Tag Archives: David Johnson

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.

A life of continuing devotion

“Quaker prayer arises from a life of continuing devotion. We learn by experience.” (David Johnson, A Quaker Prayer Life)

“…when God doth work who shall let [i.e. hinder] it? And this I knew experimentally.” (George Fox, 1647)

It is sometimes said that Quakerism is an experimental faith, and this is nowhere more true than in prayer. Quakers (unprogrammed ones, at least) have no written prayers, and even in spoken ministry, direct prayer seems rarely to be heard. What we learn in prayer, whether in the silence of meeting for worship, or in our own personal practice, we learn by experience.

It seems to me that this word “experimental”, both in its modern sense of “using a new way of doing or thinking about something” (Merriam Webster) and in George Fox’s sense of “experiential”, implies much about Quaker prayer – as about mystical prayer in general, perhaps. Mystical prayer can take place only in the present, and so is to that extent always “a new way of doing”; and it can only be real in the actual experience of the one praying. Such experience seems rarely if ever to come at first attempt. It really does seem to be “a life of continuing devotion” that opens the heart to the tides of the Spirit, and season by season changes it to receive the gift of new life as its own…

[For a few thoughts on how the word “prayer” might be defined in a Quaker context, read this earlier post.]

Longing love

It was only when I heard the definition of prayer as ‘attention’ that it began to have some meaning for me. As the French mystic Simone Weil wrote: ‘Prayer… is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God.’ I began to see prayer as an act of faith and will. Preparing myself, opening myself to God’s will, and making myself a channel for God’s love. It is a passive state and sometimes less like praying and more like being prayed through… An act of intention, it includes adoration, wonder and contemplation.

Twelve Quakers and Prayer (No.2)

It is hard, sometimes, to find a Quaker paradigm for prayer. Advanced patterns of language to allow us to think about prayer can be found in many religious traditions, where prayer as generally practiced by Quakers is often referred to as mystical or contemplative prayer. (This is discussed at length in the opening sections of David Johnson’s excellent book A Quaker Prayer Life). Part of the difficulty, it seems to me, is that, as I wrote earlier, prayer is so often understood as petitioning a reluctant God to grant the pray-er some favour. The anonymous second Friend quoted above writes,

Praying for things, for ourselves or for others, praying that our wishes be fulfilled, no longer made sense to me. How would I know what to wish for? Who am I to think that I know it? Asking for an outcome makes an assumption about my own knowledge and expresses my need to be in control. Hard as it may be, a difficult situation may be just what is needed for spiritual growth, and indeed, recognition of that helps me consider difficulties to be learning opportunities…

The idea of praying for someone or something, when we might consider that all is known to God in any case, seems unhelpful… We do not pray to affect God, but that we ourselves may be changed in the process. It is an act of sharing with God, not an attempt to prompt God into action. It is a holding in the Light, both inward and outward. We pray not to God for others, but for God for them.

For me, prayer is not a matter of reason or invention, but merely of longing love. All our means and methods of prayer amount to no more than getting the selfish mind out of the way of that longing love, so that that love can flow both ways, to and from all that we mean by “God”, and so too through our own compassionate longing to the least of our fellow creatures, human or otherwise. The heart’s prayer can’t be any less than this.

Whether called elders or not…

Some Friends, whether called elders or not, have been looked to for spiritual counsel from the beginning. So in 1653 William Dewsbury proposed that each meeting should appoint ‘one or two most grown in the Power and the Life, in the pure discerning of the Truth’ to take responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the meeting and its members.

While the nurture of the spiritual life and responsibility for the right holding of meeting for worship continued to rest with ‘elders’, the more practical aspects of pastoral care were, towards the end of the eighteenth century, assigned to appointed ‘overseers’.

Most area meetings continue the practice of appointing elders and overseers from their membership to ensure that the needs of the worshipping groups within their compass are met.

Quaker Faith and Practice 12.05

There is much material available on eldership in Quaker Faith and Practice, and within the Quaker community generally, but as Jenny Routledge discovered when researching her book Living Eldership, there is less on actually being an elder.

Increasingly, I’m beginning to feel that the spiritual discipline of eldership is central not only to what is distinctive about Quakerism as a religious movement, but to the life of the Meeting, and ultimately to the life of each individual Quaker. Do note that I said, “the spiritual discipline of eldership”, not “elders”. Elders are important to spiritual welfare; but in the end, as a workshop participant said to Jenny Routledge, “Elders are the ones who remind us that we are all elders.”

