Sparrows and stillness: reading Qfp Ch. 1

Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

Quaker faith & practice 1.02: Advices & queries 7

Friends have become very familiar with the last two sentences of this – the query part – as a kind of watchword for open-mindedness and tolerance in all that we do, but too often, I think, we forget some of the implications of the advice part.

Mystical experience, the direct, unmediated encounter with God central to Quaker worship and prayer, is not a strange or technical exercise, reserved for professional clergy or vowed monastics, but an ordinary, straightforward thing common to our identity as human beings. There is, after all, that of God in each of us: all that is necessary is to become aware of it, and somehow to live within that awareness.

David Johnson writes ( A Quaker Prayer Life, 2013) “Quaker prayer arises from a life of continuing devotion. We learn by experience.” To turn our hearts to silence, to “stand still in the Light”, on a regular, daily basis does indeed open out our awareness to the presence of God in the small, everyday circumstances of life – blue tits in the bird bath, sycamore seeds spinning along the breeze, the distant, resonant clang of scaffolding poles dropped onto a lorry. We all rest in God, human and otherwise, and the ground of being is our inevitable home. We cannot fall out of what is: we can only be transformed, and even dying is only another kind of transformation within that ground. All that is needed is to learn to know this, moment by luminous moment, among the drifting leaves and the still incessant chirping of sparrows in the bushes along the hospital grounds.

Preserved ministry: Reading Qfp Ch. 1

How can we make the meeting a community in which each person is accepted and nurtured, and strangers are welcome? Seek to know one another in the things which are eternal, bear the burden of each other’s failings and pray for one another. As we enter with tender sympathy into the joys and sorrows of each other’s lives, ready to give help and to receive it, our meeting can be a channel for God’s love and forgiveness.

Quaker faith & practice 1.02: Advices & queries 18

This month it has fallen to me to choose and read Advices & queries. Last Sunday this one, no. 18, showed itself to me, reminding me that these Advices & queries are “not a call to increased activity by each individual Friend but a reminder of the insights of the Society.” It is as a community that they are discerned, and it is as a community that we read them, and listen for how they might affect each of us personally. In that sense, they’re a bit like preserved ministry.

Most of our words for the process of preserving things have somehow come to have negative connotations when it comes to using them as metaphors for the human condition. People are frozen in horror, pickled in an excess of alcohol, their sympathies dried up, stale and unprofitable. But I remember from the days when I kept a large vegetable garden that preserving was a joyful sort of a process: slicing and salting the runner beans, shelling and freezing down pod after pod of peas and broad beans, lifting and bagging the main crop potatoes, stringing up the onions to dry. I loved all that.

These Advices & queries, then, bits of preserved ministry, have kept their goodness over the years, and only require opening up, rinsing through, and they’re as good and nourishing as the day they were bottled. This, no. 18, is a particularly sustaining one. It seems to wrap up all the comfortable strengths of eldership and oversight into these few sentences…

Advices & queries – reading Qfp Ch.1

Advices and queries are not a call to increased activity by each individual Friend but a reminder of the insights of the Society. Within the community there is a diversity of gifts. We are all therefore asked to consider how far the advices and queries affect us personally and where our own service lies. There will also be diversity of experience, of belief and of language. Friends maintain that expressions of faith must be related to personal experience. Some find traditional Christian language full of meaning; some do not. Our understanding of our own religious tradition may sometimes be enhanced by insights of other faiths. The deeper realities of our faith are beyond precise verbal formulation and our way of worship based on silent waiting testifies to this.

Our diversity invites us both to speak what we know to be true in our lives and to learn from others. Friends are encouraged to listen to each other in humility and understanding, trusting in the Spirit that goes beyond our human effort and comprehension. So it is for the comfort and discomfort of Friends that these advices and queries are offered, with the hope that we may all be more faithful and find deeper joy in God’s service.

Quaker faith & practice 1.01

Our regular reading of Advices & queries, privately and in meeting (Qfp 1.05) can sometimes seem to be one of those slightly quaint customs, held over from another time, that Quakers, like other religious groups, occasionally indulge in. But I find the generosity of these few words from the introduction touches, and somehow nourishes, something very deep in me. Our warmth and our openness as a church are somehow for me wrapped up in here, together with a recognition of our diversity of gifts and experience (1 Corinthians 12.4-6) that is vital for our understanding and support of each other in our meetings.

