Tag Archives: Isaac Penington

The Desert in the City

Micah Bales has an interesting blog post, published today, entitled Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?

He writes:

Can a desert spirituality emerge in the midst of daily life, work, and family? What can I do to cultivate this kind of presence, awareness, awokeness? … Perhaps, like the 4th-century desert fathers, we can find a community of prayer in the midst of our spiritual wilderness.

For me, the best introduction by far to the subject of desert spirituality is Rowan Williams’ Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the DesertDiscussing the often misunderstood theme of flight into the desert, he says:

Certainly the desert monks and nuns are in flight from the social systems of their day, from the conformity and religious mediocrity of what they find elsewhere. But they are clearly not running away from responsibility or from relationships; everything we have so far been considering underlines that they are entering into a more serious level of responsibility for themselves and others and that their relationships are essential to the understanding of their vocation.

The desert nun did not grant herself the luxury of evading her own or the world’s problems simply by running away, nor by immersion in human company and conviviality. It was the direct encounter with God in prayer that was the heart of her vocation.

Micah Bales wrote, in another recent post, of the necessity to be prepared to “like Jesus… let go of every guarantee, every promise – even the promise of God’s presence and protection – in order to live in the naked reality of God’s kingdom.” It is this encounter with naked reality, I believe, that lies at the heart of the desert vocation, as it does at the heart of the original Quaker vocation, as Isaac Penington explained:

The sum and substance of true religion doth not stand in getting a notion of Christ’s righteousness, but in feeling the power of endless life, receiving the power, and being changed by the power. And where Christ is, there is his righteousness.

For myself, the answer is always found in prayer and stillness. I cannot ever begin with thought, or with my own emotional reaction to a situation, or to another’s words, or I am lost before I begin. (Incidentally, this is I think where political debate so often goes wrong!) When we fall silent before God, knowing our own unknowing, our own inability to say or do anything from a pure heart, then we are in position at last to recognise the truth of Thomas R Kelly’s words:

In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.

Our lives as Friends, or indeed as anyone who attempts to live out the contemplative life, will tend inevitably towards the desert, it seems to me. The more we place stillness at the centre of not only our worship, but of our own prayer, the more open we are to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. Meister Eckhart put it best, as I quoted, via Barbara Brown Taylor, yesterday:

Leave place, leave time,
Avoid even image!
Go forth without a way
On the narrow path,
Then you will find the desert track.

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.

We are most temporary…

God’s operations, his manner, and his swiftness are simply unable to be discerned. As the Creator’s working abound more and more with us, they will absorb our own self-efforts.

It seems as though the stars shine more brightly before the sun rises and gradually vanish as the light advances. They have not really become invisible. A greater light has simply absorbed the lesser light.

This is also the case with your self-effort in prayer. Since God’s light is so much greater, it absorbs our little flickers of activity. They will grow faint and eventually disappear until all self-effort to experience God is no longer distinguishable.

I have heard the accusation from some that this is a “prayer of inactivity”. They are wrong. Such charges come from the inexperienced…

The fullness of grace will still the activity of self. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that you remain as silent as possible…

God’s presence is not a stronghold to be taken by force or violence. His is a kingdom of peace, which can only be gained by love. God demands nothing extraordinary or difficult. On the contrary…

Jeanne Guyon, Experiencing God Through Prayer

Our prayer, it seems to me, has everything to do with our experience of God. If we basically lack this experience, our minds being filled with ideas about God (“notions” as the early Quakers would have said), we shall understand prayer as something –  some demand or supplication – addressed to a being within a known universe, whereas the God of direct experience is not that kind of being at all. In fact “being” is not really a term that applies to God. God is the ground of being, and the universe, all that exists, exists in, and is contingent upon, God; and Christ is one name for that becoming known. The opening verses of John’s Gospel explain this perfectly well.

We are small and contingent parts of all that has come into being, and we are most temporary. We cannot know God as we know each other. To think that we can is a category mistake, and so is thinking that because God cannot be so known, there is no God. Of course there is no such thing as God, but that is not because there is no God: it is because God is not a thing. Things are merely things God does.

