Tag Archives: Paul

Keeping still

For the last week – well, if I am honest, for the last several weeks – I have struggling with an inner disquiet, an inability to escape memories and experiences going back thirty years or more that have returned again and again to cast a shadow over the present, and in some sense still to exert over it some kind of control. As this week wore on it came to me at last that, despite all that I have written here and elsewhere, all I’ve taught and spoken of, I have consistently tried to oppose these relived memories, nightmares and conditioned reflexes with my own will and reason. I think somehow I may have been content to leave many other things in God’s hands; but on this, my trust has not been enough, or perhaps I have simply thought that it was my responsibility to sort out what I had allowed so long ago. At the end of my own resources, finally, I gave up. I lay down in stillness in the middle of the day, looking to Christ in my heart; I fell asleep, and awoke at peace. I suppose that I had in plain fact come to that place the apostle Paul wrote of:

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 NIV

This morning, the Friend whose turn it was to read from Advices and queries shared a brief ministry to go with her reading of:

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.

She spoke of the need for trust; that it is God who leads, and God who makes whole. Somehow her words, and the sense of their weight in her own life, closed the circle for me of this week’s culminating surrender to God.

It is stillness, once again, at the heart of this. Without stillness, our hearts are closed to the promptings of love and truth. It was William Leddra, the Quaker martyr of Barbados, who wrote:

Stand still, and cease from thine own working, and in due time thou shalt enter into the rest, and thy eyes shall behold his salvation, whose testimonies are sure, and righteous altogether.

In even the darkness, there is a gift God has, but we must keep very still to receive it. In her wonderful book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes of Jesus in prayer:

“The soul does not grow by addition but by subtraction,” wrote the 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart:

Leave place, leave time,
Avoid even image!
Go forth without a way
On the narrow path,
Then you will find the desert track.

According to the Gospels, Jesus knew that track well. He made a habit of sleeping outdoors under the stars – on a mountain, if he could find one. The fact that this is reported, more than once, without any further detail, suggests that he went alone.

When he took people with him, they usually had plenty to say about it afterwards, but no one has anything to say about what Jesus did on those nights alone. Even his famous forty days and nights in the wilderness pass without comment until they are over, which is when he and the devil sort out who works for whom.

When you put this together with the fact that God speaks to Jesus only once in the entire New Testament – shortly after he is baptised by John – it seems clear that this father and this son were not in constant public conversation. Their conversation was almost entirely private, when Jesus went out on the mountain to spend the night with God in prayer.

If Jesus was truly human, as Christians insist he was, his sleep architecture was like anyone else’s. He stayed awake awhile. He slept awhile. He woke awhile later, rested a few hours, then slept some more.

When he opened his eyes, he saw the night sky. When he closed them again, the sky stayed right there. The only witnesses to his most intimate moments with God were the moon and the stars – and it was all prayer.

Once again, Paul the apostle knew this, at least in spirit. After the two verses I quoted above comes one of his most remarkable statements:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Romans 8.28 NIV

Quietly. The heart is awake in moonlight, pure reflection.

Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and then doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the Light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes.

George Fox, 1652

The Cross is not an easy thing

The cross is not an easy thing. Too often, Christians either bury the pain under some sort of narrative of victory, or else sentimentalise it; Quakers tend not to talk about it.

To understand, to grow from, our Christian roots, though, requires I think that we do somehow take hold of this central event in all four Gospels.

Ilia Delio, as quoted by Richard Rohr, writes:

Only by dying into God can we become one with God, letting go of everything that hinders us from God. Clare of Assisi spoke of “the mirror of the cross” in which she saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and, yet, our great capacity for love. Empty in itself, the mirror simply absorbs an image and returns it to the one who gives it. Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love, and what we love is what we become.

It seems to me that we cannot see why the New Testament understands Christ as God’s love incarnate unless we see that real love is inseparable – in whatever terms we choose to describe it – from the cross. It was Paul who wrote:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law [through choosing to do good by strength of will], Christ died for nothing!’ (Galatians 2.20-21)

Letting in the presence of God, as I believe we do in the silence of worship, entails letting in all the love of God, all that God loves; the broken, the terrified, the pain and the uncanny bitter grieving of that which is, and is loved.

All prayer comes down to this. Truly to pray is to become a small incarnation, a tiny model of Christ; this is why it is so necessary to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.17), and why to pray is to take up the cross ourselves, since it is the refusal to turn away from openness to the pain that runs inextricably through existence, like a red thread in the bright weave of what is.

“Stand still,” said William Leddra, the day before he was martyred, “Stand still, and cease from thine own working.” The cross is absolute surrender, helplessness entirely embraced. It is abandoning all that is my will, every last attempt at self-preservation; as Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians (3.3), “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

Prayer then is consciously stepping into that death, and finding it instead the endless ocean of God’s mercy. Perhaps prayer is after all the central occupation of a human life, why we are here. Annie Dillard thought it was:

The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega, it is God’s brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blinded note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to “World.” Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing.

