Tag Archives: Michael Ramsey

Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 25

All species and the Earth itself have interdependent roles within Creation. Humankind is not the species, to whom all others are subservient, but one among many. All parts, all issues, are inextricably intertwined. Indeed the web of creation could be described as of three-ply thread: wherever we touch it we affect justice and peace and the health of all everywhere. So all our testimonies, all our Quaker work, all our Quaker lives are part of one process, of striving towards a flourishing, just and peaceful Creation – the Kingdom of God.

Audrey Urry, 1994 – Qfp 25.04

The web of creation – all that is made – rests in God, as Julian of Norwich saw; or to put it less poetically and in a rather more stilted voice, existence itself in every particular, from the macro- to the microcosmic, rests on the ground of being from which it arose, and upon which it depends for its continued existence.

As Audrey Urry points out, “[a]ll parts, all issues, are inextricably intertwined.” We cannot change one part without affecting the whole, and, crucially, that from which it springs; truly to love one part requires a love that encompasses the whole, and that from which is springs.

This seems to me to be vitally important not only to understanding our place within creation, environment and society, and our potential for good and ill within that system, but also to understanding what is meant by the love of God. More than that, if offers a tantalising hint of how prayer might work: not perhaps in the crude notion of a Santa God dishing out pressies on request, and certainly not in the more modern Quaker sense of simply geeing ourselves up to increased political efforts, but in the sense that Michael Ramsey spoke of when he said that contemplative prayer “means essentially our being 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.”

All that is rests in the infinite isness of God – it must, else it could not exist – and hence each existence is connected, from the farthest astronomical phenomenon to the least subatomic particle, and all the planets and people and cows and bees and bacteria in between, by the zero point field of God’s presence. Our love, and its pain, as well as our joy and our hope, cannot but affect everything. How that then works out in practice, if “in practice” is a useful distinction in this context, is for us to wait to hear. The first of the Advices and queries sums that up:

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

Prayer, Listening and Power – more QFP Chapter 2

Prayer, we learn gradually, has far more to do with listening than with talking. In emotional stress the thoughts are so obsessive that they leave one no opportunity to listen. So, when we know someone is in trouble, we can and must listen (pray) for them. A Friend who had missed meeting for several weeks told us that she knew we had been praying for her before we said so; she had felt it and been sustained by it. She had thought there was no point in prayer or belief in God, but she had been helped by the knowledge that we still prayed and believed. It seems that one can do no less than this. We are seldom given guarantees that it is effective, just hints along the way; but they are hints we cannot ignore. We cannot prove the effectiveness of prayer, but nor can we cast scorn on examples of the kind I have given.

A friend tells me that when she prays for someone she does not so much pray to God for them as for God for them. This seems to me a vital clue about prayer. It is God that the troubled person needs, not our advice and instructions. As we learn more about worship we learn to listen more deeply so that we can be channels through which God’s love reaches the other person. It is God at work, not we ourselves; we are simply used.

Diana Lampen, 1979 – Quaker Faith & Practice 2.26

Sometimes I struggle with the concept of prayer. As I have written elsewhere, I have a schoolboy’s obsession with “how things work”, and Christian theology is replete with explanations of how, and why, prayer is supposed to work, so that it has been relatively easy for me to get caught up in trying to make various theologies of prayer fit with a Quaker understanding of our relationship with God.

For a long while before I discovered for myself the Quaker way, however, I had been dissatisfied with conventional theological models for prayer. Seeking for models that more closely matched my own growing experience with prayer – a form of communication (if that’s the right word for it) to which I found myself increasingly called – I read quite extensively in the literature of contemplative prayer, and through that was led to the hesychast tradition of silence and submission to God.

Contemplative prayer, as Michael Ramsey wrote, is “being with God, putting [myself] 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.” I am increasingly coming to wonder if any more detailed, mechanistic explanation than this is possible, or even desirable.

Very early in the history of the Christian church, certainly by the 4th century, the term hesychasm, the life of silence,  began to appear in the writings of scholars like John Chrysostom and Evagrius Pontikos, as well as in the writings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who had moved out from the centres of civilisation partly in response to the growing association of the church with the centres of political and military power under the Emperor Constantine the Great and his sons. Hesychasts, as they became known, were practitioners of a tradition of contemplative prayer based on short, repeated prayer that was available to everyone, regardless of education, ordination or formal membership of a monastic community.

