Category Archives: Hope

Channels of Grace

This morning we held a short meeting for worship, before the Christian Aid Big Breakfast. There is something about meeting early, just a few of us in the shadowed meeting room, with the light of a rather grey and showery morning filtering through the long windows, and we were nearly at the end of the particularly sweet silence that had settled over us when a Friend rose to give ministry.

She spoke of gratitude, and the need, despite the fact that she was living in a time of personal peace and happiness, of developing a habit of gratefulness that could outlast happy circumstances, and sustain itself even in times of difficulty and grief. Her words touched us all, I think, and we went in to breakfast full of that blessed silence, and of the grace that had ended it.

The dictionary definitions of the word “gratitude” seem to major on the sense of obligation, and yet this is not the gratitude of which our Friend spoke so movingly. The word is indeed related, though its Latin root, to the idea of grace. As Satya Robyn points out, every detail of our existence is grace: the provision of oxygen, food, shelter, the very constitution of our bodies – all are given. 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.”

She goes on:

So is grace some kind of divine intervention…? I don’t know. What I do know is that the universe is vast and complex, and is beyond the limits of our imagination… In a world such as this, anything is possible. Maybe grace is coincidence and wishful thinking, maybe not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the concept of grace helps me to keep an open mind and heart, or not. It does. That is enough.

So is this the source of this imperishable gratitude to which we can aspire? Perhaps it is. We are only beginning, as humanity, to realise how deeply we depend on the subtle networks of our world, and on each others’ goodwill and hope. Each one of us depends, whether we like it or not, upon our neighbours and our friends, and in any church, any community of people gathered for worship, our spiritual dependence is deep and organic. If these are the roots of our gratitude, then it will endure hard times; and more than that, it will become a deep channel of grace flowing into our community, spreading its warmth and compassion, its mercy, far beyond the confines of family or meeting, and on into the world.

Spring and Things

The garden is full of birds, more each day it seems. The roving bands of goldfinches and long-tailed tits continue to sweep through, pausing to feed and then skittering on to wherever it is they’re going, but travellers from more distant places are moving in and making preparations for nesting. A pair of blackcaps, and some willow warblers, have come to join the robins and the wrens, and the shy little dunnocks, in the search for bits and pieces to add to their different nests.

The spring air is still cold, despite the sunshine, but the light is actinic, biting, picking out the young leaves and the weathered fence line with deep shadow as the sun declines past midday. The processes the turning year sets in train are complex beyond understanding, and related with an intimacy we are only beginning to grasp. The old models of creation and natural selection no longer apply in the terms we knew. Love is all that can describe this tender resurrection of what the winter laid to rest; love, and the mercy that love brings to things that wait, and are changed.

It is only as we wait, under the mercy, that we too are changed. As Robert Barclay wrote, “Not by strength of arguments or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, came [I] to receive and bear witness of the Truth, but by being secretly reached by [the] Life.”

The ground of being, unconditioned and unconditional, is what actually is; it is the source of the verb “to be” and all that flows from it – the mysterium tremendum et fascinans itself. Emilia Fogelklou, encountering this for herself unsought, one spring day under the trees, exclaimed, “This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.” All that is rests in the open hand of mercy, like St Julian’s hazelnut – somehow, this is true, beyond all that grieves, and is broken, beyond death or life itself; at the depth of all that is, love is the unfailing mercy of being.

Dreams of Summer

Now we are on the far side of the Winter Solstice; now the days lengthen, the sun reclaims its territory from the cold and the night. The earth has turned over in its sleep, and dreams of summer.

I am reminded of what has been said of the Kingdom of God, that it is here, and yet is to come. One of the things, I think, that the Nativity story is trying to tell us is that, small and vulnerable as it may appear – as in fact it is – our salvation has come. Anyone, anyone at all, can come and see.

So what is this to the Winter Solstice, and why does it matter that somehow we have come to celebrate both things at this time of year, when the sense of huge things moving, far beyond the control of humanity, is so strong upon our hearts?

We cannot yet see the change in day length, but by Christmas day a minute will have been added to the few brief hours of daylight; the earth’s course is laid in. Summer is as inevitable as the movement of the planets around our star. Perhaps that is what the Christmas story is getting at. We can scarcely see it, among the darkness of these times we live in, and yet the Light is coming, to each of us, on the far side of the dark. We have only to wait for the time; we cannot change it, put it off, any more than we can delay the seasons – there it stands, looking just like our death.

Truly, a sign will be given to us. It may be no more than the drift of a flock of coal tits through the bare trees, or the wind that sighs some time after midnight, but it will be there. The heart knows. Can we not trust our hearts?

