Category Archives: Light

Fields of Grace

We do not manufacture our own existence. However much we may seek to emulate Frank Sinatra doing it his way, the best we can do with our “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver) is to improvise a little over the chords we have been given. We live by grace, by gift.

Satya Robyn writes, “Every day we are provided with oxygen, a place to live, food that has been grown and prepared by strangers, love from our friends and families… ” She goes on to speak of the humility that comes with this realisation: a humility that is “a very realistic appraisal of our conditions and of our [imperfect] nature which leads to a natural sense of contrition. Contrition is the gate through which grace can enter.”

All that exists rests in the ground of being. It cannot be otherwise – that is what being means. At the very root, the fundamental source of what is, we must come to isness itself, Meister Eckhart’s Istigkeit. It matters more than we might think how we describe it, as Rhiannon Grant discusses in her recent talk for the Nontheist Friends Network conference at Woodbrooke, and yet as she points out there is behind all our words that which is forever beyond words, and cannot be held by them. I suspect that this is the insight behind the opening of John’s Gospel,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.1-5)

When things come into being, then we can encounter them, speak of them, but not before. Perhaps this is why Jesus, the Christ, the anointed of God, could say to Philip – who had asked him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” – “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14.8-9) It is only in whatever process of coming-to-be is represented by the term “incarnation” that we can encounter God. (A Buddhist might say, in parallel, that it is only in the person of a Buddha that we can encounter the Buddha Field – only in the living encounter with Amitabha in the Nembutsu, say, can we come to the Pure Land.)

But not being able to put into words the ground of being, isness, God, as apophatic theology rightly asserts, doesn’t mean at all that these encounters are not possible; it is only that unmediated encounter is not possible, as Moses found when he could not see the face of God (Exodus 33.17-23). In the silence of meeting for worship, in the stillness between the words of the Jesus Prayer, is the Light. It is within each of us, closer than our own heartbeat, nearer than the beautiful chemistry by which we breathe and live. William Penn saw this so clearly:

If you would know God and worship and serve God as you should do, you must come to the means he has ordained and given for that purpose. Some seek it in books, some in learned men, but what they look for is in themselves, yet they overlook it. The voice is too still, the Seed too small and the Light shineth in darkness. They are abroad and so cannot divide the spoil; but the woman that lost her silver found it at home after she had lighted her candle and swept her house. Do you so too and you shall find what Pilate wanted to know, viz., Truth. The Light of Christ within, who is the Light of the world and so a light to you that tells you the truth of your condition, leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvellous light; for light grows upon the obedient. It is sown for the righteous and their way is a shining light that shines forth more and more to the perfect day.

Qfp 26.44

On becoming transparent

Writing in today’s issue of The Friend, Roswitha Jarman says,

I do not pray to a God out there to give me a helping hand. I remember with great affection the American Quaker Douglas Steere, with whom I shared my condition many years ago at a dark time. He responded: ‘Remember we are not alone.’ He was not referring to our human companions: he was speaking of the power of the Light, which for him was God.

When I become transparent, and am open to the Inner Light, and when I let this golden Light envelop the dark clouds, my energy is lifted, my compassion rises, and an inexplicable joy fills me. When this Light is part of me, whatever I do has a different quality.

Often we Quakers seem to misunderstand each others’ ideas of the Light. Those who self-identify as non-theists sometimes assume that other Friends believe in a God who is one being among other beings, only more powerful, wiser, more loving (or more tyrannical!) – a kind of a super being, as Superman is a super man. And those who would be inclined to self-identify as theists sometimes assume that non-theists are atheists, or at least strong agnostics.

I suspect that underneath the semantics, though, we are closer together than might be imagined. We share the same silence; the one Light illuminates us all, and if we will only sit still under it for long enough, we will find we share the same transparency. The words we use are far less important, and I think we should do well to use them lightly, and be prepared to let them go. We are speaking of what is, I believe, beyond our human ability fully to comprehend, let alone express.

My own existence is not something I create: it is somehow given me, as is all my experience. I am not a thing, myself – although my physical presence may be, grammatically at any rate, the object of some verb or another – but a becoming, an unfolding.

In silence, I can hear myself becoming, breath by breath, and I know that there is a source beyond my physical presence, beyond my sense of myself, from which I and all I experience appear to proceed. It is the ground of all that is, and I am held, and unrolled, in it, moment by moment. I cannot fall out of it; I can only be transformed, even if that transformation is the transformation of dying. This is so perfectly natural that it lifts away the alienation of my self from its true home, and the anxiety of what might be. If I am so unfolded, then the unfolding itself is what I am, as is its ground. As Paul wrote, “Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3.11)

To realise this, of course, is itself a kind of death: the death of the individual me, of my possessing a separate soul, set somehow over against an alien world. “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” said Paul in the same letter (Colossians 3.3).

