Saturday, June 16, 2018

Outstaring the Ghosts

The psalmist says, 'You hide those who trust in you in the shelter of your presence.' For 'hide' we might read 'heal'. To sit with with our buried hurts and pains in the presence of the Lord is to allow ourselves to be healed by him. We no longer become involved in trying to sort them out, nor do we recoil from them. We sit quietly. We are beginning to have the confidence to outstare our ghosts.
Sometimes when people meditate or pray without words they are accused of trying to anaesthetise themselves to deaden their pain. But what we really do in our quiet prayer is to face the pain, engage with it, and transform it into energy for loving.
Benignus O'Rourke, Finding Your Hidden Treasure: The Way of Silent Prayer
Richard Rohr wrote, in one of his Daily Meditations (back in 2010 - it's long been taken down):
We have put our emphasis on trying to love God, which is probably a good way to start—although we do not have a clue how to do that.  What I consistently find in the mystics is an overwhelming experience of how God has loved them.  God is the initiator, God is the doer, God is the one who seduces us.  All we can do is respond in kind, and exactly as Meister Eckhart said, "The love by which we love God is the very same love with which God has first loved us."
The mystics' overwhelming experience is this full body blow of the Divine loving them, the Divine radically accepting them.  And the rest of their life is trying to verbalize that, and invariably finding ways to give that love back through forms of service, compassion and non-stop worship.  But none of this is to earn God's love; it's always and only to return God's love.  Love is repaid by love alone.
Our prayer, as contemplatives, is not something that is for ourselves alone, nor even - as if that were not sufficient - simply our response to our perceiving of the immensity of God's love. I think this cannot be emphasised strongly enough. We need to understand that our life of prayer, especially if we are called to the contemplative life, is not a solipsistic, "self-actualising" activity, or some kind of relaxation technique aimed at producing a pleasant, stress-free state of mind, still less a quest for any kind of psychedelic experience. The contemplative vocation is as much as anything a call to intercession, and to a life lived in the shadow of the Cross.

Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, in Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life, write:
Anyone taking the eremitic vocation seriously is bound to feel helpless, quite impotent, in fact. Hermits are determined to help, to make a positive difference, but how? What can one person do, hidden and alone? Sometimes, solitaries may feel blameworthy because they live lives which shelter them from much of the suffering that so harshly mars the existence of their brothers and sisters. Love and compassion well up in them... but is it enough? What should one do and how? This is where passionate intercessory prayer and supplication spontaneously arises.
The challenge is to live a life given over to praying for others while accepting that one will seldom, if ever, see any results. No one will be able to ascertain how, or even if, their devoted prayers are efficacious for others. It is a terrible kind of poverty - to live dedicated to helping others, yet never know what good one may be doing. All that hermits can do is hope that they are doing no harm. Believers leave all results to the mercy of their God. Others rely on the interconnectedness of all humanity, trusting that what affects one, affects all. This is a form of intercession expressed less by words than by a way of life. 
A Camaldolese monk once wrote: "Prayer is not only speaking to God on behalf of humanity, it is also 'paying' for humanity." Suffering is part of the hermit's vocation. One of the most acute forms is to never know whether one's chosen lifestyle is worthwhile or has any value for others. Hermits enter into the darkness, the dusky cloud of unknowing, and walk without any light beyond that which is in their own hearts. Often, unbeknownst even to themselves, they have become beacons for others.
What the Fredettes write applies, of course, to the contemplative life however lived, whether in community or in physical solitude. The contemplative life has always been to a great extent a life lived in hiddenness, and in our own time, when the culture of celebrity and notoriety is continually whipped up by the press and social media, it is deeply counterintuitive to seek to live this way. These days relatively few of us live in true solitude, and still less of us in the more or less enclosed forms of community traditionally inhabited by contemplatives - the Carthusians, for instance, or the Poor Clares - and so we live not so much hidden lives as lives hidden in plain sight, ordinary, unrecognised and quiet. This hiddenness is really more a way of just getting out of the way - of standing still enough to act as a kind of beacon or antenna for the signals of mercy.

