Category Archives: Action

Unfolding

The other day, I wrote of unfolding – “the unfolding that is my life, and of which my death will be part.”

It seems to me that this is one clue to the old “who am I?” question. It doesn’t appear that there is a fixed “thing” that is me. I am becoming, that is all. I don’t unfold myself along the time that is given me – and it is given me, I don’t take it – but with each year and each minute I unroll like a kind of a carpet as time itself unrolls.

In myself I am no thing – though my body is an object with certain dimensions and attributes that, however they may change over time, are recognisably me – in my becoming, my unfolding, everything is gift.

In silence, I can hear myself becoming, breath by breath, and I know that there is a source beyond my physical presence, far beyond my scrabbling thoughts, from which I appear to become. Obviously, it is being. I am, so inevitably it is in the ground of that (and all) being that I am held, and unrolled, moment by moment. I cannot fall out of what is. This is so perfectly natural that it lifts away the alienation of my self from its true home, and the anxiety of what I might be. If I am so unfolded, then the unfolding itself is what I am, as is its ground. As Paul wrote, “Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3.11)

To realise this, of course, is itself a kind of death: the death of the individual me, the death of any dream of being the master of my soul. The death, in fact, of my soul itself as separate, over against an alien world. “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” said Paul in the same letter (Colossians 3.3).

This incompleteness, this lack of a separated self, is of course at the heart of the Gospel. Richard Rohr seems to suggest that it underlies what he calls “the spirituality of imperfection.” As he says,

The real moral goals of the Gospel—loving enemies, caring for the powerless, overlooking personal offenses, living simply, eschewing riches—can only be achieved through surrender and participation. These have often been ignored or minimized, even though they were clearly Jesus’ major points. We cannot take credit for these virtues; we can only thank God for them: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory because of your mercy and faithfulness” (Psalm 115:1).

The love that is our becoming shows itself as the mercy of God in all that unfolds: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8.28)

Our accepting our utter dependence upon and oneness with the God who gives us being is precisely the “surrender and participation” of which Rohr writes. Only this way can that mercy that Christ is flow through us, in prayer and deed, to the world’s pain.

Reading Quaker faith & practice Chapter 13

It is part of our commitment as members of the Religious Society of Friends that we try to live our lives under the guidance of the Spirit. Whatever the service to which we are called, whether it be great or small, our meeting can uphold us in prayer and other ways.

Our service may be in the home, an unpaid job, a vocation or a lifetime’s career. For some there will be service in the local meeting, in one of the many roles that help to make our meetings true Christian communities. Some of these are explained later in this chapter. Britain Yearly Meeting itself offers people opportunities for service both as members of staff and on our various Quaker committees…

QFP 13.01

Much of Chapter 13 is rightly involved with the discernment and testing of concerns, with other named roles such as wardens, chaplains and librarians, and with those who travel in the ministry. In this lovely introduction, however, the essence of our varieties of religious service is made entirely clear: “that we try to live our lives under the guidance of the Spirit.”

In his excellent Pendle Hill pamphlet, Four Doors to Meeting for Worship, William Tabor discusses “other kinds of ministry that may be more important than spoken ministry.” He goes on to say,

…[we] may find that we are drawn into a far more secret prayer for others during the meeting than had been true before. Or we may find that we become a silent channel through which unexpected prayer wells up for individuals, for the community, for causes, for nations and world leaders… Or we may discover how to silently, wordlessly hold the entire meeting up before God, into the healing light of Christ, for many minutes at a time. As we do this we sometimes forget who is holding whom, and we just rest wordlessly in the amazing Presence… I came to realise how important are these silent inconspicuous people who are practiced, skilled (even though they might demur at such “elitist” terms) at just being totally present before God while engaging in the wordless prayer of lovingly holding the entire meeting up into that Presence.

It is very easy – I almost said “fatally easy”, for it is a real danger – to forget, among our committees and appointments, our roles and responsibilities, that we are a Religious Society of Friends, and that our very effectiveness in the world stems from our faithfulness in the Spirit, whatever form of words we find comfortable using to express that fact.

Charles F Carter wrote in QFP 26.39:

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?

