Category Archives: Meeting for Worship

Sinking Down

We understand the Bible as a record arising from… struggles to comprehend God’s ways with people. The same Spirit which inspired the writers of the Bible is the Spirit which gives us understanding of it… (London Yearly Meeting 1986 – Quaker faith & practice 27.34)

We do Scripture, and ourselves, a disservice if we read it as a manual of instructions, or else simply as a history book. The reach of the Bible is vast in terms both of its chronological scope and its range of purposes. What is consistent is its record of people’s encounters with God; the terms in which they express them are drawn inevitably from the the societies in which they lived, societies very different from our own.

When we pick up the Bible we can be greatly helped by the apparatus of Biblical criticism, and still more by Biblical theology, but the study of Scripture is only a small part of our own encounter with it. George Boobyer, Qfp 27.30:

An intelligent analytical and critical approach [to the Bible] has its rightful place. We then stand over the Bible as subjects investigating an object. An inversion of this subject–object relationship is, however, possible. We then approach the Bible not mainly to criticise, but to listen; not merely to question, but to be challenged, and to open our lives penitentially both to its judgments and to its liberating gospel.

Pathways to God are many and varied. Friends, however, along with a great company of other seekers, have been able to testify that this receptive personal response to the biblical message, and especially to the call of Jesus, leads to joyous self-fulfilling life, and to a redemptive awareness of the love and glory of God.

It is this prayerful approach to the Bible that allows the healing touch of God’s word to unknot our hearts, that dissolves our separateness from people, from creatures living and otherwise, from God. To sit still with a passage of Scripture, really still, may be transforming.

There is an ancient practice, known as Lectio divina, that is a formal way of doing just this. Of course it is not necessary to follow a formal pattern at all, so long as we are aware what we are doing, and do it deliberately; but it is vitally helpful to understand how others over many years (since c. 300 AD) have approached the Bible in order to encounter God. Basically, it may be likened to first, the taking of a bite, a short passage, of Scripture (reading); then chewing on it (meditation); savouring its essence (prayer) and, finally, “digesting” it and allowing it to make itself a part of the body (contemplation).

Jean Khoury writes (Lectio DivinaCTS 2006)

God’s action in us does not take place on the surface. It is oriented towards the depths. This action infiltrates our deepest being and frees it, making it subtle and deifying it. This is why deep silent prayer, mental prayer, is founded on lectio; precisely because lectio opens up the way for God so that he may go ever deeper in us through mental prayer. The effort of lectio opens the door to the divine beam of contemplation…

This is a process not at all unlike the stillness we find in meeting for worship. We are relinquishing, once we have reached the stage of contemplation, our own will and our own critical faculties, and allowing the seed that has been sown in us to grow and breathe and act in us – cf. Isaac Penington, Qfp 26.70:

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

Blessed

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
From the house of the Lord we bless you.
The Lord is God,
and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will praise you;
you are my God, and I will exalt you.

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures for ever.

Psalm 118.26-29 NIV

Today is the day known as Palm Sunday in the calendars of the liturgical churches, when Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, (Matthew 21.1-11) is remembered in readings and the Eucharist. Only a few days later he was to be crucified, having been hailed as, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…”

The name of the Lord is the name of God, the Tetragrammaton, the pulse that underlies being itself, and in this name we encounter Christ (John 1.1ff) Michael Lewis puts it like this: “The name of Jesus is the image of the ineffable Name, just as Jesus is the Image of the invisible God.” (The Name of God: The Revelation of the Merciful Presence of God)

Advices and queries 4 reads,

The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus. How do you interpret your faith in the light of this heritage? How does Jesus speak to you today? Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action? Are you learning from his life the reality and cost of obedience to God? How does his relationship with God challenge and inspire you?

Ben Wood, in a long post, Spiritual Practice with Jesus & Mary Oliver, which I’d strongly recommend you click through and read in its entirety:

If Jesus is the model we should have in mind, what do the Gospels tell us about him? What kind of practical action did he favour?  Principally, Christlike action begins, not with an esoteric notion of spiritual practice, but with attentiveness… [Jesus] was soaked in every deep structure of the human experience, not by transcending his time and place, but by sinking down into it. Begin at home, he seems to say. You cannot find love and grace through novelty or travel. Only stillness and rootedness will do…

When we seek to find the bottomless meaning in every moment: in a spider’s web caught by the sun, in the face of another, the deep grey of the sky; there is the Kingdom. We need not leave home to be spiritually at home. We need not go far to be in the arms of love.

To remain still is hard, when our worship, whether filled with the sound and poetry of the Palm Sunday liturgy, or in the silence of Meeting, is made impossible in fellowship and sharing by the necessary isolation of life in a pandemic, and we itch and squirm with anxiety and the frustrated impulse to “do something, anything!” But it is only in the stillness and in the staying put that we hear the name of God, in the echo of the chasms between the particles that dance in the atoms of all that is.

