Category Archives: Humility

It is Enough

Sometimes when I attempt to explain the practice of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, especially to Friends, someone will react along the lines of, “Oh, I hate this morbid preoccupation with sins! Surely we all need more self-esteem, not less?”

Now, while of course I sympathise with the bruised heart demanding comfort, not condemnation, I think this objection is an understandable misunderstanding. In the original Greek, as taught in the Philokalia onwards, the word for sinner is ἁμαρτωλόν (hamartolón) – a word which is not, in the Eastern Orthodox context, chiefly concerned with transgressing one of a list of Naughty Things, but with the sense of failing to be what one might be, of missing the mark. And this is a sense of sin to which I can all too readily relate!

Sin in the Orthodox Christian understanding is “missing the mark” (the literal meaning of the Greek word for sin, hamartia), falling short of the glorious purpose for which God created mankind. It is also understood as separation from God, since intimate communion with God is the normal state of mankind from which most people have fallen. Sin is imperfection, anything which fails to live up to the fullness of life in Christ for which man was created.

The Bible sometimes uses legal metaphors to refer to sin, likening it to crime, that is, crime against God’s law. For Orthodox Christianity, while making use of legal imagery, the more dominant imagery used for sin is also drawn from Scripture, and that is that sin is a kind of disease, an affliction for which salvation is the cure.

The Orthodox Wiki

In Pure Land Buddhism there is a useful, rather delightful term, bombu nature. Attractive though the word may be, the concept is a relentlessly honest summing-up of the human condition. Kaspalita Thompson writes:

Recognising our bombu nature is a hard thing to do – it means really looking at what motivates our actions, and how we are compelled by greed, and hate and delusion. It means noticing when all the stuff we have pushed into our long black bag [in Jungian terms, our shadow] starts to leak out and taking responsibility for that, and it sometimes means looking into the long bag itself and seeing what is there, in the darkest places of our psyche.

Any form of contemplative prayer will bring us face to face with this imperfect, often broken, nature that is ours by dint of simply being human. Mother Mary Clare SLG discusses this at length in her book Encountering the Depths (SLG Press 1981). She says,

When we are not attentive listeners it is not only our own personal relationship with God that will be diminished, but even possibly the direct communication between God and another person. Our dissipation of mind, instability and lack of courage to face ourselves, or to be vulnerable to others, frustrates God’s intention that our prayer be a clear pathway to the discernment of the needs of each other.

The most difficult and decisive part of prayer is acquiring this ability to listen…

In prayer, as in all our lives, we are in need of God’s mercy. If we are honest, our imperfection, our incompleteness, somehow, is at the root of who we are. When we pray, “have mercy on me, a sinner”, we are not striking a pose, nor beating ourselves up for masturbating, or eating chocolate. We are simply being realistic. In her TED talk The Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown says,

This is what I have found: To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen … to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excruciatingly difficult — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.” And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we’re enough.

And strangely, this is what accepting ourselves as hamartolón, this is what accepting our bombu nature, accepting ourselves as above all in need of mercy comes down to. We are enough, because we are loved by God. We are enough because we rest in the ground of being, incomplete as we are; because we have been given the grace to know our need of mercy, and to ask for it. It is enough.

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…

Jon Watts, his Blog, and matters following therefrom…

“Jon Watts had been making hip hop records for 5 years before he became convinced of Quakerism. Not that he wasn’t already a member…”

Jon has an excellent blog at Jon Watts Songwriter & Videographer where you can read more of his biography, listen to his music, and watch any number of videos including his recent QuakerSpeak ones. But it was a recent post that touched a nerve in my constant self-questioning of my own existence as writer, blogger and musician. Jon writes:

As Quakers, we make this fundamental, unshakeable distinction: God’s will. My will.

If we are to do the will of God, we must first let go of our own striving, our own willing. And if we are to give over our own willing, how could it ever be in good order for us to reach out for something as vain and creaturely as celebrity?

And he goes on to explain how this played out (pun intended) in his own vocation to music as ministry:

How to Be Humble
(in the Digital Age)

In the age of social media, I would argue that we are all self-promoters. We are all choosing what story to publicize about ourselves (and what stories not to).

