Tag Archives: Rufus Jones

Without Assurance

In her little book Practical Mystics, Jennifer Kavanagh quotes Rufus Jones’ definition of mysticism as “the attitude of mind which comes into correspondence with a spiritual world-order which is felt to be as real as the visible one.”

This comes very close to my own experience; what I have loved above all about the Quaker way is this sense of practical, hands-on, experimental mysticism. To the extent that it roots itself, and all its works, in such an experimental faith, it seems to me, Quakerism does well; to the extent that it does not, it outruns its Guide, basing its actions and pronouncements merely on our own limited human notions of right and wrong, and of social or political expediency.

Charles F Carter (Qfp 26.39) wrote in 1971:

True faith is not assurance, but the readiness to go forward experimentally, without assurance. It is a sensitivity to things not yet known. Quakerism should not claim to be a religion of certainty, but a religion of uncertainty; it is this which gives us our special affinity to the world of science. For what we apprehend of truth is limited and partial, and experience may set it all in a new light; if we too easily satisfy our urge for security by claiming that we have found certainty, we shall no longer be sensitive to new experiences of truth. For who seeks that which he believes that he has found? Who explores a territory which he claims already to know?

In another book of hers, A Little Book of Unknowing, Jennifer Kavanagh writes:

…Faith is not about certainty, but about trust…

We have seen that there is little about which we can be certain. Certainty may be undermined by limitations of the current state of knowledge; the subjective nature of experience; the fluid quality of the material world; or the intervention of unforeseen events. But beyond these aspects of the world about which we often assume knowledge, there is a dimension of life to which rational explanation simply doesn’t apply. Most people would admit that there is much that we cannot apprehend through reason or through the senses. We might know a fact with our brains, but not be able to understand what it means, to fully experience its reality – the age of a star or the trillions of connections within the human brain – some things are too big, too complex, for us to conceive. Einstein, who knew a thing or two about factual knowledge, felt that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. There is a dimension which co-exists with the material, rationally grounded world, is not in opposition to it or threatened by scientific development but happily stands alone in the context of everything else. This is the world of religious experience.

This, it seems to me, is crucial. Unknowing is essential to true faith, and indispensable for any kind of practical experience of the Light. When we tie ourselves down with dogmatic statements and attitudes, be they overly literal interpretations of historical creeds, or uncompromising assertions of some atheist position or other, we close the door on the Spirit, cutting off the light from shining into the darkness of our own limitations.

Kavanagh (ibid.) quotes Dorothee Sölle:

The crucial point here is that in the mystical understanding of God, experience is more important than doctrine, the inner light more important than church authority, the certainty of God and communication with him more important than believing in his existence or positing his existence rationally.

When we come into the silence, whether of our own life of prayer and reflection (Advices & Queries 3or of meeting together for worship, bereft of words and notions, it is only that direct experience that will, if we let it, be our sure guide, and will lead us, quite without the intellectual assurance we too often crave, into truth, unity and love.

Hidden and Ordinary

I have come to believe that the true mystics are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demands of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self… If they are wise, they treasure the rare moments of solitude and silence that come their way, and use them not to escape, to distract themselves with television and the like. Instead, they listen for a sign of God’s presence and they open their hearts toward prayer.

Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries

Once you have begun [to pray], you will find yourself entering into a kind of life that seems very natural, as though you knew how to do it without being told; a life of following a path that is yours alone; a satisfying life that fills a need that was there all along, but somehow always an empty space before. As this happens you come to care less about “answers” to prayer and whether anything is “really” happening. Something is really happening, but it is entirely yours: a secret between you and God.

Emilie Griffin, Clinging – The Experience of Prayer

I pin my hopes to quiet processes and small circles, in which vital and transforming events take place.

Rufus Jones, Quaker Faith & Practice 24.56

I’ve come to feel that the heroic and the extreme are not the way, generally, that God works in us and in that which is. Hiddenness and ordinariness are far more fertile soils for the Spirit than vows and asceticism. Charles Olson wrote:

These days

whatever you have to say, leave
the roots on, let them
dangle

And the dirt

Just to make clear
where they come from

and he was right.

