Category Archives: Simplicity

Map Making

One of the things that seem to happen in the spiritual life is that “as we mature we add experience to the original ‘deposit of faith’ and it changes us – changes how we think, speak, act and pray.” (JP Williams, Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality)  As we go on, a process of stripping inevitably takes place: a leaving behind of much that seemed essential to our comfort, our identity, even to our relationship with God.

A page further on in her study, Janet Williams writes, describing this stage of our spiritual journey as “an ascent”,

… it feels like an ascent because we find ourselves not simply exchanging one scene for another but – at least sometimes – acquiring a larger perspective, being able to see how the partial glimpses that seemed so different at the time are parts of a broader landscape, being able to reconcile and integrate what earlier seemed irreconcilable. In a sense, we don’t just leave a particular landscape as we ascend, we also leave ourselves behind, the versions of ourselves that were comfortable in the old places. In another sense, what we leave behind is God – a version or view of God, that is. Just as the higher up we stand, the bigger the horizon is, so too with God; as Augustine says, ‘God is always greater, no matter how much we have grown.’

…although we have to be careful not to mistake this, there is a kind of growing distance from earlier concerns: not that we cease to care about injustice or unkindness but that we are less narrow in our sympathies.

Memory, or rather, remembering, plays its part here. Thinking back over the path that led us here, we can see that, “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?” (Proverbs 20.24)

This is often partly repentance as much as recall, even as we remember the places where we stumbled painfully among the rocks, or strayed off the way altogether for a while. But remembering allows us to see the pattern, see the way we have been led. As the author of Proverbs goes on to say, “The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord, searching every inmost part.” (20.27) Our self-awareness illuminates a map, almost, of our leading. Not only do we see God’s hand in all we have done, guiding us even when we have missed the path, but we see the way back: back to incarnation, back to the life of creation, to the pain and need of the world – the things by which we were drawn to prayer in the first place…

A Simple Thing

One of the things that has always touched me about the Jesus Prayer is its simplicity. It is not in any way a mode of prayer reserved for religious professionals, nor one that requires training or qualifications. How do you pray the Jesus Prayer? Well, you say Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Rinse. Repeat. And that, really, is all there is to it, despite the many books that have been written about the practice and theology of this ancient prayer.

Jesus once said,

I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do…

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

(Matthew 11.25-6, 28-30 NIV)

I am occasionally made anxious by some recent writers on the contemplative tradition, and the terminology with which they surround contemplative prayer – “dualistic thinking”, “non-dual consciousness” and so forth – it can come to sound as though one needs a degree in comparative religion and a master’s in psychology. I do sort of know what they are getting at, yet I yearn for the simplicity of the Jesus Prayer and its tradition. A prayer that is as appropriate for a farmer as for an academic, for a taxi driver as for a nun or a monk – now that is something I can rejoice in, as we are all carried together into the Light.

That washed vision

TS Eliot began his long poem The Waste Land,

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain…

There is something reassuring about pain, and immobility. You know where you are with things like that; and a few dried tubers, as Eliot points out, will keep something like life going a long while. New life is difficult, though. It hurts to come back in springtime.

Selfishness can be a defence against a deep lack of self-esteem, and inaction a response to what the heart perceives as just penalty – penance, or karma.

Now as a man is like this or like that,
according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be;
a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad;
he becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds;

And here they say that a person consists of desires,
and as is his desire, so is his will;
and as is his will, so is his deed;
and whatever deed he does, that he will reap…

(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad)

Cause and effect are not always what they seem, as CG Jung pointed out:

How are we to recognize acausal combinations of events, since it is obviously impossible to examine all chance happenings for their causality? The answer to this is that acausal events may be expected most readily where, on closer reflection, a causal connection appears to be inconceivable…

…it is impossible, with our present resources, to explain ESP, or the fact of meaningful coincidence, as a phenomenon of energy. This makes an end of the causal explanation as well, for “effect” cannot be understood as anything except a phenomenon of energy. Therefore it cannot be a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity. Because of this quality of simultaneity, I have picked on the term “synchronicity” to designate a hypothetical factor equal in rank to causality as a principle of explanation.

It may be that the planet whose life we share has a finite lifespan. In fact it would be most surprising if it did not. Yet each spring comes as a renewal – like the one before, but quite unlike, as well, never seen before:

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.