Our accepting our utter dependence upon and oneness with the God who gives us being is precisely the crucifixion of which Paul writes elsewhere: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2.19b-20a)

This coming into being is love: vulnerable to change, it assumes the shape of what is loved. This love that is our becoming shows itself as the mercy of God in all that unfolds, whether we experience it as good or bad: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8.28) “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.” (Betsie ten Boom’s last words to her sister Corrie)

 

More on being a Marsh-wiggle

Yesterday I wrote of the call to a kind of solitude in prayer and openness to the Spirit leading to “mov[ing] deeper into the saltmarsh of the spirit, closer to the edge of the last sea…”

I’m aware of some ambiguity here. Am I suggesting a life of physical solitude, moving away from marriage, and the companionship of Friends, to a distant shed or cabin in the woods, as some, notably Thomas Merton and Brother Ramon SSF, have done? Catherine Doherty wrote of a poustinia in the marketplace: a hermitage set among city streets, with some kind of an outreach, an “apostolate” in the Roman Catholic terminology. Is that what’s involved? I have asked myself these questions for many years, and the answer seems gradually to be emerging in a way simpler and stranger than I had imagined.

Eve Baker writes:

The desert to which the solitary is called is not a place, but something that must be there below the surface of ordinary human existence. It is nowhere, a place of thirst after God…

The disciplines of solitude will be different for everyone. Maintaining an inner cell of quiet will be a greater struggle for the person with family obligations or for those whose life involves working closely with other people… It is like having a compass in one’s hand, pointing to the true north. The busyness of life will swing the needle, but it will return again to the same direction.

I have found myself with very few family obligations, and since taking early retirement after an accident, few definite obligations to other people. But my heart is easily divided, and I far too readily fall into old patterns of treating contemplation as raids into the unknown in search of material. I have been a poet, and an improvising, occasionally composing musician; it is hard to break habits developed over many years

For me, I am coming to believe, there has to be a pattern of a very interior asceticism. As Baker writes, “Dramatic gestures are easy, simple faithfulness requires more effort.” It may be that I have to some degree to restrict my involvement in the busyness of Quaker life. Certainly I must be extremely careful of unthinking creative commitments!

Eve Baker again:

Prayer is not so much a matter of specific occasions, forms, words, but a constant orientation towards God which becomes habitual. This is the hidden life which goes on inside the external one which differs little from any other human life except for the hidden search for solitude, silence and simplicity…

I am beginning to find, all over again, the essence of the tax collector’s prayer in Luke 18.13-14, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” The more transparent one’s life becomes to the light, the more that light shows the stains, the broken edges of the heart. This is a very ordinary thing, not at all arcane. Certainly it is nothing to take credit for. The light is what it is; gradually one is laid open, that’s all, and the thing is not to take the offered baits of distraction and easy solace among familiar or shiny things.

There’s a lot I don’t understand; but the saltmarsh of the spirit lies wide along the horizon, and the wind from the sea carries the clean scent of distance.

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.

Quaker Renewal?

Yesterday morning’s meeting was quiet, and the morning light through the meeting house windows was pearl grey. I spent much of the time holding the space, as it were, for Friends, sensing that the Spirit was doing something beneath the surface. And yet I was uneasy.

Towards the end of the meeting a Friend stood to give ministry, and said that like so many others perhaps she had come to meeting deeply worried, almost panicking really, about the seeming success of the campaign for a leave vote in the EU referendum. As she had sat in the silence, it had come to her that she was, in fact, one very small person, and that worry as she might, nothing except her one vote in the referendum would make any real difference to the outcome. But she could pray. Whatever the circumstances, she could still pray – and she would – that peace, and wisdom, and hope would prevail. It was all she could do; but it was the one thing needful. And she sat down.

If ever a ministry spoke to my condition, it was that. For all I had been sitting in stillness, listening and holding, the same anxiety had nagged at the edges of my mind, try as I might to settle. Our Friend had opened herself honestly to hear her own heart’s cry, and the Spirit had touched her with extraordinary precision, and brought the answer through, not despite, her and my unquietness.

In his Pendle Hill pamphlet Four Doors to Meeting for Worship, William Tabor writes:

Entering into worship often feels to me somewhat like entering into a stream, which, though invisible to our outward eye, feels just as real as does a stream of water when we step into it. Just as bathing in a real stream of pure flowing water needs no justification to one who has experienced the vitality it brings, so entering into the stream of worship needs no justification to one who has experienced the healing, the peace, the renewal, the expansion which accompanies this altered state of consciousness. I once thought worship was something I do, but for many years now it has seemed as if worship is actually a state of consciousness which I enter so that I am immersed into a living, invisible stream of reality which has always been present throughout all history. In some mysterious way this stream unites me with the communion of the saints across the ages and brings me into the presence of the living Christ, the Word, the Logos written of in the Gospel of John.

