Our local Quaker meeting house had just moved to what is termed “blended worship” – part Zoom, part distanced worship, in our case limited to eight Friends due to the size of the room – when the announcement came of a second lockdown throughout November at least.
I personally have found the Zoom technology intrusive, and in itself somehow attention-seeking, and so I have become part of the small group of Friends who have joined the silence, alone in our respective homes. For me, as perhaps for some of the others, this has felt far closer and more like “real” worship than a screenful of animated postage stamps. But this raises the question, what is worship?
For millennia men and women have met together to worship, and though what we know of their practices and liturgies have widely differed from religion to religion, and nation to nation, they have met together, whether it has been to dance, sing, chant the Nembutsu or walk sacred paths. Many, perhaps most, faiths have solitary practices of prayer, in many cases silent practices. Quakers are unusual, in that their meetings for worship are silent, but they are corporate, and their members not only call them “worship” but understand them that way too, on the whole.
I have, as I have described elsewhere, a discipline of private, silent prayer. It is a vital part of who I am, of my own understanding of what I am here for, but it does not feel like what Friends do together on a Sunday morning. Yet, when I am sitting alone in silence on a First Day morning, conscious of other Friends across our town, across our Area and our Yearly Meeting, across the world, sitting likewise, I know that I am joining with them in an act of worship. It is not at all the same as my own regular times of contemplative prayer. On one or two occasions I have even found myself visited by what I can only term “ministry”, that I have shared by email afterwards.
What is going on here? And, more to the point perhaps, what might it suggest for the future of worship during, and even after, a pandemic? Maybe worship isn’t only meeting together in rows, a breath and a handshake apart. Maybe worship, which is after all a joining in spirit more than anything else, perhaps, is less dependent on physical togetherness than we had thought. Always there have been Friends who, for reasons of great age, illness, remoteness, even occasionally imprisonment, could not come to the meeting house on Sunday morning. We have remembered them, and we have hoped that they could remember us, sitting together in worship, but we have, most of us I imagine, tended to feel sorry for them, that they had to “miss out” on “our” meeting. Perhaps we knew less than we thought. Perhaps indeed there were some of us who did understand, who knew that despite outer appearances and the presumptions of our own attempted compassion, these Friends were as much part of our worship as the warm and breathing presence next to us.
Perhaps the future of worship is stranger and more luminous than we had thought. Perhaps we are moving into new territory, making our own maps as we tread forward on virgin ground, into a place odder and more beautiful than we have known. I hope so.
The important emphasis that Underhill and Jones give is to the experiential nature of mysticism, rather than, as the OED definition has it, a theology. “We are concerned with the experience itself, not with secondhand formulations of it,” says [Rufus] Jones , and [Dorothee] Soelle concurs: “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.” And the major contribution of these writers was to democratise it. The popular conception of mystics and mystical experience is that it is something exclusive, elite, soaring above the scope of the ordinary person. This is very far from the truth. As [Evelyn] Underhill puts it: “The world of Reality exists for all; and all may participate in it, unite with it, according to their measure and to the strength and purity of their desire”. According to her, Jones and others, mysticism is not just for the initiated or those with special gifts, but for everyone. After her major work, Mysticism, written some years before, Underhill’s book Practical Mysticism is addressed to “the ordinary man”.Jennifer Kavanagh, Practical Mystics
Jesus himself said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” (Matthew 11:25 NIV)
One of the things that always strikes me about Quaker worship and prayer, and about my own practice of the Jesus Prayer, not to mention the still growing contemplative movement that encompasses Centering Prayer, Christian Meditation, and other groups, is just this openness to the ordinary person’s contemplative experience. It is not something reserved for professional monastics. Just as Jesus himself taught, the encounter with God through the gift of the Holy Spirit is there for all (John 14:26) and the practice of the very earliest church makes this clear (Acts 2:38).
Quietly, the gift of contemplative encounter with the living God is moving out, not only from the monasteries and the lauras, but from the established church itself. Quakers have long practiced it in their Meetings for Worship (though among them the practice of solitary prayer has sometimes not been as clearly recognised as the corporate) but it is in our own day, it seems, that “[t]here is a growing realisation that church is what occurs when people are touched by the living Christ and share the journey of faith with others. Whether that occurs in an historic building or online or . . . wherever, is unimportant.” (Steve Aisthorpe, The Invisible Church) and this democratisation, as Kavanagh puts it, of the essentially hidden contemplative encounter, is its vital “mystical” dimension.
