Monthly Archives: August 2013

Closer than breathing

God is nothing if not the source of all being, that which, who, is before and beyond all things, and yet who is somehow present in his creation. God’s love, his compassion, is essentially who he is, infinitely detailed, extending to the smallest and frailest of lives – the sparrows of Jesus’ discourse (Luke 12.6).

God is present in all times, all places, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love… good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Psalm 145.8-9) But is God omnipotent? When we pray, are we asking a mighty warrior God to reach down and manipulate events to our liking?

Helen Steven writes, in her beautiful 2005 Swarthmore Lecture, No Extraordinary Power:

Personally, I derive much more comfort and inspiration in the idea of a God who is “closer than breathing”, the very ground of our being. This shifts the entire focus of the divine away from distant inaccessibility, to an immediate immanent presence within every one of us, constantly present and constantly loving. Thus, not only is God the very essence and core of my own being, there is also “that of God” in every person I meet…

There is a direct connection between a belief in this kind of God and the respect that forms the whole basis of nonviolence. If every one of us embodies an aspect of the truth of God, the divine, the very essence of humanity, then this must immediately affect how we treat that person…. If we kill or use violence against another human being, then we are doing violence to the truth of God within them.”

She goes on to say:

This illustrates a belief in God who at the core of our humanity goes beyond the confines of our individual human experience to include a dynamic within the whole universe. One of my main reasons for believing in some kind of divine purpose comes from the sheer wonder and beauty of creation…

Or at the other end of the spectrum, consider the tiny magic of a seed unfurling in the warm earth, or the little interlocking feathers of a wren, or the green brushes of a larch in spring, or the minute perfection of a sea shell, and wonder at the beauty of it all. In that sense I cannot but believe in a creator, not so much as initiating an organised act of creation, but as a purpose for good behind the universe. “And God saw that it was very good…”

My understanding of God, then, could be described as being in the connectedness of all life. God for me is like the divine spark that links me to another human being, to the animals, to all of creation – a kind of great web of connection, alive, shimmering with energy, creating flashes of inspiration and profound love.

Myself, I feel that the risk is that anything we can say of God is inadequate, even words so tenderly and tentatively put as Helen Steven’s. To speak of God as “initiating an organised act of creation” – or not – is somehow beside the point. God in God’s own being precedes all things – in him all things came to be, and in him they “live and move and have their being”.

Our prayer consciously and directedly affirms our presence within God’s “great web of connection”, and the presence within it too of that, or whom, for which we pray, and somehow opens the channel for the healing love and good that is the power that keeps all things in being. In Christ, that love, and its consequences, become human, someone we can touch, hear, love. In his death we see the vulnerability of love, the brokenness love. In his resurrection, we see its final indestructibility, its everlastingness. It is only in stillness, beyond words, that this can happen within our own selves; in our final, dangerous identification with all that suffers, weeps and dies alone – as with all that is born, rejoices, dances on the bright plain of life – our very breathing is our prayer.

There is that of God within us all; we are part of God’s “great web of connection”: there is nowhere else to go. How is even our death the end of anything?

The water of the heart

Prayer seems to me to be the water of the heart. I can’t really imagine that, however damaged we might be, however estranged from what makes us human, we don’t find that our longings, our terrors, at some time bring us out beyond our own ability to cope, to comprehend, even. In that, there is prayer, impossible though it may be for some of us to name it.

The trouble is, I’ve too often found myself stuck in definitions of prayer that depend upon a model of God’s relationship with humanity that no longer works for me. In God’s own self, God is. I am frail, temporary, contingent. The connecting strand is God’s mercy, not any act or presumption of my own.

There is something that connects us, to God and to each other, and to all of creation, that Quakers describe as “that of God in everyone.” The light in the eyes of another human, in the eyes of an animal too, that beauty that is there in life, and which ceases so certainly in death – that is pure gift, the creature’s own entire and precious isness, a little fleck of the istigkeit of God. Perhaps there are a very few in any age who know this so perfectly that they become so caught up in that shared quality of being that they are somehow more than, and yet most fully, human. Perhaps Christ is that identity new-born, a bridge where a ferry used to be. Prayer that is the heart’s true voice will cause that bridge to spring into being, the indwelling Christ born within the human heart, whatever name it might know him by.

I think that inside all true prayer there is a core of silence. We may be aware of crying out to God, railing against God, imploring or denying God; and yet deep inside there is the unknowing, the contact of the speechless with the indescribable. Maybe silence is the truest prayer. The words are just our way of telling ourselves about it, however we may intend them. If God is God, then there are no secrets between us (Romans 8.26-27), and words are neither needed nor possible, in the end.

(See also Stephanie’s Blog, P is for Prayer, 6/8/2013)