Simon Barrington-Ward writes that

This prayer is marked by a compunction and penitence. It has the sense of a kind of joyful mourning of one’s own and the world’s pitiableness. It knows our need to be rescued and saved, with tears. It is expressed in short, urgently or longingly repeated prayer directed to Jesus present in the heart, a presence to which the person praying seeks to turn his or her waking and sleeping thoughts (‘I slept but my heart was awake’, Song of Solomon 5:2) and whole life.

There is a sense of immediacy, or personal experience of the presence of God, from the very start of the hesychast tradition, that will be immediately familiar to Friends. Writing of the work of Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) Barrington-Ward goes on to say,

For Symeon, the resurrection is not only in the future. It begins here and now… He wrote out of an overwhelming encounter with the living Christ and with the Holy Spirit, through whom he claimed the resurrection of us all can occur.

By the 15th century the tradition had established itself in the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece, and was from there carried to Russia by St Nilus of Sora, Nil Sorski, and established itself in the forest communities in the far north, which were consciously modelled after the early desert settlements in Egypt in the times of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. There the way of the hesychasts flourished continuously until the years following the Russian Revolution in the early 20th century, when many of its practitioners took refuge once again on Mount Athos, some eventually, like the great writer and teacher on prayer Sophrony Sakharov, even turning up in England.

Of course it was in England that our own Quaker tradition began in the 17th century. George Fox wrote,

Now after I had received that opening from the Lord that to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ, I regarded the priests less and looked more after the dissenting people… As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw 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…

Now the Lord God hath opened to me by his invisible power how that every man was enlightened by the divine light of Christ; and I saw it shine through all, and that they that believed in it came out of condemnation and came to the light of life and became the children of it, but they that hated it, and did not believe in it, were condemned by it, though they made a profession of Christ. This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man, neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it.

Vastly different though their backgrounds may be, the hesychasts growing within (though sometimes at odds with!) the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Quakers as dissenters in the ferment following the Reformation in England, our hearts alike turn to the direct experience of God in the silence. In 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.

It is this desire to “throw everything open to the spirit of God” that is at the heart of the hesychast’s longing too. The Quaker John Macmurray, writing in 1967, said,

Whenever we are driven into the depths of our own being, or seek them of our own will, we are faced by a tremendous contrast. On the one side we recognise the pathetic littleness of our ephemeral existence, with no point or meaning in itself. On the other side, in the depth, there is something eternal and infinite in which our existence, and indeed all existence, is grounded. This experience of the depths of existence fills us with a sense both of reverence and of responsibility, which gives even to our finite lives a meaning and a power which they do not possess in themselves. This, I am assured, is our human experience of God.

This is so exactly the experience of the Jesus Prayer. Here is the “joyful mourning” and the sense of “the world’s pitiableness”, and here is the direct knowledge of our life, all life, as grounded in God, in the ground of being itself, beyond time and space.

Thomas R Kelly, writing of solitary prayer, comes very close indeed to restating the hesychast tradition himself. He describes how “[the] processes of inward prayer do not grow more complex, but more simple” and he recommends using a short phrase, whether from Scripture or from one’s own imagination, and he advises, “Repeat them inwardly, over and over again.” He goes on to say,

But the time will come when verbalisation is not so imperative, and yields place to the attitudes of soul which you meant the words to express… Behind the foreground of the words continues the background of heavenly orientation, as all the currents of our being are set towards Him. Through the shimmering light of divine Presence we look out upon the world, and in its turmoil and fitfulness, we may be given to respond, in some increased measure, in ways dimly suggestive of the Son of Man… All we can say is, Prayer is taking place, and I am given to be in the orbit… Sometimes the prayer and this Life that flows through us reaches out to all souls with kindred vision and upholds them in his tender care. Sometimes it flows out to the world of blinded struggle, and we become cosmic Saviours, seeking all those who are lost.

