Category Archives: Unknowing

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.

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…

We are most temporary…

God’s operations, his manner, and his swiftness are simply unable to be discerned. As the Creator’s working abound more and more with us, they will absorb our own self-efforts.

It seems as though the stars shine more brightly before the sun rises and gradually vanish as the light advances. They have not really become invisible. A greater light has simply absorbed the lesser light.

This is also the case with your self-effort in prayer. Since God’s light is so much greater, it absorbs our little flickers of activity. They will grow faint and eventually disappear until all self-effort to experience God is no longer distinguishable.

I have heard the accusation from some that this is a “prayer of inactivity”. They are wrong. Such charges come from the inexperienced…

The fullness of grace will still the activity of self. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that you remain as silent as possible…

God’s presence is not a stronghold to be taken by force or violence. His is a kingdom of peace, which can only be gained by love. God demands nothing extraordinary or difficult. On the contrary…

Jeanne Guyon, Experiencing God Through Prayer

Our prayer, it seems to me, has everything to do with our experience of God. If we basically lack this experience, our minds being filled with ideas about God (“notions” as the early Quakers would have said), we shall understand prayer as something –  some demand or supplication – addressed to a being within a known universe, whereas the God of direct experience is not that kind of being at all. In fact “being” is not really a term that applies to God. God is the ground of being, and the universe, all that exists, exists in, and is contingent upon, God; and Christ is one name for that becoming known. The opening verses of John’s Gospel explain this perfectly well.

We are small and contingent parts of all that has come into being, and we are most temporary. We cannot know God as we know each other. To think that we can is a category mistake, and so is thinking that because God cannot be so known, there is no God. Of course there is no such thing as God, but that is not because there is no God: it is because God is not a thing. Things are merely things God does.

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.

The practice of stillness…

In the daily practice of stillness we learn not to rely on ourselves, on our thoughts and on our feelings, but instead to rest in the darkness – and perhaps in the apparently complete emptiness – of the magnanimity of the Holy Spirit who gently opens us out into that greater generosity. Its fruit is simply love. It is our personal response to the mystery of God, made known to us in the person of Jesus Christ, for our maturing into full personhood…

The practice of stillness is letting go. In relinquishing our desire to think, we are refraining from imposing meaning. This means that we can be more open to the way things actually are… A moment when we turn over in our hands a stone just picked up represents the state of preliminary receptiveness which is so important if we are to cultivate the deeper intuitive knowing of spiritual truths. Wonder is the necessary check to the tendency for reductionism which characterises both religious and secular forms of knowledge…

…letting go means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to realities which may shape us, and it will perhaps open us to the chaos we fear so much… Finally, this requires us to face our fear that death will be the extinction of the self. That requires the ultimate act of trust and Christian faith. However unwilling we may be to ‘go gentle into that dark night’, faith is to surrender ourselves even now into that which, then, we shall be unable to control. Faith is the letting go into an unknown which will be a birthing more awe-full and more fully life-giving than our first ejection from the womb into the light of day.

Andrew Norman, Learn to Be at Peace: The Practice of Stillness

It seems quite hard sometimes, writing a blog such as this, to find the right tone. I never set out to write one of those confessional blogs, full of day-to-day details of my emotional life and my intimate relationships. But this isn’t a technical blog either, constrained to facts, and opinions about facts. Sometimes I can’t write about the interior life without mentioning aspects of my own life that would be simpler not mentioned at all.

Recently I suffered a minor heart attack, and while medically it was – for someone living, in the 21st century, just across the road from a major hospital – no big deal, it was a disconcerting experience, and one which raised more questions than it appeared to answer. I found, in common with many patients such as myself, that the immediate aftermath of the episode was a strange flat depression, which made it all but impossible to write, or indeed to want to write. It was made somehow more obscure by that fact that, since I am already on the waiting list for an interventional procedure to treat the underlying problem, I found myself in a kind of a medical limbo. I needed to be careful not to make matters worse, and so, while I was relatively restricted in my normal activities, I hadn’t really anything definite to do.

