Monthly Archives: September 2015

Keep calm and read Quaker Faith & Practice

There is, it sometimes seems, an excess of religious and social busyness these days, a round of committees and conferences and journeyings, of which the cost in ‘peaceable wisdom’ is not sufficiently counted. Sometimes we appear overmuch to count as merit our participation in these things… At least we ought to make sure that we sacrifice our leisure for something worthy. True leisureliness is a beautiful thing and may not lightly be given away. Indeed, it is one of the outstanding and most wonderful features of the life of Christ that, with all his work in preaching and healing and planning for the Kingdom, he leaves behind this sense of leisure, of time in which to pray and meditate, to stand and stare at the cornfields and fishing boats, and to listen to the confidences of neighbours and passers-by…

Most of us need from time to time the experience of something spacious or space-making, when Time ceases to be the enemy, goad-in-hand, and becomes our friend. To read good literature, gaze on natural beauty, to follow cultivated pursuits until our spirits are refreshed and expanded, will not unfit us for the up and doing of life, whether of personal or church affairs. Rather will it help us to separate the essential from the unessential, to know where we are really needed and get a sense of proportion. We shall find ourselves giving the effect of leisure even in the midst of a full and busy life. People do not pour their joys or sorrows into the ears of those with an eye on the clock.

Caroline C Graveson, 1937 – Quaker Faith & Practice 21.22

From October 2015, Quakers in Britain are invited to read and reflect on one or two chapters a month of Quaker Faith and Practice, either by themselves or in groups, face to face or online, so that as a Religious Society we can better know our tradition and journey as a people of faith. For the inaugural month we are invited to read Chapter 21.

Mark Daniel Russ, of Jolly Quaker (one of my favourite Quaker blogs), has a Ffriendly video introduction to this practice on his blog, which I’d encourage you to watch. I thought I’d have a go myself, and I found Caroline Graveson’s passage spoke immediately to the sense I often have of people of faith today becoming so caught up in the many, and often conflicting, demands of activism that they lose sight of that divine encounter that drew them into the Light in the first place, and become consumed with guilt that they are not doing more and yet more for whichever cause happens to be calling loudest at the moment. As Caroline Graveson says, peace, contemplation, and an awareness of beauty “will not unfit us for the up and doing of life, whether of personal or church affairs. Rather will it help us to separate the essential from the unessential, to know where we are really needed and get a sense of proportion. We shall find ourselves giving the effect of leisure even in the midst of a full and busy life.”

Listening to Mark’s words, I realised that his favourite passage from Chapter 21 was not only one of mine also (I have mentioned it before here) but that it fitted perfectly with my first selection. We so often feel that we are indeed in darkness in these days of crisis after crisis, of instability in the world and injustice at home, so that we feel keeping still to be a grave dereliction of duty, so that we must exhaust ourselves in frantic doing lest we betray those in more need than ourselves. But listen to what James Nayler had to say:

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.

James Nayler, Quaker Faith & Practice 21.65

Holy and good to mark

We set the alarm for 3am, and walked to one of the windows that look west south west towards the coast. The moon was a tiny, dusky ball in the velvet shadow of the world. Utterly lovely, dear sleeping satellite, one shoulder dusted still with gold from the distant sun behind and beneath us.

Since we moved here seven months ago, the earth has travelled more than half its course around the sun, and late winter has slipped through spring and summer to the first days of autumn. Still in love on this harvest moon, we watched perhaps the last perigee full moon’s total eclipse either of us will see. We must, we thought, watch this year out mindfully, marking each day’s change through the seasons.

The leaves, for instance, are starting to yellow and drop, with little – very little as yet – drifts of them along the hedge-bottoms. The last brood of blackbirds are fine, well grown birds now, despite their motley feathers, spreading out across the nearby territories in search of permanent homes. It is weeks now since we saw the four of them together. The warm days are followed by nights grown increasingly cold, as summer drops away and the air takes on a kind of crispness even at midday.

Spring and summer slipped away from us this year, we realised, too easily eaten up in the things you have to do after moving; especially, in our case, extracting ourselves little by little from our previous area meeting, working our way towards applying for transfer of membership. There has been much travelling to and fro between here and our old local meeting, too, trying not to leave Friends in the lurch by too sudden a withdrawal from responsibilities. This autumn, we shall try to watch each day carefully, with love, telling each other the things we’ve seen, the changes that have touched us each. The light is constant, but we little creatures of the light change, and are changed. This is holy, and good to mark.

The First Day of Autumn

Yesterday was the Autumn Equinox, and so, I suppose, today is the first full day of autumn. For me, this is a liminal time of year, the warm growth of summer beginning to slip down into a time of mist and recollection, the plants storing their energy in stem and bulb, reabsorbing their nutrients from the tinting leaves, mobilising the phosphates, draining down the chlorophylls. The squirrels are beginning their winter stores, and the smaller rodents are starting to put on weight. The year is at a crossroads.

