A Retired Life

I have sometimes struggled with the temptation to suspect that by following a path into a kind of lay contemplative life, I am in some way dodging the difficult work of, on the one hand, traditional intercessory prayer, praying through lists of people and situations, describing them in detail to God, and asking him to bring about certain resolutions; or on the other hand, dodging the difficult work of activism, protest, demonstration, civil disobedience or whatever – or at least volunteering to do Useful Things in my faith community.

In Quaker faith & practice we read:

Those of you who are kept by age or sickness from more active work, who are living retired lives, may in your very separation have the opportunity of liberating power for others. Your prayers and thoughts go out further than you think, and as you wait in patience and in communion with God, you may be made ministers of peace and healing and be kept young in soul.

London Yearly Meeting, 1923

I would want to add the word “calling” to the first sentence here: “kept by age, sickness or calling…” Throughout history, even in times of great social need, the calling to a retired life of prayer and contemplation has been recognised. Julian of Norwich, for instance, lived during the time of the Black Death that swept Europe in the Middle Ages, yet seems to have lived out much of her life as an anchoress, devoted to prayer, contemplation, writing, and probably what we would call these days counselling, or spiritual direction.

Not for the first time I have been struck by the power of the Jesus Prayer as a form of intercession. Paul writes in Romans 8.26-27 of how “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.” The heart filled with the Jesus Prayer will indeed be filled with these wordless groans, with “sighs to deep for words” (NRSV).

Simon Barrington-Ward writes of Silouan the Athonite:

…he began to recognise that [his sense of darkness and isolation] was in part the oppression of the absence of the sense of God and the alienation from his love over the whole face of the globe. He had been called to undergo this travail himself not on account of his own sin any more, but that he might enter into the darkness of separated humanity and tormented nature and, through his ceaseless prayer, be made by God’s grace alone into a means of bringing that grace to bear on the tragic circumstances of his time. He was praying and living through the time of World War I and the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of all that led to the Holocaust [not to mention the Russian Revolution, and at the very end of his life, Stalin’s Great Purge]. And with all this awareness of pain and sorrow, he was also given a great serenity and peacefulness and goodness about his, which profoundly impressed those who know him.

For all of us in our lesser ways, the Jesus Prayer, as well as bringing us into something of this kind of alternation which St. Silouan so strikingly experienced, also leads us on with him into an ever-deepening peace. You can understand how those who first taught and practised this kind of prayer were first called “hesychasts”: people of hesychia or stillness.

Of course all this is by grace, entirely by grace, God’s life and presence given to us freely in Christ. We are called into this. I honestly don’t think we could choose these things for ourselves. Even if we could, they would fall into disuse by our own inertia. We would become bored with the Prayer, terrified by the darkness and the identification with the pain and alienation of the world. Why would we choose such a path, hidden as it is too, mute and inglorious?

Barrington-Ward again:

After all, the whole prayer becomes an intercession. Soon I find that I am on longer praying just for myself, but when I say “on me, a sinner” all the situations of grief and terror, of pain and suffering begin to be drawn into me and I into them. I begin to pray as a fragment of this wounded creation longing for its release into fulfilment… I am in those for whom I would pray and they are in me, as is the whole universe. Every petition of the prayer becomes a bringing of all into the presence and love of God…

What is required here has to be a retired life, given for the greater part to prayer and silence. How this will work out in each of our lives cannot be prescribed. It will have to be worked out with fear and trembling, in the mercy of the Prayer itself, and it will probably look quite different for each of us. In my own case, calling and sickness, or at least weakness from past injuries, work together in God’s own synergism to reinforce my calling to a retired life.

I think we have, if we find ourselves called to the Jesus Prayer – or indeed any other contemplative practice – and the life that is lived within that practice, to be prepared to walk into the dark, as it were, unknowing, and see how things turn out. The path may be quite straightforward; or it may be quite scandalously tangled and broken. That is not for us to choose. All we have to do is walk in it, I think.

[An earlier version of this post was first published on The Mercy Blog]

This morning in the silence…

This morning in the silence I was struck by the fact that – although I often feel that I struggle with maintaining a little life of prayer and “keeping low” in what some would describe as the privilege of my life here in the quiet west country – in many ways this is no more than our human susceptibility to what is traditionally called temptation. We are frail, temporary creatures, and we react in often very predictable ways to our own circumstances.

