The sowing of seeds

This has been a strange Easter. For us, it has been marked indelibly by the death of a old and dear friend on Easter Saturday evening. In his excellent post for Easter on the Britain Yearly Meeting website, Alistair Fuller writes:

The story of Holy Week and Easter, seen as a whole, is vivid and unsettling. It contains within it themes of friendship, betrayal and political tension. There is state-sponsored murder, and the violent pendulum swing of public opinion from adoration to condemnation. There are moments of loneliness, desolation, unspeakable cruelty and profound courage. There is falling and failing, of many kinds. And there is tenacious and unflinching love.

And Easter itself is not quite the sunlit miracle story we might remember. There is no gospel telling of anything that might be described as ‘the resurrection’, but rather a jagged and untidy collection of stories and moments of encounter.

It has been so for us, and yet, as Fuller goes on to say, it has been full “of the unconquerable aliveness of the love encountered in and through Jesus.”

Marcelle Martin, in her 2016 book Our Life Is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journeywrites of the process known by early Quakers, George Fox in particular, as “The Refiner’s Fire” (from Malachi 3.2: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap…”):

Experiences of the Light are challenging when they show us ways we have not been living in accordance with God’s love and truth. Western cultures teach people from infancy to onward to push divine guidance to the back of our awareness, and most people quickly learn to block perception of the indwelling Presence of God. Reversing this and consciously opening our hearts and minds to spiritual truth is not easy. It takes patience and courage to still our minds, turn within, and wait in a receptive way for the Light to show us how we have been resisting divine Love and Truth in the particulars of our thinking, our relationships, our way of living, and our participation in the world. Seeing this can be surprising…

[Quoting Sandra Cronk] “The process of entering into a deep relationship with God is also the process of uncovering ourselves… In the light of that love, deep re-patterning can take place in us.”

For me, the reality has been less straightforward than it is or some. Due to some quirk of nature or nurture – my mother, who brought me up as a single parent, was a painter and sculptor – I never did “learn to block perception of the indwelling Presence of God” to the extent that most people seem to. As I wrote a couple of years ago, “I have known since childhood the power of solitude, of lonely places; and I have always been most at home alone in the grey wind, without a destination or timetable, or sitting by myself in a sunlit garden, watching the tiny velvety red mites threading their paths on a warm stone bench.” Listening for that indwelling presence has been at times terrifying, at times joyful, but it has never been entirely possible to escape, hard as I occasionally tried, especially in my mid-twenties. I am at least as susceptible as anyone I know to self-deception and wishful thinking, to being untrue to myself and to God, and to looking outside myself, at the external aspects of thought and practice among people of faith, trying to distract myself from the work of the Spirit in my heart. But it is less easy to distract the Holy Spirit, and so I have been called back again and again to these uncomfortable, at times downright dangerous, places, out in the saltmarshes of the heart.

Parker J Palmer saw this as clearly as anyone, having lived through these difficult times himself:

Inner work is as real as outer work and involves skills one can develop, skills like journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendship, and prayer…

TS Eliot wrote:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
This Easter it is true. Loss and grieving get caught up inextricably into prayer, and prayer into what Jesuits call the prayer of examen. It is harder than ever to distract myself, but the indistractible Spirit is gentle, too, and
…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)
I wrote a few weeks ago how I had been startled in meeting by a Friend’s ministry – just these few words, from Proverbs 20.24,

All our steps are ordered by the Lord;
how then can we understand our own ways?

that spoke directly to my condition. It is hard to see how our steps are “ordered by the Lord,” but all that is really left, this Easter, is to trust, and to remain still. In Isaac Penington’s words,

…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.

Naming the mystery?

Prayer is not about unveiling an impersonal source of our being, nor about gaining access to some sort of basic cosmic energy, nor about diving into a greater whole. Prayer is meeting the Father’s eyes and discovering that he loves us, cares for us, and journeys at out side.

