Category Archives: Creation

Aerials for the Spirit

More than any other prayer, the Jesus Prayer aims at bringing us to stand in God’s presence with no other thought but the miracle of our standing there and God with us, because in the use of the Jesus Prayer there is nothing and no one except God and us.

The use of the prayer is dual, it is an act of worship as is every prayer, and on the ascetical level, it is a focus that allows us to keep our attention still in the presence of God.

It is a very companionable prayer, a friendly one, always at hand and very individual in spite of its monotonous repetitions. Whether in joy or in sorrow, it is, when it has become habitual, a quickening of the soul, a response to any call of God. The words of St Symeon, the New Theologian, apply to all its possible effects on us: ‘Do not worry about what will come next, you will discover it when it comes’.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, from The Orthodox Church of Estonia

These words from St Symeon have come to mean more to me, over the years, than I have often realised. My own spiritual path has not, on the face of it, been all that straightforward, though it does seem to have led with a kind of inevitability to the Quaker way. Since the summer of 1978, though, I have known, and (if not always too consistently) practiced the Jesus Prayer, and in a sense all the turns and apparent blind alleys of my journey have been its outworkings. Certainly, it has been at times of crisis that I have been most aware of clinging to the Prayer as to a liferaft, to carry me through the waves.

The early desert monastics were said to regard a monk away from his cell as being like a fish out of water, and yet few of us these days, in the West at least, appear to be called to this reclusiveness of life. Immersed in the world, we must pray where we find ourselves, and perhaps this is indeed our calling. Swept on the same floodwaters of change that carry us all, our prayer is more than a clinging. Embedded as we are in the common condition of humanity, of creation, our prayer becomes – sometimes despite ourselves – intercession. We become as it were aerials for the Spirit, receiving stations for grace that we may not even ourselves understand.

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

Spring and Things

The garden is full of birds, more each day it seems. The roving bands of goldfinches and long-tailed tits continue to sweep through, pausing to feed and then skittering on to wherever it is they’re going, but travellers from more distant places are moving in and making preparations for nesting. A pair of blackcaps, and some willow warblers, have come to join the robins and the wrens, and the shy little dunnocks, in the search for bits and pieces to add to their different nests.

The spring air is still cold, despite the sunshine, but the light is actinic, biting, picking out the young leaves and the weathered fence line with deep shadow as the sun declines past midday. The processes the turning year sets in train are complex beyond understanding, and related with an intimacy we are only beginning to grasp. The old models of creation and natural selection no longer apply in the terms we knew. Love is all that can describe this tender resurrection of what the winter laid to rest; love, and the mercy that love brings to things that wait, and are changed.

It is only as we wait, under the mercy, that we too are changed. As Robert Barclay wrote, “Not by strength of arguments or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, came [I] to receive and bear witness of the Truth, but by being secretly reached by [the] Life.”

The ground of being, unconditioned and unconditional, is what actually is; it is the source of the verb “to be” and all that flows from it – the mysterium tremendum et fascinans itself. Emilia Fogelklou, encountering this for herself unsought, one spring day under the trees, exclaimed, “This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.” All that is rests in the open hand of mercy, like St Julian’s hazelnut – somehow, this is true, beyond all that grieves, and is broken, beyond death or life itself; at the depth of all that is, love is the unfailing mercy of being.

“We know what our race does to strangers”

I was tempted to include the passage below, unattributed, to see which of my readers would recognise it, and to whom they would attribute it if they didn’t – but I repented of being a smartypants. This is CS Lewis, writing in an essay, ‘Religion and Rocketry’, which first appeared in 1958 in Christian Herald, and was then collected in Fern Seed and Elephants and Other Essays on Christianitypublished posthumously in 1975, about our possible future encounter with alien life during our exploration of space – an exploration which was just beginning, practically, as he wrote.

We know what our race does to strangers. Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps. There are individuals who don’t. But they are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space. Our ambassador to new worlds will be the need and greedy adventurer or the ruthless technical expert. They will do as their kind has always done. What that will be if they meet things weaker than themselves, the black man and the red man can tell. If they meet things stronger, they will be, very properly, destroyed…

I therefore fear the practical, not the theoretical, problems which will arise if we ever meet rational creatures which are not human. Against them we shall, if we can, commit all the crimes we have already committed against creatures certainly human but differing from us in features and pigmentation; and the starry heavens will become an object to which good men can look up only with feelings of intolerable guilt, agonized pity, and burning shame.

Of course after the first debauch of exploitation we shall make some belated attempt to do better. We shall perhaps send missionaries. But can even missionaries be trusted? ‘Gun and gospel’ have been horribly combined in the past. The missionary’s holy desire to save souls has not always been kept quite distinct from the arrogant desire, the busybody’s itch, to (as he calls it) ‘civilize’ the (as he calls them) ‘natives’… Would [our missionaries] denounce as sins mere differences of behaviour which the spiritual and biological history of these strange creatures fully justified and which God had himself blessed? Would they try to teach those from whom they had better learn? I do not know.

