Tag Archives: John Woolman

Reading Quaker faith & practice Chapter 20

Those of us known as ‘activists’ have sometimes been hurt by the written or spoken implication that we must be spending too little time on our spiritual contemplative lives. I do know many atheists who are active to improve the lot of humankind; but, for those of us who are Friends, our attendance at meeting for worship and our silent prayerful times are what make our outer activity viable and effective – if it is effective.

I have similarly seen quieter Friends hurt by the implication that they do not care enough, because they are not seen to be ‘politically active’. Some worry unnecessarily that they may be doing things of a ‘less important’ nature, as if to be seen doing things by the eyes of the world is the same thing as to be seen doing things by the eyes of God… I suggest that we refrain from judging each other, or belittling what each is doing; and that we should not feel belittled. We cannot know the prayers that others make or do not make in their own times of silent aloneness. We cannot know the letters others may be writing to governments, similarly… We were all made differently, in order to perform different tasks. Let us rejoice in our differences.

Margaret Glover, 1989QFP 20.14

The place of prayer is a precious habitation: … I saw this habitation to be safe, to be inwardly quiet, when there was great stirrings and commotions in the world.

John Woolman, 1770 – QFP 20.10

I have sometimes struggled with the temptation to suspect that by following the path of contemplative prayer into the rather more mystical byways of the Quaker way, I am in some way dodging the difficult work of, on the one hand, traditional intercessory prayer, or on the other hand dodging the difficult work of activism, protest, demonstration, civil disobedience or whatever – or at least volunteering to do Useful Things.

In the next chapter of Quaker Faith & Practice we read:

Those of you who are kept by age or sickness from more active work, who are living retired lives, may in your very separation have the opportunity of liberating power for others. Your prayers and thoughts go out further than you think, and as you wait in patience and in communion with God, you may be made ministers of peace and healing and be kept young in soul.

London Yearly Meeting, 1923 – Quaker Faith & Practice 21.46

I would want to add the word “calling” to the first sentence here: “kept by age, sickness or calling…” Throughout history, even in times of great social need, the calling to a retired life of prayer and contemplation has been recognised. Julian of Norwich, for instance, lived during the time of the Black Death that swept Europe in the Middle Ages, yet seems to have lived out much of her life as an anchoress, devoted to prayer, contemplation, writing, and probably what we would call these days counselling, or spiritual direction.

Simon Barrington-Ward writes of St. Silouan of Mount Athos:

…he began to recognise that [his sense of darkness and isolation] was in part the oppression of the absence of the sense of God and the alienation from his love over the whole face of the globe. He had been called to undergo this travail himself not on account of his own sin any more, but that he might enter into the darkness of separated humanity and tormented nature and, through his ceaseless prayer, be made by God’s grace alone into a means of bringing that grace to bear on the tragic circumstances of his time. He was praying and living through the time of World War I and the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of all that led to the Holocaust [not to mention the Russian Revolution, and at the very end of his life, Stalin’s Great Purge]. And with all this awareness of pain and sorrow, he was also given a great serenity and peacefulness and goodness about his, which profoundly impressed those who know him.

For all of us in our lesser ways, the Jesus Prayer, as well as bringing us into something of this kind of alternation which St. Silouan so strikingly experienced, also leads us on with him into an ever-deepening peace. You can understand how those who first taught and practiced this kind of prayer were first called “hesychasts”: people of hesychia or stillness.

Of course all this is by grace, entirely by grace, God’s life and presence given to us freely in Christ, and encountered directly in silence. We are called into this. I honestly don’t think we could choose these things for ourselves. Even if we could, they would fall into disuse by our own inertia. We would become bored with the life of prayer, terrified by the darkness and the identification with the pain and alienation of the world. Why would we choose such a path, hidden as it is too, mute and inglorious?

