What Silence Is For

It has always seemed odd to me, over the relatively short time I’ve been seriously involved with Friends, that we of all people should have run into problems over language for our experience. As David Boulton writes (God, Words and Used. Helen Rowlands)

That some believe in God and others do not, or that some understand God language as in some sense ‘factual’ while others perceive it as intensified poetry, has become a problem for Friends. But my impression is that for many others it is no problem at all. In many, many meetings up and down the country, theists and non-theists meet together, work together, support each other, without tension or any deep concern over theological difference. We share clerkships, eldership and the routine offices. We are Friends together…

I have long felt that part of our problem is in fact not theological at all, rather linguistic. As long ago as 1908 Hilda Clark wrote,

One thing I understand now is that one’s intellect alone won’t pull one through, and that the greatest service it can perform is to open a window for that thing we call the divine spirit. If one trusts to it [the intellect] alone it’s like trusting to an artificial system of ventilation – correct in theory but musty in practice. How I wish it were as easy to throw everything open to the spirit of God as it is to fresh air.

In the book I quoted from yesterday, Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality, JP Williams writes

The problem for any object of thought is that even when we grasp it, we can only say what it is like in and to our grasp – whereas when it comes to the divine, we can touch or be touched but cannot comprehend, cannot enclose the divine in our fist, cannot get our hands to circle it or our ‘heads around it’. The distinct impression we get is that it’s the other way around: we are in God’s grasp, he comprehends us. God simply won’t be ‘an object of thought’: it’s not in the power of the dividing and distinguishing intellect but in the power of desiring, tentative, unifying love, to approach the divine.

Almost more telling, at least from a Quaker point of view, is a remarkable passage Janet Williams quotes from Michael Sells’ Mystical Languages of Unsaying:

The formal denial that the transcendent can be named must in some sense be valid, otherwise ineffability would not become an issue, Insofar as it is valid, however, the formal statement of ineffability turns back upon itself, and undoes itself. To say ‘X is beyond names’, if true, entails that it cannot then be called by the name ‘X’. In turn, the statement ‘it cannot be called X’ becomes suspect, since the ‘it’, as a pronoun, substitutes for a name, but the transcendent is beyond all names… I am caught in a linguistic regress… The authentic subject of discourse [God] slips back continually beyond each effort to name or even deny its nameability.

Sells may have nailed something here that we Quakers might have seen coming long ago, and fallen into the silence “before God” for which we are known. Words fail us. Of course they do. We are only human, and words are tools of ours. Trying to apply scientific or philosophical terms to that which we encounter in worship is like trying to dig up encaustic tiles with a carpenter’s chisel – you won’t make much of an impression on the tiles, and you’ll ruin the chisel. Silence is the proper tool, and waiting is the way it’s used. Emilia Fogelklou explains as well as anyone I’ve read:

But then one bright spring day – it was the 29th of May 1902 – while she sat preparing for her class under the trees in the backyard of Föreningsgatan 6, quietly, invisibly, there occurred the central event of her whole life. Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ‘empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.

The first words which came to her – although they took a long time to come – were, ‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ The child who had cried out in anguish and been silenced had now come inside the gates of Light. She had been delivered by a love that is greater than any human love. Struck dumb, amazed, she went quietly to her class, wondering that no one noticed that something had happened to her.

In worship there is an encounter which does not yield, cannot yield, to words. Meister Eckhart knew this, and used the term istigkeit, isness, which is perhaps as good as we can can get.

Quakers and others are sometimes frustrated when they attempt to read Scripture, especially the New Testament, and find a lack of exactitude, a sense of not being able to pin down, what the authors are getting at. (In the Old Testament this more often shows itself in endless apparently irrelevant or even objectionable histories and legalities, or impenetrable apocalyptic prophecies.)  But the Bible doesn’t set out, despite the things fundamentalists sometimes say, to do science or philosophy. Its many authors – who lived in societies and among traditions very different from our own – are merely trying to give an account of an encounter, that is all, or of the effect that encounter has had on them. Quaker ministry sometimes tries to do a similar job…

In meeting for worship, and in the practice of eldership that defines and protects our meeting, Quakers have developed a practice which is uniquely capable of understanding the apophatic (that is, of knowledge of God, obtained through negating concepts that might be applied to God), of sharing it, and of living out its consequences in relationship and action. We sometimes fail to realise the importance of this:

In silence, without rite or symbol, we have known the Spirit of Christ so convincingly present in our quiet meetings that his grace dispels our faithlessness, our unwillingness, our fears, and sets our hearts aflame with the joy of adoration. We have thus felt the power of the Spirit renewing and recreating our love and friendship for all our fellows. This is our Eucharist and our Communion.

