Category Archives: Contemplation

Sinking Down

We understand the Bible as a record arising from… struggles to comprehend God’s ways with people. The same Spirit which inspired the writers of the Bible is the Spirit which gives us understanding of it… (London Yearly Meeting 1986 – Quaker faith & practice 27.34)

We do Scripture, and ourselves, a disservice if we read it as a manual of instructions, or else simply as a history book. The reach of the Bible is vast in terms both of its chronological scope and its range of purposes. What is consistent is its record of people’s encounters with God; the terms in which they express them are drawn inevitably from the the societies in which they lived, societies very different from our own.

When we pick up the Bible we can be greatly helped by the apparatus of Biblical criticism, and still more by Biblical theology, but the study of Scripture is only a small part of our own encounter with it. George Boobyer, Qfp 27.30:

An intelligent analytical and critical approach [to the Bible] has its rightful place. We then stand over the Bible as subjects investigating an object. An inversion of this subject–object relationship is, however, possible. We then approach the Bible not mainly to criticise, but to listen; not merely to question, but to be challenged, and to open our lives penitentially both to its judgments and to its liberating gospel.

Pathways to God are many and varied. Friends, however, along with a great company of other seekers, have been able to testify that this receptive personal response to the biblical message, and especially to the call of Jesus, leads to joyous self-fulfilling life, and to a redemptive awareness of the love and glory of God.

It is this prayerful approach to the Bible that allows the healing touch of God’s word to unknot our hearts, that dissolves our separateness from people, from creatures living and otherwise, from God. To sit still with a passage of Scripture, really still, may be transforming.

There is an ancient practice, known as Lectio divina, that is a formal way of doing just this. Of course it is not necessary to follow a formal pattern at all, so long as we are aware what we are doing, and do it deliberately; but it is vitally helpful to understand how others over many years (since c. 300 AD) have approached the Bible in order to encounter God. Basically, it may be likened to first, the taking of a bite, a short passage, of Scripture (reading); then chewing on it (meditation); savouring its essence (prayer) and, finally, “digesting” it and allowing it to make itself a part of the body (contemplation).

Jean Khoury writes (Lectio DivinaCTS 2006)

God’s action in us does not take place on the surface. It is oriented towards the depths. This action infiltrates our deepest being and frees it, making it subtle and deifying it. This is why deep silent prayer, mental prayer, is founded on lectio; precisely because lectio opens up the way for God so that he may go ever deeper in us through mental prayer. The effort of lectio opens the door to the divine beam of contemplation…

This is a process not at all unlike the stillness we find in meeting for worship. We are relinquishing, once we have reached the stage of contemplation, our own will and our own critical faculties, and allowing the seed that has been sown in us to grow and breathe and act in us – cf. Isaac Penington, Qfp 26.70:

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.

Blessed

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
From the house of the Lord we bless you.
The Lord is God,
and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will praise you;
you are my God, and I will exalt you.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures for ever.

Psalm 118.26-29 NIV

Today is the day known as Palm Sunday in the calendars of the liturgical churches, when Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, (Matthew 21.1-11) is remembered in readings and the Eucharist. Only a few days later he was to be crucified, having been hailed as, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…”

The name of the Lord is the name of God, the Tetragrammaton, the pulse that underlies being itself, and in this name we encounter Christ (John 1.1ff) Michael Lewis puts it like this: “The name of Jesus is the image of the ineffable Name, just as Jesus is the Image of the invisible God.” (The Name of God: The Revelation of the Merciful Presence of God)

Advices and queries 4 reads,

The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus. How do you interpret your faith in the light of this heritage? How does Jesus speak to you today? Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action? Are you learning from his life the reality and cost of obedience to God? How does his relationship with God challenge and inspire you?

Ben Wood, in a long post, Spiritual Practice with Jesus & Mary Oliver, which I’d strongly recommend you click through and read in its entirety:

If Jesus is the model we should have in mind, what do the Gospels tell us about him? What kind of practical action did he favour?  Principally, Christlike action begins, not with an esoteric notion of spiritual practice, but with attentiveness… [Jesus] was soaked in every deep structure of the human experience, not by transcending his time and place, but by sinking down into it. Begin at home, he seems to say. You cannot find love and grace through novelty or travel. Only stillness and rootedness will do…

When we seek to find the bottomless meaning in every moment: in a spider’s web caught by the sun, in the face of another, the deep grey of the sky; there is the Kingdom. We need not leave home to be spiritually at home. We need not go far to be in the arms of love.

