Monthly Archives: May 2013

Liminal states

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I am, like many bloggers it seems, fond of cats. It’s not only their beauty, nor their particular brand of self-possessed affection, but their wholeheartedness that touches me. Cats don’t do things by halves. Asleep, they are among the most peaceful of animals; awake, their alertness and one-pointed attention put to shame the most vigilant of humans. And yet, cats are liminal in a way we scarcely understand, at least as adults. The sleeping cat can be fully awake, totally focused well within a second if danger, or prey, makes the slightest sound. The most alert of cats can move to inscrutable reverie between breaths.

Alan Watts, in What Is Tao?, writes of cats climbing trees, and of how easily and fluidly they cope with falling, dropping down completely relaxed, and landing lightly without harm. He goes on to say,

In the same way, it is the philosophy of the Tao that we are all falling off a tree, at every moment of our lives. As a matter of fact, the moment we were born we were kicked off a precipice and we are falling, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. So instead of living in a state of chronic tension, and clinging to all sorts of things that are actually falling with us because the whole world is impermanent, be like a cat. Don’t resist it.

It seems to me that our “minding the light” in worship finds us in a state of mind a cat might appreciate. There are tides in silence, an ebb and flow in our hearts’ openness to the Spirit. The Meeting moves with these tides, the passage of them quite palpable between us. It is almost by definition a liminal state: the human in us become defenceless, open, relaxed, that of God within us each alive, alert to the Light itself, to the very presence and intent of God.

(Photo: Mike Farley)

Sparrows and daisies


Before Meeting on this morning of golden sunshine and gin-clear air – you could have seen straight across to the Isle of Wight had it not been for the big sycamore tree – as we were setting out the chairs, and getting things ready in the kitchen for after-Meeting coffee, we were remarking on the little white daisies that grow among the soft grass on the lawn. Suddenly I noticed that half-hidden among the rather long grass were not only daisies but dozens of sparrows, picking up tiny invisible things to eat from the ground.

Swanage is becoming something of a sanctuary for house sparrows, whose numbers have been declining in this country over the last 40 years or so. Perhaps it’s due to the urban green spaces that dot the little seaside town, and to the limestone grassland, hedgerows and woodland of Townsend and Durlston nature reserves near to where we meet, but they thrive here, holding twittering conclaves in every hedge and shrubbery.

There is something about sparrows. It has been suggested that to the four main Quaker Testimonies (Truth, Justice, Simplicity, Peace) be added new testimonies on the earth and the environment. It would be possible to do worse than use the sparrow as a symbol. I’m not thinking so much of Jesus’ famous remark in Matthew 10.29 as I am of the little birds themselves. There is a joyful humility about a sparrow, a happy industrious simple getting-on-with-it, that would do very well as an example of how we should handle ourselves in the face of our environmental anxieties. Despair doesn’t become us, I think. Our lives are lived in God, and his love – the love that forms the worlds, and the vast interstellar reaches – keeps us, and the sparrows, close to the heart of life and joy. To know this is prayer itself, a love strong as death.

Joseph John Armistead wrote, in 1913,

When work does not turn out as was expected or intended, do not let it depress you. If you are working from a right motive, and doing your best under the guidance of a loving Father in heaven, your work cannot be and is not failure… Remember that the Lord never lays work upon His people that He does not give them strength or ability to perform, and if it please Him in the working out of His great purposes that life shall be sacrificed or cut short in the midst of the work, be assured that the work will not permanently suffer from such a cause.

Quaker Faith & Practice, 20.04

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Naming Things

The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, Ch. I (tr. S. Mitchell)

As Christians, we get very used to names. Jesus is spoken of as having “the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2.9) and it is in his name that we are taught to pray. The Jesus Prayer is sometimes referred to as “The Prayer of the Name.”

What does Lao Tzu mean by saying that the source of all being cannot be named? I think that this has to do with incarnation, again. The birth of Jesus gave not only a human face to God, but a human name. (The name Jesus is the Latin form of the Aramaic/Hebrew name Yeshua (Joshua) – a common enough man’s name in Jesus’ time.) God, according to the account in Exodus, told Moses that the only name he could use of him was “I AM” (3.14), which sounds to me suspiciously like “The name that can be named is not the eternal Name.”

