Monthly Archives: January 2015

Prayer as Experience

Prayer, we learn gradually, has far more to do with listening than with talking. In emotional stress the thoughts are so obsessive that they leave one no opportunity to listen. So, when we know someone is in trouble, we can and must listen (pray) for them. A Friend who had missed meeting for several weeks told us that she knew we had been praying for her before we said so; she had felt it and been sustained by it. She had thought there was no point in prayer or belief in God, but she had been helped by the knowledge that we still prayed and believed. It seems that one can do no less than this. We are seldom given guarantees that it is effective, just hints along the way; but they are hints we cannot ignore. We cannot prove the effectiveness of prayer, but nor can we cast scorn on examples of the kind I have given.

A friend tells me that when she prays for someone she does not so much pray to God for them as for God for them. This seems to me a vital clue about prayer. It is God that the troubled person needs, not our advice and instructions. As we learn more about worship we learn to listen more deeply so that we can be channels through which God’s love reaches the other person. It is God at work, not we ourselves; we are simply used.

Diana Lampen, 1979 – Quaker Faith & Practice 2.26

It is easy to be simplistic about prayer: either it works because God will do as we ask, subject to certain easily-ascertained conditions; or it doesn’t work because, well, it’s an obviously silly idea, a bit of infantile wish-fulfilment, as all sophisticated people know.

Neither of these equal and opposite over-simplifications actually touches what prayer is. Prayer is, as Diana Lampen points out, not something we do, but more properly something that is done through us. It’s irrelevant, really, what we think of it, and the mystery of prayer is in no way contingent on our own abilities or holiness.

Richard Rohr writes, in Silent Compassion (2014) that “To speak of mysticism in simple terms means we speak of experiential knowledge of God instead of merely mental or cognitive knowledge… mystical encounters come to people who are still weak and sinful, as Jesus makes clear in many of his stories (The Prodigal Son, the woman ‘who was a sinner,’ and the Publican and Pharisee stories, for example).” He says later in this same book that, “The original word for this different mind, this alternative consciousness… was simply prayer. That word has been so misused and trivialised to mean merely petitionary prayer, reading prayers… or reciting prayers… I’m not saying that formulaic prayer is wrong, but that is not what was taught by the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the first three or four hundred years of Christianity.”

Silence, contemplation, stillness, these are what the Desert Mothers and Fathers taught. And the odd thing is that Quakers have known this for ever so long. George Fox wrote,

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.

And Thomas Kelly, during the years of World War II,

How, then, shall we lay hold of that Life and Power, and live the life of prayer without ceasing? By quiet, persistent practice in turning all our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, towards Him who calls in the deeps of our souls. Mental habits of inward orientation must be established. An inner, secret turning to God can be made fairly steady, after weeks and months and years of practice and lapses and failures and returns. It is as simple an art as Brother Lawrence found it, but it may be long before we achieve any steadiness in the process. Begin now, as you read these words, as you sit in your chair, to offer your whole selves, utterly and in joyful abandon, in quiet, glad surrender to Him who is within. In secret ejaculations of praise, turn in humble wonder to the Light, faint though it may be. Keep contact with the outer world of sense and meanings. Here is no discipline in absent-mindedness. Walk and talk and work and laugh with your friends. But behind the scenes keep up the life of simple prayer and inward worship. Keep it up throughout the day. Let inward prayer be your last act before you fall asleep and the first act when you awake. And in time you will find, as did Brother Lawrence, that ‘those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep’.

This kind of prayer is not something set aside for specialists. This was the great insight of the early Quakers, that a direct encounter with God is part of normal life for ordinary people, given half a chance. We need only to remember it!

Sailing in the Fog

In her small book Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God, Cynthia Bourgeault quotes Dom Bede Griffiths as saying that there are three “pathways to the centre” the “innermost ground of our being where we meet and are met by God”: near-death experience, falling desperately in love, and meditation. She speaks of the “visceral remembrance of how vivid and abundant life is when the sense of separateness has dropped away”, but goes on to describe meditation as “go[ing] down to the same place, but by a back staircase deep within [our] own being.”

I’m aware of a slight gap in my posts here, and I can only ascribe that to a time of navigating in the mist. Cynthia Bourgeault, a little further on in her book than the Bede Griffiths quote, mentions the experience of sailing in the fog of the coast of Maine, and realising (as I have myself when I was young and spent time messing about in boats) that in the absence of a clear sight of one’s landfall other senses develop: the smell of land, the sound, and the feel beneath one’s feet, of the waves’ shortening and quickening near the shore. She draws a parallel with the spiritual life:

If egoic thinking [normal, everyday consciousness] is like sailing by reference to where you are not—by what is out there and up ahead—spiritual awareness is like sailing by reference to where you are. It is a way of “thinking” at a much more visceral level of yourself—responding to subtle intimations of presence too delicate to to pick up at your normal level of awareness, but which emerge like a sea swell from the ground of your being once you relax and allow yourself to belong deeply to the picture.

