Category Archives: Mysticism

Little Things

Thankfulness works in the Christian community as it usually does in the Christian life. Only those who give thanks for the little things receive the great things as well. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts prepared for us because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think that we should not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be seeking the great gifts. Then we complain that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experiences that God has given to other Christians, and we consider these complaints to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the small (and yet really not so small!) gifts we receive daily. How can God entrust great things to those who will not gratefully receive the little things from God’s hand?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

This is a passage that should, I think, be read and re-read by those of us who are involved in any way in the contemplative life. We are all so deeply infected, from childhood if not before, with our culture’s ideals of progress and achievement, that we find it all but impossible to accept that our “daily gifts” are enough, are really God’s good and sufficient gifts for the life of prayer into which we have been called; and we continually abandon them in favour of fantasies of a spiritual life we imagine somewhere out beyond us, on some higher level to which we should aspire.

These things are not God’s way, I feel. God calls us in the little things, in the touch of the moving air, bird-shadows on cropped grass, in the quiet places; what he may call us to may be equally unspectacular, or it may be some far more public action or communication. That is not so much a matter of our choice, but of discernment.

I sometimes dislike using the term “mystic” or “mystical” to describe the life of inner prayer. Quite apart from any woo-woo connotations, it can seem to imply someone special, a guru of sorts, set apart from ordinary people and their lives. Contemplative prayer, whether done corporately in meeting for worship or in the silence of one’s own room, is none of those things. If it is a hidden path, it is one hidden in plain sight, and those who follow it are – they are, they don’t just appear to be – profoundly ordinary people, with ordinary lives apart from their inescapable calling to the interior life.

Henri Nouwen wrote,

Hiddenness is an essential quality of the spiritual life. Solitude, silence, ordinary tasks, being with people without great agendas, sleeping, eating, working, playing … all of that without being different from others, that is the life that Jesus lived and the life he asks us to live. It is in hiddenness that we, like Jesus, can increase “in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people” (Luke 2.51). It is in hiddenness that we can find a true intimacy with God and a true love for people.

This ordinary hiddenness is the natural home of one called to the life of prayer: not the mountain top, not the university (unless she happens to be an academic) nor the monastery (unless he happens to be a monk) but the ordinary occasions of life among others, the quietness of simple things, the lives of the sparrows in the shrubbery, the wren in the hedge.

[Some parts of this post were first published in another form on The Mercy Blog]

Without Assurance

In her little book Practical Mystics, Jennifer Kavanagh quotes Rufus Jones’ definition of mysticism as “the attitude of mind which comes into correspondence with a spiritual world-order which is felt to be as real as the visible one.”

This comes very close to my own experience; what I have loved above all about the Quaker way is this sense of practical, hands-on, experimental mysticism. To the extent that it roots itself, and all its works, in such an experimental faith, it seems to me, Quakerism does well; to the extent that it does not, it outruns its Guide, basing its actions and pronouncements merely on our own limited human notions of right and wrong, and of social or political expediency.

Charles F Carter (Qfp 26.39) wrote in 1971:

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?

In another book of hers, A Little Book of Unknowing, Jennifer Kavanagh writes:

…Faith is not about certainty, but about trust…

We have seen that there is little about which we can be certain. Certainty may be undermined by limitations of the current state of knowledge; the subjective nature of experience; the fluid quality of the material world; or the intervention of unforeseen events. But beyond these aspects of the world about which we often assume knowledge, there is a dimension of life to which rational explanation simply doesn’t apply. Most people would admit that there is much that we cannot apprehend through reason or through the senses. We might know a fact with our brains, but not be able to understand what it means, to fully experience its reality – the age of a star or the trillions of connections within the human brain – some things are too big, too complex, for us to conceive. Einstein, who knew a thing or two about factual knowledge, felt that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. There is a dimension which co-exists with the material, rationally grounded world, is not in opposition to it or threatened by scientific development but happily stands alone in the context of everything else. This is the world of religious experience.

