Tag Archives: Cloud of Unknowing

Holding God fast…

Sometimes I believe that as Quakers we can tend to overthink things, things in our practice and procedures, in our response to politics, our response to other communities of faith. There are many possible reasons for this, and almost as many reasons why it’s one of the Quakerly traits I am most prone to living out myself. In the same way as our being of a certain age, and educational background, and, in some places at least, a certain race, it’s a self-perpetuating thing. Like attracts like, and is strengthened.

I don’t propose, though, to spend this blog post analysing Friends, nor even analysing myself, nor to spend it looking for reasons or excuses or corrections for this sometimes unhelpful tendency to subject everything to analysis. I want to call us home.

George Fox, as a young man, spent several years travelling through the East Midlands and the East and West Ridings of Yorkshire, and there he encountered religious groups of various kinds. You can read some of his journal entries in the first few sections of Quaker faith & practice Chapter 19. Fox spoke with priests, with separated preachers, and with “the most experienced among the dissenting people”, to paraphrase his own words, and heard many of their arguments and their learned disquisitions. He came close to despair, realising that,

there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [i.e. hinder] it? And this I knew experimentally.

Ofp 19.02

It is in this direct encounter with God, through this experimental faith, that our flustered, overburdened minds find rest. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote, “God can be held fast and loved by means of love, but by thought never.”

Cynthia Bourgeault writes,

“Love” is this author’s pet word for that open, diffuse awareness which gradually allows another and deeper way of knowing to pervade one’s entire being.

Out of my own three decades of experience in Centering Prayer, I believe that this “love” indeed has nothing to do with emotions or feelings in the usual sense of the word. It is rather the author’s nearest equivalent term to describe what we would nowadays call nondual perception anchored in the heart.

And he is indeed correct in calling it “love” because the energetic bandwidth in which the heart works is intimacy, the capacity to perceive things from the inside by coming into sympathetic resonance with them. Imagine! Centuries ahead of his time, the author is groping for metaphors to describe an entirely different mode of perceptivity.

Here is the key, I think, to our contemporary heart-searchings over theism and nontheism, Christian Quaker and universalist Quaker. If God is God, then by definition he is “beyond all definition of ours” (Samuel Fisher, 1661).

We are small and very temporary creatures on a small planet somewhere in the vast web of a universe thought to be in the region of 91 billion light-years in diameter, containing around 300 sextillion stars. How would we be able to hold in our dear and glittering minds the ground of all that being – and all that is, unimaginably, besides?

All we can do, it seems to me, is to keep silence, and wait. Only in the dark of that unknowing – that relinquishment of knowing – will come our own most real and lived experience, the presence and Light of that which is within and beyond us, as it is within and beyond all things. In itself it is No Thing, for it is without limit or beginning, and is not dependent; yet within it all things live, and move, and have their being – loved even, and held beyond time and distance.

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 Mercy Blog – a new start

It seems to me to be time to begin posting regularly again on my other blog. This blog here at Silent Assemblies will continue, but I seem to be coming to the conclusion that I need a space to discuss contemplative prayer in general, and the Jesus Prayer in particular, without feeling the need to put things in a specifically Quaker context.

The practice of contemplative prayer, especially that of the Jesus Prayer, is not so much a matter of personal choice as of leading, and, as the Pilgrim found, being faithful to that leading is not always an easy matter. It shouldn’t be thought that contemplative prayer is an easy alternative to either action or to verbal prayer. Opening one’s heart to God in this way opens it to God’s love for our brokenness; allowing Christ to dwell in our hearts by his Spirit involves us in the love of Christ, and its consequences: as Paul once wrote: “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)

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote: “It is not your will or desire that moves you, but something you are completely ignorant of stirring you to will and desire you know not what.” It is in simply willing to follow that desire that we are led, like the Cloud author, into the way of contemplation.

For all I have said about the seriousness of the call to contemplative prayer, it really is very simple indeed. Irma Zaleski, in her classic Living the Jesus Prayer, wrote:

The Kind of awareness that the Jesus Prayer may lead us to is very simple. We do not try to imagine that Jesus is there, and even less what he looks like or what he says. We do not engage in any imaginary conversations with him. We simply try to be aware of him and attentive to him in a similar way as we are aware of the presence of someone we love in the next room, or as a mother is attentive to what her children are doing, however busy she is. We believe – we know by faith – that God in Christ is here, with us and in us. Our task is to try and remember him and be attentive to him. It is this attentiveness that is the door to our experience of the presence of God. We cannot summon this experience at will. We cannot grasp it as if it were a possession. It is, like the Prayer itself, a gift. Ours is only a discipline of faith and perseverance…

The Real Thing

“Sarah Blackborow (d. 1665) was a prominent Quaker minister in London during the 1650s and 1660s. She helped to establish a meeting at Hammersmith and was probably influential in the development of separate women’s business meetings. She wrote and published the tract A Visit to the Spirit in Prison in 1658. It is a good example of the kind of early Quaker writing that combined strong words of warning and admonishment with positive and joyful messages of spiritual guidance and encouragement. She also uses a feminine image of God.”

