Category Archives: Faith

An Experimental Faith

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The rebuttal to every antagonism to religious truth cannot be mainly by way of intellectual argument. If there is an essential rebuttal, it is in the experiential certainty of God that is given in faith. The contemplative life by its nature displays an enhanced intensity of this certitude of God. For contemplatives, it would seem laughable, absurd, preposterous to suggest that God does not exist. The years of mysterious and sacred contact with him are too significant and strong. The yearning for God in the soul has become the irrefutable realisation of his presence near their soul. Long before the contemplative becomes deeply aware of this truth, however, there are always intimations of his personal presence. These are gifts that must  be recognised if a soul is to be seized by a deeper hunger for prayer. And in many cases, the secret expressed to a life by the hints of divine presence is a quiet one. Nonetheless, it is never completely undetectable, and any soul that crosses a threshold to a passion for prayer can look back at many encounters that reveal the presence of God in other lives and naturally in one’s own life.

Donald Haggerty, The Contemplative Hunger

A Friends’ meeting, however silent, is at the very lowest a witness that worship is something other and deeper than words, and that it is to the unseen and eternal things that we desire to give the first place in our lives. And when the meeting, whether silent or not, is awake, and looking upwards, there is much more in it than this. In the united stillness of a truly ‘gathered’ meeting there is a power known only by experience, and mysterious even when most familiar. There are perhaps few things which more readily flow ‘from vessel to vessel’ than quietness. The presence of fellow-worshippers in some gently penetrating manner reveals to the spirit something of the nearness of the Divine Presence. ‘Where two or three are gathered together in His name’ have we not again and again felt that the promise was fulfilled and that the Master Himself was indeed ‘in the midst of us’? And it is out of the depths of this stillness that there do arise at times spoken words which, springing from the very source of prayer, have something of the power of prayer – something of its quickening and melting and purifying effect. Such words as these have at least as much power as silence to gather into stillness.

Caroline E Stephen, Quaker faith & practice 2.39

Quakerism has been called an experimental faith, drawing on George Fox’s recorded encounter with a voice which said, “‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [i.e. hinder] it? And this I knew experimentally.”

Hebrews 11 opens, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” The encounter with God Fr. Donald Haggerty describes is not one of intellectual assent, nor of empirical demonstration. The inner encounter with God in contemplative experience, whether in Quaker worship, or in any of the classical disciplines of Christian contemplation, is not something which can be demonstrated to a third party: it is an entirely inward experience. It is real nonetheless; in some ways, and in certain circumstances, it is more real than the evidence of the senses, silent and hidden though it is. For anyone who has genuinely encountered God in the silence of the heart, any suggestion that he does not exist, or that the transcendent is illusory, is indeed absurd. (A powerful and remarkably sensitive allegory of this is found in Puddleglum’s speech in CS Lewis’ The Silver Chair, towards the end of Ch. 12.)

Perhaps we need, among Friends, to recover our confidence in our own experience. In the traditional churches, and indeed in many of the more recent offshoots of the Protestant church, contemplative experience is not often discussed, and is all too frequently misunderstood. But Quakers have lived a contemplative faith from the very beginning, a faith rooted in the direct encounter of the worshipper with God. It has become vitally urgent that we, of all people, come back to our roots, and once again offer our shared experience to the wider community of faith. We are few in number, but we have never been numerous – in our work for peace, for social justice, we are still known for a strength far beyond the numerical. But in his speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 1947 – it was awarded jointly to Friends Service Council in London and American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia – Gunnar Jahr said,

The Quakers have shown us that it is possible to translate into action what lies deep in the hearts of many: compassion for others and the desire to help them – that rich expression of the sympathy between all men, regardless of nationality or race, which, transformed into deeds, must form the basis for lasting peace. For this reason alone the Quakers deserve to receive the Nobel Peace Prize today.

But they have given us something more: they have shown us the strength to be derived from faith in the victory of the spirit over force.

The strength derived from faith is a spiritual strength, and it comes from our experience of the nearness of the divine presence, as Caroline Stephen pointed out in the passage above. If we are to continue to have anything to offer, to ourselves, to the world, or to God, we must be prepared, with Isaac Penington, to “sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart,” and return to our home in the silence of our faithful listening, where we become as it were aerials for the Spirit, receiving stations for grace that we may not even ourselves understand.

