Ascension. Acts 1.15-17, 21-26, John 17.6-19
In our church year we are in an in between time – between the Ascension (last Thursday) and Pentecost (next Sunday). Traditionally in the church this is marked as a time of waiting in prayer for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
There are many different kinds of prayer and in our readings today we encounter just two of them; in the gospel reading Jesus’ prayer for his disciples where his focus is on their relationship with God, with him and with each other. This prayer is the expression of Jesus’ longing that his friends might know that same oneness with God that is central to his own identity – v11 and v 21 onwards. The other kind of prayer, in our reading from Acts, is where discernment is being sought. Who do we chose to take Judas’ place as one of the 12? How can we tell who is the right person?
Keep these two kinds of prayer in mind as I talk to you this morning. This is the second of three sermons where Mark, Ali and myself alert you to the week of Accompanied Prayer (WAP) that is being held here at St Johns 10-15 June.
There are times in our lives when the pieces of the personal jigsaw that make up who we think we are get thrown up in the air and we don’t know quite how they will fit together, if at all, when they land. We may experience this kind of thing during adolescence or, if we are parents, when our first child appears, or in mid life, or retirement. Whenever we face major change. Sometimes that includes loss, or dealing with a crisis such as serious illness in a loved one. At these times our skin is a bit thinner, so to speak, and we may find ourselves asking questions about what you might call the bigger picture of human life.
For me it was mid life. I felt stuck in some way. It was as though I could only ever get so far and then there I was in the same groove. I have inherited a worry gene. I can even point to exactly where I feel it. Over the years I have found it helpful to befriend it, but back then that little gremlin could morph into a monster of fear causing acute anxiety and occasionally panic attacks. In mid life I suddenly found I couldn’t travel on the Tube – really inconvenient as we lived in London then. So I prayed about it. What will help? I prayed, and the answer always was ‘prayer’. This really puzzled me. I belonged to a church that prayed on Sundays and had a prayer group. I would say a prayer when I read my bible. What more was there? Anxiety is a powerful driver so I set off on my personal quest to learn more about prayer and see if I could shake off the gremlin.
What I am discovering over the years is that prayer is as much about being as doing. I was used to the action of praying for people, for things, for freedom from my gremlin, but I had little awareness of prayer as being drawn into an ever deeper relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As I explored this new aspect of prayer my gremlin sent out strong alarm signals. Some sort of divine invitation to let go was on offer, a surrender to this mysterious Other. ‘But you might get overwhelmed, you might sort of disintegrate, it will all be too much, and who knows where it might lead’, shrieked my gremlin.
I read books about prayer, and attended talks, but would have found it most helpful if there had been someone with whom I could talk about these things. It wasn’t till some time later that I discovered that there were people called spiritual directors (an old fashioned title, but no one seems to have come up with anything better) with whom you could have this kind of one to one conversation. And that you didn’t need to be a priest (which I wasn’t then) in order to do so. Then it wasn’t till about 4 years ago that I heard about weeks of accompanied prayer where you can have this kind of one to one conversation for just a week, for half an hour each day, in your own church, and find out for yourself if this is something you find helpful.
Behind the Week of Accompanied Prayer lies the wisdom of what are known as the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, a 16th century Spanish soldier. The time for him when all the pieces of his life were thrown up in the air was in his 20s after he was wounded in battle and had to spend weeks convalescing. During this period about the only thing he could do was read. There was a limited choice of books. One was about lives of the saints. He found this very energising, more so than a book about courtly romance which was very popular in those days. He felt drawn towards a career change. He decided he wanted to lead the same kind of adventurous, costly life as those saints. But how would he do it? What might his path be? He prayed for guidance.
For many saints the call to a life of adventure for Christ had started with giving away possessions and spending a period alone in a desert place. So this is what Ignatius did. He came from a fairly wealthy family which meant he had a 16th century Porsche – a horse – which he gave away, good clothes and an excellent sword. Leaving all this behind he went off on foot to find a lonely place where he could listen to where God might be leading him. This place was a cave near Manresa.
Although aspects of this were good he soon became dangerously caught up in his own inner world, neglecting himself (long hair, nails, little food) and not surprisingly had some strange visions. He also became obsessively worried about whether or not he had been forgiven for his sins. Nor was he any clearer about where his path lay. He didn’t feel drawn towards the monastic life, nor at that time towards being a priest, (in those days the main ways open to those wanting to take their faith more seriously). How could he find the way forward? Where might God be leading him? He began writing down what was happening to him. He found someone whom he could talk to about his struggles – a wise priest who helped him look outwards and assured him, finally, of God’s forgiveness. He emerged from the cave.
