Category Archives: Silence

Little Things

Thankfulness works in the Christian community as it usually does in the Christian life. Only those who give thanks for the little things receive the great things as well. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts prepared for us because we do not give thanks for daily gifts. We think that we should not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must constantly be seeking the great gifts. Then we complain that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experiences that God has given to other Christians, and we consider these complaints to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the small (and yet really not so small!) gifts we receive daily. How can God entrust great things to those who will not gratefully receive the little things from God’s hand?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

This is a passage that should, I think, be read and re-read by those of us who are involved in any way in the contemplative life. We are all so deeply infected, from childhood if not before, with our culture’s ideals of progress and achievement, that we find it all but impossible to accept that our “daily gifts” are enough, are really God’s good and sufficient gifts for the life of prayer into which we have been called; and we continually abandon them in favour of fantasies of a spiritual life we imagine somewhere out beyond us, on some higher level to which we should aspire.

These things are not God’s way, I feel. God calls us in the little things, in the touch of the moving air, bird-shadows on cropped grass, in the quiet places; what he may call us to may be equally unspectacular, or it may be some far more public action or communication. That is not so much a matter of our choice, but of discernment.

I sometimes dislike using the term “mystic” or “mystical” to describe the life of inner prayer. Quite apart from any woo-woo connotations, it can seem to imply someone special, a guru of sorts, set apart from ordinary people and their lives. Contemplative prayer, whether done corporately in meeting for worship or in the silence of one’s own room, is none of those things. If it is a hidden path, it is one hidden in plain sight, and those who follow it are – they are, they don’t just appear to be – profoundly ordinary people, with ordinary lives apart from their inescapable calling to the interior life.

Henri Nouwen wrote,

Hiddenness is an essential quality of the spiritual life. Solitude, silence, ordinary tasks, being with people without great agendas, sleeping, eating, working, playing … all of that without being different from others, that is the life that Jesus lived and the life he asks us to live. It is in hiddenness that we, like Jesus, can increase “in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people” (Luke 2.51). It is in hiddenness that we can find a true intimacy with God and a true love for people.

This ordinary hiddenness is the natural home of one called to the life of prayer: not the mountain top, not the university (unless she happens to be an academic) nor the monastery (unless he happens to be a monk) but the ordinary occasions of life among others, the quietness of simple things, the lives of the sparrows in the shrubbery, the wren in the hedge.

[Some parts of this post were first published in another form on The Mercy Blog]

Without Assurance

In her little book Practical Mystics, Jennifer Kavanagh quotes Rufus Jones’ definition of mysticism as “the attitude of mind which comes into correspondence with a spiritual world-order which is felt to be as real as the visible one.”

This comes very close to my own experience; what I have loved above all about the Quaker way is this sense of practical, hands-on, experimental mysticism. To the extent that it roots itself, and all its works, in such an experimental faith, it seems to me, Quakerism does well; to the extent that it does not, it outruns its Guide, basing its actions and pronouncements merely on our own limited human notions of right and wrong, and of social or political expediency.

Charles F Carter (Qfp 26.39) wrote in 1971:

True faith is not assurance, but the readiness to go forward experimentally, without assurance. It is a sensitivity to things not yet known. Quakerism should not claim to be a religion of certainty, but a religion of uncertainty; it is this which gives us our special affinity to the world of science. For what we apprehend of truth is limited and partial, and experience may set it all in a new light; if we too easily satisfy our urge for security by claiming that we have found certainty, we shall no longer be sensitive to new experiences of truth. For who seeks that which he believes that he has found? Who explores a territory which he claims already to know?

In another book of hers, A Little Book of Unknowing, Jennifer Kavanagh writes:

…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 knew 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.

This, it seems to me, is crucial. Unknowing is essential to true faith, and indispensable for any kind of practical experience of the Light. When we tie ourselves down with dogmatic statements and attitudes, be they overly literal interpretations of historical creeds, or uncompromising assertions of some atheist position or other, we close the door on the Spirit, cutting off the light from shining into the darkness of our own limitations.