I find it easy to keep still at this time of year, waiting for the changes, listening for gales. I feel as though I am sitting on some ridge of hills, watching the early morning mist pool in the valleys, seeping the way it does through gaps in the high ground.

There is so much we humans don’t understand about endings and periodicities, the cycles we live in and which live in us. We don’t understand I think because even the cleverest of us often turn away, unwilling to think of our own lives running down the way the photosynthesis of a leaf runs down through early autumn towards leaf-fall. How can we face, and accept, the changes that change us as they change the world about us? Endings are as natural as beginnings: old age and death are not some obscenity to be raged against, but our own part in the gentle (or less gentle!) pattern of end and renewal.

The light, despite Dylan Thomas, does not die, any more than the setting sun dies into the ocean. We move, from birth to death, death to new life; the light is constant, and we give back into the light itself our inner light, as the leaves give back their phosphates and chlorophylls to the steady tree. But there is great beauty in each leaf before it falls – the glory of autumn is yet to come, and the floods of gold and russet are its clearest song of hope.

A Kind of Glad Acceptance

Ray Lovegrove, the Hay Quaker, recently posted a quote from Faith Baldwin that spoke to me directly:

I have learned over a period of time to be almost unconsciously grateful–as a child is–for a sunny day, blue water, flowers in a vase, a tree turning red. I have learned to be glad at dawn and when the sky is dark. Only children and a few spiritually evolved people are born to feel gratitude as naturally as they breathe, without even thinking. Most of us come to it step by painful step, to discover that gratitude is a form of acceptance.

It’s a while since I was a child, and I certainly wouldn’t claim to be spiritually evolved (whatever that means) but I realised, reading this passage from an author I hadn’t encountered before, and whose online biographies provide no clue to how she could come up with a passage of such insight and beauty, that all through my life I have been a person of gratitude. More than that, I have discovered, despite the pain involved in many of the steps, that gratitude is truly a kind of glad acceptance of whatever comes, as from the hand of God.

(I’m conscious that my last metaphor may seem worryingly anthropomorphic, but what I mean is that I am acutely aware – and have been since before I could identify myself with any religion or metaphysical system – of myself as a dependent part of all that is, and that that all-that-is rests in some kind of ground from which is arises, and which is its source and its home. Accepting whatever comes as from the hand of God is probably a more elegant, and certainly a more concise, way of saying that!)

One of my very favourite passages from the Apostle Paul’s writings is Romans 8.28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” It would be unpardonably arrogant of me to apply this teaching directly to anyone else’s life, but for myself I have found it to be true even in the most apparently destructive and irredeemable of circumstances. Somehow I have never been able to find it in myself to resent circumstances, or to accuse them of victimising me, but rather I’ve been grateful – oh, not for the hurts themselves, but for all the true and gleaming things one can see through tears that somehow one never notices dry-eyed.

I wonder sometimes if it’s not gratitude, that glad acceptance of what comes to be as somehow grace, from the source of all that is, that seems to turn even the disasters into open doors, and the darkness into a womb of possibility. Is that perhaps what Paul was getting at, between the floggings and the betrayals and the imprisonments that dogged his ministry, when he wrote these words in his letter to the Romans?

The Dark of that Unknowing

God, as he is really in himself, is beyond all definition of ours at all… They only truly know him to be this or that, who witness him truly to be this or that to and within themselves. And those know him not… [who] come not to find him and feel him so to be… in his own light, by which he draws nigh to, and is not far from every one of us. By which [light]… in some measure, though not in the same measure, he manifests something of himself in every conscience.

Samuel Fisher, quoted in Rex Ambler, The Quaker Way: A Rediscovery

Fisher, writing in 1661, has touched the key, I think, to our contemporary heart-searchings over theism and nontheism, Christian Quaker and universalist Quaker. If God is God, then by definition he is “beyond all definition of ours”. We are small and recent creatures on the quite small third planet of a medium-sized star in one of the spiral arms of a beautiful but rather average galaxy, one of more than 100 billion in the universe we have so far been able to observe. How would we be able to hold in our dear and glittering minds the ground of all that being – and all that is, unimaginably, besides?

Attempting to specify God, or to delineate those who have access rights to God or not, is not so much wrong as ridiculous. All we can do is love those who, like ourselves, have that of God within them. We are all just entities, and share far more of our limitations than anything that sets us apart.

Other than that, all we can do is keep silence, and wait. Only in the dark of that unknowing – that relinquishment of knowing – will come our own real and lived experience, the presence and Light of that which is within and beyond us, as it is within and beyond all things. In itself it is No Thing, for it is without limit or beginning, and is not dependent; yet within it all things live, and move, and have their being – loved even, and held beyond time and distance.

Quaker and Hesychast (Slight Return)

I come back again and again in my heart, and in my own life of prayer, such as it is, to this parallel between Quaker practice and the hesychasm of the early church, the tradition of which runs on today in the Orthodox churches.

