Category Archives: Dying

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.

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)

 

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)

 

One Yellow Door

I’ve taken the unusual (for me!) step of writing a post to introduce a new website, One Yellow Door, because I feel the site, and its founder, are doing something irreplaceable in an country too little explored, but too often travelled in pain and darkness, without maps. One Yellow Door has been set up so that visitors can contribute if they have faced the challenges of looking after a loved one, or have struggled with making sense of faith in the light of their experiences. It’s a place where we can support one another and share insights.

The founder, Rebecca de Saintonge, is a Quaker, co-founder of LifeLines Press, a biographer, editor and mentor to new writers.

For many years an investigative journalist with the BBC and Granada Television, she specialised in programmes on social justice, the penal system and religious affairs. She has also written for a number of publications including The Times, The Telegraph, The Weekend Guardian, The Independent and Third Way.

Her book, One Yellow Door , from which the site takes its name, is a story of love and suffering, and survival; but it is also an exploration of faith. How does a traditional faith stand up in the face of such suffering? Hers did not, but years after her husband’s death she discovered a new, deeper spirituality. Getting in touch with these liberating ways of interpreting the Christian message, and with other people who asked similar questions, was a revelation. It was freedom.

As well as contributions from Rebecca herself, and from many others, the site contains an invaluable collection of resources from which to begin exploring a more radical approach to Christian spirituality.

 

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.

Giving up our little lives

There is a dim sense in us that we must always be seeking completeness; it is, after all, the spiritual (or at least, psychological) drive behind consumerism. “Get this product, subscribe to this service, and your life will be complete!” But incompleteness is the natural, inevitable state of the human being: we are small, and partial, and temporary, yet there is something deep in every one of us, however hidden from the conscious mind, that knows the infinite fullness of God as real and touchable.

It is only in the unthinkable – literally, beyond the possibility of thought – release of dying into God that that the empty heart can be loved and filled. And yet the little human thing fears to die. All it has known is its little, bounded self, and it cannot know unknowing.

Dorothy Havergal Shaw once wrote, “Even if it were possible to be a member of every church at once, there would still be incompleteness; the infinite fullness of God will always exceed our powers of understanding and obedience, even our powers to receive vision and joy.”

The paradoxical thing is that we can only touch God by laying things down: the tug of the senses, the continual reaching of the thinking mind. (Oh, these things are good in their place – only they will not bring us close to what is real.) If only we will consent to die to all we know, all we want, all we are, then our life, hidden now with Christ in God (Colossians 3.3) will find itself alive in peace, held adrift in the Ground of Being itself.

From this still place, all truth springs: all true words, and all true actions. Any attempt to avoid this self-emptying will only lead to foolishness; to give up our little lives into this death, by our practice, through our silence, is the light of life itself.

Love seems to be the quality of death

A friend told me of a recent experience she had. After reading a story of a saint who had tried to live every day as if it was the last day of his life, she decided it would be interesting to try doing this herself. And so, that evening, as she got into bed, she began to plan her last day on earth. She thought about what she would do, whom she would see, whom she would ask to forgive her, to whom she would say goodbye. She began to feel quite sorry for herself, and even reduced herself to tears, but in the end she realised she was just playing a game, so she gave it up and went to sleep.

The next morning, however, as she woke up, a very clear thought came into her mind. “What would I do,” she asked herself, “if I knew that I was dying now, this minute, that I had only a few more seconds to live?” Suddenly it was no longer a game. She was really there, at the End, alone, and there was no time left to prepare or plan. There was nothing she could do or undo. And the most astonishing thing was, she said, that after a split second of panic she knew exactly what she must do. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” she heard herself cry.

The experience was, my friend believed, one of the greatest graces she had ever received. She realised that, for her, there was only one way of dying, and one way of “practising” it: to throw herself into the arms of God, not only at the end of life, but every day, and cry for mercy. To do it so insistently, so constantly, that the prayer that came to her spontaneously at the moment of her “death experience”, as she called it, would become a ceaseless prayer of the heart, that it would shape her life as well as her death.

Irma Zaleski, Door to Eternity

Some readers might find this almost a sick, perverse little story, thinking that a mature faith should “stand on [its] own two feet before God”, and that the whole enterprise of imagining one’s own death was macabre, medieval, pathological. But I can assure you that there is nothing pathological about the nearness of death. It is a place to which each and every one of us will come, sooner or later, with no exception at all. The sooner we get used to it, the better, actually, it will be for us. I have been profoundly grateful for the couple of times I have found myself facing the probability of my own death. It is a clean place, oddly a place of great freedom and peace; but it is not, as Zaleski’s friend discovered, remotely a game.

Mercy is a word many misunderstand. Irma Zaleski again:

We tend to think of the mercy of God as his “pity” for us, for which we have to beg, for which we have to humiliate ourselves and wait trembling and afraid. This is an awful distortion of the Good News… To ask for mercy is not to cringe in self-abasement or fear, but to look towards God in trust and hope. Mercy is a “summary” of all we know or need to know about God’s love for us.

Love seems to be the quality of death. The Buddhist psychologist Kathleen Dowling Singh has written extensively on death and the dying process, chiefly in her wonderful book The Grace in Dying. She writes,

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.

This is what Zaleski, I believe, is getting at. Certainly it is what I am getting at. To practice for death 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 – and it is not so far from the self-abandonment of contemplation – then that gracious power of “loving-kindness, compassion, presence… mercy and confidence” will have the chance to manifest in our very lives, poured out for those the Way places in our path.

Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and then doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the Light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes.

George Fox, 1652