Monthly Archives: May 2016

Reading Quaker faith & practice Chapter 22

The truest end of life, is to know the life that never ends. He that makes this his care, will find it his crown at last. And he that lives to live ever, never fears dying: nor can the means be terrible to him that heartily believes the end.

For though death be a dark passage, it leads to immortality, and that’s recompense enough for suffering of it. And yet faith lights us, even through the grave, being the evidence of things not seen.

And this is the comfort of the good, that the grave cannot hold them, and that they live as soon as they die. For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity. Death, then, being the way and condition of life, we cannot love to live, if we cannot bear to die.

They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it. Death cannot kill what never dies. Nor can spirits ever be divided that love and live in the same Divine Principle, the root and record of their friendship. If absence be not death, neither is theirs.

Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure.

This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.

William Penn, 1693, Quaker faith & practice 22.95

Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett on God in Buddhism, quoted by Alex Thomson on the Quaker Renewal UK page on Facebook:

Now it has been said, that Buddhism is an atheistic religion. That is absolutely not true. What Buddhism will not say, is what the Cosmic Buddha IS. Because, if it tells you what the Cosmic Buddha is, immediately something can come into your head: “well I wonder if it has…” or, “why doesn’t it have…” such and such. The Buddha Himself said, “There IS an Unborn, Uncreated, Unchanging, Undying. If there were not an Unborn, Uncreated, Unchanging, Undying; then there would be no way of escaping despair.” Now what He is actually saying is, there is something, — you can call it a “Great Spirit”, you can call it “God”, you can call it “The Cosmic Buddha”, you can call it “XYZ” (if you happen to be an atheist), you can use any term you like for it: but that is the most the Buddha would ever say of it. Other than: you’ve got to know it for yourself. When you know it for yourself, then: there can be no death, for you know where your true home is. And, there can be no life, other than life in this, Unborn, Uncreated, Undying, Unchanging.

Therefor Buddhism is a very, very TRUE religion. Which is non-theistic, in the sense of having a father-figure type God. But VERY theistic, in the sense of there very definitely being something much greater than every one of us, in here.

It does not dictate to us. It does not insist. I can tell you all the things it does not do. It will never hate, it will never judge. It leaves us to hate each other, — until we’re fed up with it. (laughter) It leaves us to judge ourselves, (and our fellow man), — until we are fed up with doing it! And it does not insist that we stop; it just: sits there. And waits. And waits. And waits…

Kathleen Dowling Singh, in The Grace in Dying:

As we return and/or are returned to our Original Nature, virtues that we have acquired, usually through deliberate cultivation, flow naturally as water from a spring. The qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, presence, centeredness, spaciousness, mercy and confidence all radiate naturally forth from our transformed being as we come closer to death. Many a time I have heard “I love you” whispered softly and easily to a spouse or child or parent who may never have heard those words before. Many a time I have seen the dying comfort those in pain around them…

Love appears to be the last connection the dying have with the world of form. We become expressive vehicles for the power of the Ground of Being, inhabited and vitalised by far greater Being… The Ground of Being is, in a very real sense, Love. As we merge with it, self-consciousness and all questions of self-worth and previous psychological issues of lovability spontaneously melt. Love simultaneously pours into and pours out of us. It begins to pour through us.

A faith which has nothing to say to death, or to the process of dying, is ultimately dry and fruitless, I think. The one real certainty facing each and every one of us is that we shall die; this is perhaps the truest and most fundamental thing that can be said of us. But this is not a bad thing, not a tragedy. All things die, from the little velvety red mites that scamper on stone walls in the sun, through oak trees, owls and whales to the great galaxies, and doubtless many living, loving things we have no idea of. What we need is to discover how to live with death. That is one of the core functions of a spiritual path, surely, to show us that this necessary surrender is the way to unending light, not to extinction. All we are doing is returning to the Source.

As William Penn wrote, “Death, then, being the way and condition of life, we cannot love to live, if we cannot bear to die.” His beautiful and humane passage quoted above holds so much of the hope and truth of the Quaker way of “experimental faith” that it comforts me as much as anything I’ve read. The community of Friends knows much about living with death; it was at a Quaker funeral that I first came to realise that I had to investigate this unexpected truth for myself, and so was led to attend my first Quaker meeting.

“Stand still,” said William Leddra, the day before he was martyred, “Stand still, and cease from thine own working.” To practice surrender is consciously to approach that place of last connection: to abandon ship, as it were, and leap into the endless ocean of mercy that is the Ground of Being itself. (God is nothing less than this.) If we can begin to do this consciously in prayer and practice, then that gracious power of “loving-kindness, compassion, presence… mercy and confidence” will have the opportunity somehow to manifest in our lives, poured out for those that following this way places in our path.

Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 16

We eventually have to be aware that our partner is also ‘graced’ by us and our gifts and we are denying ‘that of God in us’ if we do not develop our own gifts. The grace is in the uniting and then it is up to us. Luther married because he believed that in marriage God’s grace permeated the world. This is where marriage within a faith setting differs most from secular marriage. By God’s grace we are a gift for one another, recognising that this person is the person with whom I can create a relationship that will deepen, grow and last a lifetime. This is the dimension within the relationship which earths us in the created world, connects us with the community and is open to the transcendent.

Roger and Susan Sawtell, 2006 – Quaker Faith & Practice 16.11

Although Susan and I met and married before we became Quakers, our relationship from the very start has been rooted in spirituality. We were both Franciscan Tertiaries, and became friends first of all through our local group. As we came to know each other better, our relationship grew to become in many ways a workshop for encouraging each other to explore more deeply how the Spirit touched and led each of us, and this drew us inescapably to the Quaker way.

Since becoming Quakers we have grown and developed each in our own way, and it has been one of the joys of treading this path that we have been able to do so roughly in parallel, each at times supporting the other, but neither one of us taking the lead, nor feeling that we had necessarily to be walking in the same track all of the way.

What has been remarkable has been our progressive discovery that, not so much in spite of as because of our often different approaches, we are ‘graced’, as the Sawtells put it, by each other’s growth into what we can be in the Spirit. And that is perhaps the greatest blessing of our life together.

Channels of Grace

This morning we held a short meeting for worship, before the Christian Aid Big Breakfast. There is something about meeting early, just a few of us in the shadowed meeting room, with the light of a rather grey and showery morning filtering through the long windows, and we were nearly at the end of the particularly sweet silence that had settled over us when a Friend rose to give ministry.

She spoke of gratitude, and the need, despite the fact that she was living in a time of personal peace and happiness, of developing a habit of gratefulness that could outlast happy circumstances, and sustain itself even in times of difficulty and grief. Her words touched us all, I think, and we went in to breakfast full of that blessed silence, and of the grace that had ended it.

The dictionary definitions of the word “gratitude” seem to major on the sense of obligation, and yet this is not the gratitude of which our Friend spoke so movingly. The word is indeed related, though its Latin root, to the idea of grace. As Satya Robyn points out, 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.

So is this the source of this imperishable gratitude to which we can aspire? Perhaps it is. We are only beginning, as humanity, to realise how deeply we depend on the subtle networks of our world, and on each others’ goodwill and hope. Each one of us depends, whether we like it or not, upon our neighbours and our friends, and in any church, any community of people gathered for worship, our spiritual dependence is deep and organic. If these are the roots of our gratitude, then it will endure hard times; and more than that, it will become a deep channel of grace flowing into our community, spreading its warmth and compassion, its mercy, far beyond the confines of family or meeting, and on into the world.

The well of love…

Liberal Quakers, which term by and large encompasses Britain Yearly Meeting, don’t these days tend to use the name of Jesus Christ at all freely, which can be disorienting for those – like myself – who have joined Friends after having been members of other churches.

Needless to say, there is no official Quaker Christology, just as there are no Quaker creeds or statements of faith. But early Quakers were entirely comfortable with the name of Christ, and with the prevailing understanding of him as saviour. As Lewis Benson writes, in A Revolutionary Gospel:

The early Quakers were not a reforming movement within the framework of a commonly shared belief in Christ as savior. They were in revolt against what the churches were teaching about salvation by Christ. They claimed that the churches’ teaching had separated belief in Christ as savior from the call of God for righteousness. Belief in Christ had become divorced from obedience in righteousness. Fox said that the belief of his Calvinist contemporaries was an “unsanctifying belief,” by which he meant that it left the believer still captive to sin and a dweller in the life of unrighteousness. The Calvinist doctrine of “imputed righteousness” was rejected by the Quakers. They that have received Christ within, said Fox, “they witness the righteousness itself without imputation.” The chief point of the controversy between Puritans and Quakers was whether Christ had the power to make men truly righteous as well as the power to forgive. This is a disagreement about that which is most fundamental in Christianity. It is a disagreement about how we experience Christ as savior. But the Quaker revolt was not directed solely against Calvinistic Puritanism. Before Calvin the Church of Rome had assumed the role of mediator of moral truth to its members, it set a standard of morality defined by the church and kept in force by the power of the church. The scandals that developed in the administration of this church-oriented morality were the occasion of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking back across the centuries of Christian history Fox was able to say, “The righteousness within and sanctification within hath been lost since the apostles’ days,” and “the sanctifying belief hath been lost since the apostles’ days.”

