Category Archives: Grace

Getting ourselves out of the way…

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.

We know that in all things God works for good for those who love [him], who are called according to his purpose.

(Romans 8.26-28 NRSV (alt. rdg.))

Sometimes religion appears to be presented as offering easy cures for pain: have faith and God will mend your hurts; reach out to God and your woundedness will be healed. The Beatitude ‘Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted’ can be interpreted this way too, but the Latin root of the word ‘comfort’ means ‘with strength’ rather than ‘at ease’. The Beatitude is not promising to take away our pain; indeed the inference is that the pain will remain with us. It does promise that God will cherish us and our wound, and help us draw a blessing from our distressed state.

S Jocelyn Burnell, 1989 – Quaker faith & practice 21.66

For some, this may seem an odd or even offensive way of looking at things, to speak of finding a blessing within suffering, or of being blessed through suffering, especially at a time when the news is bad enough already without the media’s perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths. But just suppose, for a moment, that the apostle Paul and the astrophysicist Jocelyn Burnell both have a point. Suppose that I am not kidding myself when I recall that even, or even especially, at the times when I have been most bereft of human comfort, most at risk of harm and loss, I have felt God closest to me, and I have been most conscious of his blessed and indefatigable love. (I could go into details, but this is, as I’ve said before, not a confessional blog!) What would make the difference between a brokenness that surrenders itself to fear and pain, and one that surrenders itself to God? Let me suggest that it might be, at least for me, trust.

The Catholic philosopher and theologian, Peter Kreeft, writes:

God’s remedy for our mistrust is his infinite and all-powerful mercy, which is stronger than all our sins. God’s mercy makes holiness easy because it makes our basic task not hard penances but joyful trust. Our joy (in the form of trust) brings down God’s joy (in the form of mercy). Saint Faustina writes: “the graces of [God’s] mercy are drawn by means of one vessel only, and that is – trust. The more a soul trusts, the more it will receive.”

Hope’s intellectual component is belief that God will fulfil all his promises. Its volitional component is the choice to believe that and the choice to hold despair at bay. Its emotional component is joy, which naturally results from the belief that God will give us all good.

Trust and surrender seem almost to be the same thing. To abandon myself to divine providence is to be freed from the need to preserve myself and my means of livelihood, or, conversely, as Micah Bales wrote recently, “I don’t need to stress out about winning the struggles of this life – whether my personal worries or the grand concerns of planetary survival. Instead, I am invited to receive ‘that peace which the world cannot give.’ Offering my whole life to God, I am freed from the need to change the world…”

This trust, this surrender, of course doesn’t come just by deciding to do it. In fact, it doesn’t come by deciding to do it at all. It comes by prayer. Peter Kreeft again, writing this time of the Jesus Prayer:

In saying it brings God closer, I do not mean to say that it changes God. It changes us. But it does not just make a change within us, a psychological change; it makes a change between us and God, a real, objective change. It changes the real relationship; it increases the intimacy. It is as real as changing your relationship to the sun by going outdoors. When we go outdoors into the sun, we do not move the sun closer to us, we move ourselves closer to the sun. But the difference it makes is real: we can get warmed only when we stand in the sunlight…

When this happens, it is not merely something we do but something God does in us. It is grace, it is his action; our action is to enter into his action, as a tiny stream flows into a great river.

His coming is, of course, his gift, his grace. The vehicle by which he comes is also his grace: it is Jesus himself. And the gift he gives us in giving us his blessed name to invoke is also his grace. So, therefore, his coming to us in power on this vehicle, this name, is also pure grace. Even our remembering to use this vehicle, this name, is his grace. As Saint Therese said, “Everything is a grace.”

Prayer, trust, grace, mercy, surrender – these have to be written down as though they were separate things, contingent one upon another. But they’re not, really. They are one movement, one verb that is God – for we humans, the whole discipline consists in nothing more than getting ourselves out of the way…

Keeping still

For the last week – well, if I am honest, for the last several weeks – I have struggling with an inner disquiet, an inability to escape memories and experiences going back thirty years or more that have returned again and again to cast a shadow over the present, and in some sense still to exert over it some kind of control. As this week wore on it came to me at last that, despite all that I have written here and elsewhere, all I’ve taught and spoken of, I have consistently tried to oppose these relived memories, nightmares and conditioned reflexes with my own will and reason. I think somehow I may have been content to leave many other things in God’s hands; but on this, my trust has not been enough, or perhaps I have simply thought that it was my responsibility to sort out what I had allowed so long ago. At the end of my own resources, finally, I gave up. I lay down in stillness in the middle of the day, looking to Christ in my heart; I fell asleep, and awoke at peace. I suppose that I had in plain fact come to that place the apostle Paul wrote of:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Romans 8.26-27 NIV

This morning, the Friend whose turn it was to read from Advices and queries shared a brief ministry to go with her reading of:

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

She spoke of the need for trust; that it is God who leads, and God who makes whole. Somehow her words, and the sense of their weight in her own life, closed the circle for me of this week’s culminating surrender to God.

