Category Archives: Silence

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]

In the Landscape of Silence

Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

John 14:6-14 NRSV – Gospel reading for May 1, The Feast of St Philip and St James

Famously, this is a passage that universalists stumble over, seeing it as a prime piece of spiritual imperialism on the part of the Gospel writer. But it occurred to me this morning, when the Gospel was read in our local parish church, that there is another way entirely to read it.

I don’t believe Jesus is saying anything exclusive about only being saved if you accept him as your personal saviour, in the old tent mission sense, or about the followers of any other path not being saved. It sounds to me as if he is saying something much more like this: you are only going to encounter God if you come to realise that, as the Augustinian Father Martin Laird wrote in Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation“union with God is not something we are trying to acquire; God is already the ground of our being. It is a question of realising this in our lives.” Living so close to Jesus during the three years of his ministry, the penny should have dropped for Philip. Jesus lived more closely than anyone with that realisation at the centre of all he was and did; for he, Jesus, of all people, “walk[ed] cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” (George Fox)

Likewise, some worry about Jesus’ remark at the end of this passage, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” I asked, they say, for world peace – or a Mercedes Benz – and I didn’t receive it. Don’t work none.

In a later book, Martin Laird writes,

But when we petition God for anything over a long period of time, something else begins to happen; we are brought into the depths of God and are joined with God’s will. The fourth-century Syrian monk Denys the Areopagite explains how this works. He tells us to “picture ourselves aboard a boat. There are ropes joining it to some rock. We take hold of the rope and pull on it as if we were trying to drag the rock to us when in fact we are hauling ourselves and our boat toward that rock.” Denys provides a useful metaphor. We think we know what we need and attempt to bend God to our will, but the more we pull, the closer we are drawn into God’s will. Denys continues, “We will not pull down to ourselves that power which is everywhere and yet nowhere, but by divine reminders and invocations we may commend ourselves to it and be joined to it.” We pray to God for this and that. Often these things are important, but gradually we are united to God through our many requests and even in spite of them.

Conversely, our journey into the open, silent saltmarshes of the spirit is no solipsistic attempt at what is so commonly called self-realisation. Laird again, “There is an intercessory dimension to interior silence; for interior silence and compassionate solidarity are all of a piece, like spokes leading to the hub of a wheel… Only on the rim of the wheel of daily life do we appear to be separated from each other, but if we follow each spoke from the rim to the hub, all the spokes are one in the centre. We each share the same Centre.” And it is that centre that is Christ in each of us.

In all directions at once?

I see… an infinite web of relationship, flung across the vastness of space like a luminous net. It is made of energy, not thread. As I look, I can see light moving through it as a pulse moves through veins. What I see “out there” is no different from what I feel inside. There is a living hum that might be coming from my neurons but might just as well be coming from the furnace of the stars…

Where am I in this picture? … How could I ever be alone? I am part of a web that is pure relationship, with energy available to me that has been around since the universe was born.

Where is God in this picture? God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light – not captured in any of them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them – but revealed in that singular, vast web of relationship that animates everything that is.

…it is not enough for me to proclaim that God is responsible for all this unity. Instead, I want to proclaim that God is the unity – the very energy, the very intelligence, the very elegance and passion that make it all go. This is the God who is not somewhere but everywhere, the God who may be prayed to in all directions at once. This is also the God beyond all directions, who will still be here (whatever “here” means) when the universe either dissipates into dust or swallows itself up again. Paul Tillich’s name for this divine reality was “the ground of all being.” The only thing I can think of that is better than that is the name God revealed to Moses: “I Am Who I Am.”

Barbara Brown Taylor, The Luminous Web

This is, as Taylor points out a little later, not pantheism at all. She is not saying that God is everything, still less that everything is God, but that God is “above all and through all and in all” as Paul the apostle saw (Ephesians 4.6b). God is not a distant being, who occasionally deigns to interfere in the thing that he has made, but “the only One who ever was, is, or shall be, in whom everything else abides.” (Taylor, ibid.)

The question arises, of course, how one might pray to such a God. “In all directions at once”, says Barbara Brown Taylor. But what does that mean? We are so prone to think of prayer as messages between separate parts of a mechanism – us here, God there, the ones we are praying for somewhere else. But if we are not separated like that? If we, and those we pray for, and who pray for us, are in God, and God in us, then our connection is God, and what affects each of us affects each other, because it affects God.

If we really believed this, really saw it to be true, how could we go on living our selfish, antagonistic lives? How could we feel that our loss is another’s gain, or vice versa? This morning’s ministry was all about community, and the communion of community – that by living in love, in a community of love, we are witnesses, and more than witnesses: we are signs of the Kingdom, loci of Kingdom infection in the world. But perhaps we do not so much build community as realise community, and in realising it, make it real to ourselves and among each other.

To pray, in such circumstances, is then a very different thing from any conception of posting letters across time and space.

