Monthly Archives: November 2014

“When we live in love, we will not be afraid to die”

There is a depth and generosity in the imagery of the Bible, and of Christian writers over the centuries, that is often not dreamt of by those whose theology is proudly proclaimed to be ‘Biblically based’. One of the writers who best demonstrates what I am getting at is the Roman Catholic Franciscan friar and theologian Richard Rohr.

In a recent series of his Daily Meditations, Rohr writes:

The core belief of all the great world religions is that the underlying reality is love. Teilhard de Chardin says that “love is the very physical structure of the universe.” Everything is desiring union with everything in one sense or another. I actually believe that what it means to know and trust God is to trust that Love is the source, heart, engine, and goal of life. Our primal and deepest act of faith is the willingness to somehow say, “It’s okay” because at its core all of reality is good and of God. (Ironically and sadly, many religious people say they love God but they do not trust the goodness at the heart of all reality.)

The Christian belief in the Trinity makes it clear that God is an event of communion. God is not a noun nearly as much as a verb. We’ve always thought of God as an autonomous Supreme Being, rather than as Being itself, as an energy that moves within itself (“Father”), beyond itself (“Christ”), and drawing us into itself (“Holy Spirit”). When Christianity begins to take this pivotal and central doctrine of the Trinity with practical seriousness, it will be renewed on every level…

Love is where we came from. And love is where we are going. When we live in love, we will not be afraid to die. We have built a bridge between worlds. As Paul says “Love does not come to an end” and “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13).

“We will not be afraid to die.” Somehow it comes down to this. Any faith that holds us, yes, that can save us, has to be strong as death, just as love is.

We are so frail, each of us, so easily broken. A few years and we are gone anyway, scraps of memory on the ebbing tide, that choking ache in an old friend’s chest long after midnight–then only the odd printed reference, maybe, letter in a tin box under the bed, ghost link on the web.

And yet.

To be close to one who is dying is to be close to something so right, so clearly, in Kathleen Dowling Singh’s words, grace out of tragedy. Or to know that, in Pippin’s words, “That isn’t so bad.” To have been faced with the great likelihood of one’s own death, as I have been blessed to be once or twice, is to know that that frailty is only one side of the coin. Reality is not what it seems. Our loneliness is in our separation, our differentiation. But once “the grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass,” then we know that really, in the end, truly, it’s OK. That in each of us which is love itself is beyond all the dimensions of time and matter, beyond the reach of thought, but there, at the centre of every heart.

We never were alone, and love is a very good name for God – for that Source and centre of all in which all things from galaxies to wood mice grow, and are held: that Ground of Being out of which, finally, we can never fall, but which will call us home to endless light, and the healing of all wounds.

[Some of this appeared in an earlier form in my post The Harbour Bar]

Words fall far short…

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.

John Macmurray, Quaker Faith & Practice 26.11

We have realised from the beginning, in our Meetings for Worship, that words fall far short of what is true, and that that Light, that Truth, can only be found, and allowed to hold us, and known, in silence. And yet we are human, and so words haunt us. We want to do things with what we experience, and so we name things about it, and pretend we can carry out operations on it, since we can construct sentences where the verbs act on the nouns we have employed – and there are other nouns too, to name ourselves, whom we dream are the ones doing the acting.

But we only dream. It is we who are done with. We are born, we grow, and we age and die, and none of us by taking thought can change anything about that. (Luke 12.25) All we can do is wait, and listen.

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

Isaac Penington, 1661, in Quaker Faith and Practice 26.70

It only costs everything…

There is nothing to be renounced or resisted. Everything can be embraced, but the catch is to cling to nothing. You let it go. You go through life like a knife goes through a done cake, picking up nothing, clinging to nothing, sticking to nothing. And grounded in that fundamental chastity of your being, you can then throw yourself out, pour yourself out, being able to give it all back, even giving back life itself. Very, very simple. It only costs everything.

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus

On the face of it, this could seem almost self-delusory, characterising oneself, perhaps, as some kind of spiritual ninja. But it needs to be balanced by something else Cynthia Bourgeault once wrote:

Mercy is the length and breadth and height and depth of what we know of God—and the light by which we know it. You might even think of it as the Being of God insofar as we can possibly penetrate into it in this life, so that it is impossible to encounter God apart from the dimension of mercy.

