Category Archives: Despair

Dark Tales

This evening is particularly quiet. The leaves of the hazels at the back of the garden are hardly moving, and light from the west is casting clean shadows of the roofline on to the trees. This spring the weather is so beautiful – even the rainy days have a clean, healing quality about them – that the threat of the current pandemic seems hard to believe, a dark tale from another time, perhaps, or from a dystopian fiction…

I will extol the LORD at all times;
his praise will always be on my lips.

I will glory in the LORD;
let the afflicted hear and rejoice.

Glorify the LORD with me;
let us exalt his name together.

(Psalm 34:1-3 NIV)

It’s interesting, isn’t, how David phrases this? If the poet was indeed David (this is one of the psalms whose attribution is most likely to be accurate) then of course he would know about affliction, but the psalms in general are stunningly honest about this kind of thing. In one of my favourite passages from Psalm 119 we read,

[67] Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word…
[71] It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.

(Psalm 119:67,71 NIV)

Why might this be? We are familiar enough, though very often we struggle to apply it to our own lives, with the concept Paul expresses in Romans 8:28, “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.” All things, not just the convenient ones, or the pleasant ones. Of course, the verse is not saying that all things are good – some things, like the situation in which we all find ourselves at the moment, patently are not good at all. But the anonymous poet of Psalm 119 seems to go even beyond the apostle.

I have come to recognise, from periods in my own life of desolation and functional solitude (being alone in the sense not always of physical isolation, but of being cut off from understanding and comfort: “You have taken from me friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88.18)) the power of this kind of prayer, and how actually to pray the Psalms, to take their words and make them one’s own, brings strength and refuge, comfort even, in dark places. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that at these times in my life I would not have come through had it not been for the Psalms.

In some deep mystery these words in the psalms prefigure the cross of Christ, and it is there that understanding begins to break through. Jesus called his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25 NIV) Peter wrote “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21 NIV)

It’s really important to understand that none of this was my doing. None of it came about through any particular insight or perspicuity of mine, still less through any imagined godliness: it was all sheer gift. Nor am I saying that the ultimate healing of wounds of the spirit – such as we all are suffering in these perfect days of springtime, as the earth stretches and heals from the long years of environmental abuse and exploitation – comes purely through the prayerful acceptance of suffering. My survival may, in my own instance, have come that way – but it was only after the passage of many years, and through skilled and patient help, that their effects have finally begun to be something like healed. But their value – that is another matter entirely. One of the hardest things to take is the illusion of the pointlessness of one’s own suffering; the realisation that it is not, after all, a waste of life and hope, but a way into endless life and indestructible hope, through and not despite the Cross is what brings us at last to that refuge David described in Psalm 63:6-8,

On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me.

A trackless place…

I have been in a trackless place, recently. Things I thought I knew had become clouded over, old wounds long healed reopened. A mist had rolled in, and instead of hiding the known ways it had wiped them out, long-trodden paths scoured back to loose sand and the entropy of marram…

As I sat in meeting on Sunday morning, wondering how I could have so lost my way, a Friend rose and gave these words as ministry – just these words, without commentary:

All our steps are ordered by the Lord;
how then can we understand our own ways?

(Proverbs 20.24)

The verse struck me like a lightning bolt, as no Scripture had for a long time. It was as though the Friend, or really, through him, God, had spoken directly to me, directly to the confusion and self-doubt, the mirrored memories of pain, the emptiness where not even longing was.

Since then this little isolated verse has grown friends, words in the hollowness where my heart still beat:

These are indeed but the outskirts of his ways;
and how small a whisper do we hear of him!
But the thunder of his power who can understand?’

(Job 26.14)

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

(Psalm 139.17-18)

I wrote a few years ago that,

For myself, I have found I cannot find God by looking, or thinking, much as my whole life may seem to have been spent in a search for – or being distracted from a search for – what is true and is the source of all that is. What God is is unknowable. Anything I might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, not constrained by time, space or any other dimension. The only way I can know God is by not knowing.

Faith is not so much a way of knowing as it is a way of being known. God is so far beyond the reach of our frail and temporary minds that all we can do is keep silence, and wait. Only in that relinquishment of knowing can we hear God, for much as we cannot seek him out, he will find us, and in that finding will come our own real and lived experience, the presence and Light which is within and beyond us, as it is within and beyond all things. In himself God is No Thing, for what he is is without limit or beginning, and is not dependent; yet within him all things live, and move, and have their being – are loved even, and held in love beyond time and distance.

I think my hope lies in my own littleness. I am so small, so transient and partial, against the scattered glory of the night sky…

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! …

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8 1,3-4)

[Forgive the pronouns in this post, by the way – without fooling around inventing made-up words, I can only use pronouns that are gendered, or else wilfully ungendered, and it is hard to speak of an it who loves. God is not a person like you or me: not that he is less than a person, but that he is infinitely more.]

