While yet a child, Abba Ephrem had a dream and then a vision. A branch of vine came out of his tongue, grew bigger and filled everything under heaven. It was laden with beautiful fruit. All the birds of heaven came to eat of the fruit of the vine, and the more they ate, the more the fruit increased.

Reading: John 15:12-17

12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.

Thought

Praying for people, no matter how lengthy the list, does not sound particularly radical, however, when compared with some of the other ancient practices, from fasting to keeping vigils to endless recitation of the psalms to repetitive manual labour. These more rigorous disciplines often strike the contempo­rary person as not merely odd but wrongheaded – perhaps even contrary to the gospels.

Not only do they raise the spectre of "works," engaged in for the purpose of winning points with God, but they seem difficult, purposeless, and unrewarding. After all, doesn’t God love us the way we are? Why deny ourselves the joy of passionate living, particularly when it comes to sexuality? Didn’t he create us this way? What possible good can come from suppressing our natural desires and passions?

Our modern concern is understandable but misguided. The goal of the ancient Christians was not a passionless life but freedom from the confusion that results when emotions are running the show, as they so of­ten do these days.

The desert dwellers believed that constant emotional turmoil muddies the mind and prevents us from seeing clearly. Their sometimes austere practices were aimed at achieving "purity of heart," or a heart cleansed so com­pletely of self-centred passions and desires that it was able to love as Christ loves. The road to such humility and sim­plicity of being was long and hard, but when genuine love, purged of all self-centeredness, finally came, it brought with it great joy.

A thousand years later, Richard of St. Victor summed up their penetrating spiritual vision in this way: "Love is the eye and to love is to see."

Action

I’ll make a list of the people in my life who especially need my prayers.

Prayer

Lord, teach me how to pray lovingly and ef­fectively for these people.

One of the elders said: Just as a bee, wherever she goes, makes honey, so a monk, wherever he goes, if he goes to do the will of God, can always produce the spiritual sweetness of good works"

Reading: Matthew 25:31-40

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Thought

The great secret of monastic life, which on the surface looks like total withdrawal from human society, is that years of solitude, silence, and prayer, if they are undergone in the right spirit, lead to an expanded heart. Thomas Merton says, "Father, I beg you to keep me in this silence so that I may learn from it the word of your peace and the word of your mercy and the word of your gentleness to the world: and that through me perhaps your word of peace may make it­self heard where it has not been possible for anyone to hear it for a long time."

Joan Chittister, a contemporary Benedictine, puts it this way: "To the Benedictine mind, life in all its long nights and weary days is something to be praised, death is the rivet of joy, there is no end to the positive. Even life in hot fields and drab offices and small houses is somehow one long happy thought when God is at its centre."

This joy is meant to be shared, whether or not people understand where it is coming from. How do we share it? By looking them in the face as they pass us on the street. By smiling at them. And by praying our silent prayers for their relief from pain, for their protection from evil, and for the opening of their hearts to the God who loves them beyond belief.

Action and prayer

Today, I will pray for the strangers I pass, for their pain, tempta­tions and fears, for we all have these.

Prayer

One of the elders said: It is not because evil thoughts come to us that we are condemned, but only because we make use of the evil thoughts. It can happen that from these thoughts we suffer shipwreck, but it can also happen that because of them we may be crowned"

Reading: Matthew 7: 13-14

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Thought

The fourth-century monk Evagrius Ponticus makes a number of recommendations about prayer:

First, "stand resolute, fully intent on your prayer. Pay no need to the concerns and thoughts that might arise the while. They do nothing bet­ter than disturb and upset you so as to dissolve the fixity of your purpose."

Second, "strive to render your mind deaf and dumb at the time of prayer and then you will be able to pray."

Third, "if you desire to pray as you ought do not sadden anyone. Otherwise you run in vain."

Fourth, if you are in conflict with anyone, then "’leave your gift before the altar and go be reconciled with your brother’ . . . and then you shall pray undisturbed. For resentment blinds the rea­son of the man who prays and casts a cloud over his prayer."

And finally, "if you know how to practice patience, you will ever pray with joy."

In other words, in order to pray, we must become better people. At the same time, prayer itself helps form us into new creatures. In this continuously changing flow between striving and recovering, we are working out our own salvation. We are undergoing the transformation of that Christ has called us to "with fear and trembling": fear, in the face of genuine mystery; trembling, as in trembling with joy.

The great secret of Christian prayer is then that, in order to engage in it, the roots of our sin must finally be confronted. We may indeed go on sinning but with a difference: no longer does it have the power to silence us from God.

Action

Today, I will choose one of these recommendations about prayer and work through it.

Prayer

Lord, may I work out my salvation with fear and trembling.

Abba Mios was asked by a soldier: "Father, God then accepts the repentance of the sinner?"

The Elder, after counselling him with many instruc­tive words, suddenly asked him: "Tell me, my beloved, when you tear your uniform, do you throw it away?"

