Tag Archives: James Nayler

On becoming mangled in our minds [a reblog]

We are now coming into that which Christ cried woe against, minding altogether outward things, neglecting the inward work of Almighty God in our hearts, if we can but frame according to outward prescriptions and orders, and deny eating and drinking with our neighbours, in so much that poor Friends is mangled in their minds, that they know not what to do, for one Friend says one way, and another another, but Christ Jesus saith, that we must take no thought what we shall eat, or what we shall drink, or what we shall put on, but bids us consider the lilies how they grow, in more royalty than Solomon. But contrary to this, we must look at no colours, nor make anything that is changeable colours as the hills are, nor sell them, nor wear them: but we must be all in one dress and one colour: this is a silly poor Gospel. It is more fit for us, to be covered with God’s Eternal Spirit, and clothed with his Eternal Light, which leads us and guides us into righteousness. Now I have set before you life and death, and desire you to choose life, and God and his truth.

Margaret Fox, 1700 (QFP 20.31)

It is terribly easy to become distracted, when one looks at the enormous suffering, injustice and inequality in the world (I don’t think there is more, or less, than in Margaret Fox’s day; it is differently distributed, and we now have the means instantly to find out about it) by what I can only describe, having experienced it in myself, as a political mentality. These are political problems, it says, and we need to work politically towards political solutions.

I am not decrying politics as such, nor even politicians, poor souls. But Jesus was right when he pointed out (Mark 14.7) that we shall always have with us the victims of injustice and inequality. It’s only out of a deep change of being, a spiritual and inward revolution such as early Friends experienced, and as Friends still do today, that we shall be able to bring about the profound changes in society they brought about merely by seeking to be true to what the Light showed them. If we seek political solutions, we shall fail like every other politician; if we seek the Light, we may ourselves become the seeds from which solutions grow.

James Nayler summed it up, perhaps, when he wrote:

Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee. Art thou wounded in conscience? Feed not there, but abide in the Light which leads to Grace and Truth, which teaches to deny, and puts off the weight, and removes the cause, and brings saving health to Light.

QFP 21.65

[This post was first published in 2013; in view of certain events in the UK, USA and elsewhere last year, and more recently, and some of my own remarks in my last post, I thought I might reproduce it here.]

To stand still, listening…

…the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ – allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings.

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

Craig Barnett, Transition Quaker – The Way of Practice

These are, to say the least, difficult and puzzling times. The merest glance at the headlines will suffice to demonstrate that, and to demonstrate the further fact that the media, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.

In the face of massively publicised and widespread cruelty and injustice, violence and deceit, it is increasingly hard to avoid the current zeitgeist of taking sides, adopting entrenched positions, and demonising the “opposition”. We Quakers easily fall into the prevailing patterns, however much we attempt to be gentler and more tentative in expressing them. (I recall a conversation with a Tory MP who had met with a group of Quakers, and who told me, “They didn’t look to me much like Conservative voters…”!) We all too often automatically assume certain political and social positions, and too readily take an adversarial stance over against the other side. In this we are no different to the members of any other pressure group, and we can tend to take and to project the attitude that the Society of Friends is little more than a kind of portal for any number of political, peace, environmental and other concerns that share a broadly pacifist, left-wing, climate-sensitive stance.

The problem, of course, is not that we are concerned, and active, with righting wrongs in the world around us. Quakers throughout our long history have done this, and an extreme quietist agenda would be no more helpful than a solely activist one. The problem, it seems to me, lies in the source of our actions. When we react from our emotions and from our convictions, rather than from the Spirit’s leading, we miss the point of being a Religious Society of Friends, and “outrun our guide”.

Alex Thomson, writing in the Facebook Quaker Renewal group:

Quakers could have a lot to offer the world, but I worry that we get caught up in taking sides. That doesn’t solve anything, human nature will still be the same, only different people will benefit and work the system to maximise their benefit. No one wins in an atmosphere of conflict. We need to help people to see a different way, a way that comes from an awareness of stillness, and the wisdom that can be found within that stillness.

What are Quakers really doing to promote this change in human nature that is required? I read things from a hundred years ago and it appears to me Quakers were more in touch with the spiritual aspect of Life than we are today. They knew Presence, we seem to a large degree to have lost our awareness of Presence? We create us and other, there is no other. We are all That of God, how do we help our brothers and sisters to see That of God within all of us. How do we create the Kingdom on earth?

