Being and Becoming

Andrew McDonald
Sunday, 8 June 2008

Andrew McDonald, Cityside, 8th June 2008.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it didnot know him. Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when it is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

1 John 3:1-4

The interfaith missionary E. Stanley Jones once wrote that the Christian life is about both being and becoming. Though this seems like a simple observation, it’s not easy to find churches or individual Christians who are animated by such a gracious principle. We are more often driven by doing or believing than by being or becoming. Socially aware Christians usually opt for doing, while those with more dogmatic tendencies emphasise right belief or truth with a capital T. Though we all have our own preferences it is probably fair to say, at least from a religious point of view, that the results of such an exclusive focus on either doing or believing are almost equally as bad; an exhaustion and world weariness on the one hand or a narrow fundamentalism on the other.

While there are signs of renewed interest in contemplative prayer among various churches, it is my sense that such practices are still a secondary focus amidst these other more dominant forms of Christianity. As regrettable as this may be, I don’t think it is possible or even necessary to change things directly at an institutional level. Instead I am hopeful that those who have felt drawn to the countercultural practices of prayer will find support from each other and from some of the older prayer traditions of the Church. In many ways this is one of the things I see happening here at Cityside, so for what its worth, here are a few thoughts from a stray Anglican.

This text from the First Epistle of John is a helpful conversation partner because the author highlights the spiritual dimensions of being and becoming with such beautiful clarity and presents them as the absolute ground of Christian faith and practice. With a blend of certainty and mystery the author invites us into a way of life that is energised by God’s love and embodied through a purity of heart. It is naively refreshing amidst a culture of affluence, boredom and numbness to be reminded that at the depth of our most essential nature we are children of God. That in spite of all our double mindedness, forgetfulness and doubt, there is a “holy sanctuary of the soul” to which we may constantly return and simply know ourselves to be Christ’s and to discover our lives caught up mysteriously in God’s hidden life.

When we consider the frenetic pace of existence inflicted upon us by the machinery of human endeavour it is no wonder the epistle writer speaks so candidly of a world that does not know God. In his book, The Word that Redescribes the World, Walter Brueggemann describes contemporary western culture as dominated by the practices of amnesia and despair; a society whose insistence on technical reason has left it without a past or a future; with an absence of hope amidst a culture of death. Brueggemann writes that according to such a “settled world of reasonableness…there are no new gifts to be given, and there is no Giver who might give gifts. There is nothing more than management and distribution of what is already there, distribution and redistribution, wars about distribution of land and oil and water, no more gifts.” To this we might add, a failure to recognise the holy or the sacred, and no recognition or value of the contemplative dimension, or of those who know their lives, their being, to be part of God’s divine economy of generosity and hope.

Whatever else may be said about the contemplative life, it is not a life of escapism or the private luxury of spiritual self-indulgence. For most of us today it will be lived out within the context of a freewheeling consumer society with all its tragedy, dashed dreams and roadside accidents. And though what we will be has not yet been revealed, we know that as we commit to lives of contemplative prayer it is this very world of fragmentation and numbness that we will be taking with us into the transfiguring potential of God’s hidden power. The contemplative life is one that realises, at least in its highest moments, that beneath the human veneer of sham and distraction, our world is being secretly awakened to possibilities beyond its present fractured condition by the restorative activity of God. And I am convinced that at the heart of John’s epistle lies the hope that not only humankind, but the entire physical cosmos in all its aching glory is the body that God is to clothe with the eternal promise.

In the light of John’s vision of who we are and who we are to become, I shall attempt a consideration of how the contemplative life may be lived out or practised by us today. To help establish some theoretical groundwork I will draw from two ancient spiritual writers, who in many ways lived in a world as numb and weary as our own; the world of the decaying Roman Empire. The first of these writers is Athanasius, the more often than not exiled Alexandrian bishop of the late fourth century. The second is John Cassian, a monk who lived in the early fifth century, and spent his life with a much lower profile than Athanasius, interpreting Egyptian desert monasticism into western practice.

At a time when the Western church, under the influence of Augustine, was developing a fairly low view of human nature, complete with its overblown emphasis on sin and judgement, the Eastern church, shaped largely by the mind of Athanasius, embraced an understanding more like John’s hope of divinisation. It was Athanasius who offered the church the famous dictum, “For [God] became man that we might become divine.” In what is a very helpful passage, Ellen Charry describes the thought of Athanasius in this way: “Athanasius does not portray the gift of resurrection as the completion of creation, as if God had left the creation unfinished the first time around. The promise of resurrection restores our true identity so that we return to God and take the unity between the Father and the Son as the model for our own relationships…living in accord with the beauty of God’s creation and imitating God are central features of the Athanasian plan for our restoration.”1 Athanasius’ portrayal of Saint Anthony, the most famous of the desert fathers, also suggested that glorious transformation was possible, not only in some hidden future life, but in the present bodily state for those who followed Christ as athletes of prayer.