Daniel O Snyder wrote, “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.” Perhaps – and it is especially worthy of thinking about during the present pandemic – Friends (and others) whose hidden lives are given over to prayer are themselves quietly adding a leg to the stool of transformation, bringing our own lives to God as gifts of peace and faithfulness, living “a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead…” (Craig Barnett)
[An earlier version of this post was published on A Long Restlessness]
The period of “doing church” during lockdown was an interesting time. The Dorchester churches were closed of course, as was the Quaker meeting, and while there were various efforts at worship via Zoom, livestreamed sermons and meditations, and other initiatives, by and large – for me at least – the peace of silence, and the practice of the Jesus Prayer, filled the space left with a closeness to God that I hadn’t experienced for a long time.
Our experience of church during this current period of uncertain easing of regulations, and imposition of others such as the wearing of face coverings in public gatherings, has been very mixed. As with some shops, there is constant tension and uncertainty around the often ambiguous – if necessary – rules, and continual vigilance, about following one-way routes to and from communion stations, for instance. It has been good to see those we’ve missed again, and to hear their voices without the interposition of electronics, but in many ways it seems to me that our local Quaker meeting has made the better choice in remaining closed until we are sure that the pandemic is more nearly under control.
What can we learn from these experiences, which come, for me, as a kind of culmination of a quite long process, involving an increasing sense of being drawn to a hiddenness of life and worship, to silence and to stillness? Back in June this year, I wrote:
This seems to be for me more than ever before a time between times. I haven’t written much here the last few weeks, not because there’s been nothing to say, really, but more because it has come to me without words, this stillness; the waiting so deep that I haven’t even been able to find even a cognitive toehold, so to speak, to explain it to myself… this liminal place is for me about more than the result of the current suspension of normal life while we wait for the pandemic to pass. It is a place God has brought me to, in that hidden way he has.
These anything but ordinary weeks of near-isolation, bereft of so many of the distractions of ordinary life, have brought me here, against all expectations.
It seems that to remain hidden (Colossians 3:3) with Christ in God, unknowing, is at least for me the narrow path to, and the gift of, God’s own presence, where even our own steps are unknown to us: our God who is entirely beyond our own comprehension, whose name can only be a pointer, as Jennifer Kavanagh says, to something beyond our description. In silence itself is our hiddenness, our unknowing, where God waits within our own waiting (Isaiah 30:18).
Where does this leave us? What is to be learned – or to put it another way, what might the Spirit be showing me – of the path ahead? The final sentences of Steve Aisthorpe’s The Invisible Church read:
There is a growing realisation that church is what occurs when people are touched by the living Christ and share the journey of faith with others. Whether that occurs in an historic building or online or . . . wherever, is unimportant.
Looking back over past posts here – try a search within this blog for the word “hiddenness” – I have the uncomfortable sense of being crept up on, in the way that God so often has. In the past, those who sought to follow Christ sometimes came to a time in their lives when they felt drawn, like St Aidan or St Cuthbert, to climb into a coracle and paddle away to some offshore island; or like the Desert Fathers and Mothers, to move out into the all but trackless desert. Perhaps I am at some analogous stage in my life. I don’t know. But the kind of qualified solitude that I found during the period of complete lockdown was a healing thing, an unsought wholeness and peace with God, a sense of being in the right place, against all expectations.
I seem to find myself quoting the author of Proverbs here, again and again, when he writes:
All our steps are ordered by the LORD;
how then can we understand our own ways?
(Proverbs 20:24 NRSV)
But it’s true; and in accepting that, and in waiting quietly for whatever God may yet reveal, there is a peace and a contentment that I had not anticipated.
Quietly, I seem to be beginning to understand something of why the penitential nature of the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) leads it on into acting as a prayer of intercession as well.
We are all sinners. Even those we remember as saints were themselves acutely conscious of their own sin – Francis of Assisi would be good example – in the sense of separation from God, rather than as ones transgressing some list of “naughty things”. Our innate tendency to turn from the presence of God into our own private obsessions and insecurities, sometimes called original sin, is something we all hold in common, from the most obviously “religious” to the least, from those whom the world would regard as good, to those it would regard as beneath contempt.
