Monthly Archives: October 2014

An Intentional Turning

I do not see prayer as a manipulation of reality. It is rather the recognition of the limitation of the self, an intentional turning of the self to the light, of the part to the whole, the individual to the community and to God. It is the very encounter of the energy of the self with the energy of creation. Perhaps it is out of this that miracles may occur. And who knows, it may be out of this that prayers are answered.

Harvey Gilman, writing in The Friend, 24 October 2014

Prayer can sometimes seem an odd subject to a Quaker. Despite books like David Johnson’s A Quaker Prayer Life, many of us – as Harvey Gilman says earlier in this article – prefer terms like prayerfulness or opening  to prayer, especially when our mind throws up memories of “saying our prayers”, or of the sometimes mechanical “prayers of intercession” in a church service.

But Gilman goes on to describe his understanding of prayerfulness as “a disposition of the Spirit, an intention of the soul, even when words fail, even when one does not know what is needed. ‘I cannot pray’ is a form of prayer.” This is more like it. True prayer seems to me to consist not so much in presenting God, or whatever we imagine to be God, with a list of requests, demands, petitions to be filled, as in answering the call God places on the heart.

I once wrote,

“The sanctification or purifying of the heart and soul is done in the inner darkness, unknown and unfelt by us at the time.” (Johnson) 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.

We cannot know what is going on in prayer because we cannot know what God is. We can only know God; and it is in knowing God that prayer becomes the inevitable attitude of the human in the presence of the divine. If this is so, then not only is Quaker worship a kind of prayer (and I am convinced that, whatever else it may involve, it is) but many other encounters with the Light may be prayer also. George Fox encountered God before he knew where exactly in Scripture to find him:

Now the Lord God hath opened to me by his invisible power how that every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ; and I saw it shine through all, and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation and came to the light of life and became the children of it, but they that hated it, and did not believe in it, were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it.

That opening came from beyond Fox. It comes from beyond me. If it did not, I should never have thought of praying. All through my teens and early twenties I had sought for what was beyond myself, beyond the boundaries and conclusions of my senses and my mind – for what was real, in fact. But it was not until I reached the end of my own resources, and something far beyond my self – that I had glimpsed in the childhood stillness that follows serious illness, or alone in the sunlight orchard behind our house – called to me, that I knowingly encountered the divine as an adult. Yielding to that at last was prayer, and it has remained true for me that prayer is no more than a response, something not initiated by me, nor an action of mine, but merely an opening of what little in me is true to that which is love, and truth, and light itself, and always life.

Humility and Trust

In a recent article… Rowan Williams notes that we are these days pressured to assume that there is only one way of knowing our world. We talk as though only the analytic, causal mode of picturing reality had any authenticity…

For a modern mind, subject to the pressures Williams refers to, we may more naturally locate the motivation [to action in a Quaker context] in a set of values and principles. But values and principles are merely a hedge we do not act outside of. A great many things would accord with “Quaker values” and we cannot possibly do them all. We do not do what we do because we are Quakers with Quaker values. Instead, we use our bodies and breath and the passion generated by our memories and histories to express the movement of the Spirit. We are not interchangeable with each other. If we assume concerns arise in the mind as a logical response to information, one moderately energetic Quaker is as good as another. Sometimes, in the light of this perspective, we find one individual trying to move others into action by argument… But this is to treat each other as potential troops to get behind an action; it is to take a simplistic political position…

But it is a painful fact: with humility and trust we have to become aware of being our complete, embodied selves, bringing God’s kingdom to life by that means, not by having good ideas and putting them into action… It is as a part of a living body that we move and are moved…

But, settling into silence in a room together is, for all its simplicity a powerful ritual… Above all, we are present, together, in our bodies. There, in the stillness, we witness each other’s deep feelings. We sit in the warmth generated by each other’s bodies, hear the catch in another’s breath, see the tears in each other’s eyes and are moved.

