Reality and Shadow

Reality and Shadow

15 January 2016

"They serve at a sanctuary that is a copy and shadow, pattern and
reproduction, a mere earthly model of what exists in heaven, the real
tabernacle." (Heb 8.5)

"I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven
from God, prepared as a bride, beautifully dressed for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold the
tabernacle and the tent of God is with men.' " (Rev 21.2-3)

How very different life on earth might be if this planet was really
considered by its inhabitants to be an extension and spill-over of
Heaven?  And what might a life of prayer look like here, if Heaven was
no longer seen as an annexe or appendage of the earth and its world?

To hear many Christians speak, it's as if this world's Church is the
locus and "engine-room" of all prayer, that somehow or other
administers and motivates Heaven?  But no matter how grand or imposing
might be this world's thrones (both secular and religious), and no
matter how high some may climb to occupy (or lounge upon) them, there
is still only one Throne.  One day it will be here on earth.  But at
the moment it is in Heaven, and Heaven alone!

"But do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne; or
by the earth, for it is his footstool." (Mt 5.34-35)

I think that if we're ever really going to be able to grasp the nature
of and actually live (as a vocation) a life of prayer, then most of us
will have to perform a complete volte-face (180 degree turn) so far as
Heaven and earth are concerned.

Prayer does not originate here to "move" Heaven.  Prayers on the earth
are the spill-over and the over-flow of prayer that literally wells
up, spring-like, 24/7 in Heaven.  "God," writes the sagacious
Congregational theologian, P.T. Forsyth ('The Soul of Prayer', 1916),
"stirs and inspires all prayer which finds and moves Him.  Any final
glory of human success or destiny rises from man being God's continual
creation, and destined by Him for Him.  So we pray because we were
made for prayer, and God draws us out by breathing Himself in."

The 16th C Spanish apostle of prayer and reformer of the contemplative
life, Juan Alvarez (John of the Cross), lived his life completely
within this Biblical worldview and paradigm.  During the "crisis"
hours immediately before his death, he assured his Carmelite comrades
that he was "waiting to say Matins (the first of the seven scheduled
times of daily prayer) in Heaven"!

"I know that God, our Lord, is about to do me the mercy and favour of
allowing me to recite Matins in Heaven."

As the monastery bell began to ring for Matins, John said, "I by the
mercy of God am going to recite them in Heaven ... At midnight I shall
stand before God to recite Matins."

As the bell finished its tolling summons, he was gone.  His journey,
faster than the speed of light, took him from the outskirts of the
Church to its Heart; from the fringes and hinterland of prayer to its
engine and axle.

Ironically, prayer will only ever be taken seriously and embraced as a
vocation, calling and "life", when we situate our involvement on its
periphery.  We are the generated and not the Generator; the over-flow
and not the Source.  All of our most faith-filled, fervent and fulsome
prayings here on earth, are but an imitation and shadow of what's
already happening in Heaven.

The 19th C contemplative prodigy, Therese Martin (of Lisieux) moved
effortlessly within this reality.  She entered a house of prayer as a
15 year old "child", and died a mere nine years later.  During her
"brief career" she made it absolutely clear that "the thought of
heaven was the sum of all my happiness".  Therese considered that her
earthly monastery was "the ante-room (which leads to a more important
chamber) of heaven itself".  And so (in her writings) she hinted that
her "work" and "usefulness" in this world would find their true scope
and fullest measure in Heaven.  In other words, she expected that when
she relocated from this world to the next, she would graduate from
being a contemplative apprentice and become a master craftswoman of

I claim no special or extensive knowledge of this matter save that it
has dealt me a glancing and convincing blow.  As a bumbling and
"green" 22 year old novice monk, I was one day ambushed by the
certainty that I no longer cared if I lived or died in my monastery.
The "veil" had been torn from top to bottom, and in that place I had
become most unexpectedly and experientially a resident of both Heaven
and earth.  In some way or other I managed to intuit that my death had
been overtaken by His and had been "swallowed up in victory". (1 Co

But this was so much more than a doctrinal or theological matter.  It
was my experience of the world "in order"; earth a branch upon the
tree of Heaven and a mere teardrop in the corner of Christ's eye.  The
people and places where this "order" prevails are most likely to be
contemplatives and their dwelling places.  For their prayings (above
that of all other Believers) must be rooted and grounded in Jesus'
utterly foundational cry, "Thy will be done in earth, as it is in
heaven". (Mt 6.10)  The contemplative's habitation will be known
(according to Celtic Christian tradition) as a "thin place" ... where
"the distance between heaven and earth collapses".  But those whose
authentic calling is to "live to pray" do not search out such locales
to make them their homes.  Rather, wherever they might settle to "ply
their trade", their belief that they are kneeling on the outermost
edges of all reality will wear and fray the veil between time and
eternity to virtual transparency.  At certain moments and in
particular places then, Heaven will absorb parts of the earth.  In
this spill-over we will rub shoulders with angels and elders "dressed
in white", and live coals from the altar  will blister the skin upon
our faces.  Such do not know if they are "alive" or "dead"?

Here indeed is the most superb of all divine ironies and paradoxes.
Those contemplatives who accurately adjudge themselves to be the
furthest away from the white-hot core of Prayer, inhabitants of the
loneliest outposts of intercession, are in fact alive, breath by
breath, by His Breath.  Their pulse is His, their "inexpressible
yearnings" and their "inarticulate groanings" are Him, and are "in
harmony with God's will"! (Ro 8.26-27)

"It is the man who loses his life for my sake that will secure it." (Mt 10.39)

To many bona fide Christians the contemplative vocation is going to
seem a bewildering, even frustrating, collision of conflicting ideas
and activities.  And so it is ... an unending and disquieting
contradiction and denial of all and any expression of the Faith which
makes its crux and heart anything other than our Lord Jesus Christ "in
the centre of the throne" in Heaven. (Rev 5.6)

"The Science of the Cross", Edith Stein, ICS Publications, Washington DC 2002.
"The Story of a Soul", Therese of Lisieux, Fontana Books, UK 1958.