Monthly Archives: June 2014

Love is strong as death

I have in mind something deeper than the simplification of our external programs, our absurdly crowded calendars of appointments through which so many pantingly and frantically gasp. These do become simplified in holy obedience, and the poise and peace we have been missing can really be found. But there is a deeper, an internal simplification of the whole of one’s personality, stilled, tranquil, in childlike trust listening ever to Eternity’s whisper, walking with a smile into the dark

Thomas R Kelly – with thanks to Hay Quaker

It may seem odd to speak of “walking with a smile into the dark” in a culture that has grown up to “rage, rage against the dying of the light”, or even as Quakers to “mind the Light” always. But the dark of the senses is not dark: there are many more wavelengths of light clear to the heart than the eye perceives.

Catherine Doherty wrote:

True silence is the suspension bridge that a soul in love with God builds to cross the dark, frightening gullies of its own mind, the strange chasms of temptation, the depthless precipices of its own fears that impede its way to God. Such silence is holy, a prayer beyond all prayers, leading to the final prayer of constant presence of God, to the heights of contemplation, when the soul, utterly at peace, lives by the will of him whom she loves totally, utterly, and completely.

Silence is a name we give to the absence of audible frequencies, just as dark is the absence of the visible. In silence there is nothing but God, nothing but the Light of love. Love transmits on frequencies far below the audible, and far into the wavelengths above the visible, and even human love is strong as death…

About silence and prayer

In a glorious post on her blog A Seat At The Table, Claire Bangasser quotes Anthony de Mello quoting Thomas Merton quoting an anonymous Syrian monk (St Isaac?):

If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence like the sunlight will illuminate you in God and will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance… In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then there is born something that draws us to silence… If only you practice this, untold light will dawn on you in consequence… after a while a certain sweetness is born in the heart of this exercise and the body is drawn almost by force to remain in silence.

Silence is the deepest refuge the heart can discover this side of death. William Penn wrote in 1699, “True silence … is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” (Quaker Faith & Practice 2.13). John Bellows, in 1895 (QFP 2.15), wrote:

I know of no other way, in these deeper depths, of trusting in the name of the Lord, and staying upon God, than sinking into silence and nothingness before Him… So long as the enemy can keep us reasoning he can buffet us to and fro; but into the true solemn silence of the soul before God he cannot follow us.

I have found myself longing for silence like one longs for cold water on a long and dusty walk in the height of summer, when the path shimmers in sunlight, and the flies glitter beside the way. To be still and quiet, under the heart’s trees, is to touch the growing point of God’s love, the very place he comes to meet us, which we know as Christ.

This is why the Jesus Prayer is such a clear and present doorway into silence. Irma Zaleski writes:

This fundamental aloneness of the human being before the face of God is very difficult for many of us to accept. We often associate it with loneliness, with lack of love and rejection, even with death… We hardly ever feel comfortable with silence.

…We are never still. We forget, or perhaps we have never learned, that although we can never break down the walls of our aloneness ourselves, God certainly can. Our aloneness – our separateness – is not a prison in which we must remain forever, but a door to communion: with God, but also with the whole universe. For God brings with him every human being who has ever lived.

Praying the Jesus Prayer can become such a door for us. By praying it simply, standing alone and totally open and real before the face of Christ, we become aware of the great silence – the holy silence – at the heart of our being… By repeating the Name of Jesus over and over again, by patiently putting away from us all distractions, all our own thoughts and feelings, our minds become emptied, purified, ready to receive the gift of silence, the gift of being still.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…


Language, words and silence

We cannot ever understand the nature and actions of God, who is by definition unknowable except as he lets himself be known to us; what we need is a symbolic language which can allow us to represent to ourselves how we understand God in relation to existence. Liturgy, doctrine and the whole equipment of religions provide this. If I as a Quaker come to discard these, I at any rate must ensure that I do still have access to a symbolic language of some sort, even to be able to talk to myself about God.

In The Mercy Blog last year I wrote,

I have been trying to find my way recently through a thicket of thoughts about prayer. Prayer has been so important to me in my Christian life – the central calling, as I have felt – that it is really quite hard for me to look at it at all objectively.

Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to know how things worked. Not just the mechanics of things, but what was at the heart of them, what “made them tick”. I am still that way. I find it hard to pray unless I have an idea, a theory, of how prayer works.

