Tag Archives: Thomas R Kelly

The Desert in the City

Micah Bales has an interesting blog post, published today, entitled Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?

He writes:

Can a desert spirituality emerge in the midst of daily life, work, and family? What can I do to cultivate this kind of presence, awareness, awokeness? … Perhaps, like the 4th-century desert fathers, we can find a community of prayer in the midst of our spiritual wilderness.

For me, the best introduction by far to the subject of desert spirituality is Rowan Williams’ Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the DesertDiscussing the often misunderstood theme of flight into the desert, he says:

Certainly the desert monks and nuns are in flight from the social systems of their day, from the conformity and religious mediocrity of what they find elsewhere. But they are clearly not running away from responsibility or from relationships; everything we have so far been considering underlines that they are entering into a more serious level of responsibility for themselves and others and that their relationships are essential to the understanding of their vocation.

The desert nun did not grant herself the luxury of evading her own or the world’s problems simply by running away, nor by immersion in human company and conviviality. It was the direct encounter with God in prayer that was the heart of her vocation.

Micah Bales wrote, in another recent post, of the necessity to be prepared to “like Jesus… let go of every guarantee, every promise – even the promise of God’s presence and protection – in order to live in the naked reality of God’s kingdom.” It is this encounter with naked reality, I believe, that lies at the heart of the desert vocation, as it does at the heart of the original Quaker vocation, as Isaac Penington explained:

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.

For myself, the answer is always found in prayer and stillness. I cannot ever begin with thought, or with my own emotional reaction to a situation, or to another’s words, or I am lost before I begin. (Incidentally, this is I think where political debate so often goes wrong!) When we fall silent before God, knowing our own unknowing, our own inability to say or do anything from a pure heart, then we are in position at last to recognise the truth of Thomas R Kelly’s words:

In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.

Our lives as Friends, or indeed as anyone who attempts to live out the contemplative life, will tend inevitably towards the desert, it seems to me. The more we place stillness at the centre of not only our worship, but of our own prayer, the more open we are to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. Meister Eckhart put it best, as I quoted, via Barbara Brown Taylor, yesterday:

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

Beyond redemption?

Alastair McIntosh writes, in today’s issue of The Friend,

It was the American writer James Baldwin who suggested that: ‘One of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.’

We sideline the pain of spiritual growth when we reduce it to questions like: ‘If there’s a God, how can “He” allow evil?’

Imagine how it would be if every time some human folly (or even cruelty) were about to happen, the ‘Great Cosmic Health and Safety Officer’ zapped it from on high.

We would never get to feel the pain of others, or of ourselves. We would remain in spiritual infancy, devoid of empathy, unexercised by the evils of the world. For love to be free, evil has to be an option.

Therefore, said saint Silouan of Athos: ‘Keep thy mind in hell and do not despair.’

I think that what he is saying is: fully face the brokenness of the world, but never forget that God’s not sleeping.

It is a reminder of hope, and of deeper processes at work that might transcend our conscious ken. A reminder, too, that nothing, and no one, is ever beyond redemption.

I myself wrote recently,

These are, to say the least, difficult and puzzling times. The merest glance at the headlines will suffice to demonstrate that, and to demonstrate the further fact that the media, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.

In the face of massively publicised and widespread cruelty and injustice, violence and deceit, it is increasingly hard to avoid the current zeitgeist of taking sides, adopting entrenched positions, and demonising the “opposition”.

It is seems more and more popular to represent “the other side” as beyond redemption, and yet sometimes if we will only listen, they will shock us by their humanity and their vulnerability. Not long ago I was speaking with a prominent Tory MP and (then) cabinet minister, when he expressed his genuine grief at the assumption that he and his party were trying to punish and oppress the disabled. For a moment, real pain peeped out from behind the urbane mask of the seasoned politician, and I found my own heart grieved for him. More of these moments are scattered throughout our days, I think, than we would imagine, if only we are open to them, if only we can allow the clamour of the populist voices, and of our own assumptions and prejudices, to die away in an interior silence and openness that I have found comes only through continual prayer.

Repetitive prayer, whether a Christian practice such as the Jesus Prayer, or a Buddhist one such as the Nembutsu, has a way, eventually, of attaching itself to one’s life rhythms – the breath, the heartbeat – till it becomes an integrated part of one’s existence, drawing the heart (understood as the centre of our personal being) not away from “the outer world of sense and meanings” (Thomas R Kelly) but always towards the source of all that is.

This is not a difficult, technical exercise, nor one reserved for men of unusual and select spiritual gifts, but one for all of us, female or male, artisan or intellectual, old or young. It is so simple, whether as a side-effect of a practice such as the Nembutsu, or just to “maintain a simple attention and a fond regard for God, which I may call an actual presence of God.” (Brother Lawrence)

St Silouan the Athonite, whom Alastair McIntosh quotes, was an Eastern Orthodox monk born in Russia who travelled to Mount Athos while still only in his twenties, and lived there at St. Panteleimon Monastery as a brother until he died, in his seventies, just before the outbreak of World War II. In common with other Athonite monks, Silouan’s main form of prayer would have been the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

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. Hesychasts, as they became known, were practitioners of a tradition of contemplative prayer based on the Jesus Prayer that was available to everyone, regardless of education, ordination or formal membership of a monastic community.

