Tag Archives: TS Eliot

The sowing of seeds

This has been a strange Easter. For us, it has been marked indelibly by the death of a old and dear friend on Easter Saturday evening. In his excellent post for Easter on the Britain Yearly Meeting website, Alistair Fuller writes:

The story of Holy Week and Easter, seen as a whole, is vivid and unsettling. It contains within it themes of friendship, betrayal and political tension. There is state-sponsored murder, and the violent pendulum swing of public opinion from adoration to condemnation. There are moments of loneliness, desolation, unspeakable cruelty and profound courage. There is falling and failing, of many kinds. And there is tenacious and unflinching love.

And Easter itself is not quite the sunlit miracle story we might remember. There is no gospel telling of anything that might be described as ‘the resurrection’, but rather a jagged and untidy collection of stories and moments of encounter.

It has been so for us, and yet, as Fuller goes on to say, it has been full “of the unconquerable aliveness of the love encountered in and through Jesus.”

Marcelle Martin, in her 2016 book Our Life Is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journeywrites of the process known by early Quakers, George Fox in particular, as “The Refiner’s Fire” (from Malachi 3.2: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap…”):

Experiences of the Light are challenging when they show us ways we have not been living in accordance with God’s love and truth. Western cultures teach people from infancy to onward to push divine guidance to the back of our awareness, and most people quickly learn to block perception of the indwelling Presence of God. Reversing this and consciously opening our hearts and minds to spiritual truth is not easy. It takes patience and courage to still our minds, turn within, and wait in a receptive way for the Light to show us how we have been resisting divine Love and Truth in the particulars of our thinking, our relationships, our way of living, and our participation in the world. Seeing this can be surprising…

[Quoting Sandra Cronk] “The process of entering into a deep relationship with God is also the process of uncovering ourselves… In the light of that love, deep re-patterning can take place in us.”

For me, the reality has been less straightforward than it is or some. Due to some quirk of nature or nurture – my mother, who brought me up as a single parent, was a painter and sculptor – I never did “learn to block perception of the indwelling Presence of God” to the extent that most people seem to. As I wrote a couple of years ago, “I have known since childhood the power of solitude, of lonely places; and I have always been most at home alone in the grey wind, without a destination or timetable, or sitting by myself in a sunlit garden, watching the tiny velvety red mites threading their paths on a warm stone bench.” Listening for that indwelling presence has been at times terrifying, at times joyful, but it has never been entirely possible to escape, hard as I occasionally tried, especially in my mid-twenties. I am at least as susceptible as anyone I know to self-deception and wishful thinking, to being untrue to myself and to God, and to looking outside myself, at the external aspects of thought and practice among people of faith, trying to distract myself from the work of the Spirit in my heart. But it is less easy to distract the Holy Spirit, and so I have been called back again and again to these uncomfortable, at times downright dangerous, places, out in the saltmarshes of the heart.

Parker J Palmer saw this as clearly as anyone, having lived through these difficult times himself:

Inner work is as real as outer work and involves skills one can develop, skills like journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendship, and prayer…

TS Eliot wrote:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
This Easter it is true. Loss and grieving get caught up inextricably into prayer, and prayer into what Jesuits call the prayer of examen. It is harder than ever to distract myself, but the indistractible Spirit is gentle, too, and
…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)
I wrote a few weeks ago how I had been startled in meeting by a Friend’s ministry – just these few words, from Proverbs 20.24,

All our steps are ordered by the Lord;
how then can we understand our own ways?

that spoke directly to my condition. It is hard to see how our steps are “ordered by the Lord,” but all that is really left, this Easter, is to trust, and to remain still. In Isaac Penington’s words,

…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.

“The silent unity of all”

In his interesting post ‘Quaker non-theism and the God of Pascal‘, Ben Wood points out the very real difficulty some Quakers, especially non-theists like David Boulton, have with the Cartesian concept of God as “merely a necessary theological hypothesis.” Wood quotes Boulton himself in ‘Quaker Identity and the Heart of our Faith’ (the content appears to be missing from the Quakers in Britain website), “I can no more entertain the notion of gods and devils, angels and demons, disembodied ghoulies and ghosties, or holy and unholy spirits, than I can believe in the magic of Harry Potter or the mystic powers of Gandalf the Grey.”

