The Jesus Prayer and the rear-view mirror

I’ve posted in the past about the Jesus Prayer and how it summarises, in just a few words, the heart of the Christian message:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.

I used to fret about those last words, especially when the Jesus Prayer is used as a “breath prayer”. It felt morbid to be saying over and over again, “me, a sinner … me, a sinner … me, a sinner” – however true it might be.

In that previous post, I referred to how Kallistos Ware (in The Orthodox Way) describes the words “me, a sinner” as the second “pole” of the Jesus Prayer – the first being the glory of God as expressed in the words “Lord … Son of the living God”. As that post sets out, Bp Kallistos explains how it is the revelation of God in the incarnate Christ that reconciles these poles and announces the mercy of God for “me, a sinner”.

But one other thought struck me this evening as I read that section of Bp Kallistos’ book again. Namely: what we say first in the Jesus Prayer is “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God”; then we say “have mercy upon me”; and only then do we say “a sinner”.

In other words, I confess myself to be a sinner in the context of God’s mercy shown in his Son. “I am a sinner” is not something I bring as a known problem to be solved, but something I learn after the problem has already been solved. As James Alison puts it (in his book The Joy of Being Wrong, among other places), “original sin” is a truth we learn only after we have been redeemed from it. It is something that we see, as it were, “in the rear-view mirror”.

This then brings us to what it means to call myself (repeatedly) “a sinner”. It is not so much a moral judgment upon myself – “what a terrible person I am!” – as an honest acknowledgement, looking at myself in “sober judgment”, of how I am run by the forces of “mimetic desire”: of rivalry and envy towards others, defining myself “over against” them. That is something we can only really come to recognise once we have witnessed a life that is free from those forces: namely the life (and death) of the “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God”.

In the light of that, to confess myself to be “a sinner” is not a morbid wallowing in a (self-aggrandising) assertion of my moral wickedness. Rather, it is an expression of liberation: by confessing how easily I find myself being run by the forces of rivalrous desire, I begin to be freed from them. The very act of giving a name to that pattern of desiring shows that I have already been given a new pattern, that of Jesus Christ.

When ethics is the wrong way

Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour conference today is being trailed as calling for a “something for something” culture (inspiring slogan, there, Ed…) in which “hard-working”, “responsible” people are rewarded instead of “the wrong people with the wrong values”.

This, of course, allows Ed to proceed with an “even-handed” exercise in triangulation, simultaneously bashing the “asset strippers” of the financial system and those for whom “benefits are too easy to come by” (a statement which, as one disillusioned activist observed, only highlights the fact that Ed has probably never had to claim benefits in his life).

This “evenhandedness” is a common trait of the liberal left (of which I would regard myself as a member, I should admit). If you have a self-image of reasonable moderation, evenhanded “I condemn both this and this” rhetoric helps bolster that. See, for example, this New York Times article which felt it necessary to include an attack on unionised teachers refusing to do more work for no more money in order to make its attack on Amazon.com’s ruthless exploitation of its workers more “evenhanded”.

The problem arises from having an overly-ethicalised view of politics and society, rather than one which takes into account the importance of social class. A class analysis isn’t about a “class war” on “poshness”, however, but about recognising how privilege and power work together in self-reinforcing ways.

The fundamental problem in society is not that we have “bad” asset strippers where we should have “good” wealth creators (though we certainly do), or “bad” benefits claimants where we should have “good” hard-working families. The problem is that we have an economic and political system that has an inherent tendency to transfer wealth and power to those who already have it, regardless of the motivations of the people involved.

Labour ought to be the party that recognises this, that recognises the need to pursue policies that address imbalances of power within society, and that encourage solidarity rather than inviting people to blame their problems on their neighbours (“hard-working families” vs “scroungers”, etc.).

I had hoped in the past that Ed Miliband (who I think, in his heart of hearts, does recognise this) might be able to articulate it more clearly than his immediate predecessors. Sadly, it looks like he now prefers to give triangulation another go.

The edge of the precipice

Feeling in need of some spiritual nourishment, I dug out my copy of Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Way last night.

One of the things I most appreciate about Orthodoxy is its sense of the numinous, of the mystery and unknowability of God. In theory, Lutheranism shares much of this, through Luther’s “theology of the cross” – which emphasises how we cannot know God by ascending up to him to encounter him as he is, but can only know him as he has descended to us in Christ: Christ incarnate, and Christ present today in word and sacrament.

This ought to make us able to speak of God in the same terms described by Bp Kallistos:

The Greek Fathers liken man’s encounter with God to the experience of someone walking over the mountains in the mist: he takes a step forward and suddenly finds that he is on the edge of a precipice, with no solid ground beneath his foot but only a bottomless abyss. Or else they use the example of a man standing at night in a darkened room: he opens the shutter over a window, and as he looks out there is a sudden flash of lightning, causing him to stagger backwards, momentarily blinded. Such is the effect of coming face to face with the living mystery of God: we are assailed by dizziness; all the familiar footholds vanish, and there seems nothing for us to grasp; our inward eyes are blilnd, our normal assumptions shattered.

However, in practice we often end up sounding trite and banal in our talk of God and in our worship of him. When’s the last time any of us had anything like the experience described above, whether in our own personal prayer lives or in our church services? How many of us could identify with the sense of the numinous described in this story told by Bp Kallistos?

When Samuel Palmer first visited William Blake, the old man asked him how he approached the work of painting. “With fear and trembling,” Palmer replied. “Then you’ll do”, said Blake.

I don’t say this to be negative, but just as an opportunity to reflect on how grateful I am – as an irredeemably western Christian – to be given the opportunity to join in a prayer like this occasionally:

Come, my Light, and illumine my darkness.
Come, my Life, and revive me from death.
Come, my Physician, and heal my wounds.
Come, Flame of divine love, and burn up the thorns of my sins,
kindling my heart with the flame of your love.
Come, my King, sit upon the throne of my heart and reign there.
For You alone are my King and my Lord.

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