Category Archives: War

Beyond redemption?

Alastair McIntosh writes, in today’s issue of The Friend,

It was the American writer James Baldwin who suggested that: ‘One of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.’

We sideline the pain of spiritual growth when we reduce it to questions like: ‘If there’s a God, how can “He” allow evil?’

Imagine how it would be if every time some human folly (or even cruelty) were about to happen, the ‘Great Cosmic Health and Safety Officer’ zapped it from on high.

We would never get to feel the pain of others, or of ourselves. We would remain in spiritual infancy, devoid of empathy, unexercised by the evils of the world. For love to be free, evil has to be an option.

Therefore, said saint Silouan of Athos: ‘Keep thy mind in hell and do not despair.’

I think that what he is saying is: fully face the brokenness of the world, but never forget that God’s not sleeping.

It is a reminder of hope, and of deeper processes at work that might transcend our conscious ken. A reminder, too, that nothing, and no one, is ever beyond redemption.

I myself wrote recently,

These are, to say the least, difficult and puzzling times. The merest glance at the headlines will suffice to demonstrate that, and to demonstrate the further fact that the media, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.

In the face of massively publicised and widespread cruelty and injustice, violence and deceit, it is increasingly hard to avoid the current zeitgeist of taking sides, adopting entrenched positions, and demonising the “opposition”.

It is seems more and more popular to represent “the other side” as beyond redemption, and yet sometimes if we will only listen, they will shock us by their humanity and their vulnerability. Not long ago I was speaking with a prominent Tory MP and (then) cabinet minister, when he expressed his genuine grief at the assumption that he and his party were trying to punish and oppress the disabled. For a moment, real pain peeped out from behind the urbane mask of the seasoned politician, and I found my own heart grieved for him. More of these moments are scattered throughout our days, I think, than we would imagine, if only we are open to them, if only we can allow the clamour of the populist voices, and of our own assumptions and prejudices, to die away in an interior silence and openness that I have found comes only through continual prayer.

Repetitive prayer, whether a Christian practice such as the Jesus Prayer, or a Buddhist one such as the Nembutsu, has a way, eventually, of attaching itself to one’s life rhythms – the breath, the heartbeat – till it becomes an integrated part of one’s existence, drawing the heart (understood as the centre of our personal being) not away from “the outer world of sense and meanings” (Thomas R Kelly) but always towards the source of all that is.

This is not a difficult, technical exercise, nor one reserved for men of unusual and select spiritual gifts, but one for all of us, female or male, artisan or intellectual, old or young. It is so simple, whether as a side-effect of a practice such as the Nembutsu, or just to “maintain a simple attention and a fond regard for God, which I may call an actual presence of God.” (Brother Lawrence)

St Silouan the Athonite, whom Alastair McIntosh quotes, was an Eastern Orthodox monk born in Russia who travelled to Mount Athos while still only in his twenties, and lived there at St. Panteleimon Monastery as a brother until he died, in his seventies, just before the outbreak of World War II. In common with other Athonite monks, Silouan’s main form of prayer would have been the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Very early in the history of the Christian church, certainly by the 4th century, the term hesychasm, the life of silence,  began to appear in the writings of scholars like John Chrysostom and Evagrius Pontikos, as well as in the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Hesychasts, as they became known, were practitioners of a tradition of contemplative prayer based on the Jesus Prayer that was available to everyone, regardless of education, ordination or formal membership of a monastic community.

The Anglican Bishop Simon Barrington-Ward writes that

This prayer is marked by a compunction and penitence. It has the sense of a kind of joyful mourning of one’s own and the world’s pitiableness. It knows our need to be rescued and saved, with tears. It is expressed in short, urgently or longingly repeated prayer directed to Jesus present in the heart, a presence to which the person praying seeks to turn his or her waking and sleeping thoughts (‘I slept but my heart was awake’, Song of Solomon 5:2) and whole life.

There is a sense of immediacy, of personal experience of the presence of God, from the very start of the hesychast tradition, that will be immediately familiar to Friends. Writing of the work of Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) Barrington-Ward goes on to say,

For Symeon, the resurrection is not only in the future. It begins here and now… He wrote out of an overwhelming encounter with the living Christ and with the Holy Spirit, through whom he claimed the resurrection of us all can occur.

By the 15th century the tradition had established itself in the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece, and was from there carried to Russia by St Nilus of Sora (Nil Sorski) where it established itself in the forest communities in the far north, which were consciously modelled after the early desert settlements in Egypt in the times of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. There the way of the hesychasts flourished right through until the years following the Russian Revolution in the early 20th century, when many of its practitioners took refuge once again on Mount Athos, some eventually, like the great writer and teacher on prayer Sophrony Sakharov, even turning up in England. It was to St. Panteleimon Monastery that many of these Russian monks came; Sophrony himself became a disciple of Silouan.

