Tuesday, June 29, 2010


"En una noche oscura . . ." writes John of the Cross at the beginning of his famous poem: the key word is "oscura", reflected later in the stanza by the words "sin ser notata". "Oscura" is usually translated as "dark" but it carries many nuances most of which are alien to a culture steeped in celebrity. "Oscura" also means "obscure", and the words following, "without being noticed", reinforce this meaning.

The first line speaks not only of an interior darkness but a deliberately chosen, passionately desired obscurity. This sense of obscurity is repeated throughout the poem: "secret", "disguised", "concealed"—what could be more foreign to our in-your-face, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too spirituality marketplace? Today's assertive claims about God and religious experience would only make him smile sadly, perhaps, or weep.

For prayer as lived, prayer as a way of being, requires a deliberate, chosen obscurity at every level. This notion is incomprehensible to our age; in fact, it is almost "heretical" according to the "experience" based smorgasbord put forward by would-be gurus and trendy parishes.

"Deliberately seek obscurity?" someone might ask, "You must be mad! Of course John means an interior obscurity." No, he means the choice for obscurity as a way of life. He means not seeking any position or honor, or separating what one may have been given from a sense of "who am I", a question that itself falls into insignificance.

God is; therefore I am.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

From Today's Episcopal Café

Daily Reading for June 23

We are always in need of repentance, of the willingness to acknowledge our state of forgiveness; we are always being forgiven, transfigured and forgiving, and thus being part of God’s transfiguration of creation.

Sin both matters terribly and matters not at all: matters terribly as a vehicle for evil, and matters not at all because it can be transformed in the love of God. Sin, which we cannot avoid, and the acknowledgment of sin, can be a balancing factor, not a morbid preoccupation. It is rather a knowledge that adds reality to the assessment of decisions we are about to make, and brings us to a kind of self-knowledge that surpasses gladness because of the fire in the dark, and the fire in our tears.

And because we are one organism our tears cannot stop with ourselves; our responsibility cannot stop with a narcissistic perception of where our sin leaves off and another’s begins. The more we participate in transfiguration, the less we fear, the less we feel we have to control. Thus the boundaries between ourselves and others become less defined and finally disappear altogether, not because we are finding ourselves by testing ourselves against the actions and reactions of others, but precisely because we are being found in God and thus need less self-reflection.

From The Fountain and the Furnace: The Way of Tears and Fire by Maggie Ross (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1987).

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


There are as many ways of intercession as there are moments of life. Intercession can become deep and habitual, hidden from our selves. What matters is the intention that opens the space and the stillness. Even something as simple as refusing to anaesthetise the gnawing pain in the pit of your soul that is a resonance of the pain of the human condition is a form of habitual intercession. To bear this pain into the silence is to bring it into the open place of God's infinite mercy. It is in our very wounds that we find the solitude and openness of our re-creation and our being. We learn to find God's new life, hope, possibility, and joy by going to the heart of this pain. This is the priestly task of our baptism.

From: Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding to be published in May, 2011.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Internal Concordance

The 'every Sunday different' approach to contemporary liturgy may appeal to an internet generation that has an increasingly short attention span, but it has to be asked if such hit and miss services just make the problem worse.

The 1928 Prayer Book had only one cycle of lessons and no provision for readings at the daily Office. It is a positive step forward that people who attend church regularly are now exposed to a wider range of scriptures, but this gain has been accompanied by loss. The same can be said of the new translations of the psalms. While there are some brilliant moments—for example, the translation of Psalm 62 in the 1979 BCP—the music is no longer there, and it is the music of speech that seats it in memory.

The change from the KJV or even the RSV to the NRSV has been catastropic. Sometimes the NRSV is so awkward that it is almost impossible to read aloud, and the virtual elimination of the word 'behold' has meant a drastic shift in theology and the ability to interpret the texts. This issue will be discussed at length in my forthcoming books, Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding (BRF May, 2011), and Silence: A User's Guide.

But in this post I want to address the loss of what might be called the internal concordance. This term indicates that the words of scripture and liturgy are so deeply integrated in the person that phrases appear spontaneously and appropriately at any given moment. It is as if there is a kind of prayer wheel in a person's core silence that offers support as well as accompaniment to life.

