Among some people, many of them perhaps surprisingly Quakers, there can arise the sense – when we are enmeshed in times of uncertainty and nightmare, with the rise of far right political attitudes, widespread and all too often accepted racism and misogyny, the economic worries attending Britain’s leaving the European Union, global warming, a housing crisis – that it is an almost criminal waste of time to attend to things like contemplative prayer, silence, and pilgrimage, rather than political agitation, campaigning and protest.
In the months immediately before the outbreak of war in 1914, Evelyn Underhill was at work on her little book Practical Mysticism. The commencement of hostilities prompted her to write a quite lengthy preface addressing this very question, which seems to me as fresh and as pertinent today as it was over a century ago. She wrote:
…the title deliberately chosen for this book–that of “Practical” Mysticism–means nothing if the attitude and the discipline which it recommends be adapted to fair weather alone: if the principles on which it stands break down when subjected to the pressure of events, and cannot be reconciled with the sterner duties of the national life. To accept this position is to reduce mysticism to the status of a spiritual plaything… It is significant that many of these [spiritual] experiences are reported to us from periods of war and distress: the stronger the forces of destruction appeared, the more intense grew the spiritual vision which opposed them. We learn from these records that the mystical consciousness has the power of lifting those who possess it to a plane of reality which no struggle, no cruelty, can disturb: of conferring a certitude which no catastrophe can wreck. Yet it does not wrap its initiates in a selfish and otherworldly calm, isolate them from the pain and effort of the common life. Rather, it gives them renewed vitality; administering to the human spirit not–as some suppose–a soothing draught, but the most powerful of stimulants. Stayed upon eternal realities, that spirit will be far better able to endure and profit by the stern discipline which the race is now called to undergo, than those who are wholly at the mercy of events; better able to discern the real from the illusory issues, and to pronounce judgement on the new problems, new difficulties, new fields of activity now disclosed.
Leaving aside the somewhat rhetorical prose that was common to writers of her time, Underhill seems to me to have put her finger on something of immense value for us who find ourselves living among such difficult and puzzling times.
In a book first published in 1977, the Russian contemplative, intercessor and writer on prayer Sophrony Sakharov wrote:
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…
We should take comfort, I think, from words like these. The Quaker writer and blogger, Craig Barnett, recently published an essay on his Transition Quaker blog, in which he says:
…the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ – allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings.
Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.
There words of Craig’s carry their weight far beyond purely Quaker life: the “quiet, unrecognised life of prayer”, whether lived in an enclosed monastic community in the depths of the country, on the remote Dorset coast where I farmed for years, or in a flat above a back street corner shop in Leicester or Sunderland, will always look from some points of view more “like failure or foolishness” than anything else. But we need, I think, to recover a right sense of the seriousness of our calling. As Walter Wink once wrote, “history belongs to the intercessors.” And in their silent identification with the pain and loss, the cruelty and the hopelessness, of our world, contemplatives may in fact be among the most effective intercessors God has.