London Yearly Meeting, 1928

Map Making

One of the things that seem to happen in the spiritual life is that “as we mature we add experience to the original ‘deposit of faith’ and it changes us – changes how we think, speak, act and pray.” (JP Williams, Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality)  As we go on, a process of stripping inevitably takes place: a leaving behind of much that seemed essential to our comfort, our identity, even to our relationship with God.

A page further on in her study, Janet Williams writes, describing this stage of our spiritual journey as “an ascent”,

… it feels like an ascent because we find ourselves not simply exchanging one scene for another but – at least sometimes – acquiring a larger perspective, being able to see how the partial glimpses that seemed so different at the time are parts of a broader landscape, being able to reconcile and integrate what earlier seemed irreconcilable. In a sense, we don’t just leave a particular landscape as we ascend, we also leave ourselves behind, the versions of ourselves that were comfortable in the old places. In another sense, what we leave behind is God – a version or view of God, that is. Just as the higher up we stand, the bigger the horizon is, so too with God; as Augustine says, ‘God is always greater, no matter how much we have grown.’

…although we have to be careful not to mistake this, there is a kind of growing distance from earlier concerns: not that we cease to care about injustice or unkindness but that we are less narrow in our sympathies.

Memory, or rather, remembering, plays its part here. Thinking back over the path that led us here, we can see that, “All our steps are ordered by the Lord; how then can we understand our own ways?” (Proverbs 20.24)

This is often partly repentance as much as recall, even as we remember the places where we stumbled painfully among the rocks, or strayed off the way altogether for a while. But remembering allows us to see the pattern, see the way we have been led. As the author of Proverbs goes on to say, “The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord, searching every inmost part.” (20.27) Our self-awareness illuminates a map, almost, of our leading. Not only do we see God’s hand in all we have done, guiding us even when we have missed the path, but we see the way back: back to incarnation, back to the life of creation, to the pain and need of the world – the things by which we were drawn to prayer in the first place…

A Simple Thing

One of the things that has always touched me about the Jesus Prayer is its simplicity. It is not in any way a mode of prayer reserved for religious professionals, nor one that requires training or qualifications. How do you pray the Jesus Prayer? Well, you say Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Rinse. Repeat. And that, really, is all there is to it, despite the many books that have been written about the practice and theology of this ancient prayer.

Jesus once said,

I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do…

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

(Matthew 11.25-6, 28-30 NIV)

I am occasionally made anxious by some recent writers on the contemplative tradition, and the terminology with which they surround contemplative prayer – “dualistic thinking”, “non-dual consciousness” and so forth – it can come to sound as though one needs a degree in comparative religion and a master’s in psychology. I do sort of know what they are getting at, yet I yearn for the simplicity of the Jesus Prayer and its tradition. A prayer that is as appropriate for a farmer as for an academic, for a taxi driver as for a nun or a monk – now that is something I can rejoice in, as we are all carried together into the Light.

The Kraken Wakes

For some reason we think that spiritual progress is marked by lack of struggle in life. [My] purpose… is to emphasise that this is simply not the case. Spiritual progress is learning to confront struggle in a new way so that we don’t struggle with the fact that life is fraught with struggle. But the practice of contemplation will expose us to many things we would rather not see but need to see if we are going to grow. Even something as potentially debilitating as depression or obsessive-compulsive behaviour finds healing salve in the practice of contemplation…

These, too, can be vehicles by which the mystery we call God breaks through and shines in awareness.

Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation

Anyone practicing the Jesus Prayer (and I believe this to be equally true of any other discipline such as Centering Prayer, the contemplative use of Holy Rosary, or Christian Meditation) will find sooner or later that they are led into waters whose floor shelves steeply away into the abyss, far out of their depth in pain and the memories of pain. At times like this the Jesus Prayer (or its equivalent) functions more like a bit of floating wreckage that we can cling to than any kind of structured prayer, though that is what it is.

The godly king of ancient Israel, Hezekiah, confronted with the besieging Assyrian army, received a letter from their king and commander-in-chief Sennacherib renewing his threat to sack Jerusalem, and warning him not to trust in God’s protection from his forces. Hezekiah’s reaction was not to surrender, nor to return boast for boast, but to go “up to the house of the Lord and spread [the letter] before the Lord.” (Isaiah 37.14)

So too the contemplative who is confronted with the siege ramps and archers of their own brokenness, their shame and the traumas they had thought to forget. There is nothing to be gained by trying to force these armies of the unconscious back to the land of repression, nor in giving way to fantasies, or running from prayer into some comforting pleasure or another. These are not distractions we can dismiss lightly, but very krakens of the mind’s deeps. Like dear King Hezekiah, our trust, even here, is in the Lord. At even the very end, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.” (Job 13.15 NIV) In our discipline our trust holds fast – the floating wreckage of our prayer is more than we can imagine. Like Hezekiah, the angel of the Lord will come to our defence by a way we had not suspected, our peace will come from a direction we had not seen, and like Elisha’s servant we shall see “the hills full of horses and chariots of fire” (2 Kings 6.17 NIV).