To be honest, I am not sure if this is possible. There are many models used by different people at different times to try and explain how prayer works, from “asking big daddy in the sky,” to making oneself, one’s own will and capacities, available to God for his will and purposes. Asking “in Jesus’ name” too has come to complicate the understanding of prayer, it then being necessary to point out that this is not a magical formula, but is in fact praying according to God’s will, with the same obedience to that will that Jesus himself showed throughout his life, death and resurrection.

Paul, of course, came closest to my own experience when he wrote, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” (Romans 8.26-27)

If God is spirit, eternally and universally present and yet beyond time and space, then he/she/it is not “a person” as we understand the word “person” at all. Just as God is not a thing, but No Thing, isness itself, God is as far beyond our human concept of personhood as humanity is beyond algae, quite possibly further.

What is prayer, though? Without some form of symbolic language for it, I find prayer almost impossible to think about. I imagine that in some way I do it unawares, yet to pray intentionally I find I need something to intend. Compassion – suffering with – brings the need for prayer into focus, sometimes into acute focus. Inarticulate though that heart’s cry may be, it needs a carrier wave even for the assent of the waking heart to its pain.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote,

A person may go on pondering deeply in intense emotion about his needs, about the need of the moment. That is not yet prayer. Adding “in the name of God” to it will not make it prayer. It is the cry of anguish which becomes a realization of God’s mercy that constitutes prayer. It is the moment of a person in anguish forgetting his anguish and thinking of God and God’s mercy. That is prayer… It may last a moment but it is the essence of a lifetime.

The Insecurity of Freedom, with thanks to inward/outward

It is that turning to God and trusting in his mercy that for me needs some kind of pivot on which to turn. In meeting for worship the act itself, the presence of Friends, the nature of silence among us, provides that. Alone, or with one other, I am returned again and again to the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…

I wrote in The Mercy Blog,

Intercessory prayer, at least the intercession of the contemplative, does not mean presenting God with accurate analyses of the situation or the person we are praying for, nor presenting him with detailed solutions we have worked out which he is to bring to pass “in Jesus’ name.” True intercession, as I understand it, is simply being with the person in God’s presence—being in God’s presence with the person held in our love and our shared distress.

The Welsh Franciscan Brother Ramon in fact wrote better of exactly this:

It is difficult to speak of the aim or goal of [contemplative] prayer, for there is a sense in which it is a process of union which is as infinite as it is intimate… The meaning and design of the Jesus Prayer is an ever deepening union with God, within the communion of saints. It is personal, corporate and eternal, and the great mystics, in the Biblical tradition, come to an end of words. They say that "eye has not seen nor ear heard", they speak of "joy unspeakable" and "groanings unutterable" and "peace that passes understanding".

But there are some things which we can say, which are derivative of that central core of ineffable experience. We can say that such prayer contains within itself a new theology of intercession. It is not that we are continually naming names before God, and repeating stories of pain, suffering and bereavement on an individual and corporate level, but rather that we are able to carry the sorrows and pains of the world with us into such contemplative prayer as opens before us in the use of the Jesus Prayer. God knows, loves and understands more than we do, and he carries us into the dimension of contemplative prayer and love, and effects salvation, reconciliation and healing in his own way, using us as the instruments of his peace, pity and compassion.

Thus we can say that the "prayer of the heart" unites us with the whole order of creation, and imparts to us a cosmic awareness of the glory of God in both the beauty and the sadness of the world. The process of transfiguration for the whole world has begun in the Gospel, but it will not be completed until the coming of Christ in glory. And until that time we are invited, through prayer, to participate in the healing of the world’s ills by the love of God. And if we participate at such a level, then we shall know both pain and glory. The life and ministry of Jesus in the gospels reveal this dimension, for Jesus was at one and the same time the "man of sorrows, acquainted with grief", and the transfigured healer, manifesting the glory of the Father upon the holy mountain.

Brother Ramon SSF Praying the Jesus Prayer Marshall Pickering 1988 (now unfortunately out of print)

Ramon’s explanation is probably the nearest I can come to finding words for the huge longing and conviction that fills my heart. The call to the Jesus Prayer has been with my for many years now, more than it would be decent to admit, and it is only in faithfulness, somehow, to that calling that I shall be able to do whatever it is I am to do, here among my sister and brother creatures for the time I’ve been given.

Jon Watts, his Blog, and matters following therefrom…

“Jon Watts had been making hip hop records for 5 years before he became convinced of Quakerism. Not that he wasn’t already a member…”

Jon has an excellent blog at Jon Watts Songwriter & Videographer where you can read more of his biography, listen to his music, and watch any number of videos including his recent QuakerSpeak ones. But it was a recent post that touched a nerve in my constant self-questioning of my own existence as writer, blogger and musician. Jon writes:

As Quakers, we make this fundamental, unshakeable distinction: God’s will. My will.

