Category Archives: Mysticism

The Language of the Heart

We are creatures of the word, we humans. We know ourselves by our names first of all, and our least thought comes ready dressed in words. And yet it is in silence that we draw close to God, becoming open in the stillness to the presence that is always with us, nearer than our own breathing.

The apostle John wrote,

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.

John 1.1-4 NRSV

In contemplative prayer, we drop below the threshold of thought, and yet words remain, perhaps reflections of the words we have spoken since we learned to speak. The stream of consciousness passes, glittering with words, fragments of thoughts, commentary, witterings. How hard it is not to look, not to be caught by the glittering surfaces that flicker past. This is why, in Centering Prayer, in Christian Meditation, above all in the Jesus Prayer, it is words (or a word) themselves that are used to still the twinkling stream.

But why would that work?

It seems to me that there are two kinds of language, at least as they are at work here: the language of thoughts, and the language of the heart. There is a phrase often used in the literature around the Jesus Prayer, “Keep the mind in the heart before God.” This does not mean “get out of your mind and into your emotions” – anything but. As Cynthia Bourgeault writes,

According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality, emerging from some unknown profundity, which plays lightly upon the surface of this life without being caught there: a world where meaning, insight, and clarity come together in a whole different way. Saint Paul talked about this other kind of perceptivity with the term “faith” (“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” [Hebrews 11.1 KJV]), but the word “faith” is itself often misunderstood by the linear mind. What it really designates is not a leaping into the dark (as so often misconstrued) but a subtle seeing in the dark, a kind of spiritual night vision that allows one to see with inner certainty that the elusive golden thread glimpsed from within actually does lead somewhere.

So, in placing the attention into the field of these words, whether the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, or intent that underlies the chosen “sacred word” of centering prayer, the words themselves, as the means of attention in fact, descend quite naturally and peacefully into the heart.

This, of course, explains why those who practice the Jesus Prayer so often continue to use the terminal words a sinner (they are omitted in some versions), for it is, at least in my experience, only in repentance that the heart is purified sufficiently so to be blessed.

The great spiritual directors of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have explained in figurative language how the structure of the human soul enables the mind to be drawn upwards (the will consenting) to its own apex, at which point it comes into contact and communion with God’s descending Spirit. This “apex”, which can equally well be described as the “centre”, is that “place of the heart” wherein we dwell in the state of prayer. To enter that state it is necessary for the heart to be purified by repentance (represented in the baptism of Jesus by John), so that it may reflect, as in a clear mirror, the Holy Light that pours on it from above. Then, by God’s mercy, the soul will, in the course of time, in this life or in some other dimension as yet unknown, become so perfectly commingled with that Light that, as Julian says, there will seem to be no difference – although there must still remain a clear distinction – between the reflection and its heavenly Source.

Lois Lang-Sims, The Mind in the Heart – Thoughts on Prayer

All this sounds perhaps either dry and academic, or mystical to the point of dottiness, depending on the point of view of the reader! But it is a simple thing really. The Jesus Prayer, like the nembutsu, is a prayer for simple people.

Mystical experience, the direct, unmediated encounter with God central to Quaker worship, and to all contemplative 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, which is all that the phrase “the mind in the heart” is trying to say, really.

 

The Desert in the City

Micah Bales has an interesting blog post, published today, entitled Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?

He writes:

Can a desert spirituality emerge in the midst of daily life, work, and family? What can I do to cultivate this kind of presence, awareness, awokeness? … Perhaps, like the 4th-century desert fathers, we can find a community of prayer in the midst of our spiritual wilderness.

For me, the best introduction by far to the subject of desert spirituality is Rowan Williams’ Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the DesertDiscussing the often misunderstood theme of flight into the desert, he says:

Certainly the desert monks and nuns are in flight from the social systems of their day, from the conformity and religious mediocrity of what they find elsewhere. But they are clearly not running away from responsibility or from relationships; everything we have so far been considering underlines that they are entering into a more serious level of responsibility for themselves and others and that their relationships are essential to the understanding of their vocation.

The desert nun did not grant herself the luxury of evading their own or the world’s problems simply by running away, nor by immersion in human company and conviviality. It was the direct encounter with God in prayer that was the heart of her vocation.

