Category Archives: Quaker

What kind of fast?

We are nearly midway through the season of Lent at the moment; in the churches that recognise it, this is the time to remember the 40 days we are told Jesus spent in the Judaean wilderness (Matthew 4.1-11; Mark 1.12,13; Luke 4.1-13) immediately after his baptism. He was, we read, “led by the Spirit into the wilderness.”

Traditionally, we often think of Lent as a time of fasting, of giving things up, of somehow putting ourselves deliberately in the way of temptation in an act of solidarity, perhaps, with the temptations put in the way of Jesus during his time alone in the wilderness. But perhaps there’s another way altogether of looking at this.

Yesterday I wrote of Proverbs 20.24 – “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?” – as a way of accepting our own unknowing, our own inability to comprehend God, or even to go and find him on our own terms. What this comes down to, perhaps, is control, or its relinquishment. We cannot begin to control God; we can’t even control the circumstances of our perceiving God’s presence. It is all grace.

Maybe, just maybe, some of us have allowed the idea of the traditional Lenten disciplines to lead us into the wrong kind of place. We grimly seek control – we choose what we shall give up, be it chocolate or fermented drink or meat or snark or whatever – and self-control, the ability to say no to a square of chocolate, or a pint, or… and we think that by so doing we are growing in holiness. Perhaps we are only growing in wilfulness?

Whatever it was that happened to Jesus in the wilderness seems to have been part of the story, not some anomaly. As Paula Gooder memorably writes, “Jesus and the devil did not sneak away for a bit of illicit tempting: the Spirit led him there.” But why?

Perhaps the whole Lenten thing is about surrender, not control, self- or otherwise? After all, one way to read the accounts of the temptations themselves in Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels is that what Jesus is being tempted to do is to take control – of his sustenance, of his Father’s provision of food or of safety, and ultimately to take control of the levers of political and military power – which last, it is implied, would involve obeisance to the devil, acceptance of all that is wrong and twisted and out of joint in our world. The Scriptures Jesus uses to refute the tempter are, it seems to me, all words of trust and acceptance – the words of one who waits on God, as Psalm 27 sums it up: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

To fast from control may be what this Lent is about for me; to fast from the need to know, the need to have it all sewn up, the way mapped. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, “I think my hope lies in my own littleness.” Not to know may be the best way of being known by God.

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvellous for me.

(Psalm 131.1)

A trackless place…

I have been in a trackless place, recently. Things I thought I knew had become clouded over, old wounds long healed reopened. A mist had rolled in, and instead of hiding the known ways it had wiped them out, long-trodden paths scoured back to loose sand and the entropy of marram…

As I sat in meeting on Sunday morning, wondering how I could have so lost my way, a Friend rose and gave these words as ministry – just these words, without commentary:

All our steps are ordered by the Lord;
how then can we understand our own ways?

(Proverbs 20.24)

The verse struck me like a lightning bolt, as no Scripture had for a long time. It was as though the Friend, or really, through him, God, had spoken directly to me, directly to the confusion and self-doubt, the mirrored memories of pain, the emptiness where not even longing was.

Since then this little isolated verse has grown friends, words in the hollowness where my heart still beat:

These are indeed but the outskirts of his ways;
and how small a whisper do we hear of him!
But the thunder of his power who can understand?’

(Job 26.14)

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

(Psalm 139.17-18)

I wrote a few years ago that,

For myself, I have found I cannot find God by looking, or thinking, much as my whole life may seem to have been spent in a search for – or being distracted from a search for – what is true and is the source of all that is. What God is is unknowable. Anything I might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, not constrained by time, space or any other dimension. The only way I can know God is by not knowing.

Faith is not so much a way of knowing as it is a way of being known. God is so far beyond the reach of our frail and temporary minds that all we can do is keep silence, and wait. Only in that relinquishment of knowing can we hear God, for much as we cannot seek him out, he will find us, and in that finding will come our own real and lived experience, the presence and Light which is within and beyond us, as it is within and beyond all things. In himself God is No Thing, for what he is is without limit or beginning, and is not dependent; yet within him all things live, and move, and have their being – are loved even, and held in love beyond time and distance.

I think my hope lies in my own littleness. I am so small, so transient and partial, against the scattered glory of the night sky…

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! …

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8 1,3-4)

[Forgive the pronouns in this post, by the way – without fooling around inventing made-up words, I can only use pronouns that are gendered, or else wilfully ungendered, and it is hard to speak of an it who loves. God is not a person like you or me: not that he is less than a person, but that he is infinitely more.]

The Weight We Carry

Alistair McIntosh has a remarkable article in the current issue of Friends Journal, entitled ‘A Perilous Neglect‘. (It’s behind a paywall, unfortunately, and it wouldn’t be fair of me to reproduce it in full here, tempted as I am!)

McIntosh recounts meeting a woman on a long bus journey in the Scottish Highlands who was living as a canonically defined hermit in a remote village where she devoted herself to contemplative prayer. She explained that her particular calling was to prayer as a ministry to those suffering torture.

He goes on to recall meeting a Naval chaplain recently returned from a tour of duty with the special forces in Afghanistan, who had had to explain to the men in his care what happens to the human spirit under torture (an occupational hazard for them): “You may find yourself broken—quite beyond imagination—by the forces brought to bear upon you. You may find yourself stripped down to where the only thing that’s left is God.”

