Monthly Archives: July 2015

On standing still and ceasing

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.

Pierre Lacout, 1969

It seems to me that pretty well all the many thousands of words which have been written over long centuries on contemplative practice probably boil down to these: “subtle argument and the clamour of our emotions must be stilled.” And yet we so easily focus on the techniques available to us – zazen, centring prayer, prayers of repetition – that the sweet core of all practice often eludes us. “An attention full of love” is something so obvious that it seems far too simple. Our busy minds are sure that there must be more to it than that.

I am sure that there must be as many ways for this to be true in someone’s practice as there are people to practice anything, and yet for me two strangely opposite means always rise to the surface. One, of course, is meeting for worship, where I am immersed already in the love of Friends, in the eucharistic community of silence; the other is the Jesus Prayer, where alone my heart opens in a prayer that is so much more than what people in our society mean when they say, “mantra”. The words, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” imply a whole Christology of love and surrender that does in fact fill my attention with love – and returns it there as often as it wanders off like the drifting sheep that it is.

Surrender is the last act, willingly or otherwise, each of us is likely to make in this life. 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.

“Stand still,” said William Leddra, the day before he was martyred, “Stand still, and cease from thine own working.” To practice surrender 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 in prayer, 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.

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A ministry of electrons and distance…

These days I often find myself excited by something I’m reading – currently it’s Amos Smith’s Healing the Divide: Recovering Christianity’s Mystic Roots – and yet unable to bring myself to blog about it here. Recently a commenter on one of the Quaker Facebook groups referred to this blog as “a ministry”. If that is the case, then my inability to casually share things I’ve been reading, chat about the weather, and so on, makes a kind of sense.

Ministry is an interesting concept in the life of Friends. Vocal ministry in meeting is understood to be the preserve of the Spirit, where, if all goes well:

All true ministry springs from the reality of experience, and uses our gifts of heart and mind in its expression. But ministry is not the place for intellectual exercise. It comes through us, not from us. Although we interpret the Spirit it is that Spirit which will lead us to minister. The Spirit will decide which experiences are relevant and which will speak to the condition of the meeting. If you have to decide whether it is right to speak, consider that it isn’t. If your words are important the meeting will find them anyway.

QFP 2.60

But Jon Watts, interestingly, has a long post in which he discusses ministry in its wider context:

Our goal is to allow God to lead our congregation, and to decide our business. We can each be a channel for the voice of the Spirit, if we listen and humble ourselves.

Thus our congregation is traditionally not led by a single minister on 1st day mornings, but instead we wait until God selects the minister. Who will stand up this Sunday and be filled with the Spirit’s message? We don’t pretend to know…

Once upon a time Quakers used the term “Recorded Minister” to denote a “male or female Quaker who was acknowledged to have a gift of spoken ministry.” But who, in the age of the internet, might acknowledge, or record, the call to blog?

What I seem to be finding is that the impulse, for want of a better word, to write things down here is not unlike the impulse to record them in a spiritual journal – which I suppose makes sense in the context of the derivation of the word blog from weblog – and yet there is the aspect of communication, exactly as in spoken ministry, where:

Worship is the response of the human spirit to the presence of the divine and eternal, to the God who first seeks us. The sense of wonder and awe of the finite before the infinite leads naturally to thanksgiving and adoration.

Silent worship and the spoken word are both parts of Quaker ministry. The ministry of silence demands the faithful activity of every member in the meeting. As, together, we enter the depths of a living silence, the stillness of God, we find one another in ‘the things that are eternal’, upholding and strengthening one another.

QFP 2.01

You, reader, and I are not in meeting together. Our hearts don’t share the same silence, the Spirit is not leading us both in the same space, and yet the act of reading links us. We are, I suppose, Friends, despite the few or many miles that may separate us on the surface of the globe. Perhaps my own silence, here by the window looking out over the garden, and the trees screening the reservoir beyond just as evening darkens towards a summer night, may touch your own in a way we don’t understand, but which may have to do with your own openness quite as much as my stillness, watching shreds of cloud above the restless branches…

Maybe we do share a blessing, some act of grace that links us both in this other space. Maybe such things do hallow the electronic expanse we share, heal and repurpose that network, so that the Spirit links us with tongues not of fire but of electrons and distance, and the breath of a midsummer’s day slowly ending…

Coming back to the edge of silence…

Coming back to the edge of silence, where only the blood’s shouting in the ear remains, I think of Caroline Fox’s words (QFP 26.04):

The first gleam of light, ‘the first cold light of morning’ which gave promise of day with its noontide glories, dawned on me one day at meeting, when I had been meditating on my state in great depression. I seemed to hear the words articulated in my spirit, ‘Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee.’ Then I believed that God speaks to man by His Spirit. I strove to lead a more Christian life, in unison with what I knew to be right, and looked for brighter days, not forgetting the blessings that are granted to prayer.

