Monthly Archives: August 2014

Why not embrace?

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

Denise Levertov

Increasingly I am finding that all I am called to do is this. It is deeply counterintuitive for someone who has spent much of his life working in an environment where ‘no effort’ would lead to chaos and neglect, but there it is. Even sometimes among Friends. where in the usual Quaker way committees proliferate, and the active is in continual danger of overwhelming the contemplative instead of finding in it its source and its direction, I feel uneasy about this surrender, this quietism as some might think it.

But even Paul quotes God as saying to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12.9) There will come a time when each of us has to surrender, when weakness is all that is left to us. Why speak of “losing the battle” against old age or illness? Why not embrace what is, after all, an impermanence we’re born into? Why not trust that our source is no more than our destination, that beneath us are the everlasting arms of love?

The consequences of love and compassion?

I was early convinced in my mind that true religion consisted in an inward life wherein the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learns to exercise true justice and goodness not only toward all men but also toward the brute creation; that as the mind was moved on an inward principle to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible being, on the same principle it was moved to love him in all his manifestations in the visible world; that as by his breath the flame of life was kindled in all animal and sensitive creatures, to say we love God … and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature … was a contradiction in itself.

John Woolman, 1772

If it is right that we should show love and compassion for people, surely it is right that we should extend our love and compassion to animals, who can feel fear and experience pain in much the same way as humans. They may not be able to speak, but we can certainly see fear in their eyes and demeanour. I feel that being a vegetarian is a natural progression from being a pacifist and a Quaker.

Vera Haley, 1988

I have been troubled for years over this question of vegetarianism. For much of my life of course I worked with dairy herds, and believed strongly, and thoughtfully, in what I was doing. Contrary to some more extreme vegan opinion, cows are well cared for on most British dairy farms, and on the whole are loved by those who look after them. And yet it cannot be denied that the dairy industry depends upon the slaughter of animals: on the slaughter of bull calves (whether as calves or after rearing to 18 months or two years as beef animals), on the slaughter of “cull cows”, those too old or unfit to carry on bearing a calf each year and doing the undoubtedly hard work of giving milk twice (or occasionally three times) a day for 305 days a year.

Much the British landscape we cherish as natural is in fact formed by grazing sheep and cattle. The rolling downland and the open moors alike would be scrubland were it not for livestock. Thousands upon thousands of acres of hill farm are only productive due to the grazing of animals.

(I don’t propose here to go into the vexed environmental questions of land use, water consumption, methane production, and the relative merits of animal waste, green manure, and artificial fertilisers. There are many good arguments on each side; all that needs saying here is that the British livestock industry does think about these things, and much work is being done, especially on the increasing number of organic farms, to minimise the adverse, and increase the beneficial environmental effects of the industry.)

I find though that increasingly I cannot see “the animal kingdom” as something separate from humanity, over which we have some kind of inalienable right. Sentimentality helps no-one here, not the petting-zoo nor the noble-hunter variety, nor even the animal-rights-extremist kind. We do owe to our sister and brother animals our love and compassion, and it is hard to understand much of the work of commercial slaughterhouses in terms of love and compassion. The longer I go on with contemplative practice, the closer I find myself to all sentient creatures, from those we see as “less evolved”, like insects and spiders, to the higher mammals, and all in between. I don’t feel I can sidestep, or ignore, these things; but equally I can’t evade thinking, and feeling, and praying, them through by signing on any party line, whether vegan or the opposite. (Incidentally, ovo-lacto-vegetarianism makes no sense to me – see my own first paragraph above.)

I suppose I shall have to go on trying to work this through. Your prayers would be appreciated, though – it is getting to be an urgent and painful pressure. Somehow I must reconcile my ever-growing heart of compassion for my fellow creatures with what I know to be true about the way we find the food on which we, such numbers of us, live.

On not clinging, and love…

Impermanence is the first mark of experience common to all human beings. The second one is what Buddhists call no-fixed-self. Like uncertainty and unpredictability, no-fixed-self was a concept unique to the Buddha’s teaching. He took the radical step of applying impermanence even to what we think of as our self. Twenty-five hundred years later, neuroscientists are coming to the same conclusion; they’re finding multiple circuitry in the brain, but no fixed seat of the self. As Pema Chödrön noted… “nothing is static or fixed”. That would include this notion of self.

 

Toni Bernhard, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow

Some months ago I wrote,

It’s a great comfort to know that God’s presence is waiting in… 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.