This passage of Kelly’s, despite their utterly different backgrounds, could have come from the pen of Sophrony Sakharov, who wrote,

The Jesus Prayer will incline us to find each human being unique, the one for whom Christ was crucified. Where there is great love the heart necessarily suffers and feels pity for every creature, in particular for man; but our inner peace remains secure, even when all is in confusion in the world outside…

It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…

Too often, I suspect, we 21st century Quakers find ourselves so caught up in either the “identity politics game of ‘theists and nontheists’” (Craig Barnett) or in our own human zeal for political and social activism, that we forget that there is another way entirely to contribute not only to the good of individuals whose need and pain are on our own hearts, but “to the victory of good… for the whole world.”

[Earlier versions of parts of this post have previously appeared elsewhere in this blog.]

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)

On Politics and Prayer – Reading Quaker Faith & Practice Chapter 23

We know that Jesus identified himself with the suffering and the sinful, the poor and the oppressed. We know that he went out of his way to befriend social outcasts. We know that he warned us against the deceitfulness of riches, that wealth and great possessions so easily come between us and God, and divide us from our neighbours. The worship of middle-class comfort is surely a side-chapel in the temple of Mammon. It attracts large congregations, and Friends have been known to frequent it. We know that Jesus had compassion on the multitude and taught them many things concerning the Kingdom. He respected the common folk, appealed to them and was more hopeful of a response from them than from the well-to-do, the clever and the learned. Yet he never flattered the workers, never fostered in them feelings of envy and hatred, and never urged them to press for their own interests ruthlessly and fight the class war to the finish. He called them to love their enemies and to pray for them that despitefully use them. Yet the very fact that he appealed to the humble and meek leads up to … ‘the discovery that the blessing and upraising of the masses are the fundamental interest of society’. In brief, he makes us all ashamed that we are not all out in caring for our fellow-men.

H G Wood, 1958 – Quaker Faith & Practice 23.03

I sometimes think that in our zeal for activism, in our “[r]emember[ing of our] responsibility as citizens for the government of [our] town and country” (QFP 23.01) we run the risk that all politicians run, of flattering, of fostering feelings of envy and hatred – for it is all too often on such emotions that political campaigns are run.

As Quakers concerned deeply with our testimony to equality, it seems to me that we need always to keep in mind the testimonies to integrity and peace also, and that can be hard to do when we are cut to the heart by some injustice or cruelty. I’m really grateful, at times like this, to be reminded, as this passage from QFP reminds us, of Jesus’ call to love our enemies, and to pray for them.

My own awareness of my imperfection, of the dark shadow of bitter emotions I share with all who are human, gives me at least a place to start loving those I find it so hard to love; yet love them I must, unless I am to contribute my own share to the violence and grief of the world.

Of course I then come all too soon to the question that so often troubles me: what on earth do I pray for? I cannot know in detail how to solve the social and political issues facing the country. But in a way this unknowing may be at the heart of prayer itself – an advantage, almost. Prayer is not a list of demands we make of God, as if such a thing were possible. Prayer, as Michael Ramsey wrote, is “being with God, putting [myself] 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.”

Quietly drawing close to God, accepting my own blurred awareness of how far we all are from truly living by the testimonies to equality and peace, and holding that in the light and the love that God is, is all I can do. What God may call me to do under more immediate circumstances I have not yet seen; I can only hope that if so, I will be able to offer at least something, in love.

“The cries of the world…”

I have been acutely aware of the pain of my fellow creatures over the last few days. The shocking events of the Shoreham Air Show, along that lovely stretch of coastline where I grew up, the continuing reports of atrocities in the Middle East and North Africa, a narrowly-foiled terrorist attack on a French train, worrying developments in the US election campaigns… grief, anxiety and distress lay very heavily on my heart last night.

Diane Walker writes:

We cannot ignore the troubles of the world. Our psyches are intimately entwined with the rest of creation. Every time there is a wound elsewhere, some cell in our bodies will cry out in sympathetic pain. And that which strives to be known will take whatever avenue necessary to bring the cries of the world to our attention. The invisible longs to be visible, and when we take the time to create, we cannot always predict what will emerge. The question is — what do we do with that awareness once it’s brought to the fore?

