Category Archives: Contemplation

Drift lines

It is just over a week ago now that I had a cardiac procedure carried out at the Dorset County Hospital, which by great good fortune is just across the road from us, and has an excellent cardiology unit. I was able very carefully to go to meeting last Sunday, feeling tired and somewhat battered, but already in better health than I had been for a long time.

I have written elsewhere about the liminality inherent in life itself. Sitting in meeting last Sunday it came to me that I was conscious of this in a new way now. I had heard on Saturday that a Friend from our previous Area Meeting, a man I had felt close to since being one of his visitors when he applied for membership some years ago, had just died from precisely the condition for which I’d been treated.

Richard Rohr once wrote, in a slightly different context,

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.

Margery Abbott, in her excellent Pendle Hill Pamphlet Quaker Views on Mysticism, writes, 

…mysticism as known within the Society of Friends is our awareness of (or belief in) God’s presence, individually and in the corporate Meeting for Worship, an awareness that results in a changed perception of the world and a willingness to be guided by the Spirit, the Inward Light, the Christ Within. Quakerism is strongly prophetic – it is about listening for that which is eternal and bringing the divine word to the world.

We are liminal creatures, we humans; the difference between us is never so much a difference in liminality as it is a difference in our awareness of it. Over recent months I have been blessed to see this liminality for myself with a new clarity and immediacy. Our lives here seem so all or nothing to us, so identified with who we are, that we forget we live on the shoreline of something so much deeper and wider than we have imagined, the ground of all that has been made. We are just beachcombers, really, walking the drift lines amid the seaglass and old lumber, dazed and entranced by a light we cannot understand.

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

Sparrows and stillness: reading Qfp Ch. 1

Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

Quaker faith & practice 1.02: Advices & queries 7

Friends have become very familiar with the last two sentences of this – the query part – as a kind of watchword for open-mindedness and tolerance in all that we do, but too often, I think, we forget some of the implications of the advice part.

Mystical experience, the direct, unmediated encounter with God central to Quaker worship and prayer, is not a strange or technical exercise, reserved for professional clergy or vowed monastics, but an ordinary, straightforward thing common to our identity as human beings. There is, after all, that of God in each of us: all that is necessary is to become aware of it, and somehow to live within that awareness.

David Johnson writes ( A Quaker Prayer Life, 2013) “Quaker prayer arises from a life of continuing devotion. We learn by experience.” To turn our hearts to silence, to “stand still in the Light”, on a regular, daily basis does indeed open out our awareness to the presence of God in the small, everyday circumstances of life – blue tits in the bird bath, sycamore seeds spinning along the breeze, the distant, resonant clang of scaffolding poles dropped onto a lorry. We all rest in God, human and otherwise, and the ground of being is our inevitable home. We cannot fall out of what is: we can only be transformed, and even dying is only another kind of transformation within that ground. All that is needed is to learn to know this, moment by luminous moment, among the drifting leaves and the still incessant chirping of sparrows in the bushes along the hospital grounds.

A Life with Ravens

Anyone taking the eremitic vocation seriously is bound to feel helpless, quite impotent, in fact. Hermits are determined to help, to make a positive difference, but how? What can one person do, hidden and alone? Sometimes, solitaries may feel blameworthy because they live lives which shelter them from much of the suffering that so harshly mars the existence of their brothers and sisters. Love and compassion well up in them… but is it enough? What should one do and how? This is where passionate intercessory prayer and supplication spontaneously arises.

The challenge is to live a life given over to praying for others while accepting that one will seldom, if ever, see any results. One one will be able to ascertain how, or even if, their devoted prayers are efficacious for others. It is a terrible kind of poverty – to live dedicated to helping others, yet never know what good one may be doing. All that hermits can do is hope that they are doing no harm. Believers leave all results to the mercy of their God. Others rely on the interconnectedness of all humanity, trusting that what affects one, affects all. This is a form of intercession expressed less by words than by a way of life.

A Camaldolese monk once wrote: “Prayer is not only speaking to God on behalf of humanity, it is also ‘paying’ for humanity.” Suffering is part of the hermit’s vocation. One of the most acute forms is to never know whether one’s chosen lifestyle is worthwhile or has any value for others. Hermits enter into the darkness, the dusky cloud of unknowing, and walk without any light beyond that which is in their own hearts. Often, unbeknownst even to themselves, they have become beacons for others.

Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life

This calling to a life of interior solitude (see my other recent post here) has been growing on me more and more strongly, and becoming clearer, in recent years. The essence of this way is not so much physical solitude – though it does necessarily involve what Caroline E Stephen (Quaker Faith & Practice 22.30) called “a due proportion of solitude” – but an interior hiddenness which avoids excess or conspicuousness, or seeking for roles or causes.

The ravens of the title are of course the ones who brought Elijah bread and meat in the wilderness (1 Kings 17.2-6). A life with ravens is a life dependent upon God not only for existence but for meaning. The shadows that fell across the Kerith Ravine were the shadows of God’s purpose, and the loneliness to which he had called Elijah was sustained by the ravens of God’s grace.

I wrote elsewhere, “It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting myself out of the way of that channel of loving gift.” The hiddenness to which I am increasingly drawn is a way of getting out of the way – of standing still enough to act as a kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of mercy.

The dark and puzzling times in which we live can so easily draw us into taking sides, feeling we must “join the fight” against this or that injustice, or “struggle” against forces beyond our control or understanding which threaten the very existence of humanity. These military metaphors contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety and guilt, where nothing we can do is ever enough, and any rest or stillness is a betrayal of our comrades-in-arms. But grace is not mediated by aggression, and peace may not be found by way of war. Craig Barnett wrote:

…the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ – allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings.

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

Hiddenness appears to me to be not so much a matter of hiding away as hiding in plain sight, just as true simplicity is often more about the avoidance of a complicated life than the embrace of a heroic primitivism! To be “quiet and unrecognised” is deeply counterintuitive to a society driven by opposition and notoriety, and  threatens the paranoia so assiduously cultivated by mass media who, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.

To face not only the suffering of our sisters and brothers, human and otherwise, but the misunderstanding of our own inner political selves, and to embrace them in our love and our compassion, within the awareness of the presence of God, is a peculiar form of prayer. It is more like a form of penance, really. But it is in this contemplative practice itself that we make real the mysterious interconnectedness of all that is made, and through which our own solitary prayer seems to bring healing and hope in even the “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23) itself.

On becoming transparent

Writing in today’s issue of The Friend, Roswitha Jarman says,

I do not pray to a God out there to give me a helping hand. I remember with great affection the American Quaker Douglas Steere, with whom I shared my condition many years ago at a dark time. He responded: ‘Remember we are not alone.’ He was not referring to our human companions: he was speaking of the power of the Light, which for him was God.

When I become transparent, and am open to the Inner Light, and when I let this golden Light envelop the dark clouds, my energy is lifted, my compassion rises, and an inexplicable joy fills me. When this Light is part of me, whatever I do has a different quality.

Often we Quakers seem to misunderstand each others’ ideas of the Light. Those who self-identify as non-theists sometimes assume that other Friends believe in a God who is one being among other beings, only more powerful, wiser, more loving (or more tyrannical!) – a kind of a super being, as Superman is a super man. And those who would be inclined to self-identify as theists sometimes assume that non-theists are atheists, or at least strong agnostics.

I suspect that underneath the semantics, though, we are closer together than might be imagined. We share the same silence; the one Light illuminates us all, and if we will only sit still under it for long enough, we will find we share the same transparency. The words we use are far less important, and I think we should do well to use them lightly, and be prepared to let them go. We are speaking of what is, I believe, beyond our human ability fully to comprehend, let alone express.

My own existence is not something I create: it is somehow given me, as is all my experience. I am not a thing, myself – although my physical presence may be, grammatically at any rate, the object of some verb or another – but a becoming, an unfolding.

In silence, I can hear myself becoming, breath by breath, and I know that there is a source beyond my physical presence, beyond my sense of myself, from which I and all I experience appear to proceed. It is the ground of all that is, and I am held, and unrolled, in it, moment by moment. I cannot fall out of it; I can only be transformed, even if that transformation is the transformation of dying. This is so perfectly natural that it lifts away the alienation of my self from its true home, and the anxiety of what might be. If I am so unfolded, then the unfolding itself is what I am, as is its ground. As Paul wrote, “Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3.11)

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

Our accepting our utter dependence upon and oneness with the God who gives us being is precisely the crucifixion of which Paul writes elsewhere: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2.19b-20a)

This coming into being is love: vulnerable to change, it assumes the shape of what is loved. This love that is our becoming shows itself as the mercy of God in all that unfolds, whether we experience it as good or bad: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8.28) “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.” (Betsie ten Boom’s last words to her sister Corrie)

 

Beyond redemption?

