Category Archives: Mystery

The sowing of seeds

This has been a strange Easter. For us, it has been marked indelibly by the death of a old and dear friend on Easter Saturday evening. In his excellent post for Easter on the Britain Yearly Meeting website, Alistair Fuller writes:

The story of Holy Week and Easter, seen as a whole, is vivid and unsettling. It contains within it themes of friendship, betrayal and political tension. There is state-sponsored murder, and the violent pendulum swing of public opinion from adoration to condemnation. There are moments of loneliness, desolation, unspeakable cruelty and profound courage. There is falling and failing, of many kinds. And there is tenacious and unflinching love.

And Easter itself is not quite the sunlit miracle story we might remember. There is no gospel telling of anything that might be described as ‘the resurrection’, but rather a jagged and untidy collection of stories and moments of encounter.

It has been so for us, and yet, as Fuller goes on to say, it has been full “of the unconquerable aliveness of the love encountered in and through Jesus.”

Marcelle Martin, in her 2016 book Our Life Is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journeywrites of the process known by early Quakers, George Fox in particular, as “The Refiner’s Fire” (from Malachi 3.2: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap…”):

Experiences of the Light are challenging when they show us ways we have not been living in accordance with God’s love and truth. Western cultures teach people from infancy to onward to push divine guidance to the back of our awareness, and most people quickly learn to block perception of the indwelling Presence of God. Reversing this and consciously opening our hearts and minds to spiritual truth is not easy. It takes patience and courage to still our minds, turn within, and wait in a receptive way for the Light to show us how we have been resisting divine Love and Truth in the particulars of our thinking, our relationships, our way of living, and our participation in the world. Seeing this can be surprising…

[Quoting Sandra Cronk] “The process of entering into a deep relationship with God is also the process of uncovering ourselves… In the light of that love, deep re-patterning can take place in us.”

For me, the reality has been less straightforward than it is or some. Due to some quirk of nature or nurture – my mother, who brought me up as a single parent, was a painter and sculptor – I never did “learn to block perception of the indwelling Presence of God” to the extent that most people seem to. As I wrote a couple of years ago, “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.” Listening for that indwelling presence has been at times terrifying, at times joyful, but it has never been entirely possible to escape, hard as I occasionally tried, especially in my mid-twenties. I am at least as susceptible as anyone I know to self-deception and wishful thinking, to being untrue to myself and to God, and to looking outside myself, at the external aspects of thought and practice among people of faith, trying to distract myself from the work of the Spirit in my heart. But it is less easy to distract the Holy Spirit, and so I have been called back again and again to these uncomfortable, at times downright dangerous, places, out in the saltmarshes of the heart.

Parker J Palmer saw this as clearly as anyone, having lived through these difficult times himself:

Inner work is as real as outer work and involves skills one can develop, skills like journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendship, and prayer…

TS Eliot wrote:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
This Easter it is true. Loss and grieving get caught up inextricably into prayer, and prayer into what Jesuits call the prayer of examen. It is harder than ever to distract myself, but the indistractible Spirit is gentle, too, and
…helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
(Romans 8.26-27)
I wrote a few weeks ago how I had been startled in meeting by a Friend’s ministry – just these few words, from Proverbs 20.24,

All our steps are ordered by the Lord;
how then can we understand our own ways?

that spoke directly to my condition. It is hard to see how our steps are “ordered by the Lord,” but all that is really left, this Easter, is to trust, and to remain still. In Isaac Penington’s words,

…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.

Aerials, signs…

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Divine action is not something material: it is invisible, inaudible, unexpected, unimaginable, and inexplicable by any analogy taken from this world. Its advent and its working within us are a mystery… Little by little, divine action grants to man increased attention and contrition of the heart in prayer…

The spirit of prayer comes upon man and drives him into the depths of the heart, as if he were taken by the hand and forcibly led from one room to another. The soul is taken captive by an invading force, and is willingly kept within, as long as this overwhelming power of prayer still holds sway over it.

Theophan the Recluse, quoted in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, ed. Timothy Ware & Chariton of Valamo

Palm Sunday has a way of reminding us that we are all capable of both more good and less good than we had thought. The crowd who welcomed Jesus on the way into Jerusalem, the disciples who vowed to lay down their lives for their Lord, were the same people who later allowed themselves to be whipped up into demanding the release of a terrorist called Barabbas rather than Jesus; the same disciples who ran from the arresting officers; the same Peter who, having earlier sworn to die with him. swore he knew nothing of Jesus. We are no different; and yet there is a grace we do not suspect, working beneath all that we do, if we are open to the gift of the Spirit in us.

Bernard of Clairvaux wrote:

I admit that the Word has also come to me and has done so many times. But although he has come to me, I have never been conscious of the moment of his coming. I perceived his presence, I remembered afterwards that he had been with me; sometimes I had a presentiment that he would come, but I was never conscious of his coming or his going…

Where he comes from when he visits my soul, and where he goes, and by what means he enters and goes out, I admit that I do not know even now, as John says, you do not know where he comes from or where he goes [Jn 3.8]. There is nothing strange in this, for of him was it said, Your footsteps will not be known [Psalm 77.19]…

It was not by any movement of his that I recognised his coming; it was not by any of my senses that I perceived he had penetrated to the depths of my being. Only by the movement of my heart, as I have told you, did I perceive his presence.