Micah Bales wrote, in another recent post, of the necessity to be prepared to “like Jesus… let go of every guarantee, every promise – even the promise of God’s presence and protection – in order to live in the naked reality of God’s kingdom.” It is this encounter with naked reality, I believe, that lies at the heart of the desert vocation, as it does at the heart of the original Quaker vocation, as Isaac Penington explained:

The sum and substance of true religion doth not stand in getting a notion of Christ’s righteousness, but in feeling the power of endless life, receiving the power, and being changed by the power. And where Christ is, there is his righteousness.

For myself, the answer is always found in prayer and stillness. I cannot ever begin with thought, or with my own emotional reaction to a situation, or to another’s words, or I am lost before I begin. (Incidentally, this is I think where political debate so often goes wrong!) When we fall silent before God, knowing our own unknowing, our own inability to say or do anything from a pure heart, then we are in position at last to recognise the truth of Thomas R Kelly’s words:

In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.

Our lives as Friends, or indeed as anyone who attempts to live out the contemplative life, will tend inevitably towards the desert, it seems to me. The more we place stillness at the centre of not only our worship, but of our own prayer, the more open we are to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. Meister Eckhart put it best, as I quoted, via Barbara Brown Taylor, yesterday:

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

Ascension Day

…the prayer of baptized people is going to be a prayer that is always moving in the depths, sometimes invisibly – a prayer that comes from places deeper than we can really understand. St. Paul says just this in his letter to the Romans: ‘The Spirit helps us in our weakness… that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’ (Romans 8.26). The prayer of baptized people comes from a place deeper than we can penetrate with our minds or even our feelings… and therefore it is a prayer that may often be difficult and mysterious… Prayer, in other words, is more like sneezing – there comes a point where you can’t not do it. The Spirit wells and surges up towards God the Father. But because of this there will be moments when, precisely because you can’t help yourself, it feels dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, hard to speak about.

Rowan Williams, Being Christian

So, as we come to this fortieth day of Easter, when we remember that mysterious scene at the opening of the Acts of the Apostles, it seems right somehow to look again at this odd calling we find ourselves in. The disciples of Jesus were just like us: they wanted to know when their Lord would finally sort things out, put an end to Roman tyranny and all that went with it, and the messy, broken state of human life itself. “Lord,” they said, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus’ reply, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set…” reminds me of his sharp rejoinder to Peter when the latter queried John’s role in the kingdom, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”

There is a lot not to know about being a Christian, it seems to me. We are often accused of thinking we know all the answers – and maybe some fundamentalists do think so – but really the way of Christ, while we follow it on earth, is a way of mystery and darkness more than anything else. “Faith”, said Jennifer Kavanagh, “is not about certainty, but about trust.”

For myself, I have found cannot find God by looking, or thinking, much as my whole life may seem to have been spent in a search for – or being distracted from a search for – what is true and is the source of all that is. What God is in himself is unknowable. Anything I might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in human understanding, nor to be constrained by time, space or any other dimension. The only way I can know God is by not knowing, and by not knowing allowing myself to be known. Jennifer Kavanagh, a few pages on from the passage above, goes on to say that,

Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience.

Indeed that seems to be the crux of the matter for me. It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting myself out of the way of that channel of loving gift that is Jesus himself. To pray “in the name of Jesus” is nothing more nor less than this; and it is with some such thought that the Jesus Prayer is so often referred to as “the prayer of the Name”.

We are caught up, by our baptism – and by that term I mean our entry into the life of the spirit, whether or not physical water is involved – into a life more than our own. All we are is, as Paul said, “hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3.3) Rowan Williams continues (ibid.):

…we receive life from others’ prayer and love, and we give the prayer and love that others need. We are caught up in a great economy of giving and exchange. The solidarity that baptism brings us into, the solidarity with suffering, is a solidarity with one another as well… We are ‘implicated’ in one another, our lives are interwoven…

And so our prayer, whether we are aware of it or not, covers life itself, the broken, weeping, glorious becoming that is being made. We are not separated, and our breath is breathed with the breath of God.

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

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.