Category Archives: Faith

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]…

Aerials, signs…

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Divine action is not something material: it is invisible, inaudible, unexpected, unimaginable, and inexplicable by any analogy taken from this world. Its advent and its working within us are a mystery… Little by little, divine action grants to man increased attention and contrition of the heart in prayer…

The spirit of prayer comes upon man and drives him into the depths of the heart, as if he were taken by the hand and forcibly led from one room to another. The soul is taken captive by an invading force, and is willingly kept within, as long as this overwhelming power of prayer still holds sway over it.

Theophan the Recluse, quoted in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, ed. Timothy Ware & Chariton of Valamo

Palm Sunday has a way of reminding us that we are all capable of both more good and less good than we had thought. The crowd who welcomed Jesus on the way into Jerusalem, the disciples who vowed to lay down their lives for their Lord, were the same people who later allowed themselves to be whipped up into demanding the release of a terrorist called Barabbas rather than Jesus; the same disciples who ran from the arresting officers; the same Peter who, having earlier sworn to die with him. swore he knew nothing of Jesus. We are no different; and yet there is a grace we do not suspect, working beneath all that we do, if we are open to the gift of the Spirit in us.

Bernard of Clairvaux wrote:

I admit that the Word has also come to me and has done so many times. But although he has come to me, I have never been conscious of the moment of his coming. I perceived his presence, I remembered afterwards that he had been with me; sometimes I had a presentiment that he would come, but I was never conscious of his coming or his going…

Where he comes from when he visits my soul, and where he goes, and by what means he enters and goes out, I admit that I do not know even now, as John says, you do not know where he comes from or where he goes [Jn 3.8]. There is nothing strange in this, for of him was it said, Your footsteps will not be known [Psalm 77.19]…

It was not by any movement of his that I recognised his coming; it was not by any of my senses that I perceived he had penetrated to the depths of my being. Only by the movement of my heart, as I have told you, did I perceive his presence.

We are not in the Jerusalem of the first century: we are in a strange, liminal place, all of us, and have been for a long while – since the first Easter. We do not know, any more than Bernard of Clairvaux knew, how exactly it is that the Spirit comes to be present in us, and yet

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

(Romans 8.26-27)

We find ourselves walking through the world unarmed, vulnerable, available; with the prayer of Jesus himself in our hearts always, the Spirit interceding for us with sighs too deep for words. Being present to all we encounter as prayer, rather than needing consciously to say prayers, we are present as aerials, signs, receiving stations. The mist covers the distances, and our vision is not good; but Paul knew this, too:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

(1 Corinthians 13.12-13)

An unanswerable, illogical convincingness…

CS Lewis, to his brother, on reading The Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich; and on Lewis’s deepest conviction that “all shall be well.”

21 March 1940

I have been reading this week the ‘Revelations’ of Mother Julian of Norwich (14th century); not always so profitable as I had expected, but well worth reading. This is a curious vision ‘Also He showed me a little thing, the bigness of a hazelnut, in my hand. I thought, What may this be? And it was answered, it is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for me thought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for littleness.’ Now that is a good turn given to the monkish (or indeed Christian) view of the whole created universe: for to say that it is bad, as some are inclined to do, is blasphemous and Manichean—but to say that it is small (with the very odd dream twist ‘so small it might fall to bits’), that seems just right. Very odd too is her doctrine of ‘the Grand Deed’. Christ tells her again and again ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ She asks how it can be well, since some are damned. He replied that all that is true, but the secret grand deed will make even that ‘very well’. ‘With you this is impossible, but not with Me.’

My mood changes about this. Sometimes it seems mere drivel—to invent a necessarily inconceivable grand deed which makes everything quite different while leaving it exactly the same. But then at other times it has the unanswerable, illogical convincingness of things heard in a dream and appeals to what is one of my deepest convictions, viz. that reality always escapes prediction by taking a line which was simply not in your thought at all. Imagine oneself as a flat earther questioning whether the Earth was endless or not. If you were told ‘It is finite but never comes to an end’, one would seem to be up against nonsense. Yet the escape (by being a sphere) is so easy—once you know it. At any rate, this book excites me.