The religious service given by “silent, inconspicuous” Friends whose silence and whose stillness underpin our meetings, and hold our concerns and our questions in that Light, may well be the first explorers of these open territories of unknowing from which our strength flows, as it has always flowed, into all our work and witness.

Art thou in the Darkness?

Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee. Art thou wounded in conscience? Feed not there, but abide in the Light which leads to Grace and Truth, which teaches to deny, and puts off the weight, and removes the cause, and brings saving health to Light.

James Nayler, Quaker Faith & Practice 21.65

There are so many signs of the Darkness surrounding us today, just as there were surrounding James Nayler in middle of the 17th century. Nayler and his contemporaries faced extreme political instability, three successive civil wars followed not ten years later by the beginning of the English Restoration, religious unrest and persecution on a scale not seen before or since in England, news of the Great Plagues moving across Europe and Ireland (London was not stricken in fact until five years after Nayler’s death), and a justice system so fragmented and damaged by political, ecclesial and mob unrest as to be entirely unfit for purpose. I need not list our present woes, of which climate change is perhaps the greatest worry: it is necessary only to glance at any news website to get the sense of threat and horror that hangs over the world, and which is stoked daily by media hungry for the sales, viewers and hits afforded by this age of increasingly desperate anxiety.

Only last year I wrote, “We so often feel that we are indeed in darkness in these days of crisis after crisis, of instability in the world and injustice at home, so that we feel keeping still to be a grave dereliction of duty, so that we must exhaust ourselves in frantic doing lest we betray those in more need than ourselves.”

But we are more than fear and politics. If we fail to allow ourselves our own humanity then our efforts at self preservation, whether on the personal or the global scale, will be futile, for there will be nothing worth preserving. In the end, our resulting psychoses may themselves destroy us; perhaps, with ISIS on the one hand, and the Trumptonisation of the USA on the other, we are already beginning to feel the symptoms.

In issue 16 of Nautilus magazine, Daniel A Gross discusses the biological necessity of silence for the human organism, and records that “[in] 2011, the World Health Organization tried to quantify its health burden in Europe. It concluded that the 340 million residents of western Europe – roughly the same population as that of the United States – annually lost a million years of healthy life because of noise. It even argued that 3,000 heart disease deaths were, at their root, the result of excessive noise.” He concludes, “Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in. That’s the power of silence.”

Caroline Graveson wrote, just before the Second World War,

There is, it sometimes seems, an excess of religious and social busyness these days, a round of committees and conferences and journeyings, of which the cost in ‘peaceable wisdom’ is not sufficiently counted. Sometimes we appear overmuch to count as merit our participation in these things…

To read good literature, gaze on natural beauty, to follow cultivated pursuits until our spirits are refreshed and expanded, will not unfit us for the up and doing of life, whether of personal or church affairs. Rather will it help us to separate the essential from the unessential, to know where we are really needed and get a sense of proportion. We shall find ourselves giving the effect of leisure even in the midst of a full and busy life. People do not pour their joys or sorrows into the ears of those with an eye on the clock.

As James Nayler pointed out, to fix our eyes, and the focus of our hearts, on the threat and horror which surrounds us, and on our own perceived failings in duty as we are confronted with its implicit, if rarely explicit, demands on us, rather than on “the Light which leads to Grace and Truth,” will only fill us with the darkness which we so rightly fear. Surely it is only as we trust ourselves and each other to “stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead [us]” that we shall truly perceive our leading, and whatever our hand finds to do will be done not in anxiety but in love.

A Mystical Religion – Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 2

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.

QFP 2.19

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…

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.

Living Retired Lives – More from Quaker Faith & Practice

Those of you who are kept by age or sickness from more active work, who are living retired lives, may in your very separation have the opportunity of liberating power for others. Your prayers and thoughts go out further than you think, and as you wait in patience and in communion with God, you may be made ministers of peace and healing and be kept young in soul.

London Yearly Meeting, 1923 – Quaker Faith & Practice 21.46

I would want to add the word “calling” to the first sentence here: “kept by age, sickness or calling…” Throughout history, even in times of great social need, the calling to a retired life of prayer and contemplation has been recognised. Julian of Norwich, for instance, lived during the time of the Black Death that swept Europe in the Middle Ages, yet seems to have lived out much of her life as an anchoress, devoted to prayer, contemplation, writing, and probably what we would call these days counselling, or eldership.