John Barleycorn must die…

In some ways, acting the part of the firebrand prophet is easy and gratifying. There can be a perverse pleasure in tearing down rather than building up; watch any toddler at work on a brick model! It is, after all, usually easier to identify a problem than to fix it, simpler to lambasted those in leadership than it is to lead. But if the kingdom of God is about participation in a God-soaked loving community, we must always be more ready to live in love with others than to confront them. Wherever we find people of peace, we should seek to work alongside them, settle among them, share our peace with them, receive the gift of their hospitality, and be ready to extend ours. Wherever possible, we “seek the welfare of the city” [Jeremiah 29.7] in ways that are positive, contributory and participative.

Chris Webb, God-Soaked Life: Discovering a Kingdom Spirituality

Change is difficult. A human life is finite, and nothing in creation, as far as we can tell, from the little velvety red mites that run in the sunshine on old stonework, to the galaxies themselves, lasts forever. How easy and rewarding it is to look at any series of political, or even natural, events and to cry, “We’re all doomed, I tell you, doomed!”

The thing that Jesus called “the kingdom of God” is, as it was in Jesus’ own day, a tremendously disruptive thing. No wonder it didn’t please those who already had a handy niche in the military-commercial-religious complex that ruled the Middle East of those days. No wonder all too many religious people in our own time find it easier to make mired alliances with political powers than to preach the good news of the kingdom.

We cannot know how these things will turn out. Our civilisation has proved itself, over the last few centuries, to be incredibly resilient. Attempts to bring it down, whether from within or from without, have singularly failed. The Axis powers were spectacularly wrecked on the rocks of their own military hubris, and night drew down the Iron Curtain across the tattered remnants of the proletarian revolution. Epidemics and economic crises have shaken it, but somehow it goes on, scars and all. Gamaliel, St Paul’s teacher, knew that there is more than politics to the way things go, and human plans count for little in the end (Acts 5.35-39).

One day of course it will all end, just as each of us will die in our day. Unless the as yet unimaginable supervenes, our own sun will change and die, and this arm of our galaxy will no longer have our odd and glittering species, here on our blue sphere of home, to watch and sing of its countless stars along the Milky Way.

All being rests in the palm of God. The ground of existence itself is the Spirit within each of us, the light in our eyes, the love that swings our hearts down the street of years. Christ announced the kingdom in first century Palestine, only to be judicially murdered as some kind of subversive. But something inexplicable happened, and the world changed forever. Love goes on. It is the power behind the stars, the driving force of light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We have but to wait, and pray – John Barleycorn will always prove the strongest man at last…

 

The Cross is not an easy thing

The cross is not an easy thing. Too often, Christians either bury the pain under some sort of narrative of victory, or else sentimentalise it; Quakers tend not to talk about it.

To understand, to grow from, our Christian roots, though, requires I think that we do somehow take hold of this central event in all four Gospels.

Ilia Delio, as quoted by Richard Rohr, writes:

Only by dying into God can we become one with God, letting go of everything that hinders us from God. Clare of Assisi spoke of “the mirror of the cross” in which she saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and, yet, our great capacity for love. Empty in itself, the mirror simply absorbs an image and returns it to the one who gives it. Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love, and what we love is what we become.

It seems to me that we cannot see why the New Testament understands Christ as God’s love incarnate unless we see that real love is inseparable – in whatever terms we choose to describe it – from the cross. It was Paul who wrote:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law [through choosing to do good by strength of will], Christ died for nothing!’ (Galatians 2.20-21)

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.

“Stand still,” said William Leddra, the day before he was martyred, “Stand still, and cease from thine own working.” The cross is absolute surrender, helplessness entirely embraced. It is abandoning all that is my will, every last attempt at self-preservation; as Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians (3.3), “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

Prayer then is consciously stepping into that death, and finding it instead the endless ocean of God’s mercy. Perhaps prayer is after all the central occupation of a human life, why we are here. Annie Dillard thought it was:

The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega, it is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blinded note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to “World.” Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.

(Teaching a Stone to Talk)

 

To stand still, listening…

…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.

Craig Barnett, Transition Quaker – The Way of Practice

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”. We Quakers easily fall into the prevailing patterns, however much we attempt to be gentler and more tentative in expressing them. (I recall a conversation with a Tory MP who had met with a group of Quakers, and who told me, “They didn’t look to me much like Conservative voters…”!) We all too often automatically assume certain political and social positions, and too readily take an adversarial stance over against the other side. In this we are no different to the members of any other pressure group, and we can tend to take and to project the attitude that the Society of Friends is little more than a kind of portal for any number of political, peace, environmental and other concerns that share a broadly pacifist, left-wing, climate-sensitive stance.