I think that for me, part of the problem is that when things are difficult it is relatively easy to accept impermanence; when they are good, then we want to retain them, guard them, just as we would keep those we love free from age and disease. Of course, if we were to manage to keep them safe from change, they would no longer live, since life itself is process, flux.

That is why clinging to the good times is so deadening. We can’t do it; but the mere attempt is enough to freeze our hearts, cut us off from the sweet life that burns in the fragility of now. All that lives is vulnerable, changeable, fleeting. That is its beauty, and its tenderness. Only the mercy of God is constant love; love is the Light that plays on the dappled stream of change. and we call it life.

The First and Final Template…

The Blessed Trinity is the central and foundational doctrine of the Christian faith. But as the Jesuit Karl Rahner (1904-1984) observed, what is supposed to be the heart of the nature of God has, until recently, had few practical or pastoral implications in most people’s lives. We did not have the right software installed!

For too many Christians, the doctrine of the Trinity was unfathomable, abstract, and boring theology because they tried to process it with their left brain, their dualistic mind. Remaining there, it was not much more than a speculative curiosity or a mathematical conundrum (yet surely never to be questioned by any orthodox Christian). However, the Trinity perfectly illustrates the dynamic principle of three and was made to order to demolish our dualistic thinking and to open us to the mystical level.

The Trinity can only be understood with the contemplative mind. It is only God in you that understands; your small mind cannot. I call this participative knowledge. The Trinity can’t be proved rationally. You must experience its flow in your life. You must have moments where you know that a Big Life is happening in you, yet beyond you, and also AS you!

Unfortunately, Christians mostly gave up even trying to understand the Trinity. But if we’re resolved that we want to go into the mystery, not to hold God in our pocket, but to allow God to hold us, then I think we must seek to understand the Trinity experientially and contemplatively, which is not to understand at all, but to “stand under” a waterfall of infinite and loving Flow…

Most of us began by thinking of God as One Being and then tried to make God into three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). But what I want you to try to do, and only God can do this in you, is change directions. As the early Fathers of the Greek Church did in the fourth century, start with the three and focus on the relationships between them.

Philippians 2:6-7 beautifully describes the Trinitarian relationship: “Jesus’ state was divine, yet he did not cling to equality with God, but he emptied himself.” This is how the three persons of the Trinity relate. They all live in an eternal self-emptying (kenosis), which allows each of them to totally let go and give themselves to the other.

When we start with the three, we know that this God is perfect giving and perfect receiving, that the very name of Being is communion, extravagant generosity, humble receptivity, and unhindered dialogue between three. Then we know God as the deepest flow of Life Itself, Relationship Itself. It is not that a Being decides to love; love is the very nature and shape of Being.

This is then the pattern of the whole universe. And any idea of God’s “wrath” or of God withholding an outflowing love is theologically impossible. Love is the very pattern that we start with, move with, and the goal we move toward. It is the very energy of the entire universe, from orbiting protons and neutrons to the social and sexual life of species, to the orbiting of planets and stars. We were indeed created in communion, by communion, and for communion. Or as Genesis says “created in the image and likeness of God.”…

Francis and Clare and many later Franciscans (Bonaventure, Anthony, Duns Scotus, Angela of Foligno, and many Poor Clares) appear to be literally living inside of a set of relationships that they quite traditionally name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But these experiences of communion are real, active, and involved in their lives, as if they are living inside of a Love-Beyond-Them-Which-Yet-Includes-Them. They are drawn into an endless creativity of love in wonderful ways that reflect the infinite nature of God.

They seem to shout out gratitude and praise in several directions: from a deep inner satisfaction (the indwelling Holy Spirit), across to the other (the ubiquitous Christ), and beyond what I can name or ever fully know (the formless Father).

In the Trinity, love finally has a solid definition and description, and cannot be sentimentalized. If Trinity is the template for all creation, from atoms to galaxies, which now appears to be the case, then a water wheel that is always outpouring in one direction is a very fine metaphor for God. Giving and surrendered receiving are the very shape of reality. Now love is much bigger than mere emotions, feelings, infatuation, or passing romance.

With Trinity as the first and final template for reality, love is the ontological “Ground of Being” itself (Paul Tillich). It is the air that you breathe, as any true mystic discovers, consciously or unconsciously. You do not have to be able to describe this in words to experience it. In fact, you can’t. You can only live it.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Eager to Love – The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi and recorded talks

This is interesting. The Trinity is one of those doctrines most Quakers – at least within BYM! – would be tempted to set aside as mere creedal residue, long grown-out-of. But there is, quite literally, more going on here than meets the eye.

