Lord, stir up within me at this time
the sense of wonder at your Cross;
fill me with a fervour of faith at this moment,
so that my thoughts may be inflamed
with the fire of your love;
and may my eyes become for you
rivulets of water
to wash all my limbs;
may your hidden love
be infused into my thoughts,
so that my hidden thoughts
may flow for you
with tears and groans.
May my body be sanctified by you,
may my soul shine out for you.
John the Visionary (8th century)
(Quoted in The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life,
translated by Sebastian Brock, pp. 358-9)
The prayers of the mystics often appear strange to our modern lives. John the Visionary lived not only in a remote time (1300 years ago) but also in a remote land, in what is today the devastated country of Iraq. Christianity has been all but eradicated in Iraq. And yet, among the ruins of ancient Christianity in that land, the words and tears of holy men and women like John the Visionary continue to inspire us with authentic echoes of lives lived in close fellowship with God and Christ.
This prayer was watered with tears and groans, just as our own prayers often are in these days of trouble. But there is never any self-pity in this man’s prayer. Consider the words he uses: wonder, fervour, fire, love, wash, flow, sanctified, shine. These are words of faith, words of ecstasy, words of communion, words of love. He looks at the Cross; but not as a relic or ornament. He wants his gaze to be stirred with a sense of wonder. How often do we experience wonder and awe in our faith? Should it surprise us that the words of the mystics seem so alien to us? It’s because the sense of wonder has disappeared from our lives. Everything is practical now. Religion has become a commodity. Maybe it always was, and that’s why we always needed mystics and holy men and women. We need wonder in our lives. We need to learn from scratch how to gaze at an icon or at the Cross. To experience ecstasy in our prayers. To experience tears – not simply tears of sorrow; but tears of joy and communion, tears that wash our souls clean.
To guide us into the “hidden love” of God is the gift the mystics give us. Notice a key verb John the Visionary uses: he prays that God’s hidden love be infused into his thoughts. To infuse: to pervade, to fill, to soak, to flow into. People ask, “where is God?” in times of crisis. Where indeed is God? God is in the ‘hidden’ love that meets your own ‘hidden’ thoughts. There are no answers for public dissemination or for the doubters and the agnostics. Only when God’s hidden love infuses our lives, penetrates our thoughts, can we stop fretting over unanswerable questions. Only when God’s hidden love flows into us do our souls shine out and our hidden thoughts are hidden no more.
Perhaps this meditation of mine is a little out of the ordinary, but I pray that it makes sense. Maybe read it again. Or better yet, read again the prayer of John the Visionary, and let him teach you much better than I can. I realised a few weeks ago that this pandemic has made monks of us. So don’t think of your physical isolation as quarantine, think of it as a cloister, a monastery. Light some candles, spend time in front of an icon, gaze at a cross – preferably a simple, wooden cross – listen to some chant or sacred music (14th to 16th century chants are most conducive to quiet moments). Read from Holy Scripture every day. Keep a journal of your thoughts and prayers. How else do you think we have prayers from 1300 years ago such as the one I shared here? Create memories for yourself and for your children or grandchildren. And not just memories of quiet; but also memories of love and compassion and extending your heart to the lonely and the fearful. Those also become moments of God’s hidden love – hidden in you. Flowing out from you!