Monthly Archives: August 2015

“The cries of the world…”

I have been acutely aware of the pain of my fellow creatures over the last few days. The shocking events of the Shoreham Air Show, along that lovely stretch of coastline where I grew up, the continuing reports of atrocities in the Middle East and North Africa, a narrowly-foiled terrorist attack on a French train, worrying developments in the US election campaigns… grief, anxiety and distress lay very heavily on my heart last night.

Diane Walker writes:

We cannot ignore the troubles of the world. Our psyches are intimately entwined with the rest of creation. Every time there is a wound elsewhere, some cell in our bodies will cry out in sympathetic pain. And that which strives to be known will take whatever avenue necessary to bring the cries of the world to our attention. The invisible longs to be visible, and when we take the time to create, we cannot always predict what will emerge. The question is — what do we do with that awareness once it’s brought to the fore?

She is quite right, “that which strives to be known will take whatever avenue necessary to bring the cries of the world to our attention.” These events, and the ripples that spread from them across the media, across the hearts of those who pray, seem to constellate in a way I cannot explain.

But Diane Walker’s question, “what do we do with that awareness once it’s brought to the fore?”, demands an answer. If I try to answer for myself, please don’t think I’m being evasive, still less that I’m prescribing an answer for anyone else. All I can do is listen, “being with God, putting [myself] in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart” as Michael Ramsey wrote. Quietly, insistently drawing close to God, accepting my own detailed, vivid awareness of my sisters’ and brothers’ pain and confusion, and holding that in the light and the love that God is, is truly all I can do, all I find I am called to do. What God might or might not call me to do under other, more immediate circumstances I cannot say; I can only hope that I would have the faith, perhaps the courage, to answer. For the present, prayer is my only, and my strongest, help and refuge.

A small celebration

This morning the sky was dark, and as we left home for Meeting it was raining heavily. Electric lights were on in the Meeting House hallway and kitchen, but the meeting room itself was a quiet pool of shadow.

This morning’s ministry was all of Light. At least three Friends stood to minister, and if my own experience was anything to go by, quite a few more nearly stood, but realised that their nascent ministry had already been given in other words by another Friend. Light flowed throughout the shadowed room, and beneath our closed eyelids. I was reminded of James Nayler’s words (QFP 21.65):

Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee. Art thou wounded in conscience? Feed not there, but abide in the Light which leads to Grace and Truth, which teaches to deny, and puts off the weight, and removes the cause, and brings saving health to Light.

The “infinite ocean of light and love” (George Fox) that had carried us, landed us gently on the hour’s farther shore, the home we have found since we moved here. This is a good place to be, and we are not always grateful enough…

Free to stand: A Reblog

I have been seeking a way to, gracefully if possible, bring to a close this consideration of activism and contemplation that has been so occupying me recently. Almost by chance, I stumbled across Quaker Faith & Practice 20.14, which led me to a blog post I wrote, and first posted here a couple of years ago. Here it is in its entirety:

Those of us known as ‘activists’ have sometimes been hurt by the written or spoken implication that we must be spending too little time on our spiritual contemplative lives. I do know many atheists who are active to improve the lot of humankind; but, for those of us who are Friends, our attendance at meeting for worship and our silent prayerful times are what make our outer activity viable and effective – if it is effective.

I have similarly seen quieter Friends hurt by the implication that they do not care enough, because they are not seen to be ‘politically active’. Some worry unnecessarily that they may be doing things of a ‘less important’ nature, as if to be seen doing things by the eyes of the world is the same thing as to be seen doing things by the eyes of God… I suggest that we refrain from judging each other, or belittling what each is doing; and that we should not feel belittled. We cannot know the prayers that others make or do not make in their own times of silent aloneness. We cannot know the letters others may be writing to governments, similarly… We were all made differently, in order to perform different tasks. Let us rejoice in our differences.

Margaret Glover, 1989, QFP 20.14

I find this a great comfort. I’m all too prone to judging myself for “doing things of a ‘less important’ nature, as if to be seen doing things by the eyes of the world is the same thing as to be seen doing things by the eyes of God…” and so imagining other people doing the same thing, even when they’re not.

Back in the very early years of the church, the apostle Paul wrote, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Corinthians 12.29-30) Evidently it was a problem even back then.

Really, it is not for us to choose or determine whether we are activists or contemplatives. Any choice we make ourselves is going to be partial and imperfect, and in any case I think we all of us are called at some time in our lives to be both of these things. All we can do is to bring what is truly on our hearts into the Light, and, in the waiting silence, to be true to our leading. But of one thing we can be sure:

Our strength or help is only in God; but then it is near us, it is in us – a force superior to all possible opposition – a force that never was, nor can be foiled. We are free to stand in this unconquerable ability, and defeat the powers of darkness; or to turn from it, and be foiled and overcome. When we stand, we know it is God alone upholds us; and when we fall, we feel that our fall or destruction is of ourselves.