A Strange Pilgrimage

For all of us, these are strange times. Quite apart from the worries about our lives and livelihoods, and those of the ones we love, so many of the things that formed the sweet centre of our lives have been torn away. We hope that it is a temporary tearing away, but even that is not certain. For people of faith, perhaps the most painful loss is that of meeting together for worship. The loss of fellowship, teaching, reassurance and sacrament, at the very time we need them most, is hard to bear. There are few roadmaps for where we are.

Writing on the Patheos Progressive Christianity channel, Erin Wathen says,

…sometimes, painful as it is, cancelling is the responsible, compassionate thing to do, and anything else is just hubris. Think of this illness as the black ice of liability. If there is a blizzard, you might be able to get to church. But if you can’t clear the sidewalks and the parking lots, do you really want to invite people into a hazard situation–the invisible threat that is just under the surface? This is like that. Sure, folks who are not sick are going to feel like they should still come to church. But they could be carrying something they don’t know they have yet, and pass it right on to their elderly or immunocompromised neighbor.

There are many unknowns here. There is unprecedented territory ahead, and nobody can say how long it might last…

Practice Sabbath. For some, this shutdown of life as we know it is going to cause significant economic hardship… care for your neighbor as best as you can. In the meantime, recognize if your own discomfort is just inconvenience, and keep that perspective. Recognize that downtime can be a gift– an imposed sabbath of time to sit still and be with your family, without the usual rush of places to be and things to accomplish. Read together; prepare meals together (can you share with a neighbor?); maybe even binge watch some Netflix together. When’s the last time everybody was home for this long? Talk about what you can learn from this season. Talk about your blessings. Play a game. Make something. Listen to music. It really doesn’t matter. Any of these things can be worshipful in their own way, if by ‘worship’ we mean rest and renewal by way of connecting with God and others.

In an article entitled Our Pilgrimage Begins With Staying Home, Greg Richardson writes:

Almost all of us have begun a pilgrimage recently.

Some of us are experienced pilgrims. We prepare for a pilgrimage by deciding on our itinerary and choosing what to pack. It is important to have the proper equipment, like strong walking shoes.

Many of us like to plan as completely as we can. We want to know what we are going to experience before we experience it. Some of us carry a detailed guide book to ensure we are as comfortable and as safe as possible.

The pilgrimage we have joined together is a little unusual for us. We probably feel like we did not have enough time to get ready. Most of us have little idea where we are going and how we will get there. There is no dependable guide book full of details about this journey.

This pilgrimage begins with staying home…

Like Chaucer’s pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, each of us has our own tale.

Other concerns and decisions seem to fade into the background. Questions which monopolized our time and attention before no longer seem so significant. We may learn what we thought motivated us are not the lessons we most need to learn.

A pilgrimage is a journey, not a destination. Our pilgrimage begins and each step is sacred space. We learn its lessons along the way, overcoming obstacles and dealing with challenges…

When we stay home we find ourselves surrounded by the familiar. Most of us have fewer distractions.

Now we share a pilgrimage in which we stay home. We are not traveling to a distant country or visiting foreign places. Each day brings us to a new part of our journey and we see it in new ways.

The challenge for us is not about keeping up with a parade of new people and places.

Our pilgrimage begins as we take time to pay attention to the stories within us…

This voyage of discovery, our pilgrimage of staying home, will introduce us to who we can become.

We did not choose to take this trip and we did not have time to plan or prepare for it…

In our local meeting, our warden has undertaken to keep the Meeting House open for those rental groups who still want to meet – especially those holding one-to-one sessions to care for vulnerable adults – but more than that, she has promised to sit quietly in the empty meeting room for the hour from 10.30 am that we usually meet, and has invited Friends, in their own homes, to join her. This seems to me to be an immense kindness, and a sign of love and hope for us all. Meantime, whatever practice we have of regular prayer and attention – and now might be a good time to establish one if we don’t have one in place – let us all, wherever we are, hold each other, and all who serve and who depend upon our meetings, in the light of the “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Dante, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII) more than ever before.

The Lake of Stillness

One of the problems sometimes voiced around the practice of prayer actually has nothing to do with its practice at all, but more to do with its metaphysics. What I mean is that all too often someone will feel that they cannot pray because they don’t understand “how it works”, or because they can’t quite fathom whom they’re supposed to be praying to.

But prayer is the most natural thing. In the stillness of our own heart – whether in Quaker Meeting for Worship, when we are deeply involved in liturgical worship, or when we are alone and quiet – our awareness rests in a stillness that is infinitely more than ourselves, however we might want to describe that. (Actually it might be better if we didn’t try to describe it, at least to ourselves!) In our heart also are those we love, whether personally,  or generally, as in awareness of those who suffer, friends who are ill or alone, the anguish of war or our anxiety for the planet. All our stillness becomes a place where the concerns of our heart lie in the greater stillness within which we worship, like pebbles on the floor of a vast, silent lake.