“The cries of the world…”

I have been acutely aware of the pain of my fellow creatures over the last few days. The shocking events of the Shoreham Air Show, along that lovely stretch of coastline where I grew up, the continuing reports of atrocities in the Middle East and North Africa, a narrowly-foiled terrorist attack on a French train, worrying developments in the US election campaigns… grief, anxiety and distress lay very heavily on my heart last night.

Diane Walker writes:

We cannot ignore the troubles of the world. Our psyches are intimately entwined with the rest of creation. Every time there is a wound elsewhere, some cell in our bodies will cry out in sympathetic pain. And that which strives to be known will take whatever avenue necessary to bring the cries of the world to our attention. The invisible longs to be visible, and when we take the time to create, we cannot always predict what will emerge. The question is — what do we do with that awareness once it’s brought to the fore?

She is quite right, “that which strives to be known will take whatever avenue necessary to bring the cries of the world to our attention.” These events, and the ripples that spread from them across the media, across the hearts of those who pray, seem to constellate in a way I cannot explain.

But Diane Walker’s question, “what do we do with that awareness once it’s brought to the fore?”, demands an answer. If I try to answer for myself, please don’t think I’m being evasive, still less that I’m prescribing an answer for anyone else. All I can do is listen, “being with God, putting [myself] in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart” as Michael Ramsey wrote. Quietly, insistently drawing close to God, accepting my own detailed, vivid awareness of my sisters’ and brothers’ pain and confusion, and holding that in the light and the love that God is, is truly all I can do, all I find I am called to do. What God might or might not call me to do under other, more immediate circumstances I cannot say; I can only hope that I would have the faith, perhaps the courage, to answer. For the present, prayer is my only, and my strongest, help and refuge.

Living in a Time of Crisis

Marcelle Martin, appearing on QuakerSpeak, tells us that

Today we live in a time of crisis, and a nearness really to catastrophe on the planet that threatens the survival of the human race and all of the other species on the planet. It’s a time of great crisis — more than we know, I believe. And also a time when God is calling us to great change…

I think that everything we need in order to face the challenges and the crisis in our time are within us, and we need to bring it out because every person on the planet has a piece of that, can do God’s work in helping to restore the planet and to make this a place where love and peace prevail. But we have to change our ways. It’s a time where great, great change is needed and needed quickly, and will draw forth from us potentials that really haven’t been seen except for in extraordinary people in the past, and these are potentials that are part of everyone.

…and she goes on to say that it is only in the surrender of our own self-will, in learning to let God direct us in becoming a new kind of people, that we shall be able to realise these potentials, and incarnate God’s purposes in the world.

It is – I know too well from personal experience – all too easy to panic in the face of the extraordinary challenges we face as a planet, and to fall either into despair and apathy, or into an “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” kind of mind-set. How can one little person make any difference in so great an issue, and in any case, how can anyone, individually or collectively, know what might make a difference?

The answer seems to me to be found in the silence that lies at the heart of all we do as Friends – that lies at the heart, in fact, of all experiential faith of whatever era or persuasion. John Bellows, the Victorian Quaker printer and lexicographer, put his finger more than a hundred years ago not only on the way to truth in these dangers, but on the underlying nature of the dangers themselves:

I know of no other way, in these deeper depths, of trusting in the name of the Lord, and staying upon God, than sinking into silence and nothingness before Him… So long as the enemy can keep us reasoning he can buffet us to and fro; but into the true solemn silence of the soul before God he cannot follow us.

Quaker Faith & Practice, 2.15

Trust, surrender, silence and nothingness – we are back to the centre of our practice, of prayer itself – to the “place of inward retirement and waiting on God” that Elfrida Vipont Foulds wrote of; to the centre that is the nearness of God in Christ.

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

Hysteria or Prayer

As a race, human beings seem to be particularly prone to hysteria. The brave and compassionate Jeff Sparrow, writing recently in The Guardian, reminds us that 1890s anarchists, 1960s “skyjackers”, the followers of Bin Laden, and those recently claiming the title of jihadists, have successively inherited the mantle of “terrorism”, and the hysterical public glamour that surrounds it.

Without in any way seeking to minimise the horror and bloodshed caused by bombings and other indiscriminate violence, it is worth, Sparrow contends, considering that it is the hysteria engendered by the media coverage of terrorist events that remains in the collective psyche, rather than the events themselves or their perpetrators. That hysteria is reborn in each generation, and is easily manipulated by those in power to justify harsh treatment of those who hold unpopular views, as was seen so clearly in the McCarthyism of the 1950s.

