Tag Archives: Michael Sells

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