Monthly Archives: June 2013

Waiting in Swanage


Evening closes down on what has been day,
even at the height of summer.
Long before dark a waiting stillness
remembers how short the year is.

Brief gulls over this edge of land
have no song, really.
Finding a voice for stone, perhaps,
is left to us.

Silence is as much as we need.
The bright bay lies a mile away
across a jumbled fealty of town –
truth worn down to that not proclaimed.

What is Truth?

Pontius Pilate (in)famously asked Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18.38)

Truth is one of the Quaker testimonies, and in his book Being a Quaker, Geoffrey Durham reminds us (p. 74) that the 17th century Quakers “called themselves Friends of Truth. Truth for them meant more than authenticity, integrity, or an absence of lying. It went deeper, to the very core of things: Truth with a capital ‘T’ acquired new meaning, expressing not only the word of God, but the Godliness in each of us.”

It seems to me that any truth we can tell depends upon another – there is a chain of dependency, and if you trace the real seaweed back to its holdfast, there is the rock. The rock rests on a beach… But at the least, truth is what actually is. As Thomas Aquinas said, “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality.” Anything less, like William James’ pragmatic theory of truth, would have received short shrift from George Fox and Margaret Fell, I think.

But suppose we were able to trace truth back, all the way down the chain of dependencies, holdfast to rock, rock to beach, to a final placeless place where its absolute existence depended upon nothing else. Wouldn’t that be Truth, worthy of its capital ‘T’? And if it were dependent upon nothing else, would it not be itself istigkeit, isness in itself existing beyond cause or condition? And what could we call it but God?

On not excluding people

Those at the  edge of any system and those excluded from any system ironically and invariably  hold the secret for the conversion and wholeness of that very group. They  always hold the feared, rejected, and denied parts of the group’s soul. You  see, therefore, why the church was meant to be that group that constantly went  to the edges, to the “least of the brothers and sisters,” and even to the  enemy. Jesus was not just a theological genius, but he was also a psychological  and sociological genius. When any church defines itself by exclusion of  anybody, it is always wrong. It is avoiding its only vocation, which is to  be the Christ. The only groups that Jesus seriously critiques are those who  include themselves and exclude others from the always-given grace of God.

Richard Rohr, from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations p.28

I make no apology for a second consecutive quote from Richard Rohr. I have felt the pain of this tendency within the church for as long as I can remember, whether or not I have (potentially) been among the excluded. There is a wrongness about any religious exclusion, on whatever ground, that brings with it the visceral shock and revulsion of sexual violence, or of any betrayal of intrinsic trust and vulnerability.

It is the inclusive nature of Quaker life and worship that is to me one of its most attractive qualities. There are no tests of orthodoxy, of catechesis, of “Biblical living”, but only an openheartedness that is at its best honest, accepting, and genuinely loving. Of course Quakers are not perfect, and there must be many times when individuals and groups don’t meet this best, but I don’t know of anyone who would consciously repudiate it.

Searching for words better than my own to express what I’m trying not altogether successfully to say, I found these from Kathleen Lonsdale, in 1967:

To me, being a Christian is a particular way of life, not the unquestioning acceptance of a particular system of theology, not belief in the literal truth of the Virgin birth, or the Resurrection and Ascension, but being the kind of person that Jesus wanted his followers to be and doing the things he told them to do…

Nor, it seems to me, can you live a Christian life unless, like Jesus, you believe in the power of goodness, of justice, of mercy and of love; unless you believe in these so strongly that you are prepared to put them to the acid test of experiment; unless these constitute the real meaning of life for you, more important than life itself, as they were for Jesus.

Quaker Faith and Practice 20.26

Corporate Evil

Up to now, we have almost entirely emphasized personal sin, with little notion of what John Paul II rightly called “structural sin” or “institutional evil.” There has been little recognition of the deep connection between the structures that people uncritically accept and the personal evil things they also do.

The individual has usually gotten all the blame, while what Paul called the powers, the sovereignties, and the principalities (Romans 8:38, Colossians 2:15, Ephesians 3:10, 6:12) have gotten off scot-free for most of Christian history. These were his words for institutions and social systems. They have a life (and death!) of their own that is usually above normal understanding and thus eludes any honest critique. In fact, we tend to worship them as mighty and strong, and therefore always good. “Too big to fail,” we now say. We tend to demonize the individual prostitute, but not the industry of pornography at many levels. We tend to hate the greedy person, but in fact we idealize and try to be a part of the system that made them rich.

For example, people tend to support and even idealize almost all wars that their country wages. In fact, few things are more romanticized than war, except by those who suffer from them. At the same time, we rail against violence in the streets, the violence of our young people, and the violence on the news every night. We are slowly learning that we cannot have it both ways. If violence is a way to solve international problems, then it is a way to solve problems at home too. We can’t say “it’s bad here but it’s good there.”

We know how to name individual sin and evil, but we do not know how to name corporate sin and evil. We have ended up with a very inconsistent morality, which few take seriously any more or even know how to follow. That is why we need a consistent ethic of life.

Richard Rohr, from Spiral of Violence: The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (CD, MP3)

Here comes the rain again…

The rain I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and its porch with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer…

Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.

Thomas Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable

Merton’s account of the rain in the woods around his cabin reminds me of something Thomas R Kelly wrote in A Testament of Devotion:

In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the Living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. “Behold, I stand at the door and know.” And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us.