Kavanagh (ibid.) quotes Dorothee Sölle:

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.

When we come into the silence, whether of our own life of prayer and reflection (Advices & Queries 3or of meeting together for worship, bereft of words and notions, it is only that direct experience that will, if we let it, be our sure guide, and will lead us, quite without the intellectual assurance we too often crave, into truth, unity and love.

Faithful prayer and listening silence…

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

For quite a time now I have had an uneasy sense about much religious (in the broadest sense of the word) activism – also in the broadest sense of the word! Whether Quakers or Catholics, many of us do allow ourselves to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, surrender to too many demands… Friend Job Scott (1751–1793) wrote,

Our strength or help is only in God; but then it is near us, it is in us – a force superior to all possible opposition – a force that never was, nor can be foiled. We are free to stand in this unconquerable ability, and defeat the powers of darkness; or to turn from it, and be foiled and overcome. When we stand, we know it is God alone upholds us; and when we fall, we feel that our fall or destruction is of ourselves.

It is this upon which all our works rest; indeed it is in this sense that we can say that all our strength, and any good we may do, comes by faith in God and not by the works themselves (Ephesians 2:8-9; James 2:18) that faith may call us into.

The problem, I think, is that all too often we act not from the Spirit: not, as early Quakers, and many since, would have said, according to leadings. We have an idea that such and such may be the right thing to do; we feel a political conviction to speak or act or vote in a certain way; we see what someone else is doing and we feel guilty unless we are doing likewise. These things are not leadings, but notions, and to act in accordance with them is turning from God into our own strength, from God’s wisdom into our own ideas. In Merton’s terms, it is an act of violence – against ourselves as much as against anyone else – and in the end it brings only fruitlessness and grieving.

In 1992 Meeting for Sufferings, the standing representative body entrusted with the care of the business of Britain Yearly Meeting through the year, minuted:

The ground of our work lies in our waiting on and listening for the Spirit. Let the loving spirit of a loving God call us and lead us. These leadings are both personal and corporate. If they are truly tested in a gathered meeting we shall find that the strength and the courage for obedience are given to us. We need the humility to put obedience before our own wishes.

We are aware of the need to care for ourselves and each other in our meetings, bearing each other’s burdens and lovingly challenging each other.

We also hear the cry of those in despair which draws out our compassion. We know the need to speak for those who have no voice. We have a tradition of service and work which has opened up opportunities for us. But we are reminded that we are not the only ones to do this work. Not only can we encourage a flow of work between our central and our local meetings; but we must recognise the Spirit at work in many bodies and in many places, in other churches and faiths, and in secular organisations.

In this minute Friends speak for all of us; we all need the humility to put obedience to the Holy Spirit’s leadings before our own convictions, before our own guilt. Coming before our loving God in faithful prayer and listening silence our actions will be true, and just, whether they be exterior actions in the world, inward actions of prayer and discipline, or both. It is Christ we follow, and it is his work we do, or we work in vain.

Anointing

As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit – just as it has taught you, remain in him.

1 John 2.27

I have been struck by the word “anointing”. Elizabeth Bathurst (as quoted by David Johnson) wrote:

But I brought them the scriptures, and told them there was an anointing within man to teach him, and the Lord would teach them himself.

For ’tis that Spiritual Anointing that the apostle John speaks of [1 John 2.20-27], which those that have received it (and in whom it abides) needs not that any Man teach them, but as the same Anointing teacheth them all things…

We are not very used, I think, to the term among Friends today. Among charismatic Christians it is much more common, and seems to be used in both the sense of being given spiritual gifts – the New Testament “handbook” to these is 1 Corinthians 12 – and in the sense of being set aside by God for a purpose. The key passage for the latter is the beginning of Isaiah 61 (“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour…”) quoted by Jesus at the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4.18-19.

