Category Archives: Mysticism

We are most temporary…

God’s operations, his manner, and his swiftness are simply unable to be discerned. As the Creator’s working abound more and more with us, they will absorb our own self-efforts.

It seems as though the stars shine more brightly before the sun rises and gradually vanish as the light advances. They have not really become invisible. A greater light has simply absorbed the lesser light.

This is also the case with your self-effort in prayer. Since God’s light is so much greater, it absorbs our little flickers of activity. They will grow faint and eventually disappear until all self-effort to experience God is no longer distinguishable.

I have heard the accusation from some that this is a “prayer of inactivity”. They are wrong. Such charges come from the inexperienced…

The fullness of grace will still the activity of self. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that you remain as silent as possible…

God’s presence is not a stronghold to be taken by force or violence. His is a kingdom of peace, which can only be gained by love. God demands nothing extraordinary or difficult. On the contrary…

Jeanne Guyon, Experiencing God Through Prayer

Our prayer, it seems to me, has everything to do with our experience of God. If we basically lack this experience, our minds being filled with ideas about God (“notions” as the early Quakers would have said), we shall understand prayer as something –  some demand or supplication – addressed to a being within a known universe, whereas the God of direct experience is not that kind of being at all. In fact “being” is not really a term that applies to God. God is the ground of being, and the universe, all that exists, exists in, and is contingent upon, God; and Christ is one name for that becoming known. The opening verses of John’s Gospel explain this perfectly well.

We are small and contingent parts of all that has come into being, and we are most temporary. We cannot know God as we know each other. To think that we can is a category mistake, and so is thinking that because God cannot be so known, there is no God. Of course there is no such thing as God, but that is not because there is no God: it is because God is not a thing. Things are merely things God does.

All we can do is find some way – whether it be sinking down into the silence of our joined worship, down to the seed of which Isaac Penington spoke, or whether it be the a practice like watching the breath, centring prayer, or the Jesus Prayer or the Nembutsu – of ceasing to try and know or be or do anything, and let God’s Spirit come into the heart in God’s own time. All we can do is be still; all we can give is love.

Another kind of peace: reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 24

A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it… It is as great presumption to send our passions upon God’s errands, as it is to palliate them with God’s name… We are too ready to retaliate, rather than forgive, or gain by love and information. And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us then try what Love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.

William Penn, 1693 – Quaker faith & practice 24.03

In these difficult days, when elections seem to have been won on promises of intolerance and injustice, when supporters of both sides are calling for more and more extreme opposition one to another, and violence is looked upon as a normal and inevitable response, it is good to read this chapter on our Quaker peace testimony.

We all too often, it seems to me, fall into the world’s ways of looking at disagreement, and fall into the world’s use of words in speaking of it. We talk of struggle, of victory and defeat, of things lost and won. The left does this as well as the right; and occasionally, Friends fall into the trap also. Perhaps we need, as we contemplate a world with Brexit on one side of the Atlantic, and a Trump administration on the other, to reread Kathleen Lonsdale, writing in 1953:

Friends are not naïve enough to believe that such an appeal ‘to that of God’ in a dictator or in a nation which for psychological or other reasons is in an aggressive mood will necessarily be successful in converting the tyrant or preventing aggression. Christ was crucified; Gandhi was assassinated. Yet they did not fail. Nor did they leave behind them the hatred, devastation and bitterness that war, successful or unsuccessful, does leave. What can be claimed, moreover, is that this method of opposing evil is one of which no person, no group, no nation need be ashamed, as we may and should be ashamed of the inhumanities of war that are perpetrated in our name and with our support.

Quaker faith & practice 24.26

As I wrote a few months ago,

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”.

Our activism as Friends is an outcome, an outworking, of our experience of the Light. We do not hold meeting for worship in order to strengthen ourselves for action, or to seek God’s blessing on a course of action we have wilfully decided upon; we meet in order to encounter the presence of God. As a result of this encounter, and of our encounter with that of God in each other, may may find ourselves called, inevitably, to action of some kind – but this is humanly a side effect, and divinely a leading: something God leads us into.

But this leading may not be to success, to some kind of victory. As Kathleen Lonsdale points out above, “Christ was crucified; Gandhi was assassinated.” The list of Quaker martyrs is long: James Nayler, William Leddra, Mary Dyer – many others. And yet, as Lonsdale says, they did not fail.

We must, I am sure, beware of judging our actions, or their causes, by the standards of the world. The trouble with thinking of ourselves in terms of politics is that we come to think of ourselves as successful or unsuccessful in our political endeavours. But it is our endeavours to love as God first loved us that may have effects, some of them perhaps political it’s true, beyond anything we may see in our own lifetimes. As Roger Wilson wrote (Qfp 24.24), “…it is ultimately the power of suffering in love that redeems men from the power of evil.”

Sparrows and stillness: reading Qfp Ch. 1

Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

Quaker faith & practice 1.02: Advices & queries 7

Friends have become very familiar with the last two sentences of this – the query part – as a kind of watchword for open-mindedness and tolerance in all that we do, but too often, I think, we forget some of the implications of the advice part.

Mystical experience, the direct, unmediated encounter with God central to Quaker worship and prayer, is not a strange or technical exercise, reserved for professional clergy or vowed monastics, but an ordinary, straightforward thing common to our identity as human beings. There is, after all, that of God in each of us: all that is necessary is to become aware of it, and somehow to live within that awareness.

