I am back reading books by Henri Nouwen, that great Christian writer. On the outside, Nouwen looked as though he had so much. He was very bright, wrote beautifully and people were queuing up to read his work and hear him speak. However, he had frequent periods of feeling shaky and unwell. He knew that we can’t do the Christian journey, or life, on our own. We need friends, but what do we need them to do when we feel badly broken?
The temptation is to fill silence with words or mutter platitudes. But the tragedies and terrors we sometimes face are often beyond any words. The very kindest thing, the best thing we can do, is simply to abide with those who need us, just to be there and not to leave. We commit to standing with those who are in trouble. That is just what God promises to do – to abide with us. Nouwen put it like this.
The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing… not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares.
We are in a time of affliction and we know it. In some ways this binds us to so many who have gone before. Saint Clement lived during the first century. It is thought that he had a great ministry among prisoners, when he was himself thrown into jail.
What strikes me about these ancient prayers are that they could have been written yesterday. They have emotional intelligence and a great knowledge of where we need help. At the moment, we feel vulnerable and in peril – we are at the mercy of a deadly contagion and our way of life is under threat. Being in lockdown has helped me to reassess my priorities and to ask what the good life really looks like.
I join with Clement and ask you to join with me in lifting up all those who afflicted, and those who have fallen on the field of battle that we call life.
We beseech thee, Master,
to be our helper and protector.
Save the afflicted among us;
have mercy on the lowly;
raise up the fallen;
appear to the needy;
heal the ungodly;
restore the wanderers of thy people;
feed the hungry;
comfort the faint-hearted.
Henri Nouwen was a complex character. His books have helped many people in the great spiritual journey that is life. But he was frequently unhappy and suffered breakdowns. he was a wounded healer, as so many of us are. We minister to others from our woundedness because that is the ground that helps us to feel compassion.
Christ ascended with his wounds still on show. Why? Because he took them with him into eternity. The wounded God understands our brokenness because he was broken too. We can’t wait to be fixed in order to do God’s work. Instead the wounds are the soil from which we reach out to others and cry out to God. This is what Nouwen said.
Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not, ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.
When I was running the brand agency, I remember getting hold of some very interesting research. The upshot of the document was that people remember the way they are spoken to, more than the actual message itself. Indeed, and this is sobering for any of us whose job involves speaking for a living, they remember nearly nothing at all of the message.
This brings me to St Aidan, who understood this truth. In AD 633 King Oswald of Northumbria asked the community at Iona to send him a missionary to help convert his people to Christianity. They sent a monk called Corman. It was a disaster. He quickly returned to Iona. The people of Northumbria, he told his fellow monks, were an ‘obstinate, barbarous people’. They were a lost cause. Corman was brilliant and learned, but angular and harsh in manner.
Aidan, a man of much sweeter disposition, spoke up, telling Corman that he was too severe on his ‘ignorant hearers’. He explained that the milk of human kindness was needed. Aidan took on the mission to Northumbria and it was a great success. We are told that he never lost his humble and approachable ways.
Today I pray that you encounter kind words and gentleness. It seems to me that in this time that this is something we cannot do without.
If you are like me, it has been very hard to get going some mornings. I think it is the lack of variety and sense of peril that have combined to create a sloth-like state. On the one hand, I like sloths – they are rather delightful creatures. I admire their relaxed approach to life. But I don’t really want to be one. But there it is.
I think I would feel better if I zinged into the day, full of vigour and purpose. Perhaps a 10k run, followed by a marathon prayer session. But alas, that kind of morning is beyond me at the moment. Today, I will say this Celtic prayer in hope and faith. I offer it to you as well.
I arise today
in power and might
I call upon the trinity
with faith in the threeness
and trust in the oneness
of the world’s great maker.
So far, I have drawn these lovely prayers from mainly Welsh and Irish sources. There is also a rich heritage of ancient Cornish prayers. This one is especially wonderful, I think. Notice how it smuggles in a great deal of theology and some powerful ideas about the nature of God and the life of his followers.
Today i pray this prayer for you and call down this beautiful blessing on you and those who you love.
You who work by Christ’s side
And share in his great love,
You who touch with his hands
And feel with his heart,
His blessing is yours,
His joy till the end.
You are his friend.
It is easy to see the Celtic Christians in soft-focus. But their prayers show people of depth, who struggled with what we struggle with. yesterday, we had the pastoral idyll at the start of Columba’s prayer. if we read on, the saint gets into much heavier waters. he tells us:
I watch the ebb and flow of the ocean tide; it holds my secret,
my mournful flight from Eire.
The great evangelist has a vulnerable side, which he is ashamed of. He misses home. Perhaps he doesn’t feel safe. He is suffering more than just homesickness. He is haunted by memories of his past. He feels that the sea is chanting his sins and he feels contrite. He reassures himself:
Let me study sacred books to calm my soul;
I pray for peace, kneeling at heaven’s gates.
And then he has a breakthrough. He suddenly knows how to come back to himself and feel more normal again. he decides to throw himself into his daily work and to work for the good of others. It is a recipe that still works, even today. Once again, he experiences some peace in his life , ‘on a peaceful isle…serving the King of Kings’
Columba is one of the great saints. The prayer, Columba’s rock is attributed to him. He has something that I wonder if we have lost – a great sense of the connectedness of everything. I tend to partition my life, perhaps as a survival mechanism. In a world as complex as ours where we are bombarded by messages the whole time, we need to some sifting.
But I yearn for a more settled and peaceful time. Of course, Columba’s world would have had different complexities for him to deal with. The Celtic world must have felt dangerous at times. But the Celtic Christians knew how to be thankful and how to look around and take heart from Creation. Creation helped them to feel part of a bigger story. Columba begins his prayer with praise.
Delightful it is to stand on the peak of a rock
gazing on the face of the sea.
I hear the waves chanting a tune to God
I see their glittering surf.
Tomorrow we will see how his prayer takes a dark turn…
My dad used to speculate what it would be like to run a way and live in the middle of a field. At the time, I found the suggestion ridiculous and slightly offensive towards the rest of our close family. But now I sometimes think that I understand the temptation. Imagine giving up all your stuff and the day-to-day frustrations of working and being with other human beings.
The pandemic has sharpened our appreciation of being on our own. Some have thrived, many have felt wretched. It is the simple interactions that I seem to miss the most. I like being at home, but even i have had more than enough of it.
Many of the Celtic monks decided to be totally alone and live a hermit’s life. St Cuthbert took himself away to an inhospitable island just to be closer to God. if you are wondering about moving to the middle of a field or island, then this extract from a Celtic hermit’s prayer might help.
Grant me, sweet Christ, the grace to find, Son of the living God
A small hut in a lonesome spot
To make it my abode…
…A pleasant woodland all about, to shield it from the wind
A smooth green lawn with rich topsoil
Propitious to all fruit…
The Benedictines have such lovely prayers. As I have said here before, I have been following the same prayers in Saint Benedict’s Prayer Book every day and night for many years. I find the old words very comforting and never grow tired of them. It is a relief not to have to make up new prayers – I just let the old prayers pray through me.
This prayer is for the evenings and I find it a comfort. I hope that you do as well.
O Lord support us all the day long
until the shades lengthen and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done,
Then Lord, in your mercy,
grant us a safe lodging and peace at the last.