Ground and Network; Life and Death

Nearly two years ago now, Rhiannon Grant published a post on her blog Brigid, Fox and Buddha considering the question of what, if anything, Liberal Quakers think about life after death. Now, Rhiannon is far better qualified than I to say what they may or may not think, and an interesting discussion ensued in her comments section. But the question, when I revisited her blog, set me thinking.

Merlin Sheldrake, in his fascinating book Entangled Life, discusses the all way life, on this planet at least, is underpinned by fungal networks, mycorrhizal webs connecting tree to tree, plant to animal, bacterium to lichen. He remarks, of his research on fungal networks, facilitated as it is by international academic and commercial scientific networks, “It is a recurring theme: look at the network, and it starts to look back at you.” (Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life (p. 240). Random House. Kindle Edition.)

Much of our unthinking outlook on things, even in the twenty-first century, is conditioned by a Cartesian, atomistic outlook inherited from the seventeenth century. This has crept into our religious and spiritual thinking too, so that we tend to understand God as a “thing” over against other things, and we ourselves as separate individual selves who continue, or don’t continue, after death. Perhaps this is as wrong a way of looking at life as was the early Darwinian view of evolution as divergence, separation, of organisms (Sheldrake, op cit., pp. 80-82) rather than as interconnection, often cooperative interconnection, within ecosystems.

For a long time now, Paul Tillich’s understanding of God as “Ground of Being”, beyond being, not to be understood as object vis à vis any subject but preceding the subject-object disjunction (Theology of Culturep.15) has made perfect sense to me. Tillich somewhere in Systematic Theology refers to God as Ground of Being as “Being-itself” – a concept which has always appeared to me to be pretty much equivalent to Meister Eckhart’s Istigkeit, “isness“!

If God is indeed the Ground of Being, that which underlies as well as overarches all things, the ground in which, as Christ, “He is before all things, and in [whom] all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17 NIV) then his relation to “things” in creation, human and other beings included, is, at least metaphorically, much more like the relation of a network to its nodes than anything else I can think of. Our own lives, then, are “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3.3) – as Paul says, we have already died; how then can we die? (see Colossians 3.1-4!) But is this an atomistic, separate continuation, a life lived “in Heaven” rather than in Dorchester, merely? That neither seems likely nor accords with my own experience at all. Our true life is lived in God, in the Ground of Being, the isness of God. That goes on – death is consumed in life, darkness by light.

Christmas 2020

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
  and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor,
  Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
  Prince of Peace.

Of the greatness of his government and peace
  there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
  and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
  with justice and righteousness
  from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

(Isaiah 9:6-7 NIV)

A morning of glorious stillness and light, with hardly a leaf stirring, and a winter sun gilding the trees and making translucent the leaves of the quiet ivy.

Happy Christmas!

Another Kind of Desert

I have written before about my growing sense not only of a increasing personal call to some kind of hiddenness, but also of the way in which the (at least in the UK) repeated lockdowns and “tiered” partial easings of lockdowns have contributed to the growth of what Steve Aisthorpe calls The Invisible Church:

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.

The history of religion is littered with examples of the way that the luminous insights of prophets and poets and contemplatives (in my usage, Jesus would be all three) become clouded and encoded by institutions, and by their uneasy relationships with power and wealth. Obvious examples would be the Roman church in the years following the Emperor Constantine’s conversion, and the chaos of the English Reformation and the ensuing Civil Wars, but within other religions there are many parallels such as the  troubled history of the Islamic Caliphates and the role of Buddhism during the politically volatile late Heian to early Kamakura period in Japan.

Time and again contemplatives have broken away from the apparent corruption of state churches on the one hand and religion-inspired revolutionaries on the other, sometimes forming loose communities, and retreated from formal organisation almost altogether. Examples are as diverse as the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt and Syria around the 4th century AD, the Pure Land (Shin) schools of Buddhism founded by Honen and Shinran in 12th and 13th century Japan, and the Quakers in 17th century England.

These contemplative movements, often based around simplicity of practice and openness to the Spirit, seem to arise when not only are the religious establishment in a compromised and sometimes corrupt condition, but the state is in flux, sometimes violent flux. Trump’s America and Brexit Britain, scoured by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, would seem to provide fertile ground for contemplative change in this way.

Needless to say I have no answers, but the question underlies, it seems to me, much of the interest in “Churchless Christianity” that has flared up even more strongly during the present crisis. There will be voices raised, of course, both on the side of secular humanism and on the side of organised religion, accusing “hermits” of retreating from their responsibilities to the world, just as parallel voices have been raised at the hinges of faith and practice throughout history. To them I would offer these words from Caryll Houselander (quoted in Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ)

Christ is everywhere; in Him every kind of life has a meaning and has an influence on every other kind of life. It is not the foolish sinner like myself, running about the world with reprobates and feeling magnanimous, who comes closest to them and brings them healing; it is the contemplative in her cell who has never set eyes on them, but in whom Christ fasts and prays for them—or it may be a charwoman in whom Christ makes Himself a servant again, or a king whose crown of gold hides a crown of thorns. Realization of our oneness in Christ is the only cure for human loneliness. For me, too, it is the only ultimate meaning of life, the only thing that gives meaning and purpose to every life.

