Tag Archives: Jennifer Kavanagh

On Common Ground

Words are odd and slippery things. We need them to communicate, obviously, and we actually seem to need them to think… Perhaps it is not surprising that, since we are in some way made “in the image of God”, there should be in the very pattern of our making something to correspond, like a tiny model almost, with the opening words of St. John’s Gospel…

A new post on The Mercy Blog.

Ascension Day

…the prayer of baptized people is going to be a prayer that is always moving in the depths, sometimes invisibly – a prayer that comes from places deeper than we can really understand. St. Paul says just this in his letter to the Romans: ‘The Spirit helps us in our weakness… that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’ (Romans 8.26). The prayer of baptized people comes from a place deeper than we can penetrate with our minds or even our feelings… and therefore it is a prayer that may often be difficult and mysterious… Prayer, in other words, is more like sneezing – there comes a point where you can’t not do it. The Spirit wells and surges up towards God the Father. But because of this there will be moments when, precisely because you can’t help yourself, it feels dark and unrewarding, deeply puzzling, hard to speak about.

Rowan Williams, Being Christian

So, as we come to this fortieth day of Easter, when we remember that mysterious scene at the opening of the Acts of the Apostles, it seems right somehow to look again at this odd calling we find ourselves in. The disciples of Jesus were just like us: they wanted to know when their Lord would finally sort things out, put an end to Roman tyranny and all that went with it, and the messy, broken state of human life itself. “Lord,” they said, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus’ reply, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set…” reminds me of his sharp rejoinder to Peter when the latter queried John’s role in the kingdom, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”

There is a lot not to know about being a Christian, it seems to me. We are often accused of thinking we know all the answers – and maybe some fundamentalists do think so – but really the way of Christ, while we follow it on earth, is a way of mystery and darkness more than anything else. “Faith”, said Jennifer Kavanagh, “is not about certainty, but about trust.”

For myself, I have found cannot find God by looking, or thinking, much as my whole life may seem to have been spent in a search for – or being distracted from a search for – what is true and is the source of all that is. What God is in himself is unknowable. Anything I might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in human understanding, nor to be constrained by time, space or any other dimension. The only way I can know God is by not knowing, and by not knowing allowing myself to be known. Jennifer Kavanagh, a few pages on from the passage above, goes on to say that,

Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience.

Indeed that seems to be the crux of the matter for me. It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting myself out of the way of that channel of loving gift that is Jesus himself. To pray “in the name of Jesus” is nothing more nor less than this; and it is with some such thought that the Jesus Prayer is so often referred to as “the prayer of the Name”.

We are caught up, by our baptism – and by that term I mean our entry into the life of the spirit, whether or not physical water is involved – into a life more than our own. All we are is, as Paul said, “hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3.3) Rowan Williams continues (ibid.):

…we receive life from others’ prayer and love, and we give the prayer and love that others need. We are caught up in a great economy of giving and exchange. The solidarity that baptism brings us into, the solidarity with suffering, is a solidarity with one another as well… We are ‘implicated’ in one another, our lives are interwoven…

And so our prayer, whether we are aware of it or not, covers life itself, the broken, weeping, glorious becoming that is being made. We are not separated, and our breath is breathed with the breath of God.

[Also published on The Mercy Blog]

Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Ch. 12 – final thoughts

To be without an ordained clergy is not to be without either leadership or ministry. The gifts of the Spirit to us include both. For us, calls to particular ministries are usually for a limited period of time, and those gifts pertain to the task rather than the person. In one lifetime a person may be called to a number of ministries.

London Yearly Meeting, 1986 (QFP 12.02)

Elders have concern for the spiritual lives of our meetings and the individuals within them but because we are increasingly diverse in our communities and our beliefs, it is difficult to find a common language to express that spiritual life. That can result in silence, or a misconception that they are trying to impose an unacceptable system of belief…

Jenny Routledge, Living Eldership

If it is true the British Friends are more open (than other Christian communities) with our wondering and questioning, we can aspire for this to be true in each of our meetings. It will not help our meeting communities if Friends ignore or discourage discourse arising from questions about God. We have to make it possible for difference – even the kind that brings with it the risk of contention – to be explored, and to continue towards understanding…

The role of eldership in building confidence will be to encourage a spirit of respect for people’s own experience and their genuine concern to find the language that embodies it. Friends from anywhere on the spectrum of belief or spiritual understanding can feel marginalised and not heard in a meeting where discussion feels too risky or it takes place in private corners only between people of like mind. If this is happening in our meeting, we will need to make opportunities for respectful and open sharing of religious experience and perspective, ensuring that Friends observe the discipline of listening with open hearts and minds.

Zélie Gross, With a Tender Hand

The ministry of eldership is a spiritual gift, a calling and a challenge. It is this gift and calling that we aim to recognise through the appointment of elders for our area meetings, but it can be received and exercised by anyone, whether or not they are formally appointed. It is the calling to make oneself available as a midwife to the soul, a mothering and fathering of the inner life of another person, through attentive and compassionate listening.