"No," the soldier answered, "I repair it and use it anew again."

Then Abba Mios thoughtfully told him: "If you take pity on your clothing, will not God take pity on His own creation?"

Reading: Matthew 16:15-20

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

Thought

Confession isn’t an idea which comes very easily to us Nonconformist Christians. We rather like the idea that God has forgiven our sins in Christ and there while there may be a little private mopping up to do here and there, the issue is pretty well done and dusted.  Confession definitely isn’t morally very challenging let along in some way publically articulated.

Which is a shame since the whole power of the confession is found in restoring us in God’s grace and joining us again with him in an intimate friendship. Reconciliation with God is thus the purpose and effect of our prayer. Those who confess with a contrite heart discover in return God gives peace and serenity.

Action

I’m going to reflect on those embarrassingly simple sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. It’s a standard by which I can judge my behaviour.

Prayer

Lord, forgive me.

Forgiveness

Abba Agathon was asked how sincere love for one’s neighbour might be made know. He responded: "Love is to find a leper, to take his body, and gladly to give him your own."

Reading: Matthew 6:9-15

This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’

14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Thought

Jesus was well aware that, when we are enraged, we are "beside ourselves" – no longer capable of rational thought or loving action. We cannot even pray, and thus we are left wide open to the most hideous suggestions of the Evil One. People in towering rages commit murder. Anger can literally make us crazy.

Which is why, of course, we have Jesus’ command to forgive, without exception, those who have hurt us. I’d always thought this command a harsh one, im­possible to follow. After all, there were moral monsters who did such terrible things that forgiving them felt like condon­ing evil. And what about justice? How could it be just to forgive those who perpetrated atrocities?

Jesus knew that, if it were up to us to judge who deserved forgiveness and who did not, few of us would forgive at all. Instead, we’d cherish our self-righteous rage, nurture our anger, and soon find ourselves on the road to self-destruction. We cannot be trusted to pick and choose whom we will forgive. And so, as followers of Christ, we are told to forgive without measure.

Action

Today, I am going to try and think of someone who has made me angry.

Prayer

Lord I pray about my hurt and I pray for the person who caused my pain. Release me from the anger which is holding me hos­tage. Set me free from the person I have chained myself to through and unforgiving heart.

The right path

"I have never lain down to sleep having some feeling of grief in my heart about my neighbour," Abba Agathon said. "And, by the same token, to the extent that I could control such, I have never let another person fall asleep upset with me. "

Reading: John 14:15-24

15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

22 Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

Thought

One of the most powerful passages in the gospels has to do with offending our brother. In Matthew 5:20-48, amongst Jesus’ "hard" sayings about anger, lust, divorce, and "cutting off" those parts of us that cause us to sin, we discover we can give offense in a hundred subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Jesus draws an uncomfortable parallel between these acts and the com­mandments against adultery and murder.

Then Jesus adds an intriguing follow-up: "Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Mt 5:23-24).

This is easy enough to accept, if we have knowingly offended someone. But what if we’ve done nothing wrong? Do we have to be the ones who initiate reconciliation?

Jesus tells us to initiate reconciliation under these cir­cumstances for the same reason he tells us to forgive without measure: because he knows that much of the time we are too blind to recognise that we’ve genuinely hurt someone. The rationale for seeking forgiveness flows from his great double commandment: Love God with all your heart and mind and soul, and your neighbour as yourself.

Action

Today, I’m going think about someone in my life who might be angry with me for whatever reason.

Prayer

Lord give me  the courage to make contact with that person and the wisdom and insight about what to say.

Pachomius answered him, "The Church’s rule is that we should only join together for two days, so that we might still have the strength to accomplish without fainting the things we are commanded to do, namely, unceasing prayer, vigils, reciting of God’s law, and our manual labour about which we have orders in the Holy Scriptures and which ought to permit us to hold out our hands to the poor. "

Reading: John 21:4-13

Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus.

5 He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

“No,” they answered.

6 He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. 8 The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. 9 When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.

10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.

Thought

I love cooking.  It’s more than a necessity, it’s relaxation and when cooking for others an act of service.  One of the best parts of cooking is to choose the ingredients from amongst the massive varieties available in even the humblest supermarket. Yet several times a week I watch people coming to our FoodBank for whom simple pasta, tinned vegetables and meat will temporarily meet their hunger. Assuming,  of course, that they have money to pay for the electricity or gas by which to cook.  When I was more involved in the project I often found myself saying to our clients "Take plenty! We want you to be blessed".

St. Benedict insisted that the needy not only be fed but also treated with an extra measure of loving-kindness. "Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particu­larly Christ is received." Not only do the poor represent an opportunity to serve Christ ("For I was hungry and you gave me food"), but they also teach us how to love – that is, without thought of gratitude, reward, or re­sponse, though often these are forthcoming.