What Is Normal Now?

As we approach the end of this period of national lockdown and prepare to move back into a three-tiered existence, many churches (including Quaker Meetings) will be wondering how much public worship they will be able to get away with now.

I have used deliberately uncomfortable language. So many of us, in all walks of life, are longing to “get back to normal”, and are wondering how much normal behaviour will be tolerated by others, or permitted by the COVID-19 restrictions over the Christmas period and afterwards. It has been a long year, and we are weary of what feels to some like the imposition of a sudden totalitarian state for which no one voted.

Digitalnun, whose Benedictine blog I have followed for years, writes:

Many priests and pastors are doing their imaginative best to support those who feel bereft, but some talk only of ‘when things return to normal’ and, to be honest, I question whether that will ever come about. It is not just that, however successful vaccines prove to be in controlling the spread and severity of the virus, there are many other changes that will take much longer to work through. The shift in work patterns, the economic consequences of actions taken by government, the effects of delayed healthcare interventions, the disruption to education, to say nothing of climate change and political re-alignments, they are all going to have an effect on our future lives…

Worshiping together is only one aspect of what church-going means. Fellowship and service of others are also important. However, I’d like to stay with worship a little longer because I think it is there that we can identify a lack we need to address. Here in the West we are not accustomed to being unable to receive the sacraments…

I’ve said often enough that I think the territorial parish is no longer central or necessary to most people’s experience of church, and I think that trend will continue. But if the traditional parish goes, and with it the economic and financial basis of much church organization and activity, there will be a knock-on effect on how we understand priesthood, both of the ordained presbyterate and the priesthood of all the baptized. If the buildings are closed, we go on being the Church but we can no longer make the same assumptions about what that means or how it is expressed. Are we ready for that? Can lockdown restrictions help us?

Digitalnun is of course writing as a Catholic religious sister, and Friends do have some different perspectives, but I think we can find enough parallels to relate to what she is saying. We find ourselves on the outside of our tradition, all of us, looking in at what used to be.

Change is part of who we are. Each of us changes, day by day, year by year, merely by living. We grow older, and we sometimes look askance at those of our contemporaries who will insist on being as much like they were in their teens or twenties as they think they can get away with in their retirement. The band Wire have an album called Change Becomes Us – and it does, if only we will accept it.

What will worship look like next week? Or next year? The thing is, we don’t know. We will have to wait and see. And that’s all right. Our faith is now: it isn’t located in the seventeenth, or the seventh, century of this uncommon era, and it doesn’t depend upon how it will be in the next year, or decade. Our encounter with God is always in the present. There is no other time for it, since time does not apply to such encounters anyway. Worship is waiting, waiting for the encounter with that which is beyond us, and from which we have our being. We can do waiting. Alexander Parker, back in 1660, wrote, “Those who are brought to a pure still waiting upon God in the spirit, are come nearer to the Lord than words are; for God is a spirit, and in the spirit is he worshipped…”

The Nub of Hope

“What if the nub of hope is that we cannot know where it is leading?” (Dana Littlepage Smith, writing in The Friend 21 May 2020) This morning the rain is grey and unceasing. Drops trickle down the windows, beyond the reflections of the room lights, on since we woke up, late. A chill seeps in, despite the good tight glazing, and the room’s warmth. Out along the hazels, damp little blue tits flit from shelter to shelter, looking for spiders under the leaves. “Silence is paradoxically a listening, and solitude is truly finding the whole world in God.” George Maloney, Prayer of the Heart: The Contemplative Tradition of the Christian East. “All our steps are ordered by the LORD; how then can we understand our own ways?… The human spirit is the lamp of the LORD, searching every inmost part.” (Proverbs 20:24,27 NRSV) It is only in the darkness of unknowing that the structures of our understanding fall away from our naked awareness, and we find that nothing separates us from the wholly unknowable ground of all that is, Eckhart’s Istigkeit, love alone in which all things come to be, and are held. But it is only when we are at the very end of ourselves that this gift can be received, into open hands that can hold onto nothing anyway, that have lost all they ever had. “…for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3 NRSV) “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Romans 8:24 NRSV)

What Is Worship?

Our local Quaker meeting house had just moved to what is termed “blended worship” – part Zoom, part distanced worship, in our case limited to eight Friends due to the size of the room – when the announcement came of a second lockdown throughout November at least.

