Category Archives: Compassion

Trust in me?

Trust – it’s a word we’re not used to using in this century. We are taught to distrust politicians, the media, big business, the police, odd emails we receive, each other…

Sometimes this distrust is justified; often it really is not. But what is really problematic is the image we have in our minds of what it might mean to be trustful: gauche, credulous, unworldly, un-streetwise. And of course this extends beyond our dealings with authorities, tradespeople, service providers, to far deeper situations: marriage, parenthood, church – above all our trust in God. Mistrust then becomes a corrosive thing, a poison to all that is good and true in relationship.

The Apostle Paul writes:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12.13-21

Jesus trusted God, even to the Cross and beyond, as we hear in Matthew’s Gospel (27.41-43), “In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.”’

What are we to lose, by trusting those we love? (And remember Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mt. 22.39))

Clearly, this does not extend to emails beginning “My dear excellency, concerning your lotery winings”, nor to people who might be following on streets after dark. But to trust those whom we do hold in relationship is to be human. To treat one’s spouse as unfaithful until proved otherwise would be the end of any marriage…

Spiritual masters or guides… warn and caution their pupils against inappropriate teachings and practices; at the same time, the spiritual master leads his or her pupil into the life of prayer by example, heart to heart, seeking always the guidance of the Holy Spirit…

No doubt the ideal picture of a mystic has already been voiced by Jesus of Nazareth in his sermon on the mount. Such a radically virtuous and holy person is true in heart, peace loving, a peacemaker, poor in spirit, willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake, loving to God and neighbour. This is the compassionate person, who, when asked for his shirt, offers his cloak also… He or she is childlike, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Emilie Griffin, Wonderful and Dark is the Road

The inability to trust seems to me to be a critical sickness of our time. As a society we are suffering from a known psychological problem: “Being unable to trust can destroy friendships, careers, and marriages, but fortunately, learning to trust again is not impossible…”

John’s Gospel (14.1) records Jesus as saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” How can our hearts have anything but trouble, if we cannot trust? (And trust is a synonym for belief.)

If once we can allow ourselves truly to encounter God, in the silence or in the sacraments, as Paul found on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) everything changes. The living God is light, love, mercy, truth, beyond the possibility of mistrust. All we need to do is come…

Longing love

It was only when I heard the definition of prayer as ‘attention’ that it began to have some meaning for me. As the French mystic Simone Weil wrote: ‘Prayer… is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God.’ I began to see prayer as an act of faith and will. Preparing myself, opening myself to God’s will, and making myself a channel for God’s love. It is a passive state and sometimes less like praying and more like being prayed through… An act of intention, it includes adoration, wonder and contemplation.

Twelve Quakers and Prayer (No.2)

It is hard, sometimes, to find a Quaker paradigm for prayer. Advanced patterns of language to allow us to think about prayer can be found in many religious traditions, where prayer as generally practiced by Quakers is often referred to as mystical or contemplative prayer. (This is discussed at length in the opening sections of David Johnson’s excellent book A Quaker Prayer Life). Part of the difficulty, it seems to me, is that, as I wrote earlier, prayer is so often understood as petitioning a reluctant God to grant the pray-er some favour. The anonymous second Friend quoted above writes,

Praying for things, for ourselves or for others, praying that our wishes be fulfilled, no longer made sense to me. How would I know what to wish for? Who am I to think that I know it? Asking for an outcome makes an assumption about my own knowledge and expresses my need to be in control. Hard as it may be, a difficult situation may be just what is needed for spiritual growth, and indeed, recognition of that helps me consider difficulties to be learning opportunities…

The idea of praying for someone or something, when we might consider that all is known to God in any case, seems unhelpful… We do not pray to affect God, but that we ourselves may be changed in the process. It is an act of sharing with God, not an attempt to prompt God into action. It is a holding in the Light, both inward and outward. We pray not to God for others, but for God for them.

For me, prayer is not a matter of reason or invention, but merely of longing love. All our means and methods of prayer amount to no more than getting the selfish mind out of the way of that longing love, so that that love can flow both ways, to and from all that we mean by “God”, and so too through our own compassionate longing to the least of our fellow creatures, human or otherwise. The heart’s prayer can’t be any less than this.

Prayer changes everything?

It seems to me that prayer is a word that still gives pause to Friends, as it does sometimes to those who have no religious background, or any! Prayer appears to imply – etymologically if in no other way (the word is derived from the Latin precari “ask earnestly, beg, entreat”) – asking of some authority that our desires might be granted, our pain eased, our fears assuaged.

But Quakers don’t believe in that kind of a God. Stephen Fry says he doesn’t, and many Christians would agree with him. So where does that leave prayer, or those of us for whom prayer is as deep and irresistible an impulse as breathing?

If prayer as presenting our requests to God is problematic, how much more might be contemplative prayer, a practice which amounts to – again doing a bit of etymological unpacking – spending “time with” God?

Michael Ramsey once wrote, “Mystical experience is given to some, but contemplation is for all Christians… [It] means essentially our being with God, putting ourselves in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart.”

