Category Archives: Waiting

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]

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…

On becoming mangled in our minds [a reblog]

We are now coming into that which Christ cried woe against, minding altogether outward things, neglecting the inward work of Almighty God in our hearts, if we can but frame according to outward prescriptions and orders, and deny eating and drinking with our neighbours, in so much that poor Friends is mangled in their minds, that they know not what to do, for one Friend says one way, and another another, but Christ Jesus saith, that we must take no thought what we shall eat, or what we shall drink, or what we shall put on, but bids us consider the lilies how they grow, in more royalty than Solomon. But contrary to this, we must look at no colours, nor make anything that is changeable colours as the hills are, nor sell them, nor wear them: but we must be all in one dress and one colour: this is a silly poor Gospel. It is more fit for us, to be covered with God’s Eternal Spirit, and clothed with his Eternal Light, which leads us and guides us into righteousness. Now I have set before you life and death, and desire you to choose life, and God and his truth.

Margaret Fox, 1700 (QFP 20.31)

It is terribly easy to become distracted, when one looks at the enormous suffering, injustice and inequality in the world (I don’t think there is more, or less, than in Margaret Fox’s day; it is differently distributed, and we now have the means instantly to find out about it) by what I can only describe, having experienced it in myself, as a political mentality. These are political problems, it says, and we need to work politically towards political solutions.

I am not decrying politics as such, nor even politicians, poor souls. But Jesus was right when he pointed out (Mark 14.7) that we shall always have with us the victims of injustice and inequality. It’s only out of a deep change of being, a spiritual and inward revolution such as early Friends experienced, and as Friends still do today, that we shall be able to bring about the profound changes in society they brought about merely by seeking to be true to what the Light showed them. If we seek political solutions, we shall fail like every other politician; if we seek the Light, we may ourselves become the seeds from which solutions grow.

James Nayler summed it up, perhaps, when he wrote:

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.

QFP 21.65

[This post was first published in 2013; in view of certain events in the UK, USA and elsewhere last year, and more recently, and some of my own remarks in my last post, I thought I might reproduce it here.]

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

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.

The Real Thing

“Sarah Blackborow (d. 1665) was a prominent Quaker minister in London during the 1650s and 1660s. She helped to establish a meeting at Hammersmith and was probably influential in the development of separate women’s business meetings. She wrote and published the tract A Visit to the Spirit in Prison in 1658. It is a good example of the kind of early Quaker writing that combined strong words of warning and admonishment with positive and joyful messages of spiritual guidance and encouragement. She also uses a feminine image of God.”

Stuart Masters has most usefully posted, on his blog A Quaker Stew, a simple summary of Blackborow’s message. A couple of paragraphs immediately struck me:

Don’t be distracted and misled. Turn away from the many and varied ways of the world and face up to God’s witness within you. Pay attention to it and live with it. Follow divine leadings and know God’s power. This is the only way to eternal life. If you are faithful, you may well experience suffering, but you will also be given the strength to endure this and be delivered from all trouble. But you must stick with it. The love of God will be with you and will comfort you. It will lead you out of the changeable ways of the world and to the eternal life. This Spirit will crucify your darkness, enabling you to break free from the things that prevent you from entering the Kingdom of God.

Sit at the feet of your Inward Teacher – If you rely on the second-hand words and ideas of other people, you are missing the real thing, which comes directly from the living God. Turn away from the teaching of others; stop worrying about your reputation and turn instead to the Light within you, which will show you the truth. If you are willing to submit to your inward teacher and accept what is revealed and what is taught, you will hear God’s voice calling you to the heavenly dwelling place. Turn to the Light of Christ, which reveals all evil and darkness. Give yourself fully to this Light, whether it praises you or condemns you. For this is your true Mother, who has conceived you and who loves you…

I woke this morning, long before dawn, full of distress at the news of the world. I could not think where to turn for some kind of explanation: the atrocities of Daesh in Paris, Beirut and elsewhere, crimes against LGBT people in Uganda and Kenya, recent information on the close links between the British Legion and the arms trade, the arms industry during World War II, which I had been looking up earlier, and the war bonds sold to pay for its products, the march of profit… on and on. What did it even mean, I wondered, to pray in the face of such a torrent?

Lying in the dark, listening to the cold rain in the trees outside the window, I came to remember Sarah Blackborow’s words: “If you rely on the second-hand words and ideas of other people, you are missing the real thing, which comes directly from the living God. Turn away from the teaching of others…”

Quite suddenly the shadowed room turned to stillness, and my heart opened. I have no explanation for what happened, yet suddenly I knew beyond a doubt that I had been heard, that my pain, and far more importantly the pain of those for whom I grieved, was not wasted. The words of Psalm 56.8, “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?” somehow made perfect sense.

I could not offer a factual explanation for what happened, nor defend in a law court the inexplicable peace that came to my heart, but I knew in that moment that it was “the real thing, which comes directly from the living God.” Psalm 56 concludes, “you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.” Whatever pain had overcome the Hebrew poet who wrote those words, he had come through: he had found trust in the midst of fear, peace in wartime.

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote: “It is not your will or desire that moves you, but something you are completely ignorant of stirring you to will and desire you know not what.” I had no name for the peace that enveloped me, and I could not know why it had been given to me, any more than I could deny its source, or the real and effective thing that had been done in the darkness before day.

 

The Dark of that Unknowing

God, as he is really in himself, is beyond all definition of ours at all… They only truly know him to be this or that, who witness him truly to be this or that to and within themselves. And those know him not… [who] come not to find him and feel him so to be… in his own light, by which he draws nigh to, and is not far from every one of us. By which [light]… in some measure, though not in the same measure, he manifests something of himself in every conscience.

Samuel Fisher, quoted in Rex Ambler, The Quaker Way: A Rediscovery

Fisher, writing in 1661, has touched 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”. We are small and recent creatures on the quite small third planet of a medium-sized star in one of the spiral arms of a beautiful but rather average galaxy, one of more than 100 billion in the universe we have so far been able to observe. 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?

Attempting to specify God, or to delineate those who have access rights to God or not, is not so much wrong as ridiculous. All we can do is love those who, like ourselves, have that of God within them. We are all just entities, and share far more of our limitations than anything that sets us apart.

Other than that, all we can do is keep silence, and wait. Only in the dark of that unknowing – that relinquishment of knowing – will come our own 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.