She is quite right, “that which strives to be known will take whatever avenue necessary to bring the cries of the world to our attention.” These events, and the ripples that spread from them across the media, across the hearts of those who pray, seem to constellate in a way I cannot explain.

But Diane Walker’s question, “what do we do with that awareness once it’s brought to the fore?”, demands an answer. If I try to answer for myself, please don’t think I’m being evasive, still less that I’m prescribing an answer for anyone else. All I can do is listen, “being with God, putting [myself] 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” as Michael Ramsey wrote. Quietly, insistently drawing close to God, accepting my own detailed, vivid awareness of my sisters’ and brothers’ pain and confusion, and holding that in the light and the love that God is, is truly all I can do, all I find I am called to do. What God might or might not call me to do under other, more immediate circumstances I cannot say; I can only hope that I would have the faith, perhaps the courage, to answer. For the present, prayer is my only, and my strongest, help and refuge.

Head over heels in the surf…

Some among us have a clear sense of what is right and wrong – for themselves personally if not for everyone else. They have a reassuring certitude and steadiness which can serve as a reference point by which others may navigate. There are others who live in a state of uncertainty, constantly re-thinking their responses to changing circumstances, trying to hold onto what seems fundamental but impelled to reinterpret, often even unsure where lies the boundary between the fundamental and the interpretation…

Please be patient, those of you who have found a rock to stand on, with those of us who haven’t and with those of us who are not even looking for one. We live on the wave’s edge, where sea, sand and sky are all mixed up together: we are tossed head over heels in the surf, catching only occasional glimpses of any fixed horizon. Some of us stay there from choice because it is exciting and it feels like the right place to be.

Philip Rack, 1979 (Quaker Faith & Practice 20.06)

In these odd days of social media and online news reporting, when communications are so rapid, and conflicting opinions so easily, and so forcefully, expressed, I often find myself “in a state of uncertainty, constantly re-thinking [my] responses to changing circumstances, trying to hold onto what seems fundamental but impelled to reinterpret, often even unsure where lies the boundary between the fundamental and the interpretation…”

As I wrote in my last post, understanding myself as a Quaker and as a contemplative is proving a continual challenge. I quoted, some time ago, Jim Wilson writing on QuakerQuaker:

What the activist does not comprehend about the mystic is that, for the mystic, interior prayer, gathered silence, is the leading, is the purpose, and is sufficient unto itself.  The mystic does not view these engagements as tools, or add-ons, for a political purpose.

From the activist perspective, this is inadequate.  As Howard Brinton wrote in his ‘Introduction’ to the book ‘A Guide to True Peace’, “This solution [of interior prayer] will seem too simple to intellectuals and too inadequate to activists, the two groups that dominate our age.”  This is because the activist is always outward oriented and wants to see results ‘in the real world’.  In contrast, the mystic finds the realm of interior silence to be as real, or more real, than what is found by focusing outward.  In the inward turning the mystic finds a true home.

For the activist this is to ignore the suffering and injustices in the world.  But for the mystic there is the experience, which grows over time, that the silence and stillness found by turning inward is a blessing to the whole world, a blessing which does not give rise to strife and contention.  Because this blessing is not palpable or measurable in material terms, the activist tends to dismiss this.  Personally, though, I have come to comprehend that the turning inward of the mystic is the most that I can do for other people.  Not that I have that particular motivation for turning inward.  Rather, that blessing is a consequence of the grace that such turning opens to.

Entering into Meeting for Worship, or into one’s own time of prayer, cannot be seen as a way to gain strength for campaigning for one’s own pre-existing convictions. To come into the Light “with the needs of the world on our heart” (Michael Ramsey) is all that is needed. We cannot, must not, pre-judge the result. The Holy Spirit, as Jesus said to Nicodemus (John 3.8) is like a wind that “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Coming into the Light consciously, deliberately, is always a risky journey: we may be led where we had not dreamed of going, The prophet heard the Lord say (Isaiah 43.18-19),
 
Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
   and rivers in the desert…

We cannot tell what may come of our worship, whether action or contemplation, hard truth or true blessing. We must sit down in a holy unknowing; if we are faithful in that, then the Spirit is faithful too, always, “and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5.5)