We are not in the Jerusalem of the first century: we are in a strange, liminal place, all of us, and have been for a long while – since the first Easter. We do not know, any more than Bernard of Clairvaux knew, how exactly it is that the Spirit comes to be present in us, and yet

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

(Romans 8.26-27)

We find ourselves walking through the world unarmed, vulnerable, available; with the prayer of Jesus himself in our hearts always, the Spirit interceding for us with sighs too deep for words. Being present to all we encounter as prayer, rather than needing consciously to say prayers, we are present as aerials, signs, receiving stations. The mist covers the distances, and our vision is not good; but Paul knew this, too:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

(1 Corinthians 13.12-13)

Descending into the heart…

…when we descend into the heart we go down through what I have called the layers of our inner life. In the first layer are all the relatively superficial things, the thoughts and feelings which are going on in us… the things our minds are concerned with. Below these are the layers of deeper, more hidden things: our secret fears and guilty feelings, our deep anxieties… layers which we are aware of, and layers which we are not aware of or feel unable to face or enter.

As we make a habit of descending into the heart we become conscious that we are going down through all these layers which make up our inner world, some of which are unknown even to ourselves. As we enter our heart, we bring this inner world down into the heart, not in the sense that we continue to be preoccupied with it, but so that we can place it before God. We lay down before God all the thoughts and feelings and all the deeper things that are within us, and leave them there.

This then becomes one form, the deepest form, of the prayer of confession…

Alexander Ryrie, Prayer of the Heart

This is very close to what I was trying more clumsily to say the other day, when I wrote of losing my way in trackless places of the spirit. Lent this year is for me coming to be all about this form of confession, this laying down before God the deeper, secret layers of grief and anxiety that are there I suppose in all our lives, but which this Lent God is patiently uncovering, master archaeologist of the Spirit that he is (see Romans 8.26-27).

Of course Paul’s words, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” bring us right through confession to the place of intercession, as Sandy Ryrie explains:

It is similar with our intercessions. There will be within us concerns and worries and thoughts about other people and situations… and circumstances that are bothering us. When we descend into the heart we do not just give up or ignore these people or things as irrelevant. We taken them down into the heart and lay them before God, leaving them before God and entrusting them to him. We do not go on thinking and worrying about them, nor try to persuade God to do something about them, but just leave them before him, waiting on him, allowing him to act.

Standing before God with the mind in the heart thus becomes the deepest form of both our confession and our intercession.

Ryrie, ibid.

The Jesus Prayer, says Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, “more than any other,” helps us to be able to “stand in God’s presence.” But in the wide field of contemplative prayer, there are other tracks we could follow, centering prayer (which is the contemporary equivalent to the prayer described in The Cloud of Unknowing), or Christian meditation, for instance. What matters here, at least as I am being led this Lent, is that opening ourselves to the Spirit in weakness and in stillness, allowing ourselves naturally to descend with the mind into the heart, into the presence of God in Christ.

Look what love has done to me…

Richard Rohr, in his series on hope in the darkness, writes:

What I’ve learned is that not-knowing and often not even needing to know is—surprise of surprises—a deeper way of knowing and a deeper falling into compassion. This is surely what the mystics mean by “death” and why they talk of it with so many metaphors… Maybe that is why Jesus praised faith even more than love; maybe that is why St. John of the Cross called faith “luminous darkness.” Yes, love is the final goal but ever deeper trust inside of darkness is the path for getting there.

My good friend Gerald May shed fresh light on the meaning of John of the Cross’ phrase “the dark night of the soul.”  He said that God has to work in the soul in secret and in darkness, because if we fully knew what was happening, and what Mystery/transformation/God/grace will eventually ask of us, we would either try to take charge or stop the whole process. No one oversees his or her own demise willingly, even when it is the false self that is dying. God has to undo our illusions secretly, as it were, when we are not watching and not in perfect control, say the mystics…

As James Finley… says, “The mystic is not someone who says, ‘Look what I have done!’ The mystic is one who says, ‘Look what love has done to me. There’s nothing left but God’s intimate love giving itself to me as me.’”

I seem myself to be travelling through this kind of territory again. The change that autumn brings is a constant reminder that God – and life in God consequently – is more verb than noun.

I know that I am continually being reminded at the moment that the word sacrament can equally well be rendered as “holy mystery”, and that, at least in the understanding of the Eastern Orthodox communion, the seven traditional sacraments of Catholic Christianity are only the main ones: that God can hallow what he will hallow, and that he touches humanity through many material means at different times. How this occurs is a mystery, but it does. The light of this evening, almost still after the earlier storms, is one.

I don’t seem to be able to predict things at all on the far side of this blessed gathering dark. All I know is that trust is at the centre of any response that may be being asked of me. The shadows lengthen with that lovely softening of dusk, and as the light diminishes, so a kind of night vision becomes inevitable and almost easy, for

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8.28)

 

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?