We live, though, in the mercy that is Christ, all of us. “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17 NIV)
In our accepting this solidarity, as it were, with the least of our fellow creatures, as well as the greatest, we are accepting for ourselves also their suffering, their alienation, their grief. Craig Barnett writes:
The religious path is often presented as a way to achieve inner peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering. Much popular spirituality claims that life is meant to be filled with peace and contentment; that pain and anguish are problems that can be overcome by the right attitude or technique. The promise of perfect contentment is seductive, but it can never be fulfilled, because it is based on the illusion that suffering is a mistake.
Suffering, ageing, sickness and loss are not regrettable failures to realise our true nature. They are inherent in the nature of embodied human life and our often-incompatible needs and desires. Any spirituality, therapy or ideology that promises an escape from these limitations neglects the truth that suffering is an essential dimension of human life. Growth in spiritual maturity does not mean escaping or transcending these experiences, but becoming more able to accept and learn from them; to receive the painful gifts that they have to offer.
Our prayer for mercy is answered always by love (Luke 18:9ff), and it is in this love that we, somehow, become as it were aerials for the Spirit, receiving stations for a grace that we may not even ourselves understand.
Only in silence the word,
Only in dark the light,
Only in dying life:
Bright the hawk’s flight
On the empty sky.
Ursula K. Le Guin
from The Creation of Éa
I wonder if some of my readers, encountering my last post, might not be tempted to accuse me of lotus-eating. There is little mention of the dark times we have been living through, of the yet again sharpened grief and apprehension of those of us of colour following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and who knows how many others; of the overarching threat of the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, and its endless social, economic and political ramifications throughout the human-inhabited world; of all the other cruelties, injustices and simple misfortunes that are all but lost in the background clutter of news and rumour that frames our thoughts and our emotions day in and day out. But that would be to miss the (sometimes obscured, I admit) point of most of my writing here.
Paul, in addressing the Athenians (Acts 17:16-33) quotes Epimenides: “For in him we live and move and have our being.” (v 28) God is present everywhere, and always, and beyond all place and time. He sustains all things (Hebrews 1:1-4). Being itself (John 1:3) is from God, who is the ontological ground of all that is, as Paul Tillich points out in Courage to Be and elsewhere; in fact throughout all his work, so far as I can see.
To encounter God is to encounter all other beings in the is-ness (Meister Eckhart) of God. Sue Monk Kidd writes (she is using the word solitude here as a shorthand for the contemplative encounter wherever found):
In that moment he [Thomas Merton] understood what solitude had done to him. It had given him his brothers. It will do the same for us. We cannot enter solitude, this great “God Alone-ness” and hold the world at arm’s length. In solitude we are awakened more fully to people. The joke is on us.
Michael Ramsey (I have quoted him time and again on this blog) once wrote:
Contemplation is for all Christians… [It] 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.
The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside…
It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…
I am always reminded by this passage of Thomas R Kelly who, writing of solitary prayer, comes very close indeed to restating the hesychast tradition of contemplative prayer himself. He describes how “[the] processes of inward prayer do not grow more complex, but more simple” and he recommends using a short phrase, whether from Scripture or from one’s own imagination, and he advises, “Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.” He goes on to say,
But the time will come when verbalisation is not so imperative, and yields place to the attitudes of soul which you meant the words to express… Behind the foreground of the words continues the background of heavenly orientation, as all the currents of our being are set towards Him. Through the shimmering light of divine Presence we look out upon the world, and in its turmoil and fitfulness, we may be given to respond, in some increased measure, in ways dimly suggestive of the Son of Man… All we can say is, Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the orbit… Sometimes the prayer and this Life that flows through us reaches out to all souls with kindred vision and upholds them in his tender care. Sometimes it flows out to the world of blinded struggle, and we become cosmic Saviours, seeking all those who are lost.
This evening is particularly quiet. The leaves of the hazels at the back of the garden are hardly moving, and light from the west is casting clean shadows of the roofline on to the trees. This spring the weather is so beautiful – even the rainy days have a clean, healing quality about them – that the threat of the current pandemic seems hard to believe, a dark tale from another time, perhaps, or from a dystopian fiction…
I will extol the LORD at all times;
his praise will always be on my lips.
I will glory in the LORD;
let the afflicted hear and rejoice.
Glorify the LORD with me;
let us exalt his name together.
