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.

On knowing one’s unknowing…

“God” is a word which for many provokes discomfort, echoes of an authoritarian judgemental deity, or a childhood perception of a bearded old man on a cloud. Many who reject any idea of the Divine are living with a concept which many of us would consider outdated. In answer to a theist’s question: “Who is this God that you don’t believe in?” the answer might not be so different from the view held by the questioner.

…Faith is not about certainty, but about trust…

We have seen that there is little about which we can be certain. Certainty may be undermined by limitations of the current state of knowledge; the subjective nature of experience; the fluid quality of the material world; or the intervention of unforeseen events. But beyond these aspects of the world about which we often assume knowledge, there is a dimension of life to which rational explanation simply doesn’t apply. Most people would admit that there is much that we cannot apprehend through reason or through the senses. We might know a fact with our brains, but not be able to understand what it means, to fully experience its reality – the age of a star or the trillions of connections within the human brain – some things are too big, too complex, for us to conceive. Einstein, who knew a thing or two about factual knowledge, felt that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. There is a dimension which co-exists with the material, rationally grounded world, is not in opposition to it or threatened by scientific development but happily stands alone in the context of everything else. This is the world of religious experience.

Jennifer Kavanagh, A Little Book of Unknowing

For myself, I have found cannot find God by looking, or thinking, much as my whole life may seem to have been spent in a search for – or being distracted from a search for – what is true and is the source of all that is. What God is is unknowable. Anything I might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, not constrained by time, space or any other dimension. The only way I can know God is by not knowing. Jennifer Kavanagh, a few pages on from the passage above, goes on to say that,

Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience.

Indeed that seems to be the crux of the matter for me. It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting myself out of the way of that channel of loving gift.

The Hebrew word  יָדַע (yada), does not mean quite what our English word “know” means. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology states, “To know [as we usually translate “yada”] is not to be intellectually informed about some abstract principle, but to apprehend and experience reality. Knowledge is not the possession of information, but rather its exercise or actualization.”

I for one cannot reach out and know God like this; but in knowing my own unknowing, in keeping still and keeping out of the way, I can be known, and in being known, know. Isaac Penington put it far better than I can:

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.

Quaker Faith & Practice 26.70

“We know what our race does to strangers”

I was tempted to include the passage below, unattributed, to see which of my readers would recognise it, and to whom they would attribute it if they didn’t – but I repented of being a smartypants. This is CS Lewis, writing in an essay, ‘Religion and Rocketry’, which first appeared in 1958 in Christian Herald, and was then collected in Fern Seed and Elephants and Other Essays on Christianitypublished posthumously in 1975, about our possible future encounter with alien life during our exploration of space – an exploration which was just beginning, practically, as he wrote.

We know what our race does to strangers. Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps. There are individuals who don’t. But they are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space. Our ambassador to new worlds will be the need and greedy adventurer or the ruthless technical expert. They will do as their kind has always done. What that will be if they meet things weaker than themselves, the black man and the red man can tell. If they meet things stronger, they will be, very properly, destroyed…

I therefore fear the practical, not the theoretical, problems which will arise if we ever meet rational creatures which are not human. Against them we shall, if we can, commit all the crimes we have already committed against creatures certainly human but differing from us in features and pigmentation; and the starry heavens will become an object to which good men can look up only with feelings of intolerable guilt, agonized pity, and burning shame.

Of course after the first debauch of exploitation we shall make some belated attempt to do better. We shall perhaps send missionaries. But can even missionaries be trusted? ‘Gun and gospel’ have been horribly combined in the past. The missionary’s holy desire to save souls has not always been kept quite distinct from the arrogant desire, the busybody’s itch, to (as he calls it) ‘civilize’ the (as he calls them) ‘natives’… Would [our missionaries] denounce as sins mere differences of behaviour which the spiritual and biological history of these strange creatures fully justified and which God had himself blessed? Would they try to teach those from whom they had better learn? I do not know.

These ideas, of course, are developed at far greater length in Lewis’ remarkable work of science fiction, the Cosmic Trilogy. But here they are starkly polemical, crystal clear in their passion for racial, cultural, economic and climate justice, and the very brevity of their expression lends them an impact that strikes us here in the 21st century more forcibly, perhaps, than do Lewis’ attempts at describing the consequences of the exploration, and attempted exploitation, of a solar system we now know to be very differently constituted.

It is Lewis’ next paragraph that stunned me on re-reading it from a Quaker perspective, for it reflected so much that has been written by Quakers about opposing war, injustice and violence during the Word Wars and after:

What I do know is that here and now, as our only possible practical preparation for such a meeting, you and I should resolve to stand firm against all exploitation and all theological imperialism. It will not be fun. We shall be called traitors to our own species. We shall be hated of almost all men; even of some religious men. And we must not give back one single inch. We shall probably fail, but let us go down fighting for the right side. Our loyalty is not to our species but to God. Those who are, or who can become, his sons, are our real brothers even if they have shells or tusks. It is spiritual, not biological, kinship that counts.

(You must forgive Lewis his relentless use of masculine terms. He was a man of his time, and if you re-read the final sentence I have quoted, carefully, you will see that his breadth of spirit encompasses both sexes as well as all races and species.)