Church is what?

The period of “doing church” during lockdown was an interesting time. The Dorchester churches were closed of course, as was the Quaker meeting, and while there were various efforts at worship via Zoom, livestreamed sermons and meditations, and other initiatives, by and large – for me at least – the peace of silence, and the practice of the Jesus Prayer, filled the space left with a closeness to God that I hadn’t experienced for a long time.

Our experience of church during this current period of uncertain easing of regulations, and imposition of others such as the wearing of face coverings in public gatherings, has been very mixed. As with some shops, there is constant tension and uncertainty around the often ambiguous – if necessary – rules, and continual vigilance, about following one-way routes to and from communion stations, for instance. It has been good to see those we’ve missed again, and to hear their voices without the interposition of electronics, but in many ways it seems to me that our local Quaker meeting has made the better choice in remaining closed until we are sure that the pandemic is more nearly under control.

What can we learn from these experiences, which come, for me, as a kind of culmination of a quite long process, involving an increasing sense of being drawn to a hiddenness of life and worship, to silence and to stillness? Back in June this year, I wrote:

This seems to be for me more than ever before a time between times. I haven’t written much here the last few weeks, not because there’s been nothing to say, really, but more because it has come to me without words, this stillness; the waiting so deep that I haven’t even been able to find even a cognitive toehold, so to speak, to explain it to myself… this liminal place is for me about more than the result of the current suspension of normal life while we wait for the pandemic to pass.  It is a place God has brought me to, in that hidden way he has. 

These anything but ordinary weeks of near-isolation, bereft of so many of the distractions of ordinary life, have brought me here, against all expectations.

It seems that to remain hidden (Colossians 3:3) with Christ in God, unknowing, is at least for me the narrow path to, and the gift of, God’s own presence, where even our own steps are unknown to us: our God who is entirely beyond our own comprehension, whose name can only be a pointer, as Jennifer Kavanagh says, to something beyond our description. In silence itself is our hiddenness, our unknowing, where God waits within our own waiting (Isaiah 30:18).

Where does this leave us? What is to be learned – or to put it another way, what might the Spirit be showing me – of the path ahead? The final sentences of Steve Aisthorpe’s The Invisible Church read:

There is a growing realisation that church is what occurs when people are touched by the living Christ and share the journey of faith with others. Whether that occurs in an historic building or online or . . . wherever, is unimportant.

Looking back over past posts here – try a search within this blog for the word “hiddenness” – I have the uncomfortable sense of being crept up on, in the way that God so often has. In the past, those who sought to follow Christ sometimes came to a time in their lives when they felt drawn, like St Aidan or St Cuthbert, to climb into a coracle and paddle away to some offshore island; or like the Desert Fathers and Mothers, to move out into the all but trackless desert. Perhaps I am at some analogous stage in my life. I don’t know. But the kind of qualified solitude that I found during the period of complete lockdown was a healing thing, an unsought wholeness and peace with God, a sense of being in the right place, against all expectations.

I seem to find myself quoting the author of Proverbs here, again and again, when he writes:

All our steps are ordered by the LORD;
how then can we understand our own ways?

(Proverbs 20:24 NRSV)

But it’s true; and in accepting that, and in waiting quietly for whatever God may yet reveal, there is a peace and a contentment that I had not anticipated.

Truth

Pontius Pilate infamously asked Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) and philosophers from Socrates through Kant to Erich Fromm have attempted to give their own answers. But I am coming to believe that the incessant exercise of the human power of reason actually takes us further from truth itself, as much as it may seek to know about it.

John Starke, in The Possibility of Prayer, writes:

Throughout the Gospels we find Jesus resisting the powerful and pompous and going to the outcast and the humble… If we want to experience what God does in us and around us, which is quiet and subtle, we must make ourselves low. Prayer is the regular practice of lowering ourselves to better views of his work… It’s a strange irony that prayer is the strengthening of an inner muscle that does nothing more than boast in weakness [2 Corinthians 12:9]

Unless we can be still in prayer, and cease from our anxious reasoning, and surrender to God’s presence in the space between one breath and another, one morsel of bread and the next crumb, the experience will slip past us, and the memory fail.

