Tag Archives: Rhiannon Grant

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

Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 27

All Truth is a shadow except the last, except the utmost; yet every Truth is true in its kind. It is substance in its own place, though it be but a shadow in another place (for it is but a reflection from an intenser substance); and the shadow is a true shadow, as the substance is a true substance.

Isaac Penington, 1653 – Qfp 27.22

When we think of the early years of the Quaker movement, often we remember some of George Fox’s more abrasive encounters – “I laid open their Teachers, shewing, that they were like them, that were of Old condemned by the Prophets, and by Christ, and by the Apostles: And I exhorted the People to come off from the Temples made with Hands…” (The Journal of George Fox, The First Edition, 1694, edited by Thomas Ellwood, pp. 73-74) – and forget the openheartedness of Friends like Isaac Penington, who also wrote:

Even in the apostles’ days Christians were too apt to strive after a wrong unity and uniformity in outward practices and observations, and to judge one another unrighteously in those things; and mark, it is not the different practice from one another that breaks the peace and unity, but the judging of one another because of different practices…

And oh, how sweet and pleasant it is to the truly spiritual eye to see several sorts of believers, several forms of Christians in the school of Christ, every one learning their own lesson, performing their own peculiar service, and knowing, owning and loving one another in their several places and different performances to their Master, to whom they are to give an account, and not to quarrel with one another about their different practices (Rom 14:4). For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that; and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk.

Isaac Penington, 1660 – Qfp 27.13

I feel that we as Quakers in the early years of our century need to keep open, even through the challenges of these difficult times, to what the Spirit is saying to us, and in us. It will not do to focus on the difficulties, to take up adversarial stands. The forces of darkness, the institutional and populist powers and principalities – racism, fascism, religious intolerance – know what to do with opposition. It feeds them, gives them the excuses they need for violence, for the display of their physical and military power and dominance. They delight in opposition, the more oppositional and confrontational the better. As John Lennon once said, “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.” But the New Woke movement, among many others, realise that the path to wholeness lies not in opposing but in outgrowing that which would hold us in darkness. And we can only do that in openness, in vulnerability, in failure.

We find it hard to accept intentional failure at the heart of our faith. But all true religion is for losers. Leaders, the successful, the alpha males and occasional alpha females, the “rich” in Jesus’ parables (e.g. Matthew 19.16-24), must learn what failure means for themselves before they can encounter God, must be broken themselves before they can help bring healing to the broken of the world. We must ourselves be prepared to have in our own hearts Leonard Cohen’s “crack in everything, [through which] the light gets in.”

We have to let go of the certainties, I think, let drop the things we think we know about ourselves, about each other. We are all one in the end, one flesh under the skins of our birth and of our circumstances. It is in the ground of all our beings, in God in Christ (John 1.1-4) that all things hold together (Colossians 1.17). Our oneness is far beyond the social, or the humanly spiritual – it is the metaphysical nature of being itself, and this we cannot hold in our human minds. But in our unknowing, we can receive it as grace, as mercy.

Even among Quakers, the differences only matter if it’s the differences at which we look. If we look at that of God, whether the Light that reaches us in the silence, or that light of God within each other, streaming through the cracks, then we realise, as Rhiannon Grant did, that “Quakerism isn’t something you agree with, but something you do.”

Worship, Prayer and Social Media

I have been interested to read contributions from Friends recently (flagged up by Craig Barnett on the Quaker Renewal Facebook Group) about faith and social media – like Facebook, Twitter, or this blog, I suppose – and the implications of online culture for our worship and our sense of community. There have been excellent contributions from, among others, Rhiannon Grant, Michael Booth and pilgrim52.

It is in this last blog post that the following paragraph occurs:

… Quaker worship is so important. In Quaker worship, one day out of 7, we are supposed to sit in silence and come face to face with all that tries to take our attention away from loving our neighbours, caring for and nurturing our families, taking care of the poor and needy, and yes, loving ourselves. We are to face our limits and realize what a poor imitation we make of trying to stay relevant to a social audience. We spend money to make ourselves more conspicuous, sexier, and younger. Always desiring an audience will temporarily fill us with satisfaction, but it will leave us wishing for more and is never ultimately satisfying. How scary it is to give all that up and face who we really are when no one is watching, but I would offer: how more fulfilling! We might even be more creative.