But I think Elizabeth Bathurst, following the apostle John, as she says, is using the word in a slightly different sense to either of these, and it is a sense we as Quakers should recognise. In A Quaker Prayer Life, David Johnson of Queensland Regional Meeting in Australia writes,

Many of us will also have experienced [anointing] in some small way–an experience of Divine presence that is like being gently touched, perhaps with a finger dipped in warm fragrant oil, and we feel that warmth and special inward touch, and in that moment are momentarily aware of some deep religious understanding, or of a puritying presence. That is to say, we have been anointed, and it is a sign that we have been in the eternal presence–we have known the Eternal Christ within us.

Is not much of our work in our meetings rightly directed to showing this possibility to Friends, leading them gently to recognise it in themselves, however they may choose to describe it? It is the source of our ministry, as well as our comfort, and the beginning of all our leadings; it is always to be found in silence.

Silence is a curious thing…

Silence is a curious thing. It is not by any means merely the absence of noise, but a stripping away of much that occupies our waking minds – thought, conclusion, classification, knowing. We operate in definitions, boundaries, alternatives, and what we encounter in silence lies beyond all distinctions.

We sit in meeting for worship, held in the presence of Friends, or alone, our minds quietened with our own practice, be it watching our breath, or something like the Jesus Prayer, and our discursive, directed mind falls away to a background murmur (or gabble, if we’re having a bad day!) to leave a brilliant darkness, an unknowing awareness that is permeable to the Spirit; it is a place where we may find ourselves exclaiming, with Jacob (Genesis 28.16), “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”

More and more I am convinced that to remain hidden (Colossians 3.3) with Christ in God, unknowing, is at least for me the narrow path to God’s own presence, where even our own steps are unknown to us (Proverbs 20.24); 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)…

What Silence Is For

It has always seemed odd to me, over the relatively short time I’ve been seriously involved with Friends, that we of all people should have run into problems over language for our experience. As David Boulton writes (God, Words and Used. Helen Rowlands)

That some believe in God and others do not, or that some understand God language as in some sense ‘factual’ while others perceive it as intensified poetry, has become a problem for Friends. But my impression is that for many others it is no problem at all. In many, many meetings up and down the country, theists and non-theists meet together, work together, support each other, without tension or any deep concern over theological difference. We share clerkships, eldership and the routine offices. We are Friends together…

I have long felt that part of our problem is in fact not theological at all, rather linguistic. As long ago as 1908 Hilda Clark wrote,

One thing I understand now is that one’s intellect alone won’t pull one through, and that the greatest service it can perform is to open a window for that thing we call the divine spirit. If one trusts to it [the intellect] alone it’s like trusting to an artificial system of ventilation – correct in theory but musty in practice. How I wish it were as easy to throw everything open to the spirit of God as it is to fresh air.

In the book I quoted from yesterday, Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality, JP Williams writes

The problem for any object of thought is that even when we grasp it, we can only say what it is like in and to our grasp – whereas when it comes to the divine, we can touch or be touched but cannot comprehend, cannot enclose the divine in our fist, cannot get our hands to circle it or our ‘heads around it’. The distinct impression we get is that it’s the other way around: we are in God’s grasp, he comprehends us. God simply won’t be ‘an object of thought’: it’s not in the power of the dividing and distinguishing intellect but in the power of desiring, tentative, unifying love, to approach the divine.

Almost more telling, at least from a Quaker point of view, is a remarkable passage Janet Williams quotes from Michael Sells’ Mystical Languages of Unsaying:

The formal denial that the transcendent can be named must in some sense be valid, otherwise ineffability would not become an issue, Insofar as it is valid, however, the formal statement of ineffability turns back upon itself, and undoes itself. To say ‘X is beyond names’, if true, entails that it cannot then be called by the name ‘X’. In turn, the statement ‘it cannot be called X’ becomes suspect, since the ‘it’, as a pronoun, substitutes for a name, but the transcendent is beyond all names… I am caught in a linguistic regress… The authentic subject of discourse [God] slips back continually beyond each effort to name or even deny its nameability.

