Category Archives: Truth

One Yellow Door

I’ve taken the unusual (for me!) step of writing a post to introduce a new website, One Yellow Door, because I feel the site, and its founder, are doing something irreplaceable in an country too little explored, but too often travelled in pain and darkness, without maps. One Yellow Door has been set up so that visitors can contribute if they have faced the challenges of looking after a loved one, or have struggled with making sense of faith in the light of their experiences. It’s a place where we can support one another and share insights.

The founder, Rebecca de Saintonge, is a Quaker, co-founder of LifeLines Press, a biographer, editor and mentor to new writers.

For many years an investigative journalist with the BBC and Granada Television, she specialised in programmes on social justice, the penal system and religious affairs. She has also written for a number of publications including The Times, The Telegraph, The Weekend Guardian, The Independent and Third Way.

Her book, One Yellow Door , from which the site takes its name, is a story of love and suffering, and survival; but it is also an exploration of faith. How does a traditional faith stand up in the face of such suffering? Hers did not, but years after her husband’s death she discovered a new, deeper spirituality. Getting in touch with these liberating ways of interpreting the Christian message, and with other people who asked similar questions, was a revelation. It was freedom.

As well as contributions from Rebecca herself, and from many others, the site contains an invaluable collection of resources from which to begin exploring a more radical approach to Christian spirituality.

 

On Politics and Prayer – Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 23

We know that Jesus identified himself with the suffering and the sinful, the poor and the oppressed. We know that he went out of his way to befriend social outcasts. We know that he warned us against the deceitfulness of riches, that wealth and great possessions so easily come between us and God, and divide us from our neighbours. The worship of middle-class comfort is surely a side-chapel in the temple of Mammon. It attracts large congregations, and Friends have been known to frequent it. We know that Jesus had compassion on the multitude and taught them many things concerning the Kingdom. He respected the common folk, appealed to them and was more hopeful of a response from them than from the well-to-do, the clever and the learned. Yet he never flattered the workers, never fostered in them feelings of envy and hatred, and never urged them to press for their own interests ruthlessly and fight the class war to the finish. He called them to love their enemies and to pray for them that despitefully use them. Yet the very fact that he appealed to the humble and meek leads up to … ‘the discovery that the blessing and upraising of the masses are the fundamental interest of society’. In brief, he makes us all ashamed that we are not all out in caring for our fellow-men.

H G Wood, 1958 – Quaker Faith & Practice 23.03

I sometimes think that in our zeal for activism, in our “[r]emember[ing of our] responsibility as citizens for the government of [our] town and country” (QFP 23.01) we run the risk that all politicians run, of flattering, of fostering feelings of envy and hatred – for it is all too often on such emotions that political campaigns are run.

As Quakers concerned deeply with our testimony to equality, it seems to me that we need always to keep in mind the testimonies to integrity and peace also, and that can be hard to do when we are cut to the heart by some injustice or cruelty. I’m really grateful, at times like this, to be reminded, as this passage from QFP reminds us, of Jesus’ call to love our enemies, and to pray for them.

My own awareness of my imperfection, of the dark shadow of bitter emotions I share with all who are human, gives me at least a place to start loving those I find it so hard to love; yet love them I must, unless I am to contribute my own share to the violence and grief of the world.

Of course I then come all too soon to the question that so often troubles me: what on earth do I pray for? I cannot know in detail how to solve the social and political issues facing the country. But in a way this unknowing may be at the heart of prayer itself – an advantage, almost. Prayer is not a list of demands we make of God, as if such a thing were possible. Prayer, as Michael Ramsey wrote, is “being with God, putting [myself] 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.”

Quietly drawing close to God, accepting my own blurred awareness of how far we all are from truly living by the testimonies to equality and peace, and holding that in the light and the love that God is, is all I can do. What God may call me to do under more immediate circumstances I have not yet seen; I can only hope that if so, I will be able to offer at least something, in love.

Keep calm and read Quaker Faith & Practice

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… At least we ought to make sure that we sacrifice our leisure for something worthy. True leisureliness is a beautiful thing and may not lightly be given away. Indeed, it is one of the outstanding and most wonderful features of the life of Christ that, with all his work in preaching and healing and planning for the Kingdom, he leaves behind this sense of leisure, of time in which to pray and meditate, to stand and stare at the cornfields and fishing boats, and to listen to the confidences of neighbours and passers-by…

Most of us need from time to time the experience of something spacious or space-making, when Time ceases to be the enemy, goad-in-hand, and becomes our friend. 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.

