Category Archives: Language

Reading Qfp Ch. 26 some more…

Religion is living with God. There is no other kind of religion. Living with a Book, living with or by a Rule, being awfully high-principled are not in themselves religion, although many people think they are and that that is all there is to it. Religion has got a bad name through being identified with an outward orderliness. But an outward orderliness can be death, dullness and masochism. Doing your duty may be admirable stoicism; it isn’t religion.

To find religion itself you must look inside people and inside yourself. And there, if you find even the tiniest grain of true love, you may be on the right scent. Millions of people have it and don’t know what it is that they have. God is their guest, but they haven’t the faintest idea that he is in the house. So you mustn’t only look where God is confessed and acknowledged. You must look everywhere, to find the real religion. Nor must you look, in others or in yourself, for great spooky visions and revelations. Such visions and revelations come to many, a great deal oftener than we think; and to those to whom they come they are sun, moon and stars. But in most people who know God, and in all such people most of the time, living with God is not an apparition but a wordless and endless sureness. Like the silence of two friends together. Like the silence of lovers.

God is waiting to live like that in every single person in the world.

Bernard Canter, 1962 Qfp 26.37

It’s odd, but though I’ve had one or two experiences that might fall under the heading of “mystical” – direct experiences, if you like, of God, or what of God filters through the doors of perception when they crack a little ajar – I really wouldn’t describe them as remotely spooky. That sureness Canter describes is present always, and even before it came to underlie everything for me, the glimpses I had of what lies beneath and beyond the world of the senses still had that quality of almost ordinary reality. What I encountered was solid, real – solider and more real than my own flesh or the earth it rested on – and not remotely uncanny.

Without wishing to become lost in the semantic maze of the theist/non-theist discussion, this is why I don’t like the term “supernatural” when applied to God. To me it gives the impression of something standing over against, separate from, reality. That which I encounter in the depths of my own being, in the eyes of my sisters and brothers, in the wrapped life of a dreaming cat, in the gathered meeting or in mist across the sea just before dawn, is not separate from reality: it is the solid ground in which is rooted the great tree from which the leaves of the phenomena grow, and are nourished.

Finding Words

Recently it has been difficult to find words. The silence remains, and in its nourishing space all the grace and presence of God, as always, and yet I have been dumb.

Part of this, I feel, is due to something that has happened increasingly as I have trodden this way with Friends, and has to do with the absence of liturgy in unprogrammed worship, and with the absence of any systematic reading of Scripture. And yet, as John Punshon writes:

…I need to stress that silent contemplation by itself would have done nothing for me. My struggle was not to make sense of my own interior life – I was striving to discern the will of God, and without belief and faith I would have come to grief, I am sure. The belief I relied on was the central doctrine of Quakerism – that the light of Christ is a sure guide to life, and that in the gathered meeting, Christ is present to teach his people (including me) himself. In the stillness of meeting I heard the voice of the shepherd because I had the sheep’s ear…

This was an intimation of the Way of the Cross, a spiritual purgation that tested me to see whether my religious commitment was only on the surface. I think that this is a neglected aspect of worship in unprogrammed Friends’ meetings, but I am sure it was an important part of the tradition. Jesus said that those who are willing to lose their lives will find them. It is easy to say that one is so willing, but another thing to prove it. There is no way out of the occasional, but necessary agony of silent worship unless it be the power of resurrection. When I had been through this period I was another sort of person, and I think I now know why the Testimonies are ultimately inconceivable without the formative experience of traditional Quaker worship.

For me, though, the opposite is also true. The formative experience of Quaker worship is hard to receive without words, without some kind of poetics of experience, for without that the lived hermeneutic – in me at least – fails to materialise. It is hard to remember, let alone interiorise, even though something has changed. One falls asleep, and awakens to find it has snowed in the night…

On her blog, Catholic-Quaker, Rene Lape has an essay, Early Friends and the Scriptures, where she writes:

If the most important thing I got from early Friends [Quakers] was a quickening of my faith in Christ, the second was a sense of the importance of scriptural words, images, and contexts in helping me to see the spiritual dimension of my own life. As I’ve said, the words and contexts of Scripture seemed to me a kind of spiritual “alphabet” that was able to give people access to a world we were naturally blind to—as the tactile alphabet Helen Keller used had given her access to the world she lived in but could not see. From the moment my faith was revived, the Scriptures took on great importance to me, and the approach early Friends took to the Scriptures became one of my chief interests…

This comes close to my own experience. At heart, I have always been something of a universalist. I have found it hard to believe in the exclusive correctness of any experience of faith over another, and yet the language of Buddhism, or of the Hindu Scriptures, is not my language. When I read Romans 8, or the farewell discourses in John’s Gospel, something in my heart breaks open, and I know myself known.