Lucy Faulkner-Gawlinski, Quaker Voices Vol. 5 No. 4

Lucy’s article “speaks to my condition” in the old Quaker phrase. I have to confess that all too often I am the one trying to get myself to do things because I see myself as a Quaker, with Quaker values. It takes a great deal of stillness, and of silence, to get myself to stop trying to argue, and guilt-trip, myself into actions that I have not been called to, but which I perceive as being a good idea. I even imagine, sometimes, that others are trying to do this to me, when they are not.

But among Friends, at least when we are being Friends together fully, the motivation to any action – or indeed to refrain from any action – is not located in a set of values and principles. It is located in our perception of the Spirit’s leading, in the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. It does take a great deal of humility and trust to rely on those promptings, rather than on argument and political analysis. Above all, it requires us to risk appearing foolish, or lazy, or fainthearted, even to ourselves, as we wait in our own silence and inaction for God’s promptings in the depths of our being.

It should be simple enough. The opening words of our Advices and Queries put it perfectly clearly: “Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.”

Silence and Speaking

Turn inwardly to God, praying that the meeting may be guided in the matters before it and that the clerk may be enabled faithfully to discern and record the mind of the meeting…

Remember the onerous task laid upon the clerk and do all you can to assist. Submit information about matters to come before the meeting in good time and preferably in writing. Avoid if you possibly can any last-minute messages to the clerk…

If, when all that is necessary has been said, the clerk is not ready to submit a minute, uphold those at the table in prayerful silence. If the minute is in general acceptable, do not harass the clerk by raising several minor corrections at once. Do not, under the pretext of altering the minute, raise new matter for discussion or reiterate your original contribution.

Quaker Faith and Practice 3.9-11

Meetings for church affairs in the life of a Quaker local or area meeting may not seem dramatic or exciting, and yet they can be both of these. The Quaker business method is a means, and a powerful means, of decision making, but it is far more than that. Properly conducted, it allows the work of the Spirit among a group of Friends immediate expression. It is a prophetic event, the fluid, on-going action of discernment leading the meeting to uncover the living will of God. The work of the clerks at the table then becomes as numinous as any ritual, and their mediation of the gifts Friends bring to the process a sacred thing. I have been as awestruck in an extraordinary area meeting as I have been in any place of pilgrimage!

[The early Friends] made the discovery that silence is one of the best preparations for communion [with God] and for the reception of inspiration and guidance. Silence itself, of course, has no magic. It may be just sheer emptiness, absence of words or noise or music. It may be an occasion for slumber, or it may be a dead form. But it may be an intensified pause, a vitalised hush, a creative quiet, an actual moment of mutual and reciprocal correspondence with God.

Rufus Jones, 1937

The Quaker business meeting is framed in, and shot through with, silence. The little silences between speaking, and the greater, nurturing silence as the clerks are upheld in drafting a minute, are the heart of the space the meeting opens for the Spirit – electric with possibility, they are the thin, holy places where God can speak into the ordinary concerns of his people. In our meetings for business, rightly ordered, it should truly be possible to say, with the early church, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15.28)

Inequality and Prayer

A post for Blog Action Day 2014

Statement on Inequality adopted by Meeting for Sufferings on behalf of Britain Yearly Meeting [of the Society of Friends (Quakers)] – April 2014, minute MfS 2014 04 07

Quakers in Britain commit ourselves to action to redress the growing inequality of wealth and income in our country.

Our vision of equality springs from our profound sense of the worth of every human being. Every person’s life is sacred and in this we are all equal.  Neither money nor status can serve as a true measure of the value of any individual or group.  Nor can wealth be true riches if it is based on unlimited personal enrichment and not shared for the good of all…

I have sometimes been asked whether I consider myself middle class. Honestly, I don’t know how to answer questions like this. Probably in fact by most measures of education and so on I am, but…

I grew up believing that being really middle class involved being brought up in a household with two parents, at least one of whom worked in a salaried occupation, owned their own home, and so on, and I did not. I was brought up by my mother, a distinctly un-salaried painter and sculptor, as a single parent, my parents having divorced when I was a toddler. We never lived in anything other than rented accommodation. Most of my contemporaries’ parents would probably not have considered us really “respectable”, and as far as I was concerned, right into my teens and twenties, respectability was the acid test for being middle class.

