Monthly Archives: March 2014

The littleness of our present sight

And as many as honestly desire to be heirs of this holy power and kingdom, patiently wait till you feel that move in you which is of that pure nature, and having felt it alive in you, rejoice in it with hope and faith, and keep therein, and be not discouraged, because of the littleness of it in your present sight, neither do you judge and measure it thereby; for you know not what power it has with God, and how precious it is in His sight; and what it will obtain for you at His hands in the time of need, you have not yet proved, nor can you, while you have things greater in your thoughts than it to run to: The power of holiness and truth in the inward parts is not known but in the depth, when the fire of wrath comes upon all vain hopes and hypocritical confidence, when all that is without a man is removed far away; when all friends and acquaintance are become farther off than strangers, and whatever thing the creature seeks to for comfort, turns against him, and adds to his grief; then is known the power of holiness and truth in heart with God, and a clean conscience will speak peace; and none can take it away from you, if you abide but in it: He that has proved it commends it to you, who has been stripped of all, that you might learn and know the treasure of life, and holiness with God. Wherefore judge not that which is holier and lower than yourselves, but let that which is just and holy, judge that which is above it in you, which is not of that nature.

James Nayler, A Door Opened to the Imprisoned Seed, 1659

I think I’ve written before somewhere – I confess I can’t find it, though – of the strange difficulty of spirituality during times of happiness and security. A few years ago I lived through a period that I’d have described in terms very much like Nayler uses here, “when… friends and acquaintance are become farther off than strangers, and whatever thing the creature seeks to for comfort, turns against him, and adds to his grief; then is known the power of holiness and truth in heart with God, and a clean conscience will speak peace; and none can take it away from you, if you abide but in it…”

It’s a great comfort to know that God’s presence is waiting in those times of emptiness and loss, but it is confusing to know that finding him in the good times is sometimes actually harder. I cannot find another way than the odd self-denial of silent prayer, ceasing even to ask for the awareness of God in prayer, but going on in plain faithfulness, without reward, simply out of love. Then, it seems, in the paradoxical way of these things, God will in the end, even in the sunlit days, find the emptied heart in its still place, waiting in the bare inkling of Light, even in the memory of Light, and fill it with isness far more real than words, or longing.

Collaboration or conflict (slight return)

Jim Wilson, writing in QuakerQuaker, takes up Madeline Schaefer’s blog post:

First, I appreciate the willingness to both name and discuss the division between the Mystics and the Activists in the Quaker Community of our day.  It is an issue that is close to me, as I think of myself as a mystic and often feel, to varying degrees, alienated from the activist focus of so many Quakers individuals and Quaker organizations.

My take on this is that contemporary Quaker activism is a part of the largely political and activist focus that contemporary American religion is gripped by at this time.  In other words, I see Quaker activism as the same as evangelical activism, or the activism of many Catholics, for various causes, for various legislative platforms, and for various candidates.

He goes on to write:

The greatest difficulty I have with your [Schaefer’s] post is that your view is that mysticism is an adjunct to effective activism rather than an end in itself.  For example, you wrote;

“To experience the Spirit is to experience a call to action and to act with the faith that the Light will be revealed—through deep listening—after each step is taken.”

You see, that is not how I experience the Spirit.  I don’t experience the Spirit as a ‘call to action’.  And this is the divide between the mystic and the activist.  The activist views contemplation, gathered silence, dwelling in the light, as tools for a more effective activism.  In this way these prayerful engagements are hijacked by the activist and are transformed into means rather than ends; they become tools for the activist in the same way that making a poster, or putting up a web-page are tools for effective activism.

What the activist does not comprehend about the mystic is that, for the mystic, interior prayer, gathered silence, is the leading, is the purpose, and is sufficient unto itself.  The mystic does not view these engagements as tools, or add-ons, for a political purpose.

