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)