Category Archives: Prayer

Aerials for the Spirit

More than any other prayer, the Jesus Prayer aims at bringing us to stand in God’s presence with no other thought but the miracle of our standing there and God with us, because in the use of the Jesus Prayer there is nothing and no one except God and us.

The use of the prayer is dual, it is an act of worship as is every prayer, and on the ascetical level, it is a focus that allows us to keep our attention still in the presence of God.

It is a very companionable prayer, a friendly one, always at hand and very individual in spite of its monotonous repetitions. Whether in joy or in sorrow, it is, when it has become habitual, a quickening of the soul, a response to any call of God. The words of St Symeon, the New Theologian, apply to all its possible effects on us: ‘Do not worry about what will come next, you will discover it when it comes’.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, from The Orthodox Church of Estonia

These words from St Symeon have come to mean more to me, over the years, than I have often realised. My own spiritual path has not, on the face of it, been all that straightforward, though it does seem to have led with a kind of inevitability to the Quaker way. Since the summer of 1978, though, I have known, and (if not always too consistently) practiced the Jesus Prayer, and in a sense all the turns and apparent blind alleys of my journey have been its outworkings. Certainly, it has been at times of crisis that I have been most aware of clinging to the Prayer as to a liferaft, to carry me through the waves.

The early desert monastics were said to regard a monk away from his cell as being like a fish out of water, and yet few of us these days, in the West at least, appear to be called to this reclusiveness of life. Immersed in the world, we must pray where we find ourselves, and perhaps this is indeed our calling. Swept on the same floodwaters of change that carry us all, our prayer is more than a clinging. Embedded as we are in the common condition of humanity, of creation, our prayer becomes – sometimes despite ourselves – intercession. We become as it were aerials for the Spirit, receiving stations for grace that we may not even ourselves understand.

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

Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 29

How can we walk with a smile into the dark? We must learn to put our trust in God and the leadings of the Spirit. How many of us are truly led by the Spirit throughout our daily lives? I have turned to God when I have had a difficult decision to make or when I have sought strength to endure the pain in dark times. But I am only slowly learning to dwell in the place where leadings come from. That is a place of love and joy and peace, even in the midst of pain. The more I dwell in that place, the easier it is to smile, because I am no longer afraid.

If we dwell in the presence of God, we shall be led by the spirit. We do well to remember that being led by the spirit depends not so much upon God, who is always there to lead us, as upon our willingness to be led. We need to be willing to be led into the dark as well as through green pastures and by still waters. We do not need to be afraid of the dark, because God is there. The future of this earth need not be in the hands of the world’s ‘leaders’. The world is in God’s hands if we are led by God. Let us be led by the Spirit. Let us walk with a smile into the dark.

Gordon Matthews, 1987 – Qfp 29.1

In a way, all our prayer and our waiting comes down to this willingness to be led. We live within the grace of the ground of being – there is nowhere else to live – but so much of the time our eyes are closed, and the illusion of separateness somehow inclines us to believe that we are reliant on conditions, on material sufficiency and social and political influence. When we come to realise – and it is only by dwelling “in the place where leadings come from” that we can realise it – our littleness, our transience and the infinite security of our insecurity,  we find that it is no more than our conscious, dependent stillness that keeps us there. Our practice, whether it be the shared silence of meeting for worship, or whatever contemplative practice we have developed over the years ourselves, is all we need.

Quaker faith & practice recognises this as a calling, a fact that sometimes gets forgotten in our discussions of the ways in which Friends may be being led. A statement from London Yearly Meeting (as it was then known) in 1986 puts it like this:

We recognise a variety of ministries. In our worship these include those who speak under the guidance of the Spirit, and those who receive and uphold the work of the Spirit in silence and prayer. We also recognise as ministry service on our many committees, hospitality and childcare, the care of finance and premises, and many other tasks. We value those whose ministry is not in an appointed task but is in teaching, counselling, listening, prayer, enabling the service of others, or other service in the meeting or the world.

The purpose of all our ministry is to lead us and other people into closer communion with God and to enable us to carry out those tasks which the Spirit lays upon us.

Qfp 10.05

This call to “receive and uphold the work of the Spirit in silence and prayer” is central to my own understanding of myself as a Friend, and in fact to pretty much everything I write here. The “how” of this is perhaps as various as Friends themselves, and encompasses all our different and diverse flavours, Christian and universalist, theist and nontheist, and all the changes that may come to each of us as we seek to be faithful to what the Spirit lays upon us. We are a people of the way, not of some imagined destination, and we walk together in the blessed dark of our unknowing.