On the Quaker Renewal group on Facebook, a Friend asks whether renewal is happening, or is about to happen; and the answer is, as one of the responses wisely points out, both. It reminds me of the Kingdom of God, the ‘new covenant’ in the Gospels, which has arrived with Jesus, and is yet to come in its fullness.

In an excellent article in the Friends Quarterly (2.2016) Stuart Masters, writing on Pauline Christianity in the early Quaker movement, says:

Another dimension of the new covenant, described by the apostle Paul and proclaimed by early Friends, is that it is now possible for all people to experience Divine indwelling in which Christ acts as inward teacher, king, counsellor, prophet, priest and redeemer. The great claim of the first generation of Friends was that ‘Christ is come to teach his people himself.’ This is what Paul means by being ‘in Christ’, and what early Friends referred to as the ‘Inward Light’ of Christ. Such a direct inward presence had precedence over the physical or ‘carnal’ sources of authority in the old covenant, such as the human priesthood, the physical temple, the outward law, and the written Scriptures.

Stuart Masters concludes:

In the early Quaker movement, we see a revival of the radical, egalitarian, and spirit-led character of the Pauline churches. It may well be that Paul’s message was so revolutionary that it had to be controlled and domesticated by the institutions of mainstream Christianity. In England in the 1640s and 1650s, young men and women experienced the spiritual empowerment to break free of that controlled, and domesticated view. As a result of their life-changing spiritual experiences, they understood Paul in an entirely different way…

I will leave the final word to Paul himself, a powerful message of hope and encouragement:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8.38-39)

Whatever language we may ourselves adopt to express our experience of the Light that reaches us in the stillness, we should recognise that spiritual renewal is a radical process, not only in the modern sense of “characterized by departure from tradition; innovative or progressive” but in the sense of relating or returning to the root (L. radix) or origin of something – the musical sense of relating or returning to the root of a chord. Our renewal has to be about what Quakers are and can become; but it will not be radical enough unless it is also about where we come from, and where we still derive our strength: the simple experience of the Spirit’s light in the listening silence.

Reading Quaker faith & practice Chapter 13

It is part of our commitment as members of the Religious Society of Friends that we try to live our lives under the guidance of the Spirit. Whatever the service to which we are called, whether it be great or small, our meeting can uphold us in prayer and other ways.

Our service may be in the home, an unpaid job, a vocation or a lifetime’s career. For some there will be service in the local meeting, in one of the many roles that help to make our meetings true Christian communities. Some of these are explained later in this chapter. Britain Yearly Meeting itself offers people opportunities for service both as members of staff and on our various Quaker committees…

QFP 13.01

Much of Chapter 13 is rightly involved with the discernment and testing of concerns, with other named roles such as wardens, chaplains and librarians, and with those who travel in the ministry. In this lovely introduction, however, the essence of our varieties of religious service is made entirely clear: “that we try to live our lives under the guidance of the Spirit.”

In his excellent Pendle Hill pamphlet, Four Doors to Meeting for Worship, William Tabor discusses “other kinds of ministry that may be more important than spoken ministry.” He goes on to say,

…[we] may find that we are drawn into a far more secret prayer for others during the meeting than had been true before. Or we may find that we become a silent channel through which unexpected prayer wells up for individuals, for the community, for causes, for nations and world leaders… Or we may discover how to silently, wordlessly hold the entire meeting up before God, into the healing light of Christ, for many minutes at a time. As we do this we sometimes forget who is holding whom, and we just rest wordlessly in the amazing Presence… I came to realise how important are these silent inconspicuous people who are practiced, skilled (even though they might demur at such “elitist” terms) at just being totally present before God while engaging in the wordless prayer of lovingly holding the entire meeting up into that Presence.

It is very easy – I almost said “fatally easy”, for it is a real danger – to forget, among our committees and appointments, our roles and responsibilities, that we are a Religious Society of Friends, and that our very effectiveness in the world stems from our faithfulness in the Spirit, whatever form of words we find comfortable using to express that fact.

Charles F Carter wrote in QFP 26.39:

True faith is not assurance, but the readiness to go forward experimentally, without assurance. It is a sensitivity to things not yet known. Quakerism should not claim to be a religion of certainty, but a religion of uncertainty; it is this which gives us our special affinity to the world of science. For what we apprehend of truth is limited and partial, and experience may set it all in a new light; if we too easily satisfy our urge for security by claiming that we have found certainty, we shall no longer be sensitive to new experiences of truth. For who seeks that which he believes that he has found? Who explores a territory which he claims already to know?

The religious service given by “silent, inconspicuous” Friends whose silence and whose stillness underpin our meetings, and hold our concerns and our questions in that Light, may well be the first explorers of these open territories of unknowing from which our strength flows, as it has always flowed, into all our work and witness.