Luigi Gioia, Say it to God: In Search of Prayer: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2018

This is the sort of statement that irritates some people, Friends and liberal Christians alike, who do indeed feel they wish to see God in impersonal terms like these. The problem is one of language, of course (see much of God, words and us, ed. Helen Rowlands), but also of rather more than the bare use of that term might suggest. Too much use of the personal may awaken in some unfortunate memories of simplistic caricatures of faith taught in Sunday schools, evangelistic rallies and elsewhere, while the often studied, mannered use of the impersonal may cramp and inhibit those of us whose own natural speech uses the concepts of a Trinitarian God as the inevitable expression of their experience of faith.

Craig Barnett, quoted in God, words and us, writes,

Most Quakers who use the word ‘God’ are not speaking of an ‘old man in the clouds’, or the omnipotent and omniscient supernatural God of the philosophers. Liberal Quakerism has inherited from the wider mystical religious tradition an understanding of spiritual reality as ultimately mysterious and unnameable, This tradition uses the word ‘God’ not as the name of an external ‘being’ but as a signpost that points towards our experience of spiritual reality…

For many people the word ‘God’ has so many unpleasant association with authoritarian or dogmatic religion that it is definitely unhelpful for them. For others, it is the most natural word to express their own experience and its continuity with traditional Quaker spirituality or with other religious paths. There is no right answer here: it is simply a matter of our personal histories and sensibilities, which may also change over time in response to different experiences.

Writing in the 22 March 2018 issue of The Friend, Cap Kaylor says, in their article ‘Christ, mystery and faith‘,

Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, the deeper narrative from which Quakerism sprang is the Christian narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who functioned both as archetype and engine for the early Quakers. For most of our history Friends have had no trouble identifying with that Christian narrative.

The Religious Society of Friends began as a reform movement within Christianity, and for the early Friends there was no confusion when it came to identifying the Light with the historical person of Jesus. They lived and moved in a society that was saturated with a Christian ethos. The very stones around them proclaimed a Christian culture that we can no longer take for granted as they could. Embedded within a Christian milieu they found their meaning and their mission in the gospels.

We are now faced with a dilemma. That Christian milieu has long since faded, and seeds that were planted early in our own history have left Quakers uniquely vulnerable to the stresses and challenges of a materialistic and aggressively secular civilisation. The historic channels through which Christian faith has typically been transmitted were scripture, tradition, and sacramental ritual. They weave together to form the narrative that is the Christian community’s collective memory of the Jesus event.

To a certain degree, part of the uniqueness of Quakerism has been its rejection of scripture, tradition and ritual as the principle sources of religious authority. In their place, Friends have historically elevated the individual’s experience of the Inward Light as primary. But it might now be asked whether the very thing that made Quakerism unique within Christianity is now making it uniquely vulnerable. Without scripture, tradition or sacramental ritual, what is left to re-link us to the original narrative that gave shape and substance to what began as an explicitly Christian mysticism?

We could do without a reliance on scripture, ordained ministry, or ritual while we lived in a Christian society that provided us with commonly held ethical presuppositions and a vocabulary to interpret our spiritual experiences. But that time has now past. However, without the force of at least an ostensibly Christian culture, where is the Religious Society of Friends to look for its identity and its engine?

Prayer has a way of undercutting our assumptions and our intellectualising, our “notions” as early Friends would have said. We are so much less than we think we are, and beside the realities we encounter in prayer our ideas and our preconceptions seem, to be honest, often slightly silly.

Luigi Gioia goes on to say,

In the end the source of authentic peace and truth will have to be looked for within. The real source of certainty as well…

Here is a Professor of Systematic Theology at the Pontifical University in Rome saying something that would not have sounded inappropriate in the mouth of an early Quaker! Prayer, if it is anything, is an authentic encounter with that which is far beyond the personal as we understand it, not because it is less than personal, but because it is infinitely more. For that, my own understanding fits precisely the Triune God of the creeds. When I pray the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, I am not reciting a formula; I am praying, in the Spirit, to Christ. There are no other words for that. We humans need sacraments: we need something, whether shared silence or shared bread and wine, to link us and heal us and remake us, to make real, to ground, our experience in the flesh in which we are made. Prayer needs this grounding – it cannot live as bodiless esotericism. It needs breath, warmth, life.

