Tag Archives: Harvey Gilman

A Very Simple Heart: Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 28

The very simple heart of the early Quaker message is needed as much to-day as it ever was… The really universal thing is a living experience. It is reached in various ways, and expressed in very different language… The common bond is in the thing itself, the actual inner knowledge of the grace of God. Quakerism can only have a universal message if it brings men and women into this transforming knowledge. The early Friends certainly had this knowledge, and were the means of bringing many thousands of seekers into the way of discovery. In virtue of this central experience, the Quaker movement can only be true to itself by being a missionary movement.

Henry T Hodgkin, 1916 – Quaker faith & practice 28.01

In his recent post ‘Spiritual Generosity‘, Craig Barnett writes of British Friends’ “culture of hiddenness”, and of how “[i]n recent years initiatives such as Quaker Quest and national Quaker Week have challenged Friends to overcome this…” 

Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that the “actual inner knowledge of the grace of God” is in itself a hidden thing. Its effects may not be hidden – as for instance where Friends have worked in so many practical ways for peace and justice – but the root of all we do as Friends is deep in our hearts, where “that of God”  in each of us meets the Spirit in silence.

It can be hard for us to make the leap from the inwardness of meeting for worship to the outwardness of Quaker Week, and yet we manage it happily enough, in our active work for peace, economic justice, sustainability and nonviolence. But we have so much more to give. We are not, as I wrote in another post here some time ago, “[merely] a kind of portal for any number of political, peace, environmental and other concerns that share a broadly pacifist, left-wing, climate-sensitive stance.” As Craig Barnett goes on to say:

The Religious Society of Friends is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for nurturing the spiritual practices that can sustain a more fully human life – one that is guided by and surrendered to the Principle of Life within.  What Quakers in Britain have to share with others is a tradition of spiritual practice that enables us to encounter a source of healing, guidance, meaning and purpose within ourselves, and the quality of the community life that emerges from sharing these practices together. The motivation for our outreach is spiritual generosity towards all of those people who are experiencing the confusion, meaninglessness and disconnection that are so characteristic of our times.

Authentic spiritual practices are remedies for the soul-sickness of a culture that suppresses and distorts our inner lives in order to keep selling us distraction. The Quaker way offers a path through the modern condition of meaninglessness and isolation by drawing us into the purposes of God, by which our own healing and growth into maturity are brought to participate in the healing of the world.

As Hodgkin said above (and remember he was writing during the First World War), “Quakerism can only have a universal message if it brings men and women into this transforming knowledge [of grace].” Our work of outreach is one of opening our arms, our hearts, even just the doors of our meeting houses, to those who have perhaps not encountered such a thing before, among the disconnected contradictions of the world we have been born into. This is very simply an act of love:

Many of the people who come to us are both refugees and seekers. They are looking for a space to find their authenticity, a space in a spiritual context. It is a process of liberation. Some discover what they need among Friends, others go elsewhere. This gift of the sacred space that Friends have to offer is a two-edged sword. It is not easy administratively to quantify; it leads to ambiguity. It demands patient listening; it can be enriching and challenging to our complacency. It is outreach in the most general sense and it is a profound service. It may not lead to membership and it may cause difficulties in local meetings. But if someone comes asking for bread, we cannot say, sorry we are too busy discovering our own riches; when we have found them, we’ll offer you a few. Our riches are precisely our sharing. And the world is very, very hungry.

Harvey Gillman, 1993 – Quaker faith & practice 28.10

Testimonies

Sometimes I wonder whether, under the influence of the need to reach out to a secular society, we have made testimony simply into an expression of ethics. We have numbered and acronymised (forgive the invention!) our testimonies, and progressive people of goodwill will, more or less, be in agreement with them. That is fine as far as it goes. But the ways we express our relationship with the divine in everyday life surely cannot be limited to convenient words or headings in an index. Testimony is not a strategy, nor is it a political manifesto. Rather, it is a vital response to a call from the depths of our being to examine our lives and to heed the cry of the world itself.

Harvey Gillman, Words (available from The Friend magazine)

I’ve always been a little worried about testimonies. They seem all too much like lists of requirements: one must be able to put one tick at least in each of the boxes to be considered a Quaker. I can much too easily imagine a membership applicant’s visitors asking, “How has your life shown forth Integrity and Truth this week? And how about Stewardship, Peter Bloggs?”

