Words are odd and slippery things. We need them to communicate, obviously, and we actually seem to need them to think… Perhaps it is not surprising that, since we are in some way made “in the image of God”, there should be in the very pattern of our making something to correspond, like a tiny model almost, with the opening words of St. John’s Gospel…
All Truth is a shadow except the last, except the utmost; yet every Truth is true in its kind. It is substance in its own place, though it be but a shadow in another place (for it is but a reflection from an intenser substance); and the shadow is a true shadow, as the substance is a true substance.
Isaac Penington, 1653 – Qfp 27.22
When we think of the early years of the Quaker movement, often we remember some of George Fox’s more abrasive encounters – “I laid open their Teachers, shewing, that they were like them, that were of Old condemned by the Prophets, and by Christ, and by the Apostles: And I exhorted the People to come off from the Temples made with Hands…” (The Journal of George Fox, The First Edition, 1694, edited by Thomas Ellwood, pp. 73-74) – and forget the openheartedness of Friends like Isaac Penington, who also wrote:
Even in the apostles’ days Christians were too apt to strive after a wrong unity and uniformity in outward practices and observations, and to judge one another unrighteously in those things; and mark, it is not the different practice from one another that breaks the peace and unity, but the judging of one another because of different practices…
And oh, how sweet and pleasant it is to the truly spiritual eye to see several sorts of believers, several forms of Christians in the school of Christ, every one learning their own lesson, performing their own peculiar service, and knowing, owning and loving one another in their several places and different performances to their Master, to whom they are to give an account, and not to quarrel with one another about their different practices (Rom 14:4). For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that; and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk.
Isaac Penington, 1660 – Qfp 27.13
I feel that we as Quakers in the early years of our century need to keep open, even through the challenges of these difficult times, to what the Spirit is saying to us, and in us. It will not do to focus on the difficulties, to take up adversarial stands. The forces of darkness, the institutional and populist powers and principalities – racism, fascism, religious intolerance – know what to do with opposition. It feeds them, gives them the excuses they need for violence, for the display of their physical and military power and dominance. They delight in opposition, the more oppositional and confrontational the better. As John Lennon once said, “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.” But the New Woke movement, among many others, realise that the path to wholeness lies not in opposing but in outgrowing that which would hold us in darkness. And we can only do that in openness, in vulnerability, in failure.
We find it hard to accept intentional failure at the heart of our faith. But all true religion is for losers. Leaders, the successful, the alpha males and occasional alpha females, the “rich” in Jesus’ parables (e.g. Matthew 19.16-24), must learn what failure means for themselves before they can encounter God, must be broken themselves before they can help bring healing to the broken of the world. We must ourselves be prepared to have in our own hearts Leonard Cohen’s “crack in everything, [through which] the light gets in.”
We have to let go of the certainties, I think, let drop the things we think we know about ourselves, about each other. We are all one in the end, one flesh under the skins of our birth and of our circumstances. It is in the ground of all our beings, in God in Christ (John 1.1-4) that all things hold together (Colossians 1.17). Our oneness is far beyond the social, or the humanly spiritual – it is the metaphysical nature of being itself, and this we cannot hold in our human minds. But in our unknowing, we can receive it as grace, as mercy.
Even among Quakers, the differences only matter if it’s the differences at which we look. If we look at that of God, whether the Light that reaches us in the silence, or that light of God within each other, streaming through the cracks, then we realise, as Rhiannon Grant did, that “Quakerism isn’t something you agree with, but something you do.”
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…
Liberal Quakers, which term by and large encompasses Britain Yearly Meeting, don’t these days tend to use the name of Jesus Christ at all freely, which can be disorienting for those – like myself – who have joined Friends after having been members of other churches.
Needless to say, there is no official Quaker Christology, just as there are no Quaker creeds or statements of faith. But early Quakers were entirely comfortable with the name of Christ, and with the prevailing understanding of him as saviour. As Lewis Benson writes, in A Revolutionary Gospel:
The early Quakers were not a reforming movement within the framework of a commonly shared belief in Christ as savior. They were in revolt against what the churches were teaching about salvation by Christ. They claimed that the churches’ teaching had separated belief in Christ as savior from the call of God for righteousness. Belief in Christ had become divorced from obedience in righteousness. Fox said that the belief of his Calvinist contemporaries was an “unsanctifying belief,” by which he meant that it left the believer still captive to sin and a dweller in the life of unrighteousness. The Calvinist doctrine of “imputed righteousness” was rejected by the Quakers. They that have received Christ within, said Fox, “they witness the righteousness itself without imputation.” The chief point of the controversy between Puritans and Quakers was whether Christ had the power to make men truly righteous as well as the power to forgive. This is a disagreement about that which is most fundamental in Christianity. It is a disagreement about how we experience Christ as savior. But the Quaker revolt was not directed solely against Calvinistic Puritanism. Before Calvin the Church of Rome had assumed the role of mediator of moral truth to its members, it set a standard of morality defined by the church and kept in force by the power of the church. The scandals that developed in the administration of this church-oriented morality were the occasion of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking back across the centuries of Christian history Fox was able to say, “The righteousness within and sanctification within hath been lost since the apostles’ days,” and “the sanctifying belief hath been lost since the apostles’ days.”