More and more I am sure that I am unable to make true decisions by my own will or reason over the path my inner (or outer, come to that) life is to take. It is not my own rational ideas, still less the external disciplines and authority of men, that will bring me into the light and truth of love and grace, but only the work of the Spirit, insistent and penetrating as Merton’s rain. If I am called to action, or to inaction, that is for the inward Light to press me towards, and not for me to work out with my busy, chirping mind. In Chapter 48 of the Tao Te Ching Lao Tse wrote:

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.

In Meeting for Worship the truest ministry seems to come when the minister cannot help herself, but rises to speak almost against her will, not knowing what she will say. I do not know what I should do in the fullness of time – I can’t tell if I shall be called to action or to inaction, to stillness or to protest. But somehow that’s OK.

(Title with apologies to Eurythmics)

Journey into Life

We weren’t able to be at this year’s Britain Yearly Meeting, so we missed hearing Gerald Hewitson give the 2013 Swarthmore Lecture. For those of you who also were prevented from being there, you can download .pdf and .docx text versions of the Lecture here, and order nicely produced print and e-book copies here; but if you’ve an hour or so to spare, I would really recommend listening to Gerald give the lecture himself.

Journey into Life is one of the most moving accounts of the Quaker life I know. I was going to write more of my own personal reflections on Gerald’s journey, but somehow that doesn’t feel like the right thing to do here. There is too much in this Lecture to risk spoiling the taste, as it were, with my own dressings – so I’ll confine myself to reproducing here the excellent blurb on the Quaker Centre Bookshop page:

“In seeking to understand the words of early Friends, it seemed as if I was following a thread in a labyrinth. As I penetrated deeper more seemed to be revealed – a book, a conversation, an insight, a revelation – and a Way opened.”

The stories of Quakers, past and present, as individuals and as communities, are important. They can reveal a truth that is beyond words, can guide and inspire us. In this powerful and often challenging book, Gerald Hewitson weaves his own story – from his humbling upbringing to his coming into being as a convinced Quaker – into the context of the Quaker tradition. Punctuated by the words of early Friends, Journey into life explores how the stories and texts of Quakers in the past can offer a vision of how to transform and invigorate our Quakerism now; by examining the faith, politics and metaphors of Quaker heritage, the author shows how understanding the spiritual awareness of early Friends opens us to a new conviction and truth in the present.

Originally from South Yorkshire, Gerald found Quakers in the late 1970s and is one of two founder members of now flourishing Holyhead Meeting. He has served the Society in a number of ways, most recently with his wife Gwyneth as Resident Friend at Pendle Hill Quaker Center, Philadelphia, in autumn 2011.

What kind of God?

As we… hear the Voice of the Spirit which speaks from within our Being, it will usually express Itself in familiar language. In the words of Jesus… “I and My Father are One.”

This Oneness is infinity, a mystical experience, existing within all traditions, and embracing all creation. Yet even expressed in religious language, it is beyond all religious ideas. Through it, as the Tao Teh Ching tells us, “Differences are ironed out, knots untangled and true harmony restored.” (Ch. 4)

It is good to set aside a period of meditation each day for the needs of the world. The same principles apply, and even more so, for it we do not know how to help individuals, how much less do we know how to take care of the needs of the world. We can only realise that the world is what the Tao Teh Ching calls ‘a sacred vessel’ (Ch.29) or, to put it another way, it is ‘in the hands of God’ and thus truly spiritual in nature. Then, in the Stillness, comes the reassurance, “All is well,” and we know we have done our part.

By honestly admitting out human limitations we come to know God as unconditional Love and Power, and free from all limitation. We can experience God as both personal and impersonal, beyond all our possible imaginings, yet as our Life itself. Infinite Compassion is Its very being, and we are able to take from It all we can use for ourselves and for the benefit of others. All we can do is to be still and allow God to be God in the Silence.

Jim Pym, What kind of God, What kind of Healing?

Praying like this is one of the strongest leadings, or if you like, instincts, or calls on my life, that I know. Sometimes I wonder, or am tempted to wonder, whether I am doing any good praying like this. Yet there are reassurances more than even the most hesitant heart ought to need, not only directly, as Jim Pym describes above, but in Scripture (Romans 8.26-27 being the most obvious one I know) and in the teachings of contemplative prayer in all traditions.

Last weekend, Susan and I were privileged to attend a retreat led by Laurence Freeman OSB at the Gillis Centre in Edinburgh, under the auspices of the Edinburgh International Centre for Spirituality & Peace (EICSP), and in both Fr Laurence’s own talks, and most strikingly in the workshop periods, this came up again and again. Our practice, be it Christian contemplation or Buddhist Nembutsu or Zazen, is not for ourselves alone. “As a mother would risk her life to protect her child, her only child, even so should one cultivate a limitless heart with regard to all beings. With goodwill for the entire cosmos cultivate a limitless heart.” (Metta Sutta)

It seems to me that when we meet for Worship we’re not just doing something for the benefit of each of us, nor even for the benefit of the Meeting as a whole, but something of far wider effect, and this effect is not limited to those present merely being ‘inspired’ to do practical things for those in need, for instance. As Jim Pym says, God is free from all limitations: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1.17) As L Hugh Doncaster said (Quaker Faith & Practice 26.43)

The heart of the Quaker message does not lie in a doctrine expressed in abstract terms, but in an experience of power and grace, known in our hearts and also related to the structure of the universe; also known individually and recognised as belonging to all. At the same time this universal spirit is focused and made personal in Jesus in a way which makes it appropriate to speak of the Universal Light as the Light of Christ.

Our prayer, be it one of simple silence, or an opening of the heart such as the Jesus Prayer or Buddhist Metta practice, is, just as the apostle James said, “powerful and effective” (5.16) and in it we may hold all beings in the Light that gives each of us our life.