“Live up to the light thou hast… not forgetting the blessings that are granted to prayer.” Yes. This I have needed to hear. It is so easy to forget, to become caught up in doing, in assuaging the patterned guilt of the news reports, spinning on the surface of days like a whirligig beetle, when all the time the deep roots of the waterlilies wait in the cool dark for the slow carp of the praying heart, nourishing, healing, the source of all that is new, and whole, and good.

To sit still under the itching and the busyness, to refuse the anxious demands and the loose, slippery hungers of all that is restless: to sit still under it and let it alone (QFP 26.02) – then the living hope, that true voice, comes, that Emilia Fogelklou heard: “This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.”

A Gift

I wonder sometimes how to write about experiences that seem personal to me, and yet may somehow touch another reader. Sitting in worship this morning I found myself in a still place resonant with remembering. Unbidden, the memory arose of sitting on the stairs at a party, in my late teens probably, perfectly aware of the music and bustle in the rooms across the hall, and the coming and going on the stairs, and sinking into stillness within. Years before any formal religious practice or understanding, before my spiritual hunger and curiosity had led me towards any others who might share it, I had found a place of unassailable peace, a centre of unquestionable truth and actuality among the noise and smoke and confusion, the drinking and the hunger and the dancing…

I had had nothing to anchor this discovery, and no means of finding my way back there. Over the years, despite endless reading, despite various attempts at meditation, despite at long last being led into coherent contemplative practice, I stumbled across this place of light and peace only rarely, and then by chance.

I don’t know that I have any answer for this, except to accept it as a gift. I have (when I have thought of it at all – for it is very hard to think about) thought of this stillness, real beyond fact and experience, as perhaps some fruit of persistent practice, or maybe to be secured through learning. And yet it was not by practice or learning that I found it on the stairs all those years ago, nor has it come as a predictable result of any particular discipline in the years since. It is gift, a grace, and nothing else. It is gentle, and open, and always there, but it is not I who open the inward door. It is opened to me, and I suppose that all I must do is receive it, though there is no awareness of any decision to accept.

Oddly, the nearest I have found to this strange gift is in the literature of classical Christian contemplation, where one reads of something called “infused contemplation“. And yet certainly when I first encountered the reality, I was far from living “the whole Gospel wholeheartedly and… engag[ing] in an earnest prayer life” as Thomas Dubay puts it in a citation in the linked article. For me it has been pure gift, unsought, quite undeserved, unasked-for except in the deepest unspoken longings of the wordless heart. I can only wonder at it, and be grateful.

“The love of God spilling out from us…”

The latest video on QuakerSpeak is a lovely account by Benigno Sanchez-Eppler of the FWCC, “Why I Worship With Other Kinds of Quakers”.

I do encourage you to watch the whole thing – but I can’t resist quoting a few words here:

The miracle happens when we’re not like minded. When we have substantial differences. When we have animosities even. When we have a real intent that this is what needs to happen, the Spirit comes, is felt, and love is felt. And then, a desire comes over us of surrendering those things that are more ours than the Spirit’s. I have felt unity arrive at the Monthly Meeting like a balm, like soaking. Particularly in those moments when we have been struggling with each other.

When you hold all the differences, you don’t hide, them, you know that they’re there. There’s something about the possibility that the differences are acknowledged, and that then, because we are living with the love of God in us and with the love of God spilling out from us, that we can do what needs to be done to arrive at unity.

This is the Spirit we all need, as Friends, and as Friends who are friends of women and men of other faiths or none, but who all, like ourselves, have that of God within each of us…


Sometimes, I find it hard to be blessed. In part, this may be due to becoming used to difficult times, or to the sense it’s so easy to fall into, reading too much news or too many campaign emails, that good things come only at the expense of those less fortunate – which may be to an extent true of material goods,but is certainly not true of love, or grace. But I suspect there is more to it than that.

We have become self-conscious about religion in our lifetime, unless we are fundamentalists using it as a political tool to lambast our opponents. The Psalmists among the ancient Hebrews had no such qualms. The Psalms of lament are unashamedly maudlin, the Psalms of praise call for trumpets and stringed instruments, tambourine, dance and loud clashing cymbals… And the Psalms of thanksgiving… Where could we find today such open-hearted gratitude as in Psalm 138?

I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down towards your holy temple
and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;
for you have exalted your name and your word
above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me,
you increased my strength of soul.

All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord,
for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
for great is the glory of the Lord.
For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly;
but the haughty he perceives from far away.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies;
you stretch out your hand,
and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfil his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O Lord, endures for ever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.

We progressive Christians, whether unprogrammed Quakers or liberal Anglicans, have so much to be grateful for in each other – our openness to change, our willingness to “stress… fairness, justice, responsibility, and compassion, and [to] condemn… the forms of governance that wage unjust war, rely on corruption for continued power, deprive the poor of facilities, or exclude particular racial or sexual groups from fair participation in national liberties.” (Wikipedia) But we have somehow forgotten in many ways how to rejoice – and I think rejoicing is part of our calling as people of God, and especially as people who gladly recognise that of God in our fellow creatures.