(Psalm 34:1-3 NIV)
It’s interesting, isn’t, how David phrases this? If the poet was indeed David (this is one of the psalms whose attribution is most likely to be accurate) then of course he would know about affliction, but the psalms in general are stunningly honest about this kind of thing. In one of my favourite passages from Psalm 119 we read,
 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word…
 It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.
(Psalm 119:67,71 NIV)
Why might this be? We are familiar enough, though very often we struggle to apply it to our own lives, with the concept Paul expresses in Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” All things, not just the convenient ones, or the pleasant ones. Of course, the verse is not saying that all things are good – some things, like the situation in which we all find ourselves at the moment, patently are not good at all. But the anonymous poet of Psalm 119 seems to go even beyond the apostle.
I have come to recognise, from periods in my own life of desolation and functional solitude (being alone in the sense not always of physical isolation, but of being cut off from understanding and comfort: “You have taken from me friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88.18)) the power of this kind of prayer, and how actually to pray the Psalms, to take their words and make them one’s own, brings strength and refuge, comfort even, in dark places. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that at these times in my life I would not have come through had it not been for the Psalms.
In some deep mystery these words in the psalms prefigure the cross of Christ, and it is there that understanding begins to break through. Jesus called his disciples to “take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25 NIV) Peter wrote “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21 NIV)
It’s really important to understand that none of this was my doing. None of it came about through any particular insight or perspicuity of mine, still less through any imagined godliness: it was all sheer gift. Nor am I saying that the ultimate healing of wounds of the spirit – such as we all are suffering in these perfect days of springtime, as the earth stretches and heals from the long years of environmental abuse and exploitation – comes purely through the prayerful acceptance of suffering. My survival may, in my own instance, have come that way – but it was only after the passage of many years, and through skilled and patient help, that their effects have finally begun to be something like healed. But their value – that is another matter entirely. One of the hardest things to take is the illusion of the pointlessness of one’s own suffering; the realisation that it is not, after all, a waste of life and hope, but a way into endless life and indestructible hope, through and not despite the Cross is what brings us at last to that refuge David described in Psalm 63:6-8,
On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
From the house of the Lord we bless you.
The Lord is God,
and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will praise you;
you are my God, and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures for ever.
Psalm 118.26-29 NIV
Today is the day known as Palm Sunday in the calendars of the liturgical churches, when Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, (Matthew 21.1-11) is remembered in readings and the Eucharist. Only a few days later he was to be crucified, having been hailed as, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…”
The name of the Lord is the name of God, the Tetragrammaton, the pulse that underlies being itself, and in this name we encounter Christ (John 1.1ff) Michael Lewis puts it like this: “The name of Jesus is the image of the ineffable Name, just as Jesus is the Image of the invisible God.” (The Name of God: The Revelation of the Merciful Presence of God)
Advices and queries 4 reads,
The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus. How do you interpret your faith in the light of this heritage? How does Jesus speak to you today? Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action? Are you learning from his life the reality and cost of obedience to God? How does his relationship with God challenge and inspire you?
Ben Wood, in a long post, Spiritual Practice with Jesus & Mary Oliver, which I’d strongly recommend you click through and read in its entirety:
If Jesus is the model we should have in mind, what do the Gospels tell us about him? What kind of practical action did he favour? Principally, Christlike action begins, not with an esoteric notion of spiritual practice, but with attentiveness… [Jesus] was soaked in every deep structure of the human experience, not by transcending his time and place, but by sinking down into it. Begin at home, he seems to say. You cannot find love and grace through novelty or travel. Only stillness and rootedness will do…
When we seek to find the bottomless meaning in every moment: in a spider’s web caught by the sun, in the face of another, the deep grey of the sky; there is the Kingdom. We need not leave home to be spiritually at home. We need not go far to be in the arms of love.
To remain still is hard, when our worship, whether filled with the sound and poetry of the Palm Sunday liturgy, or in the silence of Meeting, is made impossible in fellowship and sharing by the necessary isolation of life in a pandemic, and we itch and squirm with anxiety and the frustrated impulse to “do something, anything!” But it is only in the stillness and in the staying put that we hear the name of God, in the echo of the chasms between the particles that dance in the atoms of all that is.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Romans 8.26-27 NRSV
It is easy, especially at a time like this, with even the most ordinary facets of life interrupted and suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic and our precautions against it, to feel we have no idea how to pray, that we are helpless, and unsure if prayer is even a thing to do. So many of us are helpless in practical terms, or at least feel the little we can manage to do or donate is insignificantly small.