Caroline C Graveson, 1937 – Quaker Faith & Practice 21.22

From October 2015, Quakers in Britain are invited to read and reflect on one or two chapters a month of Quaker Faith and Practice, either by themselves or in groups, face to face or online, so that as a Religious Society we can better know our tradition and journey as a people of faith. For the inaugural month we are invited to read Chapter 21.

Mark Daniel Russ, of Jolly Quaker (one of my favourite Quaker blogs), has a Ffriendly video introduction to this practice on his blog, which I’d encourage you to watch. I thought I’d have a go myself, and I found Caroline Graveson’s passage spoke immediately to the sense I often have of people of faith today becoming so caught up in the many, and often conflicting, demands of activism that they lose sight of that divine encounter that drew them into the Light in the first place, and become consumed with guilt that they are not doing more and yet more for whichever cause happens to be calling loudest at the moment. As Caroline Graveson says, peace, contemplation, and an awareness of beauty “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.”

Listening to Mark’s words, I realised that his favourite passage from Chapter 21 was not only one of mine also (I have mentioned it before here) but that it fitted perfectly with my first selection. 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 listen to what James Nayler had to say:

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

Trust in me?

Trust – it’s a word we’re not used to using in this century. We are taught to distrust politicians, the media, big business, the police, odd emails we receive, each other…

Sometimes this distrust is justified; often it really is not. But what is really problematic is the image we have in our minds of what it might mean to be trustful: gauche, credulous, unworldly, un-streetwise. And of course this extends beyond our dealings with authorities, tradespeople, service providers, to far deeper situations: marriage, parenthood, church – above all our trust in God. Mistrust then becomes a corrosive thing, a poison to all that is good and true in relationship.

The Apostle Paul writes:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12.13-21

Jesus trusted God, even to the Cross and beyond, as we hear in Matthew’s Gospel (27.41-43), “In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, “I am God’s Son.”’

What are we to lose, by trusting those we love? (And remember Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mt. 22.39))

Clearly, this does not extend to emails beginning “My dear excellency, concerning your lotery winings”, nor to people who might be following on streets after dark. But to trust those whom we do hold in relationship is to be human. To treat one’s spouse as unfaithful until proved otherwise would be the end of any marriage…

Spiritual masters or guides… warn and caution their pupils against inappropriate teachings and practices; at the same time, the spiritual master leads his or her pupil into the life of prayer by example, heart to heart, seeking always the guidance of the Holy Spirit…

No doubt the ideal picture of a mystic has already been voiced by Jesus of Nazareth in his sermon on the mount. Such a radically virtuous and holy person is true in heart, peace loving, a peacemaker, poor in spirit, willing to be persecuted for righteousness’ sake, loving to God and neighbour. This is the compassionate person, who, when asked for his shirt, offers his cloak also… He or she is childlike, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Emilie Griffin, Wonderful and Dark is the Road

The inability to trust seems to me to be a critical sickness of our time. As a society we are suffering from a known psychological problem: “Being unable to trust can destroy friendships, careers, and marriages, but fortunately, learning to trust again is not impossible…”

John’s Gospel (14.1) records Jesus as saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.” How can our hearts have anything but trouble, if we cannot trust? (And trust is a synonym for belief.)

If once we can allow ourselves truly to encounter God, in the silence or in the sacraments, as Paul found on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) everything changes. The living God is light, love, mercy, truth, beyond the possibility of mistrust. All we need to do is come…

Sailing in the Fog

In her small book Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God, Cynthia Bourgeault quotes Dom Bede Griffiths as saying that there are three “pathways to the centre” the “innermost ground of our being where we meet and are met by God”: near-death experience, falling desperately in love, and meditation. She speaks of the “visceral remembrance of how vivid and abundant life is when the sense of separateness has dropped away”, but goes on to describe meditation as “go[ing] down to the same place, but by a back staircase deep within [our] own being.”