Quiet and Inconspicuous?

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At this point in modernity, a deeply ingrained antagonism to an authority of truth beyond self has become a serious obstacle to religious faith. Determining truth for oneself has replaced a need to receive truth from the unquestioned authority of religious tradition. For many people, questions of ultimate religious import, if they are a concern at all, must be decided without interference, exclusively for themselves. And that often means an idiosyncratic formulation, an amalgam of vague religious notions culled and constructed from disparate sources. It is the truth for oneself that alone matters, if truth is sought at all… Pride and a self-sufficient intelligence make… humble submission unappealing, if not impossible…

It is an opposite orientation by which contemplative life prospers. The contemplative soul thrives only by a reception of truth from a source in the Church, which requires, not just the soul’s faith, but an act of love. Submission in faith to the doctrinal truth of Christianity is a loving act, which deepens precisely in prayer. Truth for a contemplative is never a discovery simply from searching and effort: it comes always as a gift. More intensely, perhaps, than an ordinary believer, the contemplative is aware that faith is a great gift and the reception of truth depends necessarily on a source for truth. The contemplative’s love for truth cannot be separated from a love for the Church and for the vast witness to truth embodied in the Church’s teaching. The common disposition of a true contemplative to prostrate the soul in awe and gratitude before Catholic teaching reflects this attitude of dependency. Truth is embraced only in love and must be received in humility.

Donald Haggerty, The Contemplative Hunger

British Liberal Quakerism appears to be in a state of radical transition between a complex past and an uncertain future. Yet, it is at least arguable, that the future is so uncertain precisely because Liberal Friends exist in a state of increasing unease about their past. ‘God’, ‘Christianity’ and ‘Christ’ seem to act as uncomfortable presences within the Society at large, like a cluster of disturbing ghosts stalking some old corridor rattling their chains. As a consequence, our Society no longer assumes a straightforward identification with the life and teachings of Jesus.  This is of course a completely understandable development. The matrix in which British Friends operate is a pluralistic and secular one. And since our faith is not isolated from our lives of work, family and leisure, this is having a great impact on our Meetings. People now come to us from diverse backgrounds and cultures seeking succour from us as a spiritual community. Many have fled from authoritarian or hierarchical expressions of Christian church and theology. Others have come from different faith-traditions; Jewish, Buddhist, Pagan, seeking shelter and sustenance. For such folk, Jesus is probably the last person they want to talk about. He is a symbol of all they have run away from; suffocating dogma, unflinching moralising, and institutional naval-gazing. Such seekers may come to meeting with the impression that the reason why Liberal Quakerism is ‘liberal’ is because it has deviated from historic Christianity. Yet, I would argue that the ‘liberal’ character of modern British Quakerism; its diversity, its inclusivity, is not a deviation, but an echo of George Fox’s provocative Christian revelation that Jesus ‘had come to teach the people Himself’.

How so? British Quakers are a gathering place for many paths because we are fundamentally nourished by a story and a heritage, which calls for the unity of the world, and the unity of creation. Yet, this call is not grounded in some generic ‘John Lennon-like humanism’ but has a particular shape. It subsists, not in grand utopian plans, much less the dismissal of heaven, but in peace, humility, and the renunciation of power. It is a faith with a face, the face of Christ.

Ben Wood, from Reflections on Liberal Quakerism and the Need for Roots

Do we have a problem here? On the face of it, Fr. Donald Haggerty, a (Roman Catholic) priest of the Archdiocese of New York, currently serving at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, is writing here as spokesman for precisely the “authoritarian or hierarchical expressions of Christian church and theology” that many contemporary Quakers have fled. But British liberal Quakers are in many ways facing just the crisis of faith that Fr. Haggerty describes. Five years ago, on his blog Transition Quaker, Craig Barnett wrote:

…over recent decades Liberal Quakerism has unmistakably declined in numbers, and in spiritual coherence and vitality. Although many Friends are very active in a huge range of social action, we no longer have a shared language with which to communicate our spiritual experience, or a shared understanding of core Quaker practices such as Meeting for Worship, testimony or discernment. We have retreated from sharing our spiritual experience with each other or with the wider society. Consequently we have shrunk to a group of predominantly White, middle class retired people, while complacently assuring ourselves that ‘people will find us when they are ready’, without the need for any action on our part.

