Category Archives: Words

The Language of the Heart

We are creatures of the word, we humans. We know ourselves by our names first of all, and our least thought comes ready dressed in words. And yet it is in silence that we draw close to God, becoming open in the stillness to the presence that is always with us, nearer than our own breathing.

The apostle John wrote,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

John 1.1-4 NRSV

In contemplative prayer, we drop below the threshold of thought, and yet words remain, perhaps reflections of the words we have spoken since we learned to speak. The stream of consciousness passes, glittering with words, fragments of thoughts, commentary, witterings. How hard it is not to look, not to be caught by the glittering surfaces that flicker past. This is why, in Centering Prayer, in Christian Meditation, above all in the Jesus Prayer, it is words (or a word) themselves that are used to still the twinkling stream.

But why would that work?

It seems to me that there are two kinds of language, at least as they are at work here: the language of thoughts, and the language of the heart. There is a phrase often used in the literature around the Jesus Prayer, “Keep the mind in the heart before God.” This does not mean “get out of your mind and into your emotions” – anything but. As Cynthia Bourgeault writes,

According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality, emerging from some unknown profundity, which plays lightly upon the surface of this life without being caught there: a world where meaning, insight, and clarity come together in a whole different way. Saint Paul talked about this other kind of perceptivity with the term “faith” (“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” [Hebrews 11.1 KJV]), but the word “faith” is itself often misunderstood by the linear mind. What it really designates is not a leaping into the dark (as so often misconstrued) but a subtle seeing in the dark, a kind of spiritual night vision that allows one to see with inner certainty that the elusive golden thread glimpsed from within actually does lead somewhere.

So, in placing the attention into the field of these words, whether the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, or intent that underlies the chosen “sacred word” of centering prayer, the words themselves, as the means of attention in fact, descend quite naturally and peacefully into the heart.

This, of course, explains why those who practice the Jesus Prayer so often continue to use the terminal words a sinner (they are omitted in some versions), for it is, at least in my experience, only in repentance that the heart is purified sufficiently so to be blessed.

The great spiritual directors of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have explained in figurative language how the structure of the human soul enables the mind to be drawn upwards (the will consenting) to its own apex, at which point it comes into contact and communion with God’s descending Spirit. This “apex”, which can equally well be described as the “centre”, is that “place of the heart” wherein we dwell in the state of prayer. To enter that state it is necessary for the heart to be purified by repentance (represented in the baptism of Jesus by John), so that it may reflect, as in a clear mirror, the Holy Light that pours on it from above. Then, by God’s mercy, the soul will, in the course of time, in this life or in some other dimension as yet unknown, become so perfectly commingled with that Light that, as Julian says, there will seem to be no difference – although there must still remain a clear distinction – between the reflection and its heavenly Source.

Lois Lang-Sims, The Mind in the Heart – Thoughts on Prayer

All this sounds perhaps either dry and academic, or mystical to the point of dottiness, depending on the point of view of the reader! But it is a simple thing really. The Jesus Prayer, like the nembutsu, is a prayer for simple people.

Mystical experience, the direct, unmediated encounter with God central to Quaker worship, and to all contemplative prayer, is not a strange or technical exercise, reserved for professional clergy or vowed monastics, but an ordinary, straightforward thing common to our identity as human beings. There is, after all, that of God in each of us: all that is necessary is to become aware of it, and somehow to live within that awareness, which is all that the phrase “the mind in the heart” is trying to say, really.

 

On becoming transparent

Writing in today’s issue of The Friend, Roswitha Jarman says,

I do not pray to a God out there to give me a helping hand. I remember with great affection the American Quaker Douglas Steere, with whom I shared my condition many years ago at a dark time. He responded: ‘Remember we are not alone.’ He was not referring to our human companions: he was speaking of the power of the Light, which for him was God.

When I become transparent, and am open to the Inner Light, and when I let this golden Light envelop the dark clouds, my energy is lifted, my compassion rises, and an inexplicable joy fills me. When this Light is part of me, whatever I do has a different quality.

Often we Quakers seem to misunderstand each others’ ideas of the Light. Those who self-identify as non-theists sometimes assume that other Friends believe in a God who is one being among other beings, only more powerful, wiser, more loving (or more tyrannical!) – a kind of a super being, as Superman is a super man. And those who would be inclined to self-identify as theists sometimes assume that non-theists are atheists, or at least strong agnostics.