It is stillness, once again, at the heart of this. Without stillness, our hearts are closed to the promptings of love and truth. It was William Leddra, the Quaker martyr of Barbados, who wrote:

Stand still, and cease from thine own working, and in due time thou shalt enter into the rest, and thy eyes shall behold his salvation, whose testimonies are sure, and righteous altogether.

In even the darkness, there is a gift God has, but we must keep very still to receive it. In her wonderful book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes of Jesus in prayer:

“The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction,” wrote the 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart:

Leave place, leave time,
Avoid even image!
Go forth without a way
On the narrow path,
Then you will find the desert track.

According to the Gospels, Jesus knew that track well. He made a habit of sleeping outdoors under the stars – on a mountain, if he could find one. The fact that this is reported, more than once, without any further detail, suggests that he went alone.

When he took people with him, they usually had plenty to say about it afterwards, but no one has anything to say about what Jesus did on those nights alone. Even his famous forty days and nights in the wilderness pass without comment until they are over, which is when he and the devil sort out who works for whom.

When you put this together with the fact that God speaks to Jesus only once in the entire New Testament – shortly after he is baptised by John – it seems clear that this father and this son were not in constant public conversation. Their conversation was almost entirely private, when Jesus went out on the mountain to spend the night with God in prayer.

If Jesus was truly human, as Christians insist he was, his sleep architecture was like anyone else’s. He stayed awake awhile. He slept awhile. He woke awhile later, rested a few hours, then slept some more.

When he opened his eyes, he saw the night sky. When he closed them again, the sky stayed right there. The only witnesses to his most intimate moments with God were the moon and the stars – and it was all prayer.

Once again, Paul the apostle knew this, at least in spirit. After the two verses I quoted above comes one of his most remarkable statements:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Romans 8.28 NIV

Quietly. The heart is awake in moonlight, pure reflection.

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

George Fox, 1652

A Pillar of Cloud

 

I have discovered increasingly how much I need community; not just a loose association of people who have come to live not far from each other, but the Eucharistic community that is the church. My life, outwardly at least, has been marked by wandering and change; I have not stayed long with many of the communities I have found myself part of. The one constant has been the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and in a sense all the turns and apparent blind alleys of my journey have been its outworkings…

A new post on The Mercy Blog – follow the link to read the rest of the post.

On not knowing how to pray…

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 NRSV

When we pray the Jesus Prayer as a way of coming into the Presence of God, we should not forget that it is not always an easy or painless way. We cannot approach the infinite clarity, truth and power of God without becoming aware of the abyss that separates us. This is why, in the understanding of many of its early teachers, we cannot really undertake to practise the Jesus Prayer seriously unless we first realise our own poverty and the need of God’s mercy and are willing to ask for it ceaselessly, as long as we live.

When we say the words “Have mercy on me, a sinner” – for the prayer always implies those words, even if the form we use does not include them – we must be ready to recognise that we are, in fact, sinners, in need of God’s forgiveness and healing. We must also be ready to believe that God will never refuse to grant us forgiveness, that his mercy is inexhaustible. At least we must be willing to try and believe that even if we are not quite able to do so. The Prayer of Jesus is a prayer of repentance. It is a prayer of sinners, not the virtuous.

Irma Zaleski Living the Jesus Prayer: Practising the prayer of the heart

I wrote myself, elsewhere:

Once we find ourselves on the way of the Jesus Prayer, we discover that it is not by any means a comfortable shortcut, a way out of confronting the pain and emptiness of the world. As we begin to travel this path, to pray the Prayer consistently, we find that we become more and more aware of our own pain, and the darkness that lies within our own hearts. To cry out continually, “have mercy on me, a sinner”, as did the tax-collector in Luke 18.10-14, breaks down the defences we have built up against looking directly at ourselves in the clear mirror of repentance.

We in the West have generally grown up thinking of sin as committing acts contrary to some kind of code, or list, of Bad Things that must not be done. But the Desert Mothers and Fathers don’t seem to have looked at sin like this at all. The Greek word used for sin, αμαρτία – amartia, apparently means something much more like “missing the mark” than “doing bad stuff”, as does the equivalent Hebrew term, syn

If we can get past the musty atmosphere of “owning up” which we have come to associate with repentance, and see it as taking an accurate view of ourselves in relation to God, and in relation to what we ourselves could be were we only open to love God as God loves us, then we begin to see that there really is very little difference between us and anyone – anyone – else. The seeds of cruelty and selfishness are sown deeply in all our hearts, and we cannot stand in judgement over another, no matter what they have done. This is hard, not only to identify with the pain of the victims, but with the cruelty of the victors and the perpetrators of darkness.