At times I have struggled with this, feeling that, compared with more active Friends I have somehow not been pulling my weight, and more, that I could not explain or justify “how it worked“. Wise Friends have reminded me that unknowing is simply part of one’s leading, that trust is at the centre of the spiritual life, and that a joyful acceptance is the best approach to discovering one’s calling! CG Jung wrote of synchronicity, the principle which, he felt, connected together events which appeared to have no direct, causal connection. It may very well be that we whose hearts are torn by the pain and the grieving of our fellow creatures, and who come into the presence of God so wounded, do more than we know to bring real aid and comfort to our sisters and brothers of the active life, and to those for whom they give themselves. As Tennyson once wrote, “More things are wrought by prayer / Than this world dreams of…”

Gordon Matthews, writing in 1987 (QFP 29.01):

How can we walk with a smile into the dark? We must learn to put our trust in God and the leadings of the Spirit. How many of us are truly led by the Spirit throughout our daily lives? I have turned to God when I have had a difficult decision to make or when I have sought strength to endure the pain in dark times. But I am only slowly learning to dwell in the place where leadings come from. That is a place of love and joy and peace, even in the midst of pain. The more I dwell in that place, the easier it is to smile, because I am no longer afraid.

If we dwell in the presence of God, we shall be led by the spirit. We do well to remember that being led by the spirit depends not so much upon God, who is always there to lead us, as upon our willingness to be led. We need to be willing to be led into the dark as well as through green pastures and by still waters. We do not need to be afraid of the dark, because God is there. The future of this earth need not be in the hands of the world’s ‘leaders’. The world is in God’s hands if we are led by God. Let us be led by the Spirit. Let us walk with a smile into the dark.

(I apologise for the spray of links to previous blog posts, but it seemed to me to make more sense than to burden this brief post with chunks of text quoted out of context.)

Coming back to the edge of silence…

Coming back to the edge of silence, where only the blood’s shouting in the ear remains, I think of Caroline Fox’s words (QFP 26.04):

The first gleam of light, ‘the first cold light of morning’ which gave promise of day with its noontide glories, dawned on me one day at meeting, when I had been meditating on my state in great depression. I seemed to hear the words articulated in my spirit, ‘Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee.’ Then I believed that God speaks to man by His Spirit. I strove to lead a more Christian life, in unison with what I knew to be right, and looked for brighter days, not forgetting the blessings that are granted to prayer.

“Live up to the light thou hast… not forgetting the blessings that are granted to prayer.” Yes. This I have needed to hear. It is so easy to forget, to become caught up in doing, in assuaging the patterned guilt of the news reports, spinning on the surface of days like a whirligig beetle, when all the time the deep roots of the waterlilies wait in the cool dark for the slow carp of the praying heart, nourishing, healing, the source of all that is new, and whole, and good.

To sit still under the itching and the busyness, to refuse the anxious demands and the loose, slippery hungers of all that is restless: to sit still under it and let it alone (QFP 26.02) – then the living hope, that true voice, comes, that Emilia Fogelklou heard: “This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.”

Humility and Trust

In a recent article… Rowan Williams notes that we are these days pressured to assume that there is only one way of knowing our world. We talk as though only the analytic, causal mode of picturing reality had any authenticity…

For a modern mind, subject to the pressures Williams refers to, we may more naturally locate the motivation [to action in a Quaker context] in a set of values and principles. But values and principles are merely a hedge we do not act outside of. A great many things would accord with “Quaker values” and we cannot possibly do them all. We do not do what we do because we are Quakers with Quaker values. Instead, we use our bodies and breath and the passion generated by our memories and histories to express the movement of the Spirit. We are not interchangeable with each other. If we assume concerns arise in the mind as a logical response to information, one moderately energetic Quaker is as good as another. Sometimes, in the light of this perspective, we find one individual trying to move others into action by argument… But this is to treat each other as potential troops to get behind an action; it is to take a simplistic political position…

But it is a painful fact: with humility and trust we have to become aware of being our complete, embodied selves, bringing God’s kingdom to life by that means, not by having good ideas and putting them into action… It is as a part of a living body that we move and are moved…

But, settling into silence in a room together is, for all its simplicity a powerful ritual… Above all, we are present, together, in our bodies. There, in the stillness, we witness each other’s deep feelings. We sit in the warmth generated by each other’s bodies, hear the catch in another’s breath, see the tears in each other’s eyes and are moved.