The fire of love can burn even in the midst of the storm, and we shall hear Jesus’ own voice, gentle and half-asleep, speaking peace and stillness to the waves. (Mark 4.35-41) Benignus O’Rourke’s words remind us,

Sometimes when people meditate or pray without words they are accused of trying to anaesthetise themselves to deaden their pain. But what we really do in our quiet prayer is to face the pain, engage with it, and transform it into energy for loving.

Finding Your Hidden Treasure: The Way of Silent Prayer

A still voice…

I have often wondered why hills seem to be so popular with prophets and mystics. Moses climbed Mount Sinai, as explained in Exodus 19,

At the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain…

Jesus “went out to the mountain to pray; and… spent the night in prayer to God.” (Luke 6.12) In fact he made a habit of it: “many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” (Luke 5.15b-16)

George Fox climbed Pendle Hill,

As we went I spied a great high hill called Pendle Hill, and I went on the top of it with much ado, it was so steep; but I was moved of the Lord to go atop of it; and when I came atop of it I saw Lancashire sea; and there atop of the hill I was moved to sound the day of the Lord; and the Lord let me see atop of the hill in what places he had a great people to be gathered.

(from Fox’s journal, quoted in Quaker faith & practice)

Part of it may simply be that climbing a hill is an act, not of some naive attempt to get physically closer to a God conceived of as “up there”, but of deliberately putting ourselves in the way of hearing from God. It may be the same impulse that leads us to silence and stillness in the awareness of God’s presence. A prayer like the Jesus Prayer, the “prayer word” in Centering Prayer, or the word “maranatha” in Christian Meditation, at least in part, seeks to do the same thing, to lead us to a state of inward withdrawal from the world of getting and doing into a condition of inner receptiveness, as Jesus explained:

But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

(Matthew 6.6)

(For what reward could God give us better than the gift of God’s presence?)

William Penn summed it up,

And you, young convinced ones, be you entreated and exhorted to a diligent and chaste waiting upon God, in the way of his blessed manifestation and appearance of himself to you. Look not out, but within… Remember it is a still voice that speaks to us in this day, and that it is not to be heard in the noises and hurries of the mind; but it is distinctly understood in a retired frame. Jesus loved and chose solitudes, often going to mountains, to gardens, and sea-sides to avoid crowds and hurries; to show his disciples it was good to be solitary, and sit loose to the world.

Quaker faith & practice 21.03 

[also published on The Mercy Blog]

Outstaring the Ghosts

The psalmist says, ‘You hide those who trust in you in the shelter of your presence.’ For ‘hide’ we might read ‘heal’. To sit with with our buried hurts and pains in the presence of the Lord is to allow ourselves to be healed by him. We no longer become involved in trying to sort them out, nor do we recoil from them. We sit quietly. We are beginning to have the confidence to outstare our ghosts.

Sometimes when people meditate or pray without words they are accused of trying to anaesthetise themselves to deaden their pain. But what we really do in our quiet prayer is to face the pain, engage with it, and transform it into energy for loving.

Benignus O’Rourke, Finding Your Hidden Treasure: The Way of Silent Prayer

Richard Rohr wrote, in one of his Daily Meditations (back in 2010 – it’s long been taken down):

We have put our emphasis on trying to love God, which is probably a good way to start—although we do not have a clue how to do that.  What I consistently find in the mystics is an overwhelming experience of how God has loved them.  God is the initiator, God is the doer, God is the one who seduces us.  All we can do is respond in kind, and exactly as Meister Eckhart said, “The love by which we love God is the very same love with which God has first loved us.”

The mystics’ overwhelming experience is this full body blow of the Divine loving them, the Divine radically accepting them.  And the rest of their life is trying to verbalize that, and invariably finding ways to give that love back through forms of service, compassion and non-stop worship.  But none of this is to earn God’s love; it’s always and only to return God’s love.  Love is repaid by love alone.