The kind of love that Jesus modelled is impossible without a willingness to lay aside our own needs and to desire to serve another. Such an internal shift does not come easily or naturally.

Action

What are the stories of the people who will come to the FoodBank today? Could they be me?

Prayer

Thank you, God, for the opportunity to serve Christ by serving others.

Abba Epiphanios used to say that the Canaanite wom­an wept and was heeded; the woman with an issue of blood approached in silence and was praised; the Publican did not open his mouth at all, and yet his prayer was heard by God; while the Pharisee shouted and was condemned.

Reading: Matthew 25:34-36

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Thought

"Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ," says the Rule of St. Benedict. "Let a separate room be designated for the sick, and let them be served by an attendant who is God-fearing, attentive, and concerned." Benedict also asks the abbot to be a father to the sick in an even more obvious way than he is to the rest of the community. Like the poor, the very old, and the very young, the sick represent the weakest and most vulnerable among us. As such, they can be great burdens in terms of the time and energy they require. We often avoid being with them because we are loathe to "squander" our precious, limited resources on people who are sometimes too preoccupied by their own pain or disability to even no­tice and appreciate what we are doing.

Yet the sick are wonderful reminders that we, too, are much more fragile and dependent than we like to think. One of the reasons the very sick make us uncomfortable is be­cause they mirror hidden weaknesses in ourselves. They are too worn out by their suffering to be "productive," much less to create or generate something entirely new. They do not "feed" us in the way that being around vibrant youth and health can feed us. Instead, and perhaps much more importantly, they give us back the truth, which is that we, too, will come to this, if death does not take us by surprise beforehand.

Action

Today I will seek to spend time with someone unwell.

Prayer

Lord, we are all of us weak creatures, all of us subject to death,  and therefore all of us are in need of love.

Sitting in Silence

An Elder said, "Do not be humble only in speech, but also be humble of mind; for without humility it is impossible to be exalted in Godly works. "

Reading: Luke 6:43-45

43 “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44 Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. 45 A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

Thought

"Silence can be a mini-experience of death and resur­rection," says Episcopalian priest and psychologist Mor­ton Kelsey. "It is a temporary cessation of one’s doing and planning and desires. When we actually die, we give up the possessions that have mattered to us and entrust them to the care of others. Much the same thing happens when one stops in silence."

For a naturally gregarious person, silence is a gruelling discipline. Even more the case when gregarious people meet.  However, silence between friends can be a powerful moment.  I’m reminded of that song "Old Friends/Bookends":

Old friends
Sat on their park bench like bookends
Newspaper blowin’ through the grass
Falls on the round toes
Of the high shoes
Of the old friends

Old friends
Winter companions the old men
Lost in their overcoats
Waiting for the sunset
The sounds of the city sifting through trees
Settle like dust
On the shoulders of the old friends

Can you imagine us years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange to be seventy…

Old friends
Memory brushes the same years
Silently sharing the same fear
A time it was
It was a time
A time of innocence
A time of confidences
Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you

Action

If possible I will sit with a friend in silence. What do I learn from the friendship, and what will I miss when a time of separation comes?

Prayer

Lord, help me to make my friendships more than just words.

Loneliness

Abba Isaiah questioned Abba Macarius saying, "Give me a word." The old man said to him, "Flee from men. "Abba Isaiah said to him, "What does it mean to flee from men?" The old man said, "It means to sit in your cell and weep for your sins. "

Reading: Luke 18: 24-30

"How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

26 Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”

27 Jesus replied, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

28 Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!”

29 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Thought

The desert dwellers deliberately courting lonely grief when they left behind their families, friends, and positions in the world to head into the wilderness. Soli­tude precipitated a radical stripping of everything they’d learn to rely on in their former lives. For some of them, at least, this meant learning to endure a grinding, seemingly purposeless isolation, the likes of which most of us cannot imagine.

James Cowan points out that the painful severance of relationships undergone by desert solitaries like St. Anthony the Great also opened the door to a new way of being:

This lonely man living in the desert imposed a new valuation on human endeavour: that people had a right to an inner life over and above their responsibilities as social beings. Such a premise went far beyond any that Socrates had proposed, even at his death. A new force had entered the world. By his retreat into the desert, Anthony paved the way for others to take their first step on the road to selflessness.

The price for this kind of liberation, however, is incred­ibly steep. Solitude brings us face to face with a person who fills us with dismay: our naked self. Instead of the self-sufficient, goal-directed, accomplished human being we’ve learned to secretly admire, we are sud­denly revealed as a weak, dependent, fearful creature. If we have prided ourselves on the maturity of our faith, solitude twitches back the curtain on self-deception.

Being hidden in solitary suffering is a pearl we need to find and cherish.

Action

Today, I will try to spend an hour in solitude: no phone, no e-mail, no TV, and no interaction with another human being, live or electronic.

Prayer

God, show me what I’d prefer not to see: my undefended self; then strengthen and sustain me.