We are most temporary…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeanne Guyon, Experiencing God Through Prayer

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

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

All we can do is find some way – whether it be sinking down into the silence of our joined worship, down to the seed of which Isaac Penington spoke, or whether it be the a practice like watching the breath, centring prayer, or the Jesus Prayer or the Nembutsu – of ceasing to try and know or be or do anything, and let God’s Spirit come into the heart in God’s own time. All we can do is be still; all we can give is love.

The practice of stillness…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

Quaker faith & practice 26.70

Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 27

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

Isaac Penington, 1653 – Qfp 27.22

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

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

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

Isaac Penington, 1660 – Qfp 27.13

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

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

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

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

‘Tis the season…

It’s nearly the end of November, and retailers from Amazon to Waitrose are putting out their festive videos – quite a good crop this year, so far – to get us in the mood for the shopping days up to December 25th.

Janet Scott wrote, in 1994,

Another testimony held by early Friends was that against the keeping of ‘times and seasons’. We might understand this as part of the conviction that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered and not only on the occasions named Christmas, Easter and Pentecost.

This is a testimony which seems to be dying of neglect. Many Friends, involved with family and the wider society, keep Christmas; in some meetings, Easter and its meaning is neglected, not only at the calendar time but throughout the year. What I would hope for is neither that we let the testimony die, nor that we keep it mechanically. I hope for a rediscovery of its truth, that we should remember and celebrate the work of God in us and for us whenever God by the Spirit calls us to this remembrance and this joy.

One of sometimes forgotten benefits of keeping the liturgical calendar is the way that it reminds us, especially in a sensitive church environment, of the changing patterns of our relation to nature, and to the spiritual echoes or parallels that accompany that movement through the year.

The narrative arc of the Gospels, from Christmas through to Easter and beyond, thirty three years or so of a man’s life in first century Judea and Galilee, take us from fragile hope to brokenness and despair, and then beyond that into a new and imperishable hope not rooted in outcome or survival.

The accounts of these events are not read merely as an historical account of the genesis of a religion, nor just as a kind of spiritual allegory, but as a way of entering, wide awake, into a reality common to all that comes to be. Everything we know has a beginning, a term of being, and an ending – and yet… New life appears where old life faded, cosmological events arise, fade, and there are new arisings. What is rests in isness; and isness goes on – it is the very ground of being itself. What looks to us like failure then is necessary process;  what looks to us like ending is just the place of beginning again, and death itself is only the way to life.

I wrote once that,

Letting in the presence of God, as I believe we do in the silence of worship, entails letting in all the love of God, all that God loves; the broken, the terrified, the pain and the uncanny bitter grieving of that which is, and is loved.

All prayer comes down to this. Truly to pray is to become a small incarnation, a tiny model of Christ; this is why it is so necessary to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.17), and why to pray is to take up the cross ourselves, since it is the refusal to turn away from openness to the pain that runs inextricably through existence, like a red thread in the bright weave of what is.

To make sense of this, I think we cannot cherry-pick bits of the Gospel account. We need that entire narrative arc, to walk with it, to live it out in our worship and our thinking, to be present to it as it is present in us; and at its best this is what the liturgy does throughout the seasons of the changing year. It would be good if, somehow, we Quakers found a way to do that too…

 

Another kind of peace: reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 24

A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, that good may come of it… It is as great presumption to send our passions upon God’s errands, as it is to palliate them with God’s name… We are too ready to retaliate, rather than forgive, or gain by love and information. And yet we could hurt no man that we believe loves us. Let us then try what Love will do: for if men did once see we love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains: and he that forgives first, wins the laurel.

William Penn, 1693 – Quaker faith & practice 24.03

In these difficult days, when elections seem to have been won on promises of intolerance and injustice, when supporters of both sides are calling for more and more extreme opposition one to another, and violence is looked upon as a normal and inevitable response, it is good to read this chapter on our Quaker peace testimony.

We all too often, it seems to me, fall into the world’s ways of looking at disagreement, and fall into the world’s use of words in speaking of it. We talk of struggle, of victory and defeat, of things lost and won. The left does this as well as the right; and occasionally, Friends fall into the trap also. Perhaps we need, as we contemplate a world with Brexit on one side of the Atlantic, and a Trump administration on the other, to reread Kathleen Lonsdale, writing in 1953:

Friends are not naïve enough to believe that such an appeal ‘to that of God’ in a dictator or in a nation which for psychological or other reasons is in an aggressive mood will necessarily be successful in converting the tyrant or preventing aggression. Christ was crucified; Gandhi was assassinated. Yet they did not fail. Nor did they leave behind them the hatred, devastation and bitterness that war, successful or unsuccessful, does leave. What can be claimed, moreover, is that this method of opposing evil is one of which no person, no group, no nation need be ashamed, as we may and should be ashamed of the inhumanities of war that are perpetrated in our name and with our support.