I suspect that underneath the semantics, though, we are closer together than might be imagined. We share the same silence; the one Light illuminates us all, and if we will only sit still under it for long enough, we will find we share the same transparency. The words we use are far less important, and I think we should do well to use them lightly, and be prepared to let them go. We are speaking of what is, I believe, beyond our human ability fully to comprehend, let alone express.

My own existence is not something I create: it is somehow given me, as is all my experience. I am not a thing, myself – although my physical presence may be, grammatically at any rate, the object of some verb or another – but a becoming, an unfolding.

In silence, I can hear myself becoming, breath by breath, and I know that there is a source beyond my physical presence, beyond my sense of myself, from which I and all I experience appear to proceed. It is the ground of all that is, and I am held, and unrolled, in it, moment by moment. I cannot fall out of it; I can only be transformed, even if that transformation is the transformation of dying. This is so perfectly natural that it lifts away the alienation of my self from its true home, and the anxiety of what might be. If I am so unfolded, then the unfolding itself is what I am, as is its ground. As Paul wrote, “Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3.11)

To realise this, of course, is itself a kind of death: the death of the individual me, of my possessing a separate soul, set somehow over against an alien world. “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” said Paul in the same letter (Colossians 3.3).

Our accepting our utter dependence upon and oneness with the God who gives us being is precisely the crucifixion of which Paul writes elsewhere: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2.19b-20a)

This coming into being is love: vulnerable to change, it assumes the shape of what is loved. This love that is our becoming shows itself as the mercy of God in all that unfolds, whether we experience it as good or bad: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8.28) “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.” (Betsie ten Boom’s last words to her sister Corrie)

 

Testimonies

Sometimes I wonder whether, under the influence of the need to reach out to a secular society, we have made testimony simply into an expression of ethics. We have numbered and acronymised (forgive the invention!) our testimonies, and progressive people of goodwill will, more or less, be in agreement with them. That is fine as far as it goes. But the ways we express our relationship with the divine in everyday life surely cannot be limited to convenient words or headings in an index. Testimony is not a strategy, nor is it a political manifesto. Rather, it is a vital response to a call from the depths of our being to examine our lives and to heed the cry of the world itself.

Harvey Gillman, Words (available from The Friend magazine)

I’ve always been a little worried about testimonies. They seem all too much like lists of requirements: one must be able to put one tick at least in each of the boxes to be considered a Quaker. I can much too easily imagine a membership applicant’s visitors asking, “How has your life shown forth Integrity and Truth this week? And how about Stewardship, Peter Bloggs?”

Surely, our testimonies are merely descriptions of the ways in which the Spirit has led us, like Paul’s list of the Spirit’s fruits in Galatians 5.22-23: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” We cannot resolve to live these things, or we will fall at the first hurdle. Only by opening ourselves to the Spirit in worship and prayer will they grow of themselves in us; and then others may, probably at our funeral, recall how they observed them – “a testimony to the grace of God in the life of…”

Quaker renewal will, it seems to me, only happen as we set aside our worries about forms and words, the ins and outs and the details of who is and who isn’t which kind of Quaker, and sit down together in silence, waiting on the Spirit’s presence:

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.

Isaac Penington, 1661

The well of love…

Liberal Quakers, which term by and large encompasses Britain Yearly Meeting, don’t these days tend to use the name of Jesus Christ at all freely, which can be disorienting for those – like myself – who have joined Friends after having been members of other churches.

Needless to say, there is no official Quaker Christology, just as there are no Quaker creeds or statements of faith. But early Quakers were entirely comfortable with the name of Christ, and with the prevailing understanding of him as saviour. As Lewis Benson writes, in A Revolutionary Gospel:

The early Quakers were not a reforming movement within the framework of a commonly shared belief in Christ as savior. They were in revolt against what the churches were teaching about salvation by Christ. They claimed that the churches’ teaching had separated belief in Christ as savior from the call of God for righteousness. Belief in Christ had become divorced from obedience in righteousness. Fox said that the belief of his Calvinist contemporaries was an “unsanctifying belief,” by which he meant that it left the believer still captive to sin and a dweller in the life of unrighteousness. The Calvinist doctrine of “imputed righteousness” was rejected by the Quakers. They that have received Christ within, said Fox, “they witness the righteousness itself without imputation.” The chief point of the controversy between Puritans and Quakers was whether Christ had the power to make men truly righteous as well as the power to forgive. This is a disagreement about that which is most fundamental in Christianity. It is a disagreement about how we experience Christ as savior. But the Quaker revolt was not directed solely against Calvinistic Puritanism. Before Calvin the Church of Rome had assumed the role of mediator of moral truth to its members, it set a standard of morality defined by the church and kept in force by the power of the church. The scandals that developed in the administration of this church-oriented morality were the occasion of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking back across the centuries of Christian history Fox was able to say, “The righteousness within and sanctification within hath been lost since the apostles’ days,” and “the sanctifying belief hath been lost since the apostles’ days.”

Quaker faith is based in the experience of the Spirit in silent worship, and it is that Spirit which the early Quakers understood as the indwelling Christ. The apostle Paul prayed that

according to the riches of his glory, [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

(Ephesians 3.16-19)

It is this indwelling which the early Quakers understood by their experience of the Light. As William Penn wrote:

The Light of Christ within, who is the Light of the world and so a light to you that tells you the truth of your condition, leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvellous light; for light grows upon the obedient. It is sown for the righteous and their way is a shining light that shines forth more and more to the perfect day.

(QFP 26.44)

Of course, the experience of the Light is far deeper than words. As Paul wrote elsewhere:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

(Romans 8.26-27)

It seems to me that Friends today, realising the inadequacy of language, and indeed of concepts (“notions” as the first Quakers would have said), quite rightly espouse an understanding of prayer and worship that is intentionally, rootedly apophatic, despite occasional intersection with the spoken word in ministry. But even in this we are consistent with our spiritual ancestors. Isaac Penington wrote:

The sum and substance of true religion doth not stand in getting a notion of Christ’s righteousness, but in feeling the power of endless life, receiving the power, and being changed by the power. And where Christ is, there is his righteousness.

Perhaps we need to be prepared to extend to each other that openness which we so readily extend to those of other backgrounds in faith, and to allow each other freely to use whatever language springs from our hearts in worship, in full awareness of the inadequacy of any language or system, any knowing even, to express the actuality. What is there is unknowable. Anything any of us might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, nor constrained by dimensionality. The love of God is all, and in all, and the well of love does not run dry. Paul again:

Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

(1 Corinthians 13.12-13)

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.

Words fall far short…

Whenever we are driven into the depths of our own being, or seek them of our own will, we are faced by a tremendous contrast. On the one side we recognise the pathetic littleness of our ephemeral existence, with no point or meaning in itself. On the other side, in the depth, there is something eternal and infinite in which our existence, and indeed all existence, is grounded. This experience of the depths of existence fills us with a sense both of reverence and of responsibility, which gives even to our finite lives a meaning and a power which they do not possess in themselves. This, I am assured, is our human experience of God.

John Macmurray, Quaker Faith & Practice 26.11

We have realised from the beginning, in our Meetings for Worship, that words fall far short of what is true, and that that Light, that Truth, can only be found, and allowed to hold us, and known, in silence. And yet we are human, and so words haunt us. We want to do things with what we experience, and so we name things about it, and pretend we can carry out operations on it, since we can construct sentences where the verbs act on the nouns we have employed – and there are other nouns too, to name ourselves, whom we dream are the ones doing the acting.

But we only dream. It is we who are done with. We are born, we grow, and we age and die, and none of us by taking thought can change anything about that. (Luke 12.25) All we can do is wait, and listen.

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.

Isaac Penington, 1661, in Quaker Faith and Practice 26.70

On babbling incoherently

We are just a little tiny flicker of a much larger flame that is Life itself, Consciousness itself, Being itself, Love itself, God’s very self. Once we say it, it seems obvious. What else would it be?

Richard Rohr

Conceptually, I don’t suppose that saying something like this makes any sense at all. But it isn’t a concept. It is direct experience. Only from experience can we dare to say things like this.

The words in which we speak of the spiritual are only ever “raids on the unspeakable” – they are not, and can’t be, conclusions, the results of thought or research. We have had an encounter: all we can do is babble, more or less incoherently, and trust that someone, somewhere, will catch enough of a sense of what we have experienced to try walking this way themselves, in hopes of falling into the hands of the living God.