John Bellows wrote:

I know of no other way, in these deeper depths, of trusting in the name of the Lord, and staying upon God, than sinking into silence and nothingness before Him… So long as the enemy can keep us reasoning he can buffet us to and fro; but into the true solemn silence of the soul before God he cannot follow us.

In the true littleness of our silence truth for a moment lifts to us the mirror of God. “Faith”, said Jennifer Kavanagh, “is not about certainty, but about trust.” In our stillness, our unknowing, our very lowliness, is the very place Jacob found: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:17 NIV)

Receiving Stations

Quietly, I seem to be beginning to understand something of why the penitential nature of the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) leads it on into acting as a prayer of intercession as well.

We are all sinners. Even those we remember as saints were themselves acutely conscious of their own sin – Francis of Assisi would be good example – in the sense of separation from God, rather than as ones transgressing some list of “naughty things”. Our innate tendency to turn from the presence of God into our own private obsessions and insecurities, sometimes called original sin, is something we all hold in common, from the most obviously “religious” to the least, from those whom the world would regard as good, to those it would regard as beneath contempt.

We live, though, in the mercy that is Christ, all of us. “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17 NIV)

In our accepting this solidarity, as it were, with the least of our fellow creatures, as well as the greatest, we are accepting for ourselves also their suffering, their alienation, their grief. Craig Barnett writes:

The religious path is often presented as a way to achieve inner peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering. Much popular spirituality claims that life is meant to be filled with peace and contentment; that pain and anguish are problems that can be overcome by the right attitude or technique. The promise of perfect contentment is seductive, but it can never be fulfilled, because it is based on the illusion that suffering is a mistake.

Suffering, ageing, sickness and loss are not regrettable failures to realise our true nature. They are inherent in the nature of embodied human life and our often-incompatible needs and desires. Any spirituality, therapy or ideology that promises an escape from these limitations neglects the truth that suffering is an essential dimension of human life. Growth in spiritual maturity does not mean escaping or transcending these experiences, but becoming more able to accept and learn from them; to receive the painful gifts that they have to offer.

Our prayer for mercy is answered always by love (Luke 18:9ff), and it is in this love that we, somehow, become as it were aerials for the Spirit, receiving stations for a grace that we may not even ourselves understand.

Only in Silence the Word

Only in silence the word,
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk’s flight
On the empty sky.

Ursula K. Le Guin

from The Creation of Éa

I wonder if some of my readers, encountering my last post, might not be tempted to accuse me of lotus-eating. There is little mention of the dark times we have been living through, of the yet again sharpened grief and apprehension of those of us of colour following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and who knows how many others; of the overarching threat of the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, and its endless social, economic and political ramifications throughout the human-inhabited world; of all the other cruelties, injustices and simple misfortunes that are all but lost in the background clutter of news and rumour that frames our thoughts and our emotions day in and day out. But that would be to miss the (sometimes obscured, I admit) point of most of my writing here.

Paul, in addressing the Athenians (Acts 17:16-33) quotes Epimenides: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” (v 28) God is present everywhere, and always, and beyond all place and time. He sustains all things (Hebrews 1:1-4). Being itself (John 1:3) is from God, who is the ontological ground of all that is, as Paul Tillich points out in  Courage to Be and elsewhere; in fact throughout all his work, so far as I can see.

To encounter God is to encounter all other beings in the is-ness (Meister Eckhart) of God. Sue Monk Kidd writes (she is using the word solitude here as a shorthand for the contemplative encounter wherever found):

In that moment he [Thomas Merton] understood what solitude had done to him. It had given him his brothers. It will do the same for us. We cannot enter solitude, this great “God Alone-ness” and hold the world at arm’s length. In solitude we are awakened more fully to people. The joke is on us.

