Monthly Archives: February 2014

Doubt & Questioning

Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light. Remember the importance of the Bible, the writings of Friends and all writings which reveal the ways of God. As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained? While respecting the experiences and opinions of others, do not be afraid to say what you have found and what you value. Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.

Advices & Queries – 5

Too often doubt is taken as being the antithesis to faith, and questioning as the act of an immature and ungrateful Christian. And yet both are in fact expressions of maturity, trust and grace. It is only the greatest trust and love that can ask, that can turn to God and say, as Mary is recorded as doing, “What is going on? This just doesn’t make sense?” (Luke 1.34) And it is only trust and love that would even think of saying, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9.24)

It seems really important to me that we grasp this both for ourselves and for those around us. Unless we grasp it for ourselves we shall always be held back from real spiritual growth, and particularly – paradoxically, maybe – from growing in trust and inner security; unless we grasp it for others, we shall always be in danger of judging them, of setting ourselves somehow above them, missing what they might have to teach of, and missing the opportunity to support them in love.

It isn’t immediately easy, though, to see how we can come to trust enough to doubt and question. Most of us instinctively fear rejection, judgement, especially when this is what we have received from our fellow-Christians in the past. It seems to me that it is only from God that we can learn how trustworthy God is. We learn it by trusting enough to allow ourselves to encounter God, unmediated by our own preconceptions, our own learned response to Scripture. This is why, perhaps, such a passage is found in Advices & Queries: in silence we have nothing between ourselves and God, no words, no ritual, nothing except the empty rattle of our own thoughts, that die away quickly enough as we become aware of the real nature of the silence. As Pierre Lacout wrote, “God is there. But there is still silence. And the more God is there, the more there is Silence. Only those who try out this way of silence know how many shades of meaning this word can include, how much variety, how much mystery.”

Prayer without ceasing?

How, then, shall we lay hold of that Life and Power, and live the life of prayer without ceasing? By quiet, persistent practice in turning all our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, towards Him who calls in the deeps of our souls. Mental habits of inward orientation must be established. An inner, secret turning to God can be made fairly steady, after weeks and months and years of practice and lapses and failures and returns. It is as simple an art as Brother Lawrence found it, but it may be long before we achieve any steadiness in the process. Begin now, as you read these words, as you sit in your chair, to offer your whole selves, utterly and in joyful abandon, in quiet, glad surrender to Him who is within. In secret ejaculations of praise, turn in humble wonder to the Light, faint though it may be. Keep contact with the outer world of sense and meanings. Here is no discipline in absent-mindedness. Walk and talk and work and laugh with your friends. But behind the scenes keep up the life of simple prayer and inward worship. Keep it up throughout the day. Let inward prayer be your last act before you fall asleep and the first act when you awake. And in time you will find, as did Brother Lawrence, that ‘those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep’.

Thomas R Kelly, 1941 (Quaker Faith & Practice 2.22)

Simple though Brother Lawrence called it, the practice of the presence of God is a lifelong discipline, in which we become caught, I think, rather than deciding on it, as maybe a New Year’s resolution. Repetitive prayer, whether a Christian practice such as the Jesus Prayer, or a Buddhist one such as the Nembutsu, has a way, eventually, of attaching itself to one’s life rhythms – the breath, the heartbeat – till it becomes an integrated part of one’s existence, drawing the heart (understood as the centre of our personal being) not away from “the outer world of sense and meanings” but always towards the source of all that is.

This is not a difficult, technical exercise, nor one reserved for men of unusual and select spiritual gifts, but one for all of us, female or male, artisan or intellectual, old or young. It is so simple, whether as a side-effect of a practice such as the Nembutsu, or to “maintain a simple attention and a fond regard for God, which I may call an actual presence of God.” (Brother Lawrence)

As Quakers, our practice is above all silence, and it is through that silence that we may find a way into our “simple attention” that we had perhaps not suspected, for it is not much spoken of in the literature of inner prayer, even among Friends. Elfrida Vipont Foulds, writing in 1983, said,

I read that I was supposed to make ‘a place for inward retirement and waiting upon God’ in my daily life, as the Queries in those days expressed it… At last I began to realise, first that I needed some kind of inner peace, or inward retirement, or whatever name it might be called by; and then that these apparently stuffy old Friends were really talking sense. If I studied what they were trying to tell me, I might possibly find that the ‘place of inward retirement’ was not a place I had to go to, it was there all the time. I could know the ‘place of inward retirement’ wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, and find the spiritual refreshment for which, knowingly or unknowingly, I was longing, and hear the voice of God in my heart. Thus I began to realise that prayer was not a formality, or an obligation, it was a place which was there all the time and always available.

(Quaker Faith & Practice 2.21)

The heart knows its own true North. It is only we, living as we do in our minds, our busy-ness, our acquisitiveness and our anxieties, who lose our bearings.

Pierre Lacout (God is Silence, 1969) writes:

In silence which is active, the Inner Light begins to glow – a tiny spark. For the flame to be kindled and to grow, subtle argument and the clamour of our emotions must be stilled. It is by an attention full of love that we enable the Inner Light to blaze and illuminate our dwelling and to make of our whole being a source from which this Light may shine out…

God is there. But there is still silence. And the more God is there, the more there is Silence. Only those who try out this way of silence know how many shades of meaning this word can include, how much variety, how much mystery.

If we but turn our attention away from “subtle argument and clamour” into the “place of inward retirement”, back into our own stillness, we haven’t to do anything, but merely allow the compass of our heart to swing true North, the source of all that is, and our own destination.

But there is a Root, or Depth in Thee…

For this turning to the Light and Spirit of God within Thee, is thy only true turning unto God, there is no other Way of finding Him, but in that Place where he dwelleth in Thee. For though God be everywhere present, yet He is only present to Thee in the deepest, and most central Part of thy Soul. Thy natural Senses cannot possess God, or unite Thee to Him, nay thy inward Faculties of Understanding, Will, and Memory, can only reach after God, but cannot be the Place of his Habitation in Thee. But there is a Root, or Depth in Thee, from whence all these Faculties come forth, as Lines from a Centre, or as Branches from the Body of the Tree. This Depth is called the Centre, the Fund or Bottom of the Soul. This Depth is the Unity, the Eternity, I had almost said, the Infinity of thy Soul; for it is so infinite, that nothing can satisfy it, or give it any Rest, but the infinity of God.

William Law, The Spirit of Prayer

William Law, writing in 1749, gets absolutely what I was trying to say in yesterday’s post: the way to God is deep within the heart of each of us. Quakers speak of ‘that of God in every one’ (George Fox) and it is by finding this divine seed as we might call it, by ‘inward retirement’ that I think we find the gateway to the Ground of Being itself. We are not separate, never could be separate, from the Source of all being; and yet that Source, that Ground, is infinitely greater than we are ourselves, and eternal where we are brief and transient. God is not ‘out there’ in space or somewhere like that, but neither is God ‘in here’, contained within the human mind or soul like some psychological type or complex. JB Phillips told us that our God is too small; looked at as the Ground of Being, any conception we could possibly form of God is far too small, and can never be anything more.

The process of ‘inward retirement’, to borrow Pierre Lacout‘s phrase, is the only way I have found to approach that Root or Centre where it touches God, and God touches it. The means of inward retirement may be as different and various as women and men are themselves, but there is one destination – which we shall all reach in the end, whether we know it or not – and in the end all our ways and means come down to that one turning – metanoia – to the deepest and truest identity far within, that is the indwelling Light and Spirit itself.