Category Archives: Leadings

Faithful prayer and listening silence…

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

For quite a time now I have had an uneasy sense about much religious (in the broadest sense of the word) activism – also in the broadest sense of the word! Whether Quakers or Catholics, many of us do allow ourselves to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, surrender to too many demands… Friend Job Scott (1751–1793) wrote,

Our strength or help is only in God; but then it is near us, it is in us – a force superior to all possible opposition – a force that never was, nor can be foiled. We are free to stand in this unconquerable ability, and defeat the powers of darkness; or to turn from it, and be foiled and overcome. When we stand, we know it is God alone upholds us; and when we fall, we feel that our fall or destruction is of ourselves.

It is this upon which all our works rest; indeed it is in this sense that we can say that all our strength, and any good we may do, comes by faith in God and not by the works themselves (Ephesians 2:8-9; James 2:18) that faith may call us into.

The problem, I think, is that all too often we act not from the Spirit: not, as early Quakers, and many since, would have said, according to leadings. We have an idea that such and such may be the right thing to do; we feel a political conviction to speak or act or vote in a certain way; we see what someone else is doing and we feel guilty unless we are doing likewise. These things are not leadings, but notions, and to act in accordance with them is turning from God into our own strength, from God’s wisdom into our own ideas. In Merton’s terms, it is an act of violence – against ourselves as much as against anyone else – and in the end it brings only fruitlessness and grieving.

In 1992 Meeting for Sufferings, the standing representative body entrusted with the care of the business of Britain Yearly Meeting through the year, minuted:

The ground of our work lies in our waiting on and listening for the Spirit. Let the loving spirit of a loving God call us and lead us. These leadings are both personal and corporate. If they are truly tested in a gathered meeting we shall find that the strength and the courage for obedience are given to us. We need the humility to put obedience before our own wishes.

We are aware of the need to care for ourselves and each other in our meetings, bearing each other’s burdens and lovingly challenging each other.

We also hear the cry of those in despair which draws out our compassion. We know the need to speak for those who have no voice. We have a tradition of service and work which has opened up opportunities for us. But we are reminded that we are not the only ones to do this work. Not only can we encourage a flow of work between our central and our local meetings; but we must recognise the Spirit at work in many bodies and in many places, in other churches and faiths, and in secular organisations.

In this minute Friends speak for all of us; we all need the humility to put obedience to the Holy Spirit’s leadings before our own convictions, before our own guilt. Coming before our loving God in faithful prayer and listening silence our actions will be true, and just, whether they be exterior actions in the world, inward actions of prayer and discipline, or both. It is Christ we follow, and it is his work we do, or we work in vain.

Anointing

As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit – just as it has taught you, remain in him.

1 John 2.27

I have been struck by the word “anointing”. Elizabeth Bathurst (as quoted by David Johnson) wrote:

But I brought them the scriptures, and told them there was an anointing within man to teach him, and the Lord would teach them himself.

For ’tis that Spiritual Anointing that the apostle John speaks of [1 John 2.20-27], which those that have received it (and in whom it abides) needs not that any Man teach them, but as the same Anointing teacheth them all things…

We are not very used, I think, to the term among Friends today. Among charismatic Christians it is much more common, and seems to be used in both the sense of being given spiritual gifts – the New Testament “handbook” to these is 1 Corinthians 12 – and in the sense of being set aside by God for a purpose. The key passage for the latter is the beginning of Isaiah 61 (“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…”) quoted by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4.18-19.

But I think Elizabeth Bathurst, following the apostle John, as she says, is using the word in a slightly different sense to either of these, and it is a sense we as Quakers should recognise. In A Quaker Prayer Life, David Johnson of Queensland Regional Meeting in Australia writes,

Many of us will also have experienced [anointing] in some small way–an experience of Divine presence that is like being gently touched, perhaps with a finger dipped in warm fragrant oil, and we feel that warmth and special inward touch, and in that moment are momentarily aware of some deep religious understanding, or of a puritying presence. That is to say, we have been anointed, and it is a sign that we have been in the eternal presence–we have known the Eternal Christ within us.

Is not much of our work in our meetings rightly directed to showing this possibility to Friends, leading them gently to recognise it in themselves, however they may choose to describe it? It is the source of our ministry, as well as our comfort, and the beginning of all our leadings; it is always to be found in silence.

Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 29

How can we walk with a smile into the dark? We must learn to put our trust in God and the leadings of the Spirit. How many of us are truly led by the Spirit throughout our daily lives? I have turned to God when I have had a difficult decision to make or when I have sought strength to endure the pain in dark times. But I am only slowly learning to dwell in the place where leadings come from. That is a place of love and joy and peace, even in the midst of pain. The more I dwell in that place, the easier it is to smile, because I am no longer afraid.