Sells may have nailed something here that we Quakers might have seen coming long ago, and fallen into the silence “before God” for which we are known. Words fail us. Of course they do. We are only human, and words are tools of ours. Trying to apply scientific or philosophical terms to that which we encounter in worship is like trying to dig up encaustic tiles with a carpenter’s chisel – you won’t make much of an impression on the tiles, and you’ll ruin the chisel. Silence is the proper tool, and waiting is the way it’s used. Emilia Fogelklou explains as well as anyone I’ve read:

But then one bright spring day – it was the 29th of May 1902 – while she sat preparing for her class under the trees in the backyard of Föreningsgatan 6, quietly, invisibly, there occurred the central event of her whole life. Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ‘empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.

The first words which came to her – although they took a long time to come – were, ‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ The child who had cried out in anguish and been silenced had now come inside the gates of Light. She had been delivered by a love that is greater than any human love. Struck dumb, amazed, she went quietly to her class, wondering that no one noticed that something had happened to her.

In worship there is an encounter which does not yield, cannot yield, to words. Meister Eckhart knew this, and used the term istigkeit, isness, which is perhaps as good as we can can get.

Quakers and others are sometimes frustrated when they attempt to read Scripture, especially the New Testament, and find a lack of exactitude, a sense of not being able to pin down, what the authors are getting at. (In the Old Testament this more often shows itself in endless apparently irrelevant or even objectionable histories and legalities, or impenetrable apocalyptic prophecies.)  But the Bible doesn’t set out, despite the things fundamentalists sometimes say, to do science or philosophy. Its many authors – who lived in societies and among traditions very different from our own – are merely trying to give an account of an encounter, that is all, or of the effect that encounter has had on them. Quaker ministry sometimes tries to do a similar job…

In meeting for worship, and in the practice of eldership that defines and protects our meeting, Quakers have developed a practice which is uniquely capable of understanding the apophatic (that is, of knowledge of God, obtained through negating concepts that might be applied to God), of sharing it, and of living out its consequences in relationship and action. We sometimes fail to realise the importance of this:

In silence, without rite or symbol, we have known the Spirit of Christ so convincingly present in our quiet meetings that his grace dispels our faithlessness, our unwillingness, our fears, and sets our hearts aflame with the joy of adoration. We have thus felt the power of the Spirit renewing and recreating our love and friendship for all our fellows. This is our Eucharist and our Communion.

London Yearly Meeting, 1928

A still voice…

I have often wondered why hills seem to be so popular with prophets and mystics. Moses climbed Mount Sinai, as explained in Exodus 19,

At the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain…

Jesus “went out to the mountain to pray; and… spent the night in prayer to God.” (Luke 6.12) In fact he made a habit of it: “many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” (Luke 5.15b-16)

George Fox climbed Pendle Hill,

As we went I spied a great high hill called Pendle Hill, and I went on the top of it with much ado, it was so steep; but I was moved of the Lord to go atop of it; and when I came atop of it I saw Lancashire sea; and there atop of the hill I was moved to sound the day of the Lord; and the Lord let me see atop of the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered.

(from Fox’s journal, quoted in Quaker faith & practice)

Part of it may simply be that climbing a hill is an act, not of some naive attempt to get physically closer to a God conceived of as “up there”, but of deliberately putting ourselves in the way of hearing from God. It may be the same impulse that leads us to silence and stillness in the awareness of God’s presence. A prayer like the Jesus Prayer, the “prayer word” in Centering Prayer, or the word “maranatha” in Christian Meditation, at least in part, seeks to do the same thing, to lead us to a state of inward withdrawal from the world of getting and doing into a condition of inner receptiveness, as Jesus explained:

But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

(Matthew 6.6)

(For what reward could God give us better than the gift of God’s presence?)

William Penn summed it up,

And you, young convinced ones, be you entreated and exhorted to a diligent and chaste waiting upon God, in the way of his blessed manifestation and appearance of himself to you. Look not out, but within… Remember it is a still voice that speaks to us in this day, and that it is not to be heard in the noises and hurries of the mind; but it is distinctly understood in a retired frame. Jesus loved and chose solitudes, often going to mountains, to gardens, and sea-sides to avoid crowds and hurries; to show his disciples it was good to be solitary, and sit loose to the world.

Quaker faith & practice 21.03 

[also published on The Mercy Blog]