Bourgeault goes on to describe meditation (Christian contemplation, whether by centring prayer, the Jesus Prayer, or another similar method) as, once it is driven by “the yearning for truth [having] become… overwhelming in us, and we have the sense that everything done in the ordinary way of consciousness merely ends in lies and disillusionment”, wagering everything on the trust that there is this other sense in us, “that knows how to sail in the fog, see in the dark.”

We are so used, especially in our goal-oriented society, even among Friends all too often, to knowing, with our surface reasoning, where we are going and why, that sailing in the fog can seem like a fruitless, even foolhardy endeavour. But where we are going, if we truly are “yearning for truth”, cannot be found with binoculars, in the sunlight. There are so-called charts, but they are scribbles, like The Cloud of Unknowing, on the backs of envelopes, ‘x’ marks the spot on a scrap of salt-stained parchment, and in any case the sands have shifted over the long years and their tides. (I was amused to see, on, that one the antonyms listed for “reasoning” was “truth”!)

I have been growing used to sailing in the fog, sneaking down the back stairs of my mind. Sometimes I find it hard to have to pop up and start writing prose when I have been drifting like a seabird in the haar. Listen, the waves do change near landfall. Listen, you can smell the trees, the damp earth. But you must be very quiet, and stop straining your eyes in the mist.

Worship, Prayer and Social Media

I have been interested to read contributions from Friends recently (flagged up by Craig Barnett on the Quaker Renewal Facebook Group) about faith and social media – like Facebook, Twitter, or this blog, I suppose – and the implications of online culture for our worship and our sense of community. There have been excellent contributions from, among others, Rhiannon Grant, Michael Booth and pilgrim52.

It is in this last blog post that the following paragraph occurs:

… Quaker worship is so important. In Quaker worship, one day out of 7, we are supposed to sit in silence and come face to face with all that tries to take our attention away from loving our neighbours, caring for and nurturing our families, taking care of the poor and needy, and yes, loving ourselves. We are to face our limits and realize what a poor imitation we make of trying to stay relevant to a social audience. We spend money to make ourselves more conspicuous, sexier, and younger. Always desiring an audience will temporarily fill us with satisfaction, but it will leave us wishing for more and is never ultimately satisfying. How scary it is to give all that up and face who we really are when no one is watching, but I would offer: how more fulfilling! We might even be more creative.

I am struck, of course, by pilgrim52’s remarks on humility (I have written about this myself elsewhere) but it is her mention of our facing our own limits “one day out of 7” that caught my attention, as you might expect from my last couple of posts.

In his 1985 Swarthmore Lecture, Steps in a Large Room, Christopher Holdsworth writes:

It may seem otiose, if not downright stupid, to talk to Friends about silence. We alone (we sometimes think) among Christians regularly use it in our corporate worship … But, although we use silence as the medium through which we become aware of the divine presence … there are many indications … that we do not make a quiet place in our daily lives.

We need both worship and prayer in our lives. They are not the same thing, and they cannot replace one another. I for one can’t survive a whole week on the remembered presence of God in Sunday’s worship – whether in silence or in ministry – and yet I know that I need my Friends in Meeting to worship with, not only because worship is a thing we do together, but because their different personalities, the different ways they experience and express their encounter with the Light, keep me sane and grounded where I might too easily become victim to what would in the 18th century have been known as religious enthusiasm!

Prayer, by which I mean a regular, intentional practice of seeking God, is essential not only to our own life and growth in the Spirit, but to our community, as Christopher Holdsworth (op. cit.) wrote: “I am convinced that the vitality and practical effectiveness of our Society, as of any other church, is directly related to the degree to which each of us manages to find time to explore our inner space during the week.” Rhiannon Grant has more on our own personal spiritual practice, together with some useful book recommendations, here, and Stephanie Grant has a moving and practical description of her own practice here.

Social media tend, for all their usefulness, to work against humility and the solitude in which prayer and silence grow.  We need, as pilgrim52 points out, to learn to be nobody in particular. Hiddenness and ordinariness are the fertile soil in which our spiritual lives grow, and we need somehow to reconcile this fact with the imperative to communicate our faith and our discoveries in the land of the Spirit.

Elsewhere on her blog, pilgrim52 quotes Ben Pink Dandelion quoting Ray Stephenson:

[Discernment] means accepting great risk, because what a situation needs could mean self-sacrifice, and we are loath to open ourselves to that. Even Jesus in Gethsemane found that hard: no wonder it was said that he sweated blood. But his final prayer there –  ‘not my will but thine’ – feels like the ultimate example of a prayer of discernment. It implies a total laying-aside of self; yet Jesus wouldn’t be Jesus without this crucifixion of personal wants. This example matters, because it is true for every one of us. We all need the humility, and the courage, to lay self aside and make space for the Divine to do its work. Then we will be our true selves, and yet enable something greater than ourselves.