Craig Barnett, ‘Spiritual Eldership‘, on the Transition Quaker blog

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5.22-23

It is clear from these and many other passages that eldership, the care and nurture of the spiritual lives of our meetings and their members, is in itself a ministry of and in the Spirit. It can’t be anything else, or it will become an exercise in corporate self-defence, or damage limitation, and will end up hurting those it is intended to love and serve.

Love. Honestly it just seems to come down to love. Paul put love at the head of his list of spiritual fruit for a good reason – all the others seem to flow from, and depend upon, love. Perhaps the greatest act of love is to help someone to realise who they actually are, and that is a spiritual thing, since we are spiritual beings. In his first letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 13) Paul points out that whatever we try to do, if we do not have love, we will achieve nothing.

It sounds so simple… I think I sometimes forget that Paul lists love as a fruit of the Spirit. It is only in resting in the Spirit, soaking up the Spirit in worship and in our own practice, that love will come to heal and renew all our relations. Only by accepting that we do not know can we come to hear what the Spirit is saying. As Jennifer Kavanagh wrote, “We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience.” To bring our unknowing into the field of the Spirit in worship and prayer is to become open, open as Isaac Penington describes:

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.

QFP 26.70

Surely all we can do as elders (and we are all elders in meeting!) comes from this, and comes down to this, really. To show this as love is all we can hope to do, it seems to me.

Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 11

When early Friends affirmed the priesthood of all believers it was seen as an abolition of the clergy; in fact it is an abolition of the laity. All members are part of the clergy and have the clergy’s responsibility for the maintenance of the meeting as a community. This means contributing, in whatever ways are most suitable, to the maintenance of an atmosphere in which spiritual growth and exploration are possible for all. It means contributing to the meeting, in whatever ways are right for the individual, by giving time and energy to events and necessary tasks, and also being willing to serve on various regional or yearly meeting committees and other groups. There is a special expectation that Friends attending meetings for church affairs will benefit from working together under Quaker discipline on the decisions that need to be made. Membership also entails a financial commitment appropriate to a member’s means, for without money neither the local meeting nor the wider structure can function.

Membership does not require great moral or spiritual achievement, but it does require a sincerity of purpose and a commitment to Quaker values and practices. Membership is a spiritual discipline, a commitment to the well-being of one’s spiritual home and not simply appearance on a membership roll. The simple process of becoming a member is part of the spiritual journey: part of the seeking that is so integral to our religious heritage. The process of becoming a member is not only about seeking but also about finding.

The process is an important part of the life of the area meeting, too; accepting a new member means not only welcoming the ‘hidden seed of God’ but also affirming what it is as a community that we value and cherish. Quakers once called themselves ‘Friends in the Truth’ and it is the finding of this truth that we affirm when we accept others who value it into membership.

From QFP 11.01

I’ve read this often enough before, but for some reason the words “abolition of the laity” just leapt out at me when I began reading this chapter as part of the project. Of course! This is the key to understanding Quaker worship, and more than that, the key to understanding how corporate eldership and oversight can work. If there is no laity, then we are all priests, and are all responsible for each others’ growth, healing and care. This is love in practice, and if we do carry the pastoral and formative responsibility, each for the other, then our community is indeed a Society of Friends.

Working this out, of course, is less easy. I am only gradually learning what it means not to depend upon appointed elders and overseers, as we did in our previous area meeting, but to share these responsibilities as a community. I am coming to realise that in a sense, especially as regards eldership, we are all learning, and will continue to learn, as long as the system is in place. There can be no destination, no time when arrangements are settled, and Friends can sit back and let things be dealt with. Each of us must watch for the others, as we are watched for ourselves. Only the Light can illuminate things for each of us, and this is a tremendous risk to take. We are called to walk out every week, every day on the waters of change and uncertainty, with only our sense of being called to sustain us.

How are we to be faithful to such a call? Jennifer Kavanagh once wrote, “Faith is not about certainty, but about trust…” Somehow once again it comes down to the experimental (in both the modern, and the 17th century “experiential” senses of the word) nature of our faith – as Charles F Carter put it:

True faith is not assurance, but the readiness to go forward experimentally, without assurance. It is a sensitivity to things not yet known. Quakerism should not claim to be a religion of certainty, but a religion of uncertainty; it is this which gives us our special affinity to the world of science. For what we apprehend of truth is limited and partial, and experience may set it all in a new light; if we too easily satisfy our urge for security by claiming that we have found certainty, we shall no longer be sensitive to new experiences of truth. For who seeks that which he believes that he has found? Who explores a territory which he claims already to know?

