Tag Archives: Meister Eckhart

What Silence Is For

It has always seemed odd to me, over the relatively short time I’ve been seriously involved with Friends, that we of all people should have run into problems over language for our experience. As David Boulton writes (God, Words and Used. Helen Rowlands)

That some believe in God and others do not, or that some understand God language as in some sense ‘factual’ while others perceive it as intensified poetry, has become a problem for Friends. But my impression is that for many others it is no problem at all. In many, many meetings up and down the country, theists and non-theists meet together, work together, support each other, without tension or any deep concern over theological difference. We share clerkships, eldership and the routine offices. We are Friends together…

I have long felt that part of our problem is in fact not theological at all, rather linguistic. As long ago as 1908 Hilda Clark wrote,

One thing I understand now is that one’s intellect alone won’t pull one through, and that the greatest service it can perform is to open a window for that thing we call the divine spirit. If one trusts to it [the intellect] alone it’s like trusting to an artificial system of ventilation – correct in theory but musty in practice. How I wish it were as easy to throw everything open to the spirit of God as it is to fresh air.

In the book I quoted from yesterday, Seeking the God Beyond: A Beginner’s Guide to Christian Apophatic Spirituality, JP Williams writes

The problem for any object of thought is that even when we grasp it, we can only say what it is like in and to our grasp – whereas when it comes to the divine, we can touch or be touched but cannot comprehend, cannot enclose the divine in our fist, cannot get our hands to circle it or our ‘heads around it’. The distinct impression we get is that it’s the other way around: we are in God’s grasp, he comprehends us. God simply won’t be ‘an object of thought’: it’s not in the power of the dividing and distinguishing intellect but in the power of desiring, tentative, unifying love, to approach the divine.

Almost more telling, at least from a Quaker point of view, is a remarkable passage Janet Williams quotes from Michael Sells’ Mystical Languages of Unsaying:

The formal denial that the transcendent can be named must in some sense be valid, otherwise ineffability would not become an issue, Insofar as it is valid, however, the formal statement of ineffability turns back upon itself, and undoes itself. To say ‘X is beyond names’, if true, entails that it cannot then be called by the name ‘X’. In turn, the statement ‘it cannot be called X’ becomes suspect, since the ‘it’, as a pronoun, substitutes for a name, but the transcendent is beyond all names… I am caught in a linguistic regress… The authentic subject of discourse [God] slips back continually beyond each effort to name or even deny its nameability.

Sells may have nailed something here that we Quakers might have seen coming long ago, and fallen into the silence “before God” for which we are known. Words fail us. Of course they do. We are only human, and words are tools of ours. Trying to apply scientific or philosophical terms to that which we encounter in worship is like trying to dig up encaustic tiles with a carpenter’s chisel – you won’t make much of an impression on the tiles, and you’ll ruin the chisel. Silence is the proper tool, and waiting is the way it’s used. Emilia Fogelklou explains as well as anyone I’ve read:

But then one bright spring day – it was the 29th of May 1902 – while she sat preparing for her class under the trees in the backyard of Föreningsgatan 6, quietly, invisibly, there occurred the central event of her whole life. Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ‘empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.

The first words which came to her – although they took a long time to come – were, ‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ The child who had cried out in anguish and been silenced had now come inside the gates of Light. She had been delivered by a love that is greater than any human love. Struck dumb, amazed, she went quietly to her class, wondering that no one noticed that something had happened to her.

In worship there is an encounter which does not yield, cannot yield, to words. Meister Eckhart knew this, and used the term istigkeit, isness, which is perhaps as good as we can can get.

Quakers and others are sometimes frustrated when they attempt to read Scripture, especially the New Testament, and find a lack of exactitude, a sense of not being able to pin down, what the authors are getting at. (In the Old Testament this more often shows itself in endless apparently irrelevant or even objectionable histories and legalities, or impenetrable apocalyptic prophecies.)  But the Bible doesn’t set out, despite the things fundamentalists sometimes say, to do science or philosophy. Its many authors – who lived in societies and among traditions very different from our own – are merely trying to give an account of an encounter, that is all, or of the effect that encounter has had on them. Quaker ministry sometimes tries to do a similar job…

In meeting for worship, and in the practice of eldership that defines and protects our meeting, Quakers have developed a practice which is uniquely capable of understanding the apophatic (that is, of knowledge of God, obtained through negating concepts that might be applied to God), of sharing it, and of living out its consequences in relationship and action. We sometimes fail to realise the importance of this:

In silence, without rite or symbol, we have known the Spirit of Christ so convincingly present in our quiet meetings that his grace dispels our faithlessness, our unwillingness, our fears, and sets our hearts aflame with the joy of adoration. We have thus felt the power of the Spirit renewing and recreating our love and friendship for all our fellows. This is our Eucharist and our Communion.