I’m aware of a slight gap in my posts here, and I can only ascribe that to a time of navigating in the mist. Cynthia Bourgeault, a little further on in her book than the Bede Griffiths quote, mentions the experience of sailing in the fog of the coast of Maine, and realising (as I have myself when I was young and spent time messing about in boats) that in the absence of a clear sight of one’s landfall other senses develop: the smell of land, the sound, and the feel beneath one’s feet, of the waves’ shortening and quickening near the shore. She draws a parallel with the spiritual life:

If egoic thinking [normal, everyday consciousness] is like sailing by reference to where you are not—by what is out there and up ahead—spiritual awareness is like sailing by reference to where you are. It is a way of “thinking” at a much more visceral level of yourself—responding to subtle intimations of presence too delicate to to pick up at your normal level of awareness, but which emerge like a sea swell from the ground of your being once you relax and allow yourself to belong deeply to the picture.

Bourgeault goes on to describe meditation (Christian contemplation, whether by centring prayer, the Jesus Prayer, or another similar method) as, once it is driven by “the yearning for truth [having] become… overwhelming in us, and we have the sense that everything done in the ordinary way of consciousness merely ends in lies and disillusionment”, wagering everything on the trust that there is this other sense in us, “that knows how to sail in the fog, see in the dark.”

We are so used, especially in our goal-oriented society, even among Friends all too often, to knowing, with our surface reasoning, where we are going and why, that sailing in the fog can seem like a fruitless, even foolhardy endeavour. But where we are going, if we truly are “yearning for truth”, cannot be found with binoculars, in the sunlight. There are so-called charts, but they are scribbles, like The Cloud of Unknowing, on the backs of envelopes, ‘x’ marks the spot on a scrap of salt-stained parchment, and in any case the sands have shifted over the long years and their tides. (I was amused to see, on Thesaurus.com, that one the antonyms listed for “reasoning” was “truth”!)

I have been growing used to sailing in the fog, sneaking down the back stairs of my mind. Sometimes I find it hard to have to pop up and start writing prose when I have been drifting like a seabird in the haar. Listen, the waves do change near landfall. Listen, you can smell the trees, the damp earth. But you must be very quiet, and stop straining your eyes in the mist.

The faithfulness of Friends

Writing on his blog Transition Quaker, Craig Barnett remarks,

Looking around at the condition of the Quaker movement in Britain, it is tempting to grow nostalgic about the profounder spirituality of a previous age. I want to encourage us to resist this temptation. We should not aim at a return to the Quaker forms of the past. Instead, we need a more disciplined attention to the practices that can help us to be faithful to the Spirit in our contemporary world.

I should want to add that it is sometimes tempting also to grow depressed about our perceptions of present-day Quakerism. We can look at the encroachment of secularism, as discussed by Ben Pink Dandelion in this year’s Swarthmore Lecture, and worry that, between the external pressures of consumerism and the internal pressures of nontheist humanism, Quakers are turning from the Light to mere kind thoughts and good works, or we can look at the demographics of Quaker meetings around Britain and conclude that we are soon to die out through old age and mortality.

Craig Barnett goes on,

By concentrating on the lives of ‘great Quakers’ of the past, we can easily overlook the fact that Friends such as John Woolman, Elizabeth Fry or Rufus Jones were not at all typical of the wider Quaker movement of their time. For most of our history, Friends have been largely what we are today – spiritually tepid and deeply compromised by our accommodation to the surrounding culture.

I recall having this discussion many times before I became a Quaker, when, playing as I was in church worship bands, members of the congregation would lament to me that contemporary worship songwriters couldn’t hold a candle to the great hymn writers of the past. I often used to point out that 18th-century hymns were based on the popular music of their day, and were frequently trite, obscure or both, and the majority of the hymns the Victorians wrote wobbled uneasily between the sentimental and the grandiose. The ones we have in our hymnbooks today are the ones that made it through the sifting process of history, just as a hundred years or so from today, only the best worship songs will be remembered, and the others will have been left on the shelf.

There is much to celebrate in contemporary Quakerism. Writers like Ben Pink Dandelion, whom I’ve mentioned already, Harvey Gillman, Jenny Routledge and Alex Wildwood are doing much to disturb and excite us ordinary Friends in local meetings, where renewal, if it is to come, will take root and grow. Craig Barnett quotes Ursula Jane O’Shea’s 1993 Backhouse Lecture to Australia Yearly Meeting:

Healing spiritual malaise within a group and initiating revival cannot be accomplished by office-holders or weighty Friends. It must be the committed task of a large section of the community, if not all of it. Transformation of a group can begin nowhere else but within each person. Willingness in many members to begin the hard work of inward transformation, without waiting for others to go first, may be the test of a community’s desire and capacity to be revitalised…