If we dwell in the presence of God, we shall be led by the spirit. We do well to remember that being led by the spirit depends not so much upon God, who is always there to lead us, as upon our willingness to be led. We need to be willing to be led into the dark as well as through green pastures and by still waters. We do not need to be afraid of the dark, because God is there. The future of this earth need not be in the hands of the world’s ‘leaders’. The world is in God’s hands if we are led by God. Let us be led by the Spirit. Let us walk with a smile into the dark.

Gordon Matthews, 1987 – Qfp 29.1

In a way, all our prayer and our waiting comes down to this willingness to be led. We live within the grace of the ground of being – there is nowhere else to live – but so much of the time our eyes are closed, and the illusion of separateness somehow inclines us to believe that we are reliant on conditions, on material sufficiency and social and political influence. When we come to realise – and it is only by dwelling “in the place where leadings come from” that we can realise it – our littleness, our transience and the infinite security of our insecurity,  we find that it is no more than our conscious, dependent stillness that keeps us there. Our practice, whether it be the shared silence of meeting for worship, or whatever contemplative practice we have developed over the years ourselves, is all we need.

Quaker faith & practice recognises this as a calling, a fact that sometimes gets forgotten in our discussions of the ways in which Friends may be being led. A statement from London Yearly Meeting (as it was then known) in 1986 puts it like this:

We recognise a variety of ministries. In our worship these include those who speak under the guidance of the Spirit, and those who receive and uphold the work of the Spirit in silence and prayer. We also recognise as ministry service on our many committees, hospitality and childcare, the care of finance and premises, and many other tasks. We value those whose ministry is not in an appointed task but is in teaching, counselling, listening, prayer, enabling the service of others, or other service in the meeting or the world.

The purpose of all our ministry is to lead us and other people into closer communion with God and to enable us to carry out those tasks which the Spirit lays upon us.

Qfp 10.05

This call to “receive and uphold the work of the Spirit in silence and prayer” is central to my own understanding of myself as a Friend, and in fact to pretty much everything I write here. The “how” of this is perhaps as various as Friends themselves, and encompasses all our different and diverse flavours, Christian and universalist, theist and nontheist, and all the changes that may come to each of us as we seek to be faithful to what the Spirit lays upon us. We are a people of the way, not of some imagined destination, and we walk together in the blessed dark of our unknowing.

On being a Marsh-wiggle

I have struggled for much of my life with what might be described as my calling, my primary vocation, or whatever term might better be used to describe what I am supposed to do with my “one wild and precious life”, to plunder Mary Oliver again.

I have known since childhood the power of solitude, of lonely places; and I have always been most at home alone in the grey wind, without a destination or timetable, or sitting by myself in a sunlit garden, watching the tiny velvety red mites threading their paths on a warm stone bench. I used to think it was my duty to enter that world on some kind of a quest, looking to see what I might find, what treasure I might bring back to the known world.

Eve Baker writes, in Paths in Solitude:

The solitary is the bearer of the future, of that which is not yet born, of the mystery which lies beyond the circle of lamplight or the edge of the known world. There are some who make raids into this unknown world of mystery and who come back bearing artefacts. These are the creative artists, the poets who offer us their vision of the mystery…

But a raider is not at home: his raids are fitful incursions into a land not his own, and what he sees there he sees as raw material, uncut stones he may haul back into the world of action and reward, there to be cut into poems, music. The real treasures of the hidden world are scarcely visible to a raider, nor, like Eurydice, will they survive the journey back to the known world.

Eve Baker goes on:

But there are also those who make solitude their home, who travel further into the inner desert, from which they bring back few artefacts. These are the contemplatives, those who are drawn into the heart of the mystery. Contemplatives have no function and no ministry. They are in [that] world as a fish is in the sea, to use Catherine of Siena’s phrase, as part of the mystery. That they are necessary is proved by the fact that they exist in all religious traditions. Contemplatives are not as a rule called to activity, they are useless people and therefore little understood in a world that measures everything by utility and cash value. Unlike the poet they do not return bearing artefacts, but remain in the desert, pointing to the mystery, drawing others in.

Marsh-wiggles live, in CS Lewis’ Narnia, out in the salt marshes beyond the hills and the forest, and farther still from the cities bright with trade and pageantry. Their simple homes are set well apart from one another, out on the “great flat plain” of the marshlands. Puddleglum, the marsh-wiggle we meet in The Silver Chair, comes up with, when his back is against the wall, one of the most remarkable statements of faith in Lewis’ fiction:

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all of those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones… We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia… and that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull as you say.”

