Monthly Archives: October 2015

Getting out of the way of the Light…

I’ve never been much of a one for age-specific activities, any more than I was even at school for gender specific ones (football and science for boys, hockey and typing for girls). But being retired does come with certain advantages, I suppose, provided that one has enough, one way or another, to keep a roof over one’s head and food on the table.

Simplicity, though, is perhaps one of the Quaker testimonies that seem more easily to open up to us as we grow older. I don’t quite know why that should be. Simplicity is paradoxically not always as simple as it should be either to explain or to put into practice. Quaker Faith & Practice 20.27 states:

The heart of Quaker ethics is summed up in the word ‘simplicity’. Simplicity is forgetfulness of self and remembrance of our humble status as waiting servants of God. Outwardly, simplicity is shunning superfluities of dress, speech, behaviour, and possessions, which tend to obscure our vision of reality. Inwardly, simplicity is spiritual detachment from the things of this world as part of the effort to fulfil the first commandment: to love God with all of the heart and mind and strength.

The testimony of outward simplicity began as a protest against the extravagance and snobbery which marked English society in the 1600s. In whatever forms this protest is maintained today, it must still be seen as a testimony against involvement with things which tend to dilute our energies and scatter our thoughts, reducing us to lives of triviality and mediocrity.

Simplicity does not mean drabness or narrowness but is essentially positive, being the capacity for selectivity in one who holds attention on the goal. Thus simplicity is an appreciation of all that is helpful towards living as children of the Living God.

(From: Faith and practice, North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), 1983)

To me, simplicity has come to mean more a way of getting out of the way of the Light than anything else. The heart’s freedom is the true place of simplicity; the way there varies as much as the people walking it, and in fact in this life we shall perhaps never achieve more than a degree of that freedom. To be content with that imperfection is a kind of simplicity in itself, for perfection is not I think a human attribute!

Clear and Ordinary Peace

As we sat quietly together this morning, I found my mind turning unwillingly to memories and regrets, and casting about for ways to solve the things I had not then found a way to solve. As the sun began to stream through the window, it came very quietly to me that time’s dimension heals as well as it seems to separate. I could not know how the passage of time had touched the things I grieved, nor did I need to know. The Light covered then and now, the same Light, and it was not dimmed by time; we were held, the then me and the two now people, in the same love. Nothing was needed: all was given, and was grace. There is no other dwelling place: nothing to do, nothing to earn, nor to repay. The plain, coppery sunlight of this autumn morning then somehow joined that unending Light, and held the two of us, as we sat at the table, in clear and ordinary peace.

That’s Rough – Maya Angelou (a reblog)

It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes – it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘Well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry.’ If we all hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you. When a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thin or too sexual or too asexual, that’s rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don’t have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.

Maya Angelou

I saw this on Ray Lovegrove’s Hay Quaker, and I thought it was so good I’d reblog it in its entirety. For years I have struggled with the inability to forgive myself for certain things in my past; perhaps Maya Angelou’s words have opened a door?

A Blessing from Our Distressed State – More from Quaker Faith & Practice

Sometimes religion appears to be presented as offering easy cures for pain: have faith and God will mend your hurts; reach out to God and your woundedness will be healed. The Beatitude ‘Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted’ can be interpreted this way too, but the Latin root of the word ‘comfort’ means ‘with strength’ rather than ‘at ease’. The Beatitude is not promising to take away our pain; indeed the inference is that the pain will remain with us. It does promise that God will cherish us and our wound, and help us draw a blessing from our distressed state.

S Jocelyn Burnell, 1989 – Quaker Faith & Practice 21.66

Sometimes it can seem almost as if we are minimising suffering, especially in other’s lives, when we speak of finding a blessing within suffering, and yet it is so. We dare not assume or prescribe this for another; and yet it is true, demonstrably so, in my own life, and so, presumably, it at least exists as a possibility for others,

The principle occurs in a number of places in Scripture, of course, the principal one being (for me, at least!) 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.” (NIV) There are hints, too, in the Psalms, for instance: “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have preserved my life.” (Ps 119.92-93).

