Category Archives: Pain

Junctures and Crossroads

It is a startling thing to consider how a particular decision, quite insignificant in the hour it takes place, can secretly hide the truth of a spiritual destiny. Without that decision, a completely different life would have been lived. The choice, trivial and optional at the time it occurs, is part of a soul’s destiny. An entire life, in other words, can reside at an unsuspected, secret juncture when a seemingly unimportant impulse is obeyed. Once the decision is made, the hour releases the bolt on a great interlocking network of influences and events that would not take place but for that choice. Perhaps we do not pay sufficient attention to the importance of such junctures and crossroads…

Fr Donald Haggerty, The Contemplative Hunger

For some weeks now I have been living between worlds. Outwardly, I am much the same man I was before, but inwardly something has changed, and the sense of what it might be in only gradually dawning on me. Long ago, as I recalled recently, I stepped onto the contemplative path almost without realising it. But, as Eve Baker notes, “contemplatives… are useless people” and I was brought up always to be useful as an artist, a poet, a musician: always to consider what treasures I might be able to bring back from the land beyond the grey wind to illuminate the lives of others, and to ornament my own in their eyes.

Almost it would seem an instinct of nature, the manner in which contemplatives flee from attention to themselves. But perhaps it is not so much a flight or an escape as a profound inclination that they are following. What we see externally as their tendency to self-effacement and concealment reflects a desire to be released from the concern for self.

Haggerty, ibid.

Over the years, the inclination to solitude and concealment has popped up often enough, as I’ve noted before; but I have been too quick always to dismiss it, to leave its demands as being too extreme, too far beyond the practicalities of the moment, and life has gone on much as before, filled with pleasures and obligations, weariness and some wonder.

Too early in our lives, perhaps most of us are taught to distrust our truest insights and best impulses. We come under such pressure to conform to the imperatives of our culture – and, growing up in the 1950s, I encountered a culture with strong gender demarcations and role models – that even with the most enlightened parenting we grow up doubting the deepest parts of ourselves. Those of us with a calling to the saltmarshes of the spirit are perhaps doubly vulnerable: growing up into our teens and twenties, it is a brave young person who will dare to be more than a certain amount weird.

Gradually, though, I have found this call to give everything for what I am coming to understand is the simple presence of God growing stronger, not less. I cannot defend or justify this, nor advance any arguments for its advantages. It involves no obvious sacrifices, as far as I can see, nor outer heroics or spectacular renunciations. Like the impulse itself, it is an inward thing.

Eight years ago now, I wrote:

All this stuff about prayer boils down to this. What I am really doesn’t matter. There isn’t any holiness in me. Of myself, I really am not, truly, anything more than little, and ordinary; and anything praiseworthy about me only consists in the extent to which I am prepared to acknowledge that, and to live in the shadows, quietly, like the ivy I love so much. All my health and growth depends on accepting that…

It’s time to let go of a lot of things; and yet it isn’t a time for heroic gestures, grand austerities, but for little turnings to that hidden track that leads out between the trees, away from the lights and the music and the excited voices.

Progress in the life of the spirit doesn’t seem to be measurable in the way worldly progress can be measured. It is hard to write honestly of this. But truly to pray is to become a small incarnation, a tiny model of our Lord; this is why to pray is to take up the cross ourselves, since it is the refusal to turn away from the pain that runs inextricably through existence, like a red thread in the bright weave of what is. Easter is not a metaphor, and resurrection lies on the far side of the cross that is absolute surrender, helplessness entirely embraced. The cross means abandoning all that is my will, every last attempt at self-preservation; “For,” as Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians (3.3), “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

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

The Offering of Tears

“Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah: “Go, tell Hezekiah:
Thus says the LORD, the God of your father David:
I have heard your prayer and seen your tears.
I will heal you: in three days you shall go up to the LORD’s temple;
I will add fifteen years to your life.
I will rescue you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria;
I will be a shield to this city.” – Isaiah 38.4-5

Silence becomes a temple for the offering of tears, and in that silence an atmosphere of healing emerges where in the words of Thomas Keating, anything is possible. And not only healing, also an adding of life – perhaps in quantity but certainly in quality.