Continuing to read Quaker Faith & Practice…

We must be confident that there is still more ‘life’ to be ‘lived’ and yet more heights to be scaled. The tragedy of middle age is that, so often, men and women cease to press ‘towards the goal of their high calling’. They cease learning, cease growing; they give up and resign from life. As wisdom dawns with age, we begin to measure our experiences not by what life gives to us, not by the things withheld from us, but by their power to help us to grow in spiritual wisdom.

Evelyn Sturge, 1949 – Quaker Faith & Practice 21.45

Continuing to read Quaker Faith & Practice, we came across the passage above this morning. It struck us both that we have somehow come to think of things, all but unconsciously, not only in terms of “their power to help us to grow in spiritual wisdom”, but in terms of their power to impede our growth in spiritual wisdom.

You see, not only do we live, at least in this relatively wealthy country, surrounded by the pressure to accumulate, and to build on that accumulation with yet more layers, but what we accumulate begins to assert its own, almost spiritual, pressure. We are sold stuff; having stuff, we arrange our stuff; we clean it, insure it, protect it, upgrade it, replace it… That’s bad enough, but when we, as Quakers or merely as thoughtful people, come to realise this pernicious pattern, and simplify our lives, we can too easily find we have developed a new and potentially obsessive hobby – decluttering!

If in our efforts to simplify our lives we have achieved not simplicity, but another layer of complexity, surely we are confronted with yet another barrier to our spiritual growth. It would be easy, we realised, to come unstuck here. Jennifer Kavanagh, in her little book Simplicity Made Easy, remarks that:

To live a simple life is to experience life more fully, to live with enhanced intensity and freedom. It is not a deprivation but a joy.

An enforced austerity, or actions taken for reasons of observance to some externally imposed rule, can lead to a distorted view of what simplicity means… It can also lead to a mistaken concept of plainness. Among seventeenth-century North American Puritans, the pursuit of plainness for its own sake sometimes resulted in ugliness, meanness and mediocrity. Modern minimalism can be stark, hard, lacking the warmth of human connection.

But she goes on to say that,

Our response to the extreme consumerism of Western society does not need to be equally extreme. Excess is as much a danger in the inner life as in the outer. Moderation, a balance between less and more, unmeasurable and personal in its definition, is at the heart of simplicity. The important thing is to be true to our own life’s journey, open to the promptings of our own inner voice. There is no rule to adhere to; this is not a predictable path, with a predetermined end.  Allowing ourselves to be guided, letting go of goal-centred ambition, of the need to “arrive”, will take us to unexpected places.

Once again we are at the place of Isaac Penington’s “Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running…” (QFP 26.70) We cannot achieve this delicate, unmeasurable balance by thought and will. Only in the stillness of the open heart can we “allow… ourselves to be guided”; only in interior silence can we hear.

On knowing one’s unknowing…

“God” is a word which for many provokes discomfort, echoes of an authoritarian judgemental deity, or a childhood perception of a bearded old man on a cloud. Many who reject any idea of the Divine are living with a concept which many of us would consider outdated. In answer to a theist’s question: “Who is this God that you don’t believe in?” the answer might not be so different from the view held by the questioner.

…Faith is not about certainty, but about trust…

We have seen that there is little about which we can be certain. Certainty may be undermined by limitations of the current state of knowledge; the subjective nature of experience; the fluid quality of the material world; or the intervention of unforeseen events. But beyond these aspects of the world about which we often assume knowledge, there is a dimension of life to which rational explanation simply doesn’t apply. Most people would admit that there is much that we cannot apprehend through reason or through the senses. We might know a fact with our brains, but not be able to understand what it means, to fully experience its reality – the age of a star or the trillions of connections within the human brain – some things are too big, too complex, for us to conceive. Einstein, who know a thing or two about factual knowledge, felt that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. There is a dimension which co-exists with the material, rationally grounded world, is not in opposition to it or threatened by scientific development but happily stands alone in the context of everything else. This is the world of religious experience.

Jennifer Kavanagh, A Little Book of Unknowing

For myself, I have found cannot find God by looking, or thinking, much as my whole life may seem to have been spent in a search for – or being distracted from a search for – what is true and is the source of all that is. What God is is unknowable. Anything I might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, not constrained by time, space or any other dimension. The only way I can know God is by not knowing. Jennifer Kavanagh, a few pages on from the passage above, goes on to say that,

Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience.

Indeed that seems to be the crux of the matter for me. It is only by unknowing, by knowing one’s own unknowing with a passionate thoroughness, that the gift of experience, of direct knowing, can be received. And it is gift. All I have done or ever will do amounts to getting myself out of the way of that channel of loving gift.

The Hebrew word  יָדַע (yada), does not mean quite what our English word “know” means. Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology states, “To know [as we usually translate “yada”] is not to be intellectually informed about some abstract principle, but to apprehend and experience reality. Knowledge is not the possession of information, but rather its exercise or actualization.”

I for one cannot reach out and know God like this; but in knowing my own unknowing, in keeping still and keeping out of the way, I can be known, and in being known, know. Isaac Penington put it far better than I can:

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