The choice of term may seem a bit odd. Today “mercy”—along with so many other classic words in our spiritual tradition—has developed a negative connotation. It seems to suggest power and condescension, a transaction between two vastly unequal parties. A friend of mine, in fact, was told by her spiritual director that she should not pray the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” the mainstay of Eastern Orthodox contemplative spirituality—because “it reinforces medieval stereotypes of paternalism and powerlessness.” Modern people, this spiritual director felt, need to be told that they are worthy, “that they can stand on their own two feet before God.”

But the word “mercy” comes profoundly attested to in our Judeo-Christian spiritual heritage. Aside from the fact that the Jesus Prayer, hallowed by two millennia of Christian practice, has been consistently singled out… as the most powerful prayer a Christian can pray, we simply cannot get away from the Mercy without getting away from the Bible as well. The word confronts us at every turn, as a living reality of our faith…

From the outside, the Quaker way might seem to some to be inclined towards “stand[ing] on [our] own two feet before God” (something that has always seemed profoundly silly to me – I mean, have you ever glimpsed the living God in prayer or worship?) but consider this from one of our founders, George Fox, writing in 1652:

Friends, whatever ye are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then you are gone. Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and then doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the Light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes.

You will see that Fox is saying something very similar to Cynthia Bourgeault’s first passage. Content comes not in rejecting, or attempting to drive away our temptations – whether from the world around us, or from our own hungry hearts – but from surrendering to God in the midst of them. Perfectly simple, only “costing not less than everything” as Eliot says at the very end of Four Quartets:

Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

The faithfulness of Friends

Writing on his blog Transition Quaker, Craig Barnett remarks,

Looking around at the condition of the Quaker movement in Britain, it is tempting to grow nostalgic about the profounder spirituality of a previous age. I want to encourage us to resist this temptation. We should not aim at a return to the Quaker forms of the past. Instead, we need a more disciplined attention to the practices that can help us to be faithful to the Spirit in our contemporary world.

I should want to add that it is sometimes tempting also to grow depressed about our perceptions of present-day Quakerism. We can look at the encroachment of secularism, as discussed by Ben Pink Dandelion in this year’s Swarthmore Lecture, and worry that, between the external pressures of consumerism and the internal pressures of nontheist humanism, Quakers are turning from the Light to mere kind thoughts and good works, or we can look at the demographics of Quaker meetings around Britain and conclude that we are soon to die out through old age and mortality.

Craig Barnett goes on,

By concentrating on the lives of ‘great Quakers’ of the past, we can easily overlook the fact that Friends such as John Woolman, Elizabeth Fry or Rufus Jones were not at all typical of the wider Quaker movement of their time. For most of our history, Friends have been largely what we are today – spiritually tepid and deeply compromised by our accommodation to the surrounding culture.

I recall having this discussion many times before I became a Quaker, when, playing as I was in church worship bands, members of the congregation would lament to me that contemporary worship songwriters couldn’t hold a candle to the great hymn writers of the past. I often used to point out that 18th-century hymns were based on the popular music of their day, and were frequently trite, obscure or both, and the majority of the hymns the Victorians wrote wobbled uneasily between the sentimental and the grandiose. The ones we have in our hymnbooks today are the ones that made it through the sifting process of history, just as a hundred years or so from today, only the best worship songs will be remembered, and the others will have been left on the shelf.

There is much to celebrate in contemporary Quakerism. Writers like Ben Pink Dandelion, whom I’ve mentioned already, Harvey Gillman, Jenny Routledge and Alex Wildwood are doing much to disturb and excite us ordinary Friends in local meetings, where renewal, if it is to come, will take root and grow. Craig Barnett quotes Ursula Jane O’Shea’s 1993 Backhouse Lecture to Australia Yearly Meeting:

Healing spiritual malaise within a group and initiating revival cannot be accomplished by office-holders or weighty Friends. It must be the committed task of a large section of the community, if not all of it. Transformation of a group can begin nowhere else but within each person. Willingness in many members to begin the hard work of inward transformation, without waiting for others to go first, may be the test of a community’s desire and capacity to be revitalised…

Renewal of the Society waits for the choice of each Friend: Am I willing to risk the disturbing, transfiguring presence of the Spirit in my life? To obey it? To expect ‘the Cross’ and dark days as I discover and nurture who I am before God? When we choose to live the spiritual life the Quaker Way, these are the experiences we are committing ourselves to, whatever words we put upon them. If significant numbers of us are not interested in, or willing to live by these experiences, the hoped-for renewal of our meetings cannot occur. But if our collective spiritual power gathers strength it will infect other Friends and newcomers. Ministry will become more grounded in the Spirit and individuals will be inspired by the Spirit to serve our meetings as nurturers, prophets and conservers.