Quaker faith is based in the experience of the Spirit in silent worship, and it is that Spirit which the early Quakers understood as the indwelling Christ. The apostle Paul prayed that

according to the riches of his glory, [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

(Ephesians 3.16-19)

It is this indwelling which the early Quakers understood by their experience of the Light. As William Penn wrote:

The Light of Christ within, who is the Light of the world and so a light to you that tells you the truth of your condition, leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvellous light; for light grows upon the obedient. It is sown for the righteous and their way is a shining light that shines forth more and more to the perfect day.

(QFP 26.44)

Of course, the experience of the Light is far deeper than words. As Paul wrote elsewhere:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

(Romans 8.26-27)

It seems to me that Friends today, realising the inadequacy of language, and indeed of concepts (“notions” as the first Quakers would have said), quite rightly espouse an understanding of prayer and worship that is intentionally, rootedly apophatic, despite occasional intersection with the spoken word in ministry. But even in this we are consistent with our spiritual ancestors. Isaac Penington wrote:

The sum and substance of true religion doth not stand in getting a notion of Christ’s righteousness, but in feeling the power of endless life, receiving the power, and being changed by the power. And where Christ is, there is his righteousness.

Perhaps we need to be prepared to extend to each other that openness which we so readily extend to those of other backgrounds in faith, and to allow each other freely to use whatever language springs from our hearts in worship, in full awareness of the inadequacy of any language or system, any knowing even, to express the actuality. What is there is unknowable. Anything any of us might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, nor constrained by dimensionality. The love of God is all, and in all, and the well of love does not run dry. Paul again:

Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

(1 Corinthians 13.12-13)

“The silent unity of all”

In his interesting post ‘Quaker non-theism and the God of Pascal‘, Ben Wood points out the very real difficulty some Quakers, especially non-theists like David Boulton, have with the Cartesian concept of God as “merely a necessary theological hypothesis.” Wood quotes Boulton himself in ‘Quaker Identity and the Heart of our Faith’ (the content appears to be missing from the Quakers in Britain website), “I can no more entertain the notion of gods and devils, angels and demons, disembodied ghoulies and ghosties, or holy and unholy spirits, than I can believe in the magic of Harry Potter or the mystic powers of Gandalf the Grey.”

I am not qualified as a theologian, but Quaker theology appears to me to be, if anything, a theology derived from experience, and the God of my experience is not a being within a known universe, not a notion in fact at all. I may, like everyone else, David Boulton included, derive notions from my experience, but it is the experience that is primary. This primacy of experience is of course what Quakers mean when they describe theirs as an experimental faith. As Charles F Carter wrote:

True faith is not assurance, but the readiness to go forward experimentally, without assurance. It is a sensitivity to things not yet known. Quakerism should not claim to be a religion of certainty, but a religion of uncertainty; it is this which gives us our special affinity to the world of science. For what we apprehend of truth is limited and partial, and experience may set it all in a new light; if we too easily satisfy our urge for security by claiming that we have found certainty, we shall no longer be sensitive to new experiences of truth. For who seeks that which he believes that he has found? Who explores a territory which he claims already to know?

Oddly enough perhaps, at first glance, one of the best accounts of mystical experience I’ve come across recently is found in André Comte-Sponville’s Book of Atheist Spirituality. He writes (p.190):

Mystics are defined by a certain type of experience, comprising self-evidence, plenitude, simplicity, eternity… All this leaves very little room for belief.

They see. Why would they need dogma?
Everything is present. Why would they need hope?
They live in eternity. Why would they need to wait for it?
They are already saved. Why would they need a religion?
Whether they are believers or not, mystics are those who no longer lack God. But is a God who is no longer lacking still God?

I don’t know the answer to Comte-Sponville’s question, except to say that for me, that plenitude – pleroma, in Jung’s Septem Sermones ad Mortuos – is exactly what I mean by God. He goes on to say,

When  God is no longer lacking, what remains? The plenitude of what is, which is neither God nor a subject.

When the past and the future no longer separate us from the present, what remains? Eternity – that is, the perpetual now of reality and truth.

When ego and intellect no longer separate us from reality, what remains? The silent unity of all.

For me, that “silent unity” is God. I mean nothing less by the word. But I find I need a shorthand for what André Comte-Sponville describes a few pages later (p.197): “How could I contain the absolute? The absolute contains me – I can reach it only by leaving myself behind.” The little word “God” may give rise to all manner of misunderstandings among Friends and others, but I for one need it for its elegance and concision – and for me, its resonance. To the questioning mind, you see, the infinite light of plenitude is dark, and all our descriptions fail in the end. As TS Eliot wrote, the only answer is (and try writing this without that little word we were discussing):

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.