“We are all elders…” It sounds good, but what does it mean? For a start, I think, we are each of us responsible for the spiritual life of our Meeting – all the way, eventually, to the Yearly Meeting of which we are part. We each have the opportunity to join in worship, where the presence in the silence of each of us is as vital as breathing. The coming together of Friends to worship is the engine of all that Quakers do, and its effects ripple through the world bringing peace, justice and love far beyond the walls of our meeting houses.

Spoken ministry seems to flow naturally from the silence – as Pierre Lacout says,

In silence which is active, the Inner Light begins to glow – a tiny spark. For the flame to be kindled and to grow, subtle argument and the clamour of our emotions must be stilled. It is by an attention full of love that we enable the Inner Light to blaze and illuminate our dwelling and to make of our whole being a source from which this Light may shine out.

Words must be purified in a redemptive silence if they are to bear the message of peace. The right to speak is a call to the duty of listening. Speech has no meaning unless there are attentive minds and silent hearts. Silence is the welcoming acceptance of the other. The word born of silence must be received in silence.

But much as our spiritual lives may be centred on meeting for worship, we have lives that stretch across the other six days of the week. David Johnson wrote,

A Quaker prayer life arises from a life of continuing daily attentiveness. The first generation of Quakers followed a covenant with God, based on assiduous obedience to the promptings of the Inward Light. This process did not require established churches, priests or liturgies. Quaker prayer then became a practice of patient waiting in silence.

Prayer is something to be done daily all through our lives, and not to be left till we go to Meeting for Worship once a week. Yet prayer is not easy for many of us…

(David Johnson, A Quaker Prayer Life)

As elders, we each have the tender lives of our Friends to care for, to hold in the Light. Whether we are called elders or not, each of us can help the other to grow closer to the endless stream of the Spirit flowing through all of our lives.

Harvey Gilman, whom I have quoted on this blog before, has an article on elders in the Words series in this week’s issue of The Friend, where he too discusses Jenny Routledge’s work:

In her writings on eldership, Jenny Routledge has helpfully pointed to three ways of considering the role of the elder, which may also refer to the challenge of any religious community. She mentions accompaniment, discipline and nurture. This chimes in with my experience of those people I call the elders of my life. As Friends, we talk of answering that of God in each other. We might also talk of affirming the worth of each other, eliciting an awareness of the Light within each other, walking side by side with each other, challenging each other out of our habits and our fearfulness, calling each other to be accountable for our lives and actions, pointing out that spiritual growth is a matter of discipline and discipleship, nurturing the seed of authenticity in each other – and sharing together some of the deep insights of Quaker tradition. I have been eldered in all these areas. I am profoundly grateful for this eldering.

An Intentional Turning

I do not see prayer as a manipulation of reality. It is rather the recognition of the limitation of the self, an intentional turning of the self to the light, of the part to the whole, the individual to the community and to God. It is the very encounter of the energy of the self with the energy of creation. Perhaps it is out of this that miracles may occur. And who knows, it may be out of this that prayers are answered.

Harvey Gilman, writing in The Friend, 24 October 2014

Prayer can sometimes seem an odd subject to a Quaker. Despite books like David Johnson’s A Quaker Prayer Life, many of us – as Harvey Gilman says earlier in this article – prefer terms like prayerfulness or opening  to prayer, especially when our mind throws up memories of “saying our prayers”, or of the sometimes mechanical “prayers of intercession” in a church service.

But Gilman goes on to describe his understanding of prayerfulness as “a disposition of the Spirit, an intention of the soul, even when words fail, even when one does not know what is needed. ‘I cannot pray’ is a form of prayer.” This is more like it. True prayer seems to me to consist not so much in presenting God, or whatever we imagine to be God, with a list of requests, demands, petitions to be filled, as in answering the call God places on the heart.

I once wrote,

“The sanctification or purifying of the heart and soul is done in the inner darkness, unknown and unfelt by us at the time.” (Johnson) This is perhaps the key to understanding what is involved in the practice of contemplative prayer. It requires an utter, implicit trust in God to pray like this, unknown and unrewarded even by ourselves, which is of course part of the paradox of prayer itself. The call to prayer, and the trust required to pray with no visible “answer”, is pure grace; such grace is only to be reached in prayer.

We cannot know what is going on in prayer because we cannot know what God is. We can only know God; and it is in knowing God that prayer becomes the inevitable attitude of the human in the presence of the divine. If this is so, then not only is Quaker worship a kind of prayer (and I am convinced that, whatever else it may involve, it is) but many other encounters with the Light may be prayer also. George Fox encountered God before he knew where exactly in Scripture to find him:

Now the Lord God hath opened to me by his invisible power how that every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ; and I saw it shine through all, and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation and came to the light of life and became the children of it, but they that hated it, and did not believe in it, were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it.