These ideas, of course, are developed at far greater length in Lewis’ remarkable work of science fiction, the Cosmic Trilogy. But here they are starkly polemical, crystal clear in their passion for racial, cultural, economic and climate justice, and the very brevity of their expression lends them an impact that strikes us here in the 21st century more forcibly, perhaps, than do Lewis’ attempts at describing the consequences of the exploration, and attempted exploitation, of a solar system we now know to be very differently constituted.

It is Lewis’ next paragraph that stunned me on re-reading it from a Quaker perspective, for it reflected so much that has been written by Quakers about opposing war, injustice and violence during the Word Wars and after:

What I do know is that here and now, as our only possible practical preparation for such a meeting, you and I should resolve to stand firm against all exploitation and all theological imperialism. It will not be fun. We shall be called traitors to our own species. We shall be hated of almost all men; even of some religious men. And we must not give back one single inch. We shall probably fail, but let us go down fighting for the right side. Our loyalty is not to our species but to God. Those who are, or who can become, his sons, are our real brothers even if they have shells or tusks. It is spiritual, not biological, kinship that counts.

(You must forgive Lewis his relentless use of masculine terms. He was a man of his time, and if you re-read the final sentence I have quoted, carefully, you will see that his breadth of spirit encompasses both sexes as well as all races and species.)

The Dark of that Unknowing

God, as he is really in himself, is beyond all definition of ours at all… They only truly know him to be this or that, who witness him truly to be this or that to and within themselves. And those know him not… [who] come not to find him and feel him so to be… in his own light, by which he draws nigh to, and is not far from every one of us. By which [light]… in some measure, though not in the same measure, he manifests something of himself in every conscience.

Samuel Fisher, quoted in Rex Ambler, The Quaker Way: A Rediscovery

Fisher, writing in 1661, has touched the key, I think, to our contemporary heart-searchings over theism and nontheism, Christian Quaker and universalist Quaker. If God is God, then by definition he is “beyond all definition of ours”. We are small and recent creatures on the quite small third planet of a medium-sized star in one of the spiral arms of a beautiful but rather average galaxy, one of more than 100 billion in the universe we have so far been able to observe. How would we be able to hold in our dear and glittering minds the ground of all that being – and all that is, unimaginably, besides?

Attempting to specify God, or to delineate those who have access rights to God or not, is not so much wrong as ridiculous. All we can do is love those who, like ourselves, have that of God within them. We are all just entities, and share far more of our limitations than anything that sets us apart.

Other than that, all we can do is keep silence, and wait. Only in the dark of that unknowing – that relinquishment of knowing – will come our own real and lived experience, the presence and Light of that which is within and beyond us, as it is within and beyond all things. In itself it is No Thing, for it is without limit or beginning, and is not dependent; yet within it all things live, and move, and have their being – loved even, and held beyond time and distance.

Is Gratitude a Scam?

I tend not to reblog others’ posts here, for some reason, but Friend Micah speaks my mind so clearly I felt I had no alternative!

Is Gratitude a Scam? by Micah Bales

Gratitude has always seemed like a scam to me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a heightened awareness of what’s wrong in the world. In the 3rd grade on the school bus, I was reading Newsweek, learning about all of the great challenges facing us. All of the wrongs that needed righted.

In the context of so much evil, feeling grateful made no sense. How could I let myself be satisfied with the unacceptable, grateful for a world in which there is so much brokenness?

Sometimes people told me I should feel grateful. Focus on all the good things you have in your life, they said. But that seemed like a cop out. Sure, there are plenty of things that are wonderful about the world, but those aren’t the things that need my attention, that need fixing.

I even saw the language of gratitude abused. I saw how those in authority could threaten those who weren’t grateful enough for the status quo. Workers who weren’t grateful for starvation wages might get fired. Activists who weren’t grateful for the military industrial complex of our country should love it or leave it.

Despite all the problems I’ve seen with gratitude, I also know that I’m in deep need of it. When I refuse to practice gratitude for all of the beauty and wonder in my life, my heart becomes hardened. Before long, I don’t have eyes to see anything but the darkness. Gratitude is essential for my spiritual health, my sense of groundedness and peace, my relationship with God.

My almost insatiable hunger for a better, truer, more just world is a God-given orientation. I’m stuck with it, and I’m to bless the world with it. But there’s no way I can sustain any kind of Spirit-led witness if I refuse to ground my critique of unjust systems in a deeper awareness of the beauty, love, and power of this life.

Is this a contradiction? How do I hold together both my sense of gratitude and my burning desire for a just and fair world? How can my deep sense of gratitude be the soil in which a prophetic challenge to this world’s darkness takes root?

Despite my concerns, I’m realizing that gratitude is and must be the foundation of all my work for justice. The very fact that I notice that there’s evil in the world, that I find it out of place and disturbing, is a sign of the underlying goodness of God’s creation. Evil is an aberration; goodness is the norm. My grateful awareness of this life that God made and called good is the basis for any challenge I might bring to the brokenness of our fallen existence.

The gratitude is there, waiting for me in the midst of disappointment and wrong. It is nourishment in the wilderness I live in. Just as the Hebrews found manna in the midst of the desert, I am fed by God in the midst of an unjust and unfair society. It is by the strength of this gratitude that I am sustained and empowered to seek a truer, more beautiful world.

I am grateful to God for the presence of his grace and power, inspiring and equipping me to take the next step in faith.