If God is love, and it seems there is no other way to understand this God word anyhow, then God knows what will heal our broken hearts, and the wounds of those for whom we ourselves feel love. Spending time with God is then somehow indivisible from a kind of helpless love that arises when we look at the suffering of the innocent, human and other, no less than at the hearts of those who cause suffering, through cruelty, greed or ignorance.

But in its helplessness, this love is anything but helpless. This comes very close to a vision of the Cross. If ever there was a helpless man, it was Jesus crucified; yet Paul was able to write, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

That prayer changes us is undeniable. That prayer changes everything is the mercy of Christ.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…

Explaining Prayer?

I have been trying to find my way recently through a thicket of thoughts about prayer. Prayer has been so important to me in my Christian life – the central calling, as I have felt – that it is really quite hard for me to look at it at all objectively.

Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to know how things worked. Not just the mechanics of things, but what was at the heart of them, what “made them tick”. I am still that way. I find it hard to pray unless I have an idea, a theory, of how prayer works.

To be honest, I am not sure if this is possible. There are many models used by different people at different times to try and explain how prayer works, from “asking big daddy in the sky,” to making oneself, one’s own will and capacities, available to God for his will and purposes. Asking “in Jesus’ name” too has come to complicate the understanding of prayer, it then being necessary to point out that this is not a magical formula, but is in fact praying according to God’s will, with the same obedience to that will that Jesus himself showed forth.

Paul, of course, came closest to my own experience when he wrote,

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8.26-27)

If God is spirit, eternally and universally present and yet beyond time and space, then he/she/it is not “a person” as we understand the word “person” at all. Just as God is not a thing, but No Thing, isness itself, God is as far beyond our human concept of personhood as humanity is beyond algae, quite possibly further.

We know the trace of God in the human heart, the light (John 1.5) in the eyes of each of us, in the eyes (Psalm 104.27-30) of those who are not human, too.

In 1656 George Fox wrote,

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.

“That of God in every one.” If there is that of God even in me, then if I come into his presence, as Michael Ramsey wrote in Canterbury Pilgrim, with the needs – and the pain, and the longing – of the world on my heart, how can God, as Ground of Being, not bring good, healing (Romans 8.28) to those women, men, animals, all creation, whom I love as best I know how to love?

John Woolman, too, saw this:

I was early convinced in my mind that true religion consisted in an inward life wherein the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learns to exercise true justice and goodness not only toward all men but also toward the brute creation; that as the mind was moved on an inward principle to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible being, on the same principle it was moved to love him in all his manifestations in the visible world; that as by his breath the flame of life was kindled in all animal and sensitive creatures, to say we love God… and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature… was a contradiction in itself.

Quaker Faith & Practice 25.05

[An earlier version of this post appeared on my previous blog, The Mercy Blog, in April 2013]

Love seems to be the quality of death

A friend told me of a recent experience she had. After reading a story of a saint who had tried to live every day as if it was the last day of his life, she decided it would be interesting to try doing this herself. And so, that evening, as she got into bed, she began to plan her last day on earth. She thought about what she would do, whom she would see, whom she would ask to forgive her, to whom she would say goodbye. She began to feel quite sorry for herself, and even reduced herself to tears, but in the end she realised she was just playing a game, so she gave it up and went to sleep.

The next morning, however, as she woke up, a very clear thought came into her mind. “What would I do,” she asked herself, “if I knew that I was dying now, this minute, that I had only a few more seconds to live?” Suddenly it was no longer a game. She was really there, at the End, alone, and there was no time left to prepare or plan. There was nothing she could do or undo. And the most astonishing thing was, she said, that after a split second of panic she knew exactly what she must do. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” she heard herself cry.

The experience was, my friend believed, one of the greatest graces she had ever received. She realised that, for her, there was only one way of dying, and one way of “practising” it: to throw herself into the arms of God, not only at the end of life, but every day, and cry for mercy. To do it so insistently, so constantly, that the prayer that came to her spontaneously at the moment of her “death experience”, as she called it, would become a ceaseless prayer of the heart, that it would shape her life as well as her death.

Irma Zaleski, Door to Eternity

Some readers might find this almost a sick, perverse little story, thinking that a mature faith should “stand on [its] own two feet before God”, and that the whole enterprise of imagining one’s own death was macabre, medieval, pathological. But I can assure you that there is nothing pathological about the nearness of death. It is a place to which each and every one of us will come, sooner or later, with no exception at all. The sooner we get used to it, the better, actually, it will be for us. I have been profoundly grateful for the couple of times I have found myself facing the probability of my own death. It is a clean place, oddly a place of great freedom and peace; but it is not, as Zaleski’s friend discovered, remotely a game.

Mercy is a word many misunderstand. Irma Zaleski again:

We tend to think of the mercy of God as his “pity” for us, for which we have to beg, for which we have to humiliate ourselves and wait trembling and afraid. This is an awful distortion of the Good News… To ask for mercy is not to cringe in self-abasement or fear, but to look towards God in trust and hope. Mercy is a “summary” of all we know or need to know about God’s love for us.