From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II
Compiled in Yours, Jack

In my late teens and early twenties, I became acutely aware of my own spiritual longing, and yet, much as I read DT Suzuki,  Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley and even Thomas Merton, somehow the connection between what I read and my own experience was absent. I was not at this time a Christian, and I found that I simply could not understand the medieval Christian mystics, Julian of Norwich, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Richard Rolle, Margery Kempe and others I tried at various times to read. It was really not until I was nearly 30, and, at a very low point in my life staying at St Michael’s Priory at Willen, near Milton Keynes, that, when I was introduced to the Jesus Prayer by Fr Francis Horner SSM, something finally clicked.

Why did the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) “work” for me when other approaches, when the Cloud of Unknowing or Buddhist techniques, did not? As much as anything, I think, it gave me a way to pray – actually to pray, rather than attempting to mediate, or to produce in myself some kind of altered consciousness – when I had not any theological background. or even church experience or basic Bible teaching, or indeed anything like a cultural background in any faith, to support me, or to provide a context for this journey of the spirit on which I found myself. There was just the “naked intent” inherent in the words of the Prayer.

I have no way of knowing how Fr Francis came to “prescribe” that form of prayer, nor to point me to Per-Olof Sjögren’s little book on it, whether it was grace, insight, or whether he recommended it to everyone, but the Jesus Prayer has remained my companion ever since, through all my sometimes tangled journey of faith. It made in me, and continues to make in me, precisely that “unanswerable, illogical convincingness…” that Lewis wrote of in regard to Mother Julian’s vision of the hazelnut.

I am reminded, too, as I was most strongly in meeting this morning, of Isaac Penington’s words in Quaker faith & practice 26.70, where he describes this experience of quietness (hesychia) leading to illumination and the awareness of the presence of God that comes so often in answer to the Jesus Prayer:

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.

From the Map into the Geography

It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. ‘Look out!’ we cry, ‘it’s alive.’ And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back–-I would have done so myself if I could–-and proceed no further with Christianity. An ‘impersonal God’–-well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads–-better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power source that we can tap–-best of all. But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband–-that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Suppose we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing he has found us?

CS Lewis, Miracles

The odd thing is that some of us, Friends and others, who are caught at one or another of these stages (often at the “inside our heads” stage) feel that they are actually at a more advanced level, as it were, spiritually or intellectually, than those who take what they may call a more “literalistic” approach to faith. But this passage reminds me forcibly of my own first steps on that path.

From childhood I had had the sense of living on the edge of something – there had been moments, and more than moments, when the curtain across that edge grew thin and tattered, and the unimaginable peeped, almost, through into sunlit orchard behind our house, or called in the hollow song of the foghorn, at night across the sea beyond my bedroom window. As I grew up, I alternated between trying to escape all such considerations into the clean certainties of GCE science, and looking – increasingly – for explanations. As I dabbled in phenomenology, and began to read not only Eastern mystical texts, but a few of the Christian mystics as well, I vividly remember thinking, “This is all very well, but I need a system that lets me remain in charge… I don’t like this continual call to surrender. I’m just beginning to find me – I’m not letting go of that!”

It was not for another nearly ten years that events broke through that self-commitment, and I found I had fallen into the hands of the living God. (cf. Hebrews 10.31!) But I was under no illusion then that I had somehow slipped from an enlightened sophistication into some more primitive state – rather I had the feeling that I had blundered from the map into the geography, and the little painted rivers now thundered over their falls and rapids, and on to a sea that was more than capable of absorbing my cherished me without a trace. The mere spray soaked me to the skin…

The reality of faith indeed a matter of life and death: what then? There is an end to ideas and opinions, and to all our words. One day there will be nothing else than that: for all we have treasured will be rotted through with Light. (Matthew 6:19-21; 1 Corinthians 3.15)

“Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had,” as Richard Rohr writes in his book Immortal Diamond: The search for our true self. And death itself, perhaps, is for that true self the gate to life…

Some more unhurrying chase…

The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

John 1.29-34

Jesus, here at the beginning of the narrative of John’s Gospel, is hidden in plain sight, among the crowd assembled to hear John the Baptist’s preaching.