Faith stands in stark contrast to hysteria. As Richard Rohr says, an important part of faith is “[h]aving a solid and clear ‘epistemology’ – how we know the things we know … or we are subject to the whims and fancies of any teacher.” Rohr goes on:

I hope I can add to the positive momentum of spiritual evolution. Because of my limitations and biases (as a white man, born in Kansas in the 1940s, raised in the Roman Catholic faith, educated in Franciscan seminaries), my approach to union will always be through a particular set of lenses. It cannot not be. My lenses aren’t necessarily better than others, but they are the ones I began with, and thus far they have born much fruit for others. All each of us can do is own and expose our biases, because we all have them. You do too. There is no such thing as a value free, or unbiased position on anything. My prayer, paraphrasing St. Joan of Arc, is: “If I am in your truth, God, keep me there. If I am not, God, put me there.”

I am coming to a difficult place in my own faith journey. What Richard Rohr somewhere describes as “the force field of the Holy Spirit” is tugging at me again. For all the cool scepticism of some contemporary humanist Quakers, for all the complex linguistic knots some of us tie ourselves into affirming each others’ right to speak of God or not “or whatever we call it”, my own journey is “experimental”. It can’t be otherwise. My experience, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere here, is based in prayer and leads back to prayer. It is only as a pray-er that I can be honest with myself about my own faith; seemingly, I only make sense to myself as one who prays.

Of all the aspects and qualities of the life of faith, it is the practice of prayer that seems most clearly to be the antithesis of hysterical fear. Prayer depends upon, and works within, faith; without prayer, faith (mine at least) withers.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me…

Listening to the stories…

Like so many others I have been haunted and troubled by the news coming from the Middle East and from southern and eastern Ukraine. Images from a UN-run school used as a shelter which came under Israeli fire in Gaza, from a bus overturned in Jerusalem by an as yet unknown man driving a heavy digger, from the wreckage of Flight MH17 in the beautiful fields outside Grabovo, just will not go away.

The pressure to take sides is all but overwhelming. The news media report atrocities and the responses to atrocities, the Facebook and Twitter streams are full of grief and the demands for justice. As Quakers with a history of “speaking truth to power” we seem to ourselves to be called to take sides in the appalling conflicts which have given rise to such bitter suffering on the part of the innocent.

Yet the taking of sides leads inevitably and logically to violence. Ghandi said, “There is no escape from the impending doom save through a bold unconditional acceptance of the non-violent method. Democracy and violence go ill together. The States that today are nominally democratic have either to become frankly totalitarian or, if they are to become truly democratic, they must become courageously non-violent.” We can see this clearly in the responses, both here and in the United States, to, ultimately, the events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. In the years since then, both our nations have become more nominally democratic, more effectively totalitarian.

Dharmavidya wrote recently in Amida Newsletter Number 19:

There is “little faith” and there is “great faith”. Little faith is the kind of faith that unites a practice community by separation. The community could be a branch of any religion or it could be an ideological group of some kind. Little faith is essentially about identity. It says, “We are X” with the implication that “We are X and not Y”. Little faith always relates to an out-group from which people are distinguishing themselves and, implicitly, condemning. It says, “We are the true believers who are different from the infidels,” or “We have the right practice unlike those others,” or “We are the virtuous and we oppose the sinners.”

“Little faith” leads to violence as surely as dropping something leads to its impact on ground beneath. The cries of the media, whether on Facebook or in the tabloid newspapers, for a justice which is indistinguishable from revenge, are the rallying cries of little faith – the assertion, often spoken but always implicit, that if you are not fighting the enemy then you are yourself the enemy.

Dharmavidya goes on:

Many faith groups operate in this way. Membership cements a person into a way of practice and belief and provides strength and courage to face a difficult world. Even humanistic and supposedly progressive groups can be in the same kind of mentality. How many progressive groups do you know that thrive on petitions and campaigns to condemn this or that idea or practice that is different from their own? One might then ask… But should one not condemn what is bad, cruel or corrupt? Isn’t progress a function of eliminating the bad? It is easy to see how an oppositional way of thinking comes readily to the human mind and appears to be self-justifying. Yet, it is not our way to condemn. We are not in the business of demolishing Hell; we are in the business of building an alternative; yet we cannot do such building alone and unaided; we need the help of the Buddhas.

In his recent book Consider the Blackbird: Reflections on Spirituality and Language, Harvey Gilman quotes Peter Bien (Words, Wordlessness and the Word, 1992):

Naming divides. Grammar divides, distinguishing subject from object, masculine from feminine, past from present, even the self-consciously perceived ‘me’ from the perceiving ‘I’. But silence unifies… Whether we consider the Godhead as being or becoming, language stands as an impediment whereas silence is a perfect ritualistic means to renew our connection with true reality.