(Teaching a Stone to Talk)

 

Unfolding

The other day, I wrote of unfolding – “the unfolding that is my life, and of which my death will be part.”

It seems to me that this is one clue to the old “who am I?” question. It doesn’t appear that there is a fixed “thing” that is me. I am becoming, that is all. I don’t unfold myself along the time that is given me – and it is given me, I don’t take it – but with each year and each minute I unroll like a kind of a carpet as time itself unrolls.

In myself I am no thing – though my body is an object with certain dimensions and attributes that, however they may change over time, are recognisably me – in my becoming, my unfolding, everything is gift.

In silence, I can hear myself becoming, breath by breath, and I know that there is a source beyond my physical presence, far beyond my scrabbling thoughts, from which I appear to become. Obviously, it is being. I am, so inevitably it is in the ground of that (and all) being that I am held, and unrolled, moment by moment. I cannot fall out of what is. This is so perfectly natural that it lifts away the alienation of my self from its true home, and the anxiety of what I might be. If I am so unfolded, then the unfolding itself is what I am, as is its ground. As Paul wrote, “Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3.11)

To realise this, of course, is itself a kind of death: the death of the individual me, the death of any dream of being the master of my soul. The death, in fact, of my soul itself as separate, over against an alien world. “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” said Paul in the same letter (Colossians 3.3).

This incompleteness, this lack of a separated self, is of course at the heart of the Gospel. Richard Rohr seems to suggest that it underlies what he calls “the spirituality of imperfection.” As he says,

The real moral goals of the Gospel—loving enemies, caring for the powerless, overlooking personal offenses, living simply, eschewing riches—can only be achieved through surrender and participation. These have often been ignored or minimized, even though they were clearly Jesus’ major points. We cannot take credit for these virtues; we can only thank God for them: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory because of your mercy and faithfulness” (Psalm 115:1).

The love that is our becoming shows itself as the mercy of God in all that unfolds: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8.28)

Our accepting our utter dependence upon and oneness with the God who gives us being is precisely the “surrender and participation” of which Rohr writes. Only this way can that mercy that Christ is flow through us, in prayer and deed, to the world’s pain.

The well of love…

Liberal Quakers, which term by and large encompasses Britain Yearly Meeting, don’t these days tend to use the name of Jesus Christ at all freely, which can be disorienting for those – like myself – who have joined Friends after having been members of other churches.

Needless to say, there is no official Quaker Christology, just as there are no Quaker creeds or statements of faith. But early Quakers were entirely comfortable with the name of Christ, and with the prevailing understanding of him as saviour. As Lewis Benson writes, in A Revolutionary Gospel:

The early Quakers were not a reforming movement within the framework of a commonly shared belief in Christ as savior. They were in revolt against what the churches were teaching about salvation by Christ. They claimed that the churches’ teaching had separated belief in Christ as savior from the call of God for righteousness. Belief in Christ had become divorced from obedience in righteousness. Fox said that the belief of his Calvinist contemporaries was an “unsanctifying belief,” by which he meant that it left the believer still captive to sin and a dweller in the life of unrighteousness. The Calvinist doctrine of “imputed righteousness” was rejected by the Quakers. They that have received Christ within, said Fox, “they witness the righteousness itself without imputation.” The chief point of the controversy between Puritans and Quakers was whether Christ had the power to make men truly righteous as well as the power to forgive. This is a disagreement about that which is most fundamental in Christianity. It is a disagreement about how we experience Christ as savior. But the Quaker revolt was not directed solely against Calvinistic Puritanism. Before Calvin the Church of Rome had assumed the role of mediator of moral truth to its members, it set a standard of morality defined by the church and kept in force by the power of the church. The scandals that developed in the administration of this church-oriented morality were the occasion of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking back across the centuries of Christian history Fox was able to say, “The righteousness within and sanctification within hath been lost since the apostles’ days,” and “the sanctifying belief hath been lost since the apostles’ days.”

Quaker faith is based in the experience of the Spirit in silent worship, and it is that Spirit which the early Quakers understood as the indwelling Christ. The apostle Paul prayed that

according to the riches of his glory, [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

(Ephesians 3.16-19)

It is this indwelling which the early Quakers understood by their experience of the Light. As William Penn wrote:

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)

Of course, the experience of the Light is far deeper than words. As Paul wrote elsewhere:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

(Romans 8.26-27)

It seems to me that Friends today, realising the inadequacy of language, and indeed of concepts (“notions” as the first Quakers would have said), quite rightly espouse an understanding of prayer and worship that is intentionally, rootedly apophatic, despite occasional intersection with the spoken word in ministry. But even in this we are consistent with our spiritual ancestors. Isaac Penington wrote:

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.