Gioia again,

Not that [in prayer] pain, worry, sin, selfishness, shame, guilt, magically disappear. Not that we lose our solidarity with all our brothers and sisters who do not pray or who do not believe. On the contrary, authentic prayer makes us more compassionate: we start feeling not only our pain but the pain of our brothers and sisters as well, we start perceiving the inward groans of humanity and even of the whole of creation [Romans 8.19-23]. What changes, however, is that these groans, this pain, these worries, this shame, this guilt, become prayer, feed prayer, so that love and hope are inexplicably infused into them and they lose their bitterness, their ability to hurt us, to trouble us: in hope we were saved and when we hope we become able to wait with patience, because all things work together for good for those who experience God’s love in prayer [Romans 8.28]…

Aerials, signs…

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Divine action is not something material: it is invisible, inaudible, unexpected, unimaginable, and inexplicable by any analogy taken from this world. Its advent and its working within us are a mystery… Little by little, divine action grants to man increased attention and contrition of the heart in prayer…

The spirit of prayer comes upon man and drives him into the depths of the heart, as if he were taken by the hand and forcibly led from one room to another. The soul is taken captive by an invading force, and is willingly kept within, as long as this overwhelming power of prayer still holds sway over it.

Theophan the Recluse, quoted in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, ed. Timothy Ware & Chariton of Valamo

Palm Sunday has a way of reminding us that we are all capable of both more good and less good than we had thought. The crowd who welcomed Jesus on the way into Jerusalem, the disciples who vowed to lay down their lives for their Lord, were the same people who later allowed themselves to be whipped up into demanding the release of a terrorist called Barabbas rather than Jesus; the same disciples who ran from the arresting officers; the same Peter who, having earlier sworn to die with him. swore he knew nothing of Jesus. We are no different; and yet there is a grace we do not suspect, working beneath all that we do, if we are open to the gift of the Spirit in us.

Bernard of Clairvaux wrote:

I admit that the Word has also come to me and has done so many times. But although he has come to me, I have never been conscious of the moment of his coming. I perceived his presence, I remembered afterwards that he had been with me; sometimes I had a presentiment that he would come, but I was never conscious of his coming or his going…

Where he comes from when he visits my soul, and where he goes, and by what means he enters and goes out, I admit that I do not know even now, as John says, you do not know where he comes from or where he goes [Jn 3.8]. There is nothing strange in this, for of him was it said, Your footsteps will not be known [Psalm 77.19]…

It was not by any movement of his that I recognised his coming; it was not by any of my senses that I perceived he had penetrated to the depths of my being. Only by the movement of my heart, as I have told you, did I perceive his presence.

We are not in the Jerusalem of the first century: we are in a strange, liminal place, all of us, and have been for a long while – since the first Easter. We do not know, any more than Bernard of Clairvaux knew, how exactly it is that the Spirit comes to be present in us, and yet

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)

We find ourselves walking through the world unarmed, vulnerable, available; with the prayer of Jesus himself in our hearts always, the Spirit interceding for us with sighs too deep for words. Being present to all we encounter as prayer, rather than needing consciously to say prayers, we are present as aerials, signs, receiving stations. The mist covers the distances, and our vision is not good; but Paul knew this, too:

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. 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)

Descending into the heart…

…when we descend into the heart we go down through what I have called the layers of our inner life. In the first layer are all the relatively superficial things, the thoughts and feelings which are going on in us… the things our minds are concerned with. Below these are the layers of deeper, more hidden things: our secret fears and guilty feelings, our deep anxieties… layers which we are aware of, and layers which we are not aware of or feel unable to face or enter.

As we make a habit of descending into the heart we become conscious that we are going down through all these layers which make up our inner world, some of which are unknown even to ourselves. As we enter our heart, we bring this inner world down into the heart, not in the sense that we continue to be preoccupied with it, but so that we can place it before God. We lay down before God all the thoughts and feelings and all the deeper things that are within us, and leave them there.

This then becomes one form, the deepest form, of the prayer of confession…

Alexander Ryrie, Prayer of the Heart

This is very close to what I was trying more clumsily to say the other day, when I wrote of losing my way in trackless places of the spirit. Lent this year is for me coming to be all about this form of confession, this laying down before God the deeper, secret layers of grief and anxiety that are there I suppose in all our lives, but which this Lent God is patiently uncovering, master archaeologist of the Spirit that he is (see Romans 8.26-27).