But here we are, and each of us can pray, after our calling. It truly doesn’t matter whether we can find the right words, or any words, so long as our hearts are with our neighbours, in the broadest sense of that word (Luke 10.25ff), and our loving attention is with God. It is all we can do. It may well be the very best we can do. Our grief, our very helplessness, are the things that God’s mercy in Christ can use (Matthew 5.1-12).
“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” ― Julian of Norwich, writing in the time of the Black Death.
For all of us, these are strange times. Quite apart from the worries about our lives and livelihoods, and those of the ones we love, so many of the things that formed the sweet centre of our lives have been torn away. We hope that it is a temporary tearing away, but even that is not certain. For people of faith, perhaps the most painful loss is that of meeting together for worship. The loss of fellowship, teaching, reassurance and sacrament, at the very time we need them most, is hard to bear. There are few roadmaps for where we are.
…sometimes, painful as it is, cancelling is the responsible, compassionate thing to do, and anything else is just hubris. Think of this illness as the black ice of liability. If there is a blizzard, you might be able to get to church. But if you can’t clear the sidewalks and the parking lots, do you really want to invite people into a hazard situation–the invisible threat that is just under the surface? This is like that. Sure, folks who are not sick are going to feel like they should still come to church. But they could be carrying something they don’t know they have yet, and pass it right on to their elderly or immunocompromised neighbor.
There are many unknowns here. There is unprecedented territory ahead, and nobody can say how long it might last…
Practice Sabbath. For some, this shutdown of life as we know it is going to cause significant economic hardship… care for your neighbor as best as you can. In the meantime, recognize if your own discomfort is just inconvenience, and keep that perspective. Recognize that downtime can be a gift– an imposed sabbath of time to sit still and be with your family, without the usual rush of places to be and things to accomplish. Read together; prepare meals together (can you share with a neighbor?); maybe even binge watch some Netflix together. When’s the last time everybody was home for this long? Talk about what you can learn from this season. Talk about your blessings. Play a game. Make something. Listen to music. It really doesn’t matter. Any of these things can be worshipful in their own way, if by ‘worship’ we mean rest and renewal by way of connecting with God and others.
In an article entitled Our Pilgrimage Begins With Staying Home, Greg Richardson writes:
Almost all of us have begun a pilgrimage recently.
Some of us are experienced pilgrims. We prepare for a pilgrimage by deciding on our itinerary and choosing what to pack. It is important to have the proper equipment, like strong walking shoes.
Many of us like to plan as completely as we can. We want to know what we are going to experience before we experience it. Some of us carry a detailed guide book to ensure we are as comfortable and as safe as possible.
The pilgrimage we have joined together is a little unusual for us. We probably feel like we did not have enough time to get ready. Most of us have little idea where we are going and how we will get there. There is no dependable guide book full of details about this journey.
This pilgrimage begins with staying home…
Like Chaucer’s pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, each of us has our own tale.
Other concerns and decisions seem to fade into the background. Questions which monopolized our time and attention before no longer seem so significant. We may learn what we thought motivated us are not the lessons we most need to learn.
A pilgrimage is a journey, not a destination. Our pilgrimage begins and each step is sacred space. We learn its lessons along the way, overcoming obstacles and dealing with challenges…
When we stay home we find ourselves surrounded by the familiar. Most of us have fewer distractions.
Now we share a pilgrimage in which we stay home. We are not traveling to a distant country or visiting foreign places. Each day brings us to a new part of our journey and we see it in new ways.
The challenge for us is not about keeping up with a parade of new people and places.
Our pilgrimage begins as we take time to pay attention to the stories within us…
This voyage of discovery, our pilgrimage of staying home, will introduce us to who we can become.
We did not choose to take this trip and we did not have time to plan or prepare for it…
In our local meeting, our warden has undertaken to keep the Meeting House open for those rental groups who still want to meet – especially those holding one-to-one sessions to care for vulnerable adults – but more than that, she has promised to sit quietly in the empty meeting room for the hour from 10.30 am that we usually meet, and has invited Friends, in their own homes, to join her. This seems to me to be an immense kindness, and a sign of love and hope for us all. Meantime, whatever practice we have of regular prayer and attention – and now might be a good time to establish one if we don’t have one in place – let us all, wherever we are, hold each other, and all who serve and who depend upon our meetings, in the light of the “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Dante, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII) more than ever before.