Category Archives: Humility

A longer path…

Being the kind of person I am, I am prone to what I really would wish to call self-doubt; but which is in fact doubt in my calling, and so ultimately, I suppose, doubt in the faithfulness and capacity of the God who calls me. Let me try and explain.

In my better moments – and they are all too often no more than moments – I know perfectly well that what I am called to is contemplative prayer. I don’t mean to “do” contemplative prayer, as one might do yoga or pilates, but to give what I am to it. Despite the incessant stumbling and wandering of my life till now, I may in some dim way have always been aware of this, impossible though I have often found it to believe it, still less to be faithful to it.

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing has this to say:

If you ask me by what means you are to achieve this work of contemplation, I beseech almighty God of his great grace and his great courtesy to teach you himself. For I would have you know well that I cannot tell you… [W]ithout God’s work, no saint or angel can think of desiring it. And I believe that our Lord will deign to bring about this work to those who have been habitual sinners as particularly and as often – yes, and more particularly and more often – as in others who by comparison… have never caused him much grief…

Yet he does not grant this grace or bring about this work in any soul that is incapable of it. On the other hand, no soul that lacks this grace is capable of receiving it, no, whether it be the soul of a sinner or of an innocent person…

You have as much of it as you will and desire, neither more nor less, and yet it is not a will or a desire, but something, you do not know what, that stirs you to will and desire you do not know what…

Let it do the working, and you will be the material it works upon; just watch it, and let it be…

And if this is so, then trust firmly that it is God alone, entirely by himself, who stirs your will and your desire, without intermediary, either on his part or on yours.

That I fret, and mistrust myself, is, as I say, more a lack of trust in God than anything else. Certainly it is not anything that could be mistaken for humility, for, as the Cloud author points out, God seems to have a delight in calling to this life those of us who have all too often frequented dubious places in our time; presumably this is something like humour on his part, or else a tendency to demonstrate the unknowability of his will, the sheer giveness of his grace in Christ.

Sister Mary David Totah goes further:

…[W]e have been looking at making action more contemplative, finding a contemplative dimension in our actions. But there is a real sense in which prayer is itself an action, an action whose fruit and extent cannot be measured or assessed; its ways are secret, not only secret from others but also secret from ourselves. The greater part of the fruit of our prayer and contemplation remains hidden with Christ in God…

Prayer is opening oneself to the effective, invisible power of God. One can never leave the presence of God without being transformed and renewed in his being, for this is what Christ promised. The thing that can only be granted by prayer belongs to God (Luke 11.13). However such a transformation does not take the form of a sudden leap. It takes time. Whoever persists in surrendering himself to God in prayer receives more than he desires or deserves. Whoever lives by prayer gains an immense trust in God, so powerful and certain, it can almost be touched. He comes to perceive God in a most vivid way. Without ever forgetting our weakness, we become something other than we are.

Mary David Totah OSB, Deepening Prayer: Life Defined by Prayer

To do this sort of surrendering might seem to require a quite remarkable degree of trust in God; but the brilliance of Sister Mary David’s insight here is that it is in surrendering that we are given the degree of trust we need. Someone once said something to the effect that the longest journey begins with a single step; perhaps the journey deeper into what I once described as the saltmarsh of the spirit begins with each day’s step into prayer, into surrender. That tiny glimpse of faithfulness may open the little salt-bleached wicket gate of the heart onto a longer path than we can know.

What kind of fast?

We are nearly midway through the season of Lent at the moment; in the churches that recognise it, this is the time to remember the 40 days we are told Jesus spent in the Judaean wilderness (Matthew 4.1-11; Mark 1.12,13; Luke 4.1-13) immediately after his baptism. He was, we read, “led by the Spirit into the wilderness.”

Traditionally, we often think of Lent as a time of fasting, of giving things up, of somehow putting ourselves deliberately in the way of temptation in an act of solidarity, perhaps, with the temptations put in the way of Jesus during his time alone in the wilderness. But perhaps there’s another way altogether of looking at this.

Yesterday I wrote of Proverbs 20.24 – “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?” – as a way of accepting our own unknowing, our own inability to comprehend God, or even to go and find him on our own terms. What this comes down to, perhaps, is control, or its relinquishment. We cannot begin to control God; we can’t even control the circumstances of our perceiving God’s presence. It is all grace.

Maybe, just maybe, some of us have allowed the idea of the traditional Lenten disciplines to lead us into the wrong kind of place. We grimly seek control – we choose what we shall give up, be it chocolate or fermented drink or meat or snark or whatever – and self-control, the ability to say no to a square of chocolate, or a pint, or… and we think that by so doing we are growing in holiness. Perhaps we are only growing in wilfulness?

Whatever it was that happened to Jesus in the wilderness seems to have been part of the story, not some anomaly. As Paula Gooder memorably writes, “Jesus and the devil did not sneak away for a bit of illicit tempting: the Spirit led him there.” But why?

Perhaps the whole Lenten thing is about surrender, not control, self- or otherwise? After all, one way to read the accounts of the temptations themselves in Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels is that what Jesus is being tempted to do is to take control – of his sustenance, of his Father’s provision of food or of safety, and ultimately to take control of the levers of political and military power – which last, it is implied, would involve obeisance to the devil, acceptance of all that is wrong and twisted and out of joint in our world. The Scriptures Jesus uses to refute the tempter are, it seems to me, all words of trust and acceptance – the words of one who waits on God, as Psalm 27 sums it up: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

To fast from control may be what this Lent is about for me; to fast from the need to know, the need to have it all sewn up, the way mapped. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, “I think my hope lies in my own littleness.” Not to know may be the best way of being known by God.

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvellous for me.

(Psalm 131.1)

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.