Noah Baker Merrill has experienced this. He writes:

The gathered people felt living water flowing around them. They were opened to the Truth Who holds us all, the true Liberation and Love always available to each of us. They stood together in the power of an endless Life. Their hearts knew that God is Real…

Brokenness is not the end of God’s Story – and it’s not the end of ours. But it is our moment to fall to our knees under that solitary tree in the desert, to meet with the angel, and to be given the bread and water we need to survive the journey into the Wilderness.

I am looking for a language. Not immediately in order to inform others, or even to talk with others, but in order to know. But I know already that there is something profoundly necessary in brokenness. Jesus took bread, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples. The wine must be poured out before it can be drunk. Contained within ourselves, we cannot give, nor grow. The seed must fall into the ground…

Jocelyn Burnell wrote:

We want to heal brokenness, where ever we see it. It is uncomfortable for us, as well as being uncomfortable for the person or thing that hurts. If somebody is grieving, for example, we ask kindly how they are, hoping that they will say they are fine, so we can go our way unperturbed.

We encourage people to get over their problem and get back to normal.

We are bad at sitting with pain.

Are we too keen to mend things, to have it all smooth again?

But the repair of brokenness does not come quickly – for some it comes never…

I believe that those of us who are wounded have a special ministry, because we are wounded, because we are hurt. I cannot tell you what your ministry is, only you can find that, but I am sure that there are amongst us people who can speak to needs in this world because they know about hurt…

Just as there is a ministry for the wounded in our communities, is there a role for a wounded community? Is the Religious Society of Friends a broken community?

Are we a broken community, a broken people, a broken society? Do we, through our brokenness have a role in God’s plan?

To know myself as wounded, and useful not despite, but because of that? To rejoice? To become what I have come to be?

The First and Final Template…

The Blessed Trinity is the central and foundational doctrine of the Christian faith. But as the Jesuit Karl Rahner (1904-1984) observed, what is supposed to be the heart of the nature of God has, until recently, had few practical or pastoral implications in most people’s lives. We did not have the right software installed!

For too many Christians, the doctrine of the Trinity was unfathomable, abstract, and boring theology because they tried to process it with their left brain, their dualistic mind. Remaining there, it was not much more than a speculative curiosity or a mathematical conundrum (yet surely never to be questioned by any orthodox Christian). However, the Trinity perfectly illustrates the dynamic principle of three and was made to order to demolish our dualistic thinking and to open us to the mystical level.

The Trinity can only be understood with the contemplative mind. It is only God in you that understands; your small mind cannot. I call this participative knowledge. The Trinity can’t be proved rationally. You must experience its flow in your life. You must have moments where you know that a Big Life is happening in you, yet beyond you, and also AS you!

Unfortunately, Christians mostly gave up even trying to understand the Trinity. But if we’re resolved that we want to go into the mystery, not to hold God in our pocket, but to allow God to hold us, then I think we must seek to understand the Trinity experientially and contemplatively, which is not to understand at all, but to “stand under” a waterfall of infinite and loving Flow…

Most of us began by thinking of God as One Being and then tried to make God into three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). But what I want you to try to do, and only God can do this in you, is change directions. As the early Fathers of the Greek Church did in the fourth century, start with the three and focus on the relationships between them.

Philippians 2:6-7 beautifully describes the Trinitarian relationship: “Jesus’ state was divine, yet he did not cling to equality with God, but he emptied himself.” This is how the three persons of the Trinity relate. They all live in an eternal self-emptying (kenosis), which allows each of them to totally let go and give themselves to the other.

When we start with the three, we know that this God is perfect giving and perfect receiving, that the very name of Being is communion, extravagant generosity, humble receptivity, and unhindered dialogue between three. Then we know God as the deepest flow of Life Itself, Relationship Itself. It is not that a Being decides to love; love is the very nature and shape of Being.

