Thursday, January 24, 2013

I sat still under it and let it alone...

I have been trying to make sense of what has been happening over the last few weeks. This is hard going. The traditional language of Christian spirituality is so easy for me to use - I have become so fluent in it that it trips off the keyboard without a second thought - that I use it without a thought for those for whom it might be not only impenetrable, but even misleading.

What worries me though, is to what extent am I failing myself, pulling the wool over my own eyes over the whole question of faith, simply because I am so fluent in the language? Am I simply saying stuff because it sounds so good, so resonant and profound, but at the same time substituting this fluency for real thought, real feeling, for it is hard to know things without the language to describe them to oneself? It used not to be so. Maybe it isn’t, still - but the thought worries me.

Pam Lunn says (Quaker Faith & Practice 26.76):
There are those who can comfortably talk in Christian language, because they experience it deeply as expressing truth and reality as they perceive it. For them it is not ‘just a language’; it is the truth. The words used are inseparable from the underlying truths, the stories, the tradition, the nature of God as revealed in Jesus.
How can I try to find an authentic voice for the extraordinary events that are taking place within the area of me that I have become used to describing as “my faith”? Truly my experience of God, of who he is in Christ, and who Christ is in me (John 17.20, 25-26), is being simultaneously confirmed and deepened beyond anything I could have imagined even a few months ago, and turned upside down in a way that makes me feel deeply vertiginous.

Stillness and non-interference seems at the moment to be the answer:
My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me...

Psalm 131.1 NIV
These words, too, from more than 360 years ago, seem to speak to my (much happier, though) condition more closely than most things I’ve read recently:
After this I returned into Nottinghamshire again and went into the Vale of Beavor... And one morning, as I was sitting by the fire, a great cloud came over me and a temptation beset me; but I sat still. And it was said, ‘All things come by nature’; and the elements and stars came over me so that I was in a manner quite clouded with it. But inasmuch as I sat, still and silent, the people of the house perceived nothing. And as I sat still under it and let it alone, a living hope arose in me and a true voice, which said, ‘There is a living God who made all things’. And immediately the cloud and temptation vanished away, and life rose over it all, and my heart was glad, and I praised the living God.
George Fox, 1648

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Consider which of the ways...

Consider which of the ways to happiness offered by society are truly fulfilling and which are potentially corrupting and destructive. Be discriminating when choosing means of entertainment and information. Resist the desire to acquire possessions or income through unethical investment, speculation or games of chance.

We find ourselves living in a society which seems to place more value on “means of entertainment and information” than any other. Actually it has probably always been so, from the taverns of ancient Rome, through the gossip and broadsheets of the 18th century, to the newsreels and gossip columns of the 1950s and 60s.

For years, now, I have had an instinctive aversion to some streams of “entertainment and information”, fictional as well as factual. I don’t mean a narrow-minded disapproval here, so much as a genuine and at times extreme discomfort with things as various as Eastenders, most television news programmes, crime documentaries, contests, reality shows, and so on.

Trying to work out what was going on, especially in company when not joining in with these things could seem eccentric or priggish, I gradually came to realise that what I was so averse to was having my emotions manipulated by outside forces, whether authorial, editorial or societal. If I am confronted with genuine pain or distress, then by God’s grace I shall have a genuine emotional response, which can lead to a genuine and perhaps useful action on my part - but there is not usually any useful response possible to the distress of someone publicly embarrassed on a singing contest.

Part of this is probably due to what is sometimes pejoratively called hypersensitivity; part to the result of long prayer, which tends to peel away the hardened layers from the heart. Part is due no doubt to a simple instinct for self-preservation. It is terribly easy - and in this the Internet is complicit! - to open oneself to things that, while not obviously wrong or corrupt, readily damage the membranes of the soul; if I would avoid inhaling chlorine, shouldn’t I try and avoid them?

Isaac of Nineveh wrote:

Let yourself be persecuted, but do not persecute others.
Be crucified, but do not crucify others.
Be slandered, but do not slander others.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep: such is the sign of purity.
Suffer with the sick.
Be afflicted with sinners.
Exult with those who repent.
Be the friend of all, but in your spirit remain alone.
Be a partaker of the sufferings of all, but keep your body distant from all.
Rebuke no one, revile no one, not even those who live very wickedly.
Spread your cloak over those who fall into sin, each and every one, and shield them.
And if you cannot take the fault on yourself and accept punishment in their place,
do not destroy their character.

