Uncovering the Layers


The trouble is that all false assumptions, all unexamined, inherited ways of thinking are broken down by prayer. It can take years to make any progress, and that we are making any progress at all can remain extremely doubtful. We discover that the praying personality has layers; that prayer is a process, a journey with a particular shape: from life through death to a life we cannot imagine. We discover our failure to trust the process: our discomfort with silence, stillness and space; our reluctance to engage with suffering, impoverishment, failure, confusion, helplessness, unknowing, mystery. We learn how quickly we look away, how swiftly we fill the void with words, and how, when we run out of them, we turn our attention to something else.

Many more are attracted to the idea of prayer than to the reality of it, I think. And while they may feel drawn to the thought of depth – whether in discipleship, prayer or trust – the experience of depth is profoundly threatening. This results not in overt hostility as much as a persistent non-comprehension, a stifling silence, a level of feedback so minimal that it feels like no feedback at all; the sense that in speaking of prayer beyond a certain point or in describing how I am applying it, I am not only taking my audience out of their comfort zone but speaking a language that they have no desire to comprehend.

Prayer may be simple, but we know we are complicated, multi-faceted creatures and that therefore working down through the layers, to the point where we stand unprotected before God, is going to be very difficult indeed. Julian of Norwich saw the drama of redemption as “A game, a scorning, and an earnestness. A game [by which I believe she meant a serious contest, like jousting], in which the Fiend has been overcome: a scorning, because God scorns him, so he shall be scorned indeed; and an earnestness, because he has been overpowered by the blessed passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was done in real earnest and with real hard work”[1].

[1]Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich, Penguin Books, 1966. Chapter 13. Page 84.

There is no doubt that the journal will help me identify the threads in my hand, particularly those that are running through the foundation, the “base levels” of my mind. The question is whether being conscious of them - bringing them out into the light and studying them makes them less important or significant than they might otherwise be - less of discovery and more of fabrication. It is also whether being aware of them, I then push them further and/or faster than it is right that they go.

On the other hand, Scott Peck talks of the unconscious being ahead of the conscious and my self-observations would certainly support that. Yes, it takes time to process the emotional fall-out of events, so there is a tendency to be behind the game in that respect, to be still dealing with something that happened a week ago. But when I begin to glimpse, let alone understand, something happening at a deep level, it is always because it is already going on. My unconscious mind is already dealing with it, that is why it is there to be noticed.

We process things at different rates on all these different levels. And part of the work of prayer is bringing all this into coherence. Indeed, that is the major work of prayer. Bringing it all into coherence and keeping it positive - choosing life - and keeping it on course. Aligning ourselves Godward and focusing our energies so that we fix something, achieve something, produce something, act. In the here and now. In a specific, material, real, beneficial way. And pointing ourselves to the right place in our context. And making a difference there.

In your letter to me, back in October, you wrote about the exhaustion and “bodily depression”. I identified very strongly with that. In fact, one reason why I have found it hard to get down to writing to you has been my personal reluctance to revisit that experience. I apologise for being such a coward, but, as so often in these situations, it took me a long time to work out why it was that, for all my good intentions about writing to you, I kept delaying doing so.

I felt your description of “slowly being stripped of layers of myself until I am ‘laid bare’” is a very good image of what is happening in a situation like yours. As you have recognised, this is not just a physical illness but also a spiritual turning point. You are not assuming that you will get through this and then return to “normal life” as you have lived it in recent years. Rather, this illness has given you the opportunity to recognise an unease which has been present for a long time. A sense of being de-centred or dis-located. That you are not living from the centre of yourself. Not being nourished by the spring that feeds you. Not living as the protagonist or “lead actor” of your own story.


what I am trying to convey is rather like the difference between the good, the better and the best. Your own unease, your sense of having “lost” your true self, and your uncertainty about whether or not you belong in circuit, or perhaps more accurately, how you relate to the congregational life of the Church – all these things point to the possibility that you are operating within the good, but want the better because you long for the best.

It may be that your spiritual senses are telling you that, to be faithful to your calling, you need to venture further out and further in. The spring within you is a broad stream, but you need it to be a great river. You need to feel a larger connection to the eternal ocean. And it may be that you sense this because, being highly attuned to the spiritual dynamics, you know that to survive and flourish in the Church and world as they are at present, only the ocean is enough. The “streams of living waters” which have fed us until now are no longer enough. We all need to find that ocean within ourselves.


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