Perhaps contemplatives are only kidding themselves. Perhaps they are, to take Baker’s semi-irony literally, quite useless people. But our uselessness may yet be a good deal more useful in the dark and doubt of humanity’s pain than all the utilities of the marketable world.

It seems that life as a marsh-wiggle may be closer to my own calling than I would have guessed. To move deeper into the saltmarsh of the spirit, closer to the edge of the last sea, may mean the giving up, not of love and companionship perhaps, but of many of the comfortable certainties, and the familiar tools of the raider’s life. A wiggle’s wigwam is good enough, maybe.

To stand still, listening…

…the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ – allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings.

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

Craig Barnett, Transition Quaker – The Way of Practice

These are, to say the least, difficult and puzzling times. The merest glance at the headlines will suffice to demonstrate that, and to demonstrate the further fact that the media, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.

In the face of massively publicised and widespread cruelty and injustice, violence and deceit, it is increasingly hard to avoid the current zeitgeist of taking sides, adopting entrenched positions, and demonising the “opposition”. We Quakers easily fall into the prevailing patterns, however much we attempt to be gentler and more tentative in expressing them. (I recall a conversation with a Tory MP who had met with a group of Quakers, and who told me, “They didn’t look to me much like Conservative voters…”!) We all too often automatically assume certain political and social positions, and too readily take an adversarial stance over against the other side. In this we are no different to the members of any other pressure group, and we can tend to take and to project the attitude that the Society of Friends is little more than a kind of portal for any number of political, peace, environmental and other concerns that share a broadly pacifist, left-wing, climate-sensitive stance.

The problem, of course, is not that we are concerned, and active, with righting wrongs in the world around us. Quakers throughout our long history have done this, and an extreme quietist agenda would be no more helpful than a solely activist one. The problem, it seems to me, lies in the source of our actions. When we react from our emotions and from our convictions, rather than from the Spirit’s leading, we miss the point of being a Religious Society of Friends, and “outrun our guide”.

Alex Thomson, writing in the Facebook Quaker Renewal group:

Quakers could have a lot to offer the world, but I worry that we get caught up in taking sides. That doesn’t solve anything, human nature will still be the same, only different people will benefit and work the system to maximise their benefit. No one wins in an atmosphere of conflict. We need to help people to see a different way, a way that comes from an awareness of stillness, and the wisdom that can be found within that stillness.

What are Quakers really doing to promote this change in human nature that is required? I read things from a hundred years ago and it appears to me Quakers were more in touch with the spiritual aspect of Life than we are today. They knew Presence, we seem to a large degree to have lost our awareness of Presence? We create us and other, there is no other. We are all That of God, how do we help our brothers and sisters to see That of God within all of us. How do we create the Kingdom on earth?

Where do we go from here?

Richard Rohr writes:

The following of Jesus is not a “salvation scheme” or a means of creating social order (which appears to be what most folks want religion for), as much as it is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world. Some people are overly invested in religious ceremonies, rituals, and rules that are all about who’s in and who’s out. Jesus did not come to create a spiritual elite or an exclusionary system. He invited people to “follow” him by personally bearing the mystery of human death and resurrection. Of itself, this task does not feel “religious,” which is why it demands such faith to trust it.

This is difficult. It is far easier to imagine ourselves on the winning side of some win/lose dichotomy, as Rohr points out in the same essay. To “personally [bear] the mystery of human death and resurrection” is a far less attractive option, as the zealots who tried to co-opt Jesus himself as a military Messiah (John 6.15) realised!

Rohr goes on to say,

Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves—these are the followers of Jesus. They are the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world. The cross is the dramatic image of what it takes to be such a usable one for God.

James Nayler once wrote, “Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee.”

To stand still, listening, is our particular gift as Quakers, it seems to me. It is not for us to decide in advance where we will accept being led – what we hear in the silence, if only we can stand still enough, will lead us into truth.

Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 10

We recognise a variety of ministries. In our worship these include those who speak under the guidance of the Spirit, and those who receive and uphold the work of the Spirit in silence and prayer. We also recognise as ministry service on our many committees, hospitality and childcare, the care of finance and premises, and many other tasks. We value those whose ministry is not in an appointed task but is in teaching, counselling, listening, prayer, enabling the service of others, or other service in the meeting or the world.

The purpose of all our ministry is to lead us and other people into closer communion with God and to enable us to carry out those tasks which the Spirit lays upon us.

