Category Archives: Silence

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.

A difficult life?

Occasionally Friends, especially those who have had little contact with the mystical tradition in Christianity, but have mostly encountered the shallower waters of that deep stream, may believe that Quakers are unique in basing their worship and their community on the direct experience of God; but in some of the writings of Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic Franciscan priest and scholar, for example, we can see how seamlessly we fit into a long, if sometimes hidden, current…

Rohr writes,

Most of organized religion has actually discouraged us from taking the mystical path by telling us almost exclusively to trust outer authority (Scripture, Tradition, or various kinds of experts) instead of telling us the value and importance of inner experience itself. In fact, most of us were strongly warned against ever trusting ourselves. Roman Catholics were told to trust the church hierarchy first and last, while Protestants were often warned that inner experience was dangerous, unscriptural, or even unnecessary. Some Evangelicals actually call any non-noisy prayer “diabolical.” Talk about fear of the soul!

These were ways of discouraging actual experience of God and created passive (and often passive aggressive) people. Sadly, many people concluded there was no God to be experienced. We were taught to mistrust our own souls—and thus the Holy Spirit…

Of course, if we rely on tradition – any tradition, even of sitting in silence – rather than on opening our hearts to the God whose presence is revealed in silence, then we are tempted to use being part of the right group, and following its customs and practices, as a substitute for an experimental encounter with the Divine. However personally or impersonally we conceive of God, the actual encounter is always far more than we had bargained for: and there is that in each of us that would avoid that which we cannot comprehend, let alone control.

This seems to me to be getting close to the heart of our lives as Friends, or of any followers of the way. Once we recognise in ourselves that we share in the world’s determination to avoid anything that may bring us pain, may make us grieve for the long emptinesses, then it becomes clear that we need something more than thought to open us to the truth.

Kayla McClurg writes,

Life is not difficult now so that we will more greatly appreciate being rewarded someday in heaven. Life is difficult now simply because it is difficult now. And the reward is to see it, to feel it, to let it in. When we refuse to accept that life is not to be continually altered, continually tweaked for our pleasure, we miss a simple truth: Life is what it is, and what it is, is Life. A mixed up muddle of sorrow and peace and joy and poverty and longing. We miss it if we spend all our time trying to shut the doors, bar the windows, before Life can get to us, before God can show us how good the awful parts can be. When we let the difficulties be what they are, then we can be who we are—cherished and able to live through whatever comes.

If we can but surrender, let go of trying to know, let go of trying to work out beforehand how it’s going to be, let go of the barricades, then we begin to find that all sorts of odd things begin to make sense again, or for the first time. There are hints of this in all the spiritual traditions; they glitter here and there in the Old Testament, but cluster thickly in the New, from Jesus’ own words in, say, Matthew 5 – the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn, the meek, the merciful…” to those paradoxical remarks in the letters, such as Paul’s to the Romans,”[W]e know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[i] have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8.28)

Sometimes religion appears to be presented as offering easy cures for pain: have faith and God will mend your hurts; reach out to God and your woundedness will be healed. The Beatitude ‘Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted’ can be interpreted this way too, but the Latin root of the word ‘comfort’ means ‘with strength’ rather than ‘at ease’. The Beatitude is not promising to take away our pain; indeed the inference is that the pain will remain with us. It does promise that God will cherish us and our wound, and help us draw a blessing from our distressed state.

QFP 21.66

Life is deeper and stranger than we think, and we are only tiny seeds in the great restless beauty of a universe at which the most able minds can only wonder. (It was one of our leading astrophysicists, Susan Jocelyn Burnell, discoverer of radio pulsars, who wrote the above passage from Quaker Faith & Practice.) That we can consciously be touched in the silence by that from which we arise, and in which we are sustained, is what makes sense of it all to me…

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.

Advices & queries – reading Qfp Ch.1

Advices and queries are not a call to increased activity by each individual Friend but a reminder of the insights of the Society. Within the community there is a diversity of gifts. We are all therefore asked to consider how far the advices and queries affect us personally and where our own service lies. There will also be diversity of experience, of belief and of language. Friends maintain that expressions of faith must be related to personal experience. Some find traditional Christian language full of meaning; some do not. Our understanding of our own religious tradition may sometimes be enhanced by insights of other faiths. The deeper realities of our faith are beyond precise verbal formulation and our way of worship based on silent waiting testifies to this.