Rohr points out that over the years the Church has tended to approach the idea of the Trinity with an analytical, intellectual, left-brain understanding – with words, and games with words. But, as he says, “You do not have to be able to describe this in words to experience it. In fact, you can’t. You can only live it.”

To me this gets to the heart of what mysticism is. In silence and contemplation, whether of the gathered meeting, or of solitary prayer, words are suspended. Given nothing to hang on to, the analytical mind frets, criticises, and finally gives up. In this space, in this simple silence, that of God (Spirit, the Ground of Being) within each of us, is directly experienced. This is what the earliest Quakers encountered:

Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests, against blusterings and storms. That is it which moulds up into patience, into innocency, into soberness, into stillness, into stayedness, into quietness, up to God, with his power.

George Fox, 1658

I think it matters little how we call “the first and final template for reality”. We have each of us different traditions, different understandings, different hurts and joys in the ways we have trodden to where we find ourselves today. If the names of the Trinity hurt and frighten us so that we cannot speak them, we must not seek to prevent others using them, just as those to whom they speak of truth and grace must not seek to impose their use on their fellow-pilgrims.

Those of us who discover themselves “living inside of a Love-Beyond-Them-Which-Yet-Includes-Them” are surely sisters and brothers at the very deepest level, far deeper than ties of blood. It is difficult – though perhaps Friends have had as good a go at it as anyone – to experience and express this closeness without getting enmeshed in the minutiae of religious communities and formal doctrines,

Writing in The Friend this week, Jan Arriens says,

Our tradition of liberal Quakerism owes much to the American Quaker Rufus Jones. Without his contribution a century or so ago we might well not be here today. Jones always stressed that we are a mystical Society. He defined mysticism as covering everything from a simple, everyday sense of awe, wonder and connection to a state of bliss…

For many of us, this involves a struggle between head and heart. Head tells us that the material world is all there is, while heart speaks from an experience which, ultimately, cannot be denied. That experience – the quiet mystical element – is, I believe, at the heart of our Quakerism. It is certainly what I consistently encounter among Friends. Although I am not a member of the nontheist movement I think that, far from dividing us, it has done us a great service in revealing how close we are in thought and belief when we get beyond the words. I see that essential unity as being based around awareness of our intimate connection to a greater whole. It may be subtle and intangible, but it is the most precious thing in our lives and provides the lodestar for how we try to live. For it also has a moral quality. I remember when I first began writing to prisoners on death row in the US twenty-five years ago, Sam Johnson in Mississippi wrote to me, ‘We have been touched by some force or something greater than we are and it’s good. I don’t know exactly what it is but I know that it’s good!’

The sense of presence is not just individual but also shared. There is a seamlessness between a gathered Meeting and the world outside. Faith and action each feed the other…

Grace Is the End of Illusion…

… we are enmeshed in a world of others. And yet, within our world, whilst always relating, in another way, we are still utterly alone. We see, we touch, we feel, but we cannot know the heart of another. We can only surmise. Our senses convey experiences, but they do not perfectly mirror what is there. Like narrow bridges, they connect us to the object world, but only allow limited perception of it across. They are, as we say, conditioned. Clouded by expectations and limited understanding.

Caroline Brazier, The Other Buddhism

These words of Caroline Brazier’s focus so much of what seems to be at the centre of what we know as ourselves. Knowing ourselves so alone, and fearing death terribly (“we simply slip away alone” – Brazier) we seek to burrow deeper into relating, into touching, feeling. Sex, Facebook, coffee mornings – it makes little difference.

When I was young some of us realised very clearly that “[o]ur senses convey experiences, but they do not perfectly mirror what is there.” Reading Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, Laing’s The Politics of Experience, Alan Watts’ The Joyous Cosmology, we tried to turn the bridges to the object world into a flood. But sometimes we too realised, in the midst, how alone we were. The name for this is “a bad trip”.

The odd thing is that when we stop, when we close the doors of our ravenous perceptions, when we sit still and stop trying to connect, something happens that has nothing to do with senses at all, and we realise that ultimately we are never alone. Then there comes to meet us in the silence that which we had never dreamed of. The name for this is sometimes cannot really be named.

About two years ago on an April morning I felt ill at ease and unhappy. Life was difficult and the burden of the war weighed upon me. I climbed the steep path at the entrance of one of our public parks and stood beneath some cherry trees that fringe the crest of the bank. A fresh wind blew dark clouds across the green-blue sky. The white blossom shone and glistened in the sunlight. As I stood relaxed and still, I had the illusion that I was enveloped in light. I had the feeling that the light and I were one. Time and space slipped from me. All awareness of details vanished. A sense of unity with the world entered into me. I was tranquillised and steadied by the beauty, the stability of Nature. I do not suppose that I learnt anything that was new to me during this experience. But I believe I was taught something and that something happened in me. I returned to my work tranquil, and strengthened in faith and hope by my experience.

