Category Archives: Trust

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…

Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 25

All species and the Earth itself have interdependent roles within Creation. Humankind is not the species, to whom all others are subservient, but one among many. All parts, all issues, are inextricably intertwined. Indeed the web of creation could be described as of three-ply thread: wherever we touch it we affect justice and peace and the health of all everywhere. So all our testimonies, all our Quaker work, all our Quaker lives are part of one process, of striving towards a flourishing, just and peaceful Creation – the Kingdom of God.

Audrey Urry, 1994 – Qfp 25.04

The web of creation – all that is made – rests in God, as Julian of Norwich saw; or to put it less poetically and in a rather more stilted voice, existence itself in every particular, from the macro- to the microcosmic, rests on the ground of being from which it arose, and upon which it depends for its continued existence.

As Audrey Urry points out, “[a]ll parts, all issues, are inextricably intertwined.” We cannot change one part without affecting the whole, and, crucially, that from which it springs; truly to love one part requires a love that encompasses the whole, and that from which is springs.

This seems to me to be vitally important not only to understanding our place within creation, environment and society, and our potential for good and ill within that system, but also to understanding what is meant by the love of God. More than that, if offers a tantalising hint of how prayer might work: not perhaps in the crude notion of a Santa God dishing out pressies on request, and certainly not in the more modern Quaker sense of simply geeing ourselves up to increased political efforts, but in the sense that Michael Ramsey spoke of when he said that contemplative prayer “means essentially our being with God, putting ourselves in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart.”

All that is rests in the infinite isness of God – it must, else it could not exist – and hence each existence is connected, from the farthest astronomical phenomenon to the least subatomic particle, and all the planets and people and cows and bees and bacteria in between, by the zero point field of God’s presence. Our love, and its pain, as well as our joy and our hope, cannot but affect everything. How that then works out in practice, if “in practice” is a useful distinction in this context, is for us to wait to hear. The first of the Advices and queries sums that up:

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.

Advices & queries – reading Qfp Ch.1

Advices and queries are not a call to increased activity by each individual Friend but a reminder of the insights of the Society. Within the community there is a diversity of gifts. We are all therefore asked to consider how far the advices and queries affect us personally and where our own service lies. There will also be diversity of experience, of belief and of language. Friends maintain that expressions of faith must be related to personal experience. Some find traditional Christian language full of meaning; some do not. Our understanding of our own religious tradition may sometimes be enhanced by insights of other faiths. The deeper realities of our faith are beyond precise verbal formulation and our way of worship based on silent waiting testifies to this.

Our diversity invites us both to speak what we know to be true in our lives and to learn from others. Friends are encouraged to listen to each other in humility and understanding, trusting in the Spirit that goes beyond our human effort and comprehension. So it is for the comfort and discomfort of Friends that these advices and queries are offered, with the hope that we may all be more faithful and find deeper joy in God’s service.

Quaker faith & practice 1.01

Our regular reading of Advices & queries, privately and in meeting (Qfp 1.05) can sometimes seem to be one of those slightly quaint customs, held over from another time, that Quakers, like other religious groups, occasionally indulge in. But I find the generosity of these few words from the introduction touches, and somehow nourishes, something very deep in me. Our warmth and our openness as a church are somehow for me wrapped up in here, together with a recognition of our diversity of gifts and experience (1 Corinthians 12.4-6) that is vital for our understanding and support of each other in our meetings.

I wonder if, over this next month, I can allow myself to reread these Advices & queries yet again with fresh eyes, bringing them into my own “times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit?” (Qfp 1.02.3) I find it too easy to fall into each day without heart and mind truly prepared (Qfp 1.02.9), depending more on myself than on God’s guidance. Maybe what I am missing here, as so often, is too plain for me to see clearly? I hope I can simply and humbly – above all, humbly – let myself open to these little writings, taking heed, in their brief stillness, “to the promptings of love and truth in [my heart].” (Qfp 1.02.1)

Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Ch. 12 – final thoughts

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.

London Yearly Meeting, 1986 (QFP 12.02)

Elders have concern for the spiritual lives of our meetings and the individuals within them but because we are increasingly diverse in our communities and our beliefs, it is difficult to find a common language to express that spiritual life. That can result in silence, or a misconception that they are trying to impose an unacceptable system of belief…

Jenny Routledge, Living Eldership

If it is true the British Friends are more open (than other Christian communities) with our wondering and questioning, we can aspire for this to be true in each of our meetings. It will not help our meeting communities if Friends ignore or discourage discourse arising from questions about God. We have to make it possible for difference – even the kind that brings with it the risk of contention – to be explored, and to continue towards understanding…

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. If this is happening in our meeting, we will need to make opportunities for respectful and open sharing of religious experience and perspective, ensuring that Friends observe the discipline of listening with open hearts and minds.

