Category Archives: Death

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

‘Tis the season…

It’s nearly the end of November, and retailers from Amazon to Waitrose are putting out their festive videos – quite a good crop this year, so far – to get us in the mood for the shopping days up to December 25th.

Janet Scott wrote, in 1994,

Another testimony held by early Friends was that against the keeping of ‘times and seasons’. We might understand this as part of the conviction that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered and not only on the occasions named Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

This is a testimony which seems to be dying of neglect. Many Friends, involved with family and the wider society, keep Christmas; in some meetings, Easter and its meaning is neglected, not only at the calendar time but throughout the year. What I would hope for is neither that we let the testimony die, nor that we keep it mechanically. I hope for a rediscovery of its truth, that we should remember and celebrate the work of God in us and for us whenever God by the Spirit calls us to this remembrance and this joy.

One of sometimes forgotten benefits of keeping the liturgical calendar is the way that it reminds us, especially in a sensitive church environment, of the changing patterns of our relation to nature, and to the spiritual echoes or parallels that accompany that movement through the year.

The narrative arc of the Gospels, from Christmas through to Easter and beyond, thirty three years or so of a man’s life in first century Judea and Galilee, take us from fragile hope to brokenness and despair, and then beyond that into a new and imperishable hope not rooted in outcome or survival.

The accounts of these events are not read merely as an historical account of the genesis of a religion, nor just as a kind of spiritual allegory, but as a way of entering, wide awake, into a reality common to all that comes to be. Everything we know has a beginning, a term of being, and an ending – and yet… New life appears where old life faded, cosmological events arise, fade, and there are new arisings. What is rests in isness; and isness goes on – it is the very ground of being itself. What looks to us like failure then is necessary process;  what looks to us like ending is just the place of beginning again, and death itself is only the way to life.

I wrote once that,

Letting in the presence of God, as I believe we do in the silence of worship, entails letting in all the love of God, all that God loves; the broken, the terrified, the pain and the uncanny bitter grieving of that which is, and is loved.

All prayer comes down to this. Truly to pray is to become a small incarnation, a tiny model of Christ; this is why it is so necessary to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.17), and why to pray is to take up the cross ourselves, since it is the refusal to turn away from openness to the pain that runs inextricably through existence, like a red thread in the bright weave of what is.

To make sense of this, I think we cannot cherry-pick bits of the Gospel account. We need that entire narrative arc, to walk with it, to live it out in our worship and our thinking, to be present to it as it is present in us; and at its best this is what the liturgy does throughout the seasons of the changing year. It would be good if, somehow, we Quakers found a way to do that too…

 

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)

 

Showing up in love – more Qfp Ch. 26

Sometimes we are astonished when we learn that although we did not actually ‘do’ anything for a certain individual, our simply being present or showing up allowed something to shift in his or her inner landscape that made space for deeper healing. Sometimes we discover that in simply being present to another’s pain we experience the Divine in them that awakens the Divine in ourselves.

K. Killian Noe, Descent into Love

It’s an odd thing, this sense we have of not ever doing enough, of not achieving things, when truly it is not we who do anything. Things may be done through us in prayer, of course, but it is not we who do the doing.

(The need to feel we have achieved something may be part of the attraction of violence: when we have knocked someone down, or bombed a city, we feel that there is no doubt that something has been done, and that we did it. There is a certain satisfaction to be found in this.)

I am continually living within this tension: I know that I am called to the contemplative life – which is after all in a way nothing else than being present to, or showing up in love for, God, as for the world in its pain and its becoming – and yet I am constantly changing, being changed, involved in the unfolding that is my life, and of which my death will be part.

Esther de Waal wrote:

Stability calls me to stand still, to stand firmly planted not on any plot of ground but within myself, not running away from who I am… Yet I am presented with the necessity of living open to continual conversion, ready to grow and change and move on. On the one hand I find that I must stay still; on the other, that I need continually to change. As I try actually to live in this way I find that here I encounter a fundamental tension that I know I can never expect to escape or evade, but one which answers a deep need in me, so that simultaneously I stand firm and yet also I move on.

Doing. There is so much of it, and we are taught as soon as we can stand that we need to be doing, and that we need to take responsibility for our deeds. And yet…

David Dellinger, writing of his time in solitary confinement:

I was in the Hole for the first time, no light, no bed, shivering in the midst of summer in a cell that was damper and darker than the Swiss dungeon I had visited a couple of years earlier. ‘You won’t come out,’ they had said, ‘until you agree to obey orders, all orders.’ For no reason I can explain, I began to discover how little it mattered where you are or what anyone does to you. I was sure that what I had done to get there was right and somehow the longer I was there the better I felt. I felt warm inside and filled all over with love for everyone, everyone I knew and everyone I didn’t know, for plants, for fish, animals, even bankers, generals, prison guards and lying politicians—everything and everyone. Why did I feel so good? Was it God? Or approaching death? Or just the way life is supposed to be if we weren’t so busy trying to make it something else?