Love seems to be the quality of death. The Buddhist psychologist Kathleen Dowling Singh has written extensively on death and the dying process, chiefly in her wonderful book The Grace in Dying. She writes,

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.

This is what Zaleski, I believe, is getting at. Certainly it is what I am getting at. To practice for death 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 – and it is not so far from the self-abandonment of contemplation – then that gracious power of “loving-kindness, compassion, presence… mercy and confidence” will have the chance to manifest in our very lives, poured out for those the Way places in our path.

Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and then doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the Light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes.

George Fox, 1652

The consequences of love and compassion?

I was early convinced in my mind that true religion consisted in an inward life wherein the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learns to exercise true justice and goodness not only toward all men but also toward the brute creation; that as the mind was moved on an inward principle to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible being, on the same principle it was moved to love him in all his manifestations in the visible world; that as by his breath the flame of life was kindled in all animal and sensitive creatures, to say we love God … and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature … was a contradiction in itself.

John Woolman, 1772

If it is right that we should show love and compassion for people, surely it is right that we should extend our love and compassion to animals, who can feel fear and experience pain in much the same way as humans. They may not be able to speak, but we can certainly see fear in their eyes and demeanour. I feel that being a vegetarian is a natural progression from being a pacifist and a Quaker.

Vera Haley, 1988

I have been troubled for years over this question of vegetarianism. For much of my life of course I worked with dairy herds, and believed strongly, and thoughtfully, in what I was doing. Contrary to some more extreme vegan opinion, cows are well cared for on most British dairy farms, and on the whole are loved by those who look after them. And yet it cannot be denied that the dairy industry depends upon the slaughter of animals: on the slaughter of bull calves (whether as calves or after rearing to 18 months or two years as beef animals), on the slaughter of “cull cows”, those too old or unfit to carry on bearing a calf each year and doing the undoubtedly hard work of giving milk twice (or occasionally three times) a day for 305 days a year.

Much the British landscape we cherish as natural is in fact formed by grazing sheep and cattle. The rolling downland and the open moors alike would be scrubland were it not for livestock. Thousands upon thousands of acres of hill farm are only productive due to the grazing of animals.

(I don’t propose here to go into the vexed environmental questions of land use, water consumption, methane production, and the relative merits of animal waste, green manure, and artificial fertilisers. There are many good arguments on each side; all that needs saying here is that the British livestock industry does think about these things, and much work is being done, especially on the increasing number of organic farms, to minimise the adverse, and increase the beneficial environmental effects of the industry.)

I find though that increasingly I cannot see “the animal kingdom” as something separate from humanity, over which we have some kind of inalienable right. Sentimentality helps no-one here, not the petting-zoo nor the noble-hunter variety, nor even the animal-rights-extremist kind. We do owe to our sister and brother animals our love and compassion, and it is hard to understand much of the work of commercial slaughterhouses in terms of love and compassion. The longer I go on with contemplative practice, the closer I find myself to all sentient creatures, from those we see as “less evolved”, like insects and spiders, to the higher mammals, and all in between. I don’t feel I can sidestep, or ignore, these things; but equally I can’t evade thinking, and feeling, and praying, them through by signing on any party line, whether vegan or the opposite. (Incidentally, ovo-lacto-vegetarianism makes no sense to me – see my own first paragraph above.)

I suppose I shall have to go on trying to work this through. Your prayers would be appreciated, though – it is getting to be an urgent and painful pressure. Somehow I must reconcile my ever-growing heart of compassion for my fellow creatures with what I know to be true about the way we find the food on which we, such numbers of us, live.

Outside Help…

“You got to help me… I can’t do it all by myself…” These words from Sonny Boy Williamson II’s ‘Help Me’ sum up, really, what I have discovered about prayer.

In Shin Buddhism, the terms jiriki and tariki are often used – the former implying the belief that liberation may be obtained by one’s own efforts (as in, say, Zen Buddhism) and the latter complete reliance on a power outside of oneself for salvation. But whatever one’s faith background, all religious practice ultimately boils down to one or the other of these assumptions.

The Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner“, is at root a prayer of surrender, of reliance upon God. It carries within it blind Bartimaeus’ recognition that he could do nothing to help himself (Mark 10.46-52) but that his only refuge was the mercy of Jesus.

Identifying Jesus as Lord, i.e. as source of power, we take refuge by turning to him, to his power, for mercy. By saying “a sinner”, we are not engaging in some act of self-flagellation, but merely acknowledging our helplessness, our inability to do anything from an entirely pure motive, anything, in fact, to help ourselves.

Emilia Fogelklou, the great Swedish Quaker theologian, wrote (speaking of herself in the third person):

But then one bright spring day – it was the 29th of May 1902 – while she sat preparing for her class under the trees in the backyard of Föreningsgatan 6, quietly, invisibly, there occurred the central event of her whole life. Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ‘empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.

The first words which came to her – although they took a long time to come – were, ‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ The child who had cried out in anguish and been silenced had now come inside the gates of Light. She had been delivered by a love that is greater than any human love. Struck dumb, amazed, she went quietly to her class, wondering that no one noticed that something had happened to her.

Quaker Faith & Practice 26.05