Michael Ramsey (I have quoted him time and again on this blog) once wrote:

Contemplation is for all Christians… [It] means essentially our being with God, putting ourselves in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart.

Sophrony Sakharov, the exiled Russian writer and teacher on prayer, who had lived and prayed through the purges of Stalin, the Second World War, and much of the Cold War, wrote:

The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside… 

It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…

I am always reminded by this passage of Thomas R Kelly who, writing of solitary prayer, comes very close indeed to restating the hesychast tradition of contemplative prayer himself. He describes how “[the] processes of inward prayer do not grow more complex, but more simple” and he recommends using a short phrase, whether from Scripture or from one’s own imagination, and he advises, “Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.” He goes on to say,

But the time will come when verbalisation is not so imperative, and yields place to the attitudes of soul which you meant the words to express… Behind the foreground of the words continues the background of heavenly orientation, as all the currents of our being are set towards Him. Through the shimmering light of divine Presence we look out upon the world, and in its turmoil and fitfulness, we may be given to respond, in some increased measure, in ways dimly suggestive of the Son of Man… All we can say is, Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the orbit… Sometimes the prayer and this Life that flows through us reaches out to all souls with kindred vision and upholds them in his tender care. Sometimes it flows out to the world of blinded struggle, and we become cosmic Saviours, seeking all those who are lost.

Between Times

This seems to be for me more than ever before a time between times. I haven’t written much here the last few weeks, not because there’s been nothing to say, really, but more because it has come to me without words, this stillness; the waiting so deep that I haven’t even been able to find even a cognitive toehold, so to speak, to explain it to myself. 

Psalm 130 holds a hint of it:

Out of the depths I cry to you, LORD;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.

If you, LORD, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you. 

I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning. 

(Psalm 130:1-6 NIV)

One thing has become clear, though, and that is that this liminal place is for me about more than the result of the current suspension of normal life while we wait for the pandemic to pass.  It is a place God has brought me to, in that hidden way he has. The very next Psalm contains the words:

My heart is not proud, LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me. 

But I have calmed and quietened myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content. 

(Psalm 131:1-2 NIV)

It seems to me that this is a whole and healing word for this time. So much that happens in our spirit is hidden from our conscious, busy minds. I for one am always looking for explanations, structures, timescales; but within the pupa case, larval structures break down. The developing adult butterfly, or bee, or whatever, is immobile, undifferentiated. You couldn’t guess, unless you were an entomologist, what the silent pupa might become.

The author of Proverbs saw this unformed quality of our life in God, when he wrote:

All our steps are ordered by the LORD;
how then can we understand our own ways? 

(Proverbs 20:24 NRSV)

 Paul, in one of my favourite passages from his writings, saw it, too:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. 

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. 

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 

(Romans 8:22-28 NIV)

As the Psalmist wrote, I am content. These anything but ordinary weeks of near-isolation, bereft of so many of the distractions of ordinary life, have brought me here, against all expectations.

It seems that to remain hidden (Colossians 3:3) with Christ in God, unknowing, is at least for me the narrow path to, and the gift of, God’s own presence, where even our own steps are unknown to us: our God who is entirely beyond our own comprehension, whose name can only be a pointer, as Jennifer Kavanagh says, to something beyond our description. In silence itself is our hiddenness, our unknowing, where God waits within our own waiting (Isaiah 30:18).

Flow mingled down…

Yesterday I wrote of my sense “that many of the so-called mistakes in our lives, the errors and wrong turnings, are allowed (at least) by the Spirit working in our hearts to bring us to where God can heal us, restore us and turn our steps back to the true North.”