In this new environment of constant self-publicizing, I would suggest that the question has moved from if we are self-promoting to why we are self-promoting. Social media can just as easily be a megaphone for spirit-led ministry as it can for our creaturely-attention seeking. What is it that you are publicizing? What do you plan to do with the attention?

I am lucky enough to be out of the spotlight, for the moment. My new job of directing the QuakerSpeak YouTube Channel allows me to shine that spotlight on the ministries of other Friends, and mostly to remain safely behind the curtain.

But I still post on Facebook and Twitter. I still have a YouTube channel. And I still ask myself, every time I post:

What is my primary motivation in posting this?
Is it faithful for me to post this?
Is this post from me or is from God?
What do I plan to do with the attention generated by this post? Will I enjoy it for myself or allow it to be a service to doing God’s work in the world?

And once I feel clear on those questions, I ask these:

Am I holding back because I’m worried about how I will be perceived?
How can I make this bolder and more accessible? How can I reach more people with this message that has come from God?

Do click over and read the whole post – and subscribe to Jon’s blog – it will be time well-spent, promise…

Prickles in our knees…

We moved home on the 21st of last month. Coming here to this little house has been a great joy to both of us, but it has not been without the odd hiccup. From the point of view of this blog, the fact that we still don’t have a landline connection has been the main one. We do have a temporary internet connection over the mobile network, though, and that will have to do till next week, when our ISP promises the final work will have been done.

In the meantime, I have been struck by a passage from Edgar B Castle (1961) in Quaker Faith & Practice 26.69:

There is no easy optimism in the Quaker view of life. Fox had no illusions about sin; but he asks us to deal with it in a new way. When early Friends likened God’s gift to a ‘Seed’ they did not think of it as growing inevitably into a noble tree. They were fully aware of the influences that might arrest its growth. Fox never regarded the conquest of sin as a casual undertaking. But with astonishing psychological insight he laid the whole emphasis of his method not on the sin but on the light that revealed it. By implication he was criticising those who were so obsessed with the fallen state of man that they stayed their eyes on man’s wickedness rather than on the means of his redemption. To contemplate evil is a poor way of becoming good… Fox assures his friends that light will come on conditions. These conditions were well laid down by Isaac Penington in the darkness of Reading gaol: ‘We were directed to search for the least of all seeds and to mind the lowest appearance thereof, which was its turning against sin and darkness; we came by degrees to find we had met with the pure living eternal Spirit.’

The practice of minding ‘the lowest appearance’ of the Seed involves a steady discipline. We must face the austerity as well as accept the joy of life if we are to grow. The method of this discipline is beautifully and most practically suggested in George Fox’s oft-repeated instruction, ‘Mind that which is pure in you to guide you to God.’ Here Fox displays a deep psychological insight, born of his own personal struggle. We are to use the little that we have to make it more. We are to tend the small Seed and help it to grow.

I think this humility, this readiness to acknowledge the “lowest appearance”, is one of the most precious gifts of any spirituality; and yet, perhaps appropriately, it is one of the least readily recognised.

In Quaker Faith & Practice 20.22 there is a lovely passage from a sermon by Luke Cock (1657-1740), a Yorkshire Quaker minister and butcher, which illustrates this perfectly:

My Guide led me up another lane, more difficult than any of the former, which was to bear testimony to that Hand that had done all this for me. This was a hard one: I thought I must never have seen the end of it. I was eleven years all but one month in it. Here I began to go on my knees and to creep under the hedges, a trade I never forgot since, nor I hope never shall. I would fain think it is unpossible for me to fall now, but let him that thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.

We can’t know what testimony we may have to bear, or in what company, till it is given to us; but as long as we are prepared to go on our knees and to creep under the hedges, we shall probably be OK. But that way is often cold and muddy, and the prickles left by hedge-trimming stick in our knees dreadfully…

“It will be done to you…”

You are a son or daughter of the Good and Loving God. The Divine Image is planted inherently and intrinsically within you. You cannot create it, you cannot manufacture it, you cannot earn it, you cannot achieve it, you cannot attain it, you cannot cumulatively work up to it. Do you know why? Because you already have it! That is the core of the Gospel.

A preoccupation with False Self gets in the way of experiencing and knowing this reality. The False Self is an imaginary self that thinks it’s separate; it is the self that I think I am. The False Self is what has to die so your True Self can live.