Quaker faith is based in the experience of the Spirit in silent worship, and it is that Spirit which the early Quakers understood as the indwelling Christ. The apostle Paul prayed that
according to the riches of his glory, [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
It is this indwelling which the early Quakers understood by their experience of the Light. As William Penn wrote:
The Light of Christ within, who is the Light of the world and so a light to you that tells you the truth of your condition, leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvellous light; for light grows upon the obedient. It is sown for the righteous and their way is a shining light that shines forth more and more to the perfect day.
Of course, the experience of the Light is far deeper than words. As Paul wrote elsewhere:
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.
It seems to me that Friends today, realising the inadequacy of language, and indeed of concepts (“notions” as the first Quakers would have said), quite rightly espouse an understanding of prayer and worship that is intentionally, rootedly apophatic, despite occasional intersection with the spoken word in ministry. But even in this we are consistent with our spiritual ancestors. Isaac Penington wrote:
The sum and substance of true religion doth not stand in getting a notion of Christ’s righteousness, but in feeling the power of endless life, receiving the power, and being changed by the power. And where Christ is, there is his righteousness.
Perhaps we need to be prepared to extend to each other that openness which we so readily extend to those of other backgrounds in faith, and to allow each other freely to use whatever language springs from our hearts in worship, in full awareness of the inadequacy of any language or system, any knowing even, to express the actuality. What is there is unknowable. Anything any of us might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, nor constrained by dimensionality. The love of God is all, and in all, and the well of love does not run dry. Paul again:
Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
(1 Corinthians 13.12-13)
“God” is a word which for many provokes discomfort, echoes of an authoritarian judgemental deity, or a childhood perception of a bearded old man on a cloud. Many who reject any idea of the Divine are living with a concept which many of us would consider outdated. In answer to a theist’s question: “Who is this God that you don’t believe in?” the answer might not be so different from the view held by the questioner.
…Faith is not about certainty, but about trust…
We have seen that there is little about which we can be certain. Certainty may be undermined by limitations of the current state of knowledge; the subjective nature of experience; the fluid quality of the material world; or the intervention of unforeseen events. But beyond these aspects of the world about which we often assume knowledge, there is a dimension of life to which rational explanation simply doesn’t apply. Most people would admit that there is much that we cannot apprehend through reason or through the senses. We might know a fact with our brains, but not be able to understand what it means, to fully experience its reality – the age of a star or the trillions of connections within the human brain – some things are too big, too complex, for us to conceive. Einstein, who know a thing or two about factual knowledge, felt that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. There is a dimension which co-exists with the material, rationally grounded world, is not in opposition to it or threatened by scientific development but happily stands alone in the context of everything else. This is the world of religious experience.
Jennifer Kavanagh, A Little Book of Unknowing
For myself, I have found 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. Jennifer Kavanagh, a few pages on from the passage above, goes on to say that,
Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience.
Indeed that seems to be the crux of the matter for me. It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting myself out of the way of that channel of loving gift.
The Hebrew word יָדַע (yada), does not mean quite what our English word “know” means. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology states, “To know [as we usually translate “yada”] is not to be intellectually informed about some abstract principle, but to apprehend and experience reality. Knowledge is not the possession of information, but rather its exercise or actualization.”
I for one cannot reach out and know God like this; but in knowing my own unknowing, in keeping still and keeping out of the way, I can be known, and in being known, know. Isaac Penington put it far better than I can:
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.
Recently it has been difficult to find words. The silence remains, and in its nourishing space all the grace and presence of God, as always, and yet I have been dumb.
Part of this, I feel, is due to something that has happened increasingly as I have trodden this way with Friends, and has to do with the absence of liturgy in unprogrammed worship, and with the absence of any systematic reading of Scripture. And yet, as John Punshon writes:
…I need to stress that silent contemplation by itself would have done nothing for me. My struggle was not to make sense of my own interior life – I was striving to discern the will of God, and without belief and faith I would have come to grief, I am sure. The belief I relied on was the central doctrine of Quakerism – that the light of Christ is a sure guide to life, and that in the gathered meeting, Christ is present to teach his people (including me) himself. In the stillness of meeting I heard the voice of the shepherd because I had the sheep’s ear…
This was an intimation of the Way of the Cross, a spiritual purgation that tested me to see whether my religious commitment was only on the surface. I think that this is a neglected aspect of worship in unprogrammed Friends’ meetings, but I am sure it was an important part of the tradition. Jesus said that those who are willing to lose their lives will find them. It is easy to say that one is so willing, but another thing to prove it. There is no way out of the occasional, but necessary agony of silent worship unless it be the power of resurrection. When I had been through this period I was another sort of person, and I think I now know why the Testimonies are ultimately inconceivable without the formative experience of traditional Quaker worship.