We have cultivated a marked hostility to spiritual teaching, insisting that ‘Quakerism is caught not taught’, and as a result many Friends who have been members for decades remain ignorant about traditional Quaker practices and spirituality. We have developed a hostility towards any suggestion of leadership or authority, and by failing to encourage and support each others’ gifts and leadings we have deprived ourselves of direction. We have become collections of like-minded (because socially similar) individuals, rather than true communities of people who are both accountable to and responsible for each other.

We have rejected the Quaker tradition, with its embarrassingly fervent early Friends and old-fashioned religious language, and ended up with a Quakerism that is almost evacuated of religious content, in which our spiritual experience is something ‘private’ that we cannot share with each other. Consequently we have little to offer to people who are seeking a deeper spiritual reality beyond an accepting ‘space’ for their own solitary spiritual searchings.

In many Quaker meetings today there is a deep uncertainty about spirituality, and about the possibility of spiritual leadership of any shape or form. This at times seems to show itself in an insecurity and an anxiety about the role of elders, and about the exercise of eldership. Quaker faith and practice 12.12 states:

It is laid upon elders… to meet regularly to uphold the meeting and its members in prayer; to guide those who share in our meetings towards a deeper experience of worship; to encourage preparation of mind and spirit, and study of the Bible and other writings that are spiritually helpful; to encourage individual and united prayer in the meeting…

How is this possible in an atmosphere of “marked hostility to spiritual teaching,” amongst “a Quakerism that is almost evacuated of religious content”?

Earlier in his book quoted above, Donald Haggerty writes:

There are paradigm shifts in the history of spirituality as there are in the history of science or law or technology. There are major innovations at certain periods in the radical pursuit of God. Options in spirituality that earlier did not exist suddenly become possible, attracting a contagious, expansive response. These transitions occur precisely when a hunger for God intensifies without a corresponding opportunity present in the current structures of spirituality for satiating it. Assuaging that deeper yearning for God demands something more radical. The innovation then arrives as a supernatural response to the desire for a more radical offering to God.

Haggerty goes on to give some examples: the flight to the Syrian and Egyptian deserts after the institutionalisation of Christianity in the Roman empire in the early 4th century; the innovation of the mendicant life in the medieval period under Francis of Assisi and others; the Jesuit revolution in the Catholic Church after the start of the Protestant Reformation, and so forth. Perhaps we might be permitted to suggest adding to the list the beginnings of Quakerism in the mid-17th century?

Fr. Haggerty goes on:

The question now is whether another paradigm shift in spirituality is taking place–in this case a quiet and inconspicuous one, yet quite real nonetheless. A yearning for more prayer and for deeper prayer seems to be spreading… A contemplative movement of spiritually linked souls, joined invisibly in many cases by a love for the silent prayer of Eucharistic adoration, may be somewhat hidden by its nature and go unnoticed and yet be a leaven of much grace and conversion throughout the Church in this new century…

Contemplative life cannot prosper in detachment from the contemporary crisis in belief. It would betray itself by disappearing behind walls, retreating into the breezes and shades of a garden enclosure… Day-to-day perseverance in what may be an obscure and dark faith is always a triumph over the dismissal of faith that seems to gain increasing ground in the current time… And this divine action of grace may be effective in a unique way today especially because of contemplative souls who remain living and working in the world.

Craig Barnett again:

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.

Perhaps we are at a crossroads in the life of faith that extends far beyond the apparently opposite communities of the Society of Friends and the Catholic Church. Perhaps we might consider that we may both – and the many denominations and movements in between – be experiencing a call that has as much to do with the environmental, political and cultural struggles in the world at present as it does to do with any loss of faith. As a society we are facing unprecedented change, and there is more to a prophetic response to change than making speeches. Change hurts. Things die, and things are born in pain and uncertainty. The world so needs those who will sit down beside it, and listen to it, and weep with it.