Barrington-Ward again:

After all, the whole prayer becomes an intercession. Soon I find that I am on longer praying just for myself, but when I say “on me, a sinner” all the situations of grief and terror, of pain and suffering begin to be drawn into me and I into them. I begin to pray as a fragment of this wounded creation longing for its release into fulfillment… I am in those for whom I would pray and they are in me, as is the whole universe. Every petition of the prayer becomes a bringing of all into the presence and love of God…

What is required here has to be a retired life, given for some large part to prayer and silence. How this will work out in each of our lives cannot be prescribed. It will have to be worked out with fear and trembling, in the mercy of the ground of being itself, and it will probably look quite different for each of us. I think we have, if we find ourselves called to the life that is lived within the practice of prayer, to be prepared to walk into the dark, as it were, unknowing, and see how things work out. The path may be quite straightforward; or it may be quite scandalously tangled and broken. That is not for us to choose. All we have to do is walk in it, I think.

(An earlier version of parts of this post was published on The Mercy Blog)

“In an awful frame of mind…”

I went to meetings in an awful frame of mind, and endeavoured to be inwardly acquainted with the language of the true Shepherd. And one day, being under a strong exercise of spirit, I stood up, and said some words in a meeting, but not keeping close to the divine opening, I said more than was required of me and being soon sensible to my error, I was afflicted in mind some weeks, without any light or comfort, even to that degree that I could take satisfaction in nothing. I remembered God and was troubled, and in the depth of my distress he had pity upon me, and sent the Comforter. I then felt forgiveness for my offence, and my mind became calm and quiet, being truly thankful to my gracious Redeemer for his mercies. And after this, feeling the spring of divine love opened, and a concern to speak, I said a few words in a meeting in which I found peace. This I believe was about six weeks from the first time, and as I was thus humbled and disciplined under the cross, my understanding became more strengthened to distinguish the language of the pure spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart, and taught me to wait in silence sometimes many weeks together, until I felt that rise which prepares the creature to stand like a trumpet, through which the Lord speaks to his flock.

John Woolman, 1741 – Quaker Faith & Practice 2.57

Among Quakers today little thought seems to be given to the Quietist period during the 18th century. The schisms of the 19th century (Gurneyites and Hicksites being remembered, generally, rather more than Beaconites or Wilburites!) have perhaps overshadowed this period when, it is easy to forget, John Woolman was working patiently towards the ending of slavery, and for peace during the Seven Years’ War.

Admittedly the Quietists were sometimes an odd bunch of people – it was they who carried plain dress and plain speech to extremes, and who were most committed, it seems, to endogamy and to other practices aimed at setting Quakers apart from the rest of society and the church. But there was more to them than that, I suspect. The dogma that history is written by the victors (whoever said it first) may be suspect – Constantinople, anyone? – but it perhaps contains some truth in this situation. It is the present-day Liberal Quakers, descendants of Hicksites, and Evangelical Quakers, descendants, largely, of Gurneyites, through whose eyes we look back at the Quietists.

As we look at what Quakers may become in the 21st century, perhaps we may find time to consider whether the stillness of Quaker worship, and perhaps of our personal spiritual practice, may be, as it was for Woolman, far more the motor of Friends’ transforming presence in the world than either our political convictions or our anger at injustice, good though those things may be in themselves. There are plenty of politicians and campaigners out there, without them all having to be Quakers; it is Friends acting, and praying, under the conviction of the Spirit, who have another voice, one that has so often wrought more peace and justice for those who suffer than our numbers would give us any right to expect. But that conviction, that leading, can only arise in silence, and in submission to the Spirit, as Woolman himself found out the hard way.

Do we need, among Friends, to look again at the Quietists, and to ask ourselves what we might learn – not imitate – from John Woolman’s contemporaries? I am no historian, but I feel it might be worth it to ask the question…

Business as Usual

There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath different names; it is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren.

John Woolman, 1762 – Quaker Faith & Practice 26.61

At Meeting last Sunday, a Friend objected to the usual reading from Quaker Faith & Practice on the grounds that she felt reading from the book was “business as usual” – and with the Government decision to involve the UK in the bombing of Syrian targets, the climate crisis, the refugee crisis – it was not time for “business as usual”.

Of course the reading from John Woolman was intended not to cry “peace, peace where there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6.14), but to address the very situation where, as Woolman had, Friends find themselves living in a deeply compromised and immoral society, and have to find a way to live out their faith under troubled circumstances, and with troubled hearts. As another Friend ministered, the words of Psalm 120 ring true: “Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.”