Zélie Gross, With a Tender Hand

The ministry of eldership is a spiritual gift, a calling and a challenge. It is this gift and calling that we aim to recognise through the appointment of elders for our area meetings, but it can be received and exercised by anyone, whether or not they are formally appointed. It is the calling to make oneself available as a midwife to the soul, a mothering and fathering of the inner life of another person, through attentive and compassionate listening.

Craig Barnett, ‘Spiritual Eldership‘, on the Transition Quaker blog

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5.22-23

It is clear from these and many other passages that eldership, the care and nurture of the spiritual lives of our meetings and their members, is in itself a ministry of and in the Spirit. It can’t be anything else, or it will become an exercise in corporate self-defence, or damage limitation, and will end up hurting those it is intended to love and serve.

Love. Honestly it just seems to come down to love. Paul put love at the head of his list of spiritual fruit for a good reason – all the others seem to flow from, and depend upon, love. Perhaps the greatest act of love is to help someone to realise who they actually are, and that is a spiritual thing, since we are spiritual beings. In his first letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 13) Paul points out that whatever we try to do, if we do not have love, we will achieve nothing.

It sounds so simple… I think I sometimes forget that Paul lists love as a fruit of the Spirit. It is only in resting in the Spirit, soaking up the Spirit in worship and in our own practice, that love will come to heal and renew all our relations. Only by accepting that we do not know can we come to hear what the Spirit is saying. As Jennifer Kavanagh wrote, “We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience.” To bring our unknowing into the field of the Spirit in worship and prayer is to become open, open as Isaac Penington describes:

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.

QFP 26.70

Surely all we can do as elders (and we are all elders in meeting!) comes from this, and comes down to this, really. To show this as love is all we can hope to do, it seems to me.

Art thou in the Darkness?

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.

James Nayler, Quaker Faith & Practice 21.65

There are so many signs of the Darkness surrounding us today, just as there were surrounding James Nayler in middle of the 17th century. Nayler and his contemporaries faced extreme political instability, three successive civil wars followed not ten years later by the beginning of the English Restoration, religious unrest and persecution on a scale not seen before or since in England, news of the Great Plagues moving across Europe and Ireland (London was not stricken in fact until five years after Nayler’s death), and a justice system so fragmented and damaged by political, ecclesial and mob unrest as to be entirely unfit for purpose. I need not list our present woes, of which climate change is perhaps the greatest worry: it is necessary only to glance at any news website to get the sense of threat and horror that hangs over the world, and which is stoked daily by media hungry for the sales, viewers and hits afforded by this age of increasingly desperate anxiety.

Only last year I wrote, “We so often feel that we are indeed in darkness in these days of crisis after crisis, of instability in the world and injustice at home, so that we feel keeping still to be a grave dereliction of duty, so that we must exhaust ourselves in frantic doing lest we betray those in more need than ourselves.”

But we are more than fear and politics. If we fail to allow ourselves our own humanity then our efforts at self preservation, whether on the personal or the global scale, will be futile, for there will be nothing worth preserving. In the end, our resulting psychoses may themselves destroy us; perhaps, with ISIS on the one hand, and the Trumptonisation of the USA on the other, we are already beginning to feel the symptoms.

In issue 16 of Nautilus magazine, Daniel A Gross discusses the biological necessity of silence for the human organism, and records that “[in] 2011, the World Health Organization tried to quantify its health burden in Europe. It concluded that the 340 million residents of western Europe – roughly the same population as that of the United States – annually lost a million years of healthy life because of noise. It even argued that 3,000 heart disease deaths were, at their root, the result of excessive noise.” He concludes, “Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in. That’s the power of silence.”

Caroline Graveson wrote, just before the Second World War,

There is, it sometimes seems, an excess of religious and social busyness these days, a round of committees and conferences and journeyings, of which the cost in ‘peaceable wisdom’ is not sufficiently counted. Sometimes we appear overmuch to count as merit our participation in these things…

To read good literature, gaze on natural beauty, to follow cultivated pursuits until our spirits are refreshed and expanded, will not unfit us for the up and doing of life, whether of personal or church affairs. Rather will it help us to separate the essential from the unessential, to know where we are really needed and get a sense of proportion. We shall find ourselves giving the effect of leisure even in the midst of a full and busy life. People do not pour their joys or sorrows into the ears of those with an eye on the clock.

As James Nayler pointed out, to fix our eyes, and the focus of our hearts, on the threat and horror which surrounds us, and on our own perceived failings in duty as we are confronted with its implicit, if rarely explicit, demands on us, rather than on “the Light which leads to Grace and Truth,” will only fill us with the darkness which we so rightly fear. Surely it is only as we trust ourselves and each other to “stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead [us]” that we shall truly perceive our leading, and whatever our hand finds to do will be done not in anxiety but in love.

Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 11

When early Friends affirmed the priesthood of all believers it was seen as an abolition of the clergy; in fact it is an abolition of the laity. All members are part of the clergy and have the clergy’s responsibility for the maintenance of the meeting as a community. This means contributing, in whatever ways are most suitable, to the maintenance of an atmosphere in which spiritual growth and exploration are possible for all. It means contributing to the meeting, in whatever ways are right for the individual, by giving time and energy to events and necessary tasks, and also being willing to serve on various regional or yearly meeting committees and other groups. There is a special expectation that Friends attending meetings for church affairs will benefit from working together under Quaker discipline on the decisions that need to be made. Membership also entails a financial commitment appropriate to a member’s means, for without money neither the local meeting nor the wider structure can function.

Membership does not require great moral or spiritual achievement, but it does require a sincerity of purpose and a commitment to Quaker values and practices. Membership is a spiritual discipline, a commitment to the well-being of one’s spiritual home and not simply appearance on a membership roll. The simple process of becoming a member is part of the spiritual journey: part of the seeking that is so integral to our religious heritage. The process of becoming a member is not only about seeking but also about finding.

The process is an important part of the life of the area meeting, too; accepting a new member means not only welcoming the ‘hidden seed of God’ but also affirming what it is as a community that we value and cherish. Quakers once called themselves ‘Friends in the Truth’ and it is the finding of this truth that we affirm when we accept others who value it into membership.

From QFP 11.01

I’ve read this often enough before, but for some reason the words “abolition of the laity” just leapt out at me when I began reading this chapter as part of the project. Of course! This is the key to understanding Quaker worship, and more than that, the key to understanding how corporate eldership and oversight can work. If there is no laity, then we are all priests, and are all responsible for each others’ growth, healing and care. This is love in practice, and if we do carry the pastoral and formative responsibility, each for the other, then our community is indeed a Society of Friends.

Working this out, of course, is less easy. I am only gradually learning what it means not to depend upon appointed elders and overseers, as we did in our previous area meeting, but to share these responsibilities as a community. I am coming to realise that in a sense, especially as regards eldership, we are all learning, and will continue to learn, as long as the system is in place. There can be no destination, no time when arrangements are settled, and Friends can sit back and let things be dealt with. Each of us must watch for the others, as we are watched for ourselves. Only the Light can illuminate things for each of us, and this is a tremendous risk to take. We are called to walk out every week, every day on the waters of change and uncertainty, with only our sense of being called to sustain us.

How are we to be faithful to such a call? Jennifer Kavanagh once wrote, “Faith is not about certainty, but about trust…” Somehow once again it comes down to the experimental (in both the modern, and the 17th century “experiential” senses of the word) nature of our faith – as Charles F Carter put it:

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

Sisters and Brothers in Peace

Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

Advices & Queries 7

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been feeling a little disconnected from my Quaker meeting recently. Partly I think it has been because of my own rootedness within the hesychast tradition of prayer, and partly because of my (quite unsought) rediscovery of the Bible as one of the motors of my own spirituality. I am a Christian, open as I may be to new light from whatever source, and despite the strength of my tenderness for Buddhist teaching and practice, especially within the Pure Land tradition, and there have been times when I have grown to feel somewhat uncomfortable among Friends due to the strength of some currents in what Craig Barnett called “the identity politics game of ‘theists and nontheists’.”

As Craig went on say, though:

Anyone who is open to the possibility of encounter with some kind of reality beyond our own thoughts and opinions can enter into Quaker worship expecting to be changed, challenged and illuminated by a reality that is outside our control. Such an encounter may expand our understanding of reality, so that new words and images become meaningful to us. We don’t need to confine ourselves to narrow identity categories that exclude the possibility of change and growth. We simply need to be willing to meet whatever face of God is presented to us, to welcome and respond to it, and to listen and learn from the very different experiences of others.

Quaker worship, distinctive though it may be, does not stand alone as a discovery out of nothing sometime in the 17th century, but is part of a long tradition of direct encounter with God common to mystical Christianity as well as to other religions with currents of mystical experience and practice within their own paths. In our own time this tradition continues in many places other than Quakers meetings. It was Mother Teresa who said,

In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.

And yet, as it was borne in upon me in meeting this morning, there is something unique about Quakerism. What we have embarked on together is a radical, at times desperate, endeavour based simply in trust in God, and in the processes we as Quakers have over the years developed together. There is nothing else: no liturgy, no readings from Scripture, no sacraments other than this sitting together in silence, and the life that flows from that. The fellowship, the Friendship, that follows is so precious a thing that, if we let it, it can transcend all our differences in background, in language, in expression. This being sisters and brothers in peace and in silence together is what we are as Quakers – all we say and do must flow from this. Coming up to Yearly Meeting we are asked think of what spiritual preparation we might undertake. For me, perhaps this is a start…