(Isaiah 43.19)

There seems to be something like balance, or a returning equilibrium, in the affairs of the living, on however micro- or macrocosmic a scale. Once the debt is paid, the karma exhausted, the months of winter turned, spring does come again. Or it comes anew, since it is not the same as the last one, nor will next year’s be this year’s come again.

This morning’s meeting was quite silent, except that at the last moment, before we shook hands, one of our oldest members stood, and spoke to the spring, and hens with new chicks, the opening of the narcissi, and the blackbirds singing early, when it was barely dawn. It could too easily be his last spring with us, and yet his joy was as clean and fresh as the morning itself, and it had hurt him to stand after an hour’s sitting. To see, and to speak with that washed vision near the end of a long life – that must be hope, or as Wendell Berry wrote:

This is no paradisal dream. Its hardship is its possibility.

Getting out of the way of the Light…

I’ve never been much of a one for age-specific activities, any more than I was even at school for gender specific ones (football and science for boys, hockey and typing for girls). But being retired does come with certain advantages, I suppose, provided that one has enough, one way or another, to keep a roof over one’s head and food on the table.

Simplicity, though, is perhaps one of the Quaker testimonies that seem more easily to open up to us as we grow older. I don’t quite know why that should be. Simplicity is paradoxically not always as simple as it should be either to explain or to put into practice. Quaker Faith & Practice 20.27 states:

The heart of Quaker ethics is summed up in the word ‘simplicity’. Simplicity is forgetfulness of self and remembrance of our humble status as waiting servants of God. Outwardly, simplicity is shunning superfluities of dress, speech, behaviour, and possessions, which tend to obscure our vision of reality. Inwardly, simplicity is spiritual detachment from the things of this world as part of the effort to fulfil the first commandment: to love God with all of the heart and mind and strength.

The testimony of outward simplicity began as a protest against the extravagance and snobbery which marked English society in the 1600s. In whatever forms this protest is maintained today, it must still be seen as a testimony against involvement with things which tend to dilute our energies and scatter our thoughts, reducing us to lives of triviality and mediocrity.

Simplicity does not mean drabness or narrowness but is essentially positive, being the capacity for selectivity in one who holds attention on the goal. Thus simplicity is an appreciation of all that is helpful towards living as children of the Living God.

(From: Faith and practice, North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), 1983)

To me, simplicity has come to mean more a way of getting out of the way of the Light than anything else. The heart’s freedom is the true place of simplicity; the way there varies as much as the people walking it, and in fact in this life we shall perhaps never achieve more than a degree of that freedom. To be content with that imperfection is a kind of simplicity in itself, for perfection is not I think a human attribute!

Continuing to read Quaker Faith & Practice…

We must be confident that there is still more ‘life’ to be ‘lived’ and yet more heights to be scaled. The tragedy of middle age is that, so often, men and women cease to press ‘towards the goal of their high calling’. They cease learning, cease growing; they give up and resign from life. As wisdom dawns with age, we begin to measure our experiences not by what life gives to us, not by the things withheld from us, but by their power to help us to grow in spiritual wisdom.

Evelyn Sturge, 1949 – Quaker Faith & Practice 21.45

Continuing to read Quaker Faith & Practice, we came across the passage above this morning. It struck us both that we have somehow come to think of things, all but unconsciously, not only in terms of “their power to help us to grow in spiritual wisdom”, but in terms of their power to impede our growth in spiritual wisdom.

You see, not only do we live, at least in this relatively wealthy country, surrounded by the pressure to accumulate, and to build on that accumulation with yet more layers, but what we accumulate begins to assert its own, almost spiritual, pressure. We are sold stuff; having stuff, we arrange our stuff; we clean it, insure it, protect it, upgrade it, replace it… That’s bad enough, but when we, as Quakers or merely as thoughtful people, come to realise this pernicious pattern, and simplify our lives, we can too easily find we have developed a new and potentially obsessive hobby – decluttering!

If in our efforts to simplify our lives we have achieved not simplicity, but another layer of complexity, surely we are confronted with yet another barrier to our spiritual growth. It would be easy, we realised, to come unstuck here. Jennifer Kavanagh, in her little book Simplicity Made Easy, remarks that:

To live a simple life is to experience life more fully, to live with enhanced intensity and freedom. It is not a deprivation but a joy.

An enforced austerity, or actions taken for reasons of observance to some externally imposed rule, can lead to a distorted view of what simplicity means… It can also lead to a mistaken concept of plainness. Among seventeenth-century North American Puritans, the pursuit of plainness for its own sake sometimes resulted in ugliness, meanness and mediocrity. Modern minimalism can be stark, hard, lacking the warmth of human connection.