To remain still is hard, when our worship, whether filled with the sound and poetry of the Palm Sunday liturgy, or in the silence of Meeting, is made impossible in fellowship and sharing by the necessary isolation of life in a pandemic, and we itch and squirm with anxiety and the frustrated impulse to “do something, anything!” But it is only in the stillness and in the staying put that we hear the name of God, in the echo of the chasms between the particles that dance in the atoms of all that is.

Little Things

Thankfulness works in the Christian community as it usually does in the Christian life. Only those who give thanks for the little things receive the great things as well. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts prepared for us because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think that we should not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be seeking the great gifts. Then we complain that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experiences that God has given to other Christians, and we consider these complaints to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the small (and yet really not so small!) gifts we receive daily. How can God entrust great things to those who will not gratefully receive the little things from God’s hand?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

This is a passage that should, I think, be read and re-read by those of us who are involved in any way in the contemplative life. We are all so deeply infected, from childhood if not before, with our culture’s ideals of progress and achievement, that we find it all but impossible to accept that our “daily gifts” are enough, are really God’s good and sufficient gifts for the life of prayer into which we have been called; and we continually abandon them in favour of fantasies of a spiritual life we imagine somewhere out beyond us, on some higher level to which we should aspire.

These things are not God’s way, I feel. God calls us in the little things, in the touch of the moving air, bird-shadows on cropped grass, in the quiet places; what he may call us to may be equally unspectacular, or it may be some far more public action or communication. That is not so much a matter of our choice, but of discernment.

I sometimes dislike using the term “mystic” or “mystical” to describe the life of inner prayer. Quite apart from any woo-woo connotations, it can seem to imply someone special, a guru of sorts, set apart from ordinary people and their lives. Contemplative prayer, whether done corporately in meeting for worship or in the silence of one’s own room, is none of those things. If it is a hidden path, it is one hidden in plain sight, and those who follow it are – they are, they don’t just appear to be – profoundly ordinary people, with ordinary lives apart from their inescapable calling to the interior life.

Henri Nouwen wrote,

Hiddenness is an essential quality of the spiritual life. Solitude, silence, ordinary tasks, being with people without great agendas, sleeping, eating, working, playing … all of that without being different from others, that is the life that Jesus lived and the life he asks us to live. It is in hiddenness that we, like Jesus, can increase “in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people” (Luke 2.51). It is in hiddenness that we can find a true intimacy with God and a true love for people.

This ordinary hiddenness is the natural home of one called to the life of prayer: not the mountain top, not the university (unless she happens to be an academic) nor the monastery (unless he happens to be a monk) but the ordinary occasions of life among others, the quietness of simple things, the lives of the sparrows in the shrubbery, the wren in the hedge.

[Some parts of this post were first published in another form on The Mercy Blog]

Without Assurance

In her little book Practical Mystics, Jennifer Kavanagh quotes Rufus Jones’ definition of mysticism as “the attitude of mind which comes into correspondence with a spiritual world-order which is felt to be as real as the visible one.”

This comes very close to my own experience; what I have loved above all about the Quaker way is this sense of practical, hands-on, experimental mysticism. To the extent that it roots itself, and all its works, in such an experimental faith, it seems to me, Quakerism does well; to the extent that it does not, it outruns its Guide, basing its actions and pronouncements merely on our own limited human notions of right and wrong, and of social or political expediency.

Charles F Carter (Qfp 26.39) wrote in 1971:

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?

In another book of hers, A Little Book of Unknowing, Jennifer Kavanagh writes:

…Faith is not about certainty, but about trust…

We have seen that there is little about which we can be certain. Certainty may be undermined by limitations of the current state of knowledge; the subjective nature of experience; the fluid quality of the material world; or the intervention of unforeseen events. But beyond these aspects of the world about which we often assume knowledge, there is a dimension of life to which rational explanation simply doesn’t apply. Most people would admit that there is much that we cannot apprehend through reason or through the senses. We might know a fact with our brains, but not be able to understand what it means, to fully experience its reality – the age of a star or the trillions of connections within the human brain – some things are too big, too complex, for us to conceive. Einstein, who knew a thing or two about factual knowledge, felt that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. There is a dimension which co-exists with the material, rationally grounded world, is not in opposition to it or threatened by scientific development but happily stands alone in the context of everything else. This is the world of religious experience.