All week I have pondered the events of Sunday morning, and it was not until yesterday that I happened on the words of Fr Laurence Freeman OSB, of the World Community of Christian Meditation. In his Advent Address this year he wrote, and I quote his address in full:

The preparation for the incarnation begins with a ‘voice crying in the wilderness’. In today’s gospel it is John the Baptist, who first recognises what we have all been so anxiously waiting for. He is the voice. Jesus is the word. The voice that the voice communicates through the pure air of the silent wilderness.

The word ‘wilderness’ in Greek is eremos, an uninhabited place. This gives us the word hermit, one who lives in solitude. In meditation we are all solitaries.

Meditation leads us into the wilderness, into a place uninhabited by thoughts, opinions, the conflicts of images and desires. It is place we long for because of the peace and purity it offers. Here we find truth. But it also terrifies us because of what we fear we will lose and of what we will find.

The more we penetrate into the wilderness, the solitude of the heart, the more we slow down. As mental activity decreases, so time slows until the point where there is only stillness – a living and loving stillness. Here, for the first time, we can listen to silence without fear. The word emerges from this silence. It touches and becomes incarnate in us. It incarnates us making us fully embodied and real in the present.

Only here, where we cut all communication with the noisy, jeering, fickle crowds inhabiting our minds do we see what ‘fleeing from the world’ means. What it does not mean is escapism or avoidance of responsibilities. It means to enter into solitude where we realise how fully, inescapably we are embodied and embedded in the universal web of relationships.

In the desert monasticism of the fourth century the monks plunged deeper into the wilderness as they got older. Then the world followed them, drawn by the incomparable and tangible beauty of what awaited them.

At last I had found words for what was troubling me. I find I am called in this season of my life – if I am honest, I probably always have been, even since childhood – to prayer and contemplation, rather than to political action or public protest. And yet, as I have so often written here, I find myself accusing myself, if I am faithful to my calling, of “business as usual”.

Fr Laurence’s clear words answer that doubt, that self-accusation. We cannot silence the clamour of the warmongers, whether here or in deserts of Western Asia, by shouting louder ourselves. We cannot bring peace through anger, or combat the darkness in which we find ourselves by darkening our hearts still further.

In the silence there is true peace, a peace which can spill out into healing for the wounds of our time, if we are faithful, if we let it. If action is needed, then coming from this true peace, it will be true, right action, and not merely reaction. The call to the heart’s solitude is not a call to inaction, to mere avoidance of uncomfortable truths: it is a call to embrace the courage to “realise how fully, inescapably we are embodied and embedded in the universal web of relationships” – the courage, despite all the clamour to the contrary, to “[be] with God, putting [ourselves] 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.” (Michael Ramsey)

Explaining Prayer?

I have been trying to find my way recently through a thicket of thoughts about prayer. Prayer has been so important to me in my Christian life – the central calling, as I have felt – that it is really quite hard for me to look at it at all objectively.

Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to know how things worked. Not just the mechanics of things, but what was at the heart of them, what “made them tick”. I am still that way. I find it hard to pray unless I have an idea, a theory, of how prayer works.

To be honest, I am not sure if this is possible. There are many models used by different people at different times to try and explain how prayer works, from “asking big daddy in the sky,” to making oneself, one’s own will and capacities, available to God for his will and purposes. Asking “in Jesus’ name” too has come to complicate the understanding of prayer, it then being necessary to point out that this is not a magical formula, but is in fact praying according to God’s will, with the same obedience to that will that Jesus himself showed forth.

Paul, of course, came closest to my own experience when he wrote,

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8.26-27)

If God is spirit, eternally and universally present and yet beyond time and space, then he/she/it is not “a person” as we understand the word “person” at all. Just as God is not a thing, but No Thing, isness itself, God is as far beyond our human concept of personhood as humanity is beyond algae, quite possibly further.

We know the trace of God in the human heart, the light (John 1.5) in the eyes of each of us, in the eyes (Psalm 104.27-30) of those who are not human, too.

