Monthly Archives: December 2014

Silence, Love and Death

Silence is not just that which is around words and underneath images and events. It has a life of its own. It’s a phenomenon with an almost physical identity. It is almost a being in itself to which you can relate. Philosophically, we would say being is that foundational quality which precedes all other attributes. When you relate to the naked being of a thing, you learn to know it at its core. Silence is at the very foundation of all reality. It is that out of which all being comes and to which all things return. (If the word “silence” does not grab you, you can interchange it with nothingness, emptiness, vastness, formlessness, open space, or any undefined reality.)

You do not hear silence (precisely!), but it is that by which you do hear. You cannot capture silence. It captures you. Silence is a kind of thinking that is not thinking. It’s a kind of thinking which mostly sees (contemplata). Silence, then, is an alternative consciousness. It is a form of intelligence, a form of knowing beyond bodily reacting or emotion. It is a form of knowing beyond mental analysis, which is what we usually call thinking.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation

I have found silence to be my true home and refuge, and the source of whatever there may be of faith in me, and trust. It is the place from which I can look at love and death, and find them not to be in opposition. Death is only the gate by which we must all fall into the arms of love, and so a sacred thing. But I can only see this in silence, by way of silence; I would think it very difficult for anyone to come to it another way.

Silence being, as Rohr says, ‘at the very foundation of all reality’, it is itself love, the Ground of Being. I think we misunderstand love, more often than not. It is not a thing we can acquire, nor a state we can aspire to, so much as the precondition for being itself. Why else would anything be, still less come to know itself, and in itself God, and so love?

Hidden and Ordinary

I have come to believe that the true mystics are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demands of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self… If they are wise, they treasure the rare moments of solitude and silence that come their way, and use them not to escape, to distract themselves with television and the like. Instead, they listen for a sign of God’s presence and they open their hearts toward prayer.

Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries

Once you have begun [to pray], you will find yourself entering into a kind of life that seems very natural, as though you knew how to do it without being told; a life of following a path that is yours alone; a satisfying life that fills a need that was there all along, but somehow always an empty space before. As this happens you come to care less about “answers” to prayer and whether anything is “really” happening. Something is really happening, but it is entirely yours: a secret between you and God.

Emilie Griffin, Clinging – The Experience of Prayer

I pin my hopes to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place.

Rufus Jones, Quaker Faith & Practice 24.56

I’ve come to feel that the heroic and the extreme are not the way, generally, that God works in us and in that which is. Hiddenness and ordinariness are far more fertile soils for the Spirit than vows and asceticism. Charles Olson wrote:

These days

whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them

And the dirt

Just to make clear
where they come from

and he was right.

The beams of the Cross are the bones of the Incarnation…

Incarnation literally means embodied in flesh or taking on flesh (Wikipedia).

What is it we celebrate at Christmas? The birth of a baby, certainly, who grew to be the historical Jesus, the teacher. But incarnation?

Kathleen Raine’s poem ‘Northumbrian Sequence IV’ speaks of ‘Let[ting] in the nameless formless power… Let[ting] in the unpeopled skies…’ She goes on to ask, in the person of Mary, ‘Oh how can virgin fingers weave / A covering for the void, / How can my fearful heart conceive / Gigantic solitude?’

As Raine points out, letting in the power of God entails letting in all the love of God, all that God loves; the broken, the terrified, the pain and the uncanny bitter grieving of that which is, and is loved. The beams of the Cross are the bones of the Incarnation. It is on the Cross that that flesh is hung, as it will be hung some thirty years hence.

All prayer comes down to this. Truly to pray is to become a small incarnation; this is why it is so necessary to ‘pray without ceasing’, and why to pray is to take up the cross ourselves. Perhaps prayer is the central occupation of a human life, why we are here. Annie Dillard thought it was:

The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega, it is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blinded note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to “World.” Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.