I have written of this before on this blog, and while I’d normally ask my readers simply to follow the link, what I wrote then comes so close to what is on my mind today that I think the only thing to do is to reblog the entire post here:


Very early in the history of the Christian church, certainly by the 4th century, the term hesychasm, the life of silence,  began to appear in the writings of scholars like John Chrysostom and Evagrius Pontikos, as well as in the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Hesychasts, as they became known, were practitioners of a tradition of contemplative prayer based on the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” that was available to everyone, regardless of education, ordination or formal membership of a monastic community.

Simon Barrington-Ward writes that

This prayer is marked by a compunction and penitence. It has the sense of a kind of joyful mourning of one’s own and the world’s pitiableness. It knows our need to be rescued and saved, with tears. It is expressed in short, urgently or longingly repeated prayer directed to Jesus present in the heart, a presence to which the person praying seeks to turn his or her waking and sleeping thoughts (‘I slept but my heart was awake’, Song of Solomon 5:2) and whole life.

There is a sense of immediacy, or personal experience of the presence of God, from the very start of the hesychast tradition, that will be immediately familiar to Friends. Writing of the work of Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) Barrington-Ward goes on to say,

For Symeon, the resurrection is not only in the future. It begins here and now… He wrote out of an overwhelming encounter with the living Christ and with the Holy Spirit, through whom he claimed the resurrection of us all can occur.

By the 15th century the tradition had established itself in the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece, and was from there carried to Russia by St Nilus of Sora (Nil Sorski) and established itself in the forest communities in the far north, which were consciously modelled after the early desert settlements in Egypt in the times of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. There the way of the hesychasts flourished right through until the years following the Russian Revolution in the early 20th century, when many of its practitioners took refuge once again on Mount Athos, some eventually, like the great writer and teacher on prayer Sophrony Sakharov, even turning up in England.

Of course it was in England that our own Quaker tradition began in the 17th century. George Fox wrote,

Now after I had received that opening from the Lord that to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ, I regarded the priests less and looked more after the dissenting people… As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [i.e. hinder] it? And this I knew experimentally…

Now the Lord God hath opened to me by his invisible power how that every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ; and I saw it shine through all, and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation and came to the light of life and became the children of it, but they that hated it, and did not believe in it, were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it.

Vastly different though their backgrounds may be, the hesychasts growing within (though sometimes at odds with!) the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Quakers as dissenters in the ferment following the Reformation in England, our hearts alike turn to the direct experience of God in the silence. In 1908 Hilda Clark wrote,

One thing I understand now is that one’s intellect alone won’t pull one through, and that the greatest service it can perform is to open a window for that thing we call the divine spirit. If one trusts to it [the intellect] alone it’s like trusting to an artificial system of ventilation – correct in theory but musty in practice. How I wish it were as easy to throw everything open to the spirit of God as it is to fresh air.

It is this desire to “throw everything open to the spirit of God” that is at the heart of the hesychast’s longing too. The Quaker John Macmurray, writing in 1967, said,

Whenever we are driven into the depths of our own being, or seek them of our own will, we are faced by a tremendous contrast. On the one side we recognise the pathetic littleness of our ephemeral existence, with no point or meaning in itself. On the other side, in the depth, there is something eternal and infinite in which our existence, and indeed all existence, is grounded. This experience of the depths of existence fills us with a sense both of reverence and of responsibility, which gives even to our finite lives a meaning and a power which they do not possess in themselves. This, I am assured, is our human experience of God.

This is so exactly the experience of the Jesus Prayer. Here is the “joyful mourning” and the sense of “the world’s pitiableness”, and here is the direct knowledge of our life, all life, as grounded in God, in the ground of being itself, beyond time and space.

Thomas R Kelly, writing of solitary prayer, comes very close indeed to restating the hesychast tradition himself. He describes how “[the] processes of inward prayer do not grow more complex, but more simple” and he recommends using a short phrase, whether from Scripture or from one’s own imagination, and he advises, “Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.” He goes on to say,

But the time will come when verbalisation is not so imperative, and yields place to the attitudes of soul which you meant the words to express… Behind the foreground of the words continues the background of heavenly orientation, as all the currents of our being are set towards Him. Through the shimmering light of divine Presence we look out upon the world, and in its turmoil and fitfulness, we may be given to respond, in some increased measure, in ways dimly suggestive of the Son of Man… All we can say is, Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the orbit… Sometimes the prayer and this Life that flows through us reaches out to all souls with kindred vision and upholds them in his tender care. Sometimes it flows out to the world of blinded struggle, and we become cosmic Saviours, seeking all those who are lost.

This passage of Kelly’s, despite their utterly different backgrounds, could have come from the pen of Sophrony Sakharov, who wrote,

The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside…

It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…

(First posted 13/10/2014)