I look out from my kitchen window at dairy cattle grazing, 'the cattle upon a thousand hills.' The mauve and white blossoms of wild radish and the yellow of wild mustard ripple in the breeze across the lower meadow, 'they laugh and sing.' Or I have been through another 'use and discard' situation and am feeling sorry for myself: 'I have no place to flee unto/and no one cares for my soul.' And the concordance helps me out of this dark place: 'Look upon me and be radiant, and let not your face be ashamed.' Then 'You speak in my heart and say, 'Seek my face'; your face, Lord, will I seek.'

Many of these texts seated themselves during Sunday liturgy when I was a child. They were augmented by years of singing the Office, but the process began long before I ever knew about monastic life. The grace of language of the 1928 book has been cited by many a writer as one of the most important influences in their lives, Coverdale's translation of the psalter in particular. These were often writers who went to private school and had to attend compulsory chapel.

But the internal concordance is not the private playground of the rich; long passages of the Bible are routinely memorized by people who are more or less illiterate. They repeat spiritual songs that contain verses or précis of Scripture. These passages rise up to point the songline of their lives as it spins out of time over the arc of the day. It is the foundation of rock on which they build their house, their tabernacle of the heart.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

30th Anniversary of Vows

Gentle Readers, please join me in celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of my solemn and irrevocable vows, which were made on June 12, 1980, in St James' chapel in the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York. I was professed as a solitary religious for the whole church.

I am very grateful for the many people who worked to make this possible, although it is possible here to list only a few: The Society of St Francis, particularly the late Ray Cope; the Cistercians of Berryville, VA, many of whom have now gone to their greater reward, but particularly John Thelen, who is now living a different sort of monastic life in the wilds of southeastern Oregon; Bishop Paul Moore, Archbishop Rowan Williams and Archbishop Desmond Tutu; Dr Sebastian Brock; The Rev'd Professor John Barton and Professor Vincent Gillespie; Marion Glasscoe and Deborah Wilde. Several people have helped financially in the past year; I know that you want to remain anonymous, so I will only say thank you again from the bottom of my heart.

It wasn't my conscious intention to publish a new book near this anniversary, but Writing the Icon of the Heart: In Silence Beholding will be published in the UK by BRF in May 2011, and hopefully in the USA as well (I'm still waiting to hear). I also hope to have Silence: A User's Guide finished by the end of this year with an eye to publication late in 2011 or early in 2012.

Bless you all, and please pray for me.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010


As of today, as much as forty-three million gallons of oil and nearly a million gallons of dispersants continue to turn the Gulf of Mexico into a toxic environment that will soon rival those in the Niger Delta and the Amazon, if the oil spewing from the BP well cannot be stopped.

I was on site for the Exxon Valdez disaster; going through a second one, even at a distance, has left me close to despair. Comparing the two spills is like comparing apples and oranges. You can't say that the Deepwater spill is "worse", which in no way diminishes its awful magnitude. The Exxon spill was a coldwater spill and Alaska crude is far more dense that that which comes out of the Gulf. On the other hand, the rate of pollution in the warmwater Gulf, and the length of time it will take to stop it, if it can be stopped, the helplessness of those trying to address it, and the criminal neglect that led to it are catastrophic in a way that beggars language and comprehension.

Saturday night I had a waking nightmare that there would be no way to get this gusher capped; that all the world's oceans would be polluted and all the fish, whales, sea birds and other creatures, all the reefs, all the plants and plankton, would die, leaving only the tube worms and a few other species who thrive on eating oil to nibble at the endless feast before them. It is an apocalypse of our own making. "Fouling our own nest" has taken on grim new parameters.

We are going to learn a lot about ocean currents from this spill. When tar balls from the Gulf show up in the Chukchi Sea to mingle with the crud left from the Exxon Valdez we will know that the oil barons have managed to pollute the entire planet through their greed and carelessness. And how long after that can human beings survive?

Of course we are all implicated, all of us who use petroleum in any form; all of us who waste; all of us who refuse to live more simply; all of us who have failed to insist that government clamp down on this industry run amok instead of going to bed with it. With BP's appalling safety record in Alaska, for example, its failure to maintain the pipeline causing spills of hundreds of thousands of gallons on the fragile tundra, why were they ever allowed to drill this well? Why were they allowed to drill when so little is known about the oceans and geology at these depths? Why is Exxon still in business, or any of the oil companies who have left whole geographical areas drowning in toxic goo?

How do we contain this evil, in business, government and in ourselves?

What will it take to make us rise up and say, enough?

For an article on the Niger Delta see www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/30/oil-spills-nigeria-niger-delta-shell