If we can begin to do this – and I think we shall need all the resourses of both worship and prayer at our disposal – then we may be able to navigate the treacherous waters of the social media just as early Friends negotiated the opportunities and the whirlpools of the young medium of print. Pilgrim52 reminds us of Elizabeth Fry’s remarks,

My life has been one of great vicissitude: mine has been a hidden path, hidden from every human eye. I have had deep humiliations and sorrows to pass through. I can truly say I have ‘wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way, and found no city to dwell in’; and yet how wonderfully I have been sustained. I have passed through many and great dangers, many ways – I have been tried with the applause of the world, and none know how great a trial that has been, and the deep humiliations of it; and yet I fully believe it is not nearly so dangerous as being made much of in religious society. There is a snare even in religious unity, if we are not on the watch. I have sometimes felt that it was not so dangerous to be made much of in the world, as by those whom we think highly of in our own Society: the more I have been made much of by the world, the more I have been inwardly humbled. I could often adopt the words of Sir Francis Bacon – ‘When I have ascended before men, I have descended in humiliation before God.’

Elizabeth Fry, 1844, Quaker Faith & Practice 21.09

Explaining Prayer?

I have been trying to find my way recently through a thicket of thoughts about prayer. Prayer has been so important to me in my Christian life – the central calling, as I have felt – that it is really quite hard for me to look at it at all objectively.

Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to know how things worked. Not just the mechanics of things, but what was at the heart of them, what “made them tick”. I am still that way. I find it hard to pray unless I have an idea, a theory, of how prayer works.

To be honest, I am not sure if this is possible. There are many models used by different people at different times to try and explain how prayer works, from “asking big daddy in the sky,” to making oneself, one’s own will and capacities, available to God for his will and purposes. Asking “in Jesus’ name” too has come to complicate the understanding of prayer, it then being necessary to point out that this is not a magical formula, but is in fact praying according to God’s will, with the same obedience to that will that Jesus himself showed forth.

Paul, of course, came closest to my own experience when he wrote,

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8.26-27)

If God is spirit, eternally and universally present and yet beyond time and space, then he/she/it is not “a person” as we understand the word “person” at all. Just as God is not a thing, but No Thing, isness itself, God is as far beyond our human concept of personhood as humanity is beyond algae, quite possibly further.

We know the trace of God in the human heart, the light (John 1.5) in the eyes of each of us, in the eyes (Psalm 104.27-30) of those who are not human, too.

In 1656 George Fox wrote,

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.

“That of God in every one.” If there is that of God even in me, then if I come into his presence, as Michael Ramsey wrote in Canterbury Pilgrim, with the needs – and the pain, and the longing – of the world on my heart, how can God, as Ground of Being, not bring good, healing (Romans 8.28) to those women, men, animals, all creation, whom I love as best I know how to love?

John Woolman, too, saw this:

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.

Quaker Faith & Practice 25.05

[An earlier version of this post appeared on my previous blog, The Mercy Blog, in April 2013]

Hysteria or Prayer

As a race, human beings seem to be particularly prone to hysteria. The brave and compassionate Jeff Sparrow, writing recently in The Guardian, reminds us that 1890s anarchists, 1960s “skyjackers”, the followers of Bin Laden, and those recently claiming the title of jihadists, have successively inherited the mantle of “terrorism”, and the hysterical public glamour that surrounds it.

Without in any way seeking to minimise the horror and bloodshed caused by bombings and other indiscriminate violence, it is worth, Sparrow contends, considering that it is the hysteria engendered by the media coverage of terrorist events that remains in the collective psyche, rather than the events themselves or their perpetrators. That hysteria is reborn in each generation, and is easily manipulated by those in power to justify harsh treatment of those who hold unpopular views, as was seen so clearly in the McCarthyism of the 1950s.

Faith stands in stark contrast to hysteria. As Richard Rohr says, an important part of faith is “[h]aving a solid and clear ‘epistemology’ – how we know the things we know … or we are subject to the whims and fancies of any teacher.” Rohr goes on:

I hope I can add to the positive momentum of spiritual evolution. Because of my limitations and biases (as a white man, born in Kansas in the 1940s, raised in the Roman Catholic faith, educated in Franciscan seminaries), my approach to union will always be through a particular set of lenses. It cannot not be. My lenses aren’t necessarily better than others, but they are the ones I began with, and thus far they have born much fruit for others. All each of us can do is own and expose our biases, because we all have them. You do too. There is no such thing as a value free, or unbiased position on anything. My prayer, paraphrasing St. Joan of Arc, is: “If I am in your truth, God, keep me there. If I am not, God, put me there.”

I am coming to a difficult place in my own faith journey. What Richard Rohr somewhere describes as “the force field of the Holy Spirit” is tugging at me again. For all the cool scepticism of some contemporary humanist Quakers, for all the complex linguistic knots some of us tie ourselves into affirming each others’ right to speak of God or not “or whatever we call it”, my own journey is “experimental”. It can’t be otherwise. My experience, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere here, is based in prayer and leads back to prayer. It is only as a pray-er that I can be honest with myself about my own faith; seemingly, I only make sense to myself as one who prays.

Of all the aspects and qualities of the life of faith, it is the practice of prayer that seems most clearly to be the antithesis of hysterical fear. Prayer depends upon, and works within, faith; without prayer, faith (mine at least) withers.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me…