Silence and Speaking

Turn inwardly to God, praying that the meeting may be guided in the matters before it and that the clerk may be enabled faithfully to discern and record the mind of the meeting…

Remember the onerous task laid upon the clerk and do all you can to assist. Submit information about matters to come before the meeting in good time and preferably in writing. Avoid if you possibly can any last-minute messages to the clerk…

If, when all that is necessary has been said, the clerk is not ready to submit a minute, uphold those at the table in prayerful silence. If the minute is in general acceptable, do not harass the clerk by raising several minor corrections at once. Do not, under the pretext of altering the minute, raise new matter for discussion or reiterate your original contribution.

Quaker Faith and Practice 3.9-11

Meetings for church affairs in the life of a Quaker local or area meeting may not seem dramatic or exciting, and yet they can be both of these. The Quaker business method is a means, and a powerful means, of decision making, but it is far more than that. Properly conducted, it allows the work of the Spirit among a group of Friends immediate expression. It is a prophetic event, the fluid, on-going action of discernment leading the meeting to uncover the living will of God. The work of the clerks at the table then becomes as numinous as any ritual, and their mediation of the gifts Friends bring to the process a sacred thing. I have been as awestruck in an extraordinary area meeting as I have been in any place of pilgrimage!

[The early Friends] made the discovery that silence is one of the best preparations for communion [with God] and for the reception of inspiration and guidance. Silence itself, of course, has no magic. It may be just sheer emptiness, absence of words or noise or music. It may be an occasion for slumber, or it may be a dead form. But it may be an intensified pause, a vitalised hush, a creative quiet, an actual moment of mutual and reciprocal correspondence with God.

Rufus Jones, 1937

The Quaker business meeting is framed in, and shot through with, silence. The little silences between speaking, and the greater, nurturing silence as the clerks are upheld in drafting a minute, are the heart of the space the meeting opens for the Spirit – electric with possibility, they are the thin, holy places where God can speak into the ordinary concerns of his people. In our meetings for business, rightly ordered, it should truly be possible to say, with the early church, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15.28)

The First and Final Template…

The Blessed Trinity is the central and foundational doctrine of the Christian faith. But as the Jesuit Karl Rahner (1904-1984) observed, what is supposed to be the heart of the nature of God has, until recently, had few practical or pastoral implications in most people’s lives. We did not have the right software installed!

For too many Christians, the doctrine of the Trinity was unfathomable, abstract, and boring theology because they tried to process it with their left brain, their dualistic mind. Remaining there, it was not much more than a speculative curiosity or a mathematical conundrum (yet surely never to be questioned by any orthodox Christian). However, the Trinity perfectly illustrates the dynamic principle of three and was made to order to demolish our dualistic thinking and to open us to the mystical level.

The Trinity can only be understood with the contemplative mind. It is only God in you that understands; your small mind cannot. I call this participative knowledge. The Trinity can’t be proved rationally. You must experience its flow in your life. You must have moments where you know that a Big Life is happening in you, yet beyond you, and also AS you!

Unfortunately, Christians mostly gave up even trying to understand the Trinity. But if we’re resolved that we want to go into the mystery, not to hold God in our pocket, but to allow God to hold us, then I think we must seek to understand the Trinity experientially and contemplatively, which is not to understand at all, but to “stand under” a waterfall of infinite and loving Flow…

Most of us began by thinking of God as One Being and then tried to make God into three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). But what I want you to try to do, and only God can do this in you, is change directions. As the early Fathers of the Greek Church did in the fourth century, start with the three and focus on the relationships between them.

Philippians 2:6-7 beautifully describes the Trinitarian relationship: “Jesus’ state was divine, yet he did not cling to equality with God, but he emptied himself.” This is how the three persons of the Trinity relate. They all live in an eternal self-emptying (kenosis), which allows each of them to totally let go and give themselves to the other.

When we start with the three, we know that this God is perfect giving and perfect receiving, that the very name of Being is communion, extravagant generosity, humble receptivity, and unhindered dialogue between three. Then we know God as the deepest flow of Life Itself, Relationship Itself. It is not that a Being decides to love; love is the very nature and shape of Being.

