Tag Archives: Emilia Fogelklou

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

Reading Quaker faith & practice Chapter 26

With this month’s reading we have reached the part of Quaker faith & practice to which I find myself most often turning. One of my favourite passages is from Emilia Fogelklou (The great Swedish Quaker theologian and writer is describing (in the third person) an experience she had at the age of 23. She was never the same again.):

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.

Qfp 26.05

This is what Frank Parkinson describes as “the shock of awakening”: the encounter articulated in words from London Yearly Meeting in Qfp 26.15:

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.

As I wrote elsewhere:

God is not strange, or other. God is the ground of being itself – as Paul said, quoting Epimenides, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.28). There is, as George Fox famously remarked, “that of God” in each of us.

Most of us do not yet know our own essential nature. Maybe we can feel the pain of limitation and the unease of contraction and the longing for liberation beyond self, but we cling to what’s familiar…

It is wise to know our own depths, to plumb and explore them, to allow our hearts to break open, to allow our minds to investigate that which they would rather deny, to allow ourselves to contemplate impermanence, to take death in – our own and the deaths of those we love…

Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Aging

There is nothing difficult about all this, and these experiences are not somehow reserved for professional mystics or particularly holy people. All that is needed is, as Isaac Pennington explained (Qfp 26.70), to,

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.

We need only to be still, and rest in the Presence in which all things hold together (Colossians 1.17), and “the great Mercifulness” will lift us up into the Light.

Spring and Things

The garden is full of birds, more each day it seems. The roving bands of goldfinches and long-tailed tits continue to sweep through, pausing to feed and then skittering on to wherever it is they’re going, but travellers from more distant places are moving in and making preparations for nesting. A pair of blackcaps, and some willow warblers, have come to join the robins and the wrens, and the shy little dunnocks, in the search for bits and pieces to add to their different nests.

The spring air is still cold, despite the sunshine, but the light is actinic, biting, picking out the young leaves and the weathered fence line with deep shadow as the sun declines past midday. The processes the turning year sets in train are complex beyond understanding, and related with an intimacy we are only beginning to grasp. The old models of creation and natural selection no longer apply in the terms we knew. Love is all that can describe this tender resurrection of what the winter laid to rest; love, and the mercy that love brings to things that wait, and are changed.

It is only as we wait, under the mercy, that we too are changed. As Robert Barclay wrote, “Not by strength of arguments or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, came [I] to receive and bear witness of the Truth, but by being secretly reached by [the] Life.”

The ground of being, unconditioned and unconditional, is what actually is; it is the source of the verb “to be” and all that flows from it – the mysterium tremendum et fascinans itself. Emilia Fogelklou, encountering this for herself unsought, one spring day under the trees, exclaimed, “This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.” All that is rests in the open hand of mercy, like St Julian’s hazelnut – somehow, this is true, beyond all that grieves, and is broken, beyond death or life itself; at the depth of all that is, love is the unfailing mercy of being.

Coming back to the edge of silence…

Coming back to the edge of silence, where only the blood’s shouting in the ear remains, I think of Caroline Fox’s words (QFP 26.04):

The first gleam of light, ‘the first cold light of morning’ which gave promise of day with its noontide glories, dawned on me one day at meeting, when I had been meditating on my state in great depression. I seemed to hear the words articulated in my spirit, ‘Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee.’ Then I believed that God speaks to man by His Spirit. I strove to lead a more Christian life, in unison with what I knew to be right, and looked for brighter days, not forgetting the blessings that are granted to prayer.

“Live up to the light thou hast… not forgetting the blessings that are granted to prayer.” Yes. This I have needed to hear. It is so easy to forget, to become caught up in doing, in assuaging the patterned guilt of the news reports, spinning on the surface of days like a whirligig beetle, when all the time the deep roots of the waterlilies wait in the cool dark for the slow carp of the praying heart, nourishing, healing, the source of all that is new, and whole, and good.

To sit still under the itching and the busyness, to refuse the anxious demands and the loose, slippery hungers of all that is restless: to sit still under it and let it alone (QFP 26.02) – then the living hope, that true voice, comes, that Emilia Fogelklou heard: “This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.”

This ‘God’ word…

A number of recent posts on this blog (here, for instance, or here) have touched on what we mean when we use the word ‘God’, and it seems to me that I should say (or borrow!) a word or two about how I use the word, and a little of what I mean by it.

