Monthly Archives: December 2015

Dreams of Summer

Now we are on the far side of the Winter Solstice; now the days lengthen, the sun reclaims its territory from the cold and the night. The earth has turned over in its sleep, and dreams of summer.

I am reminded of what has been said of the Kingdom of God, that it is here, and yet is to come. One of the things, I think, that the Nativity story is trying to tell us is that, small and vulnerable as it may appear – as in fact it is – our salvation has come. Anyone, anyone at all, can come and see.

So what is this to the Winter Solstice, and why does it matter that somehow we have come to celebrate both things at this time of year, when the sense of huge things moving, far beyond the control of humanity, is so strong upon our hearts?

We cannot yet see the change in day length, but by Christmas day a minute will have been added to the few brief hours of daylight; the earth’s course is laid in. Summer is as inevitable as the movement of the planets around our star. Perhaps that is what the Christmas story is getting at. We can scarcely see it, among the darkness of these times we live in, and yet the Light is coming, to each of us, on the far side of the dark. We have only to wait for the time; we cannot change it, put it off, any more than we can delay the seasons – there it stands, looking just like our death.

Truly, a sign will be given to us. It may be no more than the drift of a flock of coal tits through the bare trees, or the wind that sighs some time after midnight, but it will be there. The heart knows. Can we not trust our hearts?

The Day when the Year Turns

December 21st: this is the day when the year turns. So close to the Christian festival of Christmas, and to the secular and calendrical festival of New Year, it is the solstice when, seen from the Earth, the Sun stands still a moment before the days lengthen once more, and the year moves on towards summer. (In point of fact, this year, the actual moment of solstice is in the early hours of tomorrow morning, because of the slight discrepancy between solar time and the 24 hours of our human clocks.)

The movement of the seasons is all grace. Well as planetary scientists may understand the mechanism, there is nothing we can ourselves do to change the way the world moves around its parent star, nor the changes that movement brings to us. They are simply given to us, as our home. We are small, really, and frail, despite our lovely curiosity and our luminous minds. All we can do is celebrate.

We should celebrate. The grey rain streams through the gusting wind, and the small birds have taken cover in the hedges and the little woods. Yet the darkening of days is at an end: from now on, each day will be a little longer – only slightly, but we’ll get there. Or rather the beautiful physics of the solar system will get there, and we’ll feel it, see it, live it in all our cells, in the easing of our minds towards the long days and the sunlight.

Satya Robyn points out that every detail of our existence is grace: the provision of oxygen, food, shelter, the very constitution of our bodies – all are given. She goes on to speak of the humility that comes with this realisation: a humility that is “a very realistic appraisal of our conditions and of our [imperfect] nature which leads to a natural sense of contrition. Contrition is the gate through which grace can enter.”

She goes on:

So is grace some kind of divine intervention…? I don’t know. What I do know is that the universe is vast and complex, and is beyond the limits of our imagination… In a world such as this, anything is possible. Maybe grace is coincidence and wishful thinking, maybe not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the concept of grace helps me to keep an open mind and heart, or not. It does. That is enough.

We are connected, we and the Sun and the vast and subtle movements of our planet; we and all the creatures on this Earth. The same star warms us, the same soil brings forth our food. More than that: we and all that has come to be spring from the same Ground of Being, the Source of existence itself. We are sisters of the interstellar distances, brothers of the stars. This isn’t something from a poster on a Glastonbury noticeboard: it is a simple fact. To live in it is the work of our lives; to live in the truth that that brings to us is the gift we have to give to every creature, human or otherwise.




Reading Quaker Faith & Practice – Chapter 3

Our meeting communities vary in size and in the circumstances and experience of their members. Sometimes we may need to vary the ways in which we manage our meetings for church affairs in order to make better use of the talents, time and energy of our members. Co-clerkship, for instance, has been beneficial in a number of meetings; sometimes the monthly pattern of business meetings has been varied to good effect. We should be open to learning from the experiments undertaken by other meetings. Being set in an unsatisfactory routine ‘because we’ve always done it this way’ may be as detrimental to seeking God’s guidance as throwing our traditions to the wind. We are enjoined to live adventurously, but experiment must be grounded in the experience of generations of Friends, which offers us a method, a purpose and principles for the right conduct of our business meetings.

If we sometimes think things are wrong with our meetings for church affairs, it would help us to look at the situation in perspective if we could realise how many troubles arise not from the system, but from our human imperfections and the variety of our temperaments and viewpoints. These meetings are in fact not merely occasions for transacting with proper efficiency the affairs of the church but also opportunities when we can learn to bear and forbear, to practise to one another that love which ‘suffereth long and is kind’. Christianity is not only a faith but a community and in our meetings for church affairs we learn what membership of that community involves.