Let us be still for a while, and remember Isaac Penington’s advice to:

…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.

Silence is a curious thing…

Silence is a curious thing. It is not by any means merely the absence of noise, but a stripping away of much that occupies our waking minds – thought, conclusion, classification, knowing. We operate in definitions, boundaries, alternatives, and what we encounter in silence lies beyond all distinctions.

We sit in meeting for worship, held in the presence of Friends, or alone, our minds quietened with our own practice, be it watching our breath, or something like the Jesus Prayer, and our discursive, directed mind falls away to a background murmur (or gabble, if we’re having a bad day!) to leave a brilliant darkness, an unknowing awareness that is permeable to the Spirit; it is a place where we may find ourselves exclaiming, with Jacob (Genesis 28.16), “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”

More and more I am convinced that to remain hidden (Colossians 3.3) with Christ in God, unknowing, is at least for me the narrow path to God’s own presence, where even our own steps are unknown to us (Proverbs 20.24); God who is entirely beyond our own comprehension, whose name can only be a pointer, as Jennifer Kavanagh says, to something beyond our description. In silence itself is our hiddenness, our unknowing, where God waits within our own waiting (Isaiah 30.18)…

What Silence Is For

It has always seemed odd to me, over the relatively short time I’ve been seriously involved with Friends, that we of all people should have run into problems over language for our experience. As David Boulton writes (God, Words and Used. Helen Rowlands)

That some believe in God and others do not, or that some understand God language as in some sense ‘factual’ while others perceive it as intensified poetry, has become a problem for Friends. But my impression is that for many others it is no problem at all. In many, many meetings up and down the country, theists and non-theists meet together, work together, support each other, without tension or any deep concern over theological difference. We share clerkships, eldership and the routine offices. We are Friends together…

I have long felt that part of our problem is in fact not theological at all, rather linguistic. As long ago as 1908 Hilda Clark wrote,

One thing I understand now is that one’s intellect alone won’t pull one through, and that the greatest service it can perform is to open a window for that thing we call the divine spirit. If one trusts to it [the intellect] alone it’s like trusting to an artificial system of ventilation – correct in theory but musty in practice. How I wish it were as easy to throw everything open to the spirit of God as it is to fresh air.

In the book I quoted from yesterday, Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality, JP Williams writes

The problem for any object of thought is that even when we grasp it, we can only say what it is like in and to our grasp – whereas when it comes to the divine, we can touch or be touched but cannot comprehend, cannot enclose the divine in our fist, cannot get our hands to circle it or our ‘heads around it’. The distinct impression we get is that it’s the other way around: we are in God’s grasp, he comprehends us. God simply won’t be ‘an object of thought’: it’s not in the power of the dividing and distinguishing intellect but in the power of desiring, tentative, unifying love, to approach the divine.

Almost more telling, at least from a Quaker point of view, is a remarkable passage Janet Williams quotes from Michael Sells’ Mystical Languages of Unsaying:

The formal denial that the transcendent can be named must in some sense be valid, otherwise ineffability would not become an issue, Insofar as it is valid, however, the formal statement of ineffability turns back upon itself, and undoes itself. To say ‘X is beyond names’, if true, entails that it cannot then be called by the name ‘X’. In turn, the statement ‘it cannot be called X’ becomes suspect, since the ‘it’, as a pronoun, substitutes for a name, but the transcendent is beyond all names… I am caught in a linguistic regress… The authentic subject of discourse [God] slips back continually beyond each effort to name or even deny its nameability.

Sells may have nailed something here that we Quakers might have seen coming long ago, and fallen into the silence “before God” for which we are known. Words fail us. Of course they do. We are only human, and words are tools of ours. Trying to apply scientific or philosophical terms to that which we encounter in worship is like trying to dig up encaustic tiles with a carpenter’s chisel – you won’t make much of an impression on the tiles, and you’ll ruin the chisel. Silence is the proper tool, and waiting is the way it’s used. Emilia Fogelklou explains as well as anyone I’ve read:

But then one bright spring day – it was the 29th of May 1902 – while she sat preparing for her class under the trees in the backyard of Föreningsgatan 6, quietly, invisibly, there occurred the central event of her whole life. Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ‘empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.