I am not qualified as a theologian, but Quaker theology appears to me to be, if anything, a theology derived from experience, and the God of my experience is not a being within a known universe, not a notion in fact at all. I may, like everyone else, David Boulton included, derive notions from my experience, but it is the experience that is primary. This primacy of experience is of course what Quakers mean when they describe theirs as an experimental faith. As Charles F Carter wrote:

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?

Oddly enough perhaps, at first glance, one of the best accounts of mystical experience I’ve come across recently is found in André Comte-Sponville’s Book of Atheist Spirituality. He writes (p.190):

Mystics are defined by a certain type of experience, comprising self-evidence, plenitude, simplicity, eternity… All this leaves very little room for belief.

They see. Why would they need dogma?
Everything is present. Why would they need hope?
They live in eternity. Why would they need to wait for it?
They are already saved. Why would they need a religion?
Whether they are believers or not, mystics are those who no longer lack God. But is a God who is no longer lacking still God?

I don’t know the answer to Comte-Sponville’s question, except to say that for me, that plenitude – pleroma, in Jung’s Septem Sermones ad Mortuos – is exactly what I mean by God. He goes on to say,

When  God is no longer lacking, what remains? The plenitude of what is, which is neither God nor a subject.

When the past and the future no longer separate us from the present, what remains? Eternity – that is, the perpetual now of reality and truth.

When ego and intellect no longer separate us from reality, what remains? The silent unity of all.

For me, that “silent unity” is God. I mean nothing less by the word. But I find I need a shorthand for what André Comte-Sponville describes a few pages later (p.197): “How could I contain the absolute? The absolute contains me – I can reach it only by leaving myself behind.” The little word “God” may give rise to all manner of misunderstandings among Friends and others, but I for one need it for its elegance and concision – and for me, its resonance. To the questioning mind, you see, the infinite light of plenitude is dark, and all our descriptions fail in the end. As TS Eliot wrote, the only answer is (and try writing this without that little word we were discussing):

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.

That washed vision

TS Eliot began his long poem The Waste Land,

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain…

There is something reassuring about pain, and immobility. You know where you are with things like that; and a few dried tubers, as Eliot points out, will keep something like life going a long while. New life is difficult, though. It hurts to come back in springtime.

Selfishness can be a defence against a deep lack of self-esteem, and inaction a response to what the heart perceives as just penalty – penance, or karma.

Now as a man is like this or like that,
according as he acts and according as he behaves, so will he be;
a man of good acts will become good, a man of bad acts, bad;
he becomes pure by pure deeds, bad by bad deeds;

And here they say that a person consists of desires,
and as is his desire, so is his will;
and as is his will, so is his deed;
and whatever deed he does, that he will reap…

(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad)

Cause and effect are not always what they seem, as CG Jung pointed out:

How are we to recognize acausal combinations of events, since it is obviously impossible to examine all chance happenings for their causality? The answer to this is that acausal events may be expected most readily where, on closer reflection, a causal connection appears to be inconceivable…

…it is impossible, with our present resources, to explain ESP, or the fact of meaningful coincidence, as a phenomenon of energy. This makes an end of the causal explanation as well, for “effect” cannot be understood as anything except a phenomenon of energy. Therefore it cannot be a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity. Because of this quality of simultaneity, I have picked on the term “synchronicity” to designate a hypothetical factor equal in rank to causality as a principle of explanation.

It may be that the planet whose life we share has a finite lifespan. In fact it would be most surprising if it did not. Yet each spring comes as a renewal – like the one before, but quite unlike, as well, never seen before:

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.