That opening came from beyond Fox. It comes from beyond me. If it did not, I should never have thought of praying. All through my teens and early twenties I had sought for what was beyond myself, beyond the boundaries and conclusions of my senses and my mind – for what was real, in fact. But it was not until I reached the end of my own resources, and something far beyond my self – that I had glimpsed in the childhood stillness that follows serious illness, or alone in the sunlight orchard behind our house – called to me, that I knowingly encountered the divine as an adult. Yielding to that at last was prayer, and it has remained true for me that prayer is no more than a response, something not initiated by me, nor an action of mine, but merely an opening of what little in me is true to that which is love, and truth, and light itself, and always life.

A Leap into Silence

[The] early Christian monk, [John Cassian] who brought the ideas and practices of Egyptian monasticism to the early medieval West, saw that even the way of prayer can be dangerous if it never leads you to great love and allows you to avoid necessary suffering in the name of religion.

Those who fall into the safety net of silence find that it is not at all a fall into individualism. True prayer or contemplation is instead a leap into commonality and community. You know that what you are experiencing is held by the whole and that you are not alone anymore. You are a part, and now a forever-grateful part.

Real silence moves you from knowing things to perceiving a Presence that has a reality in itself. Could that be God? There is then a mutuality between you and all things. There is an I-thou relationship. Martin Buber said an I-it relationship is when we experience everything as commodity, useful, utilitarian. But the I-thou relationship is when you can simply respect a thing as it is without adjusting it, naming it, changing it, fixing it, controlling it, or trying to explain it. Is that the mind that can know God? I really think so.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation, pp. 15, 26, 27

Extraordinary – here is Richard Rohr, a Roman Catholic Franciscan priest, writing something that could have been written by Pierre Lacout, or David Johnson, or one of so many Quaker writers on prayer and silence.

“The mind that can know God…” I cannot think of a more accurate way of speaking of the mind within the silence of a gathered meeting, when the pattern of Friends’ hearts in the silence has become an almost infinitely sensitive net for the divine presence, a kind of aerial for the Spirit of God, and we are all one before the Light that has dawned among us.

In the inner darkness…

Quaker prayer arises from a life of continuing devotion. We learn by experience.

The first step is a daily and continuing practice to centre down, turning to the inward light no matter how dim at first, and cultivation an inward listening. Disregard the intrusions of thoughts… “Stand still in the Light” inwardly refusing to be diverted. Submit everything to the scrutiny of the inward Light; sink low and allow the Light to judge and dispel these illusory thoughts…

The second step is a mental willingness and desire to be free of all the imaginations and workings of the mind so that the entire being is directed inwardly to God. This inward yielding is an act of humble submission, and an acknowledgement that all is in God’s hands and in God’s time. We admit our dependence on God. The sanctification or purifying of the heart and soul is done in the inner darkness, unknown and unfelt by  us at the time. That is why we must learn to reside in the inner darkness without expecting wonderful spiritual delights and consolations every time we spare time for prayer. Coming wholeheartedly to prayer is more important than the results of the prayer.

The third step is to love the Light as it begins to show us what to do and what needs to be remedied in our lives to make us more acceptable in God’s sight… We need to give priority to the small voice or dim light within us and allow that to judge what is more worldly. We must reverse the usual behaviour of allowing our mind to judge the small, divine seed hidden beneath this veil of worldly commentary. We must “keep low” within ourselves…

David Johnson, A Quaker Prayer Life, 2013

“The sanctification or purifying of the heart and soul is done in the inner darkness, unknown and unfelt by us at the time.” This is perhaps the key to understanding what is involved in the practice of contemplative prayer. It requires an utter, implicit trust in God to pray like this, unknown and unrewarded even by ourselves, which is of course part of the paradox of prayer itself. The call to prayer, and the trust required to pray with no visible “answer”, is pure grace; such grace is only to be reached in prayer.

Paradox it may be, but it works. Women and men through all the history of humanity have found – been shown – the way. The heart’s wisdom is far greater than the mind’s inquiry, and it is in the heart that the “small, divine seed” sets itself. All that is required is an inner yielding, a hope in that not seen. The apostle Paul, a far greater teacher on prayer than he is often given credit for being, wrote to the Romans (8.24b-25; 5.5):

Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience… and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

David Johnson concludes his book:

It is clear that this inward yielding and obedience to the Light was the source of the extraordinary connectedness with God experienced by the early Quakers. It is also the source of their inspiration, inward clarity, steadfastness and courage that “turned the world upside down”.