The country is rightly grieving over the events in Manchester on the evening of May 22nd. Christians and others all over the world must be struggling to know how to respond in prayer to events like this, which deliberately target the innocent and vulnerable in the cruellest way. It feels presumptuous, sacrilegious almost, to offer to God anything we might be able to frame in words. But to offer to God the brokenness of our hearts, our pain and confusion, our sense of injustice and our helpless concern for the victims and those who love them… perhaps this is possible without words, or with the barest framework of words, such as those of the Jesus Prayer.

We cannot know how God may use such a prayer as this. Simon Barrington-Ward writes of St. Silouan:

…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, the Jesus 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.

If we can offer to those who suffer, those who grieve, this peace that God gives to us in prayer, and return ourselves to “the darkness of separated humanity and tormented nature”, then perhaps we shall have done what we we can – unless we find ourselves, like the Liverpool taxi drivers who drove over to Manchester to offer free lifts home to stranded Liverpudlians, in a position to do something practical ourselves. Until then, we can only pray as we are led. Christ, have mercy…

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

At the Cross

Many people these days, some Quakers among them, seem to find it easy enough to conceive of God – or at least a god – as the source and ground of existence, and perhaps the Spirit – or at least a spirit – as humankind’s sense of God’s presence among us or within us. But Jesus – with or without his Christ title – seems all too often too much to take. It is hard to reduce to a metaphor or to a spiritual influence one who had so demonstrably historical an existence, and it is hard to confine to a distant historical figure one to whom the New Testament so stubbornly refers as Lord, saviour, risen one, logos…

I am not theologian enough to attempt an effective Christology, let alone one in the space of a blog post – Rowan Williams, among recent writers, does this most succinctly and comprehensibly in his God With Us (2017) – but I do know that my own encounter with God in prayer would not be possible without Jesus. Let me explain, if I can. God as the metaphysical ground of being seems to me to be a proposition without which nothing makes sense at all, and yet God in this sense is on the one hand so abstract, and on the other so vast and so beyond comprehension, that addressing him (it?) in prayer would be like engaging in conversation with the Standard Model of particle physics, only more so. Subjectively, for me at any rate, the Spirit is too much like the New Testament image of the wind – pneuma – invisible and intangible, except as it affects what it touches. But Jesus… If Jesus somehow embodied the love, and the presence, of God, and if his crucifixion remains a sign and a medium – a sort of spiritual hyperlink – to the love of God, then everything would be different. Is different, if my experience is anything to go by.

Rowan Williams:

The cross is an example to us but also an example for us. It is, in the old sense of example, a ‘sample’ of the love of God. This is what the love of God is like: it is free and therefore it is both all-powerful and completely vulnerable. All-powerful because it is always free to overcome, but vulnerable because it has no way of guaranteeing worldly success. The love of God belongs to a different order, not the order of power, manipulation and getting on top, which is the kind of power that preoccupies us… It allows us to say that the love of God is the kind of love that identifies with the powerless; the kind of love that appeals to nothing but its own integrity, that doesn’t seek to force or batter its way through. It lives, it survives, it ‘wins’ simply by being itself. On the cross, God’s love is just what it is…

God’s love for us, temporary and powerless as we are, somehow reaches us through this spiritual hyperlink that is the cross, and it is the crucified Jesus to whom we turn for mercy.

Mercy is to me the heart of prayer – and not only because it is the Jesus Prayer that is the centre of my own prayer. Cynthia Bourgeault writes:

…When we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional – always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being. Just like [the] little fish swimming desperately in search of water, we, too – in the words of Psalm 103 – “swim in mercy as in an endless sea.” Mercy is God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.

The cross is “God’s innermost being turned outward… in love” – and it is at the cross that, in the words of the Vineyard song, we find mercy and grace.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

Fields of Grace

We do not manufacture our own existence. However much we may seek to emulate Frank Sinatra doing it his way, the best we can do with our “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver) is to improvise a little over the chords we have been given. We live by grace, by gift.

Satya Robyn writes, “Every day we are provided with oxygen, a place to live, food that has been grown and prepared by strangers, love from our friends and families… ” She goes on to speak of the humility that comes with this realisation: a humility that is “a very realistic appraisal of our conditions and of our [imperfect] nature which leads to a natural sense of contrition. Contrition is the gate through which grace can enter.”