Perhaps we need to be prepared to extend to each other that openness which we so readily extend to those of other backgrounds in faith, and to allow each other freely to use whatever language springs from our hearts in worship, in full awareness of the inadequacy of any language or system, any knowing even, to express the actuality. What is there is unknowable. Anything any of us might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, nor constrained by dimensionality. The love of God is all, and in all, and the well of love does not run dry. Paul again:

Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

(1 Corinthians 13.12-13)

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 12

Loving care is not something that those sound in mind and body ‘do’ for others but a process that binds us together. God has made us loving and the imparting of love to another satisfies something deep within us. It would be a mistake to assume that those with outwardly well-organised lives do not need assistance. Many apparently secure carers live close to despair within themselves. We all have our needs…

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…

With our structure, we risk failures in understanding and transmitting our tradition, and failures in pastoral care. We do not always adequately support one another. When we appoint people to carry out tasks for us, there is a danger of approaching this in too secular a way… We can and must pray for them to receive the necessary gifts and strength from the Spirit.

Quaker Faith & Practice 12.0112.03

Coming, as Susan and I did last year, from an area meeting with traditional roles for elders and overseers, into one where corporate eldership and oversight are practised, brings an oddly different perspective. These words carry greater weight than they appeared to when I first read them, and the sense that one needs to be faithful to one’s own gifts is that much keener. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” (1 Corinthians 12.4-6)

I am only just beginning to learn what it means to share the responsibilities of eldership and oversight as a community. The process is one of continual learning, of building upon lived experience: we are not working towards a time when arrangements are settled, and Friends can sit back and let things progress along well-worn tracks. Each of us must watch for the others, as we are watched for ourselves. Only the Light can show each of us where the path is taking us, and this calls for faith. Change and uncertainty are all we can be sure of, and we rely on the Spirit, rather than tradition, or on the structures of our roles and responsibilities.

Change and uncertainty extend too to the words we use to describe our journey to ourselves and to each other. One of the glories of being human seems to be our uniqueness, the quality we share with all creatures of being individually different though recognisably members of the same species. If we are faithful to our defining Quaker insight of “that of God” in each of us, we will have to recognise that our perceptions and experiences of that will be as various as the people who have them. As Zélie Gross writes,

The way forward lies in having confidence in our ability to to live creatively with difference and to learn from it, which is a much more resilient and enduring kind of strength.

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…

Where pastoral and spiritual care are shared across the meeting, as in ours, there is at least the potential, given sufficient faith and courage among Friends, for this kind of creative living to be grow and be nurtured, rather than depending upon the gift of open-mindedness in one or a few Friends in particular roles.

Living by faith is a great adventure, possibly the adventure of being human; and though we may be called to do things as apparently absurd as walking on water, the Spirit is faithful, and will, if we trust, lead us precisely as we come to “know one another better in things that are eternal as in things that are temporal.” (OFP 3.02)

The Mercy Blog – a new start

It seems to me to be time to begin posting regularly again on my other blog. This blog here at Silent Assemblies will continue, but I seem to be coming to the conclusion that I need a space to discuss contemplative prayer in general, and the Jesus Prayer in particular, without feeling the need to put things in a specifically Quaker context.

The practice of contemplative prayer, especially that of the Jesus Prayer, is not so much a matter of personal choice as of leading, and, as the Pilgrim found, being faithful to that leading is not always an easy matter. It shouldn’t be thought that contemplative prayer is an easy alternative to either action or to verbal prayer. Opening one’s heart to God in this way opens it to God’s love for our brokenness; allowing Christ to dwell in our hearts by his Spirit involves us in the love of Christ, and its consequences: as Paul once wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2.19b-20a)

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote: “It is not your will or desire that moves you, but something you are completely ignorant of stirring you to will and desire you know not what.” It is in simply willing to follow that desire that we are led, like the Cloud author, into the way of contemplation.

For all I have said about the seriousness of the call to contemplative prayer, it really is very simple indeed. Irma Zaleski, in her classic Living the Jesus Prayer, wrote:

The Kind of awareness that the Jesus Prayer may lead us to is very simple. We do not try to imagine that Jesus is there, and even less what he looks like or what he says. We do not engage in any imaginary conversations with him. We simply try to be aware of him and attentive to him in a similar way as we are aware of the presence of someone we love in the next room, or as a mother is attentive to what her children are doing, however busy she is. We believe – we know by faith – that God in Christ is here, with us and in us. Our task is to try and remember him and be attentive to him. It is this attentiveness that is the door to our experience of the presence of God. We cannot summon this experience at will. We cannot grasp it as if it were a possession. It is, like the Prayer itself, a gift. Ours is only a discipline of faith and perseverance…