But she goes on to say that,

Our response to the extreme consumerism of Western society does not need to be equally extreme. Excess is as much a danger in the inner life as in the outer. Moderation, a balance between less and more, unmeasurable and personal in its definition, is at the heart of simplicity. The important thing is to be true to our own life’s journey, open to the promptings of our own inner voice. There is no rule to adhere to; this is not a predictable path, with a predetermined end.  Allowing ourselves to be guided, letting go of goal-centred ambition, of the need to “arrive”, will take us to unexpected places.

Once again we are at the place of Isaac Penington’s “Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running…” (QFP 26.70) We cannot achieve this delicate, unmeasurable balance by thought and will. Only in the stillness of the open heart can we “allow… ourselves to be guided”; only in interior silence can we hear.

Words fall far short…

Whenever we are driven into the depths of our own being, or seek them of our own will, we are faced by a tremendous contrast. On the one side we recognise the pathetic littleness of our ephemeral existence, with no point or meaning in itself. On the other side, in the depth, there is something eternal and infinite in which our existence, and indeed all existence, is grounded. This experience of the depths of existence fills us with a sense both of reverence and of responsibility, which gives even to our finite lives a meaning and a power which they do not possess in themselves. This, I am assured, is our human experience of God.

John Macmurray, Quaker Faith & Practice 26.11

We have realised from the beginning, in our Meetings for Worship, that words fall far short of what is true, and that that Light, that Truth, can only be found, and allowed to hold us, and known, in silence. And yet we are human, and so words haunt us. We want to do things with what we experience, and so we name things about it, and pretend we can carry out operations on it, since we can construct sentences where the verbs act on the nouns we have employed – and there are other nouns too, to name ourselves, whom we dream are the ones doing the acting.

But we only dream. It is we who are done with. We are born, we grow, and we age and die, and none of us by taking thought can change anything about that. (Luke 12.25) All we can do is wait, and listen.

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.

Isaac Penington, 1661, in Quaker Faith and Practice 26.70

It only costs everything…

There is nothing to be renounced or resisted. Everything can be embraced, but the catch is to cling to nothing. You let it go. You go through life like a knife goes through a done cake, picking up nothing, clinging to nothing, sticking to nothing. And grounded in that fundamental chastity of your being, you can then throw yourself out, pour yourself out, being able to give it all back, even giving back life itself. Very, very simple. It only costs everything.

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus

On the face of it, this could seem almost self-delusory, characterising oneself, perhaps, as some kind of spiritual ninja. But it needs to be balanced by something else Cynthia Bourgeault once wrote:

Mercy is the length and breadth and height and depth of what we know of God—and the light by which we know it. You might even think of it as the Being of God insofar as we can possibly penetrate into it in this life, so that it is impossible to encounter God apart from the dimension of mercy.

The choice of term may seem a bit odd. Today “mercy”—along with so many other classic words in our spiritual tradition—has developed a negative connotation. It seems to suggest power and condescension, a transaction between two vastly unequal parties. A friend of mine, in fact, was told by her spiritual director that she should not pray the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” the mainstay of Eastern Orthodox contemplative spirituality—because “it reinforces medieval stereotypes of paternalism and powerlessness.” Modern people, this spiritual director felt, need to be told that they are worthy, “that they can stand on their own two feet before God.”

But the word “mercy” comes profoundly attested to in our Judeo-Christian spiritual heritage. Aside from the fact that the Jesus Prayer, hallowed by two millennia of Christian practice, has been consistently singled out… as the most powerful prayer a Christian can pray, we simply cannot get away from the Mercy without getting away from the Bible as well. The word confronts us at every turn, as a living reality of our faith…

From the outside, the Quaker way might seem to some to be inclined towards “stand[ing] on [our] own two feet before God” (something that has always seemed profoundly silly to me – I mean, have you ever glimpsed the living God in prayer or worship?) but consider this from one of our founders, George Fox, writing in 1652:

Friends, whatever ye are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then you are gone. Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and then doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the Light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes.

You will see that Fox is saying something very similar to Cynthia Bourgeault’s first passage. Content comes not in rejecting, or attempting to drive away our temptations – whether from the world around us, or from our own hungry hearts – but from surrendering to God in the midst of them. Perfectly simple, only “costing not less than everything” as Eliot says at the very end of Four Quartets:

Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.