And not only that, as individuals dwell in the shelter of silence receiving the divine therapy and the increased quality of interior freedom from the unconscious wounds of a lifetime, it has an impact on others – indeed, in the words of Isaiah, our consent to God’s love and presence in the silence becomes something of a shield against the ordinary thoughts and afflictions of being human amidst other humans, and a shield of grace neutralizing the afflictions of our interior thoughts. This is a rescue we all need – from our own interior negative thoughts and emotions, and from the unconscious, fear based behavior of others.

Similarly, Jesus promised: abide in me and you will experience abundant life and fullness of joy.

The Contemplative Companion

In these troubled days this is extraordinarily good advice. I myself find it very hard, nearly impossible, to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the pain of the world – and by the tendency of politics and the media, who have the power to do something concrete to heal the divisions that underlie that pain, only to inflame them.

As Lon Burnham, a Quaker in the Texas House of Representatives, said recently on QuakerSpeak,

A lot of times people think that they can make peace by doing war, and that’s just so ludicrous on the face of it. I mean, it’s almost a scientific fact of physics that if you do violence, you create more violence. The only way to avoid violence is to create peace and to create justice.

It is impossible, it seems to me, to create peace if one’s heart is not at peace with God; and impossible effectively to work for justice if one is wracked by anger and despair.

The alternative is not a selfish self-protectiveness, nor immersing oneself in the material goods of the world, but silence: a “temple for the offering of tears”. Opening oneself completely to the pain and horror of a broken world in the silence may seem like crucifixion – not for nothing was retreating to a life of prayer in the desert in the early Christian centuries known as “white martyrdom” – but it is the path to healing and new life. As Isaac Penington wrote,

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.

Who knows where the silence leads for each of us? “More things,” in the words of Alfred Tennyson, “are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of…”

One Yellow Door

I’ve taken the unusual (for me!) step of writing a post to introduce a new website, One Yellow Door, because I feel the site, and its founder, are doing something irreplaceable in an country too little explored, but too often travelled in pain and darkness, without maps. One Yellow Door has been set up so that visitors can contribute if they have faced the challenges of looking after a loved one, or have struggled with making sense of faith in the light of their experiences. It’s a place where we can support one another and share insights.

The founder, Rebecca de Saintonge, is a Quaker, co-founder of LifeLines Press, a biographer, editor and mentor to new writers.

For many years an investigative journalist with the BBC and Granada Television, she specialised in programmes on social justice, the penal system and religious affairs. She has also written for a number of publications including The Times, The Telegraph, The Weekend Guardian, The Independent and Third Way.

Her book, One Yellow Door , from which the site takes its name, is a story of love and suffering, and survival; but it is also an exploration of faith. How does a traditional faith stand up in the face of such suffering? Hers did not, but years after her husband’s death she discovered a new, deeper spirituality. Getting in touch with these liberating ways of interpreting the Christian message, and with other people who asked similar questions, was a revelation. It was freedom.

As well as contributions from Rebecca herself, and from many others, the site contains an invaluable collection of resources from which to begin exploring a more radical approach to Christian spirituality.

 

Spring and Things

The garden is full of birds, more each day it seems. The roving bands of goldfinches and long-tailed tits continue to sweep through, pausing to feed and then skittering on to wherever it is they’re going, but travellers from more distant places are moving in and making preparations for nesting. A pair of blackcaps, and some willow warblers, have come to join the robins and the wrens, and the shy little dunnocks, in the search for bits and pieces to add to their different nests.

The spring air is still cold, despite the sunshine, but the light is actinic, biting, picking out the young leaves and the weathered fence line with deep shadow as the sun declines past midday. The processes the turning year sets in train are complex beyond understanding, and related with an intimacy we are only beginning to grasp. The old models of creation and natural selection no longer apply in the terms we knew. Love is all that can describe this tender resurrection of what the winter laid to rest; love, and the mercy that love brings to things that wait, and are changed.

It is only as we wait, under the mercy, that we too are changed. As Robert Barclay wrote, “Not by strength of arguments or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, came [I] to receive and bear witness of the Truth, but by being secretly reached by [the] Life.”

The ground of being, unconditioned and unconditional, is what actually is; it is the source of the verb “to be” and all that flows from it – the mysterium tremendum et fascinans itself. Emilia Fogelklou, encountering this for herself unsought, one spring day under the trees, exclaimed, “This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.” All that is rests in the open hand of mercy, like St Julian’s hazelnut – somehow, this is true, beyond all that grieves, and is broken, beyond death or life itself; at the depth of all that is, love is the unfailing mercy of being.