London Yearly Meeting, 1986 – Quaker Faith & Practice 10.05

Coming a year ago into an area meeting where eldership and oversight are handled corporately, from one where the traditional roles are maintained, my eyes have been opened in many ways, not least to the differing ministries within a local meeting. We’re not all the same, nor should we expect others, or ourselves, to be the same. As the apostle Paul wrote of the 1st century church, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.” (1 Corinthians 12.4) Strangely perhaps, this fact seems clearer, more sharply defined, when Friends are acting in cooperation as they are led, than when they are working within roles defined by tradition, or by the vision of a nominations committee.

There are many ministries, though, as this section from QFP explains, not only the ones that belong to the office of clerk, elder, overseer, treasurer or whoever. Sometimes the Spirit’s leading seems to be reflected in the very character of a Friend called to a particular ministry: the love that underlies pastoral care, the courage of one who speaks truth to power, the stillness and vulnerability behind the call to prayer. What’s needed, it seems, is the sensitivity to recognise these things in the lives of Friends around us, and the humility to accept their recognition of them in ourselves!

I’ve written at some length about ministry in the sense of words, vocal or written, elsewhere in this blog. It’s interesting, as I mentioned there,  that I found it a surprise when a Friend pointed out this blog as a ministry of my own. I hadn’t thought of it like that before, but obviously she was right. Our ministries may be many diverse things. The role of warden or resident Friend, doorkeeper, librarian. Someone who listens. A giver of lifts to frail Friends. The one who rarely if ever stands to give ministry, or gets involved in committees, but in whose silence the whole meeting is held, and by whose prayer it is helped to keep faithful to what the Light uncovers…

I remember reading this passage when I was very first considering becoming a Quaker, and thinking that if this were lived out in practice, what a very good place a Quaker meeting would be. And it is, by and large. Friends do seem to live these things out, often in the quietest and least obvious of ways, despite, or at times because of, the occasional difficulties that may arise. Perhaps I’m not often enough, or sufficiently, grateful that this is so.

“In an awful frame of mind…”

I went to meetings in an awful frame of mind, and endeavoured to be inwardly acquainted with the language of the true Shepherd. And one day, being under a strong exercise of spirit, I stood up, and said some words in a meeting, but not keeping close to the divine opening, I said more than was required of me and being soon sensible to my error, I was afflicted in mind some weeks, without any light or comfort, even to that degree that I could take satisfaction in nothing. I remembered God and was troubled, and in the depth of my distress he had pity upon me, and sent the Comforter. I then felt forgiveness for my offence, and my mind became calm and quiet, being truly thankful to my gracious Redeemer for his mercies. And after this, feeling the spring of divine love opened, and a concern to speak, I said a few words in a meeting in which I found peace. This I believe was about six weeks from the first time, and as I was thus humbled and disciplined under the cross, my understanding became more strengthened to distinguish the language of the pure spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart, and taught me to wait in silence sometimes many weeks together, until I felt that rise which prepares the creature to stand like a trumpet, through which the Lord speaks to his flock.

John Woolman, 1741 – Quaker Faith & Practice 2.57

Among Quakers today little thought seems to be given to the Quietist period during the 18th century. The schisms of the 19th century (Gurneyites and Hicksites being remembered, generally, rather more than Beaconites or Wilburites!) have perhaps overshadowed this period when, it is easy to forget, John Woolman was working patiently towards the ending of slavery, and for peace during the Seven Years’ War.

Admittedly the Quietists were sometimes an odd bunch of people – it was they who carried plain dress and plain speech to extremes, and who were most committed, it seems, to endogamy and to other practices aimed at setting Quakers apart from the rest of society and the church. But there was more to them than that, I suspect. The dogma that history is written by the victors (whoever said it first) may be suspect – Constantinople, anyone? – but it perhaps contains some truth in this situation. It is the present-day Liberal Quakers, descendants of Hicksites, and Evangelical Quakers, descendants, largely, of Gurneyites, through whose eyes we look back at the Quietists.

As we look at what Quakers may become in the 21st century, perhaps we may find time to consider whether the stillness of Quaker worship, and perhaps of our personal spiritual practice, may be, as it was for Woolman, far more the motor of Friends’ transforming presence in the world than either our political convictions or our anger at injustice, good though those things may be in themselves. There are plenty of politicians and campaigners out there, without them all having to be Quakers; it is Friends acting, and praying, under the conviction of the Spirit, who have another voice, one that has so often wrought more peace and justice for those who suffer than our numbers would give us any right to expect. But that conviction, that leading, can only arise in silence, and in submission to the Spirit, as Woolman himself found out the hard way.

Do we need, among Friends, to look again at the Quietists, and to ask ourselves what we might learn – not imitate – from John Woolman’s contemporaries? I am no historian, but I feel it might be worth it to ask the question…