This, it seems to me, is crucial. Unknowing is essential to true faith, and indispensable for any kind of practical experience of the Light. When we tie ourselves down with dogmatic statements and attitudes, be they overly literal interpretations of historical creeds, or uncompromising assertions of some atheist position or other, we close the door on the Spirit, cutting off the light from shining into the darkness of our own limitations.

Kavanagh (ibid.) quotes Dorothee Sölle:

The crucial point here is that in the mystical understanding of God, experience is more important than doctrine, the inner light more important than church authority, the certainty of God and communication with him more important than believing in his existence or positing his existence rationally.

When we come into the silence, whether of our own life of prayer and reflection (Advices & Queries 3or of meeting together for worship, bereft of words and notions, it is only that direct experience that will, if we let it, be our sure guide, and will lead us, quite without the intellectual assurance we too often crave, into truth, unity and love.

This morning in the silence…

This morning in the silence I was struck by the fact that – although I often feel that I struggle with maintaining a little life of prayer and “keeping low” in what some would describe as the privilege of my life here in the quiet west country – in many ways this is no more than our human susceptibility to what is traditionally called temptation. We are frail, temporary creatures, and we react in often very predictable ways to our own circumstances.

When we find ourselves in hardship, whether through poverty, ill-health or any other trouble, we tend towards bitterness, which keeps us from appreciating, or even seeing, let alone gratitude for, God’s blessings; though admittedly they may be hidden and obscure, “treasures of darkness” (Isaiah 45.3 NRSV).

When we find ourselves living peaceful lives of relative comfort (what the Bible often refers to as “prosperity”, rather than the Fortune 500 variety!) we tend towards complacency, as though we could somehow take credit for our good fortune – a point of view that a sudden illness will quickly correct. They are God’s blessings anyway, and he knows why he has given them to us for a while.

It’s coming to seem to me that all we can do is grow where we are planted (1 Corinthians 7.17-24) and remain there to grow the best fruit we can.*

George Fox, as so often, has a word for this:

Keep in the wisdom of God that spreads over all the earth, the wisdom of the creation, that is pure. Live in it; that is the word of the Lord God to you all, do not abuse it; and keep down and low; and take heed of false joys that will change. (Qfp 19.32)

as does the Psalmist:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvellous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time on and forevermore.

(Psalm 131)

(* Unless indeed we are direct victims of abuse or injustice, in which case God’s call is presumably to come out of there, and our duty to follow; but that is another story.)

A Little Way

Practice – one’s practice, a good practice, adopting a practice – is a word more usually associated, in my experience, with Buddhist than with Christian life. But is is an essential concept. In a sense, everyone involved with a religious path in any way has a practice, even if it is to do nothing more than “go to church” (or Meeting!) once a week or so.

In the contemplative life, the concept of practice becomes central. Whatever one finds called to do, be it Lectio Divina, Centering Prayer, Christian Meditation as defined by WCCM, the Jesus Prayer or anything else, needs to be done regularly. It usually helps to have at least the bare bones of a framework (an opening and a closing prayer, maybe a psalm or other passage from Scripture, if not an actual Office), a place to pray, and a time. Contemplative Outreach, the centering prayer people, have this to say:

Contemplative practices facilitate and deepen our relationship with God. The more we practice and allow the transformation process to happen, the more we are able to experience the Indwelling Presence in everything we do. Contemplative practices give us the eyes to see and the ears to hear God calling us to the banquet that is our lives, as they are.