In the course of my life I have veered between near-poverty and being comfortably provided-for, between salaried and rather fragile freelance. Sometimes people would have thought of me as respectable, middle class; more often perhaps they would have wondered.

It is hard to write convincingly of class unless one is solidly and consciously a member of one class or another. At the very least, one is continually at risk of being called out as lacking in class consciousness, in Georg Lukács’ definition. And of course I am – I am quite lacking in class consciousness. It never occurs to me, from one week’s end to another.

So it is with huge relief that I read the second paragraph of the Statement on Inequality, “Our vision of equality springs from our profound sense of the worth of every human being. Every person’s life is sacred and in this we are all equal.  Neither money nor status can serve as a true measure of the value of any individual or group…”

At last – here is a recognition of the sense that I have had since I was very young, that to measure the worth of anyone, or any group of people, by their money or status, or by their lack of money or status, is deeply, painfully wrong, intrinsically wrong in fact, in the way that murder or slavery are wrong in themselves, quite regardless of context or background. It doesn’t matter whether you are a politician dismissing disabled workers as a group as unworthy of the minimum wage, or a revolutionary socialist regarding a company CEO and his family as landfill for the mass graves merely because of their class, these measures of worth are an obscenity, an insult to being human.

The Statement on Inequality ends, having considered the economic violence and injustices arising from global economic crises:

However, action that aims merely to alleviate the worst effects of inequality is not enough. As we wrestle with the implications of our testimony to equality, Quakers feel called to act more radically to tackle the underlying causes.  This calling requires spiritual struggle and real practical change.  Our testimonies are moving us to work for very different ways of organising our common life.  We are also moving towards spending and saving our own resources in ways that are more compatible with our values, and away from uses that diminish the lives of our fellow human beings and the rich variety of life forms with which we share our planet.

As we long for a society of deep compassion and loving kindness in which we ‘help one another up with a tender hand’, we must witness to a different way of living, and help build the world anew.

It has long seemed to me that somehow these questions lead back to the spiritual. We cannot simply deal with the symptoms, the social, economic and political issues, and hope to solve them, as Communist and Fascist systems alike, the world over, showed us throughout the last century. We cannot place our hope in a theocratic model either, as the cruelty and injustice of such contemporary states demonstrates.

In the face of global injustice, welfare cuts, slavery, and human trafficking, it may seem pointless, insulting even, to pray. And yet – what would have been the end of World War II without the women and men who prayed in the churches and the concentration camps; how would the Iron Curtain have fallen without the prayers of the exiles, the prisoners, the refugees?

Quakers in Britain are asking ourselves at the moment what we are for. Our opposition to inequality, our long work for peace and social justice, differ at least potentially from mere political campaigning by their being rooted in our spiritual practice, and in the work of the Spirit in our hearts and minds. We do indeed need “to reaffirm the spirit of Quakerism in making real the “Kingdom of God on Earth”; perhaps we need also to relearn the words of Caroline Fox,

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.

Silence is Grace

Silence is not an absence of sound, mainly. It is a positive thing, a presence in itself, a fullness beyond our ordinary understanding.

There is a word, pleroma, which is usually translated from the Greek as ‘fullness’. Carl Jung used it in some of his later work, but it is first encountered in the New Testament, in Paul’s beautiful letter to the Colossians, where he says, “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,  and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1.19-20)

Pleroma. The heart of silence. John the Evangelist wrote, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1.16)

Silence is grace, presence, the still point. Gift that is the giver, peace beyond mind or longing.

Quaker and Hesychast

Very early in the history of the Christian church, certainly by the 4th century, the term hesychasm, the life of silence,  began to appear in the writings of scholars like John Chrysostom and Evagrius Pontikos, as well as in the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Hesychasts, as they became known, were practitioners of a tradition of contemplative prayer based on the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” that was available to everyone, regardless of education, ordination or formal membership of a monastic community.