Where do we go from here?

Richard Rohr writes:

The following of Jesus is not a “salvation scheme” or a means of creating social order (which appears to be what most folks want religion for), as much as it is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world. Some people are overly invested in religious ceremonies, rituals, and rules that are all about who’s in and who’s out. Jesus did not come to create a spiritual elite or an exclusionary system. He invited people to “follow” him by personally bearing the mystery of human death and resurrection. Of itself, this task does not feel “religious,” which is why it demands such faith to trust it.

This is difficult. It is far easier to imagine ourselves on the winning side of some win/lose dichotomy, as Rohr points out in the same essay. To “personally [bear] the mystery of human death and resurrection” is a far less attractive option, as the zealots who tried to co-opt Jesus himself as a military Messiah (John 6.15) realised!

Rohr goes on to say,

Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves—these are the followers of Jesus. They are the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world. The cross is the dramatic image of what it takes to be such a usable one for God.

James Nayler once wrote, “Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee.”

To stand still, listening, is our particular gift as Quakers, it seems to me. It is not for us to decide in advance where we will accept being led – what we hear in the silence, if only we can stand still enough, will lead us into truth.

Art thou in the Darkness?

Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee. Art thou wounded in conscience? Feed not there, but abide in the Light which leads to Grace and Truth, which teaches to deny, and puts off the weight, and removes the cause, and brings saving health to Light.

James Nayler, Quaker Faith & Practice 21.65

There are so many signs of the Darkness surrounding us today, just as there were surrounding James Nayler in middle of the 17th century. Nayler and his contemporaries faced extreme political instability, three successive civil wars followed not ten years later by the beginning of the English Restoration, religious unrest and persecution on a scale not seen before or since in England, news of the Great Plagues moving across Europe and Ireland (London was not stricken in fact until five years after Nayler’s death), and a justice system so fragmented and damaged by political, ecclesial and mob unrest as to be entirely unfit for purpose. I need not list our present woes, of which climate change is perhaps the greatest worry: it is necessary only to glance at any news website to get the sense of threat and horror that hangs over the world, and which is stoked daily by media hungry for the sales, viewers and hits afforded by this age of increasingly desperate anxiety.

Only last year I wrote, “We so often feel that we are indeed in darkness in these days of crisis after crisis, of instability in the world and injustice at home, so that we feel keeping still to be a grave dereliction of duty, so that we must exhaust ourselves in frantic doing lest we betray those in more need than ourselves.”

But we are more than fear and politics. If we fail to allow ourselves our own humanity then our efforts at self preservation, whether on the personal or the global scale, will be futile, for there will be nothing worth preserving. In the end, our resulting psychoses may themselves destroy us; perhaps, with ISIS on the one hand, and the Trumptonisation of the USA on the other, we are already beginning to feel the symptoms.

In issue 16 of Nautilus magazine, Daniel A Gross discusses the biological necessity of silence for the human organism, and records that “[in] 2011, the World Health Organization tried to quantify its health burden in Europe. It concluded that the 340 million residents of western Europe – roughly the same population as that of the United States – annually lost a million years of healthy life because of noise. It even argued that 3,000 heart disease deaths were, at their root, the result of excessive noise.” He concludes, “Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in. That’s the power of silence.”

Caroline Graveson wrote, just before the Second World War,

There is, it sometimes seems, an excess of religious and social busyness these days, a round of committees and conferences and journeyings, of which the cost in ‘peaceable wisdom’ is not sufficiently counted. Sometimes we appear overmuch to count as merit our participation in these things…

To read good literature, gaze on natural beauty, to follow cultivated pursuits until our spirits are refreshed and expanded, will not unfit us for the up and doing of life, whether of personal or church affairs. Rather will it help us to separate the essential from the unessential, to know where we are really needed and get a sense of proportion. We shall find ourselves giving the effect of leisure even in the midst of a full and busy life. People do not pour their joys or sorrows into the ears of those with an eye on the clock.

