Category Archives: Stillness

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]

 

The Language of the Heart

We are creatures of the word, we humans. We know ourselves by our names first of all, and our least thought comes ready dressed in words. And yet it is in silence that we draw close to God, becoming open in the stillness to the presence that is always with us, nearer than our own breathing.

The apostle John wrote,

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, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

John 1.1-4 NRSV

In contemplative prayer, we drop below the threshold of thought, and yet words remain, perhaps reflections of the words we have spoken since we learned to speak. The stream of consciousness passes, glittering with words, fragments of thoughts, commentary, witterings. How hard it is not to look, not to be caught by the glittering surfaces that flicker past. This is why, in Centering Prayer, in Christian Meditation, above all in the Jesus Prayer, it is words (or a word) themselves that are used to still the twinkling stream.

But why would that work?

It seems to me that there are two kinds of language, at least as they are at work here: the language of thoughts, and the language of the heart. There is a phrase often used in the literature around the Jesus Prayer, “Keep the mind in the heart before God.” This does not mean “get out of your mind and into your emotions” – anything but. As Cynthia Bourgeault writes,

According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality, emerging from some unknown profundity, which plays lightly upon the surface of this life without being caught there: a world where meaning, insight, and clarity come together in a whole different way. Saint Paul talked about this other kind of perceptivity with the term “faith” (“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” [Hebrews 11.1 KJV]), but the word “faith” is itself often misunderstood by the linear mind. What it really designates is not a leaping into the dark (as so often misconstrued) but a subtle seeing in the dark, a kind of spiritual night vision that allows one to see with inner certainty that the elusive golden thread glimpsed from within actually does lead somewhere.

So, in placing the attention into the field of these words, whether the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, or intent that underlies the chosen “sacred word” of centering prayer, the words themselves, as the means of attention in fact, descend quite naturally and peacefully into the heart.

This, of course, explains why those who practice the Jesus Prayer so often continue to use the terminal words a sinner (they are omitted in some versions), for it is, at least in my experience, only in repentance that the heart is purified sufficiently so to be blessed.

The great spiritual directors of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have explained in figurative language how the structure of the human soul enables the mind to be drawn upwards (the will consenting) to its own apex, at which point it comes into contact and communion with God’s descending Spirit. This “apex”, which can equally well be described as the “centre”, is that “place of the heart” wherein we dwell in the state of prayer. To enter that state it is necessary for the heart to be purified by repentance (represented in the baptism of Jesus by John), so that it may reflect, as in a clear mirror, the Holy Light that pours on it from above. Then, by God’s mercy, the soul will, in the course of time, in this life or in some other dimension as yet unknown, become so perfectly commingled with that Light that, as Julian says, there will seem to be no difference – although there must still remain a clear distinction – between the reflection and its heavenly Source.

Lois Lang-Sims, The Mind in the Heart – Thoughts on Prayer

All this sounds perhaps either dry and academic, or mystical to the point of dottiness, depending on the point of view of the reader! But it is a simple thing really. The Jesus Prayer, like the nembutsu, is a prayer for simple people.

Mystical experience, the direct, unmediated encounter with God central to Quaker worship, and to all contemplative prayer, is not a strange or technical exercise, reserved for professional clergy or vowed monastics, but an ordinary, straightforward thing common to our identity as human beings. There is, after all, that of God in each of us: all that is necessary is to become aware of it, and somehow to live within that awareness, which is all that the phrase “the mind in the heart” is trying to say, really.

 

The Desert in the City

Micah Bales has an interesting blog post, published today, entitled Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?

He writes:

Can a desert spirituality emerge in the midst of daily life, work, and family? What can I do to cultivate this kind of presence, awareness, awokeness? … Perhaps, like the 4th-century desert fathers, we can find a community of prayer in the midst of our spiritual wilderness.

For me, the best introduction by far to the subject of desert spirituality is Rowan Williams’ Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the DesertDiscussing the often misunderstood theme of flight into the desert, he says:

Certainly the desert monks and nuns are in flight from the social systems of their day, from the conformity and religious mediocrity of what they find elsewhere. But they are clearly not running away from responsibility or from relationships; everything we have so far been considering underlines that they are entering into a more serious level of responsibility for themselves and others and that their relationships are essential to the understanding of their vocation.

The desert nun did not grant herself the luxury of evading her own or the world’s problems simply by running away, nor by immersion in human company and conviviality. It was the direct encounter with God in prayer that was the heart of her vocation.