Ruth Burrows writes:

We must remember that prayer takes place at the deepest level of our person and escapes our direct cognition; therefore we can make no judgement about it. It is God’s holy domain and we may not usurp it.  We have to trust it utterly to God… We must be ready to believe that ‘nothingness’ is the presence of divine Reality; emptiness is a holy void that Divine Love is filling…

Eckhart Tolle, in a moving response to a questioner at a public meeting makes the point that to be conscious is to suffer, and to be involved with the suffering of all beings, within the “one consciousness” that is the ground of being itself. And this is the point; simply to be there, to be with all that is, consciously. How that “makes a difference” is not the point; our heart knows, and in that conjunction within stillness prayer is.

Without Assurance

In her little book Practical Mystics, Jennifer Kavanagh quotes Rufus Jones’ definition of mysticism as “the attitude of mind which comes into correspondence with a spiritual world-order which is felt to be as real as the visible one.”

This comes very close to my own experience; what I have loved above all about the Quaker way is this sense of practical, hands-on, experimental mysticism. To the extent that it roots itself, and all its works, in such an experimental faith, it seems to me, Quakerism does well; to the extent that it does not, it outruns its Guide, basing its actions and pronouncements merely on our own limited human notions of right and wrong, and of social or political expediency.

Charles F Carter (Qfp 26.39) wrote in 1971:

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?

In another book of hers, A Little Book of Unknowing, Jennifer Kavanagh writes:

…Faith is not about certainty, but about trust…

We have seen that there is little about which we can be certain. Certainty may be undermined by limitations of the current state of knowledge; the subjective nature of experience; the fluid quality of the material world; or the intervention of unforeseen events. But beyond these aspects of the world about which we often assume knowledge, there is a dimension of life to which rational explanation simply doesn’t apply. Most people would admit that there is much that we cannot apprehend through reason or through the senses. We might know a fact with our brains, but not be able to understand what it means, to fully experience its reality – the age of a star or the trillions of connections within the human brain – some things are too big, too complex, for us to conceive. Einstein, who knew a thing or two about factual knowledge, felt that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. There is a dimension which co-exists with the material, rationally grounded world, is not in opposition to it or threatened by scientific development but happily stands alone in the context of everything else. This is the world of religious experience.

This, it seems to me, is crucial. Unknowing is essential to true faith, and indispensable for any kind of practical experience of the Light. When we tie ourselves down with dogmatic statements and attitudes, be they overly literal interpretations of historical creeds, or uncompromising assertions of some atheist position or other, we close the door on the Spirit, cutting off the light from shining into the darkness of our own limitations.

Kavanagh (ibid.) quotes Dorothee Sölle:

The crucial point here is that in the mystical understanding of God, experience is more important than doctrine, the inner light more important than church authority, the certainty of God and communication with him more important than believing in his existence or positing his existence rationally.

When we come into the silence, whether of our own life of prayer and reflection (Advices & Queries 3or of meeting together for worship, bereft of words and notions, it is only that direct experience that will, if we let it, be our sure guide, and will lead us, quite without the intellectual assurance we too often crave, into truth, unity and love.

Real Presence

Sitting once again in Meeting for Worship this morning, the presence of God came down over us so palpably that when I became aware of it I was almost surprised that it was not visible, somewhere between our heads and the ceiling like a layer of low-lying stratus. Thomas R Kelly’s words (Qfp 2.40) are the nearest I can find, “What is the ground and foundation of the gathered meeting? In the last analysis, it is, I am convinced, the Real Presence of God.”

Towards the end of meeting a Friend gave ministry that began with Luke 17.20:

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

She went on to recall from her own experience in the Occupied Territories during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s the many, often small ways in which progress is made, gradually rewriting the rules of war, helping to lay the foundations for the Ottawa Treaty controlling the use of landmines. Small beginnings, but the kingdom seeds are sown, God’s mercy coming in the hands of frail humans.

We live in an age of panic and extremism on whichever side of any conflict or disagreement in politics or social and environmental justice. It is easy to despise the day of small things; but as Craig Barnett writes:

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.

Only in the “real presence of God” can we come into “a conformity of mind and practice to the will of God” (William Penn). As the apostle Paul reminds us, we are “strengthened in [our] inner being with power through [God’s] Spirit… that Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith, as [we] are being rooted and grounded in love.” (Ephesians 3.16-17) Meeting for Worship is not merely a pleasant social occasion or an expression of Quakerly solidarity, but the communion of the presence of Christ – just as surely as any physical sharing of bread and wine, and for much the same reasons – for we “are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12.27)

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 entirely unmediated encounter is not possible, as Moses found when he could not see God face to face (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