When we find ourselves in hardship, whether through poverty, ill-health or any other trouble, we tend towards bitterness, which keeps us from appreciating, or even seeing, let alone gratitude for, God’s blessings; though admittedly they may be hidden and obscure, “treasures of darkness” (Isaiah 45.3 NRSV).

When we find ourselves living peaceful lives of relative comfort (what the Bible often refers to as “prosperity”, rather than the Fortune 500 variety!) we tend towards complacency, as though we could somehow take credit for our good fortune – a point of view that a sudden illness will quickly correct. They are God’s blessings anyway, and he knows why he has given them to us for a while.

It’s coming to seem to me that all we can do is grow where we are planted (1 Corinthians 7.17-24) and remain there to grow the best fruit we can.*

George Fox, as so often, has a word for this:

Keep in the wisdom of God that spreads over all the earth, the wisdom of the creation, that is pure. Live in it; that is the word of the Lord God to you all, do not abuse it; and keep down and low; and take heed of false joys that will change. (Qfp 19.32)

as does the Psalmist:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvellous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time on and forevermore.

(Psalm 131)

(* Unless indeed we are direct victims of abuse or injustice, in which case God’s call is presumably to come out of there, and our duty to follow; but that is another story.)

Lord, hear my voice…

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.

Psalm 130

This last week or more I have been quite unwell, with a sudden, painful and exhausting illness that has left me incapable of anything useful at all really. (I’m getting rather better now – not to worry!) Not for the first time I was struck that, above all, physical pain is boring. It hoards for itself all one’s energy and attention, and gives nothing back. Prayer of a sort is possible, entirely essential, yet even the attention required for something so simple as the Jesus Prayer is recaptured by the pain by the simple expedient of increasing, or at least appearing to increase.

Now, I’m writing this not to complain – others have far worse to contend with, over far longer timescales, which must bring their own perspective – but simply as a heads-up, and to myself, a reminder. Physical pain is not the worst thing, far from it, but it is appallingly effective at capturing the limelight, especially when it manages to prevent sleep as well, and so its ally exhaustion makes impossible even the last shreds of resolve.

The paradox of the title of this post from Psalm 130 is that a voice is really what one doesn’t seem to have at times like these. Not a physical voice, or the sort of voice usually associated with mental prayer. But there is something, something that calls out “of the depths”, and there is a piece of oneself, far down, that holds onto the Lord, and even onto his remembered word, through everything. The problem is, I find, becoming and remaining conscious of that – or wanting to, and being unable.

Somehow I find a holding cross does help the soul to wait, even when the mind can’t make sense of anything much at all. This little piece of olive wood (mine came from the groves around the Mount of Olives many years ago) is nothing in itself, but it seems to make a kind of bridge over this period of uselessness, and to connect in the most healing way possible with Christ’s own suffering. I can’t speak more of this: the conscious mind is aware only of flickering shadows, but the heart knows, and it knows what that bit of wood means. And that is enough.

Real Presence

Sitting once again in Meeting for Worship this morning, the presence of God came down over us so palpably that when I became aware of it I was almost surprised that it was not visible, somewhere between our heads and the ceiling like a layer of low-lying stratus. Thomas R Kelly’s words (Qfp 2.40) are the nearest I can find, “What is the ground and foundation of the gathered meeting? In the last analysis, it is, I am convinced, the Real Presence of God.”

Towards the end of meeting a Friend gave ministry that began with Luke 17.20:

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

She went on to recall from her own experience in the Occupied Territories during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s the many, often small ways in which progress is made, gradually rewriting the rules of war, helping to lay the foundations for the Ottawa Treaty controlling the use of landmines. Small beginnings, but the kingdom seeds are sown, God’s mercy coming in the hands of frail humans.

We live in an age of panic and extremism on whichever side of any conflict or disagreement in politics or social and environmental justice. It is easy to despise the day of small things; but as Craig Barnett writes:

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.

Only in the “real presence of God” can we come into “a conformity of mind and practice to the will of God” (William Penn). As the apostle Paul reminds us, we are “strengthened in [our] inner being with power through [God’s] Spirit… that Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith, as [we] are being rooted and grounded in love.” (Ephesians 3.16-17) Meeting for Worship is not merely a pleasant social occasion or an expression of Quakerly solidarity, but the communion of the presence of Christ – just as surely as any physical sharing of bread and wine, and for much the same reasons – for we “are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12.27)

A Little Way

Practice – one’s practice, a good practice, adopting a practice – is a word more usually associated, in my experience, with Buddhist than with Christian life. But is is an essential concept. In a sense, everyone involved with a religious path in any way has a practice, even if it is to do nothing more than “go to church” (or Meeting!) once a week or so.