Alistair McIntosh goes on to conclude his longish article by saying:

Our [Quakers’] full name is not “The Society of Friends.” Our full name… is “The Religious Society of Friends.” We must remind ourselves of that, and try to educate those who sit in on our meetings likewise: especially if they come to us in unawareness of our wellspring; especially, if they hope to find in us their own image, or are hurting from some spiritual abuse sustained elsewhere.

While welcoming diversity, and angels coming unawares, we must retain our watchfulness around our meetings’ spiritual lives. As Isaiah (21:11-12) put it in an oracle:

“Watchman, how far gone is the night? Watchman, how far gone is the night? The watchman says, Morning comes but also night. If you would inquire, inquire; Come back again.”

Ministry should be not about the “me,” not even about the “we,” but about an opening to the flows of God. If we turn into a therapy group, or use unprogrammed meetings as a platform for our egos, we undermine the roots of what gives life, and with it, our reputation.

Our task—just as much as it was the task of the hermit nun, or even the military chaplain—is watching like that watchman, and waiting, and holding things in God. As a Friend in Glasgow Meeting told me many years ago, “It is perilous to neglect your spiritual life.”

This, of course, is what drew me to Quaker life and ministry in the first place. For me it was not the political activism – there are plenty of political activist groups without dragging religion into it – nor the silence – there is a highly developed understanding of silence in the shared contemplative traditions of the Anglican and Catholic churches – but this sense of prophetic, watching prayer, of “holding things in God”, that has been developed among Friends over the years to an extraordinary degree.

But this is not some private, do-it-yourself spirituality – it is an essential part of what we are as Friends, and a vital expression of that Quaker cliché about not abolishing priests, but the laity. We carry a grave responsibility in our ministry of prayer which, as Alistair McIntosh says, we neglect at our (and many others’, come to that) peril.

Prayer is experienced as deeper than words or busy thoughts. ‘Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts’, said Fox. It is marked by a kind of relaxed readiness, a ‘letting-go’ of the problems and perplexities with which the mind is occupied, and a waiting in ‘love and truth’: the truth about oneself, the truth about the world, deeper than the half-truths we see when we are busy in it about our own planning and scheming, the love in which we are held when we think of others more deeply than our ordinary relations with them, the love that at root holds us to the world. Prayer is not words or acts, but reaching down to love: holding our fellows in love, offering ourselves in love; and being held by, being caught up in love. It is communion, an opening of the door, an entry from the beyond. This is the point where secular language fails, for this cannot be spoken about at all: it can only be known.

Harold Loukes, 1967, Qfp 2.23

John Barleycorn must die…

In some ways, acting the part of the firebrand prophet is easy and gratifying. There can be a perverse pleasure in tearing down rather than building up; watch any toddler at work on a brick model! It is, after all, usually easier to identify a problem than to fix it, simpler to lambasted those in leadership than it is to lead. But if the kingdom of God is about participation in a God-soaked loving community, we must always be more ready to live in love with others than to confront them. Wherever we find people of peace, we should seek to work alongside them, settle among them, share our peace with them, receive the gift of their hospitality, and be ready to extend ours. Wherever possible, we “seek the welfare of the city” [Jeremiah 29.7] in ways that are positive, contributory and participative.

Chris Webb, God-Soaked Life: Discovering a Kingdom Spirituality

Change is difficult. A human life is finite, and nothing in creation, as far as we can tell, from the little velvety red mites that run in the sunshine on old stonework, to the galaxies themselves, lasts forever. How easy and rewarding it is to look at any series of political, or even natural, events and to cry, “We’re all doomed, I tell you, doomed!”

The thing that Jesus called “the kingdom of God” is, as it was in Jesus’ own day, a tremendously disruptive thing. No wonder it didn’t please those who already had a handy niche in the military-commercial-religious complex that ruled the Middle East of those days. No wonder all too many religious people in our own time find it easier to make mired alliances with political powers than to preach the good news of the kingdom.

We cannot know how these things will turn out. Our civilisation has proved itself, over the last few centuries, to be incredibly resilient. Attempts to bring it down, whether from within or from without, have singularly failed. The Axis powers were spectacularly wrecked on the rocks of their own military hubris, and night drew down the Iron Curtain across the tattered remnants of the proletarian revolution. Epidemics and economic crises have shaken it, but somehow it goes on, scars and all. Gamaliel, St Paul’s teacher, knew that there is more than politics to the way things go, and human plans count for little in the end (Acts 5.35-39).

One day of course it will all end, just as each of us will die in our day. Unless the as yet unimaginable supervenes, our own sun will change and die, and this arm of our galaxy will no longer have our odd and glittering species, here on our blue sphere of home, to watch and sing of its countless stars along the Milky Way.

All being rests in the palm of God. The ground of existence itself is the Spirit within each of us, the light in our eyes, the love that swings our hearts down the street of years. Christ announced the kingdom in first century Palestine, only to be judicially murdered as some kind of subversive. But something inexplicable happened, and the world changed forever. Love goes on. It is the power behind the stars, the driving force of light. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We have but to wait, and pray – John Barleycorn will always prove the strongest man at last…


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.