bible study, working through the text of Luke's and then John's Gospel. Returning to the source of inspiration, I learned much that was new and recovered things half forgotten. Studying Scripture became another anchor, teaching faith in order to claim faith. That same dynamic had been present when I argued with atheists in my student days. It was there later on as I sought common ground for dialogue with Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, even Marxist associates in search of racial justice in the inner city. I recall discovering more about my native Anglicanism from discussions with an Orthodox priest than from all college lectures. The more you explain your convictions, the more you learn what you really believe.
I felt such a hypocrite continuing to struggle on in a poor spiritual state, aware of doing badly, of caring and finding caring too painful. But living face to face with the void and the war raging within, there was no other way to cause less pain and confusion. I went on, believing that God was purposefully teaching me something I needed which might help others too. Like a compass which has been knocked, then returns to magnetic north, all I could do was let myself be drawn back to the One I could not see or feel, who was still somewhere there in my darkness.
The Jesus Prayer of Eastern Orthodox Christians was my compass needle. I learned to pray this as a young man, after reading a Russian devotional book: 'The way of a pilgrim', and hearing Metropolitan Anthony Bloom speak about it. The words repeated many times over: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.", are said regardless of how you feel, in tune with the rhythm of breathing. I went back to praying it in rest, in activity: driving, shopping, walking, in the bathroom, preparing for services, in counselling and being counselled. It summarises the good news of God’s mercy and grace in a sentence. It places our trust where it most needs to remain.
I prayed the Jesus prayer at my weakest, and when I grew stronger. Sometimes it seemed to pray itself in a corner of my sub-conscious. I wish it would more often. "Repent to your very last breath", exhorted St Isaac of Nineveh, an ancient teacher of spiritual struggle. He was right, but it is not always easy to do. God accepts and restores us whenever we return to him, no matter how great our failure or rebellion against him, but when I take prayer seriously, things in deep dark corners of my life are uncovered that need to be owned, worked on and submitted to Christ for healing. When I did this trustfully, honestly, my feelings of rage and bewilderment about the state of the world slowly subsided, and changed into compassion and a desire to understand and act with greater consideration, in tune with God's way of making all things new. Early in my ministry, St Paul's words summed up my sense of calling in life.
"If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God." (2 Corinthians 5:11-15)
When war raged in Bosnia, I was struck by the impossibility of this commission. As I came to terms with myself, the challenge remained, but I began to see everything in a new light.
Wars in the world reflect the wars between parts of ourselves that contradict and threaten each other and contend for survival. Only in deeper relationship to God are these parts brought into harmony. He who knows us, knows how we are meant to fit together. If we could truly glimpse things from God’s perspective – and I believe that prayer in a way strives to introduce us to this – I believe we would see and accept the place God provides for everything and everyone. We would realise that in order to be complete, secure in who we are, we all need each other, even those we may despise and be frightened of. Our final fulfilment depends on mutual interdependence, on God who is beyond us all, yet also in each other, here and now.
Reconciliation does not happen by magic, nor simply because we want it to happen. In November 1997, I spent a few days in Sarajevo, seeing something of the situation that had evoked such despair in me. I saw the wounds of war and sensed the shade of lingering hatred and rivalry, but there was so much more besides. I met local and international workers afire with conviction and hope, disciplined to work at re-building not just properties, but communities. They worked at conflict resolution, enabling disempowered people to assume full responsibility for their lives for the first time after communism. They were willing to work long slow and hard to help others live with their differences. I met ambassadors for Christ of all faiths, and of none. There was light that darkness could not overcome. It’s everywhere if you have eyes to see.
At the end of the millennium year, I spent two months on sabbatical leave in an East Jerusalem eerily deserted of pilgrims. I shared the life of St George’s Anglican Cathedral, with its Palestinian Arab and international congregations. I worked as an office volunteer for the ‘Sabeel’ Ecumenical Liberation Theology centre, as the new intifada and the reaction to it claimed more lives each day. Just to be there, alongside local people in their grief, outrage and powerlessness, to listen and pray, was a sacred privilege, and I was better able to cope with the my sense of outrage this time around.
‘Sabeel’ is committed to endure and struggle for freedom non-violently, and calls incessantly for justice and reconciliation as the only way to ‘shalom/salaam’ for all. To see members of Christ’s Body undergoing such tribulation, yet fully alive and human, sustained by mercy and love, reinforced my realisation that our true individuality is found only in community forged and refined by suffering in love and truth, embracing painful differences, but never causing suffering to others.
There will always be hidden stumbling blocks and setbacks to the realisation of 'shalom/salaam'. The mystery of how ill-will effects its destructive work is complex. But so is the ultimate triumph of good-will in Christ. It is a creative process, painful and slow, if all wounds are to be healed and evil overcome with good. All can participate, by seeking to work at whatever reflects the values of God's kingdom in our daily life and work, our choice of profession, our moral commitments, our use of creativity and leisure.
Prayer helps us discern God's action in our world, and our part in it. How easy it is to substitute 'my will be done' for 'thy will be done', to mistake our intentions for God's, then despair when nothing happens! When we do this, we give out stones instead of bread.
When I was losing my way and stumbling, Christ was there for me as he always had been. I did not realise where he was in the world, or in my life. He spoke to me through the love and concern of others, through the scriptures and through deep silence, gentle and persistent in asking: "Do you love me?" awaiting the reply: "Yes Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you." "Then feed my sheep." (John 21:17). How often, words of scripture like this have resonated with personal meaning. This is God’s way of re-calling us from isolation into communion, and sowing in us the seeds of renewed confidence.
Now I understand the inner void as the pain of a longing ignored at our cost. It is the longing for God voiced by John the Elder: "Maranatha! Lord come quickly."(Rev 22:20) The more we seek the One who comes, the more we can be vigilant against the forces of ill-will that wreak havoc in the most unlikely places, and the more we can bring the love of God to bear instead.
I am learning to recognise my limits, and not to forget that God is always in charge. I am but a small part of his pattern and there is joy and relief in accepting that. More important than stale ideals or worn out self-expectations is knowing Christ, letting him be my inner guide and inspiration. He is the best and lasting antidote to all our ills. Called to share his good news of reconciliation, only St Paul's words will do: "Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel!"