All that exists rests in the ground of being. It cannot be otherwise – that is what being means. At the very root, the fundamental source of what is, we must come to isness itself, Meister Eckhart’s Istigkeit. It matters more than we might think how we describe it, as Rhiannon Grant discusses in her recent talk for the Nontheist Friends Network conference at Woodbrooke, and yet as she points out there is behind all our words that which is forever beyond words, and cannot be held by them. I suspect that this is the insight behind the opening of John’s Gospel,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.1-5)

When things come into being, then we can encounter them, speak of them, but not before. Perhaps this is why Jesus, the Christ, the anointed of God, could say to Philip – who had asked him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” – “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14.8-9) It is only in whatever process of coming-to-be is represented by the term “incarnation” that we can encounter God. (A Buddhist might say, in parallel, that it is only in the person of a Buddha that we can encounter the Buddha Field – only in the living encounter with Amitabha in the Nembutsu, say, can we come to the Pure Land.)

But not being able to put into words the ground of being, isness, God, as apophatic theology rightly asserts, doesn’t mean at all that these encounters are not possible; it is only that entirely unmediated encounter is not possible, as Moses found when he could not see God face to face (Exodus 33.17-23). In the silence of meeting for worship, in the stillness between the words of the Jesus Prayer, is the Light. It is within each of us, closer than our own heartbeat, nearer than the beautiful chemistry by which we breathe and live. William Penn saw this so clearly:

If you would know God and worship and serve God as you should do, you must come to the means he has ordained and given for that purpose. Some seek it in books, some in learned men, but what they look for is in themselves, yet they overlook it. The voice is too still, the Seed too small and the Light shineth in darkness. They are abroad and so cannot divide the spoil; but the woman that lost her silver found it at home after she had lighted her candle and swept her house. Do you so too and you shall find what Pilate wanted to know, viz., Truth. The Light of Christ within, who is the Light of the world and so a light to you that tells you the truth of your condition, leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvellous light; for light grows upon the obedient. It is sown for the righteous and their way is a shining light that shines forth more and more to the perfect day.

Qfp 26.44

Holding God fast…

Sometimes I believe that as Quakers we can tend to overthink things, things in our practice and procedures, in our response to politics, our response to other communities of faith. There are many possible reasons for this, and almost as many reasons why it’s one of the Quakerly traits I am most prone to living out myself. In the same way as our being of a certain age, and educational background, and, in some places at least, a certain race, it’s a self-perpetuating thing. Like attracts like, and is strengthened.

I don’t propose, though, to spend this blog post analysing Friends, nor even analysing myself, nor to spend it looking for reasons or excuses or corrections for this sometimes unhelpful tendency to subject everything to analysis. I want to call us home.

George Fox, as a young man, spent several years travelling through the East Midlands and the East and West Ridings of Yorkshire, and there he encountered religious groups of various kinds. You can read some of his journal entries in the first few sections of Quaker faith & practice Chapter 19. Fox spoke with priests, with separated preachers, and with “the most experienced among the dissenting people”, to paraphrase his own words, and heard many of their arguments and their learned disquisitions. He came close to despair, realising that,

there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard 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.

Ofp 19.02

It is in this direct encounter with God, through this experimental faith, that our flustered, overburdened minds find rest. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote, “God can be held fast and loved by means of love, but by thought never.”

Cynthia Bourgeault writes,

“Love” is this author’s pet word for that open, diffuse awareness which gradually allows another and deeper way of knowing to pervade one’s entire being.

Out of my own three decades of experience in Centering Prayer, I believe that this “love” indeed has nothing to do with emotions or feelings in the usual sense of the word. It is rather the author’s nearest equivalent term to describe what we would nowadays call nondual perception anchored in the heart.

And he is indeed correct in calling it “love” because the energetic bandwidth in which the heart works is intimacy, the capacity to perceive things from the inside by coming into sympathetic resonance with them. Imagine! Centuries ahead of his time, the author is groping for metaphors to describe an entirely different mode of perceptivity.

Here is the key, I think, to our contemporary heart-searchings over theism and nontheism, Christian Quaker and universalist Quaker. If God is God, then by definition he is “beyond all definition of ours” (Samuel Fisher, 1661).

We are small and very temporary creatures on a small planet somewhere in the vast web of a universe thought to be in the region of 91 billion light-years in diameter, containing around 300 sextillion stars. How would we be able to hold in our dear and glittering minds the ground of all that being – and all that is, unimaginably, besides?

All we can do, it seems to me, is to keep silence, and wait. Only in the dark of that unknowing – that relinquishment of knowing – will come our own most real and lived experience, the presence and Light of that which is within and beyond us, as it is within and beyond all things. In itself it is No Thing, for it is without limit or beginning, and is not dependent; yet within it all things live, and move, and have their being – loved even, and held beyond time and distance.

All we can do is find some way – whether it be sinking down into the silence of our joined worship, down to the seed of which Isaac Penington spoke, or whether it be the a practice like watching the breath, centring prayer, or the Jesus Prayer or the Nembutsu – of ceasing to try and know or be or do anything, and let God’s Spirit come into the heart in God’s own time. All we can do is be still; all we can give is love.