Monthly Archives: April 2014

Only going home…

But then one bright spring day – it was the 29th of May 1902 – while she sat preparing for her class under the trees in the backyard of Föreningsgatan 6, quietly, invisibly, there occurred the central event of her whole life. Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ‘empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.

The first words which came to her – although they took a long time to come – were, ‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ The child who had cried out in anguish and been silenced had now come inside the gates of Light. She had been delivered by a love that is greater than any human love. Struck dumb, amazed, she went quietly to her class, wondering that no one noticed that something had happened to her.

(Quaker Faith & Practice 26.05)

Emilia Fogelklou, the great Swedish Quaker theologian and writer is describing (in the third person) an experience she had at the age of 23. She was never the same again.

‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ This seems to be the extraordinary thing about the experience of the Ground of Being: what is encountered is not impersonal, not abstract at all; but love, mercy itself, enfolding and sustaining the living heart rather than engulfing it.

In her beautiful and transforming book The Grace in Dying, Kathleen Dowling Singh writes:

The Ground of Being is, in a very real sense, Love. As we merge with it, self-consciousness and all question of self-worth and previous psychological issues of lovability spontaneously melt. Love simultaneously pours into and pours out of us. It begins to pour through us.

Dowling Singh is writing here of the process of dying, but it is much the same thing. She herself points out elsewhere in the same book that the experience of divine Love at the transpersonal level – enlightenment if you will – seems to be identical in dying and in mystical states. This is not something to be discussed or dissected, but a matter of straightforward experience. Like so much of the spiritual life, it can sound all too grand and pretentious, but it is in fact the plainest and in many ways the easiest and most natural thing. What else should it be, I suppose? We are only going home.

“It will be done to you…”

You are a son or daughter of the Good and Loving God. The Divine Image is planted inherently and intrinsically within you. You cannot create it, you cannot manufacture it, you cannot earn it, you cannot achieve it, you cannot attain it, you cannot cumulatively work up to it. Do you know why? Because you already have it! That is the core of the Gospel.

A preoccupation with False Self gets in the way of experiencing and knowing this reality. The False Self is an imaginary self that thinks it’s separate; it is the self that I think I am. The False Self is what has to die so your True Self can live.

God will lead you to that new, transformed place of the True Self if you get out of the way. You don’t have to do it; it will be done to you. Don’t try to engineer your own death. That just reinforces the ego.

A situation in your life will lead you to a place, an event, a relationship, a failing or falling apart of something wherein you can’t control life anymore and you can’t understand it. Your little, separate, False Self is simply inadequate to the task. And finally, thankfully, you collapse into the larger self, who you are in God, the True Self, which is inherently beloved.

You can’t make yourself more beloved, and you can’t make yourself less beloved. You just have to one day recognize that it is true and start drawing your life from that much larger Source.

Adapted from Dying: We Need It for Life (Richard Rohr on Transformation)

You may remember I wrote in a recent post, how comparatively easy it is for me to find God in the desperate times, and how I occasionally struggle with “the strange difficulty of spirituality during times of happiness and security.”

Rohr puts his finger on it here, I think, when he says, “You don’t have to do it; it will be done to you.”

I am far too prone to try and take responsibility for my own spiritual life. In reality, there is little I can do myself. In the last year of his short life, Thomas R Kelly wrote (Quaker Faith & Practice 2.10):

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 knock.’ And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.

William Leddra of Barbados, on the day before he was martyred in 1661, wrote (QFP 2.19):

As the flowing of the ocean doth fill every creek and branch thereof, and then retires again towards its own being and fulness, and leaves a savour behind it; so doth the life and virtue of God flow into every one of your hearts, whom he hath made partakers of his divine nature; and when it withdraws but a little, it leaves a sweet savour behind it; that many can say they are made clean through the word that he hath spoken to them. In which innocent condition you may see what you are in the presence of God, and what you are without him… Stand still, and cease from thine own working, and in due time thou shalt enter into the rest, and thy eyes shall behold his salvation, whose testimonies are sure, and righteous altogether.

What is hard for us, for me at any rate, is to stand still and cease from my own working. That feels like negligence, when it is actually faith, and irresponsibility, when it is trusting in that infinite and loving mercy that is God.

A due proportion of solitude…

The amount of solitude which is attainable or would be wholesome in the case of any individual life is a matter which each of us must judge for himself… A due proportion of solitude is one of the most important conditions of mental health. Therefore if it be our lot to stand apart from those close natural ties by which life is for most people shaped and filled, let us not be in haste to fill the gap; let us not carelessly or rashly throw away the opportunity of entering into that deeper and more continual acquaintance with the unseen and eternal things which is the natural and great compensation for the loss of easier joys. The loneliness which we rightly dread is not the absence of human faces and voices – it is the absence of love… Our wisdom therefore must lie in learning not to shrink from anything that may be in store for us, but so to grasp the master key of life as to be able to turn everything to good and fruitful account.