Sophrony wrote,

The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside…

It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…

I am always reminded by this passage of Thomas R Kelly who, writing of solitary prayer, comes very close indeed to restating the hesychast tradition himself. He describes how “[the] processes of inward prayer do not grow more complex, but more simple” and he recommends using a short phrase, whether from Scripture or from one’s own imagination, and he advises, “Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.” He goes on to say,

But the time will come when verbalisation is not so imperative, and yields place to the attitudes of soul which you meant the words to express… Behind the foreground of the words continues the background of heavenly orientation, as all the currents of our being are set towards Him. Through the shimmering light of divine Presence we look out upon the world, and in its turmoil and fitfulness, we may be given to respond, in some increased measure, in ways dimly suggestive of the Son of Man… All we can say is, Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the orbit… Sometimes the prayer and this Life that flows through us reaches out to all souls with kindred vision and upholds them in his tender care. Sometimes it flows out to the world of blinded struggle, and we become cosmic Saviours, seeking all those who are lost.

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.

Business as Usual

There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath different names; it is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren.

John Woolman, 1762 – Quaker Faith & Practice 26.61

At Meeting last Sunday, a Friend objected to the usual reading from Quaker Faith & Practice on the grounds that she felt reading from the book was “business as usual” – and with the Government decision to involve the UK in the bombing of Syrian targets, the climate crisis, the refugee crisis – it was not time for “business as usual”.

Of course the reading from John Woolman was intended not to cry “peace, peace where there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6.14), but to address the very situation where, as Woolman had, Friends find themselves living in a deeply compromised and immoral society, and have to find a way to live out their faith under troubled circumstances, and with troubled hearts. As another Friend ministered, the words of Psalm 120 ring true: “Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.”

All week I have pondered the events of Sunday morning, and it was not until yesterday that I happened on the words of Fr Laurence Freeman OSB, of the World Community of Christian Meditation. In his Advent Address this year he wrote, and I quote his address in full:

The preparation for the incarnation begins with a ‘voice crying in the wilderness’. In today’s gospel it is John the Baptist, who first recognises what we have all been so anxiously waiting for. He is the voice. Jesus is the word. The voice that the voice communicates through the pure air of the silent wilderness.

The word ‘wilderness’ in Greek is eremos, an uninhabited place. This gives us the word hermit, one who lives in solitude. In meditation we are all solitaries.

Meditation leads us into the wilderness, into a place uninhabited by thoughts, opinions, the conflicts of images and desires. It is place we long for because of the peace and purity it offers. Here we find truth. But it also terrifies us because of what we fear we will lose and of what we will find.

The more we penetrate into the wilderness, the solitude of the heart, the more we slow down. As mental activity decreases, so time slows until the point where there is only stillness – a living and loving stillness. Here, for the first time, we can listen to silence without fear. The word emerges from this silence. It touches and becomes incarnate in us. It incarnates us making us fully embodied and real in the present.

Only here, where we cut all communication with the noisy, jeering, fickle crowds inhabiting our minds do we see what ‘fleeing from the world’ means. What it does not mean is escapism or avoidance of responsibilities. It means to enter into solitude where we realise how fully, inescapably we are embodied and embedded in the universal web of relationships.

In the desert monasticism of the fourth century the monks plunged deeper into the wilderness as they got older. Then the world followed them, drawn by the incomparable and tangible beauty of what awaited them.

At last I had found words for what was troubling me. I find I am called in this season of my life – if I am honest, I probably always have been, even since childhood – to prayer and contemplation, rather than to political action or public protest. And yet, as I have so often written here, I find myself accusing myself, if I am faithful to my calling, of “business as usual”.

Fr Laurence’s clear words answer that doubt, that self-accusation. We cannot silence the clamour of the warmongers, whether here or in deserts of Western Asia, by shouting louder ourselves. We cannot bring peace through anger, or combat the darkness in which we find ourselves by darkening our hearts still further.

In the silence there is true peace, a peace which can spill out into healing for the wounds of our time, if we are faithful, if we let it. If action is needed, then coming from this true peace, it will be true, right action, and not merely reaction. The call to the heart’s solitude is not a call to inaction, to mere avoidance of uncomfortable truths: it is a call to embrace the courage to “realise how fully, inescapably we are embodied and embedded in the universal web of relationships” – the courage, despite all the clamour to the contrary, to “[be] 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.” (Michael Ramsey)

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.