Of course Paul’s words, “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” bring us right through confession to the place of intercession, as Sandy Ryrie explains:

It is similar with our intercessions. There will be within us concerns and worries and thoughts about other people and situations… and circumstances that are bothering us. When we descend into the heart we do not just give up or ignore these people or things as irrelevant. We taken them down into the heart and lay them before God, leaving them before God and entrusting them to him. We do not go on thinking and worrying about them, nor try to persuade God to do something about them, but just leave them before him, waiting on him, allowing him to act.

Standing before God with the mind in the heart thus becomes the deepest form of both our confession and our intercession.

Ryrie, ibid.

The Jesus Prayer, says Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, “more than any other,” helps us to be able to “stand in God’s presence.” But in the wide field of contemplative prayer, there are other tracks we could follow, centering prayer (which is the contemporary equivalent to the prayer described in The Cloud of Unknowing), or Christian meditation, for instance. What matters here, at least as I am being led this Lent, is that opening ourselves to the Spirit in weakness and in stillness, allowing ourselves naturally to descend with the mind into the heart, into the presence of God in Christ.

A longer path…

Being the kind of person I am, I am prone to what I really would wish to call self-doubt; but which is in fact doubt in my calling, and so ultimately, I suppose, doubt in the faithfulness and capacity of the God who calls me. Let me try and explain.

In my better moments – and they are all too often no more than moments – I know perfectly well that what I am called to is contemplative prayer. I don’t mean to “do” contemplative prayer, as one might do yoga or pilates, but to give what I am to it. Despite the incessant stumbling and wandering of my life till now, I may in some dim way have always been aware of this, impossible though I have often found it to believe it, still less to be faithful to it.

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing has this to say:

If you ask me by what means you are to achieve this work of contemplation, I beseech almighty God of his great grace and his great courtesy to teach you himself. For I would have you know well that I cannot tell you… [W]ithout God’s work, no saint or angel can think of desiring it. And I believe that our Lord will deign to bring about this work to those who have been habitual sinners as particularly and as often – yes, and more particularly and more often – as in others who by comparison… have never caused him much grief…

Yet he does not grant this grace or bring about this work in any soul that is incapable of it. On the other hand, no soul that lacks this grace is capable of receiving it, no, whether it be the soul of a sinner or of an innocent person…

You have as much of it as you will and desire, neither more nor less, and yet it is not a will or a desire, but something, you do not know what, that stirs you to will and desire you do not know what…

Let it do the working, and you will be the material it works upon; just watch it, and let it be…

And if this is so, then trust firmly that it is God alone, entirely by himself, who stirs your will and your desire, without intermediary, either on his part or on yours.

That I fret, and mistrust myself, is, as I say, more a lack of trust in God than anything else. Certainly it is not anything that could be mistaken for humility, for, as the Cloud author points out, God seems to have a delight in calling to this life those of us who have all too often frequented dubious places in our time; presumably this is something like humour on his part, or else a tendency to demonstrate the unknowability of his will, the sheer giveness of his grace in Christ.

Sister Mary David Totah goes further:

…[W]e have been looking at making action more contemplative, finding a contemplative dimension in our actions. But there is a real sense in which prayer is itself an action, an action whose fruit and extent cannot be measured or assessed; its ways are secret, not only secret from others but also secret from ourselves. The greater part of the fruit of our prayer and contemplation remains hidden with Christ in God…

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

To do this sort of surrendering might seem to require a quite remarkable degree of trust in God; but the brilliance of Sister Mary David’s insight here is that it is in surrendering that we are given the degree of trust we need. Someone once said something to the effect that the longest journey begins with a single step; perhaps the journey deeper into what I once described as the saltmarsh of the spirit begins with each day’s step into prayer, into surrender. That tiny glimpse of faithfulness may open the little salt-bleached wicket gate of the heart onto a longer path than we can know.

What kind of fast?

We are nearly midway through the season of Lent at the moment; in the churches that recognise it, this is the time to remember the 40 days we are told Jesus spent in the Judaean wilderness (Matthew 4.1-11; Mark 1.12,13; Luke 4.1-13) immediately after his baptism. He was, we read, “led by the Spirit into the wilderness.”