All this can seem an odd way of looking at things, especially in a time like ours, when suffering (unless perhaps it is the suffering of some officially sanctioned underclass, like immigrants, or those on benefits) is wiped away by analgesia and the promises of worldly comfort, and yet all I can say, from the times in my life when I have travelled through hard places, is that it seems to work that way.

Love, of course, is what underlies all this. At the very end, when all is said and done, love seems to be not only the quality of being, but of death itself. If, when we fall through all our careful plans and prudent insurances, we can “stand still in it” as George Fox said, then we fall into something we might well describe as the arms of God, or so it has been for me.

A while ago, I wrote a post in which I made what seems to me to be my best effort so far at summing up what I am getting at here:

To be close to one who is dying is to be close to something so right, so clearly, in Kathleen Dowling Singh’s words, grace out of tragedy. Or to know that, in Pippin’s words, “That isn’t so bad.” To have been faced with the great likelihood of one’s own death, as I have been blessed to be once or twice, is to know that that frailty is only one side of the coin. Reality is not what it seems. Our loneliness is in our separation, our differentiation. But once “the grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass,” then we know that really, in the end, truly, it’s OK. That in each of us which is love itself is beyond all the dimensions of time and matter, beyond the reach of thought, but there, at the centre of every heart.

We never were alone, and love is a very good name for God – for that Source and centre of all in which all things from galaxies to wood mice grow, and are held: that Ground of Being out of which, finally, we can never fall, but which will call us home to endless light, and the healing of all wounds.

Living Retired Lives – More from Quaker Faith & Practice

Those of you who are kept by age or sickness from more active work, who are living retired lives, may in your very separation have the opportunity of liberating power for others. Your prayers and thoughts go out further than you think, and as you wait in patience and in communion with God, you may be made ministers of peace and healing and be kept young in soul.

London Yearly Meeting, 1923 – Quaker Faith & Practice 21.46

I would want to add the word “calling” to the first sentence here: “kept by age, sickness or calling…” Throughout history, even in times of great social need, the calling to a retired life of prayer and contemplation has been recognised. Julian of Norwich, for instance, lived during the time of the Black Death that swept Europe in the Middle Ages, yet seems to have lived out much of her life as an anchoress, devoted to prayer, contemplation, writing, and probably what we would call these days counselling, or eldership.

At times I have struggled with this, feeling that, compared with more active Friends I have somehow not been pulling my weight, and more, that I could not explain or justify “how it worked“. Wise Friends have reminded me that unknowing is simply part of one’s leading, that trust is at the centre of the spiritual life, and that a joyful acceptance is the best approach to discovering one’s calling! CG Jung wrote of synchronicity, the principle which, he felt, connected together events which appeared to have no direct, causal connection. It may very well be that we whose hearts are torn by the pain and the grieving of our fellow creatures, and who come into the presence of God so wounded, do more than we know to bring real aid and comfort to our sisters and brothers of the active life, and to those for whom they give themselves. As Tennyson once wrote, “More things are wrought by prayer / Than this world dreams of…”

Gordon Matthews, writing in 1987 (QFP 29.01):

How can we walk with a smile into the dark? We must learn to put our trust in God and the leadings of the Spirit. How many of us are truly led by the Spirit throughout our daily lives? I have turned to God when I have had a difficult decision to make or when I have sought strength to endure the pain in dark times. But I am only slowly learning to dwell in the place where leadings come from. That is a place of love and joy and peace, even in the midst of pain. The more I dwell in that place, the easier it is to smile, because I am no longer afraid.

If we dwell in the presence of God, we shall be led by the spirit. We do well to remember that being led by the spirit depends not so much upon God, who is always there to lead us, as upon our willingness to be led. We need to be willing to be led into the dark as well as through green pastures and by still waters. We do not need to be afraid of the dark, because God is there. The future of this earth need not be in the hands of the world’s ‘leaders’. The world is in God’s hands if we are led by God. Let us be led by the Spirit. Let us walk with a smile into the dark.

(I apologise for the spray of links to previous blog posts, but it seemed to me to make more sense than to burden this brief post with chunks of text quoted out of context.)

What happened?