Now that I have a date, next month, for the procedure, I seem to be able to look back over events, trying perhaps to make some kind of sense of the experience itself. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve encountered my own mortality before, and I have found that frailty is only one side of the coin. Reality is not what it seems. That in each of us which is love itself is beyond all the dimensions of time and matter, beyond the reach of thought. Bur it is precisely in this being beyond the reach of thought, even of conscious experience, that hope lies hidden. Unknowing extends beyond a few minutes of sitting quietly. It, itself no thing, underlies all things. It is the unseen source of all that is, and the surest refuge.

Here in Advent all we can do comes down to waiting. Darkness is heavy over the land, and tonight the fog is coming down. Through the bare trees beyond this lighted window the little distances are closing in. What we cannot see, what we have not heard, waits under the dark as it has always done. The dark has not overcome it. In the love that is its light is the seed of Christ, who comes in the shadow of the womb’s pulse long days before birth. Isaac Penington knew this:

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.

Quaker faith & practice 26.70

Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 27

All Truth is a shadow except the last, except the utmost; yet every Truth is true in its kind. It is substance in its own place, though it be but a shadow in another place (for it is but a reflection from an intenser substance); and the shadow is a true shadow, as the substance is a true substance.

Isaac Penington, 1653 – Qfp 27.22

When we think of the early years of the Quaker movement, often we remember some of George Fox’s more abrasive encounters – “I laid open their Teachers, shewing, that they were like them, that were of Old condemned by the Prophets, and by Christ, and by the Apostles: And I exhorted the People to come off from the Temples made with Hands…” (The Journal of George Fox, The First Edition, 1694, edited by Thomas Ellwood, pp. 73-74) – and forget the openheartedness of Friends like Isaac Penington, who also wrote:

Even in the apostles’ days Christians were too apt to strive after a wrong unity and uniformity in outward practices and observations, and to judge one another unrighteously in those things; and mark, it is not the different practice from one another that breaks the peace and unity, but the judging of one another because of different practices…

And oh, how sweet and pleasant it is to the truly spiritual eye to see several sorts of believers, several forms of Christians in the school of Christ, every one learning their own lesson, performing their own peculiar service, and knowing, owning and loving one another in their several places and different performances to their Master, to whom they are to give an account, and not to quarrel with one another about their different practices (Rom 14:4). For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that; and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk.

Isaac Penington, 1660 – Qfp 27.13

I feel that we as Quakers in the early years of our century need to keep open, even through the challenges of these difficult times, to what the Spirit is saying to us, and in us. It will not do to focus on the difficulties, to take up adversarial stands. The forces of darkness, the institutional and populist powers and principalities – racism, fascism, religious intolerance – know what to do with opposition. It feeds them, gives them the excuses they need for violence, for the display of their physical and military power and dominance. They delight in opposition, the more oppositional and confrontational the better. As John Lennon once said, “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.” But the New Woke movement, among many others, realise that the path to wholeness lies not in opposing but in outgrowing that which would hold us in darkness. And we can only do that in openness, in vulnerability, in failure.

We find it hard to accept intentional failure at the heart of our faith. But all true religion is for losers. Leaders, the successful, the alpha males and occasional alpha females, the “rich” in Jesus’ parables (e.g. Matthew 19.16-24), must learn what failure means for themselves before they can encounter God, must be broken themselves before they can help bring healing to the broken of the world. We must ourselves be prepared to have in our own hearts Leonard Cohen’s “crack in everything, [through which] the light gets in.”

We have to let go of the certainties, I think, let drop the things we think we know about ourselves, about each other. We are all one in the end, one flesh under the skins of our birth and of our circumstances. It is in the ground of all our beings, in God in Christ (John 1.1-4) that all things hold together (Colossians 1.17). Our oneness is far beyond the social, or the humanly spiritual – it is the metaphysical nature of being itself, and this we cannot hold in our human minds. But in our unknowing, we can receive it as grace, as mercy.