Surely, our testimonies are merely descriptions of the ways in which the Spirit has led us, like Paul’s list of the Spirit’s fruits in Galatians 5.22-23: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” We cannot resolve to live these things, or we will fall at the first hurdle. Only by opening ourselves to the Spirit in worship and prayer will they grow of themselves in us; and then others may, probably at our funeral, recall how they observed them – “a testimony to the grace of God in the life of…”

Quaker renewal will, it seems to me, only happen as we set aside our worries about forms and words, the ins and outs and the details of who is and who isn’t which kind of Quaker, and sit down together in silence, waiting on the Spirit’s presence:

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.

Isaac Penington, 1661

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 sunlit 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.

Listening to the stories…

Like so many others I have been haunted and troubled by the news coming from the Middle East and from southern and eastern Ukraine. Images from a UN-run school used as a shelter which came under Israeli fire in Gaza, from a bus overturned in Jerusalem by an as yet unknown man driving a heavy digger, from the wreckage of Flight MH17 in the beautiful fields outside Grabovo, just will not go away.

The pressure to take sides is all but overwhelming. The news media report atrocities and the responses to atrocities, the Facebook and Twitter streams are full of grief and the demands for justice. As Quakers with a history of “speaking truth to power” we seem to ourselves to be called to take sides in the appalling conflicts which have given rise to such bitter suffering on the part of the innocent.

Yet the taking of sides leads inevitably and logically to violence. Ghandi said, “There is no escape from the impending doom save through a bold unconditional acceptance of the non-violent method. Democracy and violence go ill together. The States that today are nominally democratic have either to become frankly totalitarian or, if they are to become truly democratic, they must become courageously non-violent.” We can see this clearly in the responses, both here and in the United States, to, ultimately, the events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. In the years since then, both our nations have become more nominally democratic, more effectively totalitarian.

Dharmavidya wrote recently in Amida Newsletter Number 19:

There is “little faith” and there is “great faith”. Little faith is the kind of faith that unites a practice community by separation. The community could be a branch of any religion or it could be an ideological group of some kind. Little faith is essentially about identity. It says, “We are X” with the implication that “We are X and not Y”. Little faith always relates to an out-group from which people are distinguishing themselves and, implicitly, condemning. It says, “We are the true believers who are different from the infidels,” or “We have the right practice unlike those others,” or “We are the virtuous and we oppose the sinners.”

“Little faith” leads to violence as surely as dropping something leads to its impact on ground beneath. The cries of the media, whether on Facebook or in the tabloid newspapers, for a justice which is indistinguishable from revenge, are the rallying cries of little faith – the assertion, often spoken but always implicit, that if you are not fighting the enemy then you are yourself the enemy.

Dharmavidya goes on:

Many faith groups operate in this way. Membership cements a person into a way of practice and belief and provides strength and courage to face a difficult world. Even humanistic and supposedly progressive groups can be in the same kind of mentality. How many progressive groups do you know that thrive on petitions and campaigns to condemn this or that idea or practice that is different from their own? One might then ask… But should one not condemn what is bad, cruel or corrupt? Isn’t progress a function of eliminating the bad? It is easy to see how an oppositional way of thinking comes readily to the human mind and appears to be self-justifying. Yet, it is not our way to condemn. We are not in the business of demolishing Hell; we are in the business of building an alternative; yet we cannot do such building alone and unaided; we need the help of the Buddhas.

In his recent book Consider the Blackbird: Reflections on Spirituality and Language, Harvey Gilman quotes Peter Bien (Words, Wordlessness and the Word, 1992):

Naming divides. Grammar divides, distinguishing subject from object, masculine from feminine, past from present, even the self-consciously perceived ‘me’ from the perceiving ‘I’. But silence unifies… Whether we consider the Godhead as being or becoming, language stands as an impediment whereas silence is a perfect ritualistic means to renew our connection with true reality.