He set off walking, still not knowing the way ahead, and he kept writing. The walking is really important. Perhaps, like me, you can identify with how when we are walking creative thinking is triggered in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen with other kinds of exercise. This happened with Ignatius, but for him walking was his means of getting from one place to another, it also reflected a way of life that was about being on the move. Whether or not he realised it he was searching for a way of relating to God that would suit the life of someone like him who would be mobile for much of the time, sniffing the wind, as it were, to see which direction to take. The kind of prayer routines that worked for monks or nuns, or for parish priests relied on buildings, books and bells. They were not portable enough. Ignatius needed to travel light. He walked with a limp because of his war injury. That too, reminded him of the need for flexibility. Like him, most of us have some sort of thorn in the flesh that affects our walk with God.
So he continued writing and it seemed that the walking and the writing were the main things he was called to do at that time. How did he know that? Well, he noted the effect on him of different activities and how some seemed to give him more of a sense of being drawn towards what was good and true and loving – towards God – than others and that these feelings were more energising and led to more creative action than others – they spurred him on to further adventuring in Christ. So he noted that down. He also noted that it required a little reflection to get in touch with how certain activities had impacted on him. So he noted that down. He would go over events in the gospels in his imagination and then note what he saw, heard, experienced as he did so. He would reflect on that and note that down. He also noticed what held him back; he learnt to spot his gremlins, to name them and in so doing reduce their power over him. And all the time he was developing what he called friendship with Christ. He discovered that having a conversation out loud with Christ as though with a friend after he had prayed and reflected also helped. He was doing all this whilst walking, and in those stops along the way when he stayed in a place, and worked in a local hospital for lepers or taught children to read and write. Whatever the activity he discovered that by being attentive to it and reflecting on it he discovered more about who God is and how he is at work in us and in the world. So he wrote that down.
Out of all this writing emerged the Spiritual Exercises. Later on, when Ignatius was joined by companions (he seems to have had a gift for friendship) he would take them one by one through the exercises, enabling them to carry deep within themselves their own prayer app, if you like, as they continued on whatever path they felt called to follow.
The spiritual exercises have become more popular and more widely available over the last 30 years or so. You can go to a retreat house for a month to do them, seeing a prayer guide daily during that period, or you can see a guide weekly whilst living at home to do them, and you can get a good flavour of them by doing a WAP where you meet with your prayer guide for 30 minutes each day for a week and commit to praying at home for half an hour every day during that period. The one to one approach of the spiritual exercises is at the heart of the WAP and is a main reason for my recommending it to you. If you’re feeling a bit stuck, as I was, or you sense there is something more but you don’t know what, or you’re dealing with a gremlin or two, or facing decisions of some kind, it can be a real help to talk to someone who listens attentively. Through it, too, you may acquire ways of developing more inner resources for your journey as you follow the suggestions made by your prayer guide. You gradually build your own inner prayer app.
Going back to those 2 kinds of prayer I mentioned at the beginning, Ignatius prayed for guidance as he walked, just like those disciples in Jerusalem. He so wanted to know he was on the right lines. As he went on, though, it became clearer to him that what was most important to him was a deepening friendship with Christ. He longed for that union with Christ that Jesus prayed for his friends. And really, that’s the gift within the exercises, within the WAP – Christ answering that prayer of his for us, within us. What is happening is his work, not ours or the guide’s.
Just some details – the guides are experienced spiritual directors who are coming from outside our church, except for Ali. You’ll be paired up with someone you don’t know, unless you specifically ask to see someone you already know. You’ll be meeting your guide in this building at a time convenient to you both. We ask for a donation of £20 for the week. If that’s difficult please speak to one of us and we’ll sort something out.
For many of you there will be good reasons why you can’t do the WAP this year. If I come up to you enthusiastically waving a flier just tell me to back off! However, perhaps you can hold the week in your prayers. Or you might try the Pray as you Go app which draws on Ignatian wisdom. Or you might like to attend one of the workshops that will be taking place in the evenings. These are free and you don’t have to take part in the WAP to come along. It may be that home groups would like to attend the Thursday workshop instead of having their group that evening. If you do want to sign up for the week please give your details to Mark afterwards. If you want to know more, ask questions or discuss what I’ve said, do join in the sermon discussion group after the service over coffee.
I’d like you to imagine it’s one of those nights we occasionally have in Reading when you are outside and, looking up, see the sky full of stars. A vast, starry expanse, infinite space, galaxy after galaxy, a universe stretching far beyond the bounds of your mind or imagination. Glittering, mysteriously beautiful and somehow ‘other’. Then you go inside your home and start putting together the packed lunch for school tomorrow, catching up on your emails, peeling potatoes, or whatever.
Being human is a disconcerting mixture of the sublime and the mundane and our Christian faith calls us to dwell fully in this mix. We acknowledge the divine heritage we have through Jesus Christ our Saviour and we live out that heritage amongst the potato peelings and emails of our everyday lives. Ignatius understood this. He loved the night sky and when he was an old man living in a stuffy room in Rome dealing with the tedious task of revising the guidelines for the Society of the Friends of Jesus he would go out on to the roof at night and gaze at the stars as if to remind himself of the heavenly beauty that can light up even the most humdrum features of our live. Everything, he would say, can be for the greater glory of God.
13 May 2018