(Isaiah 43.19)

There seems to be something like balance, or a returning equilibrium, in the affairs of the living, on however micro- or macrocosmic a scale. Once the debt is paid, the karma exhausted, the months of winter turned, spring does come again. Or it comes anew, since it is not the same as the last one, nor will next year’s be this year’s come again.

This morning’s meeting was quite silent, except that at the last moment, before we shook hands, one of our oldest members stood, and spoke to the spring, and hens with new chicks, the opening of the narcissi, and the blackbirds singing early, when it was barely dawn. It could too easily be his last spring with us, and yet his joy was as clean and fresh as the morning itself, and it had hurt him to stand after an hour’s sitting. To see, and to speak with that washed vision near the end of a long life – that must be hope, or as Wendell Berry wrote:

This is no paradisal dream. Its hardship is its possibility.

Once again I keep still…

As so often, I was troubled yesterday by my consciousness of the troubled world around us, and by the multiplied and often contradictory calls to activism, to get up and do something about it… and I thought, I don’t know what to do. I don’t understand how this incessant awareness of the grief and pain of the world, and of all its individual creatures, human and otherwise, can draw together with my ever-increasing heart’s call to silence and contemplation. And it occurred to me that not knowing is the precondition for the Holy Spirit’s presence to my own confusion and distress.

I don’t understand – but in that failure to understand I am again in the centre, in the cleft of the branch, in the “intersection  of the timeless with time” as Eliot wrote*; in the very name of Jesus, in the prayer that his name is. If I don’t know where I am, then I am found; If I don’t know where to go, then I am led.

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust…
Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.

Psalm 25.1-2a; 4-5

And once again I keep still under the shadows of the leaves that the wind moves.

*There is an interesting meditation on this passage of Eliot’s, and how it may connect with Karl Barth’s commentary on Romans, here.

It only costs everything…

There is nothing to be renounced or resisted. Everything can be embraced, but the catch is to cling to nothing. You let it go. You go through life like a knife goes through a done cake, picking up nothing, clinging to nothing, sticking to nothing. And grounded in that fundamental chastity of your being, you can then throw yourself out, pour yourself out, being able to give it all back, even giving back life itself. Very, very simple. It only costs everything.

Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus

On the face of it, this could seem almost self-delusory, characterising oneself, perhaps, as some kind of spiritual ninja. But it needs to be balanced by something else Cynthia Bourgeault once wrote:

Mercy is the length and breadth and height and depth of what we know of God—and the light by which we know it. You might even think of it as the Being of God insofar as we can possibly penetrate into it in this life, so that it is impossible to encounter God apart from the dimension of mercy.

The choice of term may seem a bit odd. Today “mercy”—along with so many other classic words in our spiritual tradition—has developed a negative connotation. It seems to suggest power and condescension, a transaction between two vastly unequal parties. A friend of mine, in fact, was told by her spiritual director that she should not pray the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” the mainstay of Eastern Orthodox contemplative spirituality—because “it reinforces medieval stereotypes of paternalism and powerlessness.” Modern people, this spiritual director felt, need to be told that they are worthy, “that they can stand on their own two feet before God.”

But the word “mercy” comes profoundly attested to in our Judeo-Christian spiritual heritage. Aside from the fact that the Jesus Prayer, hallowed by two millennia of Christian practice, has been consistently singled out… as the most powerful prayer a Christian can pray, we simply cannot get away from the Mercy without getting away from the Bible as well. The word confronts us at every turn, as a living reality of our faith…

From the outside, the Quaker way might seem to some to be inclined towards “stand[ing] on [our] own two feet before God” (something that has always seemed profoundly silly to me – I mean, have you ever glimpsed the living God in prayer or worship?) but consider this from one of our founders, George Fox, writing in 1652:

Friends, whatever ye are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then you are gone. 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.

You will see that Fox is saying something very similar to Cynthia Bourgeault’s first passage. Content comes not in rejecting, or attempting to drive away our temptations – whether from the world around us, or from our own hungry hearts – but from surrendering to God in the midst of them. Perfectly simple, only “costing not less than everything” as Eliot says at the very end of Four Quartets:

Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.