Trikaya

I have been conscious for a long time (a really long time – I read DT Suzuki’s Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist in the early 1970s) of parallels between mystical Christianity and the Buddhist way, especially the Shin path of Pure Land Buddhism.

Recently, though, I’ve come again to look at the Buddhist doctrine of Trikaya, the doctrine says that a Buddha has three kāyas or bodies: the Dharmakāya or Truth body which embodies the very principle of enlightenment and knows no limits or boundaries; the Sambhogakāya or body of spiritual experience which is a body of bliss or manifestation of clear light; and the Nirmāṇakāya or created body which manifests in time and space.

Obviously there is an immediate parallel here with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which can be understood, from a mystical Christian perspective at any rate, as God the Father, the Ground of Being, uncreated and unknowable isness; God the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, spiritual counsellor or guide, who inspired the Scriptures, and still speaks in ministry and in spiritual gifts; and God the Son, the indwelling Christ, present in all who live, and most fully seen in Jesus of Nazareth.

It used to the fashionable, when I first began to read about these things, to caution the novice against too facile an equivalence between Trikaya and Trinity; but these days interfaith scholars seem more open to the idea. Similarly, many writers seemed to look askance at drawing parallels between one tradition’s practice and another’s, yet today there seems to be much more openness to these insights. Around ten years ago now, I think, I had an email correspondence with a Pure Land Buddhist leader in this country, in which we both recognised the close parallels, in practice and in intent, between the Nembutsu and the Jesus Prayer.

We have much more to learn from each other, I suspect, we of the Christian mystical tradition and we others of the Buddha’s path. Liberal Quakers have long been open to the striking parallels between Quaker activism and Engaged Buddhism; perhaps there are more connections to be made still, in the matters like practice (I have written more here, among other posts) and mystical theology. After all, our action, if it is to be right action, grows out of our practice; our practice does not exist merely to fuel our activism, as I’ve discussed here and elsewhere. I’m looking forward to reading more about, and looking further into the practice of, our sisters and brothers on the way…

Holding God fast…

Sometimes I believe that as Quakers we can tend to overthink things, things in our practice and procedures, in our response to politics, our response to other communities of faith. There are many possible reasons for this, and almost as many reasons why it’s one of the Quakerly traits I am most prone to living out myself. In the same way as our being of a certain age, and educational background, and, in some places at least, a certain race, it’s a self-perpetuating thing. Like attracts like, and is strengthened.

I don’t propose, though, to spend this blog post analysing Friends, nor even analysing myself, nor to spend it looking for reasons or excuses or corrections for this sometimes unhelpful tendency to subject everything to analysis. I want to call us home.

George Fox, as a young man, spent several years travelling through the East Midlands and the East and West Ridings of Yorkshire, and there he encountered religious groups of various kinds. You can read some of his journal entries in the first few sections of Quaker faith & practice Chapter 19. Fox spoke with priests, with separated preachers, and with “the most experienced among the dissenting people”, to paraphrase his own words, and heard many of their arguments and their learned disquisitions. He came close to despair, realising that,

there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [i.e. hinder] it? And this I knew experimentally.

Ofp 19.02

It is in this direct encounter with God, through this experimental faith, that our flustered, overburdened minds find rest. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote, “God can be held fast and loved by means of love, but by thought never.”

Cynthia Bourgeault writes,

“Love” is this author’s pet word for that open, diffuse awareness which gradually allows another and deeper way of knowing to pervade one’s entire being.

Out of my own three decades of experience in Centering Prayer, I believe that this “love” indeed has nothing to do with emotions or feelings in the usual sense of the word. It is rather the author’s nearest equivalent term to describe what we would nowadays call nondual perception anchored in the heart.

And he is indeed correct in calling it “love” because the energetic bandwidth in which the heart works is intimacy, the capacity to perceive things from the inside by coming into sympathetic resonance with them. Imagine! Centuries ahead of his time, the author is groping for metaphors to describe an entirely different mode of perceptivity.

Here is the key, I think, to our contemporary heart-searchings over theism and nontheism, Christian Quaker and universalist Quaker. If God is God, then by definition he is “beyond all definition of ours” (Samuel Fisher, 1661).

We are small and very temporary creatures on a small planet somewhere in the vast web of a universe thought to be in the region of 91 billion light-years in diameter, containing around 300 sextillion stars. How would we be able to hold in our dear and glittering minds the ground of all that being – and all that is, unimaginably, besides?

