Category Archives: Blogging

Recent posts…

I have been struck by the fact that, while the readership of this blog has not fallen away all that much, readership of my new blog, A Long Restlessness, has not taken over, as I had expected, from this and from my original blog, The Mercy Blog. Perhaps I have made a tangle for myself?

Accordingly, I have reproduced here the last two posts from the new blog, as they deal with explicitly Quaker concerns, and I should like them to have as wide as readership as they reasonably may.

Perhaps readers might like to let me know, either on the comments here or in the Quaker Facebook groups from which many of my readers are drawn, whether A Long Restlessness is in fact a good idea – combining as it does the interests of both this and my earlier blog – or whether they simply find it confusing!

In Friendship

Mike

The practice of stillness…

In the daily practice of stillness we learn not to rely on ourselves, on our thoughts and on our feelings, but instead to rest in the darkness – and perhaps in the apparently complete emptiness – of the magnanimity of the Holy Spirit who gently opens us out into that greater generosity. Its fruit is simply love. It is our personal response to the mystery of God, made known to us in the person of Jesus Christ, for our maturing into full personhood…

The practice of stillness is letting go. In relinquishing our desire to think, we are refraining from imposing meaning. This means that we can be more open to the way things actually are… A moment when we turn over in our hands a stone just picked up represents the state of preliminary receptiveness which is so important if we are to cultivate the deeper intuitive knowing of spiritual truths. Wonder is the necessary check to the tendency for reductionism which characterises both religious and secular forms of knowledge…

…letting go means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to realities which may shape us, and it will perhaps open us to the chaos we fear so much… Finally, this requires us to face our fear that death will be the extinction of the self. That requires the ultimate act of trust and Christian faith. However unwilling we may be to ‘go gentle into that dark night’, faith is to surrender ourselves even now into that which, then, we shall be unable to control. Faith is the letting go into an unknown which will be a birthing more awe-full and more fully life-giving than our first ejection from the womb into the light of day.

Andrew Norman, Learn to Be at Peace: The Practice of Stillness

It seems quite hard sometimes, writing a blog such as this, to find the right tone. I never set out to write one of those confessional blogs, full of day-to-day details of my emotional life and my intimate relationships. But this isn’t a technical blog either, constrained to facts, and opinions about facts. Sometimes I can’t write about the interior life without mentioning aspects of my own life that would be simpler not mentioned at all.

Recently I suffered a minor heart attack, and while medically it was – for someone living, in the 21st century, just across the road from a major hospital – no big deal, it was a disconcerting experience, and one which raised more questions than it appeared to answer. I found, in common with many patients such as myself, that the immediate aftermath of the episode was a strange flat depression, which made it all but impossible to write, or indeed to want to write. It was made somehow more obscure by that fact that, since I am already on the waiting list for an interventional procedure to treat the underlying problem, I found myself in a kind of a medical limbo. I needed to be careful not to make matters worse, and so, while I was relatively restricted in my normal activities, I hadn’t really anything definite to do.

Now that I have a date, next month, for the procedure, I seem to be able to look back over events, trying perhaps to make some kind of sense of the experience itself. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve encountered my own mortality before, and I have found that frailty is only one side of the coin. Reality is not what it seems. That in each of us which is love itself is beyond all the dimensions of time and matter, beyond the reach of thought. Bur it is precisely in this being beyond the reach of thought, even of conscious experience, that hope lies hidden. Unknowing extends beyond a few minutes of sitting quietly. It, itself no thing, underlies all things. It is the unseen source of all that is, and the surest refuge.

Here in Advent all we can do comes down to waiting. Darkness is heavy over the land, and tonight the fog is coming down. Through the bare trees beyond this lighted window the little distances are closing in. What we cannot see, what we have not heard, waits under the dark as it has always done. The dark has not overcome it. In the love that is its light is the seed of Christ, who comes in the shadow of the womb’s pulse long days before birth. Isaac Penington knew this:

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.

Quaker faith & practice 26.70

A ministry of electrons and distance…

These days I often find myself excited by something I’m reading – currently it’s Amos Smith’s Healing the Divide: Recovering Christianity’s Mystic Roots – and yet unable to bring myself to blog about it here. Recently a commenter on one of the Quaker Facebook groups referred to this blog as “a ministry”. If that is the case, then my inability to casually share things I’ve been reading, chat about the weather, and so on, makes a kind of sense.

