Faith in change, trust in uncertainty

Simon Cross (Weekday Meditation 4/2/2022) quotes Thich Nhat Hanh:

If ten years pass without the growth of our belief, one day we will wake up and discover that we can no longer believe in what we did. The notion of ten years ago is no longer sound or adequate, and we are plunged into the darkness of disbelief.

Our faith must be alive. It cannot just be a set of rigid beliefs or notions. Our faith must evolve every day and bring us joy, peace, freedom and love.

The contemplative life is, beyond others, subject to change and growth. Without openness to change, faith ossifies into dogma, trust into a defensive rigidity.

Yet trust is necessary. Shorn of trust, our practice can become a precipice; and grief, loss, or any severe and unexpected pain become the sudden gust that takes us off our feet on the slick grass at the cliff’s edge. The sestet of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet reads:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

No worst, there is none… Gerard Manley Hopkins


Hopkins gets it right. The sonnet holds no human hope, yet it sits within his wider body of work: Hopkins was a man whose faith shaped everything he did, and wrote.

In the Christian tradition, contemplation is very often known as contemplative prayer. This is not, I think, an accident of terminology. Contemplation, as the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh saw so well, rests on the foundation of faith. (It is no accident that the works for which he is most known among Buddhist scholars are his translations into English and Vietnamese of the Heart Sutra, nor that he counted among his friends both Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King.)

Contemplative prayer, whether a practice like Centering Prayer, developed from the method outlined in The Cloud of Unknowing, or the Jesus Prayer, drawn originally from the contemplative practice of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, rests within the encounter with God, with the ground of being, in stillness. The faith of the contemplative is, like that of the Quaker, an experimental faith. 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?

Quaker faith & practice 26.39

Change is a fundamental quality of life. It was the change within unicellular organisms long ago that set in motion the processes that led to the evolution of humanity, and we ourselves are born from change, to change throughout our lives. Without change, life would not be: the engine of the universe is change, on the tiniest scale to the unimaginably immense. It is how all things are made, and how they coinhere. It is this gift of change that rests in the hand of God, in the ground of being: if we trust this perception, if we trust that truth behind the opening words of John’s Gospel, there is nothing to fear. Only begin.

[Originally published on Silent Assemblies]

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