John Cassian chose to identify this transformative process with the Beatitude in Matthew’s gospel, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Furthermore he dedicated his own life to articulating a way of faith and practice that guided Christian’s towards this end. Just as the epistle writer advised his audience to “purify themselves” in anticipation of who they are to become, Cassian understood purity of heart as the goal of all who sought to enter the kingdom of God. In his influential Conferences with the desert hermits of Egypt he wrote, “The end of our profession is the kingdom of God…but the goal…is purity of heart.”2 In other words, purity of heart is the tangible goal that God provides in order to guide us toward the as yet intangible and unfulfilled kingdom of Heaven. Cassian perceived this way of discipline as an imitation of Christ to which all Christians were called. While a phrase like “purity of heart” may not seem accessible to contemporary people I really don’t imagine it was any more popular in Cassian’s day. For some people it probably raises the image of renouncing enjoyable things and walking around in some sort of miserable purged out state. Unfortunately some of Cassian’s illustrations of the spiritual life as a “struggle against the eight principle vices”3 tend to reinforce this stereotype. Personally I find some of Cassian’s examples of this struggle quite disturbing and would prefer to think of terms of cultivating a habitual attitude of surrender to God. Fortunately Cassian’s pastoral theology can be of help without us having to abandon our families and friends and march off into the desert. On the contrary, the spiritualisation of life requires that each of us begin where we are and among the people we are with.

This brings me to the inevitable point of this talk that I would rather find a way of avoiding. Whenever any attempt is made to describe forms of helpful religious practice there is always the risk of appearing to lay down some kind of rule. That’s not what I hope to do. And while I don’t understand much about the psychology of religious experience I am keenly aware that different people have different ways of connecting with God. So I’m simply going to share some of the ways, some of the spiritual practices, that I have found do work for me.

There are two spiritual practices in particular that I want share. The first is chanting or praying the psalms and the second is contemplative prayer. Both these practices have a long history within the monastic tradition and in really practical ways each of them corresponds to the process of being and becoming.

When I first rejoined the church ten years ago I brought with me a vague impression that the psalms held an important place in the life of prayer. Though I dabbled with the psalms occasionally it wasn’t until I moved to St John’s College two and half years ago that I became aware of the Anglican tradition of reading the Psalter through in a thirty day cycle. So for about a year after this I read the psalms out loud morning and evening according to Anglican practice. Then Brenda introduced me to Chanting the Psalms by Cynthia Bourgeault. Chanting the psalms has not only reconnected me with the ancient practice of monastic psalmody but made the whole discipline of praying the psalms much more sustainable. Regardless of whether the psalms are spoken or chanted they ground our ultimate identity into a world where God, prayer and hope are possible. In their cries of distress and demands for justice they remind us of a world that yearns for God’s redemption and expand the limits of our prayers for others. Perhaps even more mysteriously, faithful repetition of the psalms enables the body rather than the mind to become the primary repository of faith, resulting in a deep sense of being clothed by God and experiencing a gentle solidity of being.

Mediation or contemplative prayer has an even more chequered history in my spiritual journey than psalmody. A number of years worshipping with a Quaker meeting provided me with my first structured approach to contemplative prayer. Overall I suspect I have taken refuge in contemplative practices in the past without realising the purifying activity of God that such prayer makes possible. One necessary element for contemplative prayer to happen seems to be the intentionality of encountering a God who is already waiting for us. As my commitment to contemplative prayer has grown, I have discovered that much of my life is predominantly lived out at a surface level, a tangled clamour of motivations and self-understandings that have little to do with the person whom God is calling into being. It occurs to me that intentional time given to daily practice of prayer will become more and more essential if we are to overcome the totalitarian demands of contemporary life, and witness the unfolding presence of God’s as yet un-revealed future as has been revealed in the saints of the past.

There may be a multitude of ways people can incorporate such contemplative practice into their lives; I chose to use the structure of the Anglican Daily Office, others may chose something like the traditional Protestant ‘quiet time’. Regardless of how we do it, there will over time come the realisation that it is in fact our workday life that is being incorporated into a life of prayer rather than prayer being incorporated into our workday life. The contemplative life then becomes the purifying process by which we glimpse into the astounding glory that awaits God’s whole universe.

1Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)., 99

2John Cassian, The Conferences, trans. Boniface Ramsey (New York: Paulist Press, 1997)., 5:1

3John Cassian, The Institutes, trans. Boniface Ramsey (New York: Paulist Press, 1998)., 5:1