Ministry is an interesting concept in the life of Friends. Vocal ministry in meeting is understood to be the preserve of the Spirit, where, if all goes well:

All true ministry springs from the reality of experience, and uses our gifts of heart and mind in its expression. But ministry is not the place for intellectual exercise. It comes through us, not from us. Although we interpret the Spirit it is that Spirit which will lead us to minister. The Spirit will decide which experiences are relevant and which will speak to the condition of the meeting. If you have to decide whether it is right to speak, consider that it isn’t. If your words are important the meeting will find them anyway.

QFP 2.60

But Jon Watts, interestingly, has a long post in which he discusses ministry in its wider context:

Our goal is to allow God to lead our congregation, and to decide our business. We can each be a channel for the voice of the Spirit, if we listen and humble ourselves.

Thus our congregation is traditionally not led by a single minister on 1st day mornings, but instead we wait until God selects the minister. Who will stand up this Sunday and be filled with the Spirit’s message? We don’t pretend to know…

Once upon a time Quakers used the term “Recorded Minister” to denote a “male or female Quaker who was acknowledged to have a gift of spoken ministry.” But who, in the age of the internet, might acknowledge, or record, the call to blog?

What I seem to be finding is that the impulse, for want of a better word, to write things down here is not unlike the impulse to record them in a spiritual journal – which I suppose makes sense in the context of the derivation of the word blog from weblog – and yet there is the aspect of communication, exactly as in spoken ministry, where:

Worship is the response of the human spirit to the presence of the divine and eternal, to the God who first seeks us. The sense of wonder and awe of the finite before the infinite leads naturally to thanksgiving and adoration.

Silent worship and the spoken word are both parts of Quaker ministry. The ministry of silence demands the faithful activity of every member in the meeting. As, together, we enter the depths of a living silence, the stillness of God, we find one another in ‘the things that are eternal’, upholding and strengthening one another.

QFP 2.01

You, reader, and I are not in meeting together. Our hearts don’t share the same silence, the Spirit is not leading us both in the same space, and yet the act of reading links us. We are, I suppose, Friends, despite the few or many miles that may separate us on the surface of the globe. Perhaps my own silence, here by the window looking out over the garden, and the trees screening the reservoir beyond just as evening darkens towards a summer night, may touch your own in a way we don’t understand, but which may have to do with your own openness quite as much as my stillness, watching shreds of cloud above the restless branches…

Maybe we do share a blessing, some act of grace that links us both in this other space. Maybe such things do hallow the electronic expanse we share, heal and repurpose that network, so that the Spirit links us with tongues not of fire but of electrons and distance, and the breath of a midsummer’s day slowly ending…

Worship, Prayer and Social Media

I have been interested to read contributions from Friends recently (flagged up by Craig Barnett on the Quaker Renewal Facebook Group) about faith and social media – like Facebook, Twitter, or this blog, I suppose – and the implications of online culture for our worship and our sense of community. There have been excellent contributions from, among others, Rhiannon Grant, Michael Booth and pilgrim52.

It is in this last blog post that the following paragraph occurs:

… Quaker worship is so important. In Quaker worship, one day out of 7, we are supposed to sit in silence and come face to face with all that tries to take our attention away from loving our neighbours, caring for and nurturing our families, taking care of the poor and needy, and yes, loving ourselves. We are to face our limits and realize what a poor imitation we make of trying to stay relevant to a social audience. We spend money to make ourselves more conspicuous, sexier, and younger. Always desiring an audience will temporarily fill us with satisfaction, but it will leave us wishing for more and is never ultimately satisfying. How scary it is to give all that up and face who we really are when no one is watching, but I would offer: how more fulfilling! We might even be more creative.

I am struck, of course, by pilgrim52’s remarks on humility (I have written about this myself elsewhere) but it is her mention of our facing our own limits “one day out of 7” that caught my attention, as you might expect from my last couple of posts.

In his 1985 Swarthmore Lecture, Steps in a Large Room, Christopher Holdsworth writes:

It may seem otiose, if not downright stupid, to talk to Friends about silence. We alone (we sometimes think) among Christians regularly use it in our corporate worship … But, although we use silence as the medium through which we become aware of the divine presence … there are many indications … that we do not make a quiet place in our daily lives.

We need both worship and prayer in our lives. They are not the same thing, and they cannot replace one another. I for one can’t survive a whole week on the remembered presence of God in Sunday’s worship – whether in silence or in ministry – and yet I know that I need my Friends in Meeting to worship with, not only because worship is a thing we do together, but because their different personalities, the different ways they experience and express their encounter with the Light, keep me sane and grounded where I might too easily become victim to what would in the 18th century have been known as religious enthusiasm!