Micah Bales wrote, in another recent post, of the necessity to be prepared to “like Jesus… let go of every guarantee, every promise – even the promise of God’s presence and protection – in order to live in the naked reality of God’s kingdom.” It is this encounter with naked reality, I believe, that lies at the heart of the desert vocation, as it does at the heart of the original Quaker vocation, as Isaac Penington explained:

The sum and substance of true religion doth not stand in getting a notion of Christ’s righteousness, but in feeling the power of endless life, receiving the power, and being changed by the power. And where Christ is, there is his righteousness.

For myself, the answer is always found in prayer and stillness. I cannot ever begin with thought, or with my own emotional reaction to a situation, or to another’s words, or I am lost before I begin. (Incidentally, this is I think where political debate so often goes wrong!) When we fall silent before God, knowing our own unknowing, our own inability to say or do anything from a pure heart, then we are in position at last to recognise the truth of Thomas R Kelly’s words:

In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.

Our lives as Friends, or indeed as anyone who attempts to live out the contemplative life, will tend inevitably towards the desert, it seems to me. The more we place stillness at the centre of not only our worship, but of our own prayer, the more open we are to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. Meister Eckhart put it best, as I quoted, via Barbara Brown Taylor, yesterday:

Leave place, leave time,
Avoid even image!
Go forth without a way
On the narrow path,
Then you will find the desert track.

Keeping still

For the last week – well, if I am honest, for the last several weeks – I have struggling with an inner disquiet, an inability to escape memories and experiences going back thirty years or more that have returned again and again to cast a shadow over the present, and in some sense still to exert over it some kind of control. As this week wore on it came to me at last that, despite all that I have written here and elsewhere, all I’ve taught and spoken of, I have consistently tried to oppose these relived memories, nightmares and conditioned reflexes with my own will and reason. I think somehow I may have been content to leave many other things in God’s hands; but on this, my trust has not been enough, or perhaps I have simply thought that it was my responsibility to sort out what I had allowed so long ago. At the end of my own resources, finally, I gave up. I lay down in stillness in the middle of the day, looking to Christ in my heart; I fell asleep, and awoke at peace. I suppose that I had in plain fact come to that place the apostle Paul wrote of:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Romans 8.26-27 NIV

This morning, the Friend whose turn it was to read from Advices and queries shared a brief ministry to go with her reading of:

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

She spoke of the need for trust; that it is God who leads, and God who makes whole. Somehow her words, and the sense of their weight in her own life, closed the circle for me of this week’s culminating surrender to God.

It is stillness, once again, at the heart of this. Without stillness, our hearts are closed to the promptings of love and truth. It was William Leddra, the Quaker martyr of Barbados, who wrote:

Stand still, and cease from thine own working, and in due time thou shalt enter into the rest, and thy eyes shall behold his salvation, whose testimonies are sure, and righteous altogether.

In even the darkness, there is a gift God has, but we must keep very still to receive it. In her wonderful book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes of Jesus in prayer:

“The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction,” wrote the 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart:

Leave place, leave time,
Avoid even image!
Go forth without a way
On the narrow path,
Then you will find the desert track.

According to the Gospels, Jesus knew that track well. He made a habit of sleeping outdoors under the stars – on a mountain, if he could find one. The fact that this is reported, more than once, without any further detail, suggests that he went alone.

When he took people with him, they usually had plenty to say about it afterwards, but no one has anything to say about what Jesus did on those nights alone. Even his famous forty days and nights in the wilderness pass without comment until they are over, which is when he and the devil sort out who works for whom.

When you put this together with the fact that God speaks to Jesus only once in the entire New Testament – shortly after he is baptised by John – it seems clear that this father and this son were not in constant public conversation. Their conversation was almost entirely private, when Jesus went out on the mountain to spend the night with God in prayer.

If Jesus was truly human, as Christians insist he was, his sleep architecture was like anyone else’s. He stayed awake awhile. He slept awhile. He woke awhile later, rested a few hours, then slept some more.

When he opened his eyes, he saw the night sky. When he closed them again, the sky stayed right there. The only witnesses to his most intimate moments with God were the moon and the stars – and it was all prayer.

Once again, Paul the apostle knew this, at least in spirit. After the two verses I quoted above comes one of his most remarkable statements:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Romans 8.28 NIV

Quietly. The heart is awake in moonlight, pure reflection.

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.

George Fox, 1652

Aerials for the Spirit

More than any other prayer, the Jesus Prayer aims at bringing us to stand in God’s presence with no other thought but the miracle of our standing there and God with us, because in the use of the Jesus Prayer there is nothing and no one except God and us.

The use of the prayer is dual, it is an act of worship as is every prayer, and on the ascetical level, it is a focus that allows us to keep our attention still in the presence of God.

