Category Archives: Spirit

Back to the North

I sometimes think that many of the so-called mistakes in our lives, the errors and wrong turnings, are allowed (at least) by the Spirit working in our hearts to bring us to where God can heal us, restore us and turn our steps back to the true North. Yes, it is true that at times these wrong turnings may bring us to where we may find great pain and loss, where dreams and ambitions may come to nothing; but sometimes physical healing may first necessitate surgery!

John O’Donohue wrote (thanks to Barbara for the quote):

One of the qualities that you can develop, particularly in your older years, is a sense of great compassion for yourself. When you visit the wounds within the temple of memory, you should not blame yourself for making bad mistakes that you greatly regret. Sometimes you have grown unexpectedly through these mistakes. Frequently, in a journey of the soul, the most precious moments are the mistakes. They have brought you to a place that you would otherwise have always avoided. You should bring a compassionate mindfulness to your mistakes and wounds.

This is not a new idea. Throughout the Psalms there are hints, and more than hints, of this possibility, but it finds its clearest expression in Psalm 119. For instance, (Psalm 119:67,71 NIV) “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word… It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.”

I have found that these Spirit surgeries are very often mercifully hidden from us at the time. Perhaps we could not cope with the truth of them; perhaps the knowledge might allow us to avoid the error, and hence the healing also. We cannot know. But that unknowing may be a part of the process itself. Ecclesiastes 11:5 reads, “As you do not know the path of the wind, or know how life enters the body being formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.” Proverbs 20:24 is even more pointed: “A person’s steps are directed by the LORD. How then can anyone understand their own way?”

Further on in the passage Barbara quotes, O’Donohue suggests revisiting the remembered time and finding again the state of mind (“inhabit the rhythm” he says) but for myself I am not sure of this. Too easily I become caught up, going back obsessively like a man picking at an old scar. For me, it is the Spirit’s leading that is everything. In prayer, especially in a contemplative or other prayer form that allows space for the Spirit to move freely – and this is one of the great benefits of Quaker worship – the Spirit can bring us directly into whatever anamnesis will contribute immediately to our healing, and perhaps more, to our self-forgiveness.

James Nayler is often remembered among Friends for all the wrong reasons, but some of his later writings were among the most beautiful and most powerful of early Quaker texts. He touched keenly upon just what we are considering here:

Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee. Art thou wounded in conscience? Feed not there, but abide in the Light which leads to Grace and Truth, which teaches to deny, and puts off the weight, and removes the cause, and brings saving health to Light. (Quaker faith & practice 21.65)

But perhaps the best words to end with are Barbara’s own, from the conclusion of her own post:

We are poor sods just trying to find our way home, after all. Let’s forgive ourselves and cast ourselves into that Ocean of Mercy held out to us.

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

The Action of Prayer

…[W]e have been looking at making action more contemplative, finding a contemplative dimension in our actions. But there is a real sense in which prayer is itself an action, an action whose fruit and extent cannot be measured or assessed; its ways are secret, not only secret from others but also secret from ourselves. The greater part of the fruit of our prayer and contemplation remains hidden with Christ in God.

The autobiography of St Therese of Lisieux culminates in a celebration of this power of prayer: she compares it to the lever of Archimedes which is able to raise up the world… This power of active contemplation belongs to every Christian, is realised in every Christian who participates in the fullness of the Christian vocation…

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

I was so pleased to discover Sister Mary David’s comments here. As I have proved on this blog over the years, it is hard to write of the life of prayer without seeming to assume a kind of sanctity or something which I most definitely lack, or without seeming (as sometimes in a Quaker context!) to be making excuses for not getting out there in the real world among the muck and brass of politics and protest. But there really is more to it than that.

The problem seems often to be that when writing of spiritual realities one is simply dealing with things that cannot be proved or demonstrated. The life of the spirit is not like that. When George Fox wrote, “and this I knew experimentally”, he didn’t mean that he had tested his propositions according to the scientific method: he meant that he had experienced the presence and guidance of Christ directly.

I am coming more and more, exponentially really, to discover that persisting in surrendering myself to God in prayer is the centre of all that I am called to do. But in order to do this without coming apart, as it were, I do need to be part of a eucharistic community, in literal fact. Just as the life of prayer opens one “to the effective, invisible power of God”, the Eucharist is the making of that power real in a way that the heart can rely on, rest in, be fed by. Besides,

The liturgy is a great school of prayer. It is part of the environment of prayer and can provide the structured means by which a prayerful life is supported. We are initiated into prayer by the prayers, psalms, hymns of the Church, the Mass of each day, the great poem of the liturgy which spreads itself throughout the year. The Liturgy of the Hours has been compared to a drip putting a steady flow of nutrient into a person’s system.

ibid.