Renewal of the Society waits for the choice of each Friend: Am I willing to risk the disturbing, transfiguring presence of the Spirit in my life? To obey it? To expect ‘the Cross’ and dark days as I discover and nurture who I am before God? When we choose to live the spiritual life the Quaker Way, these are the experiences we are committing ourselves to, whatever words we put upon them. If significant numbers of us are not interested in, or willing to live by these experiences, the hoped-for renewal of our meetings cannot occur. But if our collective spiritual power gathers strength it will infect other Friends and newcomers. Ministry will become more grounded in the Spirit and individuals will be inspired by the Spirit to serve our meetings as nurturers, prophets and conservers.

Writing this twenty-one years ago, Ursula Jane O’Shea was herself, I believe, both prophet and nurturer for the present generation of Friends. Her words are courageously borne out in the work of Friends like Jenny Routledge in particular, who writes, demonstrating just this choice to hear and obey the Spirit, to take the risk of the Cross,

When I was asked at the beginning of this journey [of exploring the spiritual basis of eldership] what I wanted to achieve, I said that I just wanted to sow seeds. I didn’t have any sense of what the end point might be. I just wanted to be heard. It was one of the numerous occasions on this journey when I knew the answer straight away. I experience these as leadings of the Spirit, promptings from my inner teacher, and they have been a feature of my journey, not a very convenient feature, but undeniable…

This is the authentic voice of experimental faith, the voice that has led Friends through the thickets of stagnation and renewal over and over again through the 350 or so years of our history. I sometimes think we need to remind ourselves repeatedly that what matters is not the survival of Quakerism as a religious movement, but the faithfulness of Friends “to the promptings of love and truth in [our] hearts, which are the leadings of God.” (Advices and Queries, 1)

It just happened?

In her beautiful book The Other Buddhism, Caroline Brazier tells the story of a swarm of bees who return years after their removal, to their home in the roof above her mother in law Irene’s bedroom window, the morning after her death. Caroline and her husband had walked into the garden, among the trees and plants Irene had so loved, at the very moment the swarm arrived and settled. She writes:

Why did the bees come? What brought them to Irene’s window that morning? Why did we go into the garden? Why did I look up? The questions bring further questions. Answers do not come. And if they do, perhaps something is lost.

No answers.

In their arrival, the bees help me to touch something beyond expression. I cannot say why they arrived at that point. I have no metaphysic or natural explanation to fall back on. The timing seemed to belie coincidence, and yet my practical mind finds no reason for their coming. They speak to my being in a different language.Their presence resonates with ancient stories of portentous occurrences. It connects me with feelings and intuitions that go beyond words. Like the rising of a snipe [she is referring to Saigyo’s poem ‘The First Winds of Autumn’], the bees are as messengers of the gods.

Stepping onto a different path we go beyond our rational minds into another kind of knowing… We feel held by a deep bodily knowledge of truth, without having words to ascribe to the process of knowing. This is the foundation of faith, and faith is the starting point and the end of the spiritual journey…

Beyond the ordinary is the unseen. Beyond the extra-ordinary the unseen becomes a little more visible, but yet remains shrouded in its own mystery. Faith involves the recognition of a world beyond self… It is the acceptance that forces shape our lives which we do not and cannot understand…

CG Jung, with his passion for explaining spiritual things, came up with the term “synchronicity” to describe what he termed an “acausal connecting principle”, in which, following discussions with the theoretical physicists Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli, he related the concept to relativity theory and quantum mechanics.

Jung may or may not have been right – despite Marie-Louise von Franz’s plea for further research, no one to my knowledge has seriously explored the theory’s implications – but what he was speaking of resonates with the life of faith on more than one level.

We recognise synchronicity by a deep instinct. Something within us cannot ever quite accept that things “just happen”. We think of people, and they suddenly ring up out of the blue. We ponder whether we are called to some role or occupation, and within a few days receive a job offer. Most strikingly, we pray, and in Tennyson’s words, “more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of…”

Increasingly, my heart is “held by a deep bodily knowledge of truth, without having words to ascribe to the process of knowing.” Yet my own knowing is for me deeper and more sure than any awareness of fact, or academic discipline. I long for this path, for the flying up of snipe in the marsh at evening, for the voice of the tide along the sand as the sun sets.