Alastair McIntosh writes, in today’s issue of The Friend,

It was the American writer James Baldwin who suggested that: ‘One of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.’

We sideline the pain of spiritual growth when we reduce it to questions like: ‘If there’s a God, how can “He” allow evil?’

Imagine how it would be if every time some human folly (or even cruelty) were about to happen, the ‘Great Cosmic Health and Safety Officer’ zapped it from on high.

We would never get to feel the pain of others, or of ourselves. We would remain in spiritual infancy, devoid of empathy, unexercised by the evils of the world. For love to be free, evil has to be an option.

Therefore, said saint Silouan of Athos: ‘Keep thy mind in hell and do not despair.’

I think that what he is saying is: fully face the brokenness of the world, but never forget that God’s not sleeping.

It is a reminder of hope, and of deeper processes at work that might transcend our conscious ken. A reminder, too, that nothing, and no one, is ever beyond redemption.

I myself wrote recently,

These are, to say the least, difficult and puzzling times. The merest glance at the headlines will suffice to demonstrate that, and to demonstrate the further fact that the media, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.

In the face of massively publicised and widespread cruelty and injustice, violence and deceit, it is increasingly hard to avoid the current zeitgeist of taking sides, adopting entrenched positions, and demonising the “opposition”.

It is seems more and more popular to represent “the other side” as beyond redemption, and yet sometimes if we will only listen, they will shock us by their humanity and their vulnerability. Not long ago I was speaking with a prominent Tory MP and (then) cabinet minister, when he expressed his genuine grief at the assumption that he and his party were trying to punish and oppress the disabled. For a moment, real pain peeped out from behind the urbane mask of the seasoned politician, and I found my own heart grieved for him. More of these moments are scattered throughout our days, I think, than we would imagine, if only we are open to them, if only we can allow the clamour of the populist voices, and of our own assumptions and prejudices, to die away in an interior silence and openness that I have found comes only through continual prayer.

Repetitive prayer, whether a Christian practice such as the Jesus Prayer, or a Buddhist one such as the Nembutsu, has a way, eventually, of attaching itself to one’s life rhythms – the breath, the heartbeat – till it becomes an integrated part of one’s existence, drawing the heart (understood as the centre of our personal being) not away from “the outer world of sense and meanings” (Thomas R Kelly) but always towards the source of all that is.

This is not a difficult, technical exercise, nor one reserved for men of unusual and select spiritual gifts, but one for all of us, female or male, artisan or intellectual, old or young. It is so simple, whether as a side-effect of a practice such as the Nembutsu, or just to “maintain a simple attention and a fond regard for God, which I may call an actual presence of God.” (Brother Lawrence)

St Silouan the Athonite, whom Alastair McIntosh quotes, was an Eastern Orthodox monk born in Russia who travelled to Mount Athos while still only in his twenties, and lived there at St. Panteleimon Monastery as a brother until he died, in his seventies, just before the outbreak of World War II. In common with other Athonite monks, Silouan’s main form of prayer would have been the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Very early in the history of the Christian church, certainly by the 4th century, the term hesychasm, the life of silence,  began to appear in the writings of scholars like John Chrysostom and Evagrius Pontikos, as well as in the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Hesychasts, as they became known, were practitioners of a tradition of contemplative prayer based on the Jesus Prayer that was available to everyone, regardless of education, ordination or formal membership of a monastic community.

The Anglican Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward writes that

This prayer is marked by a compunction and penitence. It has the sense of a kind of joyful mourning of one’s own and the world’s pitiableness. It knows our need to be rescued and saved, with tears. It is expressed in short, urgently or longingly repeated prayer directed to Jesus present in the heart, a presence to which the person praying seeks to turn his or her waking and sleeping thoughts (‘I slept but my heart was awake’, Song of Solomon 5:2) and whole life.

There is a sense of immediacy, of personal experience of the presence of God, from the very start of the hesychast tradition, that will be immediately familiar to Friends. Writing of the work of Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) Barrington-Ward goes on to say,

For Symeon, the resurrection is not only in the future. It begins here and now… He wrote out of an overwhelming encounter with the living Christ and with the Holy Spirit, through whom he claimed the resurrection of us all can occur.