Reading Quaker faith & practice Chapter 22

The truest end of life, is to know the life that never ends. He that makes this his care, will find it his crown at last. And he that lives to live ever, never fears dying: nor can the means be terrible to him that heartily believes the end.

For though death be a dark passage, it leads to immortality, and that’s recompense enough for suffering of it. And yet faith lights us, even through the grave, being the evidence of things not seen.

And this is the comfort of the good, that the grave cannot hold them, and that they live as soon as they die. For death is no more than a turning of us over from time to eternity. Death, then, being the way and condition of life, we cannot love to live, if we cannot bear to die.

They that love beyond the world cannot be separated by it. Death cannot kill what never dies. Nor can spirits ever be divided that love and live in the same Divine Principle, the root and record of their friendship. If absence be not death, neither is theirs.

Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass, they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure.

This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.

William Penn, 1693, Quaker faith & practice 22.95

Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett on God in Buddhism, quoted by Alex Thomson on the Quaker Renewal UK page on Facebook:

Now it has been said, that Buddhism is an atheistic religion. That is absolutely not true. What Buddhism will not say, is what the Cosmic Buddha IS. Because, if it tells you what the Cosmic Buddha is, immediately something can come into your head: “well I wonder if it has…” or, “why doesn’t it have…” such and such. The Buddha Himself said, “There IS an Unborn, Uncreated, Unchanging, Undying. If there were not an Unborn, Uncreated, Unchanging, Undying; then there would be no way of escaping despair.” Now what He is actually saying is, there is something, — you can call it a “Great Spirit”, you can call it “God”, you can call it “The Cosmic Buddha”, you can call it “XYZ” (if you happen to be an atheist), you can use any term you like for it: but that is the most the Buddha would ever say of it. Other than: you’ve got to know it for yourself. When you know it for yourself, then: there can be no death, for you know where your true home is. And, there can be no life, other than life in this, Unborn, Uncreated, Undying, Unchanging.

Therefor Buddhism is a very, very TRUE religion. Which is non-theistic, in the sense of having a father-figure type God. But VERY theistic, in the sense of there very definitely being something much greater than every one of us, in here.

It does not dictate to us. It does not insist. I can tell you all the things it does not do. It will never hate, it will never judge. It leaves us to hate each other, — until we’re fed up with it. (laughter) It leaves us to judge ourselves, (and our fellow man), — until we are fed up with doing it! And it does not insist that we stop; it just: sits there. And waits. And waits. And waits…

Kathleen Dowling Singh, in The Grace in Dying:

As we return and/or are returned to our Original Nature, virtues that we have acquired, usually through deliberate cultivation, flow naturally as water from a spring. The qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, presence, centeredness, spaciousness, mercy and confidence all radiate naturally forth from our transformed being as we come closer to death. Many a time I have heard “I love you” whispered softly and easily to a spouse or child or parent who may never have heard those words before. Many a time I have seen the dying comfort those in pain around them…

Love appears to be the last connection the dying have with the world of form. We become expressive vehicles for the power of the Ground of Being, inhabited and vitalised by far greater Being… The Ground of Being is, in a very real sense, Love. As we merge with it, self-consciousness and all questions of self-worth and previous psychological issues of lovability spontaneously melt. Love simultaneously pours into and pours out of us. It begins to pour through us.

A faith which has nothing to say to death, or to the process of dying, is ultimately dry and fruitless, I think. The one real certainty facing each and every one of us is that we shall die; this is perhaps the truest and most fundamental thing that can be said of us. But this is not a bad thing, not a tragedy. All things die, from the little velvety red mites that scamper on stone walls in the sun, through oak trees, owls and whales to the great galaxies, and doubtless many living, loving things we have no idea of. What we need is to discover how to live with death. That is one of the core functions of a spiritual path, surely, to show us that this necessary surrender is the way to unending light, not to extinction. All we are doing is returning to the Source.

As William Penn wrote, “Death, then, being the way and condition of life, we cannot love to live, if we cannot bear to die.” His beautiful and humane passage quoted above holds so much of the hope and truth of the Quaker way of “experimental faith” that it comforts me as much as anything I’ve read. The community of Friends knows much about living with death; it was at a Quaker funeral that I first came to realise that I had to investigate this unexpected truth for myself, and so was led to attend my first Quaker meeting.

“Stand still,” said William Leddra, the day before he was martyred, “Stand still, and cease from thine own working.” To practice surrender is consciously to approach that place of last connection: to abandon ship, as it were, and leap into the endless ocean of mercy that is the Ground of Being itself. (God is nothing less than this.) If we can begin to do this consciously in prayer and practice, then that gracious power of “loving-kindness, compassion, presence… mercy and confidence” will have the opportunity somehow to manifest in our lives, poured out for those that following this way places in our path.