Traditionally, we often think of Lent as a time of fasting, of giving things up, of somehow putting ourselves deliberately in the way of temptation in an act of solidarity, perhaps, with the temptations put in the way of Jesus during his time alone in the wilderness. But perhaps there’s another way altogether of looking at this.

Yesterday I wrote of Proverbs 20.24 – “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?” – as a way of accepting our own unknowing, our own inability to comprehend God, or even to go and find him on our own terms. What this comes down to, perhaps, is control, or its relinquishment. We cannot begin to control God; we can’t even control the circumstances of our perceiving God’s presence. It is all grace.

Maybe, just maybe, some of us have allowed the idea of the traditional Lenten disciplines to lead us into the wrong kind of place. We grimly seek control – we choose what we shall give up, be it chocolate or fermented drink or meat or snark or whatever – and self-control, the ability to say no to a square of chocolate, or a pint, or… and we think that by so doing we are growing in holiness. Perhaps we are only growing in wilfulness?

Whatever it was that happened to Jesus in the wilderness seems to have been part of the story, not some anomaly. As Paula Gooder memorably writes, “Jesus and the devil did not sneak away for a bit of illicit tempting: the Spirit led him there.” But why?

Perhaps the whole Lenten thing is about surrender, not control, self- or otherwise? After all, one way to read the accounts of the temptations themselves in Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospels is that what Jesus is being tempted to do is to take control – of his sustenance, of his Father’s provision of food or of safety, and ultimately to take control of the levers of political and military power – which last, it is implied, would involve obeisance to the devil, acceptance of all that is wrong and twisted and out of joint in our world. The Scriptures Jesus uses to refute the tempter are, it seems to me, all words of trust and acceptance – the words of one who waits on God, as Psalm 27 sums it up: “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

To fast from control may be what this Lent is about for me; to fast from the need to know, the need to have it all sewn up, the way mapped. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, “I think my hope lies in my own littleness.” Not to know may be the best way of being known by God.

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvellous for me.

(Psalm 131.1)

A trackless place…

I have been in a trackless place, recently. Things I thought I knew had become clouded over, old wounds long healed reopened. A mist had rolled in, and instead of hiding the known ways it had wiped them out, long-trodden paths scoured back to loose sand and the entropy of marram…

As I sat in meeting on Sunday morning, wondering how I could have so lost my way, a Friend rose and gave these words as ministry – just these words, without commentary:

All our steps are ordered by the Lord;
how then can we understand our own ways?

(Proverbs 20.24)

The verse struck me like a lightning bolt, as no Scripture had for a long time. It was as though the Friend, or really, through him, God, had spoken directly to me, directly to the confusion and self-doubt, the mirrored memories of pain, the emptiness where not even longing was.

Since then this little isolated verse has grown friends, words in the hollowness where my heart still beat:

These are indeed but the outskirts of his ways;
and how small a whisper do we hear of him!
But the thunder of his power who can understand?’

(Job 26.14)

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

(Psalm 139.17-18)

I wrote a few years ago that,

For myself, I have found I cannot find God by looking, or thinking, much as my whole life may seem to have been spent in a search for – or being distracted from a search for – what is true and is the source of all that is. What God is is unknowable. Anything I might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, not constrained by time, space or any other dimension. The only way I can know God is by not knowing.

Faith is not so much a way of knowing as it is a way of being known. God is so far beyond the reach of our frail and temporary minds that all we can do is keep silence, and wait. Only in that relinquishment of knowing can we hear God, for much as we cannot seek him out, he will find us, and in that finding will come our own real and lived experience, the presence and Light which is within and beyond us, as it is within and beyond all things. In himself God is No Thing, for what he is is without limit or beginning, and is not dependent; yet within him all things live, and move, and have their being – are loved even, and held in love beyond time and distance.

I think my hope lies in my own littleness. I am so small, so transient and partial, against the scattered glory of the night sky…

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! …

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8 1,3-4)

[Forgive the pronouns in this post, by the way – without fooling around inventing made-up words, I can only use pronouns that are gendered, or else wilfully ungendered, and it is hard to speak of an it who loves. God is not a person like you or me: not that he is less than a person, but that he is infinitely more.]