For some time now I have been actively and critically considering my own practice, and trying, with the help of some wise and prayerful friends here and there, honestly to understand where my path is taking me. In order to understand this, I’ve had to try to think where it has taken me up till now, and it occurred to me that not only might it be helpful to me to write it down, it might just prove helpful to anyone reading this blog to see what has worked and what has not, and, perhaps most importantly, how hidden my own path has been much of the time, from others perhaps, but mostly from myself.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I have been praying the Jesus Prayer for at least 40 years, off and on, fairly faithfully for the last thirtyish of those; but the real foundation of where I find myself today was laid when I returned to full-time farming in 1989 or 90. Now dairy farming, especially modern large-scale dairy farming, is about as time-bound an occupation as you are likely to encounter. Everything revolves around the daily (often mid-morning) visit of the wholesaler’s milk tanker, which largely determines the (normally twice-daily) times of milking, in order that the morning’s milk may be cooled and ready for collection by the time the tanker arrives. Everything else – routine work, vet visits, sleep, eating, and prayer – fits around milking times. I found that the only way to work in a daily practice was to get up early enough for a time of Bible reading and prayer before morning milking. (In the winter at least, this was in the middle of the night for most people!)

Any practice built up like this has to be simple, flexible, and strong. There just wasn’t time for a conventional office, with books and multi-coloured ribbon markers and ring-binders; I had to come down to something that worked with a Bible, a holding cross, and possibly a notebook, that I could use with a mug of hot coffee in my hand, and a cat on my lap, next to the warm kitchen range. My practice came down to reading a passage from the New Testament or the prophets, and a Psalm, often one of the 8-verse sections of Psalm 119, and a brief meditation on that, followed by 20 minutes of the Jesus Prayer, ending with the Grace. Since then, I have kept coming back to this strong, simple outline; I have had various attempts at a daily office, now that I have time for such things, but it has never “taken”, and I have always found that I returned to my simple routine, enhanced sometimes my another such period in the early afternoon.

For a long time this worried me. I should, I thought, follow a daily office of some kind. I ought, I felt, to have a more liturgical routine. But it just doesn’t work for me, somehow.

One of the passages from Psalm 119 I have kept returning to over the years has been vv 65-72:

Do good to your servant
according to your word, Lord.
Teach me knowledge and good judgment,
for I trust your commands.
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your word.
You are good, and what you do is good;
teach me your decrees.
Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies,
I keep your precepts with all my heart.
Their hearts are callous and unfeeling,
but I delight in your law.
It was good for me to be afflicted
so that I might learn your decrees.
The law from your mouth is more precious to me
than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.

A first glance this talk of affliction being good for one might seem to be redolent of hair shirts and things like that, but there is another way altogether of reading this passage. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5.4) The psalmist here is just telling the truth: through any honest attempt at faithfulness under any, I imagine, kind of affliction, but especially through the deprivation of many of the usual channels of following one’s faith, we are blessed, whether it feels like that at the time or not. (Is this perhaps some small part of why faith seems to grow, or to be potentiated, under persecution?)

Craig Barnett writes:

The religious path is often presented as a way to achieve inner peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering. Much popular spirituality claims that life is meant to be filled with peace and contentment; that pain and anguish are problems that can be overcome by the right attitude or technique. The promise of perfect contentment is seductive, but it can never be fulfilled, because it is based on the illusion that suffering is a mistake.

Suffering, ageing, sickness and loss are not regrettable failures to realise our true nature. They are inherent in the nature of embodied human life and our often-incompatible needs and desires. Any spirituality, therapy or ideology that promises an escape from these limitations neglects the truth that suffering is an essential dimension of human life. Growth in spiritual maturity does not mean escaping or transcending these experiences, but becoming more able to accept and learn from them; to receive the painful gifts that they have to offer.

It feels slightly odd, after so long, to find myself – not arrived, but – content with the path God has set me on. It has taken a long time, and all the while I have tended to feel that anything I had done was provisional, that it might do until something better came along. Of course while I was actively farming it was different – there wasn’t much I could do except accept my little practice as good enough. Of course that’s it. It is good enough. Any practice of ours cannot be more than that. It was only when I was injured, and had to give up farming, that I thought I ought to be “doing more” in the way of a practice, a rule. And in any case dairy farming is not an elderly man’s occupation; I’d have had to retire, or change career, sooner rather than later. I suppose in some dim recess I was aware of this, and thought of my little practice as provisional. Well, in a sense it still is. All the work of faith in our present life is provisional – this strange contentment lies in the realisation of that, and in the acceptance that, in very truth, “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?” (Proverbs 20.24)