Lucy Faulkner-Gawlinski, Quaker Voices Vol. 5 No. 4

Lucy’s article “speaks to my condition” in the old Quaker phrase. I have to confess that all too often I am the one trying to get myself to do things because I see myself as a Quaker, with Quaker values. It takes a great deal of stillness, and of silence, to get myself to stop trying to argue, and guilt-trip, myself into actions that I have not been called to, but which I perceive as being a good idea. I even imagine, sometimes, that others are trying to do this to me, when they are not.

But among Friends, at least when we are being Friends together fully, the motivation to any action – or indeed to refrain from any action – is not located in a set of values and principles. It is located in our perception of the Spirit’s leading, in the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. It does take a great deal of humility and trust to rely on those promptings, rather than on argument and political analysis. Above all, it requires us to risk appearing foolish, or lazy, or fainthearted, even to ourselves, as we wait in our own silence and inaction for God’s promptings in the depths of our being.

It should be simple enough. The opening words of our Advices and Queries put it perfectly clearly: “Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.”

Inequality and Prayer

A post for Blog Action Day 2014

Statement on Inequality adopted by Meeting for Sufferings on behalf of Britain Yearly Meeting [of the Society of Friends (Quakers)] – April 2014, minute MfS 2014 04 07

Quakers in Britain commit ourselves to action to redress the growing inequality of wealth and income in our country.

Our vision of equality springs from our profound sense of the worth of every human being. Every person’s life is sacred and in this we are all equal.  Neither money nor status can serve as a true measure of the value of any individual or group.  Nor can wealth be true riches if it is based on unlimited personal enrichment and not shared for the good of all…

I have sometimes been asked whether I consider myself middle class. Honestly, I don’t know how to answer questions like this. Probably in fact by most measures of education and so on I am, but…

I grew up believing that being really middle class involved being brought up in a household with two parents, at least one of whom worked in a salaried occupation, owned their own home, and so on, and I did not. I was brought up by my mother, a distinctly un-salaried painter and sculptor, as a single parent, my parents having divorced when I was a toddler. We never lived in anything other than rented accommodation. Most of my contemporaries’ parents would probably not have considered us really “respectable”, and as far as I was concerned, right into my teens and twenties, respectability was the acid test for being middle class.

In the course of my life I have veered between near-poverty and being comfortably provided-for, between salaried and rather fragile freelance. Sometimes people would have thought of me as respectable, middle class; more often perhaps they would have wondered.

It is hard to write convincingly of class unless one is solidly and consciously a member of one class or another. At the very least, one is continually at risk of being called out as lacking in class consciousness, in Georg Lukács’ definition. And of course I am – I am quite lacking in class consciousness. It never occurs to me, from one week’s end to another.

So it is with huge relief that I read the second paragraph of the Statement on Inequality, “Our vision of equality springs from our profound sense of the worth of every human being. Every person’s life is sacred and in this we are all equal.  Neither money nor status can serve as a true measure of the value of any individual or group…”

At last – here is a recognition of the sense that I have had since I was very young, that to measure the worth of anyone, or any group of people, by their money or status, or by their lack of money or status, is deeply, painfully wrong, intrinsically wrong in fact, in the way that murder or slavery are wrong in themselves, quite regardless of context or background. It doesn’t matter whether you are a politician dismissing disabled workers as a group as unworthy of the minimum wage, or a revolutionary socialist regarding a company CEO and his family as landfill for the mass graves merely because of their class, these measures of worth are an obscenity, an insult to being human.

The Statement on Inequality ends, having considered the economic violence and injustices arising from global economic crises:

However, action that aims merely to alleviate the worst effects of inequality is not enough. As we wrestle with the implications of our testimony to equality, Quakers feel called to act more radically to tackle the underlying causes.  This calling requires spiritual struggle and real practical change.  Our testimonies are moving us to work for very different ways of organising our common life.  We are also moving towards spending and saving our own resources in ways that are more compatible with our values, and away from uses that diminish the lives of our fellow human beings and the rich variety of life forms with which we share our planet.