I am concerned that I may have implied that too much of this could be due to human wisdom, when of course almost the opposite is true. It is when we are given the grace to let go of human wisdom and trust only God’s that we can be led safely through the paths of memory and healing, to understand that in the end “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.” (Psalm 119:71 NIV)

It is hard for us to understand that there is nothing that we can do to earn the mercy of Christ, and it is harder still perhaps for us to realise that our forgiveness and healing has nothing to do with our finding the right way to say sorry. It was on the cross that all the work was done, all the love poured out in tears and blood. All that we have to do is accept that “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:20-21 NIV)

Our healing comes from that:

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

(Isaiah 53:4-6 NIV)

These realisations are gifts, and they seem to be received by repentance. Real repentance, clean and wholesome, gentle and life-giving, we seem often to overlook; but it is the opening of our hearts to that sorrow and love of our Lord’s self-gift. Just that. Not a means of self-accusation, but a turning, in infinite relief and hope, from ourselves to our saviour.

Isaac of Nineveh had this to say:

Repentance is given us as grace after grace, for repentance is a second regeneration by God. That of which we have received an earnest by baptism, we receive as a gift by means of repentance. Repentance is the door of mercy, opened to those who seek it. By this door we enter into the mercy of God, and apart from this entrance we shall not find mercy.

[The title of this post is taken from Isaac Watts’ hymn ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross‘]

Back to the North

I sometimes think that many of the so-called mistakes in our lives, the errors and wrong turnings, are allowed (at least) by the Spirit working in our hearts to bring us to where God can heal us, restore us and turn our steps back to the true North. Yes, it is true that at times these wrong turnings may bring us to where we may find great pain and loss, where dreams and ambitions may come to nothing; but sometimes physical healing may first necessitate surgery!

John O’Donohue wrote (thanks to Barbara for the quote):

One of the qualities that you can develop, particularly in your older years, is a sense of great compassion for yourself. When you visit the wounds within the temple of memory, you should not blame yourself for making bad mistakes that you greatly regret. Sometimes you have grown unexpectedly through these mistakes. Frequently, in a journey of the soul, the most precious moments are the mistakes. They have brought you to a place that you would otherwise have always avoided. You should bring a compassionate mindfulness to your mistakes and wounds.

This is not a new idea. Throughout the Psalms there are hints, and more than hints, of this possibility, but it finds its clearest expression in Psalm 119. For instance, (Psalm 119:67,71 NIV) “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word… It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.”

I have found that these Spirit surgeries are very often mercifully hidden from us at the time. Perhaps we could not cope with the truth of them; perhaps the knowledge might allow us to avoid the error, and hence the healing also. We cannot know. But that unknowing may be a part of the process itself. Ecclesiastes 11:5 reads, “As you do not know the path of the wind, or know how life enters the body being formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.” Proverbs 20:24 is even more pointed: “A person’s steps are directed by the LORD. How then can anyone understand their own way?”

Further on in the passage Barbara quotes, O’Donohue suggests revisiting the remembered time and finding again the state of mind (“inhabit the rhythm” he says) but for myself I am not sure of this. Too easily I become caught up, going back obsessively like a man picking at an old scar. For me, it is the Spirit’s leading that is everything. In prayer, especially in a contemplative or other prayer form that allows space for the Spirit to move freely – and this is one of the great benefits of Quaker worship – the Spirit can bring us directly into whatever anamnesis will contribute immediately to our healing, and perhaps more, to our self-forgiveness.

James Nayler is often remembered among Friends for all the wrong reasons, but some of his later writings were among the most beautiful and most powerful of early Quaker texts. He touched keenly upon just what we are considering here:

Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee. Art thou wounded in conscience? Feed not there, but abide in the Light which leads to Grace and Truth, which teaches to deny, and puts off the weight, and removes the cause, and brings saving health to Light. (Quaker faith & practice 21.65)

But perhaps the best words to end with are Barbara’s own, from the conclusion of her own post:

We are poor sods just trying to find our way home, after all. Let’s forgive ourselves and cast ourselves into that Ocean of Mercy held out to us.

Sink down to the seed

Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. (John 12:24 NIV)


Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:22-25 NIV)

One of the things people – myself included – seem to find most difficult in these days of the pandemic is enforced inability to act. It is as though we long to do something – anything! – to break out of this inaction. But strange, powerful things happen in stillness. Seeds lie dormant over winter in order to germinate germinate in spring; insect larvae, quiet in their pupae, become butterflies, or bright beetles that scamper in sunlight.