In 1656 George Fox wrote,

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.

“That of God in every one.” If there is that of God even in me, then if I come into his presence, as Michael Ramsey wrote in Canterbury Pilgrim, with the needs – and the pain, and the longing – of the world on my heart, how can God, as Ground of Being, not bring good, healing (Romans 8.28) to those women, men, animals, all creation, whom I love as best I know how to love?

John Woolman, too, saw this:

I was early convinced in my mind that true religion consisted in an inward life wherein the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learns to exercise true justice and goodness not only toward all men but also toward the brute creation; that as the mind was moved on an inward principle to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible being, on the same principle it was moved to love him in all his manifestations in the visible world; that as by his breath the flame of life was kindled in all animal and sensitive creatures, to say we love God… and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature… was a contradiction in itself.

Quaker Faith & Practice 25.05

[An earlier version of this post appeared on my previous blog, The Mercy Blog, in April 2013]

The consequences of love and compassion?

I was early convinced in my mind that true religion consisted in an inward life wherein the heart doth love and reverence God the Creator and learns to exercise true justice and goodness not only toward all men but also toward the brute creation; that as the mind was moved on an inward principle to love God as an invisible, incomprehensible being, on the same principle it was moved to love him in all his manifestations in the visible world; that as by his breath the flame of life was kindled in all animal and sensitive creatures, to say we love God … and at the same time exercise cruelty toward the least creature … was a contradiction in itself.

John Woolman, 1772

If it is right that we should show love and compassion for people, surely it is right that we should extend our love and compassion to animals, who can feel fear and experience pain in much the same way as humans. They may not be able to speak, but we can certainly see fear in their eyes and demeanour. I feel that being a vegetarian is a natural progression from being a pacifist and a Quaker.

Vera Haley, 1988

I have been troubled for years over this question of vegetarianism. For much of my life of course I worked with dairy herds, and believed strongly, and thoughtfully, in what I was doing. Contrary to some more extreme vegan opinion, cows are well cared for on most British dairy farms, and on the whole are loved by those who look after them. And yet it cannot be denied that the dairy industry depends upon the slaughter of animals: on the slaughter of bull calves (whether as calves or after rearing to 18 months or two years as beef animals), on the slaughter of “cull cows”, those too old or unfit to carry on bearing a calf each year and doing the undoubtedly hard work of giving milk twice (or occasionally three times) a day for 305 days a year.

Much the British landscape we cherish as natural is in fact formed by grazing sheep and cattle. The rolling downland and the open moors alike would be scrubland were it not for livestock. Thousands upon thousands of acres of hill farm are only productive due to the grazing of animals.

(I don’t propose here to go into the vexed environmental questions of land use, water consumption, methane production, and the relative merits of animal waste, green manure, and artificial fertilisers. There are many good arguments on each side; all that needs saying here is that the British livestock industry does think about these things, and much work is being done, especially on the increasing number of organic farms, to minimise the adverse, and increase the beneficial environmental effects of the industry.)

I find though that increasingly I cannot see “the animal kingdom” as something separate from humanity, over which we have some kind of inalienable right. Sentimentality helps no-one here, not the petting-zoo nor the noble-hunter variety, nor even the animal-rights-extremist kind. We do owe to our sister and brother animals our love and compassion, and it is hard to understand much of the work of commercial slaughterhouses in terms of love and compassion. The longer I go on with contemplative practice, the closer I find myself to all sentient creatures, from those we see as “less evolved”, like insects and spiders, to the higher mammals, and all in between. I don’t feel I can sidestep, or ignore, these things; but equally I can’t evade thinking, and feeling, and praying, them through by signing on any party line, whether vegan or the opposite. (Incidentally, ovo-lacto-vegetarianism makes no sense to me – see my own first paragraph above.)

I suppose I shall have to go on trying to work this through. Your prayers would be appreciated, though – it is getting to be an urgent and painful pressure. Somehow I must reconcile my ever-growing heart of compassion for my fellow creatures with what I know to be true about the way we find the food on which we, such numbers of us, live.