The Anglican Bishop 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, of 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) where it 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 right through 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. It was to St. Panteleimon Monastery that many of these Russian monks came; Sophrony himself became a disciple of Silouan.

Sophrony 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…

I am always reminded by this passage of Thomas R Kelly who, 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.

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.]

Quaker and Hesychast (Slight Return)

I come back again and again in my heart, and in my own life of prayer, such as it is, to this parallel between Quaker practice and the hesychasm of the early church, the tradition of which runs on today in the Orthodox churches.

I have written of this before on this blog, and while I’d normally ask my readers simply to follow the link, what I wrote then comes so close to what is on my mind today that I think the only thing to do is to reblog the entire post here:

………………..

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. Hesychasts, as they became known, were practitioners of a tradition of contemplative prayer based on the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” 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 right through 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…

(First posted 13/10/2014)

Prayer as Experience

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

It is easy to be simplistic about prayer: either it works because God will do as we ask, subject to certain easily-ascertained conditions; or it doesn’t work because, well, it’s an obviously silly idea, a bit of infantile wish-fulfilment, as all sophisticated people know.

Neither of these equal and opposite over-simplifications actually touches what prayer is. Prayer is, as Diana Lampen points out, not something we do, but more properly something that is done through us. It’s irrelevant, really, what we think of it, and the mystery of prayer is in no way contingent on our own abilities or holiness.

Richard Rohr writes, in Silent Compassion (2014) that “To speak of mysticism in simple terms means we speak of experiential knowledge of God instead of merely mental or cognitive knowledge… mystical encounters come to people who are still weak and sinful, as Jesus makes clear in many of his stories (The Prodigal Son, the woman ‘who was a sinner,’ and the Publican and Pharisee stories, for example).” He says later in this same book that, “The original word for this different mind, this alternative consciousness… was simply prayer. That word has been so misused and trivialised to mean merely petitionary prayer, reading prayers… or reciting prayers… I’m not saying that formulaic prayer is wrong, but that is not what was taught by the Desert Fathers and Mothers in the first three or four hundred years of Christianity.”

Silence, contemplation, stillness, these are what the Desert Mothers and Fathers taught. And the odd thing is that Quakers have known this for ever so long. George Fox wrote,

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.

And Thomas Kelly, during the years of World War II,

How, then, shall we lay hold of that Life and Power, and live the life of prayer without ceasing? By quiet, persistent practice in turning all our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, towards Him who calls in the deeps of our souls. Mental habits of inward orientation must be established. An inner, secret turning to God can be made fairly steady, after weeks and months and years of practice and lapses and failures and returns. It is as simple an art as Brother Lawrence found it, but it may be long before we achieve any steadiness in the process. Begin now, as you read these words, as you sit in your chair, to offer your whole selves, utterly and in joyful abandon, in quiet, glad surrender to Him who is within. In secret ejaculations of praise, turn in humble wonder to the Light, faint though it may be. Keep contact with the outer world of sense and meanings. Here is no discipline in absent-mindedness. Walk and talk and work and laugh with your friends. But behind the scenes keep up the life of simple prayer and inward worship. Keep it up throughout the day. Let inward prayer be your last act before you fall asleep and the first act when you awake. And in time you will find, as did Brother Lawrence, that ‘those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep’.

This kind of prayer is not something set aside for specialists. This was the great insight of the early Quakers, that a direct encounter with God is part of normal life for ordinary people, given half a chance. We need only to remember it!

Quaker and Hesychast

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. Hesychasts, as they became known, were practitioners of a tradition of contemplative prayer based on the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” 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 right through 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…

Love is strong as death

I have in mind something deeper than the simplification of our external programs, our absurdly crowded calendars of appointments through which so many pantingly and frantically gasp. These do become simplified in holy obedience, and the poise and peace we have been missing can really be found. But there is a deeper, an internal simplification of the whole of one’s personality, stilled, tranquil, in childlike trust listening ever to Eternity’s whisper, walking with a smile into the dark

Thomas R Kelly – with thanks to Hay Quaker

It may seem odd to speak of “walking with a smile into the dark” in a culture that has grown up to “rage, rage against the dying of the light”, or even as Quakers to “mind the Light” always. But the dark of the senses is not dark: there are many more wavelengths of light clear to the heart than the eye perceives.

Catherine Doherty wrote:

True silence is the suspension bridge that a soul in love with God builds to cross the dark, frightening gullies of its own mind, the strange chasms of temptation, the depthless precipices of its own fears that impede its way to God. Such silence is holy, a prayer beyond all prayers, leading to the final prayer of constant presence of God, to the heights of contemplation, when the soul, utterly at peace, lives by the will of him whom she loves totally, utterly, and completely.

Silence is a name we give to the absence of audible frequencies, just as dark is the absence of the visible. In silence there is nothing but God, nothing but the Light of love. Love transmits on frequencies far below the audible, and far into the wavelengths above the visible, and even human love is strong as death…