This, it seems to me, is crucial. Unknowing is essential to true faith, and indispensable for any kind of practical experience of the Light. When we tie ourselves down with dogmatic statements and attitudes, be they overly literal interpretations of historical creeds, or uncompromising assertions of some atheist position or other, we close the door on the Spirit, cutting off the light from shining into the darkness of our own limitations.

Kavanagh (ibid.) quotes Dorothee Sölle:

The crucial point here is that in the mystical understanding of God, experience is more important than doctrine, the inner light more important than church authority, the certainty of God and communication with him more important than believing in his existence or positing his existence rationally.

When we come into the silence, whether of our own life of prayer and reflection (Advices & Queries 3or of meeting together for worship, bereft of words and notions, it is only that direct experience that will, if we let it, be our sure guide, and will lead us, quite without the intellectual assurance we too often crave, into truth, unity and love.

Welcoming Jesus?

In the current issue of The Friend, Michael Wright writes:

Cap Kaylor (23 and 30 March) has challenged us to enquire where our Religious Society of Friends is to look for its ‘identity and its engine’. He writes of the importance of narrative in the human search for meaning, as he points to the picture of Jesus ‘lost along the way’ but now being rediscovered.

Advices & queries 4 reminds us that: ‘The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus.’ We share a narrative with other Christians, but we value the scriptures without taking them at face value, paying attention to the Spirit that ‘gave the scriptures’ rather than abiding by the letter of them. We can learn much from the Jewish practice of finding the scriptures a source for creative thinking, rather than a theological straitjacket.

I have quoted Cap Kaylor here before:

Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, the deeper narrative from which Quakerism sprang is the Christian narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who functioned both as archetype and engine for the early Quakers. For most of our history Friends have had no trouble identifying with that Christian narrative.

The Religious Society of Friends began as a reform movement within Christianity, and for the early Friends there was no confusion when it came to identifying the Light with the historical person of Jesus. They lived and moved in a society that was saturated with a Christian ethos. The very stones around them proclaimed a Christian culture that we can no longer take for granted as they could. Embedded within a Christian milieu they found their meaning and their mission in the gospels.

We are now faced with a dilemma. That Christian milieu has long since faded, and seeds that were planted early in our own history have left Quakers uniquely vulnerable to the stresses and challenges of a materialistic and aggressively secular civilisation. The historic channels through which Christian faith has typically been transmitted were scripture, tradition, and sacramental ritual. They weave together to form the narrative that is the Christian community’s collective memory of the Jesus event…

We could do without a reliance on scripture, ordained ministry, or ritual while we lived in a Christian society that provided us with commonly held ethical presuppositions and a vocabulary to interpret our spiritual experiences. But that time has now past. However, without the force of at least an ostensibly Christian culture, where is the Religious Society of Friends to look for its identity and its engine?

Michael Wright proposes that:

…a narrative – sourced from the gospels, focused on truth and integrity, community fellowship, trust and service, health and wellbeing, valuing every individual, with concerns for justice, peace and for our environment – has real power to inspire and motivate. It draws creatively on the Christian tradition, but finds little or no sustenance in the words of too many hymns, liturgies and doctrines.

Michael concludes his thoughtful and engaging piece with an appeal for direct contact with Friends “interested in sharing experiences and insights and in developing such a narrative.” In The Friend magazine Michael publishes his email address, which is thus freely accessible to subscribers; here, on the open web, I feel I should not do so; but if anyone has no subscription to the magazine, they’re welcome to send me their own email address, and I’ll be glad to provide Michael Wright’s.

An unanswerable, illogical convincingness…

CS Lewis, to his brother, on reading The Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich; and on Lewis’s deepest conviction that “all shall be well.”