As James Nayler pointed out, to fix our eyes, and the focus of our hearts, on the threat and horror which surrounds us, and on our own perceived failings in duty as we are confronted with its implicit, if rarely explicit, demands on us, rather than on “the Light which leads to Grace and Truth,” will only fill us with the darkness which we so rightly fear. Surely it is only as we trust ourselves and each other to “stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead [us]” that we shall truly perceive our leading, and whatever our hand finds to do will be done not in anxiety but in love.

Keep calm and read Quaker Faith & Practice

There is, it sometimes seems, an excess of religious and social busyness these days, a round of committees and conferences and journeyings, of which the cost in ‘peaceable wisdom’ is not sufficiently counted. Sometimes we appear overmuch to count as merit our participation in these things… At least we ought to make sure that we sacrifice our leisure for something worthy. True leisureliness is a beautiful thing and may not lightly be given away. Indeed, it is one of the outstanding and most wonderful features of the life of Christ that, with all his work in preaching and healing and planning for the Kingdom, he leaves behind this sense of leisure, of time in which to pray and meditate, to stand and stare at the cornfields and fishing boats, and to listen to the confidences of neighbours and passers-by…

Most of us need from time to time the experience of something spacious or space-making, when Time ceases to be the enemy, goad-in-hand, and becomes our friend. To read good literature, gaze on natural beauty, to follow cultivated pursuits until our spirits are refreshed and expanded, will not unfit us for the up and doing of life, whether of personal or church affairs. Rather will it help us to separate the essential from the unessential, to know where we are really needed and get a sense of proportion. We shall find ourselves giving the effect of leisure even in the midst of a full and busy life. People do not pour their joys or sorrows into the ears of those with an eye on the clock.

Caroline C Graveson, 1937 – Quaker Faith & Practice 21.22

From October 2015, Quakers in Britain are invited to read and reflect on one or two chapters a month of Quaker Faith and Practice, either by themselves or in groups, face to face or online, so that as a Religious Society we can better know our tradition and journey as a people of faith. For the inaugural month we are invited to read Chapter 21.

Mark Daniel Russ, of Jolly Quaker (one of my favourite Quaker blogs), has a Ffriendly video introduction to this practice on his blog, which I’d encourage you to watch. I thought I’d have a go myself, and I found Caroline Graveson’s passage spoke immediately to the sense I often have of people of faith today becoming so caught up in the many, and often conflicting, demands of activism that they lose sight of that divine encounter that drew them into the Light in the first place, and become consumed with guilt that they are not doing more and yet more for whichever cause happens to be calling loudest at the moment. As Caroline Graveson says, peace, contemplation, and an awareness of beauty “will not unfit us for the up and doing of life, whether of personal or church affairs. Rather will it help us to separate the essential from the unessential, to know where we are really needed and get a sense of proportion. We shall find ourselves giving the effect of leisure even in the midst of a full and busy life.”

Listening to Mark’s words, I realised that his favourite passage from Chapter 21 was not only one of mine also (I have mentioned it before here) but that it fitted perfectly with my first selection. We so often feel that we are indeed in darkness in these days of crisis after crisis, of instability in the world and injustice at home, so that we feel keeping still to be a grave dereliction of duty, so that we must exhaust ourselves in frantic doing lest we betray those in more need than ourselves. But listen to what James Nayler had to say:

Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee. Art thou wounded in conscience? Feed not there, but abide in the Light which leads to Grace and Truth, which teaches to deny, and puts off the weight, and removes the cause, and brings saving health to Light.

James Nayler, Quaker Faith & Practice 21.65

A small celebration

This morning the sky was dark, and as we left home for Meeting it was raining heavily. Electric lights were on in the Meeting House hallway and kitchen, but the meeting room itself was a quiet pool of shadow.

This morning’s ministry was all of Light. At least three Friends stood to minister, and if my own experience was anything to go by, quite a few more nearly stood, but realised that their nascent ministry had already been given in other words by another Friend. Light flowed throughout the shadowed room, and beneath our closed eyelids. I was reminded of James Nayler’s words (QFP 21.65):

Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee. Art thou wounded in conscience? Feed not there, but abide in the Light which leads to Grace and Truth, which teaches to deny, and puts off the weight, and removes the cause, and brings saving health to Light.

