Monthly Archives: March 2015

The presence of such Light…

The more I go on with trying to live a life somehow close to what I have come to know of God, the more certain I am that for me at any rate surrender is at the heart of all I can do, or be.

In my last post I wrote of the impossibility of running God to earth, of finding God by our own efforts, or by the power of thought. To remain still, hidden, simply to open the heart in quiet and trust – that seems to be all we can do. It is a paradox, I suppose: finding by not seeking , reaching out in stillness. Nevertheless, it is all I can do now. To think about this, to attempt to write it down, comes much later, if at all.

Richard Foster writes, “Darkness is a definite experience of prayer. It is to be expected, even embraced.” But this kind of darkness is not an absence of light; in fact, it isn’t an absence at all. What it seems to be is the presence of such Light as we not used to receiving – what we might call new light, perhaps. I was struck recently to read that cats’ eyes are able to function in the ultraviolet, which may explain why cats sometimes behave as though they can see something we cannot. Simply put, they do!

Perhaps the stillness of the surrendered heart is simply a matter of looking steadily into what seems to be the dark, trusting that our hearts’ eyes are capable of seeing far more than our thinking minds can credit. William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” Maybe that cleansing, that opening, is what is behind this surrender, this hiddenness; maybe that is what it is for.

We deny ourselves the experience of what actually is by our insistence on knowing its name, when all its name is, is isness, Being itself, in which all that is seems to rest as plankton dances in the water-columns of the ocean, yet is not different. All we can do is watch, steadily, for the Light.

And yet God is not strange…

But then one bright spring day – it was the 29th of May 1902 – while she sat preparing for her class under the trees in the backyard of Föreningsgatan 6, quietly, invisibly, there occurred the central event of her whole life. Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ‘empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.

The first words which came to her – although they took a long time to come – were, ‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ The child who had cried out in anguish and been silenced had now come inside the gates of Light. She had been delivered by a love that is greater than any human love. Struck dumb, amazed, she went quietly to her class, wondering that no one noticed that something had happened to her.

(Quaker Faith & Practice 26.05)

Emilia Fogelklou, the great Swedish Quaker theologian and writer is describing (in the third person) an experience she had at the age of 23. She was never the same again.

We cannot find God by thinking about God, for God cannot be thought. Of course, we can, rightly, think about the consequences of God for human beings, and we can even think about what God is for us, but we cannot find our way to God by taking thought. Strictly speaking, we cannot travel to God either, though we can travel to places where we might be more likely to encounter God than some others – this is the point of pilgrimage.

And yet God is not strange, or other. God is the Ground of Being itself – as Paul said, quoting Epimenides, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.28). There is, as George Fox famously remarked, “that of God” in each of us.

Most of us do not yet know our own essential nature. Maybe we can feel the pain of limitation and the unease of contraction and the longing for liberation beyond self, but we cling to what’s familiar…

It is wise to know our own depths, to plumb and explore them, to allow our hearts to break open, to allow our minds to investigate that which they would rather deny, to allow ourselves to contemplate impermanence, to take death in – our own and the deaths of those we love…

Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Aging

There is nothing difficult about all this, and these experiences are not somehow reserved for professional mystics or particularly holy people. All that is needed is, as Isaac Pennington explained, to,

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.

We need only to be still, and rest in the Presence in which all things hold together (Colossians 1.17), and “the great Mercifulness” will lift us up into the Light.

To sit quietly is enough

Once again, I find myself apologising for a long gap in posts here. We have moved house – again, and I hope for the last time – and the usual flood of practicalities, some tedious, some delightful, has kept me away from the keyboard. Things are settling down, though, and I have been thinking about faith and simplicity, and how complicated we humans make things around religion, with our criteria, our creeds and our shibboleths.

Kayla McClurg writes:

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…,” today’s passage [John 3:14-21] says, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” This is one of those small bites of scripture we are apt to glide right past in our hurry to get to the meat of the message. How odd to find in John’s gospel this reference to a peculiar story in the book of Numbers in which God punishes the people with an onslaught of poisonous snakes. The remedy God gives Moses is rather odd, too. He is told to make a bronze replica of a serpent and put it on a pole. When it is lifted up, anyone who has been bitten by a poisonous snake simply looks at the replica to be saved.

The people do not have to figure out how it works. They do not need to come to consensus about its meaning, or strive to love it with their whole hearts. They simply look at it if they want to be healed. This, John says, is how it is with Jesus.

We tend to make Jesus quite a bit more complicated. Is it possible that faith might be as childlike and simple as just looking at Jesus? Not arguing over who he was and is, what one should believe about him, how to express that belief, who is right and who is wrong. “For God so loved the world…”—we barely get this far in one of the best known and most hopeful verses in scripture before we leap out into the perils and pitfalls of varying belief systems, who is in and who is out and who gets to decide. We stand condemned, or ready to condemn, despite the very next words: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world….”

Moses lifted up the serpent, not to condemn, but to heal. And the people only needed to take a new look at its healing potential. That’s all. Maybe taking another look at Jesus will bring us more gifts than we know. If we start to see him in a new light, without knowing for sure what is right or wrong and who is on his team, we might be surprised by what we end up believing, what old wounds get healed.

(With thanks to Inward/Outward)

The Franciscan scholar Richard Rohr remarks,

It is theologically and formally incorrect to simply say, as most Christians do, “Jesus is God.” The Trinity is God, and the Eternal Christ is God. But Jesus is a third something—a god-man—which offers humanity an utterly new possibility and dignity from God’s side. If you can’t imagine it in Jesus, it is very unlikely you will be able to imagine it within yourself. That is why I personally need to believe in Jesus’ divinity. This does not to make Christianity the “only true religion,” but it does make Christianity, in its mature forms, into a code-breaker, a short cut, a simplification about what is happening within reality. Without Jesus putting it together for us, I doubt if we could even imagine that divine and human could be united into one person…

I do believe that the Jesus mystery holds, manifests, affirms, and enjoys the entire pattern, process, and privilege of what it means to be a human person. Believe it first in him, and then you can perhaps dare to believe it in yourself.

Rohr, again, is speaking of looking at Jesus as the way of healing, of change, of homecoming. He is, of course, not the only way – but certainly for those of us whose cultural, even linguistic, heritage is bound up in the Christian story, he is a, possibly the, most direct and powerful way to integration, at least if we can get over the preconceptions too many of us inhaled with the dusty air of the schoolroom and the church Bible study.

It isn’t complicated. All we need is to contemplate – literally, spend time with – Christ; to really look at him. We don’t need to have the right, or any, answers. We don’t need creedal formulations. To sit quietly is enough, and to realise the Presence that is always with us. And then, as Thomas Kelly wrote,

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’.