This life of inner solitude and hiddenness - for it is hidden from our own selves within as well as outwardly - is in many ways lived for others. We stand out in the wind, and in some mysterious way we relive Moses' experience on Mount Sinai, when the Israelites said to him, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die."

The ghosts we outstare are not our own merely; somehow in the silence of prayer we find ourselves confronting the ghosts of those we live amongst, touching the shadows that our post-Enlightenment age casts across all our lives, touching, as did the monks of Mount Athos during the years of the Stalin's purges and Hitler's atrocities, the dark skirts of chaos and cruelty that brush continually against our civilisation. Yet our prayer does, as I wrote yesterday, "tend... always to stillness, to wholeness of mind and spirit, to the peace of God, beyond our understanding..." It is that peace we seek for those with whom our prayer and our lives are inextricably caught up, just by being frail, temporary human things.

Friday, June 15, 2018

The Peace of God

In his Confessions Augustine describes movingly how God had made him whole after many years of brokenness. 'I find no safe place for myself save in you in whom all my scattered pieces are gathered together,' he writes.
The journey to wholeness, he says, started when he withdrew to the quiet place of sweet solitude within his own heart. There he invited God to speak to him, 'Whisper words of truth in my heart,' he pleaded, 'for you alone speak truth... I shall not turn aside until you gather all that I am into that holy place of peace, rescuing me from the world where I am broken and deformed and giving me new form and new strength.'
Augustine describes that holy place of peace in his commentary on John's Gospel. It is 'that innermost shrine of your deepest self,' he tells us, 'that place of sweet solitude, where there is no weariness, where no bitter thoughts enter, where there is no lurking temptation or heavy sorrow...'
So Augustine bids us: 'Surrender to him now all your futile searching. What is withered in you will flower again. your sickness will be healed. What is faded will be fresh again, and what is warped made whole and strong and sound. And all that is weak in you will not drag you to the grace. But your wholeness will remain with you before God, who remains strong and abides forever.'
Benignus O'Rourke, Finding Your Hidden Treasure: The Way of Silent Prayer
The way of the Jesus Prayer is a way of immense simplicity, a way into silence almost more complete than any other. There are words, yes, but saying the Jesus Prayer, there is nothing we need to do at all; no need to dig for concealed shadow material, no need to prepare the healing of memories. All that is in Jesus' hands. All that is what is meant by mercy. We simply repeat the words of the Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner in the silence of our own hearts; the words tending always to stillness, to wholeness of mind and spirit, to the peace of God, beyond our understanding...

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Hidden Things

In The Big Book of Christian Mysticism (I love that title!) Carl McColman tells the story of a friend of his who had been a spiritual explorer, checking out Eastern spirituality and "other practices from around the world" before settling down as an Anglican, in the Episcopal Church. While happily at home in his new faith community, he missed the practice, the open teaching on the mystical life, that he'd become used to in Eastern meditation.
Finally, he took his question to his priest. "It's hidden in plain sight," was the minister's response. "The Christian tradition has just as much depth as any other wisdom tradition, but no one's going to hand it to you on a silver platter. You have to go looking for it." The priest went on to recommend a few books - The Philokalia, The Cloud of Unknowing challenging my friend to get the right equipment and start working if he wanted to climb the mountain.
But McColman goes on, later in the chapter, to remind his readers that, despite the metaphor, mysticism is not an extreme sport, a grand hobby, but simply "trusting in the singular beauty of your own path, no matter how unexceptional (or unfulfilling) it may seem at times to be." Often, I think, the more unexceptional, even unpromising, the better. Jesus once said (Matthew 11.25 NIV) "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children."

Laurence Freeman once wrote that "sinners make the best contemplatives." The sense of being separated, marginalised, is in itself a grace, strangely. Jesus himself said that he came (Luke 5.32) not to call the righteous, but sinners. Perhaps it is in accepting this that we open ourselves to the grace and mercy of God in Christ, regardless of our external circumstances. It is no coincidence that the classical form of the Jesus Prayer ends with the words, "a sinner." To me it seems that knowing oneself as imperfect, fallible, poor in spirit (Matthew 5.3) is essential to living in that mercy.