The first words which came to her – although they took a long time to come – were, ‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ The child who had cried out in anguish and been silenced had now come inside the gates of Light. She had been delivered by a love that is greater than any human love. Struck dumb, amazed, she went quietly to her class, wondering that no one noticed that something had happened to her.

In worship there is an encounter which does not yield, cannot yield, to words. Meister Eckhart knew this, and used the term istigkeit, isness, which is perhaps as good as we can can get.

Quakers and others are sometimes frustrated when they attempt to read Scripture, especially the New Testament, and find a lack of exactitude, a sense of not being able to pin down, what the authors are getting at. (In the Old Testament this more often shows itself in endless apparently irrelevant or even objectionable histories and legalities, or impenetrable apocalyptic prophecies.)  But the Bible doesn’t set out, despite the things fundamentalists sometimes say, to do science or philosophy. Its many authors – who lived in societies and among traditions very different from our own – are merely trying to give an account of an encounter, that is all, or of the effect that encounter has had on them. Quaker ministry sometimes tries to do a similar job…

In meeting for worship, and in the practice of eldership that defines and protects our meeting, Quakers have developed a practice which is uniquely capable of understanding the apophatic (that is, of knowledge of God, obtained through negating concepts that might be applied to God), of sharing it, and of living out its consequences in relationship and action. We sometimes fail to realise the importance of this:

In silence, without rite or symbol, we have known the Spirit of Christ so convincingly present in our quiet meetings that his grace dispels our faithlessness, our unwillingness, our fears, and sets our hearts aflame with the joy of adoration. We have thus felt the power of the Spirit renewing and recreating our love and friendship for all our fellows. This is our Eucharist and our Communion.

London Yearly Meeting, 1928

The Kraken Wakes

For some reason we think that spiritual progress is marked by lack of struggle in life. [My] purpose… is to emphasise that this is simply not the case. Spiritual progress is learning to confront struggle in a new way so that we don’t struggle with the fact that life is fraught with struggle. But the practice of contemplation will expose us to many things we would rather not see but need to see if we are going to grow. Even something as potentially debilitating as depression or obsessive-compulsive behaviour finds healing salve in the practice of contemplation…

These, too, can be vehicles by which the mystery we call God breaks through and shines in awareness.

Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation

Anyone practicing the Jesus Prayer (and I believe this to be equally true of any other discipline such as Centering Prayer, the contemplative use of Holy Rosary, or Christian Meditation) will find sooner or later that they are led into waters whose floor shelves steeply away into the abyss, far out of their depth in pain and the memories of pain. At times like this the Jesus Prayer (or its equivalent) functions more like a bit of floating wreckage that we can cling to than any kind of structured prayer, though that is what it is.

The godly king of ancient Israel, Hezekiah, confronted with the besieging Assyrian army, received a letter from their king and commander-in-chief Sennacherib renewing his threat to sack Jerusalem, and warning him not to trust in God’s protection from his forces. Hezekiah’s reaction was not to surrender, nor to return boast for boast, but to go “up to the house of the Lord and spread [the letter] before the Lord.” (Isaiah 37.14)

So too the contemplative who is confronted with the siege ramps and archers of their own brokenness, their shame and the traumas they had thought to forget. There is nothing to be gained by trying to force these armies of the unconscious back to the land of repression, nor in giving way to fantasies, or running from prayer into some comforting pleasure or another. These are not distractions we can dismiss lightly, but very krakens of the mind’s deeps. Like dear King Hezekiah, our trust, even here, is in the Lord. At even the very end, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.” (Job 13.15 NIV) In our discipline our trust holds fast – the floating wreckage of our prayer is more than we can imagine. Like Hezekiah, the angel of the Lord will come to our defence by a way we had not suspected, our peace will come from a direction we had not seen, and like Elisha’s servant we shall see “the hills full of horses and chariots of fire” (2 Kings 6.17 NIV).