Journal of Job Scott, 1751-1793, QFP 20.03

Head over heels in the surf…

Some among us have a clear sense of what is right and wrong – for themselves personally if not for everyone else. They have a reassuring certitude and steadiness which can serve as a reference point by which others may navigate. There are others who live in a state of uncertainty, constantly re-thinking their responses to changing circumstances, trying to hold onto what seems fundamental but impelled to reinterpret, often even unsure where lies the boundary between the fundamental and the interpretation…

Please be patient, those of you who have found a rock to stand on, with those of us who haven’t and with those of us who are not even looking for one. We live on the wave’s edge, where sea, sand and sky are all mixed up together: we are tossed head over heels in the surf, catching only occasional glimpses of any fixed horizon. Some of us stay there from choice because it is exciting and it feels like the right place to be.

Philip Rack, 1979 (Quaker Faith & Practice 20.06)

In these odd days of social media and online news reporting, when communications are so rapid, and conflicting opinions so easily, and so forcefully, expressed, I often find myself “in a state of uncertainty, constantly re-thinking [my] responses to changing circumstances, trying to hold onto what seems fundamental but impelled to reinterpret, often even unsure where lies the boundary between the fundamental and the interpretation…”

As I wrote in my last post, understanding myself as a Quaker and as a contemplative is proving a continual challenge. I quoted, some time ago, Jim Wilson writing on QuakerQuaker:

What the activist does not comprehend about the mystic is that, for the mystic, interior prayer, gathered silence, is the leading, is the purpose, and is sufficient unto itself.  The mystic does not view these engagements as tools, or add-ons, for a political purpose.

From the activist perspective, this is inadequate.  As Howard Brinton wrote in his ‘Introduction’ to the book ‘A Guide to True Peace’, “This solution [of interior prayer] will seem too simple to intellectuals and too inadequate to activists, the two groups that dominate our age.”  This is because the activist is always outward oriented and wants to see results ‘in the real world’.  In contrast, the mystic finds the realm of interior silence to be as real, or more real, than what is found by focusing outward.  In the inward turning the mystic finds a true home.

For the activist this is to ignore the suffering and injustices in the world.  But for the mystic there is the experience, which grows over time, that the silence and stillness found by turning inward is a blessing to the whole world, a blessing which does not give rise to strife and contention.  Because this blessing is not palpable or measurable in material terms, the activist tends to dismiss this.  Personally, though, I have come to comprehend that the turning inward of the mystic is the most that I can do for other people.  Not that I have that particular motivation for turning inward.  Rather, that blessing is a consequence of the grace that such turning opens to.

Entering into Meeting for Worship, or into one’s own time of prayer, cannot be seen as a way to gain strength for campaigning for one’s own pre-existing convictions. To come into the Light “with the needs of the world on our heart” (Michael Ramsey) is all that is needed. We cannot, must not, pre-judge the result. The Holy Spirit, as Jesus said to Nicodemus (John 3.8) is like a wind that “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Coming into the Light consciously, deliberately, is always a risky journey: we may be led where we had not dreamed of going, The prophet heard the Lord say (Isaiah 43.18-19),
Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
   and rivers in the desert…

We cannot tell what may come of our worship, whether action or contemplation, hard truth or true blessing. We must sit down in a holy unknowing; if we are faithful in that, then the Spirit is faithful too, always, “and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5.5)

Once again I keep still…

As so often, I was troubled yesterday by my consciousness of the troubled world around us, and by the multiplied and often contradictory calls to activism, to get up and do something about it… and I thought, I don’t know what to do. I don’t understand how this incessant awareness of the grief and pain of the world, and of all its individual creatures, human and otherwise, can draw together with my ever-increasing heart’s call to silence and contemplation. And it occurred to me that not knowing is the precondition for the Holy Spirit’s presence to my own confusion and distress.

I don’t understand – but in that failure to understand I am again in the centre, in the cleft of the branch, in the “intersection  of the timeless with time” as Eliot wrote*; in the very name of Jesus, in the prayer that his name is. If I don’t know where I am, then I am found; If I don’t know where to go, then I am led.

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust…
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.

Psalm 25.1-2a; 4-5

And once again I keep still under the shadows of the leaves that the wind moves.

*There is an interesting meditation on this passage of Eliot’s, and how it may connect with Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans, here.