McColman again:
Some forms of spirituality can subtly reinforce experiences, not of God, but of the ego. Mysticism, on the other hand, concerns the more daunting task of surrendering the ego before the cross of Christ. It's about immersing your self-identity into the cloud of unknowing and the dark night of the soul. It is the hidden or "negative" path where, ultimately, all is stripped away before the awesome presence of God.
The Jesus Prayer, and, I imagine, every other classical or modern discipline of contemplative prayer, is at root a very simple practice, for simple people, the poor in spirit in fact. The points of light across the reservoir, hardly visible between the leaves of springtime, are almost hidden from sight; yet their light is as bright as ever, illuminating the place of their own presence. Only in the darkest time can we see their pinpoints reaching through the trees...

Friday, May 11, 2018

Excelsior?

When I was prosperous, I said, “Nothing can stop me now!” Your favor, O Lord, made me as secure as a mountain. Then you turned away from me, and I was shattered. I cried out to you, O Lord. I begged the Lord for mercy, saying, “What will you gain if I die, if I sink into the grave? Can my dust praise you? Can it tell of your faithfulness? Hear me, Lord, and have mercy on me. Help me, O Lord.” You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy, that I might sing praises to you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever!

Psalm 30.6-12 NLT

I have found, over the years I’ve been trying to follow Christ, that I for one stumble at least as much as I walk, and wander off into thorny and sometimes trackless places at least as often as I keep to the path. Sometimes, of course, that’s due to inattention on my part, often inattention to Scripture (“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119.105 NRSV)) but as often it’s due to my own ideas of what’s good for me, which I will insist on following through before I have thought them through.

My first close encounter with the church as a living thing was when, at the age of 29, I found myself staying at St Michael’s Priory, at Willen near Milton Keynes, at a very low and broken point in my life. Not having been brought up a Christian, but in fact to distrust and avoid the church, it took me a long time to surrender to the insistence of the Holy Spirit. Fr Francis Horner SSM had the inspired – literally, I think – idea not so much to teach me the Jesus Prayer, but merely to give me a copy Per Olof Sjögren's little book on the Prayer, and to answer the questions I raised on reading it during the time I stayed at the Priory.

In the years since that summer at Willen I have rattled about the church a bit, finding it difficult to settle down, despite the trust that has too often been placed in me, but by God’s grace the Prayer has kept hold of me, and I have practiced it more or less (often less) faithfully all that time.

Irma Zaleski wrote that the Jesus Prayer is not a means of discursive meditation on Christ, nor a path to some “higher” level of prayer or spirituality, but rather the way of a beggar.The Prayer is the way of a beggar indeed. It lays no claim to anything, but merely asks for mercy, as did the tax collector at the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 18.9-14). Nothing more. Unlike the Pharisee, who runs through his spiritual resumé as he stands before the Lord, the tax collector won't even raise his eyes to heaven, but simply prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” By the time the Jesus Prayer had become a regular form of prayer in the Egyptian desert in the early Christian centuries, it had become, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

We are all beggars, I suppose, when it comes down to it, and the sooner we realise it, like the psalmist in the opening quote, the sooner we can get ourselves out of the way of God. The history of the church, like the history of any one of its people, is the history of people finding out the necessity of getting themselves, and their ideas, out of the way of God – for it is only that way that we can realise who Christ actually is.

Ascension Day celebrates an odd but crucial incident in the life of the early church. Liturgical art depicting the ascension of Christ is all too often faintly ridiculous: a pair of sandalled feed disappearing into a wisp of low cumulus cloud, while the disciples point them out to each other, in case someone might have missed them going up. But picture language, as in the account in Acts 1.9-11, will only take us so far. Paul makes a far better stab at it in Ephesians 1.19-23:

I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honour at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church. And the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself.

The purpose of prayer in the Christian’s life is surely to put him or herself consciously “under the authority of Christ” for it is only so that we, as bits, however imperfect, of the church that is his body, can become aware of how he “fills all things everywhere”. This is surely the contemplative vision in a nutshell. Christ is the love of God made visible in Jesus, and it is, for the Christian, through him that the door opens into the garden, into the silent, sunlit land beyond comprehension – the open heaven of Luke 24.50-52, and our own true home at last.