This is then the pattern of the whole universe. And any idea of God’s “wrath” or of God withholding an outflowing love is theologically impossible. Love is the very pattern that we start with, move with, and the goal we move toward. It is the very energy of the entire universe, from orbiting protons and neutrons to the social and sexual life of species, to the orbiting of planets and stars. We were indeed created in communion, by communion, and for communion. Or as Genesis says “created in the image and likeness of God.”…

Francis and Clare and many later Franciscans (Bonaventure, Anthony, Duns Scotus, Angela of Foligno, and many Poor Clares) appear to be literally living inside of a set of relationships that they quite traditionally name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But these experiences of communion are real, active, and involved in their lives, as if they are living inside of a Love-Beyond-Them-Which-Yet-Includes-Them. They are drawn into an endless creativity of love in wonderful ways that reflect the infinite nature of God.

They seem to shout out gratitude and praise in several directions: from a deep inner satisfaction (the indwelling Holy Spirit), across to the other (the ubiquitous Christ), and beyond what I can name or ever fully know (the formless Father).

In the Trinity, love finally has a solid definition and description, and cannot be sentimentalized. If Trinity is the template for all creation, from atoms to galaxies, which now appears to be the case, then a water wheel that is always outpouring in one direction is a very fine metaphor for God. Giving and surrendered receiving are the very shape of reality. Now love is much bigger than mere emotions, feelings, infatuation, or passing romance.

With Trinity as the first and final template for reality, love is the ontological “Ground of Being” itself (Paul Tillich). It is the air that you breathe, as any true mystic discovers, consciously or unconsciously. You do not have to be able to describe this in words to experience it. In fact, you can’t. You can only live it.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Eager to Love – The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi and recorded talks

This is interesting. The Trinity is one of those doctrines most Quakers – at least within BYM! – would be tempted to set aside as mere creedal residue, long grown-out-of. But there is, quite literally, more going on here than meets the eye.

Rohr points out that over the years the Church has tended to approach the idea of the Trinity with an analytical, intellectual, left-brain understanding – with words, and games with words. But, as he says, “You do not have to be able to describe this in words to experience it. In fact, you can’t. You can only live it.”

To me this gets to the heart of what mysticism is. In silence and contemplation, whether of the gathered meeting, or of solitary prayer, words are suspended. Given nothing to hang on to, the analytical mind frets, criticises, and finally gives up. In this space, in this simple silence, that of God (Spirit, the Ground of Being) within each of us, is directly experienced. This is what the earliest Quakers encountered:

Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests, against blusterings and storms. That is it which moulds up into patience, into innocency, into soberness, into stillness, into stayedness, into quietness, up to God, with his power.

George Fox, 1658

I think it matters little how we call “the first and final template for reality”. We have each of us different traditions, different understandings, different hurts and joys in the ways we have trodden to where we find ourselves today. If the names of the Trinity hurt and frighten us so that we cannot speak them, we must not seek to prevent others using them, just as those to whom they speak of truth and grace must not seek to impose their use on their fellow-pilgrims.

Those of us who discover themselves “living inside of a Love-Beyond-Them-Which-Yet-Includes-Them” are surely sisters and brothers at the very deepest level, far deeper than ties of blood. It is difficult – though perhaps Friends have had as good a go at it as anyone – to experience and express this closeness without getting enmeshed in the minutiae of religious communities and formal doctrines,

Writing in The Friend this week, Jan Arriens says,

Our tradition of liberal Quakerism owes much to the American Quaker Rufus Jones. Without his contribution a century or so ago we might well not be here today. Jones always stressed that we are a mystical Society. He defined mysticism as covering everything from a simple, everyday sense of awe, wonder and connection to a state of bliss…

For many of us, this involves a struggle between head and heart. Head tells us that the material world is all there is, while heart speaks from an experience which, ultimately, cannot be denied. That experience – the quiet mystical element – is, I believe, at the heart of our Quakerism. It is certainly what I consistently encounter among Friends. Although I am not a member of the nontheist movement I think that, far from dividing us, it has done us a great service in revealing how close we are in thought and belief when we get beyond the words. I see that essential unity as being based around awareness of our intimate connection to a greater whole. It may be subtle and intangible, but it is the most precious thing in our lives and provides the lodestar for how we try to live. For it also has a moral quality. I remember when I first began writing to prisoners on death row in the US twenty-five years ago, Sam Johnson in Mississippi wrote to me, ‘We have been touched by some force or something greater than we are and it’s good. I don’t know exactly what it is but I know that it’s good!’

The sense of presence is not just individual but also shared. There is a seamlessness between a gathered Meeting and the world outside. Faith and action each feed the other…

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.