In the contemplative life, the concept of practice becomes central. Whatever one finds called to do, be it Lectio Divina, Centering Prayer, Christian Meditation as defined by WCCM, the Jesus Prayer or anything else, needs to be done regularly. It usually helps to have at least the bare bones of a framework (an opening and a closing prayer, maybe a psalm or other passage from Scripture, if not an actual Office), a place to pray, and a time. Contemplative Outreach, the centering prayer people, have this to say:

Contemplative practices facilitate and deepen our relationship with God. The more we practice and allow the transformation process to happen, the more we are able to experience the Indwelling Presence in everything we do. Contemplative practices give us the eyes to see and the ears to hear God calling us to the banquet that is our lives, as they are.

For some time now I have been actively and critically considering my own practice, and trying, with the help of some wise and prayerful friends here and there, honestly to understand where my path is taking me. In order to understand this, I’ve had to try to think where it has taken me up till now, and it occurred to me that not only might it be helpful to me to write it down, it might just prove helpful to anyone reading this blog to see what has worked and what has not, and, perhaps most importantly, how hidden my own path has been much of the time, from others perhaps, but mostly from myself.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I have been praying the Jesus Prayer for at least 40 years, off and on, fairly faithfully for the last thirtyish of those; but the real foundation of where I find myself today was laid when I returned to full-time farming in 1989 or 90. Now dairy farming, especially modern large-scale dairy farming, is about as time-bound an occupation as you are likely to encounter. Everything revolves around the daily (often mid-morning) visit of the wholesaler’s milk tanker, which largely determines the (normally twice-daily) times of milking, in order that the morning’s milk may be cooled and ready for collection by the time the tanker arrives. Everything else – routine work, vet visits, sleep, eating, and prayer – fits around milking times. I found that the only way to work in a daily practice was to get up early enough for a time of Bible reading and prayer before morning milking. (In the winter at least, this was in the middle of the night for most people!)

Any practice built up like this has to be simple, flexible, and strong. There just wasn’t time for a conventional office, with books and multi-coloured ribbon markers and ring-binders; I had to come down to something that worked with a Bible, a holding cross, and possibly a notebook, that I could use with a mug of hot coffee in my hand, and a cat on my lap, next to the warm kitchen range. My practice came down to reading a passage from the New Testament or the prophets, and a Psalm, often one of the 8-verse sections of Psalm 119, and a brief meditation on that, followed by 20 minutes of the Jesus Prayer, ending with the Grace. Since then, I have kept coming back to this strong, simple outline; I have had various attempts at a daily office, now that I have time for such things, but it has never “taken”, and I have always found that I returned to my simple routine, enhanced sometimes my another such period in the early afternoon.

For a long time this worried me. I should, I thought, follow a daily office of some kind. I ought, I felt, to have a more liturgical routine. But it just doesn’t work for me, somehow.

One of the passages from Psalm 119 I have kept returning to over the years has been vv 65-72:

Do good to your servant
according to your word, Lord.
Teach me knowledge and good judgment,
for I trust your commands.
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your word.
You are good, and what you do is good;
teach me your decrees.
Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies,
I keep your precepts with all my heart.
Their hearts are callous and unfeeling,
but I delight in your law.
It was good for me to be afflicted
so that I might learn your decrees.
The law from your mouth is more precious to me
than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.

A first glance this talk of affliction being good for one might seem to be redolent of hair shirts and things like that, but there is another way altogether of reading this passage. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5.4) The psalmist here is just telling the truth: through any honest attempt at faithfulness under any, I imagine, kind of affliction, but especially through the deprivation of many of the usual channels of following one’s faith, we are blessed, whether it feels like that at the time or not. (Is this perhaps some small part of why faith seems to grow, or to be potentiated, under persecution?)

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.