For me, though, the opposite is also true. The formative experience of Quaker worship is hard to receive without words, without some kind of poetics of experience, for without that the lived hermeneutic – in me at least – fails to materialise. It is hard to remember, let alone interiorise, even though something has changed. One falls asleep, and awakens to find it has snowed in the night…
If the most important thing I got from early Friends [Quakers] was a quickening of my faith in Christ, the second was a sense of the importance of scriptural words, images, and contexts in helping me to see the spiritual dimension of my own life. As I’ve said, the words and contexts of Scripture seemed to me a kind of spiritual “alphabet” that was able to give people access to a world we were naturally blind to—as the tactile alphabet Helen Keller used had given her access to the world she lived in but could not see. From the moment my faith was revived, the Scriptures took on great importance to me, and the approach early Friends took to the Scriptures became one of my chief interests…
This comes close to my own experience. At heart, I have always been something of a universalist. I have found it hard to believe in the exclusive correctness of any experience of faith over another, and yet the language of Buddhism, or of the Hindu Scriptures, is not my language. When I read Romans 8, or the farewell discourses in John’s Gospel, something in my heart breaks open, and I know myself known.
Noah Baker Merrill has experienced this. He writes:
The gathered people felt living water flowing around them. They were opened to the Truth Who holds us all, the true Liberation and Love always available to each of us. They stood together in the power of an endless Life. Their hearts knew that God is Real…
Brokenness is not the end of God’s Story – and it’s not the end of ours. But it is our moment to fall to our knees under that solitary tree in the desert, to meet with the angel, and to be given the bread and water we need to survive the journey into the Wilderness.
I am looking for a language. Not immediately in order to inform others, or even to talk with others, but in order to know. But I know already that there is something profoundly necessary in brokenness. Jesus took bread, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples. The wine must be poured out before it can be drunk. Contained within ourselves, we cannot give, nor grow. The seed must fall into the ground…
Jocelyn Burnell wrote:
We want to heal brokenness, where ever we see it. It is uncomfortable for us, as well as being uncomfortable for the person or thing that hurts. If somebody is grieving, for example, we ask kindly how they are, hoping that they will say they are fine, so we can go our way unperturbed.
We encourage people to get over their problem and get back to normal.
We are bad at sitting with pain.
Are we too keen to mend things, to have it all smooth again?
But the repair of brokenness does not come quickly – for some it comes never…
I believe that those of us who are wounded have a special ministry, because we are wounded, because we are hurt. I cannot tell you what your ministry is, only you can find that, but I am sure that there are amongst us people who can speak to needs in this world because they know about hurt…
Just as there is a ministry for the wounded in our communities, is there a role for a wounded community? Is the Religious Society of Friends a broken community?
Are we a broken community, a broken people, a broken society? Do we, through our brokenness have a role in God’s plan?
To know myself as wounded, and useful not despite, but because of that? To rejoice? To become what I have come to be?
Silence I know is the central Quaker discipline, but I’ve been taking it to extremes here lately. I simply seem to have been faced with an extraordinary inability to find anything to say that isn’t simply an embroidering of platitudes onto other people’s writings.
Perhaps it is something to do with silence after all. The quote from Robert Barclay that opens this blog after all reminds us that exposure to the “secret power” within silent worship has cumulative effects on the worshippers that are not easily understood, and that we are opened to by the simple act of surrender.
I certainly have found, over the time that I’ve been a Quaker Attender, that the work of the Spirit (aka the Light, Barclay’s “secret power”) takes place largely imperceptibly. Paul describes something of the sort in Romans 8.26-27: “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.”
It’s impossible to prevaricate in the Light, I find. Very gradually, the comfortable half-truths about myself that have formed part of my interior landscape for most of my life are being eroded. Years ago I wrote in a poem about the sea’s edge, “limen and littoral… patched and rotted with light.” I feel that way myself, these days, threadbare and scoured like a bit of old wood along the shoreline. I’m content with that.
But we are Members at last! Well, I say at last, but compared with many Quakers by convincement we have been remarkably quick on our journey to this stage, our time as Attenders being more easily measured in months than years, really. This does feel like a beginning, now, for both of us. It will be good to see where it leads…