Simon Barrington-Ward writes that

This prayer is marked by a compunction and penitence. It has the sense of a kind of joyful mourning of one’s own and the world’s pitiableness. It knows our need to be rescued and saved, with tears. It is expressed in short, urgently or longingly repeated prayer directed to Jesus present in the heart, a presence to which the person praying seeks to turn his or her waking and sleeping thoughts (‘I slept but my heart was awake’, Song of Solomon 5:2) and whole life.

There is a sense of immediacy, or personal experience of the presence of God, from the very start of the hesychast tradition, that will be immediately familiar to Friends. Writing of the work of Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) Barrington-Ward goes on to say,

For Symeon, the resurrection is not only in the future. It begins here and now… He wrote out of an overwhelming encounter with the living Christ and with the Holy Spirit, through whom he claimed the resurrection of us all can occur.

By the 15th century the tradition had established itself in the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece, and was from there carried to Russia by St Nilus of Sora, Nil Sorski, and established itself in the forest communities in the far north, which were consciously modelled after the early desert settlements in Egypt in the times of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. There the way of the hesychasts flourished right through until the years following the Russian Revolution in the early 20th century, when many of its practitioners took refuge once again on Mount Athos, some eventually, like the great writer and teacher on prayer Sophrony Sakharov, even turning up in England.

Of course it was in England that our own Quaker tradition began in the 17th century. George Fox wrote,

Now after I had received that opening from the Lord that to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ, I regarded the priests less and looked more after the dissenting people… As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and 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…

Now the Lord God hath opened to me by his invisible power how that every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ; and I saw it shine through all, and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation and came to the light of life and became the children of it, but they that hated it, and did not believe in it, were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it.

Vastly different though their backgrounds may be, the hesychasts growing within (though sometimes at odds with!) the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Quakers as dissenters in the ferment following the Reformation in England, our hearts alike turn to the direct experience of God in the silence. In 1908 Hilda Clark wrote,

One thing I understand now is that one’s intellect alone won’t pull one through, and that the greatest service it can perform is to open a window for that thing we call the divine spirit. If one trusts to it [the intellect] alone it’s like trusting to an artificial system of ventilation – correct in theory but musty in practice. How I wish it were as easy to throw everything open to the spirit of God as it is to fresh air.

It is this desire to “throw everything open to the spirit of God” that is at the heart of the hesychast’s longing too. The Quaker John Macmurray, writing in 1967, said,

Whenever we are driven into the depths of our own being, or seek them of our own will, we are faced by a tremendous contrast. On the one side we recognise the pathetic littleness of our ephemeral existence, with no point or meaning in itself. On the other side, in the depth, there is something eternal and infinite in which our existence, and indeed all existence, is grounded. This experience of the depths of existence fills us with a sense both of reverence and of responsibility, which gives even to our finite lives a meaning and a power which they do not possess in themselves. This, I am assured, is our human experience of God.

This is so exactly the experience of the Jesus Prayer. Here is the “joyful mourning” and the sense of “the world’s pitiableness”, and here is the direct knowledge of our life, all life, as grounded in God, in the ground of being itself, beyond time and space.

Thomas R Kelly, writing of solitary prayer, comes very close indeed to restating the hesychast tradition himself. He describes how “[the] processes of inward prayer do not grow more complex, but more simple” and he recommends using a short phrase, whether from Scripture or from one’s own imagination, and he advises, “Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.” He goes on to say,

But the time will come when verbalisation is not so imperative, and yields place to the attitudes of soul which you meant the words to express… Behind the foreground of the words continues the background of heavenly orientation, as all the currents of our being are set towards Him. Through the shimmering light of divine Presence we look out upon the world, and in its turmoil and fitfulness, we may be given to respond, in some increased measure, in ways dimly suggestive of the Son of Man… All we can say is, Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the orbit… Sometimes the prayer and this Life that flows through us reaches out to all souls with kindred vision and upholds them in his tender care. Sometimes it flows out to the world of blinded struggle, and we become cosmic Saviours, seeking all those who are lost.

This passage of Kelly’s, despite their utterly different backgrounds, could have come from the pen of Sophrony Sakharov, who wrote,

The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside…

It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…