The problem, of course, is not that we are concerned, and active, with righting wrongs in the world around us. Quakers throughout our long history have done this, and an extreme quietist agenda would be no more helpful than a solely activist one. The problem, it seems to me, lies in the source of our actions. When we react from our emotions and from our convictions, rather than from the Spirit’s leading, we miss the point of being a Religious Society of Friends, and “outrun our guide”.

Alex Thomson, writing in the Facebook Quaker Renewal group:

Quakers could have a lot to offer the world, but I worry that we get caught up in taking sides. That doesn’t solve anything, human nature will still be the same, only different people will benefit and work the system to maximise their benefit. No one wins in an atmosphere of conflict. We need to help people to see a different way, a way that comes from an awareness of stillness, and the wisdom that can be found within that stillness.

What are Quakers really doing to promote this change in human nature that is required? I read things from a hundred years ago and it appears to me Quakers were more in touch with the spiritual aspect of Life than we are today. They knew Presence, we seem to a large degree to have lost our awareness of Presence? We create us and other, there is no other. We are all That of God, how do we help our brothers and sisters to see That of God within all of us. How do we create the Kingdom on earth?

Where do we go from here?

Richard Rohr writes:

The following of Jesus is not a “salvation scheme” or a means of creating social order (which appears to be what most folks want religion for), as much as it is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world. Some people are overly invested in religious ceremonies, rituals, and rules that are all about who’s in and who’s out. Jesus did not come to create a spiritual elite or an exclusionary system. He invited people to “follow” him by personally bearing the mystery of human death and resurrection. Of itself, this task does not feel “religious,” which is why it demands such faith to trust it.

This is difficult. It is far easier to imagine ourselves on the winning side of some win/lose dichotomy, as Rohr points out in the same essay. To “personally [bear] the mystery of human death and resurrection” is a far less attractive option, as the zealots who tried to co-opt Jesus himself as a military Messiah (John 6.15) realised!

Rohr goes on to say,

Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves—these are the followers of Jesus. They are the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world. The cross is the dramatic image of what it takes to be such a usable one for God.

James Nayler once wrote, “Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee.”

To stand still, listening, is our particular gift as Quakers, it seems to me. It is not for us to decide in advance where we will accept being led – what we hear in the silence, if only we can stand still enough, will lead us into truth.

The Offering of Tears

“Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah: “Go, tell Hezekiah:
Thus says the LORD, the God of your father David:
I have heard your prayer and seen your tears.
I will heal you: in three days you shall go up to the LORD’s temple;
I will add fifteen years to your life.
I will rescue you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria;
I will be a shield to this city.” – Isaiah 38.4-5

Silence becomes a temple for the offering of tears, and in that silence an atmosphere of healing emerges where in the words of Thomas Keating, anything is possible. And not only healing, also an adding of life – perhaps in quantity but certainly in quality.

And not only that, as individuals dwell in the shelter of silence receiving the divine therapy and the increased quality of interior freedom from the unconscious wounds of a lifetime, it has an impact on others – indeed, in the words of Isaiah, our consent to God’s love and presence in the silence becomes something of a shield against the ordinary thoughts and afflictions of being human amidst other humans, and a shield of grace neutralizing the afflictions of our interior thoughts. This is a rescue we all need – from our own interior negative thoughts and emotions, and from the unconscious, fear based behavior of others.

Similarly, Jesus promised: abide in me and you will experience abundant life and fullness of joy.

The Contemplative Companion

In these troubled days this is extraordinarily good advice. I myself find it very hard, nearly impossible, to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the pain of the world – and by the tendency of politics and the media, who have the power to do something concrete to heal the divisions that underlie that pain, only to inflame them.

As Lon Burnham, a Quaker in the Texas House of Representatives, said recently on QuakerSpeak,

A lot of times people think that they can make peace by doing war, and that’s just so ludicrous on the face of it. I mean, it’s almost a scientific fact of physics that if you do violence, you create more violence. The only way to avoid violence is to create peace and to create justice.

It is impossible, it seems to me, to create peace if one’s heart is not at peace with God; and impossible effectively to work for justice if one is wracked by anger and despair.

The alternative is not a selfish self-protectiveness, nor immersing oneself in the material goods of the world, but silence: a “temple for the offering of tears”. Opening oneself completely to the pain and horror of a broken world in the silence may seem like crucifixion – not for nothing was retreating to a life of prayer in the desert in the early Christian centuries known as “white martyrdom” – but it is the path to healing and new life. As Isaac Penington wrote,

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.

Who knows where the silence leads for each of us? “More things,” in the words of Alfred Tennyson, “are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of…”