It feels slightly odd, after so long, to find myself – not arrived, but – content with the path God has set me on. It has taken a long time, and all the while I have tended to feel that anything I had done was provisional, that it might do until something better came along. Of course while I was actively farming it was different – there wasn’t much I could do except accept my little practice as good enough. Of course that’s it. It is good enough. Any practice of ours cannot be more than that. It was only when I was injured, and had to give up farming, that I thought I ought to be “doing more” in the way of a practice, a rule. And in any case dairy farming is not an elderly man’s occupation; I’d have had to retire, or change career, sooner rather than later. I suppose in some dim recess I was aware of this, and thought of my little practice as provisional. Well, in a sense it still is. All the work of faith in our present life is provisional – this strange contentment lies in the realisation of that, and in the acceptance that, in very truth, “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?” (Proverbs 20.24)

Faithful prayer and listening silence…

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

For quite a time now I have had an uneasy sense about much religious (in the broadest sense of the word) activism – also in the broadest sense of the word! Whether Quakers or Catholics, many of us do allow ourselves to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, surrender to too many demands… Friend Job Scott (1751–1793) wrote,

Our strength or help is only in God; but then it is near us, it is in us – a force superior to all possible opposition – a force that never was, nor can be foiled. We are free to stand in this unconquerable ability, and defeat the powers of darkness; or to turn from it, and be foiled and overcome. When we stand, we know it is God alone upholds us; and when we fall, we feel that our fall or destruction is of ourselves.

It is this upon which all our works rest; indeed it is in this sense that we can say that all our strength, and any good we may do, comes by faith in God and not by the works themselves (Ephesians 2:8-9; James 2:18) that faith may call us into.

The problem, I think, is that all too often we act not from the Spirit: not, as early Quakers, and many since, would have said, according to leadings. We have an idea that such and such may be the right thing to do; we feel a political conviction to speak or act or vote in a certain way; we see what someone else is doing and we feel guilty unless we are doing likewise. These things are not leadings, but notions, and to act in accordance with them is turning from God into our own strength, from God’s wisdom into our own ideas. In Merton’s terms, it is an act of violence – against ourselves as much as against anyone else – and in the end it brings only fruitlessness and grieving.

In 1992 Meeting for Sufferings, the standing representative body entrusted with the care of the business of Britain Yearly Meeting through the year, minuted:

The ground of our work lies in our waiting on and listening for the Spirit. Let the loving spirit of a loving God call us and lead us. These leadings are both personal and corporate. If they are truly tested in a gathered meeting we shall find that the strength and the courage for obedience are given to us. We need the humility to put obedience before our own wishes.

We are aware of the need to care for ourselves and each other in our meetings, bearing each other’s burdens and lovingly challenging each other.

We also hear the cry of those in despair which draws out our compassion. We know the need to speak for those who have no voice. We have a tradition of service and work which has opened up opportunities for us. But we are reminded that we are not the only ones to do this work. Not only can we encourage a flow of work between our central and our local meetings; but we must recognise the Spirit at work in many bodies and in many places, in other churches and faiths, and in secular organisations.

In this minute Friends speak for all of us; we all need the humility to put obedience to the Holy Spirit’s leadings before our own convictions, before our own guilt. Coming before our loving God in faithful prayer and listening silence our actions will be true, and just, whether they be exterior actions in the world, inward actions of prayer and discipline, or both. It is Christ we follow, and it is his work we do, or we work in vain.

Anointing

As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit – just as it has taught you, remain in him.

1 John 2.27

I have been struck by the word “anointing”. Elizabeth Bathurst (as quoted by David Johnson) wrote:

But I brought them the scriptures, and told them there was an anointing within man to teach him, and the Lord would teach them himself.

For ’tis that Spiritual Anointing that the apostle John speaks of [1 John 2.20-27], which those that have received it (and in whom it abides) needs not that any Man teach them, but as the same Anointing teacheth them all things…

We are not very used, I think, to the term among Friends today. Among charismatic Christians it is much more common, and seems to be used in both the sense of being given spiritual gifts – the New Testament “handbook” to these is 1 Corinthians 12 – and in the sense of being set aside by God for a purpose. The key passage for the latter is the beginning of Isaiah 61 (“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…”) quoted by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4.18-19.

But I think Elizabeth Bathurst, following the apostle John, as she says, is using the word in a slightly different sense to either of these, and it is a sense we as Quakers should recognise. In A Quaker Prayer Life, David Johnson of Queensland Regional Meeting in Australia writes,

Many of us will also have experienced [anointing] in some small way–an experience of Divine presence that is like being gently touched, perhaps with a finger dipped in warm fragrant oil, and we feel that warmth and special inward touch, and in that moment are momentarily aware of some deep religious understanding, or of a puritying presence. That is to say, we have been anointed, and it is a sign that we have been in the eternal presence–we have known the Eternal Christ within us.

Is not much of our work in our meetings rightly directed to showing this possibility to Friends, leading them gently to recognise it in themselves, however they may choose to describe it? It is the source of our ministry, as well as our comfort, and the beginning of all our leadings; it is always to be found in silence.