A few years ago I travelled with a group of Friends and others from the Campaign Against Arms Trade to the BAE Systems AGM at Farnborough. The aim of the trip was to protest the company’s supporting of repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and elsewhere through arms sales and unethical business practices, by means of what CAAT described as ‘[f]orensic questioning combined with high farce’.

All through the planning meetings, and on the train to Farnborough, I was deeply unsettled, and unclear about my own involvement. I was entirely in agreement with CAAT’s objectives, and yet I could neither see myself in the role of questioner, nor in the organised catcalling and general lunacy of the ‘high farce’ brigade.

Once the meeting commenced, though, I found I dropped into silence at the edge of a block of seating, and remained alert but silent throughout the proceedings. I found myself, to my surprise, holding in the Light not only my fellow CAAT supporters, but the BAE Systems board members, the security staff, and everyone else involved as well. I listened to every word, every exchange, with rapt attention, and watched as security ejected eight of the most vocal catcallers, and as each person – CAAT member or BAE shareholder – stood to ask their question. In fact, I was holding the space for the AGM, and for all who took part, without judgement, without influence, without prejudice and without even the desire for some particular outcome. Those things happened (I found to my immense amazement) without my willing them. In fact, I discovered I was unable to will; I was there purely as a channel, an aerial if you will, for the ground of being in which we all were held, and from which we and all else had come.

A few days ago our Area Meeting held a residential weekend on eldership, using material from Jenny Routledge’s book, Living Eldership, and from her Being Friends Together resource. Using Jenny’s material, of course, brought us up against the concept of accompaniment, which she had encountered so powerfully during her time at Pendle Hill. As Jenny writes,

Recently the practice of an elder accompanying a travelling minister has resurfaced. Jan Hoffman’s travelling ministry in the States has led to a resurgence of accompanying elders, bringing a mutual growing in the Spirit for the minister and the elder, and growth in the power of the resulting ministry. Those who travel in this way speak of a deeply spiritual friendship which results from ‘knowing each other in that which is eternal’…

For those experiencing accompanying eldership as minister, elder or as a member of the meeting, the presence of the elder makes a significant difference. Those who ministered spoke of their sense of being upheld and of being able to go deeper ministry coming closer to their true calling. Those who accompany them also experience a rich and rewarding journey in which they learn much. One Friend expressed what she had gained: ‘My conclusion to the group was that I felt that upholding is really about trust – trusting the process, trusting the Spirit, trusting each other and trusting ourselves.’

Members of meetings for learning at which accompanying elders were present have spoken of being taken to a different level by their presence. An accompanying elder often transforms what might be described as a secular presentation or workshop into true ministry. Helen Gould’s account of being accompanied by an elder vividly illustrates her ministry in delivering the Backhouse Lecture: ‘I found that I was able to pray that I would speak all and only what I was given to speak, and that the worshipers/listeners would receive benefit. From that moment I was not actually aware of myself. I’m not sure how to put this at that point I was, I believe, simply a channel for God’s love.’

It had not really been clear to me that my experience at Farnborough was an experience of accompanying eldership, but of course that’s precisely what it was. In section 21 of Living Eldership, Jenny Routledge quotes a Friend, Angela Kyte, who stepped into the role of her accompanying elder on a clerking course at Woodbrooke:

I kept a journal as a reference tool, and to help me clarify my own role. I felt the most important thing was to trust the process, and to maintain the intention to succeed, although I still had no clear idea of what success might look like…

Like Angela Kyte, I too had the opportunity to experience being an accompanying elder for our Area Meeting on the Sunday. The sense I had had at the BAE Systems AGM, of precise alertness, and a kind of actinic clarity, was there again, in perhaps even greater measure, now that I was aware of what was going on. Once again, I found myself holding the space, and within that even my own person, with his reactions and his prejudices, was held just like the Friends at the table and throughout the room. To give oneself to the process, however little understood, seems to be all that’s required. The rest becomes a matter of presence and attention only; the love that underlies the intention, that indeed underlies the meeting and all else, is enough.

It will be interesting, and more than interesting, to see where this goes. Angela Kyte’s suggestion of a journal is perhaps particularly good. Whether the practice of accompanying eldership will be as transformative for area meeting as it has been for me remains to be seen(!); and whether the practice will spread across our local meetings, or become ‘standard equipment’ for area business meetings, is by no means clear. In this all I can do is wait, and trust the Spirit – for myself, I am fascinated to see how things work out in the months to come…