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.