Monthly Archives: July 2014

Fields of Grey…

The wonder of my body aging, dying,
is finding another flame within,
a holy eternal sphere,
that will never go out
and is more beautiful than all the form
you have ever known —
put together.

When the fields on the body
begin to turn grey,
let your hand’s touch upon all

Hafiz – with thanks to Contemplative Photography

Aging is a fascinating process. It’s not, of course, as though one could choose it as a hobby – but accepted, it becomes a gentle thing, full of curiosity and grace. All right, some things, like running for buses and climbing rocks, do become more difficult; but others – like listening to the open wind of the Spirit in the heart, like staying still – seem to become much easier…

A Leap into Silence

[The] early Christian monk, [John Cassian] who brought the ideas and practices of Egyptian monasticism to the early medieval West, saw that even the way of prayer can be dangerous if it never leads you to great love and allows you to avoid necessary suffering in the name of religion.

Those who fall into the safety net of silence find that it is not at all a fall into individualism. True prayer or contemplation is instead a leap into commonality and community. You know that what you are experiencing is held by the whole and that you are not alone anymore. You are a part, and now a forever-grateful part.

Real silence moves you from knowing things to perceiving a Presence that has a reality in itself. Could that be God? There is then a mutuality between you and all things. There is an I-thou relationship. Martin Buber said an I-it relationship is when we experience everything as commodity, useful, utilitarian. But the I-thou relationship is when you can simply respect a thing as it is without adjusting it, naming it, changing it, fixing it, controlling it, or trying to explain it. Is that the mind that can know God? I really think so.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation, pp. 15, 26, 27

Extraordinary – here is Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic Franciscan priest, writing something that could have been written by Pierre Lacout, or David Johnson, or one of so many Quaker writers on prayer and silence.

“The mind that can know God…” I cannot think of a more accurate way of speaking of the mind within the silence of a gathered meeting, when the pattern of Friends’ hearts in the silence has become an almost infinitely sensitive net for the divine presence, a kind of aerial for the Spirit of God, and we are all one before the Light that has dawned among us.

Northern Light

Although my childhood was spent in West Sussex, on the coast, and later inland, I was born in Manchester, which may explain the fondness I have felt for the North of England since I first moved there to work at Sunderland Arts Centre early in the 1980s. I lived in Sunderland, and later in Durham, before moving to the Midlands and returning to farming ten or eleven years later.

I’ve been reading Stuart Maconie’s wonderful Pies and Prejudice, a very funny but really lyrical and touching book about the North, and it’s been opening up all kinds of trains of thought. There is something clean and yearning about the North, which affected the young CS Lewis greatly, bringing him his first experience of what he called Joy, “the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing” he felt encountering Norse mythology for the first time.

When I first became interested in Quakerism, I naturally looked up its history. It somehow failed to surprise me that George Fox had had his Pendle Hill vision of “a great people to be gathered” in Lancashire, and that the early growth of the Quaker movement was largely in Northern England, and it was from there that it spread out across the world.

I am not quite sure where this post is supposed to be leading, except to say that I am finding more and more that threads are drawing in from all over my life, leading to the one convincement that brought me to Friends

I wrote then,

The concrete expression of the Holy Spirit is a strange thing, and perhaps lies at the root of all that is meant by the word incarnation. Traditionally the word is used of Christ, who “came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” (Nicene Creed) But God’s Spirit indwells us too (Luke 11.13; John 16.12ff) and works through us (Mark 13.11; Galatians 5.22-25); and it is the Spirit who fills us in worship, and changes us.

In just the short time I’ve been attending my local Quaker Meeting, the sense of stepping into a community has been palpable. I’ve encountered all kinds of Christian community over the years, of different sizes and degrees of intentionality; yet Quaker community, as I’ve begun to experience it, is something different again.

In the Meeting, under the spiritual leading that arises out of shared silence, the Spirit can weave that fabric called community in an extraordinarily concrete and palpable way…

I often wonder whether the impulse to explore, revisit, one’s past is mere nostalgia or self-regard, or whether it conceals a deeper impulse towards reconnecting with threads that were dropped years ago, and may now be picked up and re-woven in. I don’t know…

Confident or Dogmatic? Tentative or Unsure?

Modern Friends of the unprogrammed tradition are often reluctant to generalise about our collective Quaker experience, at least without qualifications or the familiar disclaimer, ‘I can’t speak for all Friends’.

Lack of dogmatism in matters of faith and of the Spirit is one of our great strengths as a community. It is probably the first quality which attracted many of us who joined the Society as convinced Friends. This character trait of modern Quakerism has its roots in the experience of early Friends, who found that real spirituality came from the inward guide, not from any outward authority, even scripture. Driven by the force of their inward experience, these Friends sought to make the personal encounter with God available to everyone. If their experience lacked dogmatism, it did not lack certainty.

This is a distinction modern Friends can fail to make. Rejecting dogmatism which relies on outward authorities to prove its authenticity or to exercise power, we have also lost the confidence to testify to our spiritual experience and share it gladly.

This loss has increasingly individualised our experience of Quakerism. We are a diverse group of people, who are more often aware of differences than of our common experiences as Friends.

Ursula Jane O’Shea, Living the Way: Quaker spirituality and community

I have occasionally noticed an equal and opposite tendency in a few Friends, to assert that expressions of spiritual certainty are not acceptable in a Quaker context at all – unless, it seems, they are expressions of scepticism! All of us, of course, speak from a shared framework of language and thought, whether we have come to convinced Quakerism as a Franciscan Tertiary, as I have, or from an evangelical, humanist, scientific, Buddhist or any other background, or indeed whether we were born into a Quaker family. This will naturally enough colour how we speak and write, even how we describe to ourselves our own spiritual experience. But Quakerism is an experimental faith or it is nothing. We need to be able to share with each other, and with those who do not yet know the Society of Friends, the results of our experiments in faith, in daring to receive the truth we encounter in the stillness, in daring to be open to the inward Light. It is this sharing which will allow our common experience as Friends to unite us in community, if only we will let it, if only we will let each other. After all, it was George Fox who said,

And when all my hopes in… all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [i.e. hinder] it? And this I knew experimentally.

We might not use Fox’s words these days, but we need more of that kind of courageous certainty. Janey O’Shea, in the introduction to the book cited above, goes on to write of the ruler in the Gospel Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25.14-30) who takes the one talent from the careful, diffident servant who hid it, and gives it away to the one who was prepared to risk everything,

The Parable of the Talents is about a cautious timid soul… who tries to get by, playing it safe, hoping to stay out of the dark of his master’s disfavour. He has a small treasure which he tries to protect from all risk. In the story, his timidity is punished and his very caution earns him expulsion from the light…

I began to wonder: what if the ruler was not administering punishment for the servant’s behaviour, but describing the inevitable consequences of what he had done? What if the spiritual gifts we have received are not static treasures? Perhaps we are to use them or lose them.

Without use, even small, well-hoarded spiritual treasures may leave us dry. Spiritual experience and gifts are enlivening, functional and transformative only when their impact flows over into the daily life of the person and a wider community.

If this is true for each of us as individuals, it is also true for us as a Quaker community. We have been entrusted with a spiritual Way of which we are but the temporary custodians. A gift to us, we pass the Quaker Way on to others, transformed and augmented by our experience. In the image of the parable, transmitting our religious tradition to new Friends is not only returning the capital of the original investment, it has our interest added too.

If we were to live like this, write like this, if we were to have the courage to minister from the Light in whatever words we found lying around the junk room of our heart, might not this Quaker renewal we sometimes hear about overtake us unawares, and bring new Light into all our meeting houses?