Our prayer, as contemplatives, is not something that is for ourselves alone, nor even – as if that were not sufficient – simply our response to our perceiving of the immensity of God’s love. I think this cannot be emphasised strongly enough. We need to understand that our life of prayer, especially if we are called to the contemplative life, is not a solipsistic, “self-actualising” activity, or some kind of relaxation technique aimed at producing a pleasant, stress-free state of mind, still less a quest for any kind of psychedelic experience. The contemplative vocation is as much as anything a call to intercession, and to a life lived in the shadow of the Cross.

Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, in Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life, write:

Anyone taking the eremitic vocation seriously is bound to feel helpless, quite impotent, in fact. Hermits are determined to help, to make a positive difference, but how? What can one person do, hidden and alone? Sometimes, solitaries may feel blameworthy because they live lives which shelter them from much of the suffering that so harshly mars the existence of their brothers and sisters. Love and compassion well up in them… but is it enough? What should one do and how? This is where passionate intercessory prayer and supplication spontaneously arises.

The challenge is to live a life given over to praying for others while accepting that one will seldom, if ever, see any results. No one will be able to ascertain how, or even if, their devoted prayers are efficacious for others. It is a terrible kind of poverty – to live dedicated to helping others, yet never know what good one may be doing. All that hermits can do is hope that they are doing no harm. Believers leave all results to the mercy of their God. Others rely on the interconnectedness of all humanity, trusting that what affects one, affects all. This is a form of intercession expressed less by words than by a way of life.

A Camaldolese monk once wrote: “Prayer is not only speaking to God on behalf of humanity, it is also ‘paying’ for humanity.” Suffering is part of the hermit’s vocation. One of the most acute forms is to never know whether one’s chosen lifestyle is worthwhile or has any value for others. Hermits enter into the darkness, the dusky cloud of unknowing, and walk without any light beyond that which is in their own hearts. Often, unbeknownst even to themselves, they have become beacons for others.

What the Fredettes write applies, of course, to the contemplative life however lived, whether in community or in physical solitude. The contemplative life has always been to a great extent a life lived in hiddenness, and in our own time, when the culture of celebrity and notoriety is continually whipped up by the press and social media, it is deeply counterintuitive to seek to live this way. These days relatively few of us live in true solitude, and still less of us in the more or less enclosed forms of community traditionally inhabited by contemplatives – the Carthusians, for instance, or the Poor Clares – and so we live not so much hidden lives as lives hidden in plain sight, ordinary, unrecognised and quiet. This hiddenness is really more a way of just getting out of the way – of standing still enough to act as a kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of mercy.

This life of inner solitude and hiddenness – for it is hidden from our own selves within as well as outwardly – is in many ways lived for others. We stand out in the wind, and in some mysterious way we relive Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai, when the Israelites said to him, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”

The ghosts we outstare are not our own merely; somehow in the silence of prayer we find ourselves confronting the ghosts of those we live amongst, touching the shadows that our post-Enlightenment age casts across all our lives, touching, as did the monks of Mount Athos during the years of the Stalin’s purges and Hitler’s atrocities, the dark skirts of chaos and cruelty that brush continually against our civilisation. Yet our prayer does, as I wrote yesterday, “tend… always to stillness, to wholeness of mind and spirit, to the peace of God, beyond our understanding…” It is that peace we seek for those with whom our prayer and our lives are inextricably caught up, just by being frail, temporary human things.

[Originally published on The Mercy Blog]

Welcoming Jesus?

In the current issue of The Friend, Michael Wright writes:

Cap Kaylor (23 and 30 March) has challenged us to enquire where our Religious Society of Friends is to look for its ‘identity and its engine’. He writes of the importance of narrative in the human search for meaning, as he points to the picture of Jesus ‘lost along the way’ but now being rediscovered.

Advices & queries 4 reminds us that: ‘The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus.’ We share a narrative with other Christians, but we value the scriptures without taking them at face value, paying attention to the Spirit that ‘gave the scriptures’ rather than abiding by the letter of them. We can learn much from the Jewish practice of finding the scriptures a source for creative thinking, rather than a theological straitjacket.

I have quoted Cap Kaylor here before:

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…

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?

Michael Wright proposes that:

…a narrative – sourced from the gospels, focused on truth and integrity, community fellowship, trust and service, health and wellbeing, valuing every individual, with concerns for justice, peace and for our environment – has real power to inspire and motivate. It draws creatively on the Christian tradition, but finds little or no sustenance in the words of too many hymns, liturgies and doctrines.

Michael concludes his thoughtful and engaging piece with an appeal for direct contact with Friends “interested in sharing experiences and insights and in developing such a narrative.” In The Friend magazine Michael publishes his email address, which is thus freely accessible to subscribers; here, on the open web, I feel I should not do so; but if anyone has no subscription to the magazine, they’re welcome to send me their own email address, and I’ll be glad to provide Michael Wright’s.