Writing this twenty-one years ago, Ursula Jane O’Shea was herself, I believe, both prophet and nurturer for the present generation of Friends. Her words are courageously borne out in the work of Friends like Jenny Routledge in particular, who writes, demonstrating just this choice to hear and obey the Spirit, to take the risk of the Cross,

When I was asked at the beginning of this journey [of exploring the spiritual basis of eldership] what I wanted to achieve, I said that I just wanted to sow seeds. I didn’t have any sense of what the end point might be. I just wanted to be heard. It was one of the numerous occasions on this journey when I knew the answer straight away. I experience these as leadings of the Spirit, promptings from my inner teacher, and they have been a feature of my journey, not a very convenient feature, but undeniable…

This is the authentic voice of experimental faith, the voice that has led Friends through the thickets of stagnation and renewal over and over again through the 350 or so years of our history. I sometimes think we need to remind ourselves repeatedly that what matters is not the survival of Quakerism as a religious movement, but the faithfulness of Friends “to the promptings of love and truth in [our] hearts, which are the leadings of God.” (Advices and Queries, 1)

On babbling incoherently

We are just a little tiny flicker of a much larger flame that is Life itself, Consciousness itself, Being itself, Love itself, God’s very self. Once we say it, it seems obvious. What else would it be?

Richard Rohr

Conceptually, I don’t suppose that saying something like this makes any sense at all. But it isn’t a concept. It is direct experience. Only from experience can we dare to say things like this.

The words in which we speak of the spiritual are only ever “raids on the unspeakable” – they are not, and can’t be, conclusions, the results of thought or research. We have had an encounter: all we can do is babble, more or less incoherently, and trust that someone, somewhere, will catch enough of a sense of what we have experienced to try walking this way themselves, in hopes of falling into the hands of the living God.

Whether called elders or not…

Some Friends, whether called elders or not, have been looked to for spiritual counsel from the beginning. So in 1653 William Dewsbury proposed that each meeting should appoint ‘one or two most grown in the Power and the Life, in the pure discerning of the Truth’ to take responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the meeting and its members.

While the nurture of the spiritual life and responsibility for the right holding of meeting for worship continued to rest with ‘elders’, the more practical aspects of pastoral care were, towards the end of the eighteenth century, assigned to appointed ‘overseers’.

Most area meetings continue the practice of appointing elders and overseers from their membership to ensure that the needs of the worshipping groups within their compass are met.

Quaker Faith and Practice 12.05

There is much material available on eldership in Quaker Faith and Practice, and within the Quaker community generally, but as Jenny Routledge discovered when researching her book Living Eldership, there is less on actually being an elder.

Increasingly, I’m beginning to feel that the spiritual discipline of eldership is central not only to what is distinctive about Quakerism as a religious movement, but to the life of the Meeting, and ultimately to the life of each individual Quaker. Do note that I said, “the spiritual discipline of eldership”, not “elders”. Elders are important to spiritual welfare; but in the end, as a workshop participant said to Jenny Routledge, “Elders are the ones who remind us that we are all elders.”

“We are all elders…” It sounds good, but what does it mean? For a start, I think, we are each of us responsible for the spiritual life of our Meeting – all the way, eventually, to the Yearly Meeting of which we are part. We each have the opportunity to join in worship, where the presence in the silence of each of us is as vital as breathing. The coming together of Friends to worship is the engine of all that Quakers do, and its effects ripple through the world bringing peace, justice and love far beyond the walls of our meeting houses.

Spoken ministry seems to flow naturally from the silence – as Pierre Lacout says,

In silence which is active, the Inner Light begins to glow – a tiny spark. For the flame to be kindled and to grow, subtle argument and the clamour of our emotions must be stilled. It is by an attention full of love that we enable the Inner Light to blaze and illuminate our dwelling and to make of our whole being a source from which this Light may shine out.