In our contact with that which always stands over against, above if you will accept the term, our human dividedness, we are always at risk of losing that separate, wilful individuality with which we are named and defined. Gilman writes, later in the same chapter which opens with the Peter Bien quote:

At its most intense the question of who is communicating with whom ceases to matter. The individual is expressing him or herself with others in the presence of God or something for which ‘God’ is the agreed metaphor. Although Orthodox Judaism is wary of talk of union with God – since God is always the Other – there is blurring of the self in an outpouring into otherness. Prose becomes poetry, silence becomes music, the body dances, words become wordless.

Dharmavidya goes on:

It is important, therefore, to understand great faith. Great faith is faith that transcends difference and does not rely upon rejection. Great faith encompasses faith in great compassion and great love, great peace and great equanimity. Great love is the love of Buddha who loves all sentient beings. We might not be able to manage that personally, but we have faith in it. We have faith that that is the way of the Buddhas and it is to them that we look for refuge.

This means that while we express our faith in a particular form, such as saying Namo Amida Bu, we do not understand that expression as excluding other expressions, but as embracing them. The hundred names of Allah are simply more names for the same great faith. The prayers of Christians and the dancing of Sufis, the rituals of Confucianists, the hopes of Humanists and the sitting of Zenists, are ultimately expressions of the same essential heart. The actual practitioners of this or that approach may or may not be enmeshed in small faith just as members of our own congregation may be, but true refuge is not exclusivist. True refuge is an expression of faith on behalf of all beings.

When we say Namo Amida Bu, we are also saying “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me, a sinner”, we are also saying “Hari Krishna” and “By the mercy of Allah, the compassionate.” This is not to say that all these different faiths are really the same. They evidently all have different forms and customs and different ideas. Yet there is a parallel between the spectrum from bigness of heart to littleness in all groups, and to say Namo Amida Bu is to celebrate the prevailing of bigness of heart and bigness of faith not only in one’s own group but in all.

Language is so often defined in terms of definition, if you will forgive the pun. I mean that it is used to describe distinctions, to set apart one thing from another, so that we can think about things, tell each other things, debate things, argue about them. But Wittgenstein, as Gilman himself points out earlier in Consider the Blackbird, famously made the distinction between what language could say and what language could show. (When I was teaching creative writing many years ago, I often used to ask those who were learning to write poems to give up trying to tell us about things, and instead to show us the things themselves.)

Gilman again:

The division for me in the religious life is not between members of one religion and another, or even between sceptics, atheists and followers of religions. It is between those who include the stories of their fellow humans and those who exclude them.

Our stories are so often the places where we find ourselves, and each other. In the Australian Aboriginal world view, the Dreaming stories “cover many themes and topics, as there are stories about creation of sacred places, land, people, animals and plants, law and custom. It is a complex network of knowledge, faith, and practices that derive from stories of creation. It pervades and informs all spiritual and physical aspects of an indigenous Australian’s life.” (Wikipedia) Our stories can be told among our fellows, or they can be told in exile. But the greatest gift we can give another is to listen to their stories.

Dharmavidya concludes:

In Buddhism we have the teaching of truths for noble ones. The first truth for noble ones is dukkha. Dukkha includes having difficult neighbours. Sometimes this even means having neighbours who throw bombs over one’s borders. One might be tempted to throw bombs back. When things reach this degree of animosity something has already gone badly wrong. Too much little faith has been going on for too long already. Yet, from the perspective of great faith, one knows that there are people of good heart on both sides and those who are lost in littleness are only so because of their fear. One, therefore, prays for and takes refuge in a bigger faith that can encompass both sides. One seeks to take away the causes of fear.

The reason for dukkha is so that we can find liberation by liberating one another. Liberation starts in our hearts, extends into our open arms and finds fulfilment in expressions of love, or, it starts in expressions of love, extends into open arms and finally lodges deep in our hearts. All true religion is a reminder of this inner and outer movement. In Buddhism, we say that our neighbour is our teacher. It is through such relations that we find the barriers to our own freedom and if we find them then we can take them down. This is, perhaps, a never-ending task in our own case, but it is sustained by that greater universal love in which we find refuge and take faith. Let us, therefore, not condemn little faith, but seek always to go beyond it into that great faith that encompasses all sentient beings and is the unique and sacred vow of all Buddhas everywhere, no matter by what names or forms they present themselves.

Let us listen. And then we can pray.