Monthly Archives: November 2015

Uncertainty the mother of faith

Walking to meeting this morning, we were talking about Bob Dylan, and how it seemed to me that his very best work came with the four or five wonderful albums following his early political certainty, and in the years before the religious certainties of his “Gospel period”.

Uncertainty, it is coming to seem to me, is the mother of faith. Truly. Only in uncertainty can I be open enough to experience, clear enough in my heart about the limitations of language and reason. Only when I am free from convictions can I be convinced, it appears.

In silence, in stillness and openness, comes sometimes what we have to call the Light. I don’t believe that there is much we can do except to be still, to be silent, and to wait. That “expectant waiting” (QFP 1.02) is all we can intend; we cannot be certain what comes next. We must not try to be certain. In unknowing, in uncertainty, the Light can show us our own poverty, and all the places where we turn away. Ideas can be no maps here, and what we encounter in the stillness is not of our intention. The ground of being shows through to the eye that knows not why it was opened.

Long ago, it was written that, “The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal name.” Words are no more than hints, not guides or definitions; and prayer, as Elfrida Vipont Foulds once said (QFP 2.21), is only a place.

The Real Thing

“Sarah Blackborow (d. 1665) was a prominent Quaker minister in London during the 1650s and 1660s. She helped to establish a meeting at Hammersmith and was probably influential in the development of separate women’s business meetings. She wrote and published the tract A Visit to the Spirit in Prison in 1658. It is a good example of the kind of early Quaker writing that combined strong words of warning and admonishment with positive and joyful messages of spiritual guidance and encouragement. She also uses a feminine image of God.”

Stuart Masters has most usefully posted, on his blog A Quaker Stew, a simple summary of Blackborow’s message. A couple of paragraphs immediately struck me:

Don’t be distracted and misled. Turn away from the many and varied ways of the world and face up to God’s witness within you. Pay attention to it and live with it. Follow divine leadings and know God’s power. This is the only way to eternal life. If you are faithful, you may well experience suffering, but you will also be given the strength to endure this and be delivered from all trouble. But you must stick with it. The love of God will be with you and will comfort you. It will lead you out of the changeable ways of the world and to the eternal life. This Spirit will crucify your darkness, enabling you to break free from the things that prevent you from entering the Kingdom of God.

Sit at the feet of your Inward Teacher – If you rely on the second-hand words and ideas of other people, you are missing the real thing, which comes directly from the living God. Turn away from the teaching of others; stop worrying about your reputation and turn instead to the Light within you, which will show you the truth. If you are willing to submit to your inward teacher and accept what is revealed and what is taught, you will hear God’s voice calling you to the heavenly dwelling place. Turn to the Light of Christ, which reveals all evil and darkness. Give yourself fully to this Light, whether it praises you or condemns you. For this is your true Mother, who has conceived you and who loves you…

I woke this morning, long before dawn, full of distress at the news of the world. I could not think where to turn for some kind of explanation: the atrocities of Daesh in Paris, Beirut and elsewhere, crimes against LGBT people in Uganda and Kenya, recent information on the close links between the British Legion and the arms trade, the arms industry during World War II, which I had been looking up earlier, and the war bonds sold to pay for its products, the march of profit… on and on. What did it even mean, I wondered, to pray in the face of such a torrent?

Lying in the dark, listening to the cold rain in the trees outside the window, I came to remember Sarah Blackborow’s words: “If you rely on the second-hand words and ideas of other people, you are missing the real thing, which comes directly from the living God. Turn away from the teaching of others…”

Quite suddenly the shadowed room turned to stillness, and my heart opened. I have no explanation for what happened, yet suddenly I knew beyond a doubt that I had been heard, that my pain, and far more importantly the pain of those for whom I grieved, was not wasted. The words of Psalm 56.8, “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?” somehow made perfect sense.

I could not offer a factual explanation for what happened, nor defend in a law court the inexplicable peace that came to my heart, but I knew in that moment that it was “the real thing, which comes directly from the living God.” Psalm 56 concludes, “you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.” Whatever pain had overcome the Hebrew poet who wrote those words, he had come through: he had found trust in the midst of fear, peace in wartime.

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote: “It is not your will or desire that moves you, but something you are completely ignorant of stirring you to will and desire you know not what.” I had no name for the peace that enveloped me, and I could not know why it had been given to me, any more than I could deny its source, or the real and effective thing that had been done in the darkness before day.


The little yards and gardens of our bright attention…

Sitting together, we noticed how swiftly winter is coming to the garden. Behind the fence line almost all the trees are bare – only the ivy leaves are glossy and green among the twigs. The exception seems to be the big sycamore by the water tower, all its winged seeds gone, that hangs on to tattered leaves barely coloured by the wind and rain. The mahonia has flowered, holding its small stars of clearest yellow against the shadowed fence and the coming cold. In the tips of the branches this morning a little flock of goldfinches fluttered by, not stopping to fly down and feed, evidently on their way somewhere with settled, if slightly scatty, purpose.

I found it hard to settle this morning. There were restless gusts of broken rain, my mind full of odd, distractingly affecting thoughts and memories; but gradually the shifting edges of awareness began to allow a little light through from what is real, hidden by the patterned shadows of our daily lives.

What we see, and hear, and feel as we go about our usual tasks and habits is not illusion exactly, but it is entirely conditioned by the structure of our senses and all the accidents and qualities of our human minds. What is cannot be less than this; but despite the bathroom-glass distortion of our perceptions, what light does reach us is of God, and true. Were we only to be still enough, the Spirit, dove-like, would be at home in the little yards and gardens of our bright attention, and we should be free in love, among the tattered scraps of time that fall and drift in the holy, healing wind.