Quaker faith & practice 24.26

As I wrote a few months ago,

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”. We Quakers easily fall into the prevailing patterns, however much we attempt to be gentler and more tentative in expressing them. (I recall a conversation with a Tory MP who had met with a group of Quakers, and who told me, “They didn’t look to me much like Conservative voters…”!) We all too often automatically assume certain political and social positions, and too readily take an adversarial stance over against the other side. In this we are no different to the members of any other pressure group, and we can tend to take and to project the attitude that the Society of Friends is little more than a kind of portal for any number of political, peace, environmental and other concerns that share a broadly pacifist, left-wing, climate-sensitive stance.

The problem, of course, is not that we are concerned, and active, with righting wrongs in the world around us. Quakers throughout our long history have done this, and an extreme quietist agenda would be no more helpful than a solely activist one. The problem, it seems to me, lies in the source of our actions. When we react from our emotions and from our convictions, rather than from the Spirit’s leading, we miss the point of being a Religious Society of Friends, and “outrun our guide”.

Our activism as Friends is an outcome, an outworking, of our experience of the Light. We do not hold meeting for worship in order to strengthen ourselves for action, or to seek God’s blessing on a course of action we have wilfully decided upon; we meet in order to encounter the presence of God. As a result of this encounter, and of our encounter with that of God in each other, may may find ourselves called, inevitably, to action of some kind – but this is humanly a side effect, and divinely a leading: something God leads us into.

But this leading may not be to success, to some kind of victory. As Kathleen Lonsdale points out above, “Christ was crucified; Gandhi was assassinated.” The list of Quaker martyrs is long: James Nayler, William Leddra, Mary Dyer – many others. And yet, as Lonsdale says, they did not fail.

We must, I am sure, beware of judging our actions, or their causes, by the standards of the world. The trouble with thinking of ourselves in terms of politics is that we come to think of ourselves as successful or unsuccessful in our political endeavours. But it is our endeavours to love as God first loved us that may have effects, some of them perhaps political it’s true, beyond anything we may see in our own lifetimes. As Roger Wilson wrote (Qfp 24.24), “…it is ultimately the power of suffering in love that redeems men from the power of evil.”

Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 4

Do you take part as often as you can in meetings for church affairs? Are you familiar enough with our church government to contribute to its disciplined processes? Do you consider difficult questions with an informed mind as well as a generous and loving spirit? Are you prepared to let your insights and personal wishes take their place alongside those of others or be set aside as the meeting seeks the right way forward? If you cannot attend, uphold the meeting prayerfully.

Quaker faith & practice 1.02: Advices & queries 15

Recently, I seem to have become something of an area meeting addict. I don’t think it’s that I have become an overnight Quaker governance geek – I still blench at much of the language of Qfp Chapter 4, and the layers of standing committees, subcommittees and working groups that characterise many area meetings still cause a slight numbness to creep over the edges of my mind. No, I think it’s more that, largely through my experience as an accompanying elder for area meeting, I have come to appreciate something of the spiritual dimension.

Strangely, perhaps, this spiritual dimension of area meeting doesn’t seem to me to be limited to AM’s role in providing a framework of governance within which the local meetings can hold their worship in peace and good ordering, but extends out into unseen spiritual community of which we are all part. As Qfp 4.01 states,

Until 2007 area meetings were known as monthly meetings. The change was made to give more emphasis to the area meeting as a spiritual community rather than a regular event, and in the interests of accuracy because many monthly meetings no longer met monthly.

We are beings of matter and beings of spirit: the two aspects of us cannot be separated, and one is not superior to, nor more fundamental than, the other. Our decisions, our mechanisms of governance even, do have real spiritual weight; our prayerful upholding really does help carry that weight out into the space that worship makes in our hearts and in our intentions – into, if you will, the discerned will of God.

Sparrows and stillness: reading Qfp Ch. 1

Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

Quaker faith & practice 1.02: Advices & queries 7

Friends have become very familiar with the last two sentences of this – the query part – as a kind of watchword for open-mindedness and tolerance in all that we do, but too often, I think, we forget some of the implications of the advice part.

Mystical experience, the direct, unmediated encounter with God central to Quaker worship and 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.

David Johnson writes ( A Quaker Prayer Life, 2013) “Quaker prayer arises from a life of continuing devotion. We learn by experience.” To turn our hearts to silence, to “stand still in the Light”, on a regular, daily basis does indeed open out our awareness to the presence of God in the small, everyday circumstances of life – blue tits in the bird bath, sycamore seeds spinning along the breeze, the distant, resonant clang of scaffolding poles dropped onto a lorry. We all rest in God, human and otherwise, and the ground of being is our inevitable home. We cannot fall out of what is: we can only be transformed, and even dying is only another kind of transformation within that ground. All that is needed is to learn to know this, moment by luminous moment, among the drifting leaves and the still incessant chirping of sparrows in the bushes along the hospital grounds.