Monday, January 14, 2013


Prayer is an exercise of the spirit, as thought is of the mind. To pray about anything is to use the powers of our spirit on it, just as to think clearly is to use our mental powers. For the best solution of every problem, the best carrying out of every action, both thought and prayer are necessary... To pray about any day’s work does not mean to ask success in it. It means, first to realise my own inability to do even a familiar job, as it truly should be done, unless I am in touch with eternity, unless I do it ‘unto God’, unless I have the Father with me. It means to see ‘my’ work as part of a whole, to see ‘myself’ as not mattering much, but my faith, the energy, will and striving, which I put into the work, as mattering a great deal. My faith is the point in me at which God comes into my work; through faith the work is given dignity and value. And if, through some weakness of mine, or fault of others, or just ‘unavoidable circumstances’, the work seems a failure, yet prayer is not wasted when it is unanswered, any more than love is wasted when it is unreturned. 
Mary F Smith, 1936, in Quaker Faith & Practice 20.08
Over the years many Friends have told me that they no longer need regular daily prayer. I don’t want to suggest that I am a better man or that there is only one way but simply that this has not been my experience. I am not emotionally strong, and the expected, and even more the unexpected, needs of patients, students, colleagues, family, friends and strangers leave me empty and exhausted. I could not face the next day without a time in which life is renewed. I shall not describe this in detail. The essence is regularity and time - time to reach down to the level where I can begin to see myself and my work straight, where that strength we call love can break through my anxiety and teach me how to respond instead of react, where I am not ruled by conscience but by Jesus the true man within; the level where I can accept my whole nature and forgive myself and others. Prayer alone can reopen the road to the spirit, blocked repeatedly by busyness, self-importance, self-indulgence, self-pity, depression or despair.
Donald Court, 1970, in Quaker Faith & Practice 20.09
Love silence, even in the mind... Much speaking, as much thinking, spends; and in many thoughts, as well as words, there is sin. True silence is the rest of the mind; and is to the spirit, what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.
William Penn, 1699, Quaker Faith & Practice 20.11

More and more the Quaker understanding of prayer and worship makes sense to me. To relate directly with God, without the need for classification, ritual, equipment (physical as well as intellectual) lies at the root of all contemplative prayer—and here is a group of people who have based their entire lives on this principle for several hundred years. Experience of worshipping with them alone teaches that this is a vital, living way of unmediated encounter with God. I have found myself comparing it to sticking my finger in an electric socket.

Being stuck at home this Sunday with a dreadful head cold has been an unexpected blessing. Neither able to take part in regular worship at my own local church, nor attend the Friends’ Local Meeting, I have been thinking, and reading, and it seems right to share these few things here. With God’s grace I shall continue these investigations, and when something more crops up that seems good to share on this blog, that’s what I shall do. As always, your prayers are truly valued.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Healing the vision...

One of the greatest dangers in the spiritual life is self-rejection. When we say, "If people really knew me, they wouldn't love me," we choose the road toward darkness. Often we are made to believe that self-deprecation is a virtue, called humility. But humility is in reality the opposite of self-deprecation. It is the grateful recognition that we are precious in God's eyes and that all we are is pure gift. To grow beyond self-rejection we must have the courage to listen to the voice calling us God's beloved sons and daughters, and the determination always to live our lives according to this truth...

(with thanks to the Henri Nouwen Society)

So often in my life I have felt that the insights, hints, leadings I have felt could not be real or important since it was I who was having them. Consistently I have ignored the those who would encourage me, and have given credence to those who would convince me of the unreliability of my own intuitions.

It is tempting to psychoanalyse myself here, to blame those in my upbringing, at school and elsewhere, who encouraged such a mindset. These things may in part be true, but what good would it do to ascribe them to people who have since died, and to institutions since dispersed? Nouwen puts his finger on it here: the way into God's calling is by means of his love: "So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3.26-28) "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?" (Romans 8.35)

... love was mediated to me, in the first place, by those with whom I worshipped. For my journey was not solitary, but one undertaken with my friends as we moved towards each other and together travelled inwards. Yet I knew that the love that held me could not be limited to the mutual love and care we had for each other. It was a signal of transcendence that pointed beyond itself to the source of all life and love.

George Gorman, 1973

It is surrender to Christ's love, to its presence in each one of us as the Holy Spirit gives us grace to see it, that brings about the restoration of vision and trust. As one recognises that of Christ within each of us, even within ourselves, we somehow come to trust not only the God by whose love we are held, but we ourselves whom he has loved so much...

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Justice by any other name...

Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken.

Quaker Faith & Practice 1. Advices and Queries: 17

It seems to me that the contemplative way, even perhaps the way of Christ itself, is summed up in these words. Certainly it seems to have been how our Lord treated others himself (see e.g Mark 7.24ff; John 4.1-42) and it is exactly this quality of open-heartedness that contemplative prayer seems to foster.

Defensiveness in matters of faith seems to be an endless problem. Fundamentalists of whichever faith seem to suffer from it, and along with it seems to go a deep distrust of the contemplative life. One can see this, for instance, in the persecution of Sufis by Islamic fundamentalists, and the online campaigns mounted against Christian contemplative prayer a few years ago by Christian fundamentalist groups in the USA. Of course contemplation is worrying to fundamentalists - it is the openness and well, fairness, that it seems to engender that is so threatening to a mindset "which refuses to allow its ideas to be examined or challenged." (McGrath & McGrath, 2007)

 Justice is another name, it seems, for vulnerability - for that is where openness leads. The heart is God's own place, and true prayer opens the heart to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. There doesn't seem to be any other way...