The Way of Descent (1)

The Way of Descent - We expected the path to take us towards the summit of the mountain, but to our surprise it takes us down. A steep flight of steps, cut in the rock, leads down the side of a cliff into a chasm filled with the noise and spume of an awesome stream. Alongside this boisterous rush, half-hidden by spray and slick with damp, the path goes on. We follow it.

The walls of the crevasse grow higher and steeper, with shoulders of rock which overhang the way, almost shutting out the light. The path is picked out amongst the boulders at the water's edge: we must scramble and climb, and can often see no more than a few feet ahead. For a long time we go on. After a while, we wonder if we have taken a wrong turning, back there, before we began the descent. As yet more time passes, we become ever more afraid. It is as though we are heading towards the bowels of the mountain, the very opposite to the place where we want to be.

And then, the path ends, suddenly. There is a wall of rock across our sight, too sheer to climb. The stream gushes out of a cave at the foot of this cliff, a rough arch, low and almost filled by the surging water. We cannot see very far inside.

The river has carved out a circular basin in its bed at the foot of the cliff, and in this pool the water churns in strong, foaming currents. In this place of damp-dark rock and unyielding stone, the water is grey-white, grey-green, grey-brown. It is meltwater from the snows on the mountain, almost ice-cold. The mist rising from the stream stings the eyes, chills the face.

And then we notice, at the very end of the path, up against the cliff, there are steps down into the pool.      

If we are serious in our desire for God, for a life of prayer, then God will take us seriously, and answer our desire by taking us deeper into the life of the divine. But the manner of this is unexpected, for God's desire for us is larger, broader, more profound, than we can imagine for ourselves, and God's priorities are very different to the goals that we might set for ourselves, or the dreams that we might have of acceptance, prosperity, achievement.

Yet the whole purpose of the spiritual life, the whole content of our "yes" to God's way, is to learn how it is possible to surrender our own ideas, longings, ambitions and visions, so that we are ready to pay attention to God's desire. God's desire for us is infinitely generous. It is abundant life, a feast of good things, a free bounty of riches which is all the more wonderful because it is a plenty we can enjoy without injustice towards anyone else. This life is near at hand and immediately available, the moment we turn to seek the Giver. But the "catch", we might feel, is that God's thoughts are not like our thoughts, God's ways are not our ways.[1] God works for our joy - a joy which is all the more glorious because it brings us into communion with others, rather than dividing us from them - but the way in which God works is as mysterious as it is inexorable, so that some of the time (even, we might feel, most of the time), we cannot see that we are making any progress at all towards our goal.

God who is the source of our life wants to see that divine life reflected in us. The loving heart of God longs to see that love shining in us, as it shone in the first man and woman at the moment of their creation in the image and likeness of God. In the first story of creation[2], when man and woman stand before God in the bright morning of the world, the depths of God spoke to these new creatures in the depths of their wondering souls. The God who formed them spoke to God within them. For, in the act of creation, a significant part of the God-self was put into humanity, so that when God looked upon them with love, and saw love returned, there was a moment of divine self-recognition. However, it is consistent with God's essential humility that, when human beings chose to ignore the divine spirit within them, and to act contrary to that spirit's subtle promptings, God did not impose the divine sovereignty by force, but opted for the longer, hidden, costly road to redemption. It is the tragedy of humanity that other longings, other gods, were allowed, and even encouraged, to displace this humble spirit.

The purpose of the spiritual life, of our journey of faith, and of all that we desire in and through prayer, is to return to that relaxed, joyous, attentive acceptance wherein, as Henri Nouwen puts it, "God speaks to God, Spirit speaks to Spirit, heart speaks to heart"[3]. In all prayer, whatever else is going on, the depths of God's loving heart are speaking to the depths of our need; or, to put it the other way around, the depths of our hearts cry out to the depths of God. This profound attentiveness of spirit, between God and ourselves, is the purpose, aim and content of all prayer. If we are serious in our desire to pray, then this is what God will do in us and through us.

At this point we no longer "say prayers", or even "offer prayers", whether in words, action or silence. We become prayer. Prayer is the direction of our life, the attitude of our heart, the practice of our mind, the compulsion of our soul. "The purpose of living is not to learn to make prayer but to become prayer; to live in and for God according to the divine call, wholly surrendered to the Spirit's activity in the soul for the glory of God." [4] This is what we want, what we long for, as the traveller longs for the summit of the mountain. And this is what God yearns to give us.

So if God recognises in us the desire to pray, we will be formed in prayer. But this forming will take us by a road which we do not expect, indeed, may find strange, fearful or even offensive. Instead of finding that prayer becomes easier, we find that it becomes harder, forcing us to listen and search and question how it is possible at all.

What appears, from a distance, to be a peak of glory, vanishes from our sight as we apply ourselves to the daily task of staying on the road. For though we have been promised that the path will reveal to us more and more of the wondrous power of God, the landscape through which we travel is shaped by God's humility.  

[1] Isaiah 55.8-9

[2] Genesis 1.1-2.4a

[3] Quoted from "Clowning in Rome" by Henri J. M. Nouwen in "The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life," an anthology of Nouwen's writings compiled and edited by Wendy Wilson Greer, Darton, Longman & Todd, 2000.

