A Spring of Tears – a new post on The Mercy Blog
Friends have never regarded [worship] as an individual activity. People who regard Friends’ meetings as opportunities for meditation have failed to appreciate this corporate aspect. The waiting and listening are activities in which everybody is engaged and produce spoken ministry which helps to articulate the common guidance which the Holy Spirit is believed to give the group as a whole. So the waiting and listening is corporate also. This is why Friends emphasise the ‘ministry of silence’ and the importance of coming to meeting regularly and with heart and mind prepared.
John Punshon, 1987; QFP 2.37
The first that enters into the place of your meeting … turn in thy mind to the light, and wait upon God singly, as if none were present but the Lord; and here thou art strong. Then the next that comes in, let them in simplicity of heart sit down and turn in to the same light, and wait in the spirit; and so all the rest coming in, in the fear of the Lord, sit down in pure stillness and silence of all flesh, and wait in the light… Those who are brought to a pure still waiting upon God in the spirit, are come nearer to the Lord than words are; for God is a spirit, and in the spirit is he worshipped… In such a meeting there will be an unwillingness to part asunder, being ready to say in yourselves, it is good to be here: and this is the end of all words and writings to bring people to the eternal living Word.
Alexander Parker, 1660; QFP 2.41
I have been very much struck recently by the clear distinction between the practice of contemplative prayer – in my case based on the Jesus Prayer – and meeting for worship, even the little times of worship Susan and I (and Tifa the cat) share each morning before breakfast.
When we settle into silence together, we settle into each others’ presence, and the Spirit links us, becomes a bright lake of being in which we rest; whose ripples join us together, and communicate to each, human or feline, our presence within that Spirit. In a truly gathered meeting on Sunday morning the same thing happens, only on a larger scale: there are long tides in the silence that ebb and flow among us, the little waves of Friends’ concerns lapping at our feet like the wash of some passing boat, far out on the mere of our shared stillness.
It seems to me impossible to plan for these connections, or to bring them about by any exercise of will; they are gift only, and the best we can do is try to ensure that we don’t allow the fretfulness of our own hearts to obstruct them when they do appear. Some of the best advice I have read on avoiding this is that given long ago by Isaac Penington, again in the earliest days of the Quaker movement:
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.
Isaac Penington, 1661; QFP 26.70
The Way of a Beggar: a now post on The Mercy Blog
A new post on The Mercy Blog: http://themercyblog.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/hope-against-hope.html
It seems to me to be time to begin posting regularly again on my other blog. This blog here at Silent Assemblies will continue, but I seem to be coming to the conclusion that I need a space to discuss contemplative prayer in general, and the Jesus Prayer in particular, without feeling the need to put things in a specifically Quaker context.
The practice of contemplative prayer, especially that of the Jesus Prayer, is not so much a matter of personal choice as of leading, and, as the Pilgrim found, being faithful to that leading is not always an easy matter. It shouldn’t be thought that contemplative prayer is an easy alternative to either action or to verbal prayer. Opening one’s heart to God in this way opens it to God’s love for our brokenness; allowing Christ to dwell in our hearts by his Spirit involves us in the love of Christ, and its consequences: as Paul once wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2.19b-20a)
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.” It is in simply willing to follow that desire that we are led, like the Cloud author, into the way of contemplation.
For all I have said about the seriousness of the call to contemplative prayer, it really is very simple indeed. Irma Zaleski, in her classic Living the Jesus Prayer, wrote:
The Kind of awareness that the Jesus Prayer may lead us to is very simple. We do not try to imagine that Jesus is there, and even less what he looks like or what he says. We do not engage in any imaginary conversations with him. We simply try to be aware of him and attentive to him in a similar way as we are aware of the presence of someone we love in the next room, or as a mother is attentive to what her children are doing, however busy she is. We believe – we know by faith – that God in Christ is here, with us and in us. Our task is to try and remember him and be attentive to him. It is this attentiveness that is the door to our experience of the presence of God. We cannot summon this experience at will. We cannot grasp it as if it were a possession. It is, like the Prayer itself, a gift. Ours is only a discipline of faith and perseverance…
Prayer, we learn gradually, has far more to do with listening than with talking. In emotional stress the thoughts are so obsessive that they leave one no opportunity to listen. So, when we know someone is in trouble, we can and must listen (pray) for them. A Friend who had missed meeting for several weeks told us that she knew we had been praying for her before we said so; she had felt it and been sustained by it. She had thought there was no point in prayer or belief in God, but she had been helped by the knowledge that we still prayed and believed. It seems that one can do no less than this. We are seldom given guarantees that it is effective, just hints along the way; but they are hints we cannot ignore. We cannot prove the effectiveness of prayer, but nor can we cast scorn on examples of the kind I have given.