The fire of love can burn even in the midst of the storm, and we shall hear Jesus’ own voice, gentle and half-asleep, speaking peace and stillness to the waves. (Mark 4.35-41) Benignus O’Rourke’s words remind us,

Sometimes when people meditate or pray without words they are accused of trying to anaesthetise themselves to deaden their pain. But what we really do in our quiet prayer is to face the pain, engage with it, and transform it into energy for loving.

Finding Your Hidden Treasure: The Way of Silent Prayer

Welcoming Jesus?

In the current issue of The Friend, Michael Wright writes:

Cap Kaylor (23 and 30 March) has challenged us to enquire where our Religious Society of Friends is to look for its ‘identity and its engine’. He writes of the importance of narrative in the human search for meaning, as he points to the picture of Jesus ‘lost along the way’ but now being rediscovered.

Advices & queries 4 reminds us that: ‘The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus.’ We share a narrative with other Christians, but we value the scriptures without taking them at face value, paying attention to the Spirit that ‘gave the scriptures’ rather than abiding by the letter of them. We can learn much from the Jewish practice of finding the scriptures a source for creative thinking, rather than a theological straitjacket.

I have quoted Cap Kaylor here before:

Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, the deeper narrative from which Quakerism sprang is the Christian narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who functioned both as archetype and engine for the early Quakers. For most of our history Friends have had no trouble identifying with that Christian narrative.

The Religious Society of Friends began as a reform movement within Christianity, and for the early Friends there was no confusion when it came to identifying the Light with the historical person of Jesus. They lived and moved in a society that was saturated with a Christian ethos. The very stones around them proclaimed a Christian culture that we can no longer take for granted as they could. Embedded within a Christian milieu they found their meaning and their mission in the gospels.

We are now faced with a dilemma. That Christian milieu has long since faded, and seeds that were planted early in our own history have left Quakers uniquely vulnerable to the stresses and challenges of a materialistic and aggressively secular civilisation. The historic channels through which Christian faith has typically been transmitted were scripture, tradition, and sacramental ritual. They weave together to form the narrative that is the Christian community’s collective memory of the Jesus event…

We could do without a reliance on scripture, ordained ministry, or ritual while we lived in a Christian society that provided us with commonly held ethical presuppositions and a vocabulary to interpret our spiritual experiences. But that time has now past. However, without the force of at least an ostensibly Christian culture, where is the Religious Society of Friends to look for its identity and its engine?

Michael Wright proposes that:

…a narrative – sourced from the gospels, focused on truth and integrity, community fellowship, trust and service, health and wellbeing, valuing every individual, with concerns for justice, peace and for our environment – has real power to inspire and motivate. It draws creatively on the Christian tradition, but finds little or no sustenance in the words of too many hymns, liturgies and doctrines.

Michael concludes his thoughtful and engaging piece with an appeal for direct contact with Friends “interested in sharing experiences and insights and in developing such a narrative.” In The Friend magazine Michael publishes his email address, which is thus freely accessible to subscribers; here, on the open web, I feel I should not do so; but if anyone has no subscription to the magazine, they’re welcome to send me their own email address, and I’ll be glad to provide Michael Wright’s.

Naming the mystery?

Prayer is not about unveiling an impersonal source of our being, nor about gaining access to some sort of basic cosmic energy, nor about diving into a greater whole. Prayer is meeting the Father’s eyes and discovering that he loves us, cares for us, and journeys at out side.

Luigi Gioia, Say it to God: In Search of Prayer: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2018

This is the sort of statement that irritates some people, Friends and liberal Christians alike, who do indeed feel they wish to see God in impersonal terms like these. The problem is one of language, of course (see much of God, words and us, ed. Helen Rowlands), but also of rather more than the bare use of that term might suggest. Too much use of the personal may awaken in some unfortunate memories of simplistic caricatures of faith taught in Sunday schools, evangelistic rallies and elsewhere, while the often studied, mannered use of the impersonal may cramp and inhibit those of us whose own natural speech uses the concepts of a Trinitarian God as the inevitable expression of their experience of faith.