Stuart Masters has most usefully posted, on his blog A Quaker Stew, a simple summary of Blackborow’s message. A couple of paragraphs immediately struck me:

Don’t be distracted and misled. Turn away from the many and varied ways of the world and face up to God’s witness within you. Pay attention to it and live with it. Follow divine leadings and know God’s power. This is the only way to eternal life. If you are faithful, you may well experience suffering, but you will also be given the strength to endure this and be delivered from all trouble. But you must stick with it. The love of God will be with you and will comfort you. It will lead you out of the changeable ways of the world and to the eternal life. This Spirit will crucify your darkness, enabling you to break free from the things that prevent you from entering the Kingdom of God.

Sit at the feet of your Inward Teacher – If you rely on the second-hand words and ideas of other people, you are missing the real thing, which comes directly from the living God. Turn away from the teaching of others; stop worrying about your reputation and turn instead to the Light within you, which will show you the truth. If you are willing to submit to your inward teacher and accept what is revealed and what is taught, you will hear God’s voice calling you to the heavenly dwelling place. Turn to the Light of Christ, which reveals all evil and darkness. Give yourself fully to this Light, whether it praises you or condemns you. For this is your true Mother, who has conceived you and who loves you…

I woke this morning, long before dawn, full of distress at the news of the world. I could not think where to turn for some kind of explanation: the atrocities of Daesh in Paris, Beirut and elsewhere, crimes against LGBT people in Uganda and Kenya, recent information on the close links between the British Legion and the arms trade, the arms industry during World War II, which I had been looking up earlier, and the war bonds sold to pay for its products, the march of profit… on and on. What did it even mean, I wondered, to pray in the face of such a torrent?

Lying in the dark, listening to the cold rain in the trees outside the window, I came to remember Sarah Blackborow’s words: “If you rely on the second-hand words and ideas of other people, you are missing the real thing, which comes directly from the living God. Turn away from the teaching of others…”

Quite suddenly the shadowed room turned to stillness, and my heart opened. I have no explanation for what happened, yet suddenly I knew beyond a doubt that I had been heard, that my pain, and far more importantly the pain of those for whom I grieved, was not wasted. The words of Psalm 56.8, “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?” somehow made perfect sense.

I could not offer a factual explanation for what happened, nor defend in a law court the inexplicable peace that came to my heart, but I knew in that moment that it was “the real thing, which comes directly from the living God.” Psalm 56 concludes, “you have delivered my soul from death, and my feet from falling, so that I may walk before God in the light of life.” Whatever pain had overcome the Hebrew poet who wrote those words, he had come through: he had found trust in the midst of fear, peace in wartime.

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote: “It is not your will or desire that moves you, but something you are completely ignorant of stirring you to will and desire you know not what.” I had no name for the peace that enveloped me, and I could not know why it had been given to me, any more than I could deny its source, or the real and effective thing that had been done in the darkness before day.

 

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.

Even in darkness…

…I am not the light, but I am called to testify to the light. To testify is to tell my truth, the whole truth, to be held accountable for what I know and see. I am a witness to the light. I have watched it shine in my very own darkness.

Light, of course, always shows up best in darkness. As it turns out in God’s wise economy, I serve the light best not by trying to be light, not by trying to create an illusion of light, but by being simply myself. A wondering, a waiting, a longing, a doubting, a sometimes lost and tired traveller. My unique darkness becomes my unique gift. It is how I testify to the light. The very parts of me that I think about trying to hide reveal the light most clearly. Because even in darkness—especially in darkness—the true light, oh how it loves to shine.

Kayla McClurg, on Inward/Outward

It is harder and harder, especially as the physical darkness of the shortening days draws the year in to its ending, to see the way ahead. We are not given to see the view from the hill, and the pattern makes no sense from here. Shadows lengthen, the sun appears only briefly between low bands of cloud, across a thin and watery sky. There is nothing to see outside the rooms of winter, no promise of a better tomorrow.

Darkness is all that is left as a testimony to the light. My own darkness, the light that fades in so many eyes each day as its life passes – where? There are no conclusions, and all the signposts are fading now.

Advent. Waiting. Below the horizon there is a rising, yet the darkness extends its borders across these bare fields. What is it? No answer. How could there be? There are no words for this, and we have not the senses for these wavelengths. “When I say ‘darkness’, I mean a privation of knowing, just as whatever you do not know or have forgotten is dark to you, because you do not see it with your spiritual eyes. For this reason, that which is between you and your God is termed, not a cloud of the air, but a cloud of unknowing.” (The Cloud of Unknowing, Ch. 4)

But the light shines in the darkness. It does. The dark has not overcome it, despite the closing down of day to that faint fading glimmer along the horizon. It is only love, and love has no need of daytime, or even summer. Love holds all that is, could be. Contains the worlds, and the aching interstellar voids; it is the ground of being itself, and is always. There is nothing to fear…