All that we do is part of that unfolding of our life, our “one wild and precious life” as Mary Oliver put it, and we do not unfold that. We do not bear ourselves – and our mothers would probably tell us that birth occurs, it is not done – and we cannot choose our length of days. But we can be present to all that happens to us, truly open to this paradox of presence – that all our searching and our pilgrimage lead only to home:

If you would know God and worship and serve God as you should do, you must come to the means he has ordained and given for that purpose. Some seek it in books, some in learned men, but what they look for is in themselves, yet they overlook it. The voice is too still, the Seed too small and the Light shineth in darkness. They are abroad and so cannot divide the spoil; but the woman that lost her silver found it at home after she had lighted her candle and swept her house. Do you so too and you shall find what Pilate wanted to know, viz., Truth. The Light of Christ within, who is the Light of the world and so a light to you that tells you the truth of your condition, leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvellous light; for light grows upon the obedient. It is sown for the righteous and their way is a shining light that shines forth more and more to the perfect day.

William Penn, 1694 – Qfp 26.44

 

Reading Quaker faith & practice Chapter 22

The truest end of life, is to know the life that never ends. He that makes this his care, will find it his crown at last. And he that lives to live ever, never fears dying: nor can the means be terrible to him that heartily believes the end.

For though death be a dark passage, it leads to immortality, and that’s recompense enough for suffering of it. And yet faith lights us, even through the grave, being the evidence of things not seen.

And this is the comfort of the good, that the grave cannot hold them, and that they live as soon as they die. For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity. Death, then, being the way and condition of life, we cannot love to live, if we cannot bear to die.

They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it. Death cannot kill what never dies. Nor can spirits ever be divided that love and live in the same Divine Principle, the root and record of their friendship. If absence be not death, neither is theirs.

Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure.

This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.

William Penn, 1693, Quaker faith & practice 22.95

Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett on God in Buddhism, quoted by Alex Thomson on the Quaker Renewal UK page on Facebook:

Now it has been said, that Buddhism is an atheistic religion. That is absolutely not true. What Buddhism will not say, is what the Cosmic Buddha IS. Because, if it tells you what the Cosmic Buddha is, immediately something can come into your head: “well I wonder if it has…” or, “why doesn’t it have…” such and such. The Buddha Himself said, “There IS an Unborn, Uncreated, Unchanging, Undying. If there were not an Unborn, Uncreated, Unchanging, Undying; then there would be no way of escaping despair.” Now what He is actually saying is, there is something, — you can call it a “Great Spirit”, you can call it “God”, you can call it “The Cosmic Buddha”, you can call it “XYZ” (if you happen to be an atheist), you can use any term you like for it: but that is the most the Buddha would ever say of it. Other than: you’ve got to know it for yourself. When you know it for yourself, then: there can be no death, for you know where your true home is. And, there can be no life, other than life in this, Unborn, Uncreated, Undying, Unchanging.

Therefor Buddhism is a very, very TRUE religion. Which is non-theistic, in the sense of having a father-figure type God. But VERY theistic, in the sense of there very definitely being something much greater than every one of us, in here.

It does not dictate to us. It does not insist. I can tell you all the things it does not do. It will never hate, it will never judge. It leaves us to hate each other, — until we’re fed up with it. (laughter) It leaves us to judge ourselves, (and our fellow man), — until we are fed up with doing it! And it does not insist that we stop; it just: sits there. And waits. And waits. And waits…

Kathleen Dowling Singh, in The Grace in Dying:

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.

A faith which has nothing to say to death, or to the process of dying, is ultimately dry and fruitless, I think. The one real certainty facing each and every one of us is that we shall die; this is perhaps the truest and most fundamental thing that can be said of us. But this is not a bad thing, not a tragedy. All things die, from the little velvety red mites that scamper on stone walls in the sun, through oak trees, owls and whales to the great galaxies, and doubtless many living, loving things we have no idea of. What we need is to discover how to live with death. That is one of the core functions of a spiritual path, surely, to show us that this necessary surrender is the way to unending light, not to extinction. All we are doing is returning to the Source.

As William Penn wrote, “Death, then, being the way and condition of life, we cannot love to live, if we cannot bear to die.” His beautiful and humane passage quoted above holds so much of the hope and truth of the Quaker way of “experimental faith” that it comforts me as much as anything I’ve read. The community of Friends knows much about living with death; it was at a Quaker funeral that I first came to realise that I had to investigate this unexpected truth for myself, and so was led to attend my first Quaker meeting.

“Stand still,” said William Leddra, the day before he was martyred, “Stand still, and cease from thine own working.” To practice surrender 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 in prayer and practice, then that gracious power of “loving-kindness, compassion, presence… mercy and confidence” will have the opportunity somehow to manifest in our lives, poured out for those that following this way places in our path.

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.