Tag Archives: Hilda Clark

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

Prayer, Listening and Power – more QFP Chapter 2

Prayer, we learn gradually, has far more to do with listening than with talking. In emotional stress the thoughts are so obsessive that they leave one no opportunity to listen. So, when we know someone is in trouble, we can and must listen (pray) for them. A Friend who had missed meeting for several weeks told us that she knew we had been praying for her before we said so; she had felt it and been sustained by it. She had thought there was no point in prayer or belief in God, but she had been helped by the knowledge that we still prayed and believed. It seems that one can do no less than this. We are seldom given guarantees that it is effective, just hints along the way; but they are hints we cannot ignore. We cannot prove the effectiveness of prayer, but nor can we cast scorn on examples of the kind I have given.

A friend tells me that when she prays for someone she does not so much pray to God for them as for God for them. This seems to me a vital clue about prayer. It is God that the troubled person needs, not our advice and instructions. As we learn more about worship we learn to listen more deeply so that we can be channels through which God’s love reaches the other person. It is God at work, not we ourselves; we are simply used.

Diana Lampen, 1979 – Quaker Faith & Practice 2.26

Sometimes I struggle with the concept of prayer. As I have written elsewhere, I have a schoolboy’s obsession with “how things work”, and Christian theology is replete with explanations of how, and why, prayer is supposed to work, so that it has been relatively easy for me to get caught up in trying to make various theologies of prayer fit with a Quaker understanding of our relationship with God.

For a long while before I discovered for myself the Quaker way, however, I had been dissatisfied with conventional theological models for prayer. Seeking for models that more closely matched my own growing experience with prayer – a form of communication (if that’s the right word for it) to which I found myself increasingly called – I read quite extensively in the literature of contemplative prayer, and through that was led to the hesychast tradition of silence and submission to God.

Contemplative prayer, as Michael Ramsey wrote, is “being with God, putting [myself] in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart.” I am increasingly coming to wonder if any more detailed, mechanistic explanation than this is possible, or even desirable.

Very early in the history of the Christian church, certainly by the 4th century, the term hesychasm, the life of silence,  began to appear in the writings of scholars like John Chrysostom and Evagrius Pontikos, as well as in the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who had moved out from the centres of civilisation partly in response to the growing association of the church with the centres of political and military power under the Emperor Constantine the Great and his sons. Hesychasts, as they became known, were practitioners of a tradition of contemplative prayer based on short, repeated prayer that was available to everyone, regardless of education, ordination or formal membership of a monastic community.

Simon Barrington-Ward writes that

This prayer is marked by a compunction and penitence. It has the sense of a kind of joyful mourning of one’s own and the world’s pitiableness. It knows our need to be rescued and saved, with tears. It is expressed in short, urgently or longingly repeated prayer directed to Jesus present in the heart, a presence to which the person praying seeks to turn his or her waking and sleeping thoughts (‘I slept but my heart was awake’, Song of Solomon 5:2) and whole life.

There is a sense of immediacy, or personal experience of the presence of God, from the very start of the hesychast tradition, that will be immediately familiar to Friends. Writing of the work of Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) Barrington-Ward goes on to say,

For Symeon, the resurrection is not only in the future. It begins here and now… He wrote out of an overwhelming encounter with the living Christ and with the Holy Spirit, through whom he claimed the resurrection of us all can occur.

By the 15th century the tradition had established itself in the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece, and was from there carried to Russia by St Nilus of Sora, Nil Sorski, and established itself in the forest communities in the far north, which were consciously modelled after the early desert settlements in Egypt in the times of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. There the way of the hesychasts flourished continuously until the years following the Russian Revolution in the early 20th century, when many of its practitioners took refuge once again on Mount Athos, some eventually, like the great writer and teacher on prayer Sophrony Sakharov, even turning up in England.

Of course it was in England that our own Quaker tradition began in the 17th century. George Fox wrote,

Now after I had received that opening from the Lord that to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ, I regarded the priests less and looked more after the dissenting people… As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw 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…

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.

Vastly different though their backgrounds may be, the hesychasts growing within (though sometimes at odds with!) the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Quakers as dissenters in the ferment following the Reformation in England, our hearts alike turn to the direct experience of God in the silence. In 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.

It is this desire to “throw everything open to the spirit of God” that is at the heart of the hesychast’s longing too. The Quaker John Macmurray, writing in 1967, said,

Whenever we are driven into the depths of our own being, or seek them of our own will, we are faced by a tremendous contrast. On the one side we recognise the pathetic littleness of our ephemeral existence, with no point or meaning in itself. On the other side, in the depth, there is something eternal and infinite in which our existence, and indeed all existence, is grounded. This experience of the depths of existence fills us with a sense both of reverence and of responsibility, which gives even to our finite lives a meaning and a power which they do not possess in themselves. This, I am assured, is our human experience of God.

This is so exactly the experience of the Jesus Prayer. Here is the “joyful mourning” and the sense of “the world’s pitiableness”, and here is the direct knowledge of our life, all life, as grounded in God, in the ground of being itself, beyond time and space.

Thomas R Kelly, writing of solitary prayer, comes very close indeed to restating the hesychast tradition himself. He describes how “[the] processes of inward prayer do not grow more complex, but more simple” and he recommends using a short phrase, whether from Scripture or from one’s own imagination, and he advises, “Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.” He goes on to say,

But the time will come when verbalisation is not so imperative, and yields place to the attitudes of soul which you meant the words to express… Behind the foreground of the words continues the background of heavenly orientation, as all the currents of our being are set towards Him. Through the shimmering light of divine Presence we look out upon the world, and in its turmoil and fitfulness, we may be given to respond, in some increased measure, in ways dimly suggestive of the Son of Man… All we can say is, Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the orbit… Sometimes the prayer and this Life that flows through us reaches out to all souls with kindred vision and upholds them in his tender care. Sometimes it flows out to the world of blinded struggle, and we become cosmic Saviours, seeking all those who are lost.

This passage of Kelly’s, despite their utterly different backgrounds, could have come from the pen of Sophrony Sakharov, who wrote,

The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside…

It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…

Too often, I suspect, we 21st century Quakers find ourselves so caught up in either the “identity politics game of ‘theists and nontheists’” (Craig Barnett) or in our own human zeal for political and social activism, that we forget that there is another way entirely to contribute not only to the good of individuals whose need and pain are on our own hearts, but “to the victory of good… for the whole world.”

[Earlier versions of parts of this post have previously appeared elsewhere in this blog.]