The quiet heart, if it accepts inaction, can allow God’s wonders to come to be. Waiting is an act of patience, an openness to what may come. St Romuald’s brief rule for Camaldolese monks ends,

Empty yourself completely and sit waiting,
content with the grace of God,
like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing
but what his mother brings him.

And Isaac Pennington put it:

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

(Quaker faith & practice 26.70)

Into your hands…

Yet you, LORD, are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8 NIV)

In you, LORD, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me,
come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
deliver me, LORD, my faithful God. (Psalm 31:1-5 NIV)

In the stillness of worship, “shielded” in this pocket of light just before summer, the blessedness of being helpless in God’s hands has never been clearer. Jesus it was who said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:3-4 NIV)

To trust in God when all human ingenuity and will are exhausted is not defeat, except perhaps from the point of view of some iron-jawed self-determination, but courage before the inevitable. In the acceptance of what is, there are vast estates of beauty, expanses of sheer gift, where the grace of God flows like healing rivers, bearing us up into the the light, into the peace of God, far beyond all we can understand. (Philippians 4:7)

It is well, it is well with my soul… (Horatio Spafford)

Dark Tales

This evening is particularly quiet. The leaves of the hazels at the back of the garden are hardly moving, and light from the west is casting clean shadows of the roofline on to the trees. This spring the weather is so beautiful – even the rainy days have a clean, healing quality about them – that the threat of the current pandemic seems hard to believe, a dark tale from another time, perhaps, or from a dystopian fiction…

I will extol the LORD at all times;
his praise will always be on my lips.

I will glory in the LORD;
let the afflicted hear and rejoice.

Glorify the LORD with me;
let us exalt his name together.

(Psalm 34:1-3 NIV)

It’s interesting, isn’t, how David phrases this? If the poet was indeed David (this is one of the psalms whose attribution is most likely to be accurate) then of course he would know about affliction, but the psalms in general are stunningly honest about this kind of thing. In one of my favourite passages from Psalm 119 we read,

[67] Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word…
[71] It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.

(Psalm 119:67,71 NIV)

Why might this be? We are familiar enough, though very often we struggle to apply it to our own lives, with the concept Paul expresses in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” All things, not just the convenient ones, or the pleasant ones. Of course, the verse is not saying that all things are good – some things, like the situation in which we all find ourselves at the moment, patently are not good at all. But the anonymous poet of Psalm 119 seems to go even beyond the apostle.

I have come to recognise, from periods in my own life of desolation and functional solitude (being alone in the sense not always of physical isolation, but of being cut off from understanding and comfort: “You have taken from me friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88.18)) the power of this kind of prayer, and how actually to pray the Psalms, to take their words and make them one’s own, brings strength and refuge, comfort even, in dark places. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that at these times in my life I would not have come through had it not been for the Psalms.

In some deep mystery these words in the psalms prefigure the cross of Christ, and it is there that understanding begins to break through. Jesus called his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25 NIV) Peter wrote “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21 NIV)

It’s really important to understand that none of this was my doing. None of it came about through any particular insight or perspicuity of mine, still less through any imagined godliness: it was all sheer gift. Nor am I saying that the ultimate healing of wounds of the spirit – such as we all are suffering in these perfect days of springtime, as the earth stretches and heals from the long years of environmental abuse and exploitation – comes purely through the prayerful acceptance of suffering. My survival may, in my own instance, have come that way – but it was only after the passage of many years, and through skilled and patient help, that their effects have finally begun to be something like healed. But their value – that is another matter entirely. One of the hardest things to take is the illusion of the pointlessness of one’s own suffering; the realisation that it is not, after all, a waste of life and hope, but a way into endless life and indestructible hope, through and not despite the Cross is what brings us at last to that refuge David described in Psalm 63:6-8,

On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me.