An Experimental Faith

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The rebuttal to every antagonism to religious truth cannot be mainly by way of intellectual argument. If there is an essential rebuttal, it is in the experiential certainty of God that is given in faith. The contemplative life by its nature displays an enhanced intensity of this certitude of God. For contemplatives, it would seem laughable, absurd, preposterous to suggest that God does not exist. The years of mysterious and sacred contact with him are too significant and strong. The yearning for God in the soul has become the irrefutable realisation of his presence near their soul. Long before the contemplative becomes deeply aware of this truth, however, there are always intimations of his personal presence. These are gifts that must  be recognised if a soul is to be seized by a deeper hunger for prayer. And in many cases, the secret expressed to a life by the hints of divine presence is a quiet one. Nonetheless, it is never completely undetectable, and any soul that crosses a threshold to a passion for prayer can look back at many encounters that reveal the presence of God in other lives and naturally in one’s own life.

Donald Haggerty, The Contemplative Hunger

A Friends’ meeting, however silent, is at the very lowest a witness that worship is something other and deeper than words, and that it is to the unseen and eternal things that we desire to give the first place in our lives. And when the meeting, whether silent or not, is awake, and looking upwards, there is much more in it than this. In the united stillness of a truly ‘gathered’ meeting there is a power known only by experience, and mysterious even when most familiar. There are perhaps few things which more readily flow ‘from vessel to vessel’ than quietness. The presence of fellow-worshippers in some gently penetrating manner reveals to the spirit something of the nearness of the Divine Presence. ‘Where two or three are gathered together in His name’ have we not again and again felt that the promise was fulfilled and that the Master Himself was indeed ‘in the midst of us’? And it is out of the depths of this stillness that there do arise at times spoken words which, springing from the very source of prayer, have something of the power of prayer – something of its quickening and melting and purifying effect. Such words as these have at least as much power as silence to gather into stillness.

Caroline E Stephen, Quaker faith & practice 2.39

Quakerism has been called an experimental faith, drawing on George Fox’s recorded encounter with a voice which said, “‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [i.e. hinder] it? And this I knew experimentally.”

Hebrews 11 opens, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” The encounter with God Fr. Donald Haggerty describes is not one of intellectual assent, nor of empirical demonstration. The inner encounter with God in contemplative experience, whether in Quaker worship, or in any of the classical disciplines of Christian contemplation, is not something which can be demonstrated to a third party: it is an entirely inward experience. It is real nonetheless; in some ways, and in certain circumstances, it is more real than the evidence of the senses, silent and hidden though it is. For anyone who has genuinely encountered God in the silence of the heart, any suggestion that he does not exist, or that the transcendent is illusory, is indeed absurd. (A powerful and remarkably sensitive allegory of this is found in Puddleglum’s speech in CS Lewis’ The Silver Chair, towards the end of Ch. 12.)

Perhaps we need, among Friends, to recover our confidence in our own experience. In the traditional churches, and indeed in many of the more recent offshoots of the Protestant church, contemplative experience is not often discussed, and is all too frequently misunderstood. But Quakers have lived a contemplative faith from the very beginning, a faith rooted in the direct encounter of the worshipper with God. It has become vitally urgent that we, of all people, come back to our roots, and once again offer our shared experience to the wider community of faith. We are few in number, but we have never been numerous – in our work for peace, for social justice, we are still known for a strength far beyond the numerical. But in his speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 1947 – it was awarded jointly to Friends Service Council in London and American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia – Gunnar Jahr said,

The Quakers have shown us that it is possible to translate into action what lies deep in the hearts of many: compassion for others and the desire to help them – that rich expression of the sympathy between all men, regardless of nationality or race, which, transformed into deeds, must form the basis for lasting peace. For this reason alone the Quakers deserve to receive the Nobel Peace Prize today.

But they have given us something more: they have shown us the strength to be derived from faith in the victory of the spirit over force.

The strength derived from faith is a spiritual strength, and it comes from our experience of the nearness of the divine presence, as Caroline Stephen pointed out in the passage above. If we are to continue to have anything to offer, to ourselves, to the world, or to God, we must be prepared, with Isaac Penington, to “sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart,” and return to our home in the silence of our faithful listening, where we become as it were aerials for the Spirit, receiving stations for grace that we may not even ourselves understand.