David Johnson writes ( A Quaker Prayer Life, 2013) “Quaker prayer arises from a life of continuing devotion. We learn by experience.” To turn our hearts to silence, to “stand still in the Light”, on a regular, daily basis does indeed open out our awareness to the presence of God in the small, everyday circumstances of life – blue tits in the bird bath, sycamore seeds spinning along the breeze, the distant, resonant clang of scaffolding poles dropped onto a lorry. We all rest in God, human and otherwise, and the ground of being is our inevitable home. We cannot fall out of what is: we can only be transformed, and even dying is only another kind of transformation within that ground. All that is needed is to learn to know this, moment by luminous moment, among the drifting leaves and the still incessant chirping of sparrows in the bushes along the hospital grounds.

Reading Qfp Ch. 26 some more…

Religion is living with God. There is no other kind of religion. Living with a Book, living with or by a Rule, being awfully high-principled are not in themselves religion, although many people think they are and that that is all there is to it. Religion has got a bad name through being identified with an outward orderliness. But an outward orderliness can be death, dullness and masochism. Doing your duty may be admirable stoicism; it isn’t religion.

To find religion itself you must look inside people and inside yourself. And there, if you find even the tiniest grain of true love, you may be on the right scent. Millions of people have it and don’t know what it is that they have. God is their guest, but they haven’t the faintest idea that he is in the house. So you mustn’t only look where God is confessed and acknowledged. You must look everywhere, to find the real religion. Nor must you look, in others or in yourself, for great spooky visions and revelations. Such visions and revelations come to many, a great deal oftener than we think; and to those to whom they come they are sun, moon and stars. But in most people who know God, and in all such people most of the time, living with God is not an apparition but a wordless and endless sureness. Like the silence of two friends together. Like the silence of lovers.

God is waiting to live like that in every single person in the world.

Bernard Canter, 1962 Qfp 26.37

It’s odd, but though I’ve had one or two experiences that might fall under the heading of “mystical” – direct experiences, if you like, of God, or what of God filters through the doors of perception when they crack a little ajar – I really wouldn’t describe them as remotely spooky. That sureness Canter describes is present always, and even before it came to underlie everything for me, the glimpses I had of what lies beneath and beyond the world of the senses still had that quality of almost ordinary reality. What I encountered was solid, real – solider and more real than my own flesh or the earth it rested on – and not remotely uncanny.

Without wishing to become lost in the semantic maze of the theist/non-theist discussion, this is why I don’t like the term “supernatural” when applied to God. To me it gives the impression of something standing over against, separate from, reality. That which I encounter in the depths of my own being, in the eyes of my sisters and brothers, in the wrapped life of a dreaming cat, in the gathered meeting or in mist across the sea just before dawn, is not separate from reality: it is the solid ground in which is rooted the great tree from which the leaves of the phenomena grow, and are nourished.

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.

“The silent unity of all”

In his interesting post ‘Quaker non-theism and the God of Pascal‘, Ben Wood points out the very real difficulty some Quakers, especially non-theists like David Boulton, have with the Cartesian concept of God as “merely a necessary theological hypothesis.” Wood quotes Boulton himself in ‘Quaker Identity and the Heart of our Faith’ (the content appears to be missing from the Quakers in Britain website), “I can no more entertain the notion of gods and devils, angels and demons, disembodied ghoulies and ghosties, or holy and unholy spirits, than I can believe in the magic of Harry Potter or the mystic powers of Gandalf the Grey.”

I am not qualified as a theologian, but Quaker theology appears to me to be, if anything, a theology derived from experience, and the God of my experience is not a being within a known universe, not a notion in fact at all. I may, like everyone else, David Boulton included, derive notions from my experience, but it is the experience that is primary. This primacy of experience is of course what Quakers mean when they describe theirs as an experimental faith. As Charles F Carter wrote:

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?

Oddly enough perhaps, at first glance, one of the best accounts of mystical experience I’ve come across recently is found in André Comte-Sponville’s Book of Atheist Spirituality. He writes (p.190):

Mystics are defined by a certain type of experience, comprising self-evidence, plenitude, simplicity, eternity… All this leaves very little room for belief.

They see. Why would they need dogma?
Everything is present. Why would they need hope?
They live in eternity. Why would they need to wait for it?
They are already saved. Why would they need a religion?
Whether they are believers or not, mystics are those who no longer lack God. But is a God who is no longer lacking still God?

I don’t know the answer to Comte-Sponville’s question, except to say that for me, that plenitude – pleroma, in Jung’s Septem Sermones ad Mortuos – is exactly what I mean by God. He goes on to say,

When  God is no longer lacking, what remains? The plenitude of what is, which is neither God nor a subject.

When the past and the future no longer separate us from the present, what remains? Eternity – that is, the perpetual now of reality and truth.

When ego and intellect no longer separate us from reality, what remains? The silent unity of all.

For me, that “silent unity” is God. I mean nothing less by the word. But I find I need a shorthand for what André Comte-Sponville describes a few pages later (p.197): “How could I contain the absolute? The absolute contains me – I can reach it only by leaving myself behind.” The little word “God” may give rise to all manner of misunderstandings among Friends and others, but I for one need it for its elegance and concision – and for me, its resonance. To the questioning mind, you see, the infinite light of plenitude is dark, and all our descriptions fail in the end. As TS Eliot wrote, the only answer is (and try writing this without that little word we were discussing):

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.