Our corporate worship here empowers the personal, and the personal informs the corporate; and as Quakers in the unprogrammed tradition this can present problems! Do we have some kind of responsibility here for ministry? Of course true ministry is an act of the Spirit through the individual worshipper, and not a matter for personal determination – as John Churchman said (QFP 2.61), “Ministry should be of necessity, and not of choice…” And yet, how often do Friends, touched in the silence by some spring of joy, some deep current of upwelling gratefulness, fail to give vocal ministry because of some self-consciousness, some thought that what has touched us has not the weight, the gravitas maybe, needed to break into speech. I know I have; and perhaps I should not…

Finding Words

Recently it has been difficult to find words. The silence remains, and in its nourishing space all the grace and presence of God, as always, and yet I have been dumb.

Part of this, I feel, is due to something that has happened increasingly as I have trodden this way with Friends, and has to do with the absence of liturgy in unprogrammed worship, and with the absence of any systematic reading of Scripture. And yet, as John Punshon writes:

…I need to stress that silent contemplation by itself would have done nothing for me. My struggle was not to make sense of my own interior life – I was striving to discern the will of God, and without belief and faith I would have come to grief, I am sure. The belief I relied on was the central doctrine of Quakerism – that the light of Christ is a sure guide to life, and that in the gathered meeting, Christ is present to teach his people (including me) himself. In the stillness of meeting I heard the voice of the shepherd because I had the sheep’s ear…

This was an intimation of the Way of the Cross, a spiritual purgation that tested me to see whether my religious commitment was only on the surface. I think that this is a neglected aspect of worship in unprogrammed Friends’ meetings, but I am sure it was an important part of the tradition. Jesus said that those who are willing to lose their lives will find them. It is easy to say that one is so willing, but another thing to prove it. There is no way out of the occasional, but necessary agony of silent worship unless it be the power of resurrection. When I had been through this period I was another sort of person, and I think I now know why the Testimonies are ultimately inconceivable without the formative experience of traditional Quaker worship.

For me, though, the opposite is also true. The formative experience of Quaker worship is hard to receive without words, without some kind of poetics of experience, for without that the lived hermeneutic – in me at least – fails to materialise. It is hard to remember, let alone interiorise, even though something has changed. One falls asleep, and awakens to find it has snowed in the night…

On her blog, Catholic-Quaker, Rene Lape has an essay, Early Friends and the Scriptures, where she writes:

If the most important thing I got from early Friends [Quakers] was a quickening of my faith in Christ, the second was a sense of the importance of scriptural words, images, and contexts in helping me to see the spiritual dimension of my own life. As I’ve said, the words and contexts of Scripture seemed to me a kind of spiritual “alphabet” that was able to give people access to a world we were naturally blind to—as the tactile alphabet Helen Keller used had given her access to the world she lived in but could not see. From the moment my faith was revived, the Scriptures took on great importance to me, and the approach early Friends took to the Scriptures became one of my chief interests…

This comes close to my own experience. At heart, I have always been something of a universalist. I have found it hard to believe in the exclusive correctness of any experience of faith over another, and yet the language of Buddhism, or of the Hindu Scriptures, is not my language. When I read Romans 8, or the farewell discourses in John’s Gospel, something in my heart breaks open, and I know myself known.

Noah Baker Merrill has experienced this. He writes:

The gathered people felt living water flowing around them. They were opened to the Truth Who holds us all, the true Liberation and Love always available to each of us. They stood together in the power of an endless Life. Their hearts knew that God is Real…

Brokenness is not the end of God’s Story – and it’s not the end of ours. But it is our moment to fall to our knees under that solitary tree in the desert, to meet with the angel, and to be given the bread and water we need to survive the journey into the Wilderness.

I am looking for a language. Not immediately in order to inform others, or even to talk with others, but in order to know. But I know already that there is something profoundly necessary in brokenness. Jesus took bread, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples. The wine must be poured out before it can be drunk. Contained within ourselves, we cannot give, nor grow. The seed must fall into the ground…

Jocelyn Burnell wrote:

We want to heal brokenness, where ever we see it. It is uncomfortable for us, as well as being uncomfortable for the person or thing that hurts. If somebody is grieving, for example, we ask kindly how they are, hoping that they will say they are fine, so we can go our way unperturbed.

We encourage people to get over their problem and get back to normal.

We are bad at sitting with pain.

Are we too keen to mend things, to have it all smooth again?

But the repair of brokenness does not come quickly – for some it comes never…

I believe that those of us who are wounded have a special ministry, because we are wounded, because we are hurt. I cannot tell you what your ministry is, only you can find that, but I am sure that there are amongst us people who can speak to needs in this world because they know about hurt…

Just as there is a ministry for the wounded in our communities, is there a role for a wounded community? Is the Religious Society of Friends a broken community?

Are we a broken community, a broken people, a broken society? Do we, through our brokenness have a role in God’s plan?

To know myself as wounded, and useful not despite, but because of that? To rejoice? To become what I have come to be?