It is a very companionable prayer, a friendly one, always at hand and very individual in spite of its monotonous repetitions. Whether in joy or in sorrow, it is, when it has become habitual, a quickening of the soul, a response to any call of God. The words of St Symeon, the New Theologian, apply to all its possible effects on us: ‘Do not worry about what will come next, you will discover it when it comes’.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, from The Orthodox Church of Estonia

These words from St Symeon have come to mean more to me, over the years, than I have often realised. My own spiritual path has not, on the face of it, been all that straightforward, though it does seem to have led with a kind of inevitability to the Quaker way. Since the summer of 1978, though, I have known, and (if not always too consistently) practiced the Jesus Prayer, and in a sense all the turns and apparent blind alleys of my journey have been its outworkings. Certainly, it has been at times of crisis that I have been most aware of clinging to the Prayer as to a liferaft, to carry me through the waves.

The early desert monastics were said to regard a monk away from his cell as being like a fish out of water, and yet few of us these days, in the West at least, appear to be called to this reclusiveness of life. Immersed in the world, we must pray where we find ourselves, and perhaps this is indeed our calling. Swept on the same floodwaters of change that carry us all, our prayer is more than a clinging. Embedded as we are in the common condition of humanity, of creation, our prayer becomes – sometimes despite ourselves – intercession. We become as it were aerials for the Spirit, receiving stations for grace that we may not even ourselves understand.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner…

Holding God fast…

Sometimes I believe that as Quakers we can tend to overthink things, things in our practice and procedures, in our response to politics, our response to other communities of faith. There are many possible reasons for this, and almost as many reasons why it’s one of the Quakerly traits I am most prone to living out myself. In the same way as our being of a certain age, and educational background, and, in some places at least, a certain race, it’s a self-perpetuating thing. Like attracts like, and is strengthened.

I don’t propose, though, to spend this blog post analysing Friends, nor even analysing myself, nor to spend it looking for reasons or excuses or corrections for this sometimes unhelpful tendency to subject everything to analysis. I want to call us home.

George Fox, as a young man, spent several years travelling through the East Midlands and the East and West Ridings of Yorkshire, and there he encountered religious groups of various kinds. You can read some of his journal entries in the first few sections of Quaker faith & practice Chapter 19. Fox spoke with priests, with separated preachers, and with “the most experienced among the dissenting people”, to paraphrase his own words, and heard many of their arguments and their learned disquisitions. He came close to despair, realising that,

there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [i.e. hinder] it? And this I knew experimentally.

Ofp 19.02

It is in this direct encounter with God, through this experimental faith, that our flustered, overburdened minds find rest. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote, “God can be held fast and loved by means of love, but by thought never.”

Cynthia Bourgeault writes,

“Love” is this author’s pet word for that open, diffuse awareness which gradually allows another and deeper way of knowing to pervade one’s entire being.

Out of my own three decades of experience in Centering Prayer, I believe that this “love” indeed has nothing to do with emotions or feelings in the usual sense of the word. It is rather the author’s nearest equivalent term to describe what we would nowadays call nondual perception anchored in the heart.

And he is indeed correct in calling it “love” because the energetic bandwidth in which the heart works is intimacy, the capacity to perceive things from the inside by coming into sympathetic resonance with them. Imagine! Centuries ahead of his time, the author is groping for metaphors to describe an entirely different mode of perceptivity.

Here is the key, I think, to our contemporary heart-searchings over theism and nontheism, Christian Quaker and universalist Quaker. If God is God, then by definition he is “beyond all definition of ours” (Samuel Fisher, 1661).

We are small and very temporary creatures on a small planet somewhere in the vast web of a universe thought to be in the region of 91 billion light-years in diameter, containing around 300 sextillion stars. How would we be able to hold in our dear and glittering minds the ground of all that being – and all that is, unimaginably, besides?

All we can do, it seems to me, is to keep silence, and wait. Only in the dark of that unknowing – that relinquishment of knowing – will come our own most real and lived experience, the presence and Light of that which is within and beyond us, as it is within and beyond all things. In itself it is No Thing, for it is without limit or beginning, and is not dependent; yet within it all things live, and move, and have their being – loved even, and held beyond time and distance.

All we can do is find some way – whether it be sinking down into the silence of our joined worship, down to the seed of which Isaac Penington spoke, or whether it be the a practice like watching the breath, centring prayer, or the Jesus Prayer or the Nembutsu – of ceasing to try and know or be or do anything, and let God’s Spirit come into the heart in God’s own time. All we can do is be still; all we can give is love.