Even among Quakers, the differences only matter if it’s the differences at which we look. If we look at that of God, whether the Light that reaches us in the silence, or that light of God within each other, streaming through the cracks, then we realise, as Rhiannon Grant did, that “Quakerism isn’t something you agree with, but something you do.”

A Life with Ravens

Anyone taking the eremitic vocation seriously is bound to feel helpless, quite impotent, in fact. Hermits are determined to help, to make a positive difference, but how? What can one person do, hidden and alone? Sometimes, solitaries may feel blameworthy because they live lives which shelter them from much of the suffering that so harshly mars the existence of their brothers and sisters. Love and compassion well up in them… but is it enough? What should one do and how? This is where passionate intercessory prayer and supplication spontaneously arises.

The challenge is to live a life given over to praying for others while accepting that one will seldom, if ever, see any results. One one will be able to ascertain how, or even if, their devoted prayers are efficacious for others. It is a terrible kind of poverty – to live dedicated to helping others, yet never know what good one may be doing. All that hermits can do is hope that they are doing no harm. Believers leave all results to the mercy of their God. Others rely on the interconnectedness of all humanity, trusting that what affects one, affects all. This is a form of intercession expressed less by words than by a way of life.

A Camaldolese monk once wrote: “Prayer is not only speaking to God on behalf of humanity, it is also ‘paying’ for humanity.” Suffering is part of the hermit’s vocation. One of the most acute forms is to never know whether one’s chosen lifestyle is worthwhile or has any value for others. Hermits enter into the darkness, the dusky cloud of unknowing, and walk without any light beyond that which is in their own hearts. Often, unbeknownst even to themselves, they have become beacons for others.

Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life

This calling to a life of interior solitude (see my other recent post here) has been growing on me more and more strongly, and becoming clearer, in recent years. The essence of this way is not so much physical solitude – though it does necessarily involve what Caroline E Stephen (Quaker Faith & Practice 22.30) called “a due proportion of solitude” – but an interior hiddenness which avoids excess or conspicuousness, or seeking for roles or causes.

The ravens of the title are of course the ones who brought Elijah bread and meat in the wilderness (1 Kings 17.2-6). A life with ravens is a life dependent upon God not only for existence but for meaning. The shadows that fell across the Kerith Ravine were the shadows of God’s purpose, and the loneliness to which he had called Elijah was sustained by the ravens of God’s grace.

I wrote elsewhere, “It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting myself out of the way of that channel of loving gift.” The hiddenness to which I am increasingly drawn is a way of getting out of the way – of standing still enough to act as a kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of mercy.

The dark and puzzling times in which we live can so easily draw us into taking sides, feeling we must “join the fight” against this or that injustice, or “struggle” against forces beyond our control or understanding which threaten the very existence of humanity. These military metaphors contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety and guilt, where nothing we can do is ever enough, and any rest or stillness is a betrayal of our comrades-in-arms. But grace is not mediated by aggression, and peace may not be found by way of war. Craig Barnett wrote:

…the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ – allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings.

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

Hiddenness appears to me to be not so much a matter of hiding away as hiding in plain sight, just as true simplicity is often more about the avoidance of a complicated life than the embrace of a heroic primitivism! To be “quiet and unrecognised” is deeply counterintuitive to a society driven by opposition and notoriety, and  threatens the paranoia so assiduously cultivated by mass media who, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.

To face not only the suffering of our sisters and brothers, human and otherwise, but the misunderstanding of our own inner political selves, and to embrace them in our love and our compassion, within the awareness of the presence of God, is a peculiar form of prayer. It is more like a form of penance, really. But it is in this contemplative practice itself that we make real the mysterious interconnectedness of all that is made, and through which our own solitary prayer seems to bring healing and hope in even the “valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23) itself.

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?