I wonder if, over this next month, I can allow myself to reread these Advices & queries yet again with fresh eyes, bringing them into my own “times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit?” (Qfp 1.02.3) I find it too easy to fall into each day without heart and mind truly prepared (Qfp 1.02.9), depending more on myself than on God’s guidance. Maybe what I am missing here, as so often, is too plain for me to see clearly? I hope I can simply and humbly – above all, humbly – let myself open to these little writings, taking heed, in their brief stillness, “to the promptings of love and truth in [my heart].” (Qfp 1.02.1)

A Very Simple Heart: Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 28

The very simple heart of the early Quaker message is needed as much to-day as it ever was… The really universal thing is a living experience. It is reached in various ways, and expressed in very different language… The common bond is in the thing itself, the actual inner knowledge of the grace of God. Quakerism can only have a universal message if it brings men and women into this transforming knowledge. The early Friends certainly had this knowledge, and were the means of bringing many thousands of seekers into the way of discovery. In virtue of this central experience, the Quaker movement can only be true to itself by being a missionary movement.

Henry T Hodgkin, 1916 – Quaker faith & practice 28.01

In his recent post ‘Spiritual Generosity‘, Craig Barnett writes of British Friends’ “culture of hiddenness”, and of how “[i]n recent years initiatives such as Quaker Quest and national Quaker Week have challenged Friends to overcome this…” 

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that the “actual inner knowledge of the grace of God” is in itself a hidden thing. Its effects may not be hidden – as for instance where Friends have worked in so many practical ways for peace and justice – but the root of all we do as Friends is deep in our hearts, where “that of God”  in each of us meets the Spirit in silence.

It can be hard for us to make the leap from the inwardness of meeting for worship to the outwardness of Quaker Week, and yet we manage it happily enough, in our active work for peace, economic justice, sustainability and nonviolence. But we have so much more to give. We are not, as I wrote in another post here some time ago, “[merely] a kind of portal for any number of political, peace, environmental and other concerns that share a broadly pacifist, left-wing, climate-sensitive stance.” As Craig Barnett goes on to say:

The Religious Society of Friends is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for nurturing the spiritual practices that can sustain a more fully human life – one that is guided by and surrendered to the Principle of Life within.  What Quakers in Britain have to share with others is a tradition of spiritual practice that enables us to encounter a source of healing, guidance, meaning and purpose within ourselves, and the quality of the community life that emerges from sharing these practices together. The motivation for our outreach is spiritual generosity towards all of those people who are experiencing the confusion, meaninglessness and disconnection that are so characteristic of our times.

Authentic spiritual practices are remedies for the soul-sickness of a culture that suppresses and distorts our inner lives in order to keep selling us distraction. The Quaker way offers a path through the modern condition of meaninglessness and isolation by drawing us into the purposes of God, by which our own healing and growth into maturity are brought to participate in the healing of the world.

As Hodgkin said above (and remember he was writing during the First World War), “Quakerism can only have a universal message if it brings men and women into this transforming knowledge [of grace].” Our work of outreach is one of opening our arms, our hearts, even just the doors of our meeting houses, to those who have perhaps not encountered such a thing before, among the disconnected contradictions of the world we have been born into. This is very simply an act of love:

Many of the people who come to us are both refugees and seekers. They are looking for a space to find their authenticity, a space in a spiritual context. It is a process of liberation. Some discover what they need among Friends, others go elsewhere. This gift of the sacred space that Friends have to offer is a two-edged sword. It is not easy administratively to quantify; it leads to ambiguity. It demands patient listening; it can be enriching and challenging to our complacency. It is outreach in the most general sense and it is a profound service. It may not lead to membership and it may cause difficulties in local meetings. But if someone comes asking for bread, we cannot say, sorry we are too busy discovering our own riches; when we have found them, we’ll offer you a few. Our riches are precisely our sharing. And the world is very, very hungry.

Harvey Gillman, 1993 – Quaker faith & practice 28.10

A Life with Ravens

Anyone taking the eremitic vocation seriously is bound to feel helpless, quite impotent, in fact. Hermits are determined to help, to make a positive difference, but how? What can one person do, hidden and alone? Sometimes, solitaries may feel blameworthy because they live lives which shelter them from much of the suffering that so harshly mars the existence of their brothers and sisters. Love and compassion well up in them… but is it enough? What should one do and how? This is where passionate intercessory prayer and supplication spontaneously arises.

