Category Archives: Aging

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.

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.

The First Day of Autumn

Yesterday was the Autumn Equinox, and so, I suppose, today is the first full day of autumn. For me, this is a liminal time of year, the warm growth of summer beginning to slip down into a time of mist and recollection, the plants storing their energy in stem and bulb, reabsorbing their nutrients from the tinting leaves, mobilising the phosphates, draining down the chlorophylls. The squirrels are beginning their winter stores, and the smaller rodents are starting to put on weight. The year is at a crossroads.

I find it easy to keep still at this time of year, waiting for the changes, listening for gales. I feel as though I am sitting on some ridge of hills, watching the early morning mist pool in the valleys, seeping the way it does through gaps in the high ground.

There is so much we humans don’t understand about endings and periodicities, the cycles we live in and which live in us. We don’t understand I think because even the cleverest of us often turn away, unwilling to think of our own lives running down the way the photosynthesis of a leaf runs down through early autumn towards leaf-fall. How can we face, and accept, the changes that change us as they change the world about us? Endings are as natural as beginnings: old age and death are not some obscenity to be raged against, but our own part in the gentle (or less gentle!) pattern of end and renewal.

The light, despite Dylan Thomas, does not die, any more than the setting sun dies into the ocean. We move, from birth to death, death to new life; the light is constant, and we give back into the light itself our inner light, as the leaves give back their phosphates and chlorophylls to the steady tree. But there is great beauty in each leaf before it falls – the glory of autumn is yet to come, and the floods of gold and russet are its clearest song of hope.

Margins and Edges

There is important wisdom to be gleaned from those on the margins. Vulnerable human beings put us more in touch with the truth of our limited and messy human condition, marked as it is by fragility, incompleteness and inevitable struggle. The experience of God from that place is one of absolutely gratuitous mercy and empowering love. People on the margins, who are less able to and less invested in keeping up appearances, often have an uncanny ability to name things as they are. Standing with them can help situate us in the truth and helps keep us honest.

Sister Pat Farrell OSF at the 2012 LCWR Assembly

It seems to be a recurring theme with me that God appears nearer when we are undeniably fragile, incomplete and messy. When life is good, and we have our health and strength, it is harder, sometimes, to become aware of God’s constant presence.

No matter. God is faithful if we are not. In the words of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, we acknowledge both our own fragility, etc. (in Pureland Buddhism, our bombu nature) and God’s unfailing mercy.

Richard Rohr, another Franciscan, wrote:

The edge of things is a liminal space – a very sacred place where guardian angels are especially available and needed. The edge is a holy place, or as the Celts called it, “a thin place” and you have to be taught how to live there. To take your position on the spiritual edge of things is to learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return. It is a prophetic position, not a rebellious or antisocial one. When you live on the edge of anything with respect and honour, you are in a very auspicious position. You are free from its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways.

The challenge is to maintain that liminal space as a home, in the midst of present happiness, without, as some artists, writers and musicians have found necessary, wrecking one’s life and loves in order not to drift into complacent, fruitless mediocrity. Perhaps it is not a challenge after all. Perhaps it is enough simply to be aware of the fragility, incompleteness and inevitable struggle of the world in which we live – the turning seasons, our aging bodies, even the dear cat, still such a kitten at heart, beginning slightly to slow down in middle age, spending less time abroad and more asleep on the bed as I write, living close to us in the warmth of our shared and transient mortality. That is enough.

Why not embrace?

As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.

Denise Levertov

Increasingly I am finding that all I am called to do is this. It is deeply counterintuitive for someone who has spent much of his life working in an environment where ‘no effort’ would lead to chaos and neglect, but there it is. Even sometimes among Friends. where in the usual Quaker way committees proliferate, and the active is in continual danger of overwhelming the contemplative instead of finding in it its source and its direction, I feel uneasy about this surrender, this quietism as some might think it.

But even Paul quotes God as saying to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12.9) There will come a time when each of us has to surrender, when weakness is all that is left to us. Why speak of “losing the battle” against old age or illness? Why not embrace what is, after all, an impermanence we’re born into? Why not trust that our source is no more than our destination, that beneath us are the everlasting arms of love?

On not clinging, and love…

Impermanence is the first mark of experience common to all human beings. The second one is what Buddhists call no-fixed-self. Like uncertainty and unpredictability, no-fixed-self was a concept unique to the Buddha’s teaching. He took the radical step of applying impermanence even to what we think of as our self. Twenty-five hundred years later, neuroscientists are coming to the same conclusion; they’re finding multiple circuitry in the brain, but no fixed seat of the self. As Pema Chödrön noted… “nothing is static or fixed”. That would include this notion of self.

 

Toni Bernhard, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow

Some months ago I wrote,

It’s a great comfort to know that God’s presence is waiting in… times of emptiness and loss, but it is confusing to know that finding him in the good times is sometimes actually harder. I cannot find another way than the odd self-denial of silent prayer, ceasing even to ask for the awareness of God in prayer, but going on in plain faithfulness, without reward, simply out of love. Then, it seems, in the paradoxical way of these things, God will in the end, even in the sunlit days, find the emptied heart in its still place, waiting in the bare inkling of Light, even in the memory of Light, and fill it with isness far more real than words, or longing.

I think that for me, part of the problem is that when things are difficult it is relatively easy to accept impermanence; when they are good, then we want to retain them, guard them, just as we would keep those we love free from age and disease. Of course, if we were to manage to keep them safe from change, they would no longer live, since life itself is process, flux.

That is why clinging to the good times is so deadening. We can’t do it; but the mere attempt is enough to freeze our hearts, cut us off from the sweet life that burns in the fragility of now. All that lives is vulnerable, changeable, fleeting. That is its beauty, and its tenderness. Only the mercy of God is constant love; love is the Light that plays on the dappled stream of change. and we call it life.

Fields of Grey…

The wonder of my body aging, dying,
is finding another flame within,
a holy eternal sphere,
that will never go out
and is more beautiful than all the form
you have ever known —
put together.

When the fields on the body
begin to turn grey,
let your hand’s touch upon all
soften.

Hafiz – with thanks to Contemplative Photography

Aging is a fascinating process. It’s not, of course, as though one could choose it as a hobby – but accepted, it becomes a gentle thing, full of curiosity and grace. All right, some things, like running for buses and climbing rocks, do become more difficult; but others – like listening to the open wind of the Spirit in the heart, like staying still – seem to become much easier…