I am struck, of course, by pilgrim52’s remarks on humility (I have written about this myself elsewhere) but it is her mention of our facing our own limits “one day out of 7” that caught my attention, as you might expect from my last couple of posts.

In his 1985 Swarthmore Lecture, Steps in a Large Room, Christopher Holdsworth writes:

It may seem otiose, if not downright stupid, to talk to Friends about silence. We alone (we sometimes think) among Christians regularly use it in our corporate worship … But, although we use silence as the medium through which we become aware of the divine presence … there are many indications … that we do not make a quiet place in our daily lives.

We need both worship and prayer in our lives. They are not the same thing, and they cannot replace one another. I for one can’t survive a whole week on the remembered presence of God in Sunday’s worship – whether in silence or in ministry – and yet I know that I need my Friends in Meeting to worship with, not only because worship is a thing we do together, but because their different personalities, the different ways they experience and express their encounter with the Light, keep me sane and grounded where I might too easily become victim to what would in the 18th century have been known as religious enthusiasm!

Prayer, by which I mean a regular, intentional practice of seeking God, is essential not only to our own life and growth in the Spirit, but to our community, as Christopher Holdsworth (op. cit.) wrote: “I am convinced that the vitality and practical effectiveness of our Society, as of any other church, is directly related to the degree to which each of us manages to find time to explore our inner space during the week.” Rhiannon Grant has more on our own personal spiritual practice, together with some useful book recommendations, here, and Stephanie Grant has a moving and practical description of her own practice here.

Social media tend, for all their usefulness, to work against humility and the solitude in which prayer and silence grow.  We need, as pilgrim52 points out, to learn to be nobody in particular. Hiddenness and ordinariness are the fertile soil in which our spiritual lives grow, and we need somehow to reconcile this fact with the imperative to communicate our faith and our discoveries in the land of the Spirit.

Elsewhere on her blog, pilgrim52 quotes Ben Pink Dandelion quoting Ray Stephenson:

[Discernment] means accepting great risk, because what a situation needs could mean self-sacrifice, and we are loath to open ourselves to that. Even Jesus in Gethsemane found that hard: no wonder it was said that he sweated blood. But his final prayer there –  ‘not my will but thine’ – feels like the ultimate example of a prayer of discernment. It implies a total laying-aside of self; yet Jesus wouldn’t be Jesus without this crucifixion of personal wants. This example matters, because it is true for every one of us. We all need the humility, and the courage, to lay self aside and make space for the Divine to do its work. Then we will be our true selves, and yet enable something greater than ourselves.

If we can begin to do this – and I think we shall need all the resourses of both worship and prayer at our disposal – then we may be able to navigate the treacherous waters of the social media just as early Friends negotiated the opportunities and the whirlpools of the young medium of print. Pilgrim52 reminds us of Elizabeth Fry’s remarks,

My life has been one of great vicissitude: mine has been a hidden path, hidden from every human eye. I have had deep humiliations and sorrows to pass through. I can truly say I have ‘wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way, and found no city to dwell in’; and yet how wonderfully I have been sustained. I have passed through many and great dangers, many ways – I have been tried with the applause of the world, and none know how great a trial that has been, and the deep humiliations of it; and yet I fully believe it is not nearly so dangerous as being made much of in religious society. There is a snare even in religious unity, if we are not on the watch. I have sometimes felt that it was not so dangerous to be made much of in the world, as by those whom we think highly of in our own Society: the more I have been made much of by the world, the more I have been inwardly humbled. I could often adopt the words of Sir Francis Bacon – ‘When I have ascended before men, I have descended in humiliation before God.’

Elizabeth Fry, 1844, Quaker Faith & Practice 21.09