Craig Barnett, quoted in God, words and us, writes,

Most Quakers who use the word ‘God’ are not speaking of an ‘old man in the clouds’, or the omnipotent and omniscient supernatural God of the philosophers. Liberal Quakerism has inherited from the wider mystical religious tradition an understanding of spiritual reality as ultimately mysterious and unnameable, This tradition uses the word ‘God’ not as the name of an external ‘being’ but as a signpost that points towards our experience of spiritual reality…

For many people the word ‘God’ has so many unpleasant association with authoritarian or dogmatic religion that it is definitely unhelpful for them. For others, it is the most natural word to express their own experience and its continuity with traditional Quaker spirituality or with other religious paths. There is no right answer here: it is simply a matter of our personal histories and sensibilities, which may also change over time in response to different experiences.

Writing in the 22 March 2018 issue of The Friend, Cap Kaylor says, in their article ‘Christ, mystery and faith‘,

Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, the deeper narrative from which Quakerism sprang is the Christian narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who functioned both as archetype and engine for the early Quakers. For most of our history Friends have had no trouble identifying with that Christian narrative.

The Religious Society of Friends began as a reform movement within Christianity, and for the early Friends there was no confusion when it came to identifying the Light with the historical person of Jesus. They lived and moved in a society that was saturated with a Christian ethos. The very stones around them proclaimed a Christian culture that we can no longer take for granted as they could. Embedded within a Christian milieu they found their meaning and their mission in the gospels.

We are now faced with a dilemma. That Christian milieu has long since faded, and seeds that were planted early in our own history have left Quakers uniquely vulnerable to the stresses and challenges of a materialistic and aggressively secular civilisation. The historic channels through which Christian faith has typically been transmitted were scripture, tradition, and sacramental ritual. They weave together to form the narrative that is the Christian community’s collective memory of the Jesus event.

To a certain degree, part of the uniqueness of Quakerism has been its rejection of scripture, tradition and ritual as the principle sources of religious authority. In their place, Friends have historically elevated the individual’s experience of the Inward Light as primary. But it might now be asked whether the very thing that made Quakerism unique within Christianity is now making it uniquely vulnerable. Without scripture, tradition or sacramental ritual, what is left to re-link us to the original narrative that gave shape and substance to what began as an explicitly Christian mysticism?

We could do without a reliance on scripture, ordained ministry, or ritual while we lived in a Christian society that provided us with commonly held ethical presuppositions and a vocabulary to interpret our spiritual experiences. But that time has now past. However, without the force of at least an ostensibly Christian culture, where is the Religious Society of Friends to look for its identity and its engine?

Prayer has a way of undercutting our assumptions and our intellectualising, our “notions” as early Friends would have said. We are so much less than we think we are, and beside the realities we encounter in prayer our ideas and our preconceptions seem, to be honest, often slightly silly.

Luigi Gioia goes on to say,

In the end the source of authentic peace and truth will have to be looked for within. The real source of certainty as well…

Here is a Professor of Systematic Theology at the Pontifical University in Rome saying something that would not have sounded inappropriate in the mouth of an early Quaker! Prayer, if it is anything, is an authentic encounter with that which is far beyond the personal as we understand it, not because it is less than personal, but because it is infinitely more. For that, my own understanding fits precisely the Triune God of the creeds. When I pray the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, I am not reciting a formula; I am praying, in the Spirit, to Christ. There are no other words for that. We humans need sacraments: we need something, whether shared silence or shared bread and wine, to link us and heal us and remake us, to make real, to ground, our experience in the flesh in which we are made. Prayer needs this grounding – it cannot live as bodiless esotericism. It needs breath, warmth, life.

Gioia again,

Not that [in prayer] pain, worry, sin, selfishness, shame, guilt, magically disappear. Not that we lose our solidarity with all our brothers and sisters who do not pray or who do not believe. On the contrary, authentic prayer makes us more compassionate: we start feeling not only our pain but the pain of our brothers and sisters as well, we start perceiving the inward groans of humanity and even of the whole of creation [Romans 8.19-23]. What changes, however, is that these groans, this pain, these worries, this shame, this guilt, become prayer, feed prayer, so that love and hope are inexplicably infused into them and they lose their bitterness, their ability to hurt us, to trouble us: in hope we were saved and when we hope we become able to wait with patience, because all things work together for good for those who experience God’s love in prayer [Romans 8.28]…