Time and again the presence of God is perceived as light. Jesus described himself as the Light of the world (John 8.12) and Quaker terminology is full of references to the Light. For instance, George Fox wrote in 1648,

Now the Lord God has opened to me by his invisible power how that every man was enlightened by the divine Light of Christ; and I saw it shine through all, and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation and came to the Light of Life, and became the children of it, but they that hated it and did not believe in it were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light, without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures, though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it. For I saw in that Light and Spirit, which was before Scripture was given forth, and which led the holy men of God to give them forth, that all must come to that Spirit, if they would know God or Christ or the Scriptures aright, which they that gave them forth were led and taught by.

(Quaker Faith & Practice, 26.42)

It seems to me that light is perhaps the only metaphor (if it is a metaphor and not the literal truth) that will stand for that which is before all things, and within all things, and in which all things hold together (Colossians 1.17) and can only be known by its own revelation of itself, and can only be what we call God. The Light is indeed unnamable – but it is as its spark is met in each of us (Galatians 2.20) that it has a name, and a face, and a human voice.


Why start a new blog?

In the spirit of Advices & Queries I recently wrote:

Be aware that there are tides in silence, an ebb and flow of our hearts’ openness to the Spirit. Know that your heart, as all our hearts, is uncertain, and in need of love. Be open to these tides as to the Spirit; let your attention rise to the Light that is in each of us, and not to what sets us apart.

Are you defenceless enough to do this? Do you trust that in the silence, in the friendship of the meeting, our worship is indeed in the Spirit and in truth?

If I’m to be true to these leadings, I think I need to start with a clean page, as it were. I haven’t the slightest intention of taking down The Mercy Blog, and all that I have written there I would stand by, in the context of the time in which it was written. But this must be an altogether more experimental blog.

During the early years of World War II, Thomas R Kelly wrote:

The light for which the world longs is already shining. It is shining into the darkness, but the darkness does not apprehend it. It is shining into the darkness, but the darkness is not overcoming it. It is shining in many a soul, and already the new order has begun within the kingdom of the heart. It is shining in many a small group and creating a heavenly-earthly fellowship of children of the light. It will always shine and lead many into the world of need, that they may bear it up into the heart of God.

(Quaker Faith & Practice 26.62)

This is a world of need. There is no getting away from it. We may speak as we like about the need for food, for housing, even for justice; but in the end what it comes down to is the need for love, even when this love is expressed in the most practical and concrete of ways. This I think is why Jesus did not do more miracles. His incarnation was not about the provision of a Palestinian Health Service, nor the inauguration of a new Meals in the Desert initiative. It was about the personal, immediate invasion of God’s love into this world, with its contradictions, its beauty, its cruelty and its wonder. I think this is what Jesus was getting at when he told the parable of the two sons (Matthew 21.28ff) and reminded his audience of chief priests and elders that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (v.31) They knew their need of love, and they saw, and believed in, its breaking-in. The religious professionals, on the other hand, did not. They were either so sure of God’s regard for them that they never thought of needing his love, or they were so concerned with doing their job well that the memory of their own fragility had slipped out of sight.

In Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 18, Jesus tells the parable of the tax collector, who, recognising his own isolation, his own need of God, prayed “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Later on in this same chapter, Luke records the healing of the blind man who cried out continually, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” These people knew their need of God.

Pema Chödrön writes, in Taking the Leap:

The sad part is that all we’re trying to do is not feel that underlying uneasiness.  The sadder part is that we proceed in such a way that the uneasiness only gets worse.  The message here is that the only way to ease our pain is to experience it fully.  Learn to stay.  Learn to stay with uneasiness, learn to stay with the tightening, learn to stay with the itch and urge of [attachment], so that the habitual chain reaction doesn’t continue to rule our lives, and the patterns that we consider unhelpful don’t keep getting stronger as the days and months and years go by.

* * *

Once you see what you do, how you get hooked, and how you get swept away, it’s hard to be arrogant. This honest recognition softens you up, humbles you in the best sense…

This is what the tax collectors and the blind man, the prostitutes, could not help but see. Oh, it is hard to stay with the pain, with the longing for it to go away, with the awareness of my own emptiness. But it is only the empty that can be filled, and it is only those who know that our own pain is not different from those whose pain becomes our own as we open our hearts in love to them who can “bear it up into the heart of God.”