As we long for a society of deep compassion and loving kindness in which we ‘help one another up with a tender hand’, we must witness to a different way of living, and help build the world anew.

It has long seemed to me that somehow these questions lead back to the spiritual. We cannot simply deal with the symptoms, the social, economic and political issues, and hope to solve them, as Communist and Fascist systems alike, the world over, showed us throughout the last century. We cannot place our hope in a theocratic model either, as the cruelty and injustice of such contemporary states demonstrates.

In the face of global injustice, welfare cuts, slavery, and human trafficking, it may seem pointless, insulting even, to pray. And yet – what would have been the end of World War II without the women and men who prayed in the churches and the concentration camps; how would the Iron Curtain have fallen without the prayers of the exiles, the prisoners, the refugees?

Quakers in Britain are asking ourselves at the moment what we are for. Our opposition to inequality, our long work for peace and social justice, differ at least potentially from mere political campaigning by their being rooted in our spiritual practice, and in the work of the Spirit in our hearts and minds. We do indeed need “to reaffirm the spirit of Quakerism in making real the “Kingdom of God on Earth”; perhaps we need also to relearn the words of Caroline Fox,

The first gleam of light, ‘the first cold light of morning’ which gave promise of day with its noontide glories, dawned on me one day at meeting, when I had been meditating on my state in great depression. I seemed to hear the words articulated in my spirit, ‘Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee.’ Then I believed that God speaks to man by His Spirit. I strove to lead a more Christian life, in unison with what I knew to be right, and looked for brighter days, not forgetting the blessings that are granted to prayer.

Love, coolness, gentleness and dear unity…

Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power. If, for instance, we give away all our possessions, that act is not in itself the obedience he demands. In fact such a step might be the precise opposite of obedience to Jesus, for we might then be choosing a way of life for ourselves, some Christian ideal, or some ideal of Franciscan poverty…. The step into the situation where faith is possible is not an offer which we can make to Jesus, but always his gracious offer to us. Only when the step is taken in this spirit is it admissible.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

I have always struggled with this. In so much of church life, as indeed in much political and campaigning matters, hardening of the oughteries is an occupational hazard I’m particularly prone to. There are so many activities that can be taken as “obedience to the call of Jesus”: feeding and clothing the poor, caring for the sick, welcoming strangers, visiting those in prison, spreading the word of truth, working for justice, peace and the integrity of creation… not to mention coffee mornings and bring-and-buy sales!

Clearly one person cannot do them all, and yet neglecting to do any of them feels like disobedience, or at least callousness. I have literally lain awake at night with it all buzzing around my head.

I had not expected to find any kind of answer to this when I found myself called join Friends in meeting. Yet embedded not only in the silence, but in the structure of the Quaker business method, is a process of discernment that is deeply liberating, and full of “love, coolness, gentleness and dear unity.

In our meetings for worship we seek through the stillness to know God’s will for ourselves and for the gathered group. Our meetings for church affairs, in which we conduct our business, are also meetings for worship based on silence, and they carry the same expectation that God’s guidance can be discerned if we are truly listening together and to each other, and are not blinkered by preconceived opinions. It is this belief that God’s will can be recognised through the discipline of silent waiting which distinguishes our decision-making process from the secular idea of consensus. We have a common purpose in seeking God’s will through waiting and listening, believing that every activity of life should be subject to divine guidance.

Quaker Faith & Practice 3.02

It has been my experience that this can work in the individual just as well as in the “gathered group”. Dilemmas not only in matters of service, but of leadings, gifts and abilities, seem to come naturally under the “discipline of silent waiting”, whether alone or among Friends. I had not thought of this.

I may have quoted John Bellows before in this blog, but his words express here so clearly what I have found: “I know of no other way, in these deeper depths, of trusting in the name of the Lord, and staying upon God, than sinking into silence and nothingness before Him… So long as the enemy can keep us reasoning he can buffet us to and fro; but into the true solemn silence of the soul before God he cannot follow us.”