All over the UK this morning acts of remembrance have been carried out. We should remember – not only the dead of all nations in both world wars, but of all wars; and not only the dead, but those whose lives have been broken by war – the bereaved, the disabled, those who have lost homes, land and all they worked for and valued, those who gave their lives to prevent war, but war came.

War is not something ever to celebrate, but rather to mourn. We should mourn every day, really, since there is not a day when some war somewhere is not killing and destroying innocent lives, as well as the lives of the combatants themselves. There never has been a just war: not because the cause has never been just, but because war is in and of itself unjust. Those killed and hurt are rarely those by whose decision war was commenced, and in many cases they are mere bystanders, people across whose peaceful land wars are fought.

Peace should be the most fundamental of human rights: peace to live, to create, to learn, to heal. Peace should be the rule, not the exception. It is appalling that I should have cause to wonder at having lived all my life so far in a country untouched by war at home.

In 1916 Britain Yearly Meeting minuted, “…freedom from the scourge of war will only be brought about through the faithfulness of individuals to their inmost convictions, under the guidance of the spirit of Christ.” (QFP 23.92)

Remembering, and the grief of remembering, must be the centre of my prayer. Unless I remember, I am in danger of accepting the peace in which I have lived my life as normal. It should be, but it isn’t. That is a most horrible thing. Please, let us remember, and out of that remembering, refuse entirely war and the acceptance of war, and of the means of war. Let us “study war no more…”

Under a Leaden Sky

Today has been bleak. The constant rain in curtains has driven past our windows, and the last of the leaves are falling very fast. Objectively it hasn’t been all that cold, but just looking at the leaden sky has brought a chill creeping up the shins.

The little birds have been keeping under cover; only the occasional hardy jackdaw has skimmed the tattered trees to take shelter under the red roof of the old water tower. Wherever the squirrels are, they are obviously taking care to keep their fur dry, for we haven’t seen as much as the flicker of a tail.

I have been touched by an odd restlessness. The news has been troubling, as it seems always to be at the moment, and there have been flurries of emails about things to do, or to consider doing. But it’s not the need for discernment, nor the news’ continual tugging at one’s helpless compassion, that have been unsettling me, I think.

In an excellent post at the end of September on his Transition Quaker blog, Craig Barnett quoted Thomas Merton’s Letter to a Young Activist :

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually as you struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything…

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth; and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration, and confusion.

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.

I think it is a longing for this sense of hiddenness, living a life not dependent on results, or achievements, or on the opinions of others, but “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3.3), that makes me restless when I begin to get too involved with things outside the silence. I have always had a yearning on the edge of all I have done for the eremitic, quietist path; and while I know that I will always “do what my hand finds to do” as I am led, I will always also, like Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, long for the empty places and the shorelines of the spirit. It’s only here that the rain makes sense, and the turning of the land towards winter.

On Politics and Prayer – Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 23

We know that Jesus identified himself with the suffering and the sinful, the poor and the oppressed. We know that he went out of his way to befriend social outcasts. We know that he warned us against the deceitfulness of riches, that wealth and great possessions so easily come between us and God, and divide us from our neighbours. The worship of middle-class comfort is surely a side-chapel in the temple of Mammon. It attracts large congregations, and Friends have been known to frequent it. We know that Jesus had compassion on the multitude and taught them many things concerning the Kingdom. He respected the common folk, appealed to them and was more hopeful of a response from them than from the well-to-do, the clever and the learned. Yet he never flattered the workers, never fostered in them feelings of envy and hatred, and never urged them to press for their own interests ruthlessly and fight the class war to the finish. He called them to love their enemies and to pray for them that despitefully use them. Yet the very fact that he appealed to the humble and meek leads up to … ‘the discovery that the blessing and upraising of the masses are the fundamental interest of society’. In brief, he makes us all ashamed that we are not all out in caring for our fellow-men.

H G Wood, 1958 – Quaker Faith & Practice 23.03

I sometimes think that in our zeal for activism, in our “[r]emember[ing of our] responsibility as citizens for the government of [our] town and country” (QFP 23.01) we run the risk that all politicians run, of flattering, of fostering feelings of envy and hatred – for it is all too often on such emotions that political campaigns are run.

As Quakers concerned deeply with our testimony to equality, it seems to me that we need always to keep in mind the testimonies to integrity and peace also, and that can be hard to do when we are cut to the heart by some injustice or cruelty. I’m really grateful, at times like this, to be reminded, as this passage from QFP reminds us, of Jesus’ call to love our enemies, and to pray for them.

My own awareness of my imperfection, of the dark shadow of bitter emotions I share with all who are human, gives me at least a place to start loving those I find it so hard to love; yet love them I must, unless I am to contribute my own share to the violence and grief of the world.

Of course I then come all too soon to the question that so often troubles me: what on earth do I pray for? I cannot know in detail how to solve the social and political issues facing the country. But in a way this unknowing may be at the heart of prayer itself – an advantage, almost. Prayer is not a list of demands we make of God, as if such a thing were possible. Prayer, as Michael Ramsey wrote, is “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.”

Quietly drawing close to God, accepting my own blurred awareness of how far we all are from truly living by the testimonies to equality and peace, and holding that in the light and the love that God is, is all I can do. What God may call me to do under more immediate circumstances I have not yet seen; I can only hope that if so, I will be able to offer at least something, in love.