CG Jung, in a 1955 article for Time magazine, wrote, “I could not say I believe. I know! I have had the experience of being gripped by something that is stronger than myself, something that people call God.”

Meeting this morning was a remarkable one. I didn’t count how many Friends were present, but the Meeting House was very nearly full, so there must have been at least 30 of us. The silence deepened, became patterned; I had the sense that I was aware of each separate worshipper, and yet we were, in plain truth, one in the silence. The image that came to mind was of a radio telescope, its dish lifted to listen to the interstellar reaches: one dish, but its surface and its framework made up of many plates and beams of metal, each one essential to the whole.

Inevitably, perhaps, the analogy broke down when it came to the actual listening, for each of us heard what each of us heard: not one signal but many, a beautiful dapple of openings, leadings and awarenesses, secret to each, but woven into one in the silence we shared.

What happened? There was no message, nothing to believe in; but there was that which each of us knew, wordless and sure and particular. For some, I have no doubt, there would have been little they could have described – yet each Friend who spoke in ministry or afterword, or whom I talked to over coffee, seemed to have the sense that we had been travelling together on some journey we could scarcely understand. We were on the shore of a land we had not known. None of us had lived these moments before; and yet the ordinary light of morning that poured over the Japanese maple outside the kitchen window was given back transformed, the image of each intricate red leaf falling on our eyes like a new creation.

Continuing to read Quaker Faith & Practice…

We must be confident that there is still more ‘life’ to be ‘lived’ and yet more heights to be scaled. The tragedy of middle age is that, so often, men and women cease to press ‘towards the goal of their high calling’. They cease learning, cease growing; they give up and resign from life. As wisdom dawns with age, we begin to measure our experiences not by what life gives to us, not by the things withheld from us, but by their power to help us to grow in spiritual wisdom.

Evelyn Sturge, 1949 – Quaker Faith & Practice 21.45

Continuing to read Quaker Faith & Practice, we came across the passage above this morning. It struck us both that we have somehow come to think of things, all but unconsciously, not only in terms of “their power to help us to grow in spiritual wisdom”, but in terms of their power to impede our growth in spiritual wisdom.

You see, not only do we live, at least in this relatively wealthy country, surrounded by the pressure to accumulate, and to build on that accumulation with yet more layers, but what we accumulate begins to assert its own, almost spiritual, pressure. We are sold stuff; having stuff, we arrange our stuff; we clean it, insure it, protect it, upgrade it, replace it… That’s bad enough, but when we, as Quakers or merely as thoughtful people, come to realise this pernicious pattern, and simplify our lives, we can too easily find we have developed a new and potentially obsessive hobby – decluttering!

If in our efforts to simplify our lives we have achieved not simplicity, but another layer of complexity, surely we are confronted with yet another barrier to our spiritual growth. It would be easy, we realised, to come unstuck here. Jennifer Kavanagh, in her little book Simplicity Made Easy, remarks that:

To live a simple life is to experience life more fully, to live with enhanced intensity and freedom. It is not a deprivation but a joy.

An enforced austerity, or actions taken for reasons of observance to some externally imposed rule, can lead to a distorted view of what simplicity means… It can also lead to a mistaken concept of plainness. Among seventeenth-century North American Puritans, the pursuit of plainness for its own sake sometimes resulted in ugliness, meanness and mediocrity. Modern minimalism can be stark, hard, lacking the warmth of human connection.

But she goes on to say that,

Our response to the extreme consumerism of Western society does not need to be equally extreme. Excess is as much a danger in the inner life as in the outer. Moderation, a balance between less and more, unmeasurable and personal in its definition, is at the heart of simplicity. The important thing is to be true to our own life’s journey, open to the promptings of our own inner voice. There is no rule to adhere to; this is not a predictable path, with a predetermined end.  Allowing ourselves to be guided, letting go of goal-centred ambition, of the need to “arrive”, will take us to unexpected places.

Once again we are at the place of Isaac Penington’s “Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running…” (QFP 26.70) We cannot achieve this delicate, unmeasurable balance by thought and will. Only in the stillness of the open heart can we “allow… ourselves to be guided”; only in interior silence can we hear.