Our diversity invites us both to speak what we know to be true in our lives and to learn from others. Friends are encouraged to listen to each other in humility and understanding, trusting in the Spirit that goes beyond our human effort and comprehension. So it is for the comfort and discomfort of Friends that these advices and queries are offered, with the hope that we may all be more faithful and find deeper joy in God’s service.

Quaker faith & practice 1.01

Our regular reading of Advices & queries, privately and in meeting (Qfp 1.05) can sometimes seem to be one of those slightly quaint customs, held over from another time, that Quakers, like other religious groups, occasionally indulge in. But I find the generosity of these few words from the introduction touches, and somehow nourishes, something very deep in me. Our warmth and our openness as a church are somehow for me wrapped up in here, together with a recognition of our diversity of gifts and experience (1 Corinthians 12.4-6) that is vital for our understanding and support of each other in our meetings.

I wonder if, over this next month, I can allow myself to reread these Advices & queries yet again with fresh eyes, bringing them into my own “times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit?” (Qfp 1.02.3) I find it too easy to fall into each day without heart and mind truly prepared (Qfp 1.02.9), depending more on myself than on God’s guidance. Maybe what I am missing here, as so often, is too plain for me to see clearly? I hope I can simply and humbly – above all, humbly – let myself open to these little writings, taking heed, in their brief stillness, “to the promptings of love and truth in [my heart].” (Qfp 1.02.1)

Beyond redemption?

Alastair McIntosh writes, in today’s issue of The Friend,

It was the American writer James Baldwin who suggested that: ‘One of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.’

We sideline the pain of spiritual growth when we reduce it to questions like: ‘If there’s a God, how can “He” allow evil?’

Imagine how it would be if every time some human folly (or even cruelty) were about to happen, the ‘Great Cosmic Health and Safety Officer’ zapped it from on high.

We would never get to feel the pain of others, or of ourselves. We would remain in spiritual infancy, devoid of empathy, unexercised by the evils of the world. For love to be free, evil has to be an option.

Therefore, said saint Silouan of Athos: ‘Keep thy mind in hell and do not despair.’

I think that what he is saying is: fully face the brokenness of the world, but never forget that God’s not sleeping.

It is a reminder of hope, and of deeper processes at work that might transcend our conscious ken. A reminder, too, that nothing, and no one, is ever beyond redemption.

I myself wrote recently,

These are, to say the least, difficult and puzzling times. The merest glance at the headlines will suffice to demonstrate that, and to demonstrate the further fact that the media, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.

In the face of massively publicised and widespread cruelty and injustice, violence and deceit, it is increasingly hard to avoid the current zeitgeist of taking sides, adopting entrenched positions, and demonising the “opposition”.

It is seems more and more popular to represent “the other side” as beyond redemption, and yet sometimes if we will only listen, they will shock us by their humanity and their vulnerability. Not long ago I was speaking with a prominent Tory MP and (then) cabinet minister, when he expressed his genuine grief at the assumption that he and his party were trying to punish and oppress the disabled. For a moment, real pain peeped out from behind the urbane mask of the seasoned politician, and I found my own heart grieved for him. More of these moments are scattered throughout our days, I think, than we would imagine, if only we are open to them, if only we can allow the clamour of the populist voices, and of our own assumptions and prejudices, to die away in an interior silence and openness that I have found comes only through continual prayer.

Repetitive prayer, whether a Christian practice such as the Jesus Prayer, or a Buddhist one such as the Nembutsu, has a way, eventually, of attaching itself to one’s life rhythms – the breath, the heartbeat – till it becomes an integrated part of one’s existence, drawing the heart (understood as the centre of our personal being) not away from “the outer world of sense and meanings” (Thomas R Kelly) but always towards the source of all that is.