Prayer, by which I mean a regular, intentional practice of seeking God, is essential not only to our own life and growth in the Spirit, but to our community, as Christopher Holdsworth (op. cit.) wrote: “I am convinced that the vitality and practical effectiveness of our Society, as of any other church, is directly related to the degree to which each of us manages to find time to explore our inner space during the week.” Rhiannon Grant has more on our own personal spiritual practice, together with some useful book recommendations, here, and Stephanie Grant has a moving and practical description of her own practice here.

Social media tend, for all their usefulness, to work against humility and the solitude in which prayer and silence grow.  We need, as pilgrim52 points out, to learn to be nobody in particular. Hiddenness and ordinariness are the fertile soil in which our spiritual lives grow, and we need somehow to reconcile this fact with the imperative to communicate our faith and our discoveries in the land of the Spirit.

Elsewhere on her blog, pilgrim52 quotes Ben Pink Dandelion quoting Ray Stephenson:

[Discernment] means accepting great risk, because what a situation needs could mean self-sacrifice, and we are loath to open ourselves to that. Even Jesus in Gethsemane found that hard: no wonder it was said that he sweated blood. But his final prayer there –  ‘not my will but thine’ – feels like the ultimate example of a prayer of discernment. It implies a total laying-aside of self; yet Jesus wouldn’t be Jesus without this crucifixion of personal wants. This example matters, because it is true for every one of us. We all need the humility, and the courage, to lay self aside and make space for the Divine to do its work. Then we will be our true selves, and yet enable something greater than ourselves.

If we can begin to do this – and I think we shall need all the resourses of both worship and prayer at our disposal – then we may be able to navigate the treacherous waters of the social media just as early Friends negotiated the opportunities and the whirlpools of the young medium of print. Pilgrim52 reminds us of Elizabeth Fry’s remarks,

My life has been one of great vicissitude: mine has been a hidden path, hidden from every human eye. I have had deep humiliations and sorrows to pass through. I can truly say I have ‘wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way, and found no city to dwell in’; and yet how wonderfully I have been sustained. I have passed through many and great dangers, many ways – I have been tried with the applause of the world, and none know how great a trial that has been, and the deep humiliations of it; and yet I fully believe it is not nearly so dangerous as being made much of in religious society. There is a snare even in religious unity, if we are not on the watch. I have sometimes felt that it was not so dangerous to be made much of in the world, as by those whom we think highly of in our own Society: the more I have been made much of by the world, the more I have been inwardly humbled. I could often adopt the words of Sir Francis Bacon – ‘When I have ascended before men, I have descended in humiliation before God.’

Elizabeth Fry, 1844, Quaker Faith & Practice 21.09

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.

The name of God

[Reblogged in its entirety from Transition Quaker by Craig Barnett]

The name of God can be used to freeze our wonder, to make a comforting and useful idol, or it can be the opposite: a name that opens into continuing mystery.  (Thomas Moore, The Soul of Religion)

We all know God the idol; all-seeing, omnipotent, angry and male. For some, wounded by authoritarian religious upbringings or in flight from evangelical burnout, perhaps this is the only meaning the word ‘God’ can have for them, and in that case they may do well to leave it behind.

Some of us, fortunate enough to have avoided the crushing of our religious imagination by fundamentalism, have come to understand God as a ‘name that opens into continuing mystery’.

The Quaker Way is part of a current of religious mysticism that has always acknowledged the limits of language to describe reality. Throughout history, people of all religions and cultures have experienced God not as a supernatural being ‘out there’, but as an indwelling presence, an inward guide, or a source of inner healing and transformation. This mystical understanding is not marginal to traditional religion. It is shared by influential figures such as Rumi in Islam, Gandhi in Hinduism, and Christians such as Julian of Norwich, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton and countless others.

For many Quakers today, this mystical understanding of God has been forgotten, and ‘God language’ is identified with the most conservative and simplistic Christian teaching. Even the idea of ‘believing in’ the existence of God makes the concept of God into an intellectual proposition rather than an experiential reality. Once we start discussing whether we believe in some ‘thing’ out there called God, we have lost sight of the point of the word, which is not to name some hypothetical being, but to point towards an experience of reality that cannot be fully captured in words.

It is difficult to speak about God these days, because people immediately ask you if a God exists. This means that the symbol of God is no longer working. Instead of pointing beyond itself to an ineffable reality, the humanly conceived construct that we call ‘God’ has become the end of the story.