A friend tells me that when she prays for someone she does not so much pray to God for them as for God for them. This seems to me a vital clue about prayer. It is God that the troubled person needs, not our advice and instructions. As we learn more about worship we learn to listen more deeply so that we can be channels through which God’s love reaches the other person. It is God at work, not we ourselves; we are simply used.
Diana Lampen, 1979 – Quaker Faith & Practice 2.26
Sometimes I struggle with the concept of prayer. As I have written elsewhere, I have a schoolboy’s obsession with “how things work”, and Christian theology is replete with explanations of how, and why, prayer is supposed to work, so that it has been relatively easy for me to get caught up in trying to make various theologies of prayer fit with a Quaker understanding of our relationship with God.
For a long while before I discovered for myself the Quaker way, however, I had been dissatisfied with conventional theological models for prayer. Seeking for models that more closely matched my own growing experience with prayer – a form of communication (if that’s the right word for it) to which I found myself increasingly called – I read quite extensively in the literature of contemplative prayer, and through that was led to the hesychast tradition of silence and submission to God.
Contemplative 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.” I am increasingly coming to wonder if any more detailed, mechanistic explanation than this is possible, or even desirable.
Very early in the history of the Christian church, certainly by the 4th century, the term hesychasm, the life of silence, began to appear in the writings of scholars like John Chrysostom and Evagrius Pontikos, as well as in the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who had moved out from the centres of civilisation partly in response to the growing association of the church with the centres of political and military power under the Emperor Constantine the Great and his sons. Hesychasts, as they became known, were practitioners of a tradition of contemplative prayer based on short, repeated prayer that was available to everyone, regardless of education, ordination or formal membership of a monastic community.
Simon Barrington-Ward writes that
This prayer is marked by a compunction and penitence. It has the sense of a kind of joyful mourning of one’s own and the world’s pitiableness. It knows our need to be rescued and saved, with tears. It is expressed in short, urgently or longingly repeated prayer directed to Jesus present in the heart, a presence to which the person praying seeks to turn his or her waking and sleeping thoughts (‘I slept but my heart was awake’, Song of Solomon 5:2) and whole life.
There is a sense of immediacy, or personal experience of the presence of God, from the very start of the hesychast tradition, that will be immediately familiar to Friends. Writing of the work of Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) Barrington-Ward goes on to say,
For Symeon, the resurrection is not only in the future. It begins here and now… He wrote out of an overwhelming encounter with the living Christ and with the Holy Spirit, through whom he claimed the resurrection of us all can occur.
By the 15th century the tradition had established itself in the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece, and was from there carried to Russia by St Nilus of Sora, Nil Sorski, and established itself in the forest communities in the far north, which were consciously modelled after the early desert settlements in Egypt in the times of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. There the way of the hesychasts flourished continuously until the years following the Russian Revolution in the early 20th century, when many of its practitioners took refuge once again on Mount Athos, some eventually, like the great writer and teacher on prayer Sophrony Sakharov, even turning up in England.
Of course it was in England that our own Quaker tradition began in the 17th century. George Fox wrote,
Now after I had received that opening from the Lord that to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ, I regarded the priests less and looked more after the dissenting people… As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [i.e. hinder] it? And this I knew experimentally…
Now the Lord God hath opened to me by his invisible power how that every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ; and I saw it shine through all, and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation and came to the light of life and became the children of it, but they that hated it, and did not believe in it, were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it.
Vastly different though their backgrounds may be, the hesychasts growing within (though sometimes at odds with!) the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Quakers as dissenters in the ferment following the Reformation in England, our hearts alike turn to the direct experience of God in the silence. In 1908 Hilda Clark wrote,
One thing I understand now is that one’s intellect alone won’t pull one through, and that the greatest service it can perform is to open a window for that thing we call the divine spirit. If one trusts to it [the intellect] alone it’s like trusting to an artificial system of ventilation – correct in theory but musty in practice. How I wish it were as easy to throw everything open to the spirit of God as it is to fresh air.
It is this desire to “throw everything open to the spirit of God” that is at the heart of the hesychast’s longing too. The Quaker John Macmurray, writing in 1967, said,
Whenever we are driven into the depths of our own being, or seek them of our own will, we are faced by a tremendous contrast. On the one side we recognise the pathetic littleness of our ephemeral existence, with no point or meaning in itself. On the other side, in the depth, there is something eternal and infinite in which our existence, and indeed all existence, is grounded. This experience of the depths of existence fills us with a sense both of reverence and of responsibility, which gives even to our finite lives a meaning and a power which they do not possess in themselves. This, I am assured, is our human experience of God.