God will lead you to that new, transformed place of the True Self if you get out of the way. You don’t have to do it; it will be done to you. Don’t try to engineer your own death. That just reinforces the ego.

A situation in your life will lead you to a place, an event, a relationship, a failing or falling apart of something wherein you can’t control life anymore and you can’t understand it. Your little, separate, False Self is simply inadequate to the task. And finally, thankfully, you collapse into the larger self, who you are in God, the True Self, which is inherently beloved.

You can’t make yourself more beloved, and you can’t make yourself less beloved. You just have to one day recognize that it is true and start drawing your life from that much larger Source.

Adapted from Dying: We Need It for Life (Richard Rohr on Transformation)

You may remember I wrote in a recent post, how comparatively easy it is for me to find God in the desperate times, and how I occasionally struggle with “the strange difficulty of spirituality during times of happiness and security.”

Rohr puts his finger on it here, I think, when he says, “You don’t have to do it; it will be done to you.”

I am far too prone to try and take responsibility for my own spiritual life. In reality, there is little I can do myself. In the last year of his short life, Thomas R Kelly wrote (Quaker Faith & Practice 2.10):

In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.

William Leddra of Barbados, on the day before he was martyred in 1661, wrote (QFP 2.19):

As the flowing of the ocean doth fill every creek and branch thereof, and then retires again towards its own being and fulness, and leaves a savour behind it; so doth the life and virtue of God flow into every one of your hearts, whom he hath made partakers of his divine nature; and when it withdraws but a little, it leaves a sweet savour behind it; that many can say they are made clean through the word that he hath spoken to them. In which innocent condition you may see what you are in the presence of God, and what you are without him… 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.

What is hard for us, for me at any rate, is to stand still and cease from my own working. That feels like negligence, when it is actually faith, and irresponsibility, when it is trusting in that infinite and loving mercy that is God.

Collaboration or conflict (slight return)

Jim Wilson, writing in QuakerQuaker, takes up Madeline Schaefer’s blog post:

First, I appreciate the willingness to both name and discuss the division between the Mystics and the Activists in the Quaker Community of our day.  It is an issue that is close to me, as I think of myself as a mystic and often feel, to varying degrees, alienated from the activist focus of so many Quakers individuals and Quaker organizations.

My take on this is that contemporary Quaker activism is a part of the largely political and activist focus that contemporary American religion is gripped by at this time.  In other words, I see Quaker activism as the same as evangelical activism, or the activism of many Catholics, for various causes, for various legislative platforms, and for various candidates.

He goes on to write:

The greatest difficulty I have with your [Schaefer’s] post is that your view is that mysticism is an adjunct to effective activism rather than an end in itself.  For example, you wrote;

“To experience the Spirit is to experience a call to action and to act with the faith that the Light will be revealed—through deep listening—after each step is taken.”

You see, that is not how I experience the Spirit.  I don’t experience the Spirit as a ‘call to action’.  And this is the divide between the mystic and the activist.  The activist views contemplation, gathered silence, dwelling in the light, as tools for a more effective activism.  In this way these prayerful engagements are hijacked by the activist and are transformed into means rather than ends; they become tools for the activist in the same way that making a poster, or putting up a web-page are tools for effective activism.

What the activist does not comprehend about the mystic is that, for the mystic, interior prayer, gathered silence, is the leading, is the purpose, and is sufficient unto itself.  The mystic does not view these engagements as tools, or add-ons, for a political purpose.

Again, I would urge you to read the post for yourself. It highlights for me the difficulty in expressing the deep need for the mystical encounter of the ‘pray-er’ with God, with the Ground of Being, and for the love (inexplicable but real, David Jones’ “actually loved and known”) inherent in that Ground.

It is easy to be caught on the back foot by the activists – after all, it’s what they do – and find oneself defensively trying to justify mysticism for its practical benefits. It’s also far too easy to find oneself attributing magical properties to contemplative prayer, or else bending over far too far backwards to avoid doing so. Wilson unforgettably goes on to say:

From the activist perspective, this is inadequate.  As Howard Brinton wrote in his ‘Introduction’ to the book ‘A Guide to True Peace’, “This solution [of interior prayer] will seem too simple to intellectuals and too inadequate to activists, the two groups that dominate our age.”  This is because the activist is always outward oriented and wants to see results ‘in the real world’.  In contrast, the mystic finds the realm of interior silence to be as real, or more real, than what is found by focusing outward.  In the inward turning the mystic finds a true home.