Words must be purified in a redemptive silence if they are to bear the message of peace. The right to speak is a call to the duty of listening. Speech has no meaning unless there are attentive minds and silent hearts. Silence is the welcoming acceptance of the other. The word born of silence must be received in silence.

But much as our spiritual lives may be centred on meeting for worship, we have lives that stretch across the other six days of the week. David Johnson wrote,

A Quaker prayer life arises from a life of continuing daily attentiveness. The first generation of Quakers followed a covenant with God, based on assiduous obedience to the promptings of the Inward Light. This process did not require established churches, priests or liturgies. Quaker prayer then became a practice of patient waiting in silence.

Prayer is something to be done daily all through our lives, and not to be left till we go to Meeting for Worship once a week. Yet prayer is not easy for many of us…

(David Johnson, A Quaker Prayer Life)

As elders, we each have the tender lives of our Friends to care for, to hold in the Light. Whether we are called elders or not, each of us can help the other to grow closer to the endless stream of the Spirit flowing through all of our lives.

Harvey Gilman, whom I have quoted on this blog before, has an article on elders in the Words series in this week’s issue of The Friend, where he too discusses Jenny Routledge’s work:

In her writings on eldership, Jenny Routledge has helpfully pointed to three ways of considering the role of the elder, which may also refer to the challenge of any religious community. She mentions accompaniment, discipline and nurture. This chimes in with my experience of those people I call the elders of my life. As Friends, we talk of answering that of God in each other. We might also talk of affirming the worth of each other, eliciting an awareness of the Light within each other, walking side by side with each other, challenging each other out of our habits and our fearfulness, calling each other to be accountable for our lives and actions, pointing out that spiritual growth is a matter of discipline and discipleship, nurturing the seed of authenticity in each other – and sharing together some of the deep insights of Quaker tradition. I have been eldered in all these areas. I am profoundly grateful for this eldering.

Why we meet…

If I was to describe what a gathered Meeting is, I first need to talk about the purpose of Meeting for Worship.

It is human response to Divine initiative. But in a Quaker Meeting for Worship, it’s not individual meditation or individual prayer. It’s really a communal mystical experience. It’s an opportunity to experience for the group as a whole to encounter the divine presence in our midst.

So the gathered Meeting for worship describes a quality that might be achieved in a Meeting for Worship in which the body is gathered together. I imagine the arms of the holy spirit, the arms of God gathering us together.

Kristina Keefe-Perry, QuakerSpeak Quaker Worship Pt 3: The Gathered Meeting (transcript)

Yesterday, we found ourselves trying to explain to friends from another Christian tradition just what Quaker worship is all about. They had heard this and that, but had never attended a Meeting.

Meeting for Worship, I found myself saying, is something quite different from a group of people sitting around, each meditating by themselves. It is not an excuse, either, for each to become lost in their own thoughts and fantasies – though among the best of us, in the best meetings, it can happen from time to time, as any Friend will tell you!

In Meeting for Worship we are not met to meet each other, or not mainly. Let Ross Hennessy explain:

We start to become more sensitive to the folks around us and their process and what they are going through. As that communication, that nonverbal communication, increases, there starts to be this emerging presence in the center of the room…

There comes this point where your will starts to bend in the direction of that presence. Up until that point, you feel like you’re in control and you’re the one that’s processing what’s going on and you’re the one that’s making decisions about the content of your mind or you’re making decisions about what your prayer looks like… but then something happens. Something shifts. Something emerges, that you’re not in control anymore and there’s just a gravity that you start to circle around.

Kody Hersh adds:

It’s just an act of grace that we can all just fall into something that is effortless, that is not about any of the things that we do to try and make something happen in our worship experience or in our relationship with God—we just fall into the arms of God together.

Quaker worship is as much communion as prayer, as much a vivid, real encounter with the living God, even, perhaps oddly, for those who would find difficulty with conventional definitions of the word God. Quakerism is an experimental faith, both in the sense George Fox and his contemporaries used to mean based on experience rather than authority, dogma or conjecture, and in the more modern sense of discovering truth through direct, empirical testing. This is the whole point of being a Quaker, really.