This is not a difficult, technical exercise, nor one reserved for men of unusual and select spiritual gifts, but one for all of us, female or male, artisan or intellectual, old or young. It is so simple, whether as a side-effect of a practice such as the Nembutsu, or just to “maintain a simple attention and a fond regard for God, which I may call an actual presence of God.” (Brother Lawrence)

St Silouan the Athonite, whom Alastair McIntosh quotes, was an Eastern Orthodox monk born in Russia who travelled to Mount Athos while still only in his twenties, and lived there at St. Panteleimon Monastery as a brother until he died, in his seventies, just before the outbreak of World War II. In common with other Athonite monks, Silouan’s main form of prayer would have been the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Very early in the history of the Christian church, certainly by the 4th century, the term hesychasm, the life of silence,  began to appear in the writings of scholars like John Chrysostom and Evagrius Pontikos, as well as in the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Hesychasts, as they became known, were practitioners of a tradition of contemplative prayer based on the Jesus Prayer that was available to everyone, regardless of education, ordination or formal membership of a monastic community.

The Anglican Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward writes that

This prayer is marked by a compunction and penitence. It has the sense of a kind of joyful mourning of one’s own and the world’s pitiableness. It knows our need to be rescued and saved, with tears. It is expressed in short, urgently or longingly repeated prayer directed to Jesus present in the heart, a presence to which the person praying seeks to turn his or her waking and sleeping thoughts (‘I slept but my heart was awake’, Song of Solomon 5:2) and whole life.

There is a sense of immediacy, of personal experience of the presence of God, from the very start of the hesychast tradition, that will be immediately familiar to Friends. Writing of the work of Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) Barrington-Ward goes on to say,

For Symeon, the resurrection is not only in the future. It begins here and now… He wrote out of an overwhelming encounter with the living Christ and with the Holy Spirit, through whom he claimed the resurrection of us all can occur.

By the 15th century the tradition had established itself in the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece, and was from there carried to Russia by St Nilus of Sora (Nil Sorski) where it established itself in the forest communities in the far north, which were consciously modelled after the early desert settlements in Egypt in the times of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. There the way of the hesychasts flourished right through until the years following the Russian Revolution in the early 20th century, when many of its practitioners took refuge once again on Mount Athos, some eventually, like the great writer and teacher on prayer Sophrony Sakharov, even turning up in England. It was to St. Panteleimon Monastery that many of these Russian monks came; Sophrony himself became a disciple of Silouan.

Sophrony wrote,

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 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.

Unfolding

The other day, I wrote of unfolding – “the unfolding that is my life, and of which my death will be part.”

It seems to me that this is one clue to the old “who am I?” question. It doesn’t appear that there is a fixed “thing” that is me. I am becoming, that is all. I don’t unfold myself along the time that is given me – and it is given me, I don’t take it – but with each year and each minute I unroll like a kind of a carpet as time itself unrolls.

In myself I am no thing – though my body is an object with certain dimensions and attributes that, however they may change over time, are recognisably me – in my becoming, my unfolding, everything is gift.

In silence, I can hear myself becoming, breath by breath, and I know that there is a source beyond my physical presence, far beyond my scrabbling thoughts, from which I appear to become. Obviously, it is being. I am, so inevitably it is in the ground of that (and all) being that I am held, and unrolled, moment by moment. I cannot fall out of what is. This is so perfectly natural that it lifts away the alienation of my self from its true home, and the anxiety of what I might be. If I am so unfolded, then the unfolding itself is what I am, as is its ground. As Paul wrote, “Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3.11)

To realise this, of course, is itself a kind of death: the death of the individual me, the death of any dream of being the master of my soul. The death, in fact, of my soul itself as separate, over against an alien world. “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” said Paul in the same letter (Colossians 3.3).

This incompleteness, this lack of a separated self, is of course at the heart of the Gospel. Richard Rohr seems to suggest that it underlies what he calls “the spirituality of imperfection.” As he says,

The real moral goals of the Gospel—loving enemies, caring for the powerless, overlooking personal offenses, living simply, eschewing riches—can only be achieved through surrender and participation. These have often been ignored or minimized, even though they were clearly Jesus’ major points. We cannot take credit for these virtues; we can only thank God for them: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory because of your mercy and faithfulness” (Psalm 115:1).

The love that is our becoming shows itself as the mercy of God in all that unfolds: “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.” (Romans 8.28)

Our accepting our utter dependence upon and oneness with the God who gives us being is precisely the “surrender and participation” of which Rohr writes. Only this way can that mercy that Christ is flow through us, in prayer and deed, to the world’s pain.