Again, I would urge you to read the post for yourself. It highlights for me the difficulty in expressing the deep need for the mystical encounter of the ‘pray-er’ with God, with the Ground of Being, and for the love (inexplicable but real, David Jones’ “actually loved and known”) inherent in that Ground.

It is easy to be caught on the back foot by the activists – after all, it’s what they do – and find oneself defensively trying to justify mysticism for its practical benefits. It’s also far too easy to find oneself attributing magical properties to contemplative prayer, or else bending over far too far backwards to avoid doing so. Wilson unforgettably goes on to say:

From the activist perspective, this is inadequate.  As Howard Brinton wrote in his ‘Introduction’ to the book ‘A Guide to True Peace’, “This solution [of interior prayer] will seem too simple to intellectuals and too inadequate to activists, the two groups that dominate our age.”  This is because the activist is always outward oriented and wants to see results ‘in the real world’.  In contrast, the mystic finds the realm of interior silence to be as real, or more real, than what is found by focusing outward.  In the inward turning the mystic finds a true home.

For the activist this is to ignore the suffering and injustices in the world.  But for the mystic there is the experience, which grows over time, that the silence and stillness found by turning inward is a blessing to the whole world, a blessing which does not give rise to strife and contention.  Because this blessing is not palpable or measurable in material terms, the activist tends to dismiss this.  Personally, though, I have come to comprehend that the turning inward of the mystic is the most that I can do for other people.  Not that I have that particular motivation for turning inward.  Rather, that blessing is a consequence of the grace that such turning opens to.

Blessing, grace – these are indeed words “not palpable or measurable in material terms”. Yet they are real – perhaps in the end more real, and of greater consequence, than results “in the real world”.

As Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote:

More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of…
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God…

Morte d’Arthur

Flowery, poetic language, of no use to a world of muck and brass? Or prophetic, in the true meaning of the word?

Collaboration or conflict?

If you hang around Quaker circles long enough, you are likely to pick up on an often unexpressed tension between what are called the “mystics” and the “activists;" those who express their faith by doing, by acting in the world, by addressing social concerns, and those who prefer to express their faith through contemplation, conversation, and other spiritual practices.

Madeline Schaefer, blogging in the American Friends Service Committee’s Acting in Faith

It seems to me that in some ways this tension runs through humanity: it is the dichotomy between Elaine Aron’s dynamic, entrepreneurial Warrior Kings and her sensitive, spiritual Priestly Advisors; or between, say, INFPs and ESTJs in the Myers Briggs typology. It crops up in discussions within traditional religious communities, and often between evangelical Christians and those from the more contemplative traditions. Madeline Schaefer goes on to say:

Both of these expressions of faith are absolutely crucial for a world transformed, both spiritually and socially.  When combined, they lead to the development of real, human relationships that plant the spiritual seeds for cultural change and inspire powerful collective action.

Just as Aron’s Warrior Kings need their Priestly Advisors in order to put the brakes on, to avoid situations like the Iraq War and the conflict in Afghanistan, so the Priestly Advisors need a few Warrior Kings around in order to get anything done at all. We need some kind of framework within which we can collaborate, rather than conflict. Perhaps Quakers do provide just that – perhaps that is the reason this little minority of people has consistently challenged the structures of power, and achieved real social change, since the early days of the 17th century. But all too often in our meetings we don’t feel as though we do, or act as though we do. Schaefer goes on:

Perhaps Quakers have been unable to connect with communities working for grassroots change because we, as Quakers, have not yet learned how to ease the tension between mystics and activists within our own Quaker communities.

This tension is often felt in a strain in the responsibilities of the meeting, and the members can feel pressed for time and resources, both of which are likely being used to satisfy the needs of these two distinct approaches to faith rather than nurturing one coherent body.

As a result, resentment often builds between people who fall on either side of the spectrum.  Why don’t those mystic types go out and do something, the activists often wonder as they hear of the formation of another spiritual support group.  Why don’t those activists sit down and consider if their actions are motivated by Spirit or ego, say the mystics to themselves after the 4th or 5th announcement to donate food to a local shelter or attend an upcoming peace vigil.