The challenge is to live a life given over to praying for others while accepting that one will seldom, if ever, see any results. One one will be able to ascertain how, or even if, their devoted prayers are efficacious for others. It is a terrible kind of poverty – to live dedicated to helping others, yet never know what good one may be doing. All that hermits can do is hope that they are doing no harm. Believers leave all results to the mercy of their God. Others rely on the interconnectedness of all humanity, trusting that what affects one, affects all. This is a form of intercession expressed less by words than by a way of life.

A Camaldolese monk once wrote: “Prayer is not only speaking to God on behalf of humanity, it is also ‘paying’ for humanity.” Suffering is part of the hermit’s vocation. One of the most acute forms is to never know whether one’s chosen lifestyle is worthwhile or has any value for others. Hermits enter into the darkness, the dusky cloud of unknowing, and walk without any light beyond that which is in their own hearts. Often, unbeknownst even to themselves, they have become beacons for others.

Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life

This calling to a life of interior solitude (see my other recent post here) has been growing on me more and more strongly, and becoming clearer, in recent years. The essence of this way is not so much physical solitude – though it does necessarily involve what Caroline E Stephen (Quaker Faith & Practice 22.30) called “a due proportion of solitude” – but an interior hiddenness which avoids excess or conspicuousness, or seeking for roles or causes.

The ravens of the title are of course the ones who brought Elijah bread and meat in the wilderness (1 Kings 17.2-6). A life with ravens is a life dependent upon God not only for existence but for meaning. The shadows that fell across the Kerith Ravine were the shadows of God’s purpose, and the loneliness to which he had called Elijah was sustained by the ravens of God’s grace.

I wrote elsewhere, “It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting myself out of the way of that channel of loving gift.” The hiddenness to which I am increasingly drawn is a way of getting out of the way – of standing still enough to act as a kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of mercy.

The dark and puzzling times in which we live can so easily draw us into taking sides, feeling we must “join the fight” against this or that injustice, or “struggle” against forces beyond our control or understanding which threaten the very existence of humanity. These military metaphors contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety and guilt, where nothing we can do is ever enough, and any rest or stillness is a betrayal of our comrades-in-arms. But grace is not mediated by aggression, and peace may not be found by way of war. Craig Barnett wrote:

…the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ – allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings.

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

Hiddenness appears to me to be not so much a matter of hiding away as hiding in plain sight, just as true simplicity is often more about the avoidance of a complicated life than the embrace of a heroic primitivism! To be “quiet and unrecognised” is deeply counterintuitive to a society driven by opposition and notoriety, and  threatens the paranoia so assiduously cultivated by mass media who, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.

To face not only the suffering of our sisters and brothers, human and otherwise, but the misunderstanding of our own inner political selves, and to embrace them in our love and our compassion, within the awareness of the presence of God, is a peculiar form of prayer. It is more like a form of penance, really. But it is in this contemplative practice itself that we make real the mysterious interconnectedness of all that is made, and through which our own solitary prayer seems to bring healing and hope in even the “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23) itself.

The Cross is not an easy thing

The cross is not an easy thing. Too often, Christians either bury the pain under some sort of narrative of victory, or else sentimentalise it; Quakers tend not to talk about it.

To understand, to grow from, our Christian roots, though, requires I think that we do somehow take hold of this central event in all four Gospels.

Ilia Delio, as quoted by Richard Rohr, writes:

Only by dying into God can we become one with God, letting go of everything that hinders us from God. Clare of Assisi spoke of “the mirror of the cross” in which she saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and, yet, our great capacity for love. Empty in itself, the mirror simply absorbs an image and returns it to the one who gives it. Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love, and what we love is what we become.

It seems to me that we cannot see why the New Testament understands Christ as God’s love incarnate unless we see that real love is inseparable – in whatever terms we choose to describe it – from the cross. It was Paul who wrote:

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 [through choosing to do good by strength of will], Christ died for nothing!’ (Galatians 2.20-21)

Letting in the presence of God, as I believe we do in the silence of worship, entails letting in all the love of God, all that God loves; the broken, the terrified, the pain and the uncanny bitter grieving of that which is, and is loved.

All prayer comes down to this. Truly to pray is to become a small incarnation, a tiny model of Christ; this is why it is so necessary to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.17), and why to pray is to take up the cross ourselves, since it is the refusal to turn away from openness to the pain that runs inextricably through existence, like a red thread in the bright weave of what is.