Caroline E Stephen, 1908 – Quaker Faith & Practice 22.30

It seems to me that for those of us whose lot is not to stand apart from others really do need to take seriously the fact that “[a] due proportion of solitude is one of the most important conditions of mental health.” In a marriage, or other committed relationship, each party surely owes it to the other ensure that they do have “[a] due proportion of solitude”. This is one of the greatest gifts those who live together can give each other, not only to allow each other reasonable solitude, and each gently to safeguard their own, but actively to work for a way of life that allows reasonable, loving access to times alone with “the unseen and eternal things”.

I find it slightly odd that the chapter in Quaker Faith & Practice devoted to close relationships doesn’t seem to deal with this explicitly. There are several moving and inspiring quotations on the spiritual dimensions of relationships which have a bearing on what I’m thinking of, but I can find nothing clearer. The most striking of these passages seems to me to be Christopher Holdsworth’s, from 1985 (22.06):

I wonder whether we do not need to rediscover the possibilities of a friendship in which the deepest areas of experience may be shared. Certainly that kind of openness seems to have existed in earlier generations among a group who were very significant in the life of the Society. Until this century it was not uncommon for Friends to travel in the ministry, following a real sense of leading in this direction. Often they went out in pairs, one older, one younger. The study of their travels shows, I think, that their friendship became one in which they could open to one another their struggles and failures, their hopes and visions, when they became for each other the way through to the presence of God. On their journeyings, too, they met with Friends in their homes, seeking times for worship and prayer together, sometimes with whole families, sometimes with individuals. In this way they shared help on the inner journey with those with whom they met.

Even this, though, doesn’t engage directly with the issue of solitary space within loving relatedness, though it shows clearly enough the deep basis of trust and friendship required to allow each other our necessary solitudes. Rachel Rowlands and other have written movingly of the need for, and the dynamics of, community (22.20-29) but I should be glad of other Friends’ perspectives on giving each other the precious gift of stillness and solitude. To be in such a relationship myself is a most blessed thing, and to be able to give as well as receive such a gift is one of our most cherished expressions of our love.

The mystery of faith within relationship is deeper than many of us know, I think, and a loving, respectful exploration of it is one of the great adventures of living, and loving, together. But in order to do so, experience suggests that times alone with “the unseen and eternal things” are as necessary as times together. Each is then able to bring back to the hearth of the relationship the fruits of their travels in the silent places of the heart.

I rather wish it were possible to encourage more of such gift-giving among Friends – or at least to know how common it is, and how other Friends have found ways to make it part of their lives together.

In the inner darkness…

Quaker prayer arises from a life of continuing devotion. We learn by experience.

The first step is a daily and continuing practice to centre down, turning to the inward light no matter how dim at first, and cultivation an inward listening. Disregard the intrusions of thoughts… “Stand still in the Light” inwardly refusing to be diverted. Submit everything to the scrutiny of the inward Light; sink low and allow the Light to judge and dispel these illusory thoughts…

The second step is a mental willingness and desire to be free of all the imaginations and workings of the mind so that the entire being is directed inwardly to God. This inward yielding is an act of humble submission, and an acknowledgement that all is in God’s hands and in God’s time. We admit our dependence on God. The sanctification or purifying of the heart and soul is done in the inner darkness, unknown and unfelt by  us at the time. That is why we must learn to reside in the inner darkness without expecting wonderful spiritual delights and consolations every time we spare time for prayer. Coming wholeheartedly to prayer is more important than the results of the prayer.

The third step is to love the Light as it begins to show us what to do and what needs to be remedied in our lives to make us more acceptable in God’s sight… We need to give priority to the small voice or dim light within us and allow that to judge what is more worldly. We must reverse the usual behaviour of allowing our mind to judge the small, divine seed hidden beneath this veil of worldly commentary. We must “keep low” within ourselves…

David Johnson, A Quaker Prayer Life, 2013

“The sanctification or purifying of the heart and soul is done in the inner darkness, unknown and unfelt by us at the time.” This is perhaps the key to understanding what is involved in the practice of contemplative prayer. It requires an utter, implicit trust in God to pray like this, unknown and unrewarded even by ourselves, which is of course part of the paradox of prayer itself. The call to prayer, and the trust required to pray with no visible “answer”, is pure grace; such grace is only to be reached in prayer.

Paradox it may be, but it works. Women and men through all the history of humanity have found – been shown – the way. The heart’s wisdom is far greater than the mind’s inquiry, and it is in the heart that the “small, divine seed” sets itself. All that is required is an inner yielding, a hope in that not seen. The apostle Paul, a far greater teacher on prayer than he is often given credit for being, wrote to the Romans (8.24b-25; 5.5):

Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience… and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

David Johnson concludes his book:

It is clear that this inward yielding and obedience to the Light was the source of the extraordinary connectedness with God experienced by the early Quakers. It is also the source of their inspiration, inward clarity, steadfastness and courage that “turned the world upside down”.