21 March 1940

I have been reading this week the ‘Revelations’ of Mother Julian of Norwich (14th century); not always so profitable as I had expected, but well worth reading. This is a curious vision ‘Also He showed me a little thing, the bigness of a hazelnut, in my hand. I thought, What may this be? And it was answered, it is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for me thought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for littleness.’ Now that is a good turn given to the monkish (or indeed Christian) view of the whole created universe: for to say that it is bad, as some are inclined to do, is blasphemous and Manichean—but to say that it is small (with the very odd dream twist ‘so small it might fall to bits’), that seems just right. Very odd too is her doctrine of ‘the Grand Deed’. Christ tells her again and again ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ She asks how it can be well, since some are damned. He replied that all that is true, but the secret grand deed will make even that ‘very well’. ‘With you this is impossible, but not with Me.’

My mood changes about this. Sometimes it seems mere drivel—to invent a necessarily inconceivable grand deed which makes everything quite different while leaving it exactly the same. But then at other times it has the unanswerable, illogical convincingness of things heard in a dream and appeals to what is one of my deepest convictions, viz. that reality always escapes prediction by taking a line which was simply not in your thought at all. Imagine oneself as a flat earther questioning whether the Earth was endless or not. If you were told ‘It is finite but never comes to an end’, one would seem to be up against nonsense. Yet the escape (by being a sphere) is so easy—once you know it. At any rate, this book excites me.

From The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume II
Compiled in Yours, Jack

In my late teens and early twenties, I became acutely aware of my own spiritual longing, and yet, much as I read DT Suzuki,  Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley and even Thomas Merton, somehow the connection between what I read and my own experience was absent. I was not at this time a Christian, and I found that I simply could not understand the medieval Christian mystics, Julian of Norwich, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Richard Rolle, Margery Kempe and others I tried at various times to read. It was really not until I was nearly 30, and, at a very low point in my life staying at St Michael’s Priory at Willen, near Milton Keynes, that, when I was introduced to the Jesus Prayer by Fr Francis Horner SSM, something finally clicked.

Why did the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) “work” for me when other approaches, when the Cloud of Unknowing or Buddhist techniques, did not? As much as anything, I think, it gave me a way to pray – actually to pray, rather than attempting to mediate, or to produce in myself some kind of altered consciousness – when I had not any theological background. or even church experience or basic Bible teaching, or indeed anything like a cultural background in any faith, to support me, or to provide a context for this journey of the spirit on which I found myself. There was just the “naked intent” inherent in the words of the Prayer.

I have no way of knowing how Fr Francis came to “prescribe” that form of prayer, nor to point me to Per-Olof Sjögren’s little book on it, whether it was grace, insight, or whether he recommended it to everyone, but the Jesus Prayer has remained my companion ever since, through all my sometimes tangled journey of faith. It made in me, and continues to make in me, precisely that “unanswerable, illogical convincingness…” that Lewis wrote of in regard to Mother Julian’s vision of the hazelnut.

I am reminded, too, as I was most strongly in meeting this morning, of Isaac Penington’s words in Quaker faith & practice 26.70, where he describes this experience of quietness (hesychia) leading to illumination and the awareness of the presence of God that comes so often in answer to the Jesus Prayer:

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.

From the Map into the Geography

It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. ‘Look out!’ we cry, ‘it’s alive.’ And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back–-I would have done so myself if I could–-and proceed no further with Christianity. An ‘impersonal God’–-well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads–-better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power source that we can tap–-best of all. But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband–-that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Suppose we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing he has found us?

CS Lewis, Miracles

The odd thing is that some of us, Friends and others, who are caught at one or another of these stages (often at the “inside our heads” stage) feel that they are actually at a more advanced level, as it were, spiritually or intellectually, than those who take what they may call a more “literalistic” approach to faith. But this passage reminds me forcibly of my own first steps on that path.

From childhood I had had the sense of living on the edge of something – there had been moments, and more than moments, when the curtain across that edge grew thin and tattered, and the unimaginable peeped, almost, through into sunlit orchard behind our house, or called in the hollow song of the foghorn, at night across the sea beyond my bedroom window. As I grew up, I alternated between trying to escape all such considerations into the clean certainties of GCE science, and looking – increasingly – for explanations. As I dabbled in phenomenology, and began to read not only Eastern mystical texts, but a few of the Christian mystics as well, I vividly remember thinking, “This is all very well, but I need a system that lets me remain in charge… I don’t like this continual call to surrender. I’m just beginning to find me – I’m not letting go of that!”