“Stand still,” said William Leddra, the day before he was martyred, “Stand still, and cease from thine own working.” The cross is absolute surrender, helplessness entirely embraced. It is abandoning all that is my will, every last attempt at self-preservation; as Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians (3.3), “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

Prayer then is consciously stepping into that death, and finding it instead the endless ocean of God’s mercy. Perhaps prayer is after all the central occupation of a human life, why we are here. Annie Dillard thought it was:

The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega, it is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blinded note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to “World.” Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.

(Teaching a Stone to Talk)


Hermits in disguise

There have probably always been hermits-in-disguise: the old woman living alone at the edge of the village, the family man who, as the years went by, gradually retreated into a place inside himself where his wife and children couldn’t follow. Maybe these people were quietly living a life of inner solitude, a wordless faith that remained unexpressed even to themselves. Perhaps they were the unsung spiritual heroes and heroines on the way to the life of being rather than doing that so many religious traditions consider the peak of spiritual development. Or perhaps they weren’t. Maybe they were just grumpy misanthropes or dysfunctional types who couldn’t cope with the demands of relating to others. God only knows.

It’s often forgotten that monastic communities began as groups of hermits who gathered to support each other in what was a fundamentally solitary enterprise. (‘Monastic’ comes from the Greek monos, alone.)… the experiences reported from [solitude’s] frontline seem to confirm Thomas Merton’s claim that hermits are the real McCoy, more serious about getting close to God than their community-minded counterparts. It’s a view that transforms them from anti-social creatures to explorers of a realm beyond the frontiers of known religious experience, prepared to take greater risks and endure more hardship than the average person.

Alex Klaushofer, The Secret Life of God: a journey through Britain

Living a life of interior solitude, as a Quaker or in any other religious tradition familiar in the West, is a strange and sometimes chancy business. It is easily misunderstood, as Klaushofer hints in the passage above, and it is vulnerable to the human impulse to dramatic gestures, spectacular renunciations, and other wasteful mistakes. Eve Baker wrote, on this very subject, “Dramatic gestures are easy, simple faithfulness requires more effort.”

I have been strangely blessed by a relationship in which “[a] due proportion of solitude” (Caroline E Stephen, 1908, Quaker faith & practice 22.30) is all but taken for granted. In a marriage, or any other committed relationship, each party surely owes it to the other ensure that they do have “[a] due proportion of solitude”. This is one of the greatest gifts those who live together can give each other, not only to allow each other reasonable solitude, and each gently to safeguard their own, but actively to work for a way of life that allows reasonable, loving access to times alone with “the unseen and eternal things”. It seems to me that such a journey is one to which I have not only been called, but astonishingly equipped, through no virtue of my own.

I have quoted elsewhere in full Fr Laurence Freeman’s Advent Address last year, but in this context part of it may help express what I am getting at:

The word ‘wilderness’ in Greek is eremos, an uninhabited place. This gives us the word hermit, one who lives in solitude. In meditation we are all solitaries.

Meditation leads us into the wilderness, into a place uninhabited by thoughts, opinions, the conflicts of images and desires. It is place we long for because of the peace and purity it offers. Here we find truth. But it also terrifies us because of what we fear we will lose and of what we will find.

The more we penetrate into the wilderness, the solitude of the heart, the more we slow down. As mental activity decreases, so time slows until the point where there is only stillness – a living and loving stillness. Here, for the first time, we can listen to silence without fear. The word emerges from this silence. It touches and becomes incarnate in us. It incarnates us making us fully embodied and real in the present.

Only here, where we cut all communication with the noisy, jeering, fickle crowds inhabiting our minds do we see what ‘fleeing from the world’ means. What it does not mean is escapism or avoidance of responsibilities. It means to enter into solitude where we realise how fully, inescapably we are embodied and embedded in the universal web of relationships.

I am coming gradually to realise that for me, the danger of “escapism or avoidance of responsibilities” is not so much to be found in turning away from the news of politics, the agitation and conflict of social media, but in allowing myself to become caught up in them.  “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” (Matthew 24.6)

I am not separate from God, ever. I could have no existence outside what is, for I am. I am intricately part of what is, and all that is is held in the ground of being, which is God. I’m more interested, as RS Thomas once said (The David Jones Journal R. S. Thomas Special Issue (Summer/Autumn 2001)) in the extraordinary nature of God. But that implies – how can it not? – the realisation that I am inextricably involved with all else, human, animal or otherwise, that is. How else could prayer work?