This is so exactly the experience of the Jesus Prayer. Here is the “joyful mourning” and the sense of “the world’s pitiableness”, and here is the direct knowledge of our life, all life, as grounded in God, in the ground of being itself, beyond time and space.
Thomas R Kelly, writing of solitary prayer, comes very close indeed to restating the hesychast tradition himself. He describes how “[the] processes of inward prayer do not grow more complex, but more simple” and he recommends using a short phrase, whether from Scripture or from one’s own imagination, and he advises, “Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.” He goes on to say,
But the time will come when verbalisation is not so imperative, and yields place to the attitudes of soul which you meant the words to express… Behind the foreground of the words continues the background of heavenly orientation, as all the currents of our being are set towards Him. Through the shimmering light of divine Presence we look out upon the world, and in its turmoil and fitfulness, we may be given to respond, in some increased measure, in ways dimly suggestive of the Son of Man… All we can say is, Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the orbit… Sometimes the prayer and this Life that flows through us reaches out to all souls with kindred vision and upholds them in his tender care. Sometimes it flows out to the world of blinded struggle, and we become cosmic Saviours, seeking all those who are lost.
This passage of Kelly’s, despite their utterly different backgrounds, could have come from the pen of Sophrony Sakharov, who wrote,
The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside…
It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…
Too often, I suspect, we 21st century Quakers find ourselves so caught up in either the “identity politics game of ‘theists and nontheists’” (Craig Barnett) or in our own human zeal for political and social activism, that we forget that there is another way entirely to contribute not only to the good of individuals whose need and pain are on our own hearts, but “to the victory of good… for the whole world.”
[Earlier versions of parts of this post have previously appeared elsewhere in this blog.]
Quakerism began as a mystical religion. The earliest writings, like George Fox’s well known, “Friends, meet together and know one another in that which is eternal, which was before the world was” (QFP 2.35), attest to this, as does William Leddra’s moving testimony the day before he was martyred:
As the flowing of the ocean doth fill every creek and branch thereof, and then retires again towards its own being and fulness, and leaves a savour behind it; so doth the life and virtue of God flow into every one of your hearts, whom he hath made partakers of his divine nature; and when it withdraws but a little, it leaves a sweet savour behind it; that many can say they are made clean through the word that he hath spoken to them. In which innocent condition you may see what you are in the presence of God, and what you are without him… Stand still, and cease from thine own working, and in due time thou shalt enter into the rest, and thy eyes shall behold his salvation, whose testimonies are sure, and righteous altogether.
We forget this too easily, and at our peril. Craig Barnett, in his post yesterday on Reading Quaker Faith & Practice, Chapter 2, reminds us that “[t]he Christian mystic Simone Weil once wrote that God has both ‘personal and impersonal aspects’.” He goes on to explain,
Contrary to the way that this is often caricatured, a personal understanding of God does not mean believing in ‘an old man on a cloud’. Instead, spiritual reality is known as an active, intentional, loving, guiding and protecting presence…
Another common way of experiencing God is as an impersonal energy, principle or universal interconnectedness. This perspective is particularly emphasised in religions such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism. It also runs through the Christian tradition from very early times, especially in mystical writings such as Meister Eckhart and The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as modern theologians such as Paul Tillich.
and he points out the parallels in Quaker language: Guide, Lord, Seed, Inward Light, Principle of Life and so on.
Craig Barnett shows that the differences in approach and understanding between those who experience God as personal presence, and those who experience God as impersonal principle, form a creative tension present throughout Quaker history, and as far back in the history of spirituality as there are records. He continues:
Rather than defending my images and opposing yours, we could accept the necessity of multiple images for appreciating the many-sided nature of God. This requires me to acknowledge the validity of other people’s experience of spiritual reality, even where it differs from mine. This presupposes, of course, that I do not already ‘know’ that everyone who claims to have any kind of experience of God is deluded, and that there is ‘really’ no such thing as any spiritual reality at all.
It is not coincidental that it is the small number of Friends who reject even the possibility of spiritual experience who have been most active in promoting the identity politics game of ‘theists and nontheists’. In fact, the most significant distinction for the practice of Quaker worship is not between those who adopt personal or impersonal images of spiritual reality, but between those Friends who are open to the possibility of spiritual experience in any form, and those are not.
This seems to me to be the crux of the matter, and in reading Chapter 2 of Quaker Faith and Practice it should be immediately obvious that the possibility, and indeed the actuality, of spiritual experience lies at the very heart of Quaker worship, and at the very heart of what it means to be a Quaker at all; and all the works that Quakers have done, and still do to this day, exist and flourish out of, because of – not despite – our shared spiritual experience in worship, and in our own lives of prayer. Without this, there is nothing, except a vague inclination towards good…