It was not for another nearly ten years that events broke through that self-commitment, and I found I had fallen into the hands of the living God. (cf. Hebrews 10.31!) But I was under no illusion then that I had somehow slipped from an enlightened sophistication into some more primitive state – rather I had the feeling that I had blundered from the map into the geography, and the little painted rivers now thundered over their falls and rapids, and on to a sea that was more than capable of absorbing my cherished me without a trace. The mere spray soaked me to the skin…

The reality of faith indeed a matter of life and death: what then? There is an end to ideas and opinions, and to all our words. One day there will be nothing else than that: for all we have treasured will be rotted through with Light. (Matthew 6:19-21; 1 Corinthians 3.15)

“Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had,” as Richard Rohr writes in his book Immortal Diamond: The search for our true self. And death itself, perhaps, is for that true self the gate to life…

Some more unhurrying chase…

The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’

John 1.29-34

Jesus, here at the beginning of the narrative of John’s Gospel, is hidden in plain sight, among the crowd assembled to hear John the Baptist’s preaching.

There will be many echoes of this first scene as we read through the Gospel. Jesus is hidden and unseen before he is revealed. He is hidden at the wedding in Cana, working a miracle through Mary. He is hidden to the woman at the well. He hides from the crowd by the lake. He goes in secret to the festival. He is hidden from the man born blind.

Epiphany is about learning to see who Jesus is: about discovering the glory that at first is hidden…

Stephen Croft, Reflections for Daily Prayer

It is very dark. Outside the window the few lights on the other side of the reservoir are patterned by the leaves that move in the cold breeze of night – ivy leaves, and the few last persistent bramble and hazel leaves, dry now, and prone to fall and scuttle before the least breath of wind like quick erratic footsteps along the path.

So much is hidden from us. Half the time it’s our own fault, with our minds filled with expectations and demands, obligations and insecurities. And yet there are so many hints of a coming epiphany – our ordinary days are filled with uncertain glimpses of a steady light – dry sounds behind us that might be leaves, or some more unhurrying chase we dare not dream…

Richard Rohr writes that “[t]he path of prayer and love and the path of suffering seem to be the two Great Paths of transformation… The ordinary path is… both centre and circumference, and I am finally not in control of either one.”

Epiphany is grace only. The crowds along the Jordan River that day could do nothing to compel the Messiah. Only John the Baptist’s listening prayer allowed him to be revealed.

Rohr again:

Once we see God’s image in one place, the circle keeps widening. It doesn’t stop with human beings and enemies and the least of our brothers and sisters. It moves to frogs and pansies and weeds. Everything becomes enchanting with true sight. We cannot not live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded and infused by God. All we can do is allow, trust, and finally rest in it, which is indeed why we are “saved” by faith—faith that this could be true.

 

The Source of Our Hope

In the October 2017 issue of Friends Journal, Quaker psychotherapist Daniel O Snyder writes:

If you travel in Quaker circles, I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this advice. But there is another aspect to [nonviolence] that I believe is just as critical and a profound source of hope. It is this: The very same dynamics of nonviolence that bring about transformation in the political world are also at work in the inner world. The nonviolence model can also revolutionize how we understand prayer, the second leg of the stool. We are accustomed to thinking of prayer as a place of comfort, and certainly it is that. We are accustomed to the idea that prayer grounds and seasons our outward action, that it refreshes the soul and prepares us to return to the fields of outward engagement. That too is important. But there is yet another critical feature of this leg of the stool that we sometimes fail to consider: prayer itself is a transformational process both in the inner world of the one who prays and in its outward fruits. Transformational work crosses the inward–outward barrier; it may even erase it. Prayer is essential to the praxis of faith because prayer is itself a field of engagement.