All we can do, it seems to me, is to keep silence, and wait. Only in the dark of that unknowing – that relinquishment of knowing – will come our own most real and lived experience, the presence and Light of that which is within and beyond us, as it is within and beyond all things. In itself it is No Thing, for it is without limit or beginning, and is not dependent; yet within it all things live, and move, and have their being – loved even, and held beyond time and distance.

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.

Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 25

All species and the Earth itself have interdependent roles within Creation. Humankind is not the species, to whom all others are subservient, but one among many. All parts, all issues, are inextricably intertwined. Indeed the web of creation could be described as of three-ply thread: wherever we touch it we affect justice and peace and the health of all everywhere. So all our testimonies, all our Quaker work, all our Quaker lives are part of one process, of striving towards a flourishing, just and peaceful Creation – the Kingdom of God.

Audrey Urry, 1994 – Qfp 25.04

The web of creation – all that is made – rests in God, as Julian of Norwich saw; or to put it less poetically and in a rather more stilted voice, existence itself in every particular, from the macro- to the microcosmic, rests on the ground of being from which it arose, and upon which it depends for its continued existence.

As Audrey Urry points out, “[a]ll parts, all issues, are inextricably intertwined.” We cannot change one part without affecting the whole, and, crucially, that from which it springs; truly to love one part requires a love that encompasses the whole, and that from which is springs.

This seems to me to be vitally important not only to understanding our place within creation, environment and society, and our potential for good and ill within that system, but also to understanding what is meant by the love of God. More than that, if offers a tantalising hint of how prayer might work: not perhaps in the crude notion of a Santa God dishing out pressies on request, and certainly not in the more modern Quaker sense of simply geeing ourselves up to increased political efforts, but in the sense that Michael Ramsey spoke of when he said that contemplative prayer “means essentially our being with God, putting ourselves 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.”

All that is rests in the infinite isness of God – it must, else it could not exist – and hence each existence is connected, from the farthest astronomical phenomenon to the least subatomic particle, and all the planets and people and cows and bees and bacteria in between, by the zero point field of God’s presence. Our love, and its pain, as well as our joy and our hope, cannot but affect everything. How that then works out in practice, if “in practice” is a useful distinction in this context, is for us to wait to hear. The first of the Advices and queries sums that up:

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

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.

‘Tis the season…

It’s nearly the end of November, and retailers from Amazon to Waitrose are putting out their festive videos – quite a good crop this year, so far – to get us in the mood for the shopping days up to December 25th.

Janet Scott wrote, in 1994,

Another testimony held by early Friends was that against the keeping of ‘times and seasons’. We might understand this as part of the conviction that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered and not only on the occasions named Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

This is a testimony which seems to be dying of neglect. Many Friends, involved with family and the wider society, keep Christmas; in some meetings, Easter and its meaning is neglected, not only at the calendar time but throughout the year. What I would hope for is neither that we let the testimony die, nor that we keep it mechanically. I hope for a rediscovery of its truth, that we should remember and celebrate the work of God in us and for us whenever God by the Spirit calls us to this remembrance and this joy.

One of sometimes forgotten benefits of keeping the liturgical calendar is the way that it reminds us, especially in a sensitive church environment, of the changing patterns of our relation to nature, and to the spiritual echoes or parallels that accompany that movement through the year.

The narrative arc of the Gospels, from Christmas through to Easter and beyond, thirty three years or so of a man’s life in first century Judea and Galilee, take us from fragile hope to brokenness and despair, and then beyond that into a new and imperishable hope not rooted in outcome or survival.

The accounts of these events are not read merely as an historical account of the genesis of a religion, nor just as a kind of spiritual allegory, but as a way of entering, wide awake, into a reality common to all that comes to be. Everything we know has a beginning, a term of being, and an ending – and yet… New life appears where old life faded, cosmological events arise, fade, and there are new arisings. What is rests in isness; and isness goes on – it is the very ground of being itself. What looks to us like failure then is necessary process;  what looks to us like ending is just the place of beginning again, and death itself is only the way to life.

I wrote once that,

Letting in the presence of God, as I believe we do in the silence of worship, 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.

All prayer comes down to this. Truly to pray is to become a small incarnation, a tiny model of Christ; this is why it is so necessary to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.17), and why to pray is to take up the cross ourselves, since it is the refusal to turn away from openness to the pain that runs inextricably through existence, like a red thread in the bright weave of what is.

To make sense of this, I think we cannot cherry-pick bits of the Gospel account. We need that entire narrative arc, to walk with it, to live it out in our worship and our thinking, to be present to it as it is present in us; and at its best this is what the liturgy does throughout the seasons of the changing year. It would be good if, somehow, we Quakers found a way to do that too…