Howard Collier, 1943, in Quaker Faith & Practice 26.08

 

Grace is the end of illusion, the realisation of a far more expansive and complete sense of being, the peace that quite literally passeth understanding. The word “grace” itself finds its derivation in the Old French for “kindness”… The word… has the connotation of a blessing, a quality of the sacred, and implies beauty, ease, and fluidity. Grace seems endlessly responsive to our longing for it… grace and gratitude have their origin in the same source. That source is Spirit, the Ground of Being. Grace is the experience of finally, gratefully, relaxing the contraction of fearful separation and opening to Spirit as our own radiant splendour: knowing it, feeling it, entering it, as it enters us.

Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Dying

We are not alone. We are part only of all that is, and our end is literally infinitely more than our beginning. If only we knew. It’s OK. Really it is. We only have to wait.

Outside Help…

“You got to help me… I can’t do it all by myself…” These words from Sonny Boy Williamson II’s ‘Help Me’ sum up, really, what I have discovered about prayer.

In Shin Buddhism, the terms jiriki and tariki are often used – the former implying the belief that liberation may be obtained by one’s own efforts (as in, say, Zen Buddhism) and the latter complete reliance on a power outside of oneself for salvation. But whatever one’s faith background, all religious practice ultimately boils down to one or the other of these assumptions.

The Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner“, is at root a prayer of surrender, of reliance upon God. It carries within it blind Bartimaeus’ recognition that he could do nothing to help himself (Mark 10.46-52) but that his only refuge was the mercy of Jesus.

Identifying Jesus as Lord, i.e. as source of power, we take refuge by turning to him, to his power, for mercy. By saying “a sinner”, we are not engaging in some act of self-flagellation, but merely acknowledging our helplessness, our inability to do anything from an entirely pure motive, anything, in fact, to help ourselves.

Emilia Fogelklou, the great Swedish Quaker theologian, wrote (speaking of herself in the third person):

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

Live up to the Light thou hast…

The first gleam of light, ‘the first cold light of morning’ which gave promise of day with its noontide glories, dawned on me one day at meeting, when I had been meditating on my state in great depression. I seemed to hear the words articulated in my spirit, ‘Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee.’ Then I believed that God speaks to man by His Spirit. I strove to lead a more Christian life, in unison with what I knew to be right, and looked for brighter days, not forgetting the blessings that are granted to prayer.

Caroline Fox, Quaker Faith & Practice 26.04

The experience of Pureland Buddhism is that we develop appreciation. This is not just for what others have given us, or for the world we inhabit, though these are important. The central practices and teachings are grounded in an attitude of appreciation that goes beyond the worldly to the transcendent. The practice is deeply rooted in the sense of other-ness, an appreciation of the reality of a measureless beneficent presence beyond the limits of the self-world. This practice… centres on devotion to Amida Buddha, the immeasurable expression of Buddha in the universe. It is a practice that expresses deep joy and gratitude, that reaches out in the wistful longing expressed by yugen, and that gratefully allows the practitioner to rest in the knowledge that despite their imperfections, they are blessed.

Caroline Brazier, The Other Buddhism

We have seen that the Jesus Prayer involves body, mind and spirit – the whole of man. If the whole person is  given to God in prayer, then it reflects the greatest commandment of all, to love… The cosmic nature of the prayer means that the believer lives as a human being in solidarity with all other human beings, and with the animal creation, together with the whole created order (the cosmos). All this is drawn into and affected by the prayer. One believer’s prayers send out vibrations and reverberations that increase the power of divine Love in the cosmos.

Br. Ramon SSF, Praying The Jesus Prayer (Marshall Pickering Christian Spirituality Series, now sadly out of print)

So often we despair, feeling little, and isolated, and unable to help in the face of the vast and manifest suffering of our fellow creatures, animal and human. We know that we can love, and yet it seems such a little thing. The tears we weep from love seem so small, and impotent; yet they are salty, and not one of them is lost (Psalm 56).

We are not alone: we are connected at the deepest level of what we are. In mind, with all the years of others’ thoughts, and words, and music that have gone to make us who we are; in body, with all that is made – we are, literally, stardust; in spirit, with Spirit itself and so with each other. The Light that is the very Ground of Being streams through us all. All who live. Look into a cat’s eyes. Listen to the sparrows. Kiss your lover’s hand. Here is God.