Category Archives: God

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)…

Map Making

One of the things that seem to happen in the spiritual life is that “as we mature we add experience to the original ‘deposit of faith’ and it changes us – changes how we think, speak, act and pray.” (JP Williams, Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality)  As we go on, a process of stripping inevitably takes place: a leaving behind of much that seemed essential to our comfort, our identity, even to our relationship with God.

A page further on in her study, Janet Williams writes, describing this stage of our spiritual journey as “an ascent”,

… it feels like an ascent because we find ourselves not simply exchanging one scene for another but – at least sometimes – acquiring a larger perspective, being able to see how the partial glimpses that seemed so different at the time are parts of a broader landscape, being able to reconcile and integrate what earlier seemed irreconcilable. In a sense, we don’t just leave a particular landscape as we ascend, we also leave ourselves behind, the versions of ourselves that were comfortable in the old places. In another sense, what we leave behind is God – a version or view of God, that is. Just as the higher up we stand, the bigger the horizon is, so too with God; as Augustine says, ‘God is always greater, no matter how much we have grown.’

…although we have to be careful not to mistake this, there is a kind of growing distance from earlier concerns: not that we cease to care about injustice or unkindness but that we are less narrow in our sympathies.

Memory, or rather, remembering, plays its part here. Thinking back over the path that led us here, we can see that, “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?” (Proverbs 20.24)

This is often partly repentance as much as recall, even as we remember the places where we stumbled painfully among the rocks, or strayed off the way altogether for a while. But remembering allows us to see the pattern, see the way we have been led. As the author of Proverbs goes on to say, “The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord, searching every inmost part.” (20.27) Our self-awareness illuminates a map, almost, of our leading. Not only do we see God’s hand in all we have done, guiding us even when we have missed the path, but we see the way back: back to incarnation, back to the life of creation, to the pain and need of the world – the things by which we were drawn to prayer in the first place…

In the Landscape of Silence

Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

John 14:6-14 NRSV – Gospel reading for May 1, The Feast of St Philip and St James

Famously, this is a passage that universalists stumble over, seeing it as a prime piece of spiritual imperialism on the part of the Gospel writer. But it occurred to me this morning, when the Gospel was read in our local parish church, that there is another way entirely to read it.

I don’t believe Jesus is saying anything exclusive about only being saved if you accept him as your personal saviour, in the old tent mission sense, or about the followers of any other path not being saved. It sounds to me as if he is saying something much more like this: you are only going to encounter God if you come to realise that, as the Augustinian Father Martin Laird wrote in Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation“union with God is not something we are trying to acquire; God is already the ground of our being. It is a question of realising this in our lives.” Living so close to Jesus during the three years of his ministry, the penny should have dropped for Philip. Jesus lived more closely than anyone with that realisation at the centre of all he was and did; for he, Jesus, of all people, “walk[ed] cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” (George Fox)

Likewise, some worry about Jesus’ remark at the end of this passage, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” I asked, they say, for world peace – or a Mercedes Benz – and I didn’t receive it. Don’t work none.

In a later book, Martin Laird writes,

But when we petition God for anything over a long period of time, something else begins to happen; we are brought into the depths of God and are joined with God’s will. The fourth-century Syrian monk Denys the Areopagite explains how this works. He tells us to “picture ourselves aboard a boat. There are ropes joining it to some rock. We take hold of the rope and pull on it as if we were trying to drag the rock to us when in fact we are hauling ourselves and our boat toward that rock.” Denys provides a useful metaphor. We think we know what we need and attempt to bend God to our will, but the more we pull, the closer we are drawn into God’s will. Denys continues, “We will not pull down to ourselves that power which is everywhere and yet nowhere, but by divine reminders and invocations we may commend ourselves to it and be joined to it.” We pray to God for this and that. Often these things are important, but gradually we are united to God through our many requests and even in spite of them.

Conversely, our journey into the open, silent saltmarshes of the spirit is no solipsistic attempt at what is so commonly called self-realisation. Laird again, “There is an intercessory dimension to interior silence; for interior silence and compassionate solidarity are all of a piece, like spokes leading to the hub of a wheel… Only on the rim of the wheel of daily life do we appear to be separated from each other, but if we follow each spoke from the rim to the hub, all the spokes are one in the centre. We each share the same Centre.” And it is that centre that is Christ in each of us.

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)

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…

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.