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

In the Landscape of Silence

Jesus said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” 
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” 
John 14:6-14 NRSV – Gospel reading for May 1, The Feast of St Philip and St James

Famously, this is a passage that universalists stumble over, seeing it as a prime piece of spiritual imperialism on the part of the Gospel writer. But it occurred to me this morning, when the Gospel was read in our local parish church, that there is another way entirely to read it.

I don’t believe Jesus is saying anything exclusive about only being saved if you accept him as your personal saviour, in the old tent mission sense, or about the followers of any other path not being saved. It sounds to me as if he is saying something much more like this: you are only going to encounter God if you come to realise that, as the Augustinian Father Martin Laird wrote in Into the Silent Land: The Practice of Contemplation, “union with God is not something we are trying to acquire; God is already the ground of our being. It is a question of realising this in our lives.” Living so close to Jesus during the three years of his ministry, the penny should have dropped for Philip. Jesus lived more closely than anyone with that realisation at the centre of all he was and did; for he, Jesus, of all people, “walk[ed] cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” (George Fox)

Likewise, some worry about Jesus’ remark at the end of this passage, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” I asked, they say, for world peace – or a Mercedes Benz – and I didn’t receive it. Don’t work none.

In a later book, Martin Laird writes,

But when we petition God for anything over a long period of time, something else begins to happen; we are brought into the depths of God and are joined with God’s will. The fourth-century Syrian monk Denys the Areopagite explains how this works. He tells us to “picture ourselves aboard a boat. There are ropes joining it to some rock. We take hold of the rope and pull on it as if we were trying to drag the rock to us when in fact we are hauling ourselves and our boat toward that rock.” Denys provides a useful metaphor. We think we know what we need and attempt to bend God to our will, but the more we pull, the closer we are drawn into God’s will. Denys continues, “We will not pull down to ourselves that power which is everywhere and yet nowhere, but by divine reminders and invocations we may commend ourselves to it and be joined to it.” We pray to God for this and that. Often these things are important, but gradually we are united to God through our many requests and even in spite of them.

Conversely, our journey into the open, silent saltmarshes of the spirit is no solipsistic attempt at what is so commonly called self-realisation. Laird again, “There is an intercessory dimension to interior silence; for interior silence and compassionate solidarity are all of a piece, like spokes leading to the hub of a wheel… Only on the rim of the wheel of daily life do we appear to be separated from each other, but if we follow each spoke from the rim to the hub, all the spokes are one in the centre. We each share the same Centre.” And it is that centre that is Christ in each of us.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

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 Journey, writes 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.
...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...

First published on Silent Assemblies

Monday, March 26, 2018

Naming the mystery?

Prayer is not about unveiling an impersonal source of our being, nor about gaining access to some sort of basic cosmic energy, nor about diving into a greater whole. Prayer is meeting the Father’s eyes and discovering that he loves us, cares for us, and journeys at out side. 
Luigi Gioia, Say it to God: In Search of Prayer: The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2018
This is the sort of statement that irritates some people, Friends and liberal Christians alike, who do indeed feel they wish to see God in impersonal terms like these. The problem is one of language, of course (see much of God, words and us, ed. Helen Rowlands), but also of rather more than the bare use of that term might suggest. Too much use of the personal may awaken in some unfortunate memories of simplistic caricatures of faith taught in Sunday schools, evangelistic rallies and elsewhere, while the often studied, mannered use of the impersonal may cramp and inhibit those of us whose own natural speech uses the concepts of a Trinitarian God as the inevitable expression of their experience of faith.