By the 15th century the tradition had established itself in the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece, and was from there carried to Russia by St Nilus of Sora (Nil Sorski) where it established itself in the forest communities in the far north, which were consciously modelled after the early desert settlements in Egypt in the times of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. There the way of the hesychasts flourished right through until the years following the Russian Revolution in the early 20th century, when many of its practitioners took refuge once again on Mount Athos, some eventually, like the great writer and teacher on prayer Sophrony Sakharov, even turning up in England. It was to St. Panteleimon Monastery that many of these Russian monks came; Sophrony himself became a disciple of Silouan.

Sophrony wrote,

The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside…

It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…

I am always reminded by this passage of Thomas R Kelly who, writing of solitary prayer, comes very close indeed to restating the hesychast tradition himself. He describes how “[the] processes of inward prayer do not grow more complex, but more simple” and he recommends using a short phrase, whether from Scripture or from one’s own imagination, and he advises, “Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.” He goes on to say,

But the time will come when verbalisation is not so imperative, and yields place to the attitudes of soul which you meant the words to express… Behind the foreground of the words continues the background of heavenly orientation, as all the currents of our being are set towards Him. Through the shimmering light of divine Presence we look out upon the world, and in its turmoil and fitfulness, we may be given to respond, in some increased measure, in ways dimly suggestive of the Son of Man… All we can say is, Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the orbit… Sometimes the prayer and this Life that flows through us reaches out to all souls with kindred vision and upholds them in his tender care. Sometimes it flows out to the world of blinded struggle, and we become cosmic Saviours, seeking all those who are lost.

More on being a Marsh-wiggle

Yesterday I wrote of the call to a kind of solitude in prayer and openness to the Spirit leading to “mov[ing] deeper into the saltmarsh of the spirit, closer to the edge of the last sea…”

I’m aware of some ambiguity here. Am I suggesting a life of physical solitude, moving away from marriage, and the companionship of Friends, to a distant shed or cabin in the woods, as some, notably Thomas Merton and Brother Ramon SSF, have done? Catherine Doherty wrote of a poustinia in the marketplace: a hermitage set among city streets, with some kind of an outreach, an “apostolate” in the Roman Catholic terminology. Is that what’s involved? I have asked myself these questions for many years, and the answer seems gradually to be emerging in a way simpler and stranger than I had imagined.

Eve Baker writes:

The desert to which the solitary is called is not a place, but something that must be there below the surface of ordinary human existence. It is nowhere, a place of thirst after God…

The disciplines of solitude will be different for everyone. Maintaining an inner cell of quiet will be a greater struggle for the person with family obligations or for those whose life involves working closely with other people… It is like having a compass in one’s hand, pointing to the true north. The busyness of life will swing the needle, but it will return again to the same direction.

I have found myself with very few family obligations, and since taking early retirement after an accident, few definite obligations to other people. But my heart is easily divided, and I far too readily fall into old patterns of treating contemplation as raids into the unknown in search of material. I have been a poet, and an improvising, occasionally composing musician; it is hard to break habits developed over many years

For me, I am coming to believe, there has to be a pattern of a very interior asceticism. As Baker writes, “Dramatic gestures are easy, simple faithfulness requires more effort.” It may be that I have to some degree to restrict my involvement in the busyness of Quaker life. Certainly I must be extremely careful of unthinking creative commitments!

Eve Baker again:

Prayer is not so much a matter of specific occasions, forms, words, but a constant orientation towards God which becomes habitual. This is the hidden life which goes on inside the external one which differs little from any other human life except for the hidden search for solitude, silence and simplicity…

I am beginning to find, all over again, the essence of the tax collector’s prayer in Luke 18.13-14, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” The more transparent one’s life becomes to the light, the more that light shows the stains, the broken edges of the heart. This is a very ordinary thing, not at all arcane. Certainly it is nothing to take credit for. The light is what it is; gradually one is laid open, that’s all, and the thing is not to take the offered baits of distraction and easy solace among familiar or shiny things.

There’s a lot I don’t understand; but the saltmarsh of the spirit lies wide along the horizon, and the wind from the sea carries the clean scent of distance.