Category Archives: Mystery

Keeping still

For the last week – well, if I am honest, for the last several weeks – I have struggling with an inner disquiet, an inability to escape memories and experiences going back thirty years or more that have returned again and again to cast a shadow over the present, and in some sense still to exert over it some kind of control. As this week wore on it came to me at last that, despite all that I have written here and elsewhere, all I’ve taught and spoken of, I have consistently tried to oppose these relived memories, nightmares and conditioned reflexes with my own will and reason. I think somehow I may have been content to leave many other things in God’s hands; but on this, my trust has not been enough, or perhaps I have simply thought that it was my responsibility to sort out what I had allowed so long ago. At the end of my own resources, finally, I gave up. I lay down in stillness in the middle of the day, looking to Christ in my heart; I fell asleep, and awoke at peace. I suppose that I had in plain fact come to that place the apostle Paul wrote of:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Romans 8.26-27 NIV

This morning, the Friend whose turn it was to read from Advices and queries shared a brief ministry to go with her reading of:

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

She spoke of the need for trust; that it is God who leads, and God who makes whole. Somehow her words, and the sense of their weight in her own life, closed the circle for me of this week’s culminating surrender to God.

It is stillness, once again, at the heart of this. Without stillness, our hearts are closed to the promptings of love and truth. It was William Leddra, the Quaker martyr of Barbados, who wrote:

Stand still, and cease from thine own working, and in due time thou shalt enter into the rest, and thy eyes shall behold his salvation, whose testimonies are sure, and righteous altogether.

In even the darkness, there is a gift God has, but we must keep very still to receive it. In her wonderful book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes of Jesus in prayer:

“The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction,” wrote the 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart:

Leave place, leave time,
Avoid even image!
Go forth without a way
On the narrow path,
Then you will find the desert track.

According to the Gospels, Jesus knew that track well. He made a habit of sleeping outdoors under the stars – on a mountain, if he could find one. The fact that this is reported, more than once, without any further detail, suggests that he went alone.

When he took people with him, they usually had plenty to say about it afterwards, but no one has anything to say about what Jesus did on those nights alone. Even his famous forty days and nights in the wilderness pass without comment until they are over, which is when he and the devil sort out who works for whom.

When you put this together with the fact that God speaks to Jesus only once in the entire New Testament – shortly after he is baptised by John – it seems clear that this father and this son were not in constant public conversation. Their conversation was almost entirely private, when Jesus went out on the mountain to spend the night with God in prayer.

If Jesus was truly human, as Christians insist he was, his sleep architecture was like anyone else’s. He stayed awake awhile. He slept awhile. He woke awhile later, rested a few hours, then slept some more.

When he opened his eyes, he saw the night sky. When he closed them again, the sky stayed right there. The only witnesses to his most intimate moments with God were the moon and the stars – and it was all prayer.

Once again, Paul the apostle knew this, at least in spirit. After the two verses I quoted above comes one of his most remarkable statements:

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 NIV

Quietly. The heart is awake in moonlight, pure reflection.

Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and then doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the Light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes.

George Fox, 1652

Aerials for the Spirit

More than any other prayer, the Jesus Prayer aims at bringing us to stand in God’s presence with no other thought but the miracle of our standing there and God with us, because in the use of the Jesus Prayer there is nothing and no one except God and us.

The use of the prayer is dual, it is an act of worship as is every prayer, and on the ascetical level, it is a focus that allows us to keep our attention still in the presence of God.

It is a very companionable prayer, a friendly one, always at hand and very individual in spite of its monotonous repetitions. Whether in joy or in sorrow, it is, when it has become habitual, a quickening of the soul, a response to any call of God. The words of St Symeon, the New Theologian, apply to all its possible effects on us: ‘Do not worry about what will come next, you will discover it when it comes’.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, from The Orthodox Church of Estonia

These words from St Symeon have come to mean more to me, over the years, than I have often realised. My own spiritual path has not, on the face of it, been all that straightforward, though it does seem to have led with a kind of inevitability to the Quaker way. Since the summer of 1978, though, I have known, and (if not always too consistently) practiced the Jesus Prayer, and in a sense all the turns and apparent blind alleys of my journey have been its outworkings. Certainly, it has been at times of crisis that I have been most aware of clinging to the Prayer as to a liferaft, to carry me through the waves.

The early desert monastics were said to regard a monk away from his cell as being like a fish out of water, and yet few of us these days, in the West at least, appear to be called to this reclusiveness of life. Immersed in the world, we must pray where we find ourselves, and perhaps this is indeed our calling. Swept on the same floodwaters of change that carry us all, our prayer is more than a clinging. Embedded as we are in the common condition of humanity, of creation, our prayer becomes – sometimes despite ourselves – intercession. We become as it were aerials for the Spirit, receiving stations for grace that we may not even ourselves understand.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…

Hermits in disguise

There have probably always been hermits-in-disguise: the old woman living alone at the edge of the village, the family man who, as the years went by, gradually retreated into a place inside himself where his wife and children couldn’t follow. Maybe these people were quietly living a life of inner solitude, a wordless faith that remained unexpressed even to themselves. Perhaps they were the unsung spiritual heroes and heroines on the way to the life of being rather than doing that so many religious traditions consider the peak of spiritual development. Or perhaps they weren’t. Maybe they were just grumpy misanthropes or dysfunctional types who couldn’t cope with the demands of relating to others. God only knows.