Holy Saturday

In many churches today is known as Holy Saturday, the day when Jesus, having died on the cross on Good Friday, lay quiet in the cold rock tomb until the extraordinary events of Sunday morning.

The Benedictine nuns from Holy Trinity Monastery wrote a couple of years ago on their blog, iBenedictines,

There is a quietness and stillness about Holy Saturday – a day out of time – that belies the intense activity of Christ. We do not know what happened in the tomb, but the ancient belief in the harrowing of hell, when Christ descended into the underworld to set free all the righteous who had died before his coming, reminds us that God is at work even when he seems most distant, most unapproachable.

Today we have no sacraments to affirm the bonds between this world and the next, no colour or warmth to assuage our grief, no activity to distract us or give a false sense of security. We are simply waiting, all emotion spent. Most of us live our lives in perpetual Holy Saturday mode, our faith a bit wobbly, our hope a bit frail, but clinging to the cross and Resurrection with an obstinacy wiser than we know. Holy Saturday proclaims to anyone who will listen that when we cannot, God can and does. That is our faith, already tinged with Easter joy and gladness.

As Quakers we normally have no sacraments, no activity to distract us or give a false sense of security. We are all about simply waiting. Perhaps there is something in Quakerism that lives consciously, even deliberately, in perpetual Holy Saturday mode. Our prayer and our worship, are intentionally, rootedly apophatic, despite their occasional intersection with the spoken word in ministry.

Bishop Andy John, writing yesterday in New Daylight, said of Luke’s account of Jesus’ words on the cross with the criminal crucified next to him (Luke 23.39ff)

Luke invites us to see something extraordinary about the boundless love of Jesus. There is no one beyond its reach, none too broken to fix, none too wretched to redeem, none too far gone that they cannot be found and saved. So, we are meant to see the height and depth and breadth of this grace and to marvel at it once more – but not from a distance. Instead we are invited to identify with the dying man, because we too are in need of the very grace he received and the gentle words of assurance that Jesus will bring us home.

…From the lips of Jesus himself, we are told that those who have found in him their hope and joy stand on a promise that will not fail and ground which will not move.

In the words of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The nembutsu, the central practice of Pure Land Buddhism, is often translated, “I am seeking a refuge in your infinite mercy, Amitabha Buddha, as I trust in you.”

Mercy seems to be a fundamental property of love, and love entails letting in all the love of God, all that God loves; the broken, the terrified, the pain and the uncanny bitter grieving of that which is, and is loved. And that includes each of us, as seen from the inside. Mercy is not an external, condescending thing: it is the open heart of love, quite simply that.

“The cries of the world…”

I have been acutely aware of the pain of my fellow creatures over the last few days. The shocking events of the Shoreham Air Show, along that lovely stretch of coastline where I grew up, the continuing reports of atrocities in the Middle East and North Africa, a narrowly-foiled terrorist attack on a French train, worrying developments in the US election campaigns… grief, anxiety and distress lay very heavily on my heart last night.

Diane Walker writes:

We cannot ignore the troubles of the world. Our psyches are intimately entwined with the rest of creation. Every time there is a wound elsewhere, some cell in our bodies will cry out in sympathetic pain. And that which strives to be known will take whatever avenue necessary to bring the cries of the world to our attention. The invisible longs to be visible, and when we take the time to create, we cannot always predict what will emerge. The question is — what do we do with that awareness once it’s brought to the fore?

She is quite right, “that which strives to be known will take whatever avenue necessary to bring the cries of the world to our attention.” These events, and the ripples that spread from them across the media, across the hearts of those who pray, seem to constellate in a way I cannot explain.

But Diane Walker’s question, “what do we do with that awareness once it’s brought to the fore?”, demands an answer. If I try to answer for myself, please don’t think I’m being evasive, still less that I’m prescribing an answer for anyone else. All I can do is listen, “being with God, putting [myself] in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart” as Michael Ramsey wrote. Quietly, insistently drawing close to God, accepting my own detailed, vivid awareness of my sisters’ and brothers’ pain and confusion, and holding that in the light and the love that God is, is truly all I can do, all I find I am called to do. What God might or might not call me to do under other, more immediate circumstances I cannot say; I can only hope that I would have the faith, perhaps the courage, to answer. For the present, prayer is my only, and my strongest, help and refuge.