There will be many echoes of this first scene as we read through the Gospel. Jesus is hidden and unseen before he is revealed. He is hidden at the wedding in Cana, working a miracle through Mary. He is hidden to the woman at the well. He hides from the crowd by the lake. He goes in secret to the festival. He is hidden from the man born blind.

Epiphany is about learning to see who Jesus is: about discovering the glory that at first is hidden…

Stephen Croft, Reflections for Daily Prayer

It is very dark. Outside the window the few lights on the other side of the reservoir are patterned by the leaves that move in the cold breeze of night – ivy leaves, and the few last persistent bramble and hazel leaves, dry now, and prone to fall and scuttle before the least breath of wind like quick erratic footsteps along the path.

So much is hidden from us. Half the time it’s our own fault, with our minds filled with expectations and demands, obligations and insecurities. And yet there are so many hints of a coming epiphany – our ordinary days are filled with uncertain glimpses of a steady light – dry sounds behind us that might be leaves, or some more unhurrying chase we dare not dream…

Richard Rohr writes that “[t]he path of prayer and love and the path of suffering seem to be the two Great Paths of transformation… The ordinary path is… both centre and circumference, and I am finally not in control of either one.”

Epiphany is grace only. The crowds along the Jordan River that day could do nothing to compel the Messiah. Only John the Baptist’s listening prayer allowed him to be revealed.

Rohr again:

Once we see God’s image in one place, the circle keeps widening. It doesn’t stop with human beings and enemies and the least of our brothers and sisters. It moves to frogs and pansies and weeds. Everything becomes enchanting with true sight. We cannot not live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded and infused by God. All we can do is allow, trust, and finally rest in it, which is indeed why we are “saved” by faith—faith that this could be true.

 

In all directions at once?

I see… an infinite web of relationship, flung across the vastness of space like a luminous net. It is made of energy, not thread. As I look, I can see light moving through it as a pulse moves through veins. What I see “out there” is no different from what I feel inside. There is a living hum that might be coming from my neurons but might just as well be coming from the furnace of the stars…

Where am I in this picture? … How could I ever be alone? I am part of a web that is pure relationship, with energy available to me that has been around since the universe was born.

Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light – not captured in any of them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them – but revealed in that singular, vast web of relationship that animates everything that is.

…it is not enough for me to proclaim that God is responsible for all this unity. Instead, I want to proclaim that God is the unity – the very energy, the very intelligence, the very elegance and passion that make it all go. This is the God who is not somewhere but everywhere, the God who may be prayed to in all directions at once. This is also the God beyond all directions, who will still be here (whatever “here” means) when the universe either dissipates into dust or swallows itself up again. Paul Tillich’s name for this divine reality was “the ground of all being.” The only thing I can think of that is better than that is the name God revealed to Moses: “I Am Who I Am.”

Barbara Brown Taylor, The Luminous Web

This is, as Taylor points out a little later, not pantheism at all. She is not saying that God is everything, still less that everything is God, but that God is “above all and through all and in all” as Paul the apostle saw (Ephesians 4.6b). God is not a distant being, who occasionally deigns to interfere in the thing that he has made, but “the only One who ever was, is, or shall be, in whom everything else abides.” (Taylor, ibid.)

The question arises, of course, how one might pray to such a God. “In all directions at once”, says Barbara Brown Taylor. But what does that mean? We are so prone to think of prayer as messages between separate parts of a mechanism – us here, God there, the ones we are praying for somewhere else. But if we are not separated like that? If we, and those we pray for, and who pray for us, are in God, and God in us, then our connection is God, and what affects each of us affects each other, because it affects God.