It’s often forgotten that monastic communities began as groups of hermits who gathered to support each other in what was a fundamentally solitary enterprise. (‘Monastic’ comes from the Greek monos, alone.)… the experiences reported from [solitude’s] frontline seem to confirm Thomas Merton’s claim that hermits are the real McCoy, more serious about getting close to God than their community-minded counterparts. It’s a view that transforms them from anti-social creatures to explorers of a realm beyond the frontiers of known religious experience, prepared to take greater risks and endure more hardship than the average person.

Alex Klaushofer, The Secret Life of God: a journey through Britain

Living a life of interior solitude, as a Quaker or in any other religious tradition familiar in the West, is a strange and sometimes chancy business. It is easily misunderstood, as Klaushofer hints in the passage above, and it is vulnerable to the human impulse to dramatic gestures, spectacular renunciations, and other wasteful mistakes. Eve Baker wrote, on this very subject, “Dramatic gestures are easy, simple faithfulness requires more effort.”

I have been strangely blessed by a relationship in which “[a] due proportion of solitude” (Caroline E Stephen, 1908, Quaker faith & practice 22.30) is all but taken for granted. In a marriage, or any other committed relationship, each party surely owes it to the other ensure that they do have “[a] due proportion of solitude”. This is one of the greatest gifts those who live together can give each other, not only to allow each other reasonable solitude, and each gently to safeguard their own, but actively to work for a way of life that allows reasonable, loving access to times alone with “the unseen and eternal things”. It seems to me that such a journey is one to which I have not only been called, but astonishingly equipped, through no virtue of my own.

I have quoted elsewhere in full Fr Laurence Freeman’s Advent Address last year, but in this context part of it may help express what I am getting at:

The word ‘wilderness’ in Greek is eremos, an uninhabited place. This gives us the word hermit, one who lives in solitude. In meditation we are all solitaries.

Meditation leads us into the wilderness, into a place uninhabited by thoughts, opinions, the conflicts of images and desires. It is place we long for because of the peace and purity it offers. Here we find truth. But it also terrifies us because of what we fear we will lose and of what we will find.

The more we penetrate into the wilderness, the solitude of the heart, the more we slow down. As mental activity decreases, so time slows until the point where there is only stillness – a living and loving stillness. Here, for the first time, we can listen to silence without fear. The word emerges from this silence. It touches and becomes incarnate in us. It incarnates us making us fully embodied and real in the present.

Only here, where we cut all communication with the noisy, jeering, fickle crowds inhabiting our minds do we see what ‘fleeing from the world’ means. What it does not mean is escapism or avoidance of responsibilities. It means to enter into solitude where we realise how fully, inescapably we are embodied and embedded in the universal web of relationships.

I am coming gradually to realise that for me, the danger of “escapism or avoidance of responsibilities” is not so much to be found in turning away from the news of politics, the agitation and conflict of social media, but in allowing myself to become caught up in them.  “You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” (Matthew 24.6)

I am not separate from God, ever. I could have no existence outside what is, for I am. I am intricately part of what is, and all that is is held in the ground of being, which is God. I’m more interested, as RS Thomas once said (The David Jones Journal R. S. Thomas Special Issue (Summer/Autumn 2001)) in the extraordinary nature of God. But that implies – how can it not? – the realisation that I am inextricably involved with all else, human, animal or otherwise, that is. How else could prayer work?

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 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.

 

Channels of Grace

This morning we held a short meeting for worship, before the Christian Aid Big Breakfast. There is something about meeting early, just a few of us in the shadowed meeting room, with the light of a rather grey and showery morning filtering through the long windows, and we were nearly at the end of the particularly sweet silence that had settled over us when a Friend rose to give ministry.

She spoke of gratitude, and the need, despite the fact that she was living in a time of personal peace and happiness, of developing a habit of gratefulness that could outlast happy circumstances, and sustain itself even in times of difficulty and grief. Her words touched us all, I think, and we went in to breakfast full of that blessed silence, and of the grace that had ended it.

The dictionary definitions of the word “gratitude” seem to major on the sense of obligation, and yet this is not the gratitude of which our Friend spoke so movingly. The word is indeed related, though its Latin root, to the idea of grace. As Satya Robyn points out, every detail of our existence is grace: the provision of oxygen, food, shelter, the very constitution of our bodies – all are given. 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.”

She goes on:

So is grace some kind of divine intervention…? I don’t know. What I do know is that the universe is vast and complex, and is beyond the limits of our imagination… In a world such as this, anything is possible. Maybe grace is coincidence and wishful thinking, maybe not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the concept of grace helps me to keep an open mind and heart, or not. It does. That is enough.

So is this the source of this imperishable gratitude to which we can aspire? Perhaps it is. We are only beginning, as humanity, to realise how deeply we depend on the subtle networks of our world, and on each others’ goodwill and hope. Each one of us depends, whether we like it or not, upon our neighbours and our friends, and in any church, any community of people gathered for worship, our spiritual dependence is deep and organic. If these are the roots of our gratitude, then it will endure hard times; and more than that, it will become a deep channel of grace flowing into our community, spreading its warmth and compassion, its mercy, far beyond the confines of family or meeting, and on into the world.