Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"The center of the world"

Photo by talajbeg of sxc.huOne of the celibates I live with in our community has long found Henri Nouwen's writings illuminating. She lent me 'The Genesee Diary' recently, Nouwen's account of seven months he lived 'as a monk' in the Abbey of Genesee in upstate New York. Along with 'The Wounded Healer' (see my last post), I've been finding this book pretty nourishing.

Here's a taste. Nouwen's starting point for thought is a statement by John Eudes, the abbot - 'The monastery is the center of the world':

The monastery is not just a place to keep the world out but a place where God can dwell. The [worship], the silence, the rhythm of the day, the week, and the year, and the whole monastic life-style with the harmony of prayer, spiritual reading, and manual labor, are meant to create space for God. The ideal of the monk is to live in the presence of God, to pray, read, work, eat, and sleep in the company of his divine Lord...
...In so far as the monastery is the place where the presence of God in the world is most explicitly manifiest and brought to consciousness, it is indeed the center of the world. This can be said in humility and purity of heart because the monk, more than anyone else, realizes that God only dwells where man steps back to give him room.

I found these words arresting. The place of God's presence is the center, not the periphery; prayer is engagement, not disassociation; Christian community is at the heart of the human community, even while it is different, even set apart, from it.

You may have heard the quip, "Christians are called to be 'in the world but not of the world', but are far better at being 'of the world and not in the world'!" Yet when a Christian community is truly a place of prayer, of faith, of brotherhood, and of worship - when God is really present there - then, precisely because it is different, it is acutely and vitally relevant and central to the surrounding world.

There is a danger in talk of monasteries and so on (particularly for an Anglo-Saxon-Protestantish type like me): 'monastery' can be a romantic notion, attractive in its 'otherness', rather than a lived-out reality. But when Nouwen writes of 'the monastery' he is not referring to the Tolkeinesque (elegant arches, grey habits, or haunting plainsong); he is referring to God, the reality of God living among people as they share all things and worship with their whole life.

And this is - and must be - precisely what any Christian community pursues, not least one like mine where we brothers and sisters live together and share all things in common, and eat, work and live together day by day.

Photo by toki of sxc.huFor the meeting place with God is the Body of Christ, not some building (however beautiful) or some place of nature's majesty (however evocative). As Jesus put it, we worship neither in a temple or on a mountain, but in spirit and truth.

It's made real in the rhythm of Christian community: meals, prayers, conversations, silences, meetings, songs, boisterous times, quiet times... messy tables, rumpled furniture, upturned mugs on draining boards (and dried up mugs on the rack!)

Oh God - let us be a community in which You can dwell in all that we are: Your gathered people, Your dwelling place!

The center of the world.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Wounded healer

Over the past few weeks I've been engaged in a humbling and painful dance with what some would call burn-out, others may call break-down. (Or maybe God just sent a worm to eat the plant I was sheltering under.)

I say a dance, but it's not very elegant; more like a drunken stagger. But - very, very strangely - there's a beauty in it, too. How to explain...

Maybe this would help. Recently a friend sent me a description of a vision he'd had while he was praying. He saw, he said

A man holding up a spear asked God, standing next to him where he should aim. He wanted to make the maximum impact on the world around him. God took the spear out of his hands and pierced the man's own hands with it. Wounded hands aren't able to slap faces, or even hold much. Wounded hands are tender. With pierced hands the man was much more able to show compassion.

This followed something quiet, but moving, that had happened to me a couple of days earlier. Arriving at my brother- and sister-in law's house (another Jesus Army community house) for dinner, I unexpectedly 'heard God' as I climbed the steps to their front door. (One of those 'thoughts I didn't think' you come to recognize as a Christian).

I'm making you a wounded healer.

'Strange' I thought, 'Isn't there a book called that..?' - and that was all I thought, at the time. But later that night I glanced at my brother-in-law's bookshelf (in a room I rarely visit) and there was the book - The Wounded Healer (by Henri Nouwen). So I'm now reading it - and finding it's the kind of book that reads me as much as I read it.

God moves in mysterious ways, as the old hymn puts it. Somewhere, even in painful and seemingly meaningless times, He is working out something of beauty in our lives.

I once heard this described as a wondrous tapestry: just a tangled mess of threads from one side - but when turned round, when finally revealed in its full glory - perfectly beautiful.

The Cross is the ultimate example of this. 'Why have you forsaken me?' cried the bloodied wretched mess of a man nailed to it. And I think he cried it in genuine, agonized despair. But there was a wonderful 'why'. For the joy set before Christ. A Father obeyed. A bride won. A world saved.

I'm not always quite so serene about it. I've had my own very small brushes with the despair of the word 'why' thrown at a brass heaven. Yet, behind it all there is hope. He is hope.

He's making me a wounded healer - and a little more like the Wounded Healer himself.