If we are to do the will of God, we must first let go of our own striving, our own willing. And if we are to give over our own willing, how could it ever be in good order for us to reach out for something as vain and creaturely as celebrity?

And he goes on to explain how this played out (pun intended) in his own vocation to music as ministry:

How to Be Humble
(in the Digital Age)

In the age of social media, I would argue that we are all self-promoters. We are all choosing what story to publicize about ourselves (and what stories not to).

In this new environment of constant self-publicizing, I would suggest that the question has moved from if we are self-promoting to why we are self-promoting. Social media can just as easily be a megaphone for spirit-led ministry as it can for our creaturely-attention seeking. What is it that you are publicizing? What do you plan to do with the attention?

I am lucky enough to be out of the spotlight, for the moment. My new job of directing the QuakerSpeak YouTube Channel allows me to shine that spotlight on the ministries of other Friends, and mostly to remain safely behind the curtain.

But I still post on Facebook and Twitter. I still have a YouTube channel. And I still ask myself, every time I post:

What is my primary motivation in posting this?
Is it faithful for me to post this?
Is this post from me or is from God?
What do I plan to do with the attention generated by this post? Will I enjoy it for myself or allow it to be a service to doing God’s work in the world?

And once I feel clear on those questions, I ask these:

Am I holding back because I’m worried about how I will be perceived?
How can I make this bolder and more accessible? How can I reach more people with this message that has come from God?

Do click over and read the whole post – and subscribe to Jon’s blog – it will be time well-spent, promise…

Prickles in our knees…

We moved home on the 21st of last month. Coming here to this little house has been a great joy to both of us, but it has not been without the odd hiccup. From the point of view of this blog, the fact that we still don’t have a landline connection has been the main one. We do have a temporary internet connection over the mobile network, though, and that will have to do till next week, when our ISP promises the final work will have been done.

In the meantime, I have been struck by a passage from Edgar B Castle (1961) in Quaker Faith & Practice 26.69:

There is no easy optimism in the Quaker view of life. Fox had no illusions about sin; but he asks us to deal with it in a new way. When early Friends likened God’s gift to a ‘Seed’ they did not think of it as growing inevitably into a noble tree. They were fully aware of the influences that might arrest its growth. Fox never regarded the conquest of sin as a casual undertaking. But with astonishing psychological insight he laid the whole emphasis of his method not on the sin but on the light that revealed it. By implication he was criticising those who were so obsessed with the fallen state of man that they stayed their eyes on man’s wickedness rather than on the means of his redemption. To contemplate evil is a poor way of becoming good… Fox assures his friends that light will come on conditions. These conditions were well laid down by Isaac Penington in the darkness of Reading gaol: ‘We were directed to search for the least of all seeds and to mind the lowest appearance thereof, which was its turning against sin and darkness; we came by degrees to find we had met with the pure living eternal Spirit.’

The practice of minding ‘the lowest appearance’ of the Seed involves a steady discipline. We must face the austerity as well as accept the joy of life if we are to grow. The method of this discipline is beautifully and most practically suggested in George Fox’s oft-repeated instruction, ‘Mind that which is pure in you to guide you to God.’ Here Fox displays a deep psychological insight, born of his own personal struggle. We are to use the little that we have to make it more. We are to tend the small Seed and help it to grow.

I think this humility, this readiness to acknowledge the “lowest appearance”, is one of the most precious gifts of any spirituality; and yet, perhaps appropriately, it is one of the least readily recognised.

In Quaker Faith & Practice 20.22 there is a lovely passage from a sermon by Luke Cock (1657-1740), a Yorkshire Quaker minister and butcher, which illustrates this perfectly:

My Guide led me up another lane, more difficult than any of the former, which was to bear testimony to that Hand that had done all this for me. This was a hard one: I thought I must never have seen the end of it. I was eleven years all but one month in it. Here I began to go on my knees and to creep under the hedges, a trade I never forgot since, nor I hope never shall. I would fain think it is unpossible for me to fall now, but let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.

We can’t know what testimony we may have to bear, or in what company, till it is given to us; but as long as we are prepared to go on our knees and to creep under the hedges, we shall probably be OK. But that way is often cold and muddy, and the prickles left by hedge-trimming stick in our knees dreadfully…