In his fascinating book God without God: Western Spirituality without the wrathful king, Michael Hampson writes:

A simplistic theism tends to maintain not only that God exists, but that God intervenes regularly in word affairs, from the global to the trivial, and has the right to demand obedience on threat of punishment. The greater presumption ahead of this detail is that there is only one such being, and that it has recognisable human attributes such as personhood and will. This whole package might be called not just theism but presumptive monotheism.

It is against this presumptive monotheism that the atheist case is made… The atheist case is sound, but it is not the last word…

The church still claims two proofs for the existence of God, and they are entirely compatible with the atheist case against the God of presumptive monotheism. The first is the argument from creation: not that anything in the universe needs God in order to operate, but that anything exists at all, that there is even the space and the potential for anything to exist at all. It points to… the ultimate source of all that exists and the essence of existence itself.

The second begins with the experience of being self-consciously alive: the sense of being a conscious observer of, and decision-making participant in, the one particular life we call our own… As fragile and insignificant as it may seem against the vastness of the universe, the mystery of self-consciousness is the most significant experience in each of our lives, indeed the carrier of all experience and the very essence of life. It points once again towards the mystery of existence itself…

It is to this ultimate mystery that the church assigns first the name Existence or Being… and then the name God.

Hampson here has just about summed up what I mean myself when I use the name God. And Hampson, a former Church of England priest, comes very close to a Quaker understanding of God – or perhaps I should say that many Quakers, at least in the liberal tradition, come very close to this mystical understanding of God which has been at the heart of the “one catholic and apostolic church” since its very beginnings.

Emilia Fogelklou, the Swedish Quaker theologian and writer, puts it as clearly as anyone (she is writing of herself in the third person):

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.

(Quaker Faith & Practice 26.05)

And yet God is not strange…

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.

(Quaker Faith & Practice 26.05)

Emilia Fogelklou, the great Swedish Quaker theologian and writer is describing (in the third person) an experience she had at the age of 23. She was never the same again.

We cannot find God by thinking about God, for God cannot be thought. Of course, we can, rightly, think about the consequences of God for human beings, and we can even think about what God is for us, but we cannot find our way to God by taking thought. Strictly speaking, we cannot travel to God either, though we can travel to places where we might be more likely to encounter God than some others – this is the point of pilgrimage.

And yet God is not strange, or other. God is the Ground of Being itself – as Paul said, quoting Epimenides, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.28). There is, as George Fox famously remarked, “that of God” in each of us.

Most of us do not yet know our own essential nature. Maybe we can feel the pain of limitation and the unease of contraction and the longing for liberation beyond self, but we cling to what’s familiar…

It is wise to know our own depths, to plumb and explore them, to allow our hearts to break open, to allow our minds to investigate that which they would rather deny, to allow ourselves to contemplate impermanence, to take death in – our own and the deaths of those we love…

Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Aging

There is nothing difficult about all this, and these experiences are not somehow reserved for professional mystics or particularly holy people. All that is needed is, as Isaac Pennington explained, to,

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.

We need only to be still, and rest in the Presence in which all things hold together (Colossians 1.17), and “the great Mercifulness” will lift us up into the Light.

Outside Help…

“You got to help me… I can’t do it all by myself…” These words from Sonny Boy Williamson II’s ‘Help Me’ sum up, really, what I have discovered about prayer.

In Shin Buddhism, the terms jiriki and tariki are often used – the former implying the belief that liberation may be obtained by one’s own efforts (as in, say, Zen Buddhism) and the latter complete reliance on a power outside of oneself for salvation. But whatever one’s faith background, all religious practice ultimately boils down to one or the other of these assumptions.

The Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner“, is at root a prayer of surrender, of reliance upon God. It carries within it blind Bartimaeus’ recognition that he could do nothing to help himself (Mark 10.46-52) but that his only refuge was the mercy of Jesus.

Identifying Jesus as Lord, i.e. as source of power, we take refuge by turning to him, to his power, for mercy. By saying “a sinner”, we are not engaging in some act of self-flagellation, but merely acknowledging our helplessness, our inability to do anything from an entirely pure motive, anything, in fact, to help ourselves.

Emilia Fogelklou, the great Swedish Quaker theologian, wrote (speaking of herself in the third person):

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.

Quaker Faith & Practice 26.05