Craig Barnett, quoted in God, words and us, writes,
Most Quakers who use the word ‘God’ are not speaking of an ‘old man in the clouds’, or the omnipotent and omniscient supernatural God of the philosophers. Liberal Quakerism has inherited from the wider mystical religious tradition an understanding of spiritual reality as ultimately mysterious and unnameable, This tradition uses the word ‘God’ not as the name of an external ‘being’ but as a signpost that points towards our experience of spiritual reality… 
For many people the word ‘God’ has so many unpleasant association with authoritarian or dogmatic religion that it is definitely unhelpful for them. For others, it is the most natural word to express their own experience and its continuity with traditional Quaker spirituality or with other religious paths. There is no right answer here: it is simply a matter of our personal histories and sensibilities, which may also change over time in response to different experiences.
Writing in the 22 March 2018 issue of The Friend, Cap Kaylor says, in their article ‘Christ, mystery and faith‘,
Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, the deeper narrative from which Quakerism sprang is the Christian narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who functioned both as archetype and engine for the early Quakers. For most of our history Friends have had no trouble identifying with that Christian narrative. 
The Religious Society of Friends began as a reform movement within Christianity, and for the early Friends there was no confusion when it came to identifying the Light with the historical person of Jesus. They lived and moved in a society that was saturated with a Christian ethos. The very stones around them proclaimed a Christian culture that we can no longer take for granted as they could. Embedded within a Christian milieu they found their meaning and their mission in the gospels. 
We are now faced with a dilemma. That Christian milieu has long since faded, and seeds that were planted early in our own history have left Quakers uniquely vulnerable to the stresses and challenges of a materialistic and aggressively secular civilisation. The historic channels through which Christian faith has typically been transmitted were scripture, tradition, and sacramental ritual. They weave together to form the narrative that is the Christian community’s collective memory of the Jesus event. 
To a certain degree, part of the uniqueness of Quakerism has been its rejection of scripture, tradition and ritual as the principle sources of religious authority. In their place, Friends have historically elevated the individual’s experience of the Inward Light as primary. But it might now be asked whether the very thing that made Quakerism unique within Christianity is now making it uniquely vulnerable. Without scripture, tradition or sacramental ritual, what is left to re-link us to the original narrative that gave shape and substance to what began as an explicitly Christian mysticism? 
We could do without a reliance on scripture, ordained ministry, or ritual while we lived in a Christian society that provided us with commonly held ethical presuppositions and a vocabulary to interpret our spiritual experiences. But that time has now past. However, without the force of at least an ostensibly Christian culture, where is the Religious Society of Friends to look for its identity and its engine?
Prayer has a way of undercutting our assumptions and our intellectualising, our “notions” as early Friends would have said. We are so much less than we think we are, and beside the realities we encounter in prayer our ideas and our preconceptions seem, to be honest, often slightly silly.

Luigi Gioia goes on to say,
In the end the source of authentic peace and truth will have to be looked for within. The real source of certainty as well…
Here is a Professor of Systematic Theology at the Pontifical University in Rome saying something that would not have sounded inappropriate in the mouth of an early Quaker! Prayer, if it is anything, is an authentic encounter with that which is far beyond the personal as we understand it, not because it is less than personal, but because it is infinitely more. For that, my own understanding fits precisely the Triune God of the creeds. When I pray the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, I am not reciting a formula; I am praying, in the Spirit, to Christ. There are no other words for that. We humans need sacraments: we need something, whether shared silence or shared bread and wine, to link us and heal us and remake us, to make real, to ground, our experience in the flesh in which we are made. Prayer needs this grounding – it cannot live as bodiless esotericism. It needs breath, warmth, life.

Gioia again,
Not that [in prayer] pain, worry, sin, selfishness, shame, guilt, magically disappear. Not that we lose our solidarity with all our brothers and sisters who do not pray or who do not believe. On the contrary, authentic prayer makes us more compassionate: we start feeling not only our pain but the pain of our brothers and sisters as well, we start perceiving the inward groans of humanity and even of the whole of creation [Romans 8.19-23]. What changes, however, is that these groans, this pain, these worries, this shame, this guilt, become prayer, feed prayer, so that love and hope are inexplicably infused into them and they lose their bitterness, their ability to hurt us, to trouble us: in hope we were saved and when we hope we become able to wait with patience, because all things work together for good for those who experience God’s love in prayer [Romans 8.28]…