Category Archives: Meeting for Worship

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

Drift lines

It is just over a week ago now that I had a cardiac procedure carried out at the Dorset County Hospital, which by great good fortune is just across the road from us, and has an excellent cardiology unit. I was able very carefully to go to meeting last Sunday, feeling tired and somewhat battered, but already in better health than I had been for a long time.

I have written elsewhere about the liminality inherent in life itself. Sitting in meeting last Sunday it came to me that I was conscious of this in a new way now. I had heard on Saturday that a Friend from our previous Area Meeting, a man I had felt close to since being one of his visitors when he applied for membership some years ago, had just died from precisely the condition for which I’d been treated.

Richard Rohr once wrote, in a slightly different context,

The edge of things is a liminal space – a very sacred place where guardian angels are especially available and needed. The edge is a holy place, or as the Celts called it, “a thin place” and you have to be taught how to live there. To take your position on the spiritual edge of things is to learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return. It is a prophetic position, not a rebellious or antisocial one. When you live on the edge of anything with respect and honour, you are in a very auspicious position. You are free from its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways.

Margery Abbott, in her excellent Pendle Hill Pamphlet Quaker Views on Mysticism, writes, 

…mysticism as known within the Society of Friends is our awareness of (or belief in) God’s presence, individually and in the corporate Meeting for Worship, an awareness that results in a changed perception of the world and a willingness to be guided by the Spirit, the Inward Light, the Christ Within. Quakerism is strongly prophetic – it is about listening for that which is eternal and bringing the divine word to the world.

We are liminal creatures, we humans; the difference between us is never so much a difference in liminality as it is a difference in our awareness of it. Over recent months I have been blessed to see this liminality for myself with a new clarity and immediacy. Our lives here seem so all or nothing to us, so identified with who we are, that we forget we live on the shoreline of something so much deeper and wider than we have imagined, the ground of all that has been made. We are just beachcombers, really, walking the drift lines amid the seaglass and old lumber, dazed and entranced by a light we cannot understand.

Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 4

Do you take part as often as you can in meetings for church affairs? Are you familiar enough with our church government to contribute to its disciplined processes? Do you consider difficult questions with an informed mind as well as a generous and loving spirit? Are you prepared to let your insights and personal wishes take their place alongside those of others or be set aside as the meeting seeks the right way forward? If you cannot attend, uphold the meeting prayerfully.

Quaker faith & practice 1.02: Advices & queries 15

Recently, I seem to have become something of an area meeting addict. I don’t think it’s that I have become an overnight Quaker governance geek – I still blench at much of the language of Qfp Chapter 4, and the layers of standing committees, subcommittees and working groups that characterise many area meetings still cause a slight numbness to creep over the edges of my mind. No, I think it’s more that, largely through my experience as an accompanying elder for area meeting, I have come to appreciate something of the spiritual dimension.

Strangely, perhaps, this spiritual dimension of area meeting doesn’t seem to me to be limited to AM’s role in providing a framework of governance within which the local meetings can hold their worship in peace and good ordering, but extends out into unseen spiritual community of which we are all part. As Qfp 4.01 states,

Until 2007 area meetings were known as monthly meetings. The change was made to give more emphasis to the area meeting as a spiritual community rather than a regular event, and in the interests of accuracy because many monthly meetings no longer met monthly.

We are beings of matter and beings of spirit: the two aspects of us cannot be separated, and one is not superior to, nor more fundamental than, the other. Our decisions, our mechanisms of governance even, do have real spiritual weight; our prayerful upholding really does help carry that weight out into the space that worship makes in our hearts and in our intentions – into, if you will, the discerned will of God.

Reading Qfp 20 – An Afterthought

To me, being a Christian is a particular way of life, not the unquestioning acceptance of a particular system of theology, not belief in the literal truth of the Virgin birth, or the Resurrection and Ascension, but being the kind of person that Jesus wanted his followers to be and doing the things he told them to do…

Nor, it seems to me, can you live a Christian life unless, like Jesus, you believe in the power of goodness, of justice, of mercy and of love; unless you believe in these so strongly that you are prepared to put them to the acid test of experiment; unless these constitute the real meaning of life for you, more important than life itself, as they were for Jesus.

Kathleen Lonsdale, 1967 – Qfp 20.26

From time to time I have been troubled by the fact that on the one hand, I find I have been led to live as a member of the Society of Friends; and on the other hand, my lifelong calling has been to pray the Jesus Prayer, a prayer which developed among the monastic communities of Egypt and Syria in the 4th century, and which is assumed, by all its teachers, to be prayed within a eucharistic community – i.e. a church.

The word “church” is very often taken to imply a community called together to worship God (from the Greek ἐκκλησία – ecclesia), and generally assumed to be equipped with creeds, dogma, and at least some formal practice of the Eucharist – Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper or whatever the local expression may be. But it was not always so, it seems. The very early church appears simply to have been a local community of worshippers, gathered together by a common love of Jesus and his teachings.

In this sense, the community of Friends fits the bill as well as any other – better, perhaps, than some for whom membership involves passing through some more or less stringent filter (catechism, statement of faith, etc.) of doctrine as a test of belonging.

I have written elsewhere of the “eucharistic community of silence” that is a Quaker meeting, and so I believe it to be. Cynthia Bourgeault writes of Jesus as a “recognition event” –

In the gospels, all the people who encountered Jesus only by hearsay, by what somebody else believed about him, by what they’d been told, by what they’d hoped to get out of him: all those people left. They still leave today. The ones that remained–and still remain–are the ones who have met him in the moment: in the instantaneous, mutual recognition of hearts and in the ultimate energy that is always pouring forth from this encounter.

In this sense, Kathleen Lonsdale’s “real meaning… more important than life itself, as they were for Jesus” carries the full weight of this shock of recognition – the unarguable, holy presence within the gathered meeting. More than that, the link she makes to the cross, the inescapable (Luke 9.23) link between “the power of goodness, of justice, of mercy and of love” and the death of the self, brings us to the heart of the meaning of the eucharist: the shock of recognition present, to the contemplative heart, in just the same way in communion as in the gathered meeting.

 

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.