(Karen Armstrong, The Case for God)

The concepts of spiritual reality that people find helpful or intellectually convincing will vary from person to person, depending on our differing experiences and tendencies of thought. These differences reflect alternative perspectives on the same ultimately nameless reality. Framing these differences in terms of ‘theism’ versus ‘nontheism’ is irrelevant and unhelpful. It is unimportant whether someone describes themselves as a ‘theist’ or ‘nontheist’, because these are matters of intellectual belief, or ‘notions’. The Quaker Way is not grounded in beliefs, which have no power to help or to change us. It is a matter of practice; looking deeply and attentively at the reality of our experience and allowing ourselves to be guided and transformed by what we discover there. The only genuinely important question from the point of view of this practice is whether we can experience a spiritual reality that is independent of our own desires and decisions.

There are many Friends who find the concept of an omnipotent personal God intellectually impossible or unhelpful, but who know themselves to be profoundly held by a deeper reality, or part of a greater interconnected Universe, which they might call by a range of names or have no words for at all. There are other Friends who argue that there is no such thing as any spiritual dimension of reality; only human values and concepts. For them, religious language can have at most only a metaphorical meaning as a way of talking about our own personal values. The principal spokesperson for this view is David Boulton, who writes of his own experience:

I have never, since I ceased to be a child in the mid 1950s, been persuaded of the reality of supernatural forces or dimensions, even when they are smuggled in under such euphemisms as “transcendence”, “the numinous”, “the divine”, or “the mystical”. 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 fully understand that belief in a transcendent realm and a transcendent god as the guarantors of meaning and purpose have inspired millions. They do not inspire me. Instead, they seem to me illusions we can well do without, and I find myself raging at the toxic effects of literal, uncritical belief in divine guidance, divine purpose, divine reward and punishment.

(David Boulton – ‘Quaker Identity and the Heart of our Faith’)

Friends who describe themselves as ‘nontheist’ in this thorough-going materialist sense, reject the possibility of experiencing a spiritual reality that is independent of human choices and values. Instead, according to David Boulton, ‘God becomes for us the imagined symbol of the human values that we recognise as making an ultimate claim upon us.’ For them, the Religious Society of Friends is a diverse community based on shared values which is (or should be) equally accepting of every form of belief or theological opinion. This is the point of view expressed by a reader of this blog in a comment on last month’s post:

Nontheist Friends have difficulties talking about discernment as “finding the will of God”. Can we phrase it in a way which is acceptable to Christians, Nontheists, and all the other theological positions to be found within our Yearly Meeting?

This request, and the similar ones being heard on all sides within Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment, has a straightforward appeal as a claim to fairness. Given that there are now many Friends who don’t believe in God, surely it is time to drop the use of ‘God language’ that is only meaningful to ‘theists’, and substitute some other word that is more universally acceptable?

Those nontheist Friends who argue in this way are like people who have joined a mountaineering club from a love of the history of mountaineering, the social gatherings and interesting equipment, but who are not willing to go climbing themselves. While accepting that some ‘mountainists’ still claim to enjoy climbing, these ‘non-mountainist’ members politely request that the club cease to describe its principal activity as mountaineering, and instead adopt more universally acceptable language.

The purpose of a mountaineering club is to climb mountains. The purpose of the Religious Society of Friends is to follow the guidance of the Spirit. All of us have inherited Quakerism as a living tradition of religious practice. Whatever good it has achieved in the past is a result of Friends’ willingness to be led and shaped by the Inward Light. In becoming members we have accepted a responsibility to be faithful to the guidance of the Spirit, and so to preserve Quakerism as a living Way for others. This is not a matter of words. It doesn’t matter whether we call that source of inward guidance God, the Light or anything else. What does matter is that we are willing to be guided by a spiritual reality that is not dependent on our own choices and values.

The existence of this spiritual reality is not primarily a matter of belief, but of experience; either we know it by our own experience or we don’t. Clearly many contemporary Quakers do not know it by experience and therefore have no adequate reason to believe in it. In response to this, rather than changing the purpose of the Religious Society of Friends, we might do better to encourage each other to make use of the spiritual disciplines that Quakers have practised to experience spiritual reality for ourselves. Once we encounter it we will know for ourselves that it doesn’t matter what words we use, because any concepts can only point towards the experience of this reality, without defining or describing it:

Reality is finally mysterious. Our little word ‘God’ tries to name that mystery… It points but it does not describe. It offers no concepts or images that enable us to grasp the reality in our minds. It can only invite us to look and to see for ourselves.

(Rex Ambler, The Quaker Way – a rediscovery)

I am keen to hear readers’ views on the points made in this post. Is it a fair reflection of the views of those who describe themselves as ‘nontheists’ (in any sense)? Is it possible to reclaim the word ‘God’ from fundamentalism, or do we need to substitute a less misunderstood word, such as ‘Light’, ‘Spirit’ or something else?