How can we bring these two powerful means of knowing and living the Spirit together so that we are not only more powerful activists, but more powerful faith communities?

Rufus Jones, a Quaker from the 20th century and one of the founders of the American Friends Service Committee, referred to this unique combination of activist and mystic as “positive mysticism.”  According to Jones, an individual’s mystical experience is not a reason to leave the world or to annihilate the personality. To the contrary, the experience of a deep resonance with the Spirit is a call to be more truly oneself, to refine one’s personality so that it is in closer resonance with that divine Spirit in all walks of life.   To experience the Spirit is to experience a call to action and to act with the faith that the Light will be revealed—through deep listening—after each step is taken.

This is an on-going dialogue, and it would encourage me no end if Friends in this country were to take it up with the courage and clear-sightedness Madeline Schaefer shows here. Do read her whole post, and consider what it has to say to you, and to your meeting.

“An attention full of love…”

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.

Words must be purified in a redemptive silence if they are to bear the message of peace. The right to speak is a call to the duty of listening. Speech has no meaning unless there are attentive minds and silent hearts. Silence is the welcoming acceptance of the other. The word born of silence must be received in silence.

Pierre Lacout, Quaker Faith & Practice 2.12

I can’t think of a better description for what happens in worship than “an attention full of love”. Silence is so much the meeting place of the human and the infinite that the heart begins to thirst for it as for living water.

Silence is surprisingly hard to come by, though, in our lives outside of meeting for worship. Our minds are so full of things they cling to, scraps of thought, reflections of the past, longings and terrors. Silence is not of the mind. It seems to be a condition mysteriously apart from thought and what we are used to calling perception – sensory data, mostly, and the learned or innate response of the endocrine system to those data, and to our state of mind. Yet silence is there, even when we are not silent.

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.

Elfrida Vipont Foulds, 1983 (Quaker Faith & Practice 2.21)

Silence is then a place of refuge, somewhere waiting for us to return to it, our true home perhaps, and certainly the one to which we shall all return in the end. All that is necessary then is to disengage the ceaseless administration of the mind, with its measuring and its classifying and its valuing, and to “sink… into silence and nothingness before [the ground of our being]” to misquote John Bellows, the Victorian Friend.

Easier said than done, which is why the whole literature of contemplation has grown up over millennia. Actually it matters little in the end how one practices, whether watching the breath or the Jesus Prayer, or anywhere in between, as much as that one practices. And yet… And yet the practice isn’t it. The ‘place of inward retirement’, and what is found there, is it.

You know, one thing troubles me. The mind is a subtle monkey, and it will lay claim to, and build its little empires out of, even the holiest things. I find it perilously easy to get hooked on the accidents and equipment of contemplation, which then become yet more ‘stuff’ to get out of the way, out of the path to that place of inward retirement. And I haven’t even started on the philosophical and religious structures that support those accidents and equipments.

This is where I turn so eagerly to early, or at least earlier, Quakers -  as does David Johnson, in his excellent recent book A Quaker Prayer Life. Isaac Pennington, writing in the middle part of the 17th century:

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion. (Quaker Faith & Practice 26.70)

Harold Loukes, in 1967:

Prayer is experienced as deeper than words or busy thoughts. ‘Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts’, said Fox. It is marked by a kind of relaxed readiness, a ‘letting-go’ of the problems and perplexities with which the mind is occupied, and a waiting in ‘love and truth’: the truth about oneself, the truth about the world, deeper than the half-truths we see when we are busy in it about our own planning and scheming, the love in which we are held when we think of others more deeply than our ordinary relations with them, the love that at root holds us to the world. Prayer is not words or acts, but reaching down to love: holding our fellows in love, offering ourselves in love; and being held by, being caught up in love. It is communion, an opening of the door, an entry from the beyond. This is the point where secular language fails, for this cannot be spoken about at all: it can only be known. (Quaker Faith & Practice 2.23)