This is then the pattern of the whole universe. And any idea of God’s “wrath” or of God withholding an outflowing love is theologically impossible. Love is the very pattern that we start with, move with, and the goal we move toward. It is the very energy of the entire universe, from orbiting protons and neutrons to the social and sexual life of species, to the orbiting of planets and stars. We were indeed created in communion, by communion, and for communion. Or as Genesis says “created in the image and likeness of God.”…

Francis and Clare and many later Franciscans (Bonaventure, Anthony, Duns Scotus, Angela of Foligno, and many Poor Clares) appear to be literally living inside of a set of relationships that they quite traditionally name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But these experiences of communion are real, active, and involved in their lives, as if they are living inside of a Love-Beyond-Them-Which-Yet-Includes-Them. They are drawn into an endless creativity of love in wonderful ways that reflect the infinite nature of God.

They seem to shout out gratitude and praise in several directions: from a deep inner satisfaction (the indwelling Holy Spirit), across to the other (the ubiquitous Christ), and beyond what I can name or ever fully know (the formless Father).

In the Trinity, love finally has a solid definition and description, and cannot be sentimentalized. If Trinity is the template for all creation, from atoms to galaxies, which now appears to be the case, then a water wheel that is always outpouring in one direction is a very fine metaphor for God. Giving and surrendered receiving are the very shape of reality. Now love is much bigger than mere emotions, feelings, infatuation, or passing romance.

With Trinity as the first and final template for reality, love is the ontological “Ground of Being” itself (Paul Tillich). It is the air that you breathe, as any true mystic discovers, consciously or unconsciously. You do not have to be able to describe this in words to experience it. In fact, you can’t. You can only live it.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Eager to Love – The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi and recorded talks

This is interesting. The Trinity is one of those doctrines most Quakers – at least within BYM! – would be tempted to set aside as mere creedal residue, long grown-out-of. But there is, quite literally, more going on here than meets the eye.

Rohr points out that over the years the Church has tended to approach the idea of the Trinity with an analytical, intellectual, left-brain understanding – with words, and games with words. But, as he says, “You do not have to be able to describe this in words to experience it. In fact, you can’t. You can only live it.”

To me this gets to the heart of what mysticism is. In silence and contemplation, whether of the gathered meeting, or of solitary prayer, words are suspended. Given nothing to hang on to, the analytical mind frets, criticises, and finally gives up. In this space, in this simple silence, that of God (Spirit, the Ground of Being) within each of us, is directly experienced. This is what the earliest Quakers encountered:

Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests, against blusterings and storms. That is it which moulds up into patience, into innocency, into soberness, into stillness, into stayedness, into quietness, up to God, with his power.

George Fox, 1658

I think it matters little how we call “the first and final template for reality”. We have each of us different traditions, different understandings, different hurts and joys in the ways we have trodden to where we find ourselves today. If the names of the Trinity hurt and frighten us so that we cannot speak them, we must not seek to prevent others using them, just as those to whom they speak of truth and grace must not seek to impose their use on their fellow-pilgrims.

Those of us who discover themselves “living inside of a Love-Beyond-Them-Which-Yet-Includes-Them” are surely sisters and brothers at the very deepest level, far deeper than ties of blood. It is difficult – though perhaps Friends have had as good a go at it as anyone – to experience and express this closeness without getting enmeshed in the minutiae of religious communities and formal doctrines,

Writing in The Friend this week, Jan Arriens says,

Our tradition of liberal Quakerism owes much to the American Quaker Rufus Jones. Without his contribution a century or so ago we might well not be here today. Jones always stressed that we are a mystical Society. He defined mysticism as covering everything from a simple, everyday sense of awe, wonder and connection to a state of bliss…

For many of us, this involves a struggle between head and heart. Head tells us that the material world is all there is, while heart speaks from an experience which, ultimately, cannot be denied. That experience – the quiet mystical element – is, I believe, at the heart of our Quakerism. It is certainly what I consistently encounter among Friends. Although I am not a member of the nontheist movement I think that, far from dividing us, it has done us a great service in revealing how close we are in thought and belief when we get beyond the words. I see that essential unity as being based around awareness of our intimate connection to a greater whole. It may be subtle and intangible, but it is the most precious thing in our lives and provides the lodestar for how we try to live. For it also has a moral quality. I remember when I first began writing to prisoners on death row in the US twenty-five years ago, Sam Johnson in Mississippi wrote to me, ‘We have been touched by some force or something greater than we are and it’s good. I don’t know exactly what it is but I know that it’s good!’

The sense of presence is not just individual but also shared. There is a seamlessness between a gathered Meeting and the world outside. Faith and action each feed the other…