I personally have found the Zoom technology intrusive, and in itself somehow attention-seeking, and so I have become part of the small group of Friends who have joined the silence, alone in our respective homes. For me, as perhaps for some of the others, this has felt far closer and more like “real” worship than a screenful of animated postage stamps. But this raises the question, what is worship?

For millennia men and women have met together to worship, and though what we know of their practices and liturgies have widely differed from religion to religion, and nation to nation, they have met together, whether it has been to dance, sing, chant the Nembutsu or walk sacred paths. Many, perhaps most, faiths have solitary practices of prayer, in many cases silent practices. Quakers are unusual, in that their meetings for worship are silent, but they are corporate, and their members not only call them “worship” but understand them that way too, on the whole.

I have, as I have described elsewhere, a discipline of private, silent prayer. It is a vital part of who I am, of my own understanding of what I am here for, but it does not feel like what Friends do together on a Sunday morning. Yet, when I am sitting alone in silence on a First Day morning, conscious of other Friends across our town, across our Area and our Yearly Meeting, across the world, sitting likewise, I know that I am joining with them in an act of worship. It is not at all the same as my own regular times of contemplative prayer. On one or two occasions I have even found myself visited by what I can only term “ministry”, that I have shared by email afterwards.

What is going on here? And, more to the point perhaps, what might it suggest for the future of worship during, and even after, a pandemic? Maybe worship isn’t only meeting together in rows, a breath and a handshake apart. Maybe worship, which is after all a joining in spirit more than anything else, perhaps, is less dependent on physical togetherness than we had thought. Always there have been Friends who, for reasons of great age, illness, remoteness, even occasionally imprisonment, could not come to the meeting house on Sunday morning. We have remembered them, and we have hoped that they could remember us, sitting together in worship, but we have, most of us I imagine, tended to feel sorry for them, that they had to “miss out” on “our” meeting. Perhaps we knew less than we thought. Perhaps indeed there were some of us who did understand, who knew that despite outer appearances and the presumptions of our own attempted compassion, these Friends were as much part of our worship as the warm and breathing presence next to us.

Perhaps the future of worship is stranger and more luminous than we had thought. Perhaps we are moving into new territory, making our own maps as we tread forward on virgin ground, into a place odder and more beautiful than we have known. I hope so.

Moving out…

The important emphasis that Underhill and Jones give is to the experiential nature of mysticism, rather than, as the OED definition has it, a theology. “We are concerned with the experience itself, not with secondhand formulations of it,” says [Rufus] Jones , and [Dorothee] Soelle concurs: “The crucial point here is that in the mystical understanding of God, experience is more important than doctrine, the inner light more important than church authority, the certainty of God and communication with him more important than believing in his existence or positing his existence rationally.” And the major contribution of these writers was to democratise it. The popular conception of mystics and mystical experience is that it is something exclusive, elite, soaring above the scope of the ordinary person. This is very far from the truth. As [Evelyn] Underhill puts it: “The world of Reality exists for all; and all may participate in it, unite with it, according to their measure and to the strength and purity of their desire”. According to her, Jones and others, mysticism is not just for the initiated or those with special gifts, but for everyone. After her major work, Mysticism, written some years before, Underhill’s book Practical Mysticism is addressed to “the ordinary man”.

Jennifer Kavanagh, Practical Mystics

Jesus himself said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” (Matthew 11:25 NIV)

One of the things that always strikes me about Quaker worship and prayer, and about my own practice of the Jesus Prayer, not to mention the still growing contemplative movement that encompasses Centering Prayer, Christian Meditation, and other groups, is just this openness to the ordinary person’s contemplative experience. It is not something reserved for professional monastics. Just as Jesus himself taught, the encounter with God through the gift of the Holy Spirit is there for all (John 14:26) and the practice of the very earliest church makes this clear (Acts 2:38).

Quietly, the gift of contemplative encounter with the living God is moving out, not only from the monasteries and the lauras, but from the established church itself. Quakers have long practiced it in their Meetings for Worship (though among them the practice of solitary prayer has sometimes not been as clearly recognised as the corporate) but it is in our own day, it seems, that “[t]here 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.” (Steve Aisthorpe, The Invisible Church) and this democratisation, as Kavanagh puts it, of the essentially hidden contemplative encounter, is its vital “mystical” dimension.

Daniel O Snyder wrote, “If in addition to study groups learning about nonviolence, every meeting also had committed prayer groups, holding our country in the Light, we would be adding another essential leg to the stool. We are not just refueling in order to return to a field of engagement, we are showing up for the Divine Encounter, presenting ourselves as willing subjects for transformation and as willing instruments for transformation in the world.” Perhaps – and it is especially worthy of thinking about during the present pandemic – Friends (and others) whose hidden lives are given over to prayer are themselves quietly adding a leg to the stool of transformation, bringing our own lives to God as gifts of peace and faithfulness, living “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…” (Craig Barnett)

[An earlier version of this post was published on A Long Restlessness]

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)