(Teaching a Stone to Talk)

We can never see the bridge…

When Paul says to “pray always” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), he can’t mean to walk around saying the “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” all day.  Prayer is basically a total life stance. It is a way of being present in the world in which we are present to the Presence and present to the Presence in all things. In a certain sense, you either pray always (or almost always) or you do not pray at all…

Once we can learn to be present to the Presence, the things that used to bother us don’t bother us quite as much. The things that used to defeat us no longer defeat us. The things we thought we could never surrender to, we now can. Even to accept that we are not ready to accept something is still a form of this utterly grounding and accepting Presence.

Richard Rohr, adapted from The Eternal Now – and how to be there!

The odd thing about Rohr’s remark about surrendering to things we never thought we could surrender to is that this grace – for it is a grace – is not given to us ahead of time. Once or twice I have had to live through things I had thought insufferable, and I still knew them to be insufferable up to the moment they occurred. Grace is not given in advance; it is not something you can store up, and say to yourself, “Well, that’s OK then, I’ve plenty of grace put by to cope with that…” Grace and faith are all wrapped up together. You have to trust, you have to have faith, that grace will somehow be there when you need it.

I recall a scene from the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where, in order to complete a task known as ‘The Leap of Faith’ to reach the Holy Grail, Indy has to cross a chasm hundreds of feet deep, and steps out into empty space with a whispered prayer, only to find an invisible bridge supporting him. We can never see the bridge…

I think this radical faith lies at the very centre of all we are, and all we can become, if only we will take that step. It is the faith of the dying, and the faith of giving birth. It is the faith that sits down in silence, without any supporting liturgy or cast of clergy, to wait for God. It is the faith of Christ, for whatever the Cross means, at least it means this, walking open eyed into death, and beyond, in a faith that can only have come with each step. Gethsemane tells us this.

But what are we to have faith in? How can we possibly know what to trust? Only love. God is love. If you know your Indiana Jones, you will remember that it was for love of his dying father that Indy took that step; and it was for love that Jesus waited in the garden for the arresting party. It is only as we follow love that the bridge will spring invisible beneath our steps.

“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. ” (Advices & Queries 1)

Even in darkness…

…I am not the light, but I am called to testify to the light. To testify is to tell my truth, the whole truth, to be held accountable for what I know and see. I am a witness to the light. I have watched it shine in my very own darkness.

Light, of course, always shows up best in darkness. As it turns out in God’s wise economy, I serve the light best not by trying to be light, not by trying to create an illusion of light, but by being simply myself. A wondering, a waiting, a longing, a doubting, a sometimes lost and tired traveller. My unique darkness becomes my unique gift. It is how I testify to the light. The very parts of me that I think about trying to hide reveal the light most clearly. Because even in darkness—especially in darkness—the true light, oh how it loves to shine.

Kayla McClurg, on Inward/Outward

It is harder and harder, especially as the physical darkness of the shortening days draws the year in to its ending, to see the way ahead. We are not given to see the view from the hill, and the pattern makes no sense from here. Shadows lengthen, the sun appears only briefly between low bands of cloud, across a thin and watery sky. There is nothing to see outside the rooms of winter, no promise of a better tomorrow.

Darkness is all that is left as a testimony to the light. My own darkness, the light that fades in so many eyes each day as its life passes – where? There are no conclusions, and all the signposts are fading now.

Advent. Waiting. Below the horizon there is a rising, yet the darkness extends its borders across these bare fields. What is it? No answer. How could there be? There are no words for this, and we have not the senses for these wavelengths. “When I say ‘darkness’, I mean a privation of knowing, just as whatever you do not know or have forgotten is dark to you, because you do not see it with your spiritual eyes. For this reason, that which is between you and your God is termed, not a cloud of the air, but a cloud of unknowing.” (The Cloud of Unknowing, Ch. 4)