Simon Barrington-Ward writes of Silouan the Athonite:

…he began to recognise that [his sense of darkness and isolation] was in part the oppression of the absence of the sense of God and the alienation from his love over the whole face of the globe. He had been called to undergo this travail himself not on account of his own sin any more, but that he might enter into the darkness of separated humanity and tormented nature and, through his ceaseless prayer, be made by God’s grace alone into a means of bringing that grace to bear on the tragic circumstances of his time. He was praying and living through the time of World War I and the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of all that led to the Holocaust [not to mention the Russian Revolution, and at the very end of his life, Stalin’s Great Purge]. And with all this awareness of pain and sorrow, he was also given a great serenity and peacefulness and goodness about him, which profoundly impressed those who know him.

For all of us in our lesser ways, [contemplative prayer], as well as bringing us into something of this kind of alternation which St. Silouan so strikingly experienced, also leads us on with him into an ever-deepening peace. You can understand how those who first taught and practiced this kind of prayer were first called “hesychasts”: people of hesychia or stillness.

Prayer, as Daniel O Snyder writes in Friends Journal“is itself a field of engagement.” As St Silouan discovered, contemplative prayer, the practice of stillness and silence, is anything but disengagement, anything but a way out of dealing with the pain and the grief of the world, but is a way of welcoming them into one’s heart without defence, and being made in oneself a channel of God’s grace, Christ’s mercy.

Walking through Wonders

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

It’s strange how easily utilitarian our seeing can become: we walk through wonders, searching for the next sandwich. Of course we need to eat, God knows we do (Matthew 6.31-33) – but there are plenty of sandwiches without turning away from the shores of glory to look for them.

Sometimes I’m appalled by my own emptiness of heart, my impatience and covetousness, and the ease with which I make excuses for them. William Blake saw that

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

That the doors of perception are clotted with cultural preconceptions, half-learned assumptions and pre-packaged descriptions became a staple of the times I grew up in, and much of the exploration of other systems of religion and thought, and tinkerings with brain chemistry, were aimed at doing something about it. (The best explanation of this quest I know is Aldous Huxley’s own book The Doors of Perception.) But it is only in the stillness of prayer that I have found them to clear, almost of themselves. The Spirit can speak in silence beyond all words or thoughts, and to remain in silence allows everything to appear as it is, without effort or mental gymnastics or chemical interference.

But how? Paula Gooder speaks of a waiting that “does not demand passivity but the utmost activity: active internal waiting that knits together new life.” Contemplative stillness, the openness of the heart’s own doors to “God, who searches the heart, [and] knows what is the mind of the Spirit” (Romans 8.27), is the simplest and the hardest thing. (For me, the Jesus Prayer seems to be the way, but there are many others.)

Prayer is opening oneself to the effective, invisible power of God. One can never leave the presence of God without being transformed and renewed in his being, for this is what Christ promised. The thing that can only be granted by prayer belongs to God (Luke 11.13). However such a transformation does not take the form of a sudden leap. It takes time. Whoever persists in surrendering himself to God in prayer receives more than he desires or deserves. Whoever lives by prayer gains an immense trust in God, so powerful and certain, it can almost be touched. He comes to perceive God in a most vivid way. Without ever forgetting our weakness, we become something other than we are.

Mary David Totah OSB, Deepening Prayer: Life Defined by Prayer

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

Grace in Stillness

Wakeful long after midnight, I looked out in the early hours to see frost forming in the air between the trees, over the grassy bank above the reservoir: little clouds and tendrils of mist sparkling where the last few lights still burning caught them aslant, like some gift of stillness…

I picked up my phone, and quickly noted down these few words, somehow trying to remember what I’d seen. It was quite warm in the room, and yet the still cold touched me with a kind of grace. Things are not the same in an air frost, without becoming. Silence is not the absence of noise, merely, but the place where change is, before things change, or else remain. It is only necessary, and the hardest thing, to keep very still.

Dionysius, known as the Areopagite, wrote

…the mysteries of God’s Word
lie simple, absolute and unchangeable
in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.
Amid the deepest shadow
they pour overwhelming light
on what is most manifest.
Amid the wholly unsensed and unseen
they completely fill our sightless minds
with treasures beyond all beauty.

We don’t often think of scripture in terms like this. Our minds (mine is, at least) are so often full of critical preconceptions, scraps of imperfectly digested doctrine, the wrack and spindrift of credal formulae, that we can’t listen in stillness. It is written in Psalm 119, “Your word, Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. Your faithfulness continues through all generations…” (Ps 119.89-90 NIV) It is only when we keep still enough that we can make any sense of passages like this, or indeed Psalm 46.10, “Be still and know that I am God…”

Only when something like this happens, and we are awake in the night and we stumble, half-sleeping, across the grace of stillness can we open our hearts to these “treasures of darkness” (Isaiah 45.3 NRSV). Or else we take up the quiet yoke of some discipline like lectio divina or Gospel contemplation. Otherwise, the rattling of our minds’ junkyards will always keep us from hearing, and we’ll miss the place from which John’s opening words make sense, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him…” (John 1.1-3 NRSV)

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

 

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…