In our contact with that which always stands over against, above if you will accept the term, our human dividedness, we are always at risk of losing that separate, wilful individuality with which we are named and defined. Gilman writes, later in the same chapter which opens with the Peter Bien quote:

At its most intense the question of who is communicating with whom ceases to matter. The individual is expressing him or herself with others in the presence of God or something for which ‘God’ is the agreed metaphor. Although Orthodox Judaism is wary of talk of union with God – since God is always the Other – there is blurring of the self in an outpouring into otherness. Prose becomes poetry, silence becomes music, the body dances, words become wordless.

Dharmavidya goes on:

It is important, therefore, to understand great faith. Great faith is faith that transcends difference and does not rely upon rejection. Great faith encompasses faith in great compassion and great love, great peace and great equanimity. Great love is the love of Buddha who loves all sentient beings. We might not be able to manage that personally, but we have faith in it. We have faith that that is the way of the Buddhas and it is to them that we look for refuge.

This means that while we express our faith in a particular form, such as saying Namo Amida Bu, we do not understand that expression as excluding other expressions, but as embracing them. The hundred names of Allah are simply more names for the same great faith. The prayers of Christians and the dancing of Sufis, the rituals of Confucianists, the hopes of Humanists and the sitting of Zenists, are ultimately expressions of the same essential heart. The actual practitioners of this or that approach may or may not be enmeshed in small faith just as members of our own congregation may be, but true refuge is not exclusivist. True refuge is an expression of faith on behalf of all beings.

When we say Namo Amida Bu, we are also saying “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me, a sinner”, we are also saying “Hari Krishna” and “By the mercy of Allah, the compassionate.” This is not to say that all these different faiths are really the same. They evidently all have different forms and customs and different ideas. Yet there is a parallel between the spectrum from bigness of heart to littleness in all groups, and to say Namo Amida Bu is to celebrate the prevailing of bigness of heart and bigness of faith not only in one’s own group but in all.

Language is so often defined in terms of definition, if you will forgive the pun. I mean that it is used to describe distinctions, to set apart one thing from another, so that we can think about things, tell each other things, debate things, argue about them. But Wittgenstein, as Gilman himself points out earlier in Consider the Blackbird, famously made the distinction between what language could say and what language could show. (When I was teaching creative writing many years ago, I often used to ask those who were learning to write poems to give up trying to tell us about things, and instead to show us the things themselves.)

Gilman again:

The division for me in the religious life is not between members of one religion and another, or even between sceptics, atheists and followers of religions. It is between those who include the stories of their fellow humans and those who exclude them.

Our stories are so often the places where we find ourselves, and each other. In the Australian Aboriginal world view, the Dreaming stories “cover many themes and topics, as there are stories about creation of sacred places, land, people, animals and plants, law and custom. It is a complex network of knowledge, faith, and practices that derive from stories of creation. It pervades and informs all spiritual and physical aspects of an indigenous Australian’s life.” (Wikipedia) Our stories can be told among our fellows, or they can be told in exile. But the greatest gift we can give another is to listen to their stories.

Dharmavidya concludes:

In Buddhism we have the teaching of truths for noble ones. The first truth for noble ones is dukkha. Dukkha includes having difficult neighbours. Sometimes this even means having neighbours who throw bombs over one’s borders. One might be tempted to throw bombs back. When things reach this degree of animosity something has already gone badly wrong. Too much little faith has been going on for too long already. Yet, from the perspective of great faith, one knows that there are people of good heart on both sides and those who are lost in littleness are only so because of their fear. One, therefore, prays for and takes refuge in a bigger faith that can encompass both sides. One seeks to take away the causes of fear.

The reason for dukkha is so that we can find liberation by liberating one another. Liberation starts in our hearts, extends into our open arms and finds fulfilment in expressions of love, or, it starts in expressions of love, extends into open arms and finally lodges deep in our hearts. All true religion is a reminder of this inner and outer movement. In Buddhism, we say that our neighbour is our teacher. It is through such relations that we find the barriers to our own freedom and if we find them then we can take them down. This is, perhaps, a never-ending task in our own case, but it is sustained by that greater universal love in which we find refuge and take faith. Let us, therefore, not condemn little faith, but seek always to go beyond it into that great faith that encompasses all sentient beings and is the unique and sacred vow of all Buddhas everywhere, no matter by what names or forms they present themselves.

Let us listen. And then we can pray.