[4] Father Gilbert Shaw, quoted in a booklet of extracts from his teaching, published by SLG Press, The Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres, Oxford, 1973.

Prayer is the Descent into Our Inner Self

the work of the inner room - the inner room as the image of the inner self (Matthew 6)

becoming aware of how each layer of our praying personality operates

and how distortion can corrupt its working

cleansing that layer, disciplining it, purifying it, enabling it to operate most effectively in prayer.

hard work, but energises us for engagement with the Other


The overall shape of the journey is a spiral descent. Or a descent into unseen depths. This is a process the meaning of which is not revealed to us at the beginning; a process of discovering where we have come from, and where we are going; of realising that we have been cleansed by accepting the Word and allowing the Word to work in us (John 15.3), but that we are not yet fully clean. There is more to be done to purge us, heal us, form us, renew us. We are a work in progress, and this purification happens as we re-enter, daily, through prayer, engagement and reflection, the pool of our baptism. This is also the pool of our healing, into which we are received to be cleansed, purified, renewed.

On this way of descent, we may be less aware than before of inspiration, revelation, growth. We are being deepened, reduced, hollowed out, scoured clean. We are learning the meaning of allegiance, faithfulness, discipline. We are learning how to live on sparer rations, how to stand without props, how to walk without light, how to follow the Way of Jesus through death and resurrection. This is an inward work, undertaken in the hidden life. Though Christ has called us friends, not servants, he is himself a servant, and so we are learning how to follow him in his manner of servanthood.

Our descent into prayer is made possible by Christ's identification with us, in the Incarnation, and his Passion in our midst and for our sake, which culminated in his death on the Cross. God entering into our experience, and God taking our pain, sin and suffering into the divine self, is the source of all the redeeming, atoning and healing grace of Christ's Passion. This is how the Passion can be effective at depth in the history of humanity, and in the profound mess of our own lives.

We should not see the Cross as an event in isolation from the rest of Jesus' life and ministry, though it is inevitable that it symbolises all the dying of Christ. Christ's Passion was a process, a dynamic, a journey. It had many stages, phases and facets. This is why the Gospels place the Cross within a Passion Narrative. It is the story as a whole, and not just the Cross itself, which is the source of God's redemptive activity in our midst.

God's love for us is a grace which embraces us whole, hence the need to examine, explore and offer each aspect of our existence, each step of our own journey. This is much broader than our conventional understanding of confession. Rather it is an acknowledgement, at depth, of our personal complexity, our network of relationships, our communal ties, and the whole human condition, in all its glory and shame.

We make this journey into self-offering not, primarily, for our own sake (though it is of huge benefit to us), but so that we can be channels of God's grace through intercession and pastoral care. This requires of us a deepening humility in the way we firstly understand, and secondly, accept, ourselves and others. For only as we remove the plank from our own eye can we see clearly the speck of sawdust in the eye of a neighbour. Matthew 7.1-5.

As we go on, we may feel that we want to turn back, that the way is too hard, too demanding, too bewildering, too frightening. We do not like what we are discovering about ourselves, or about others. We do not want to hear or see any more. We prefer to retain our illusions, because they comfort and console us. If this is how we feel, then it is important to remember that this hard journey is God's loving purpose for us, not only in its ultimate aim, but also in the way in which we proceed.

So, providing that we keep on the move, we are allowed to go on at our own pace, at whatever is the right pace for you. Issues come to the surface so that they can be healed. The Holy Spirit will bring things to the forefront of our minds so that we can pay attention to them, but we are not expected to deal with everything all at once. God is a wise and patient teacher, well aware that if we have too many concerns to address at the same time, we will become discouraged and avoid addressing any of them. This is a loving, creative, thorough but also kindly process.

It is not our offering that matters, but God's bracing baptism, which absorbs all that we are, and returns us to ourselves cleansed, purified, renewed. Nevertheless, this baptism is not always attractive, and is often hard, because it is a way through honesty, humility, diminishment, brokenness, death. The baptism of the Spirit cannot be experienced without also receiving the baptism of fire.

If this way does not offer us more power, then why follow it? Only because we love Christ and want to be drawn to where Christ is, what he is doing, what he offers us, what he is giving to all the world. Only because we want to be like Christ.  

This is an experience of death and resurrection, through which we identify with Christ's death. Whole nature of Christ was humility, an honest engagement with all that it means to be human. One long trajectory downwards. An internal journey as well as an outward ministry. Emptied himself of all but love. (Charles Wesley) Philippians 2. Passion of powerlessness, when he was handed over into others' hands. Death meant also a descent into hell.

Knew where he had come from, and where he was going. Much inbetween was hidden from him, but trusted in God's loving purposes. Constant engagement with human emotions, needs, anxieties, suffering, fear. Knew what God had promised, what God could do. Did not know that God would do it, yet again, through him. Risk of nothing happening.

Greatest adversary is fear, prompted by damaging experiences and shaped by our wounds. Yet not always apparent to us how we are distorted and ruled by fear. As we begin the way of descent, we begin to examine our fears.



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