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 practice of stillness…

In the daily practice of stillness we learn not to rely on ourselves, on our thoughts and on our feelings, but instead to rest in the darkness – and perhaps in the apparently complete emptiness – of the magnanimity of the Holy Spirit who gently opens us out into that greater generosity. Its fruit is simply love. It is our personal response to the mystery of God, made known to us in the person of Jesus Christ, for our maturing into full personhood…

The practice of stillness is letting go. In relinquishing our desire to think, we are refraining from imposing meaning. This means that we can be more open to the way things actually are… A moment when we turn over in our hands a stone just picked up represents the state of preliminary receptiveness which is so important if we are to cultivate the deeper intuitive knowing of spiritual truths. Wonder is the necessary check to the tendency for reductionism which characterises both religious and secular forms of knowledge…

…letting go means allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to realities which may shape us, and it will perhaps open us to the chaos we fear so much… Finally, this requires us to face our fear that death will be the extinction of the self. That requires the ultimate act of trust and Christian faith. However unwilling we may be to ‘go gentle into that dark night’, faith is to surrender ourselves even now into that which, then, we shall be unable to control. Faith is the letting go into an unknown which will be a birthing more awe-full and more fully life-giving than our first ejection from the womb into the light of day.

Andrew Norman, Learn to Be at Peace: The Practice of Stillness

It seems quite hard sometimes, writing a blog such as this, to find the right tone. I never set out to write one of those confessional blogs, full of day-to-day details of my emotional life and my intimate relationships. But this isn’t a technical blog either, constrained to facts, and opinions about facts. Sometimes I can’t write about the interior life without mentioning aspects of my own life that would be simpler not mentioned at all.

Recently I suffered a minor heart attack, and while medically it was – for someone living, in the 21st century, just across the road from a major hospital – no big deal, it was a disconcerting experience, and one which raised more questions than it appeared to answer. I found, in common with many patients such as myself, that the immediate aftermath of the episode was a strange flat depression, which made it all but impossible to write, or indeed to want to write. It was made somehow more obscure by that fact that, since I am already on the waiting list for an interventional procedure to treat the underlying problem, I found myself in a kind of a medical limbo. I needed to be careful not to make matters worse, and so, while I was relatively restricted in my normal activities, I hadn’t really anything definite to do.

Now that I have a date, next month, for the procedure, I seem to be able to look back over events, trying perhaps to make some kind of sense of the experience itself. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve encountered my own mortality before, and I have found that frailty is only one side of the coin. Reality is not what it seems. That in each of us which is love itself is beyond all the dimensions of time and matter, beyond the reach of thought. Bur it is precisely in this being beyond the reach of thought, even of conscious experience, that hope lies hidden. Unknowing extends beyond a few minutes of sitting quietly. It, itself no thing, underlies all things. It is the unseen source of all that is, and the surest refuge.

Here in Advent all we can do comes down to waiting. Darkness is heavy over the land, and tonight the fog is coming down. Through the bare trees beyond this lighted window the little distances are closing in. What we cannot see, what we have not heard, waits under the dark as it has always done. The dark has not overcome it. In the love that is its light is the seed of Christ, who comes in the shadow of the womb’s pulse long days before birth. Isaac Penington knew this:

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.

Quaker faith & practice 26.70

Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 27

All Truth is a shadow except the last, except the utmost; yet every Truth is true in its kind. It is substance in its own place, though it be but a shadow in another place (for it is but a reflection from an intenser substance); and the shadow is a true shadow, as the substance is a true substance.

Isaac Penington, 1653 – Qfp 27.22

When we think of the early years of the Quaker movement, often we remember some of George Fox’s more abrasive encounters – “I laid open their Teachers, shewing, that they were like them, that were of Old condemned by the Prophets, and by Christ, and by the Apostles: And I exhorted the People to come off from the Temples made with Hands…” (The Journal of George Fox, The First Edition, 1694, edited by Thomas Ellwood, pp. 73-74) – and forget the openheartedness of Friends like Isaac Penington, who also wrote:

Even in the apostles’ days Christians were too apt to strive after a wrong unity and uniformity in outward practices and observations, and to judge one another unrighteously in those things; and mark, it is not the different practice from one another that breaks the peace and unity, but the judging of one another because of different practices…

And oh, how sweet and pleasant it is to the truly spiritual eye to see several sorts of believers, several forms of Christians in the school of Christ, every one learning their own lesson, performing their own peculiar service, and knowing, owning and loving one another in their several places and different performances to their Master, to whom they are to give an account, and not to quarrel with one another about their different practices (Rom 14:4). For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that; and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk.