The “infinite ocean of light and love” (George Fox) that had carried us, landed us gently on the hour’s farther shore, the home we have found since we moved here. This is a good place to be, and we are not always grateful enough…

Led into the dark?

In an article in The Friend (3 April 2015) Laurie Michaelis, the magazine’s environment editor, writes, among painfully honest and powerful words on shame and humility:

Advices & Queries 1, with its words about ‘the leadings of God whose light shows us our darkness’, speaks powerfully to me… ‘Darkness’ is not badness. It is normal and inevitable that we have areas of partial or distorted awareness. My most shadowy areas are to do with instinct – those gut feelings that got me and others around me into trouble. My learning path was, and still is, partly about discernment. That means listening to my gut as well as to my head and heart, and to other people. It means heeding the signs, especially when they warn against action; waiting for the Way to open.

This put me in mind of yesterday’s post, where I wrote of the way seeming dark, and steep and slippery underfoot, and my own realisation that all that is needful is to sit still under that darkness, and “wait… for the Way to open.”

It was Gordon Matthews, back in the 1980s, who wrote, “We do well to remember that being led by the spirit depends not so much upon God, who is always there to lead us, as upon our willingness to be led. We need to be willing to be led into the dark as well as through green pastures and by still waters. We do not need to be afraid of the dark, because God is there.”

In these days, when the world seems so full of foolishness and injustice, and Friends around so full of activity and certainty, so full of plans, and yes, notions, It is hard to learn to keep still, and cease from our own working; but in these times of shadow it may be the only course that will not lead to our own and others’ undoing, as Laurie admits so poignantly in his article.

It is hard to do nothing, even when “the signs… warn against action.” And yet sometimes to do nothing is the most faithful, the most obedient thing. We do not know always, or often, what we are to do, until we are shown the way – and it may be long days, even weeks or years, till the Way opens, even if we know where it seems to lead. It is that patient obedience and endurance, which, as James Nayler said, will “outlive all wrath and contention, and… weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself”, and allow us to “slowly learn… to dwell in the place where leadings come from. That is a place of love and joy and peace, even in the midst of pain.” (Matthews, as cited)

The littleness of our present sight

And as many as honestly desire to be heirs of this holy power and kingdom, patiently wait till you feel that move in you which is of that pure nature, and having felt it alive in you, rejoice in it with hope and faith, and keep therein, and be not discouraged, because of the littleness of it in your present sight, neither do you judge and measure it thereby; for you know not what power it has with God, and how precious it is in His sight; and what it will obtain for you at His hands in the time of need, you have not yet proved, nor can you, while you have things greater in your thoughts than it to run to: The power of holiness and truth in the inward parts is not known but in the depth, when the fire of wrath comes upon all vain hopes and hypocritical confidence, when all that is without a man is removed far away; when all friends and acquaintance are become farther off than strangers, and whatever thing the creature seeks to for comfort, turns against him, and adds to his grief; then is known the power of holiness and truth in heart with God, and a clean conscience will speak peace; and none can take it away from you, if you abide but in it: He that has proved it commends it to you, who has been stripped of all, that you might learn and know the treasure of life, and holiness with God. Wherefore judge not that which is holier and lower than yourselves, but let that which is just and holy, judge that which is above it in you, which is not of that nature.

James Nayler, A Door Opened to the Imprisoned Seed, 1659

I think I’ve written before somewhere – I confess I can’t find it, though – of the strange difficulty of spirituality during times of happiness and security. A few years ago I lived through a period that I’d have described in terms very much like Nayler uses here, “when… friends and acquaintance are become farther off than strangers, and whatever thing the creature seeks to for comfort, turns against him, and adds to his grief; then is known the power of holiness and truth in heart with God, and a clean conscience will speak peace; and none can take it away from you, if you abide but in it…”

It’s a great comfort to know that God’s presence is waiting in those times of emptiness and loss, but it is confusing to know that finding him in the good times is sometimes actually harder. I cannot find another way than the odd self-denial of silent prayer, ceasing even to ask for the awareness of God in prayer, but going on in plain faithfulness, without reward, simply out of love. Then, it seems, in the paradoxical way of these things, God will in the end, even in the sunlit days, find the emptied heart in its still place, waiting in the bare inkling of Light, even in the memory of Light, and fill it with isness far more real than words, or longing.