Quaker Faith & Practice 3.03

This seems to me to be the core of Chapter 3. In embarking on reading this section I have, as so many Friends I suspect, quailed rather at spending so long on procedure, rather than on the spiritual or moral realities for which we meet. But here we read how we are “not only a faith but a community and in our meetings for church affairs we learn what membership of that community involves.”

If we can, it seems to me, approach all our many meetings and committees with full awareness of “our human imperfections and the variety of our temperaments and viewpoints”, then we can grow and serve the community which arises naturally from the practice of our faith together as Friends. Living adventurously together is an immense experiment, as experimental in its own way as our way of worship, and it is only in allowing ourselves, and each other, that full awareness not only of our fallibility and incompleteness, but of the right and inevitable variousness of our spiritual, intellectual and emotional characters (1 Corinthians 12), that we shall be able to be the community we are called to be: a community that celebrates, as it lives out, the inheritance of all the previous generations of Friends who have met together in the Light.

Business as Usual

There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath different names; it is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren.

John Woolman, 1762 – Quaker Faith & Practice 26.61

At Meeting last Sunday, a Friend objected to the usual reading from Quaker Faith & Practice on the grounds that she felt reading from the book was “business as usual” – and with the Government decision to involve the UK in the bombing of Syrian targets, the climate crisis, the refugee crisis – it was not time for “business as usual”.

Of course the reading from John Woolman was intended not to cry “peace, peace where there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6.14), but to address the very situation where, as Woolman had, Friends find themselves living in a deeply compromised and immoral society, and have to find a way to live out their faith under troubled circumstances, and with troubled hearts. As another Friend ministered, the words of Psalm 120 ring true: “Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.”

All week I have pondered the events of Sunday morning, and it was not until yesterday that I happened on the words of Fr Laurence Freeman OSB, of the World Community of Christian Meditation. In his Advent Address this year he wrote, and I quote his address in full:

The preparation for the incarnation begins with a ‘voice crying in the wilderness’. In today’s gospel it is John the Baptist, who first recognises what we have all been so anxiously waiting for. He is the voice. Jesus is the word. The voice that the voice communicates through the pure air of the silent wilderness.

The word ‘wilderness’ in Greek is eremos, an uninhabited place. This gives us the word hermit, one who lives in solitude. In meditation we are all solitaries.

Meditation leads us into the wilderness, into a place uninhabited by thoughts, opinions, the conflicts of images and desires. It is place we long for because of the peace and purity it offers. Here we find truth. But it also terrifies us because of what we fear we will lose and of what we will find.

The more we penetrate into the wilderness, the solitude of the heart, the more we slow down. As mental activity decreases, so time slows until the point where there is only stillness – a living and loving stillness. Here, for the first time, we can listen to silence without fear. The word emerges from this silence. It touches and becomes incarnate in us. It incarnates us making us fully embodied and real in the present.

Only here, where we cut all communication with the noisy, jeering, fickle crowds inhabiting our minds do we see what ‘fleeing from the world’ means. What it does not mean is escapism or avoidance of responsibilities. It means to enter into solitude where we realise how fully, inescapably we are embodied and embedded in the universal web of relationships.

In the desert monasticism of the fourth century the monks plunged deeper into the wilderness as they got older. Then the world followed them, drawn by the incomparable and tangible beauty of what awaited them.

At last I had found words for what was troubling me. I find I am called in this season of my life – if I am honest, I probably always have been, even since childhood – to prayer and contemplation, rather than to political action or public protest. And yet, as I have so often written here, I find myself accusing myself, if I am faithful to my calling, of “business as usual”.

Fr Laurence’s clear words answer that doubt, that self-accusation. We cannot silence the clamour of the warmongers, whether here or in deserts of Western Asia, by shouting louder ourselves. We cannot bring peace through anger, or combat the darkness in which we find ourselves by darkening our hearts still further.

In the silence there is true peace, a peace which can spill out into healing for the wounds of our time, if we are faithful, if we let it. If action is needed, then coming from this true peace, it will be true, right action, and not merely reaction. The call to the heart’s solitude is not a call to inaction, to mere avoidance of uncomfortable truths: it is a call to embrace the courage to “realise how fully, inescapably we are embodied and embedded in the universal web of relationships” – the courage, despite all the clamour to the contrary, to “[be] with God, putting [ourselves] 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.” (Michael Ramsey)