I know this is a bold claim: prayer is, within its own dynamic and apart from outward action, a type of intervention. There are obvious problems with this claim. Karl Marx named the biggest one: religion (when it is reduced to mere piety) is an opiate, drugging us into complacency. I’m not talking about piety. Here’s another problem: prayer is often taken to mean a type of pleading, an appeal for special intervention. I’m not talking about a request for outside help. Now, here is another: prayer is imagined as being exclusively inward, going to the Well, or a return to Sanctuary. Prayer is a refueling station. This one may be closer to home for many of us Quakers. It is supported in much of our literature, such as in Thomas Kelly’s wonderful line, “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul.” Further on in A Testament of Devotion, however, in a passage that could be easily overlooked, he laments the necessities of time: “linear sequence and succession of words is our inevitable lot and compels us to treat separately what is not separate.” Kelly, like many earlier Quakers, had awakened to an interconnected world.

We Quakers are children of the Enlightenment. We were born into a world that was already defined for us before we got here. Like Kelly, we submit to the necessities of our inward–outward language, but we do not have to accept the worldview it enshrines. I have found that regular discipline in prayer ultimately cracks open my assumptions about the nature of self and world. The Divine Comforter is also a Divine Disturber who relentlessly overthrows the internalized regime of my idols. There is a peace and a deep quietness that comes, but it is on the other side of God’s nonviolent revolution of the soul. Small wonder that Margaret Fell warned that the Divine Encounter “will rip you up and tear you open.” Prayer is serious business if we are willing to submit to its alchemy.

Daniel Snyder has here put his finger on something I have struggled to say for a long time on this blog and elsewhere: prayer is not merely a way to make myself feel better, not a plea for God to rearrange reality by supernatural intervention, not merely a way to recharge the batteries before another burst of political activism, but is itself a field of engagement.”

Snyder goes on:

Most of us trust the power of prayer implicitly despite being trapped in a worldview that doesn’t allow us to see how it could possibly make a difference. We “hold each other in the Light” and trust that it matters that we do so. Most of us also have stories of openings, resolutions of difficulties, even physical healings that we may not talk about for fear of being thought naïve, gullible, or worse. It’s time we gave up our shyness about such things. Prayer matters. Serious and committed inner work not only prepares us for faithful outward action, it is itself a type of engagement. As Walter Wink writes in his extraordinarily important work Engaging the Powers, “history belongs to the intercessors.” If in addition to study groups learning about nonviolence, every meeting also had committed prayer groups, holding our country in the Light, we would be adding another essential leg to the stool. We are not just refueling in order to return to a field of engagement, we are showing up for the Divine Encounter, presenting ourselves as willing subjects for transformation and as willing instruments for transformation in the world. Prayer has a way of shifting not only how we see the world but also how we see ourselves. We are called to love the world as we have been loved, to confront the world as we have been confronted, to forgive as we have been forgiven, and to be instruments of its healing as we ourselves have been healed. Only the forgiven truly know how to forgive, and only the healed know how to heal. Prayer restores savor to the salt; it returns us to our essential nature. As saltiness is the essential nature of salt, so is ours the Indwelling Spirit. Grace is the ground of our being and the source of our hope.

We cannot know the use of such a prayer as this. Simon Barrington-Ward writes of Silouan the Athonite:

…he began to recognise that [his sense of darkness and isolation] was in part the oppression of the absence of the sense of God and the alienation from his love over the whole face of the globe. He had been called to undergo this travail himself not on account of his own sin any more, but that he might enter into the darkness of separated humanity and tormented nature and, through his ceaseless prayer, be made by God’s grace alone into a means of bringing that grace to bear on the tragic circumstances of his time. He was praying and living through the time of World War I and the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of all that led to the Holocaust [not to mention the Russian Revolution, and at the very end of his life, Stalin’s Great Purge]. And with all this awareness of pain and sorrow, he was also given a great serenity and peacefulness and goodness about him, which profoundly impressed those who know him.

For all of us in our lesser ways, [contemplative prayer], as well as bringing us into something of this kind of alternation which St. Silouan so strikingly experienced, also leads us on with him into an ever-deepening peace. You can understand how those who first taught and practiced this kind of prayer were first called “hesychasts”: people of hesychia or stillness.