If we really believed this, really saw it to be true, how could we go on living our selfish, antagonistic lives? How could we feel that our loss is another’s gain, or vice versa? This morning’s ministry was all about community, and the communion of community – that by living in love, in a community of love, we are witnesses, and more than witnesses: we are signs of the Kingdom, loci of Kingdom infection in the world. But perhaps we do not so much build community as realise community, and in realising it, make it real to ourselves and among each other.

To pray, in such circumstances, is then a very different thing from any conception of posting letters across time and space.

Simon Barrington-Ward writes of Silouan the Athonite:

…he began to recognise that [his sense of darkness and isolation] was in part the oppression of the absence of the sense of God and the alienation from his love over the whole face of the globe. He had been called to undergo this travail himself not on account of his own sin any more, but that he might enter into the darkness of separated humanity and tormented nature and, through his ceaseless prayer, be made by God’s grace alone into a means of bringing that grace to bear on the tragic circumstances of his time. He was praying and living through the time of World War I and the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of all that led to the Holocaust [not to mention the Russian Revolution, and at the very end of his life, Stalin’s Great Purge]. And with all this awareness of pain and sorrow, he was also given a great serenity and peacefulness and goodness about him, which profoundly impressed those who know him.

For all of us in our lesser ways, [contemplative prayer], as well as bringing us into something of this kind of alternation which St. Silouan so strikingly experienced, also leads us on with him into an ever-deepening peace. You can understand how those who first taught and practiced this kind of prayer were first called “hesychasts”: people of hesychia or stillness.

Prayer, as Daniel O Snyder writes in Friends Journal“is itself a field of engagement.” As St Silouan discovered, contemplative prayer, the practice of stillness and silence, is anything but disengagement, anything but a way out of dealing with the pain and the grief of the world, but is a way of welcoming them into one’s heart without defence, and being made in oneself a channel of God’s grace, Christ’s mercy.

Look what love has done to me…

Richard Rohr, in his series on hope in the darkness, writes:

What I’ve learned is that not-knowing and often not even needing to know is—surprise of surprises—a deeper way of knowing and a deeper falling into compassion. This is surely what the mystics mean by “death” and why they talk of it with so many metaphors… Maybe that is why Jesus praised faith even more than love; maybe that is why St. John of the Cross called faith “luminous darkness.” Yes, love is the final goal but ever deeper trust inside of darkness is the path for getting there.

My good friend Gerald May shed fresh light on the meaning of John of the Cross’ phrase “the dark night of the soul.”  He said that God has to work in the soul in secret and in darkness, because if we fully knew what was happening, and what Mystery/transformation/God/grace will eventually ask of us, we would either try to take charge or stop the whole process. No one oversees his or her own demise willingly, even when it is the false self that is dying. God has to undo our illusions secretly, as it were, when we are not watching and not in perfect control, say the mystics…

As James Finley… says, “The mystic is not someone who says, ‘Look what I have done!’ The mystic is one who says, ‘Look what love has done to me. There’s nothing left but God’s intimate love giving itself to me as me.’”

I seem myself to be travelling through this kind of territory again. The change that autumn brings is a constant reminder that God – and life in God consequently – is more verb than noun.

I know that I am continually being reminded at the moment that the word sacrament can equally well be rendered as “holy mystery”, and that, at least in the understanding of the Eastern Orthodox communion, the seven traditional sacraments of Catholic Christianity are only the main ones: that God can hallow what he will hallow, and that he touches humanity through many material means at different times. How this occurs is a mystery, but it does. The light of this evening, almost still after the earlier storms, is one.

I don’t seem to be able to predict things at all on the far side of this blessed gathering dark. All I know is that trust is at the centre of any response that may be being asked of me. The shadows lengthen with that lovely softening of dusk, and as the light diminishes, so a kind of night vision becomes inevitable and almost easy, for

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8.28)