Without this environment, this structure of support, this continual nourishment I am in danger of drying up. Practically, something must be done. I have at times described myself as “Quanglican”; it is becoming urgent that I put that into practice as a regular way of life, rather than as an occasional refreshment. What this will look like in practical terms I am not yet certain. I do know that, for me, it is fast becoming an indissoluble part of the surrender to which I seem to find myself increasingly to be called.

[First published on The Mercy Blog]

Trikaya

I have been conscious for a long time (a really long time – I read DT Suzuki’s Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist in the early 1970s) of parallels between mystical Christianity and the Buddhist way, especially the Shin path of Pure Land Buddhism.

Recently, though, I’ve come again to look at the Buddhist doctrine of Trikaya, the doctrine that says that a Buddha has three kāyas or bodies: the Dharmakāya or Truth body which embodies the very principle of enlightenment and knows no limits or boundaries; the Sambhogakāya or body of spiritual experience which is a body of bliss or manifestation of clear light; and the Nirmāṇakāya or created body which manifests in time and space.

Obviously there is an immediate parallel here with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, which can be understood, from a mystical Christian perspective at any rate, as God the Father, the Ground of Being, uncreated and unknowable isness; God the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, spiritual counsellor or guide, who inspired the Scriptures, and still speaks in ministry and in spiritual gifts; and God the Son, the indwelling Christ, present in all who live, and most fully seen in Jesus of Nazareth.

It used to the fashionable, when I first began to read about these things, to caution the novice against too facile an equivalence between Trikaya and Trinity; but these days interfaith scholars seem more open to the idea. Similarly, many writers seemed to look askance at drawing parallels between one tradition’s practice and another’s, yet today there seems to be much more openness to these insights. Around ten years ago now, I think, I had an email correspondence with a Pure Land Buddhist leader in this country, in which we both recognised the close parallels, in practice and in intent, between the Nembutsu and the Jesus Prayer.

We have much more to learn from each other, I suspect, we of the Christian mystical tradition and we others of the Buddha’s path. Liberal Quakers have long been open to the striking parallels between Quaker activism and Engaged Buddhism; perhaps there are more connections to be made still, in the matters like practice (I have written more here, among other posts) and mystical theology. After all, our action, if it is to be right action, grows out of our practice; our practice does not exist merely to fuel our activism, as I’ve discussed here and elsewhere. I’m looking forward to reading more about, and looking further into the practice of, our sisters and brothers on the way…

Drift lines

It is just over a week ago now that I had a cardiac procedure carried out at the Dorset County Hospital, which by great good fortune is just across the road from us, and has an excellent cardiology unit. I was able very carefully to go to meeting last Sunday, feeling tired and somewhat battered, but already in better health than I had been for a long time.

I have written elsewhere about the liminality inherent in life itself. Sitting in meeting last Sunday it came to me that I was conscious of this in a new way now. I had heard on Saturday that a Friend from our previous Area Meeting, a man I had felt close to since being one of his visitors when he applied for membership some years ago, had just died from precisely the condition for which I’d been treated.

Richard Rohr once wrote, in a slightly different context,

The edge of things is a liminal space – a very sacred place where guardian angels are especially available and needed. The edge is a holy place, or as the Celts called it, “a thin place” and you have to be taught how to live there. To take your position on the spiritual edge of things is to learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return. It is a prophetic position, not a rebellious or antisocial one. When you live on the edge of anything with respect and honour, you are in a very auspicious position. You are free from its central seductions, but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways.

Margery Abbott, in her excellent Pendle Hill Pamphlet Quaker Views on Mysticism, writes, 

…mysticism as known within the Society of Friends is our awareness of (or belief in) God’s presence, individually and in the corporate Meeting for Worship, an awareness that results in a changed perception of the world and a willingness to be guided by the Spirit, the Inward Light, the Christ Within. Quakerism is strongly prophetic – it is about listening for that which is eternal and bringing the divine word to the world.

We are liminal creatures, we humans; the difference between us is never so much a difference in liminality as it is a difference in our awareness of it. Over recent months I have been blessed to see this liminality for myself with a new clarity and immediacy. Our lives here seem so all or nothing to us, so identified with who we are, that we forget we live on the shoreline of something so much deeper and wider than we have imagined, the ground of all that has been made. We are just beachcombers, really, walking the drift lines amid the seaglass and old lumber, dazed and entranced by a light we cannot understand.

Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 12

Loving care is not something that those sound in mind and body ‘do’ for others but a process that binds us together. God has made us loving and the imparting of love to another satisfies something deep within us. It would be a mistake to assume that those with outwardly well-organised lives do not need assistance. Many apparently secure carers live close to despair within themselves. We all have our needs…

To be without an ordained clergy is not to be without either leadership or ministry. The gifts of the Spirit to us include both. For us, calls to particular ministries are usually for a limited period of time, and those gifts pertain to the task rather than the person. In one lifetime a person may be called to a number of ministries…

With our structure, we risk failures in understanding and transmitting our tradition, and failures in pastoral care. We do not always adequately support one another. When we appoint people to carry out tasks for us, there is a danger of approaching this in too secular a way… We can and must pray for them to receive the necessary gifts and strength from the Spirit.

Quaker Faith & Practice 12.0112.03

Coming, as Susan and I did last year, from an area meeting with traditional roles for elders and overseers, into one where corporate eldership and oversight are practised, brings an oddly different perspective. These words carry greater weight than they appeared to when I first read them, and the sense that one needs to be faithful to one’s own gifts is that much keener. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” (1 Corinthians 12.4-6)

I am only just beginning to learn what it means to share the responsibilities of eldership and oversight as a community. The process is one of continual learning, of building upon lived experience: we are not working towards a time when arrangements are settled, and Friends can sit back and let things progress along well-worn tracks. Each of us must watch for the others, as we are watched for ourselves. Only the Light can show each of us where the path is taking us, and this calls for faith. Change and uncertainty are all we can be sure of, and we rely on the Spirit, rather than tradition, or on the structures of our roles and responsibilities.

Change and uncertainty extend too to the words we use to describe our journey to ourselves and to each other. One of the glories of being human seems to be our uniqueness, the quality we share with all creatures of being individually different though recognisably members of the same species. If we are faithful to our defining Quaker insight of “that of God” in each of us, we will have to recognise that our perceptions and experiences of that will be as various as the people who have them. As Zélie Gross writes,

The way forward lies in having confidence in our ability to to live creatively with difference and to learn from it, which is a much more resilient and enduring kind of strength.

The role of eldership in building confidence will be to encourage a spirit of respect for people’s own experience and their genuine concern to find the language that embodies it. Friends from anywhere on the spectrum of belief or spiritual understanding can feel marginalised and not heard in a meeting where discussion feels too risky or it takes place in private corners only between people of like mind…

Where pastoral and spiritual care are shared across the meeting, as in ours, there is at least the potential, given sufficient faith and courage among Friends, for this kind of creative living to be grow and be nurtured, rather than depending upon the gift of open-mindedness in one or a few Friends in particular roles.

Living by faith is a great adventure, possibly the adventure of being human; and though we may be called to do things as apparently absurd as walking on water, the Spirit is faithful, and will, if we trust, lead us precisely as we come to “know one another better in things that are eternal as in things that are temporal.” (OFP 3.02)

Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 10

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.

London Yearly Meeting, 1986 – Quaker Faith & Practice 10.05

Coming a year ago into an area meeting where eldership and oversight are handled corporately, from one where the traditional roles are maintained, my eyes have been opened in many ways, not least to the differing ministries within a local meeting. We’re not all the same, nor should we expect others, or ourselves, to be the same. As the apostle Paul wrote of the 1st century church, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.” (1 Corinthians 12.4) Strangely perhaps, this fact seems clearer, more sharply defined, when Friends are acting in cooperation as they are led, than when they are working within roles defined by tradition, or by the vision of a nominations committee.

There are many ministries, though, as this section from QFP explains, not only the ones that belong to the office of clerk, elder, overseer, treasurer or whoever. Sometimes the Spirit’s leading seems to be reflected in the very character of a Friend called to a particular ministry: the love that underlies pastoral care, the courage of one who speaks truth to power, the stillness and vulnerability behind the call to prayer. What’s needed, it seems, is the sensitivity to recognise these things in the lives of Friends around us, and the humility to accept their recognition of them in ourselves!

I’ve written at some length about ministry in the sense of words, vocal or written, elsewhere in this blog. It’s interesting, as I mentioned there,  that I found it a surprise when a Friend pointed out this blog as a ministry of my own. I hadn’t thought of it like that before, but obviously she was right. Our ministries may be many diverse things. The role of warden or resident Friend, doorkeeper, librarian. Someone who listens. A giver of lifts to frail Friends. The one who rarely if ever stands to give ministry, or gets involved in committees, but in whose silence the whole meeting is held, and by whose prayer it is helped to keep faithful to what the Light uncovers…

I remember reading this passage when I was very first considering becoming a Quaker, and thinking that if this were lived out in practice, what a very good place a Quaker meeting would be. And it is, by and large. Friends do seem to live these things out, often in the quietest and least obvious of ways, despite, or at times because of, the occasional difficulties that may arise. Perhaps I’m not often enough, or sufficiently, grateful that this is so.