London Yearly Meeting, 1928

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.

Fields of Grace

We do not manufacture our own existence. However much we may seek to emulate Frank Sinatra doing it his way, the best we can do with our “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver) is to improvise a little over the chords we have been given. We live by grace, by gift.

Satya Robyn writes, “Every day we are provided with oxygen, a place to live, food that has been grown and prepared by strangers, love from our friends and families… ” She goes on to speak of the humility that comes with this realisation: a humility that is “a very realistic appraisal of our conditions and of our [imperfect] nature which leads to a natural sense of contrition. Contrition is the gate through which grace can enter.”

All that exists rests in the ground of being. It cannot be otherwise – that is what being means. At the very root, the fundamental source of what is, we must come to isness itself, Meister Eckhart’s Istigkeit. It matters more than we might think how we describe it, as Rhiannon Grant discusses in her recent talk for the Nontheist Friends Network conference at Woodbrooke, and yet as she points out there is behind all our words that which is forever beyond words, and cannot be held by them. I suspect that this is the insight behind the opening of John’s Gospel,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.1-5)

When things come into being, then we can encounter them, speak of them, but not before. Perhaps this is why Jesus, the Christ, the anointed of God, could say to Philip – who had asked him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” – “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14.8-9) It is only in whatever process of coming-to-be is represented by the term “incarnation” that we can encounter God. (A Buddhist might say, in parallel, that it is only in the person of a Buddha that we can encounter the Buddha Field – only in the living encounter with Amitabha in the Nembutsu, say, can we come to the Pure Land.)

But not being able to put into words the ground of being, isness, God, as apophatic theology rightly asserts, doesn’t mean at all that these encounters are not possible; it is only that entirely unmediated encounter is not possible, as Moses found when he could not see God face to face (Exodus 33.17-23). In the silence of meeting for worship, in the stillness between the words of the Jesus Prayer, is the Light. It is within each of us, closer than our own heartbeat, nearer than the beautiful chemistry by which we breathe and live. William Penn saw this so clearly:

If you would know God and worship and serve God as you should do, you must come to the means he has ordained and given for that purpose. Some seek it in books, some in learned men, but what they look for is in themselves, yet they overlook it. The voice is too still, the Seed too small and the Light shineth in darkness. They are abroad and so cannot divide the spoil; but the woman that lost her silver found it at home after she had lighted her candle and swept her house. Do you so too and you shall find what Pilate wanted to know, viz., Truth. The Light of Christ within, who is the Light of the world and so a light to you that tells you the truth of your condition, leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvellous light; for light grows upon the obedient. It is sown for the righteous and their way is a shining light that shines forth more and more to the perfect day.

Qfp 26.44

What is Truth?

Pontius Pilate (in)famously asked Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18.38)

Truth is one of the Quaker testimonies, and in his book Being a Quaker, Geoffrey Durham reminds us (p. 74) that the 17th century Quakers “called themselves Friends of Truth. Truth for them meant more than authenticity, integrity, or an absence of lying. It went deeper, to the very core of things: Truth with a capital ‘T’ acquired new meaning, expressing not only the word of God, but the Godliness in each of us.”

It seems to me that any truth we can tell depends upon another – there is a chain of dependency, and if you trace the real seaweed back to its holdfast, there is the rock. The rock rests on a beach… But at the least, truth is what actually is. As Thomas Aquinas said, “A judgment is said to be true when it conforms to the external reality.” Anything less, like William James’ pragmatic theory of truth, would have received short shrift from George Fox and Margaret Fell, I think.

But suppose we were able to trace truth back, all the way down the chain of dependencies, holdfast to rock, rock to beach, to a final placeless place where its absolute existence depended upon nothing else. Wouldn’t that be Truth, worthy of its capital ‘T’? And if it were dependent upon nothing else, would it not be itself istigkeit, isness in itself existing beyond cause or condition? And what could we call it but God?