For the activist this is to ignore the suffering and injustices in the world.  But for the mystic there is the experience, which grows over time, that the silence and stillness found by turning inward is a blessing to the whole world, a blessing which does not give rise to strife and contention.  Because this blessing is not palpable or measurable in material terms, the activist tends to dismiss this.  Personally, though, I have come to comprehend that the turning inward of the mystic is the most that I can do for other people.  Not that I have that particular motivation for turning inward.  Rather, that blessing is a consequence of the grace that such turning opens to.

Blessing, grace – these are indeed words “not palpable or measurable in material terms”. Yet they are real – perhaps in the end more real, and of greater consequence, than results “in the real world”.

As Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote:

More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of…
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God…

Morte d’Arthur

Flowery, poetic language, of no use to a world of muck and brass? Or prophetic, in the true meaning of the word?

Collaboration or conflict?

If you hang around Quaker circles long enough, you are likely to pick up on an often unexpressed tension between what are called the “mystics” and the “activists;" those who express their faith by doing, by acting in the world, by addressing social concerns, and those who prefer to express their faith through contemplation, conversation, and other spiritual practices.

Madeline Schaefer, blogging in the American Friends Service Committee’s Acting in Faith

It seems to me that in some ways this tension runs through humanity: it is the dichotomy between Elaine Aron’s dynamic, entrepreneurial Warrior Kings and her sensitive, spiritual Priestly Advisors; or between, say, INFPs and ESTJs in the Myers Briggs typology. It crops up in discussions within traditional religious communities, and often between evangelical Christians and those from the more contemplative traditions. Madeline Schaefer goes on to say:

Both of these expressions of faith are absolutely crucial for a world transformed, both spiritually and socially.  When combined, they lead to the development of real, human relationships that plant the spiritual seeds for cultural change and inspire powerful collective action.

Just as Aron’s Warrior Kings need their Priestly Advisors in order to put the brakes on, to avoid situations like the Iraq War and the conflict in Afghanistan, so the Priestly Advisors need a few Warrior Kings around in order to get anything done at all. We need some kind of framework within which we can collaborate, rather than conflict. Perhaps Quakers do provide just that – perhaps that is the reason this little minority of people has consistently challenged the structures of power, and achieved real social change, since the early days of the 17th century. But all too often in our meetings we don’t feel as though we do, or act as though we do. Schaefer goes on:

Perhaps Quakers have been unable to connect with communities working for grassroots change because we, as Quakers, have not yet learned how to ease the tension between mystics and activists within our own Quaker communities.

This tension is often felt in a strain in the responsibilities of the meeting, and the members can feel pressed for time and resources, both of which are likely being used to satisfy the needs of these two distinct approaches to faith rather than nurturing one coherent body.

As a result, resentment often builds between people who fall on either side of the spectrum.  Why don’t those mystic types go out and do something, the activists often wonder as they hear of the formation of another spiritual support group.  Why don’t those activists sit down and consider if their actions are motivated by Spirit or ego, say the mystics to themselves after the 4th or 5th announcement to donate food to a local shelter or attend an upcoming peace vigil.

How can we bring these two powerful means of knowing and living the Spirit together so that we are not only more powerful activists, but more powerful faith communities?

Rufus Jones, a Quaker from the 20th century and one of the founders of the American Friends Service Committee, referred to this unique combination of activist and mystic as “positive mysticism.”  According to Jones, an individual’s mystical experience is not a reason to leave the world or to annihilate the personality. To the contrary, the experience of a deep resonance with the Spirit is a call to be more truly oneself, to refine one’s personality so that it is in closer resonance with that divine Spirit in all walks of life.   To experience the Spirit is to experience a call to action and to act with the faith that the Light will be revealed—through deep listening—after each step is taken.

This is an on-going dialogue, and it would encourage me no end if Friends in this country were to take it up with the courage and clear-sightedness Madeline Schaefer shows here. Do read her whole post, and consider what it has to say to you, and to your meeting.