But the light shines in the darkness. It does. The dark has not overcome it, despite the closing down of day to that faint fading glimmer along the horizon. It is only love, and love has no need of daytime, or even summer. Love holds all that is, could be. Contains the worlds, and the aching interstellar voids; it is the ground of being itself, and is always. There is nothing to fear…

Love seems to be the quality of death

A friend told me of a recent experience she had. After reading a story of a saint who had tried to live every day as if it was the last day of his life, she decided it would be interesting to try doing this herself. And so, that evening, as she got into bed, she began to plan her last day on earth. She thought about what she would do, whom she would see, whom she would ask to forgive her, to whom she would say goodbye. She began to feel quite sorry for herself, and even reduced herself to tears, but in the end she realised she was just playing a game, so she gave it up and went to sleep.

The next morning, however, as she woke up, a very clear thought came into her mind. “What would I do,” she asked herself, “if I knew that I was dying now, this minute, that I had only a few more seconds to live?” Suddenly it was no longer a game. She was really there, at the End, alone, and there was no time left to prepare or plan. There was nothing she could do or undo. And the most astonishing thing was, she said, that after a split second of panic she knew exactly what she must do. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” she heard herself cry.

The experience was, my friend believed, one of the greatest graces she had ever received. She realised that, for her, there was only one way of dying, and one way of “practising” it: to throw herself into the arms of God, not only at the end of life, but every day, and cry for mercy. To do it so insistently, so constantly, that the prayer that came to her spontaneously at the moment of her “death experience”, as she called it, would become a ceaseless prayer of the heart, that it would shape her life as well as her death.

Irma Zaleski, Door to Eternity

Some readers might find this almost a sick, perverse little story, thinking that a mature faith should “stand on [its] own two feet before God”, and that the whole enterprise of imagining one’s own death was macabre, medieval, pathological. But I can assure you that there is nothing pathological about the nearness of death. It is a place to which each and every one of us will come, sooner or later, with no exception at all. The sooner we get used to it, the better, actually, it will be for us. I have been profoundly grateful for the couple of times I have found myself facing the probability of my own death. It is a clean place, oddly a place of great freedom and peace; but it is not, as Zaleski’s friend discovered, remotely a game.

Mercy is a word many misunderstand. Irma Zaleski again:

We tend to think of the mercy of God as his “pity” for us, for which we have to beg, for which we have to humiliate ourselves and wait trembling and afraid. This is an awful distortion of the Good News… To ask for mercy is not to cringe in self-abasement or fear, but to look towards God in trust and hope. Mercy is a “summary” of all we know or need to know about God’s love for us.

Love seems to be the quality of death. The Buddhist psychologist Kathleen Dowling Singh has written extensively on death and the dying process, chiefly in her wonderful book The Grace in Dying. She writes,

As we return and/or are returned to our Original Nature, virtues that we have acquired, usually through deliberate cultivation, flow naturally as water from a spring. The qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, presence, centeredness, spaciousness, mercy and confidence all radiate naturally forth from our transformed being as we come closer to death. Many a time I have heard “I love you” whispered softly and easily to a spouse or child or parent who may never have heard those words before. Many a time I have seen the dying comfort those in pain around them…

Love appears to be the last connection the dying have with the world of form. We become expressive vehicles for the power of the Ground of Being, inhabited and vitalised by far greater Being… The Ground of Being is, in a very real sense, Love. As we merge with it, self-consciousness and all questions of self-worth and previous psychological issues of lovability spontaneously melt. Love simultaneously pours into and pours out of us. It begins to pour through us.

This is what Zaleski, I believe, is getting at. Certainly it is what I am getting at. To practice for death is consciously to approach that place of last connection: to abandon ship, as it were, and leap into the endless ocean of mercy that is the Ground of Being itself. (God is nothing less than this.) If we can begin to do this consciously – and it is not so far from the self-abandonment of contemplation – then that gracious power of “loving-kindness, compassion, presence… mercy and confidence” will have the chance to manifest in our very lives, poured out for those the Way places in our path.

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.

George Fox, 1652