Isaac Penington, 1660 – Qfp 27.13

I feel that we as Quakers in the early years of our century need to keep open, even through the challenges of these difficult times, to what the Spirit is saying to us, and in us. It will not do to focus on the difficulties, to take up adversarial stands. The forces of darkness, the institutional and populist powers and principalities – racism, fascism, religious intolerance – know what to do with opposition. It feeds them, gives them the excuses they need for violence, for the display of their physical and military power and dominance. They delight in opposition, the more oppositional and confrontational the better. As John Lennon once said, “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.” But the New Woke movement, among many others, realise that the path to wholeness lies not in opposing but in outgrowing that which would hold us in darkness. And we can only do that in openness, in vulnerability, in failure.

We find it hard to accept intentional failure at the heart of our faith. But all true religion is for losers. Leaders, the successful, the alpha males and occasional alpha females, the “rich” in Jesus’ parables (e.g. Matthew 19.16-24), must learn what failure means for themselves before they can encounter God, must be broken themselves before they can help bring healing to the broken of the world. We must ourselves be prepared to have in our own hearts Leonard Cohen’s “crack in everything, [through which] the light gets in.”

We have to let go of the certainties, I think, let drop the things we think we know about ourselves, about each other. We are all one in the end, one flesh under the skins of our birth and of our circumstances. It is in the ground of all our beings, in God in Christ (John 1.1-4) that all things hold together (Colossians 1.17). Our oneness is far beyond the social, or the humanly spiritual – it is the metaphysical nature of being itself, and this we cannot hold in our human minds. But in our unknowing, we can receive it as grace, as mercy.

Even among Quakers, the differences only matter if it’s the differences at which we look. If we look at that of God, whether the Light that reaches us in the silence, or that light of God within each other, streaming through the cracks, then we realise, as Rhiannon Grant did, that “Quakerism isn’t something you agree with, but something you do.”

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

The Offering of Tears

“Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah: “Go, tell Hezekiah:
Thus says the LORD, the God of your father David:
I have heard your prayer and seen your tears.
I will heal you: in three days you shall go up to the LORD’s temple;
I will add fifteen years to your life.
I will rescue you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria;
I will be a shield to this city.” – Isaiah 38.4-5

Silence becomes a temple for the offering of tears, and in that silence an atmosphere of healing emerges where in the words of Thomas Keating, anything is possible. And not only healing, also an adding of life – perhaps in quantity but certainly in quality.

And not only that, as individuals dwell in the shelter of silence receiving the divine therapy and the increased quality of interior freedom from the unconscious wounds of a lifetime, it has an impact on others – indeed, in the words of Isaiah, our consent to God’s love and presence in the silence becomes something of a shield against the ordinary thoughts and afflictions of being human amidst other humans, and a shield of grace neutralizing the afflictions of our interior thoughts. This is a rescue we all need – from our own interior negative thoughts and emotions, and from the unconscious, fear based behavior of others.

Similarly, Jesus promised: abide in me and you will experience abundant life and fullness of joy.

The Contemplative Companion

In these troubled days this is extraordinarily good advice. I myself find it very hard, nearly impossible, to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the pain of the world – and by the tendency of politics and the media, who have the power to do something concrete to heal the divisions that underlie that pain, only to inflame them.

As Lon Burnham, a Quaker in the Texas House of Representatives, said recently on QuakerSpeak,

A lot of times people think that they can make peace by doing war, and that’s just so ludicrous on the face of it. I mean, it’s almost a scientific fact of physics that if you do violence, you create more violence. The only way to avoid violence is to create peace and to create justice.

It is impossible, it seems to me, to create peace if one’s heart is not at peace with God; and impossible effectively to work for justice if one is wracked by anger and despair.

The alternative is not a selfish self-protectiveness, nor immersing oneself in the material goods of the world, but silence: a “temple for the offering of tears”. Opening oneself completely to the pain and horror of a broken world in the silence may seem like crucifixion – not for nothing was retreating to a life of prayer in the desert in the early Christian centuries known as “white martyrdom” – but it is the path to healing and new life. As Isaac Penington wrote,

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.

Who knows where the silence leads for each of us? “More things,” in the words of Alfred Tennyson, “are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of…”