Hope against hope

I had been intending to write a follow-up to yesterday’s post, Hopeless?, on my blog An Open Ground, when it occurred to me that I had written just such a post five years ago, covering the same subject, using some of the same sources, almost exactly, if you will make allowance for rather more overtly Christian language that I would probably use today. Here it is:

——

In her luminous little book Mystical HopeCynthia Bourgeault writes of the difference between the mystical hope of her title and the standard, upbeat product that is tied to outcome: “I hope I get the job.” “I hope they have a good time on holiday.” “I hope Jill finds her cat.” “I hope the biopsy is clear…” If we are dependent on “regular hope”, she asks, where does that leave us when it turns out to be cancer, when our friends disappear on their holiday in the Andes?

Bourgeault goes on point out that there seems to be quite another kind of hope “that is a complete reversal of our usual way of looking at things. Beneath the ‘upbeat’ kind of hope that parts the sea and pulls rabbits out of hats, this other hope weaves its way as a quiet, even ironic counterpoint.” She goes on to quote the prophet Habakkuk, who at the end of a long passage of calamity and grief, suddenly breaks into song:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
   and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
   and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
   and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
   he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
   and makes me tread upon the heights. 

Habakkuk 3.17-19

Here is a hope that in no way depends upon outcomes; a hope that lifts us up in spite of the worst, that leads us, with Job, closer to God the more “hopeless” the circumstances. It can be found too in the writings of William Leddra, Corrie ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Irina Ratushinskaya… But how? Where could such a hope come from, that sings even in the mouth of the furnace?

Cynthia Bourgeault suggests three observations we might make about this seemingly indestructible hope, which she calls mystical hope:

  1. Mystical hope is not tied to a good outcome, to the future. It lives a life of its own, seemingly without reference to external circumstances and conditions.
  2. It has something to do with presence – not a future good outcome, but the immediate experience of being met, held in communion, by something intimately at hand.
  3. It bears fruit within us at the psychological level in the sensations of strength, joy, and satisfaction: an “unbearable lightness of being.” But mysteriously, rather than deriving these gifts from outward expectations being met, it seems to produce them from within.

Bourgeault remarks that one more quality might be added to the characteristics of mystical hope: that it is in some sense atemporal – out of time. “For some reason or another,” she says, “the experience pulls us out of the linear stream of hours and days… and imbues the moment we are actually in with an unexpected vividness and fullness. It is as if we had been transported, for the duration, into a wider field of presence, a direct encounter with Being itself.”

Thomas Merton (whom Cynthia Bourgeault also quotes here) writes:

At the centre of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.

As Cynthia Bourgeault recognises, this awareness, whether sudden or gradual, of the “last, irreducible, secret center of the heart where God alone penetrates” (Mansur al-Hallaj) may come out of a clear blue sky as well as out of the storm. But perhaps I might be permitted to make a small observation from my own experience: it seems to be in times of absolute inner poverty, when almost all worldly satisfactions and securities have been withdrawn by pain and circumstance, when realistically there is no hope at all of the upbeat variety left, that these moments of clarity and presence most often manifest. Perhaps this is the sheer mercy of God coming to us when there is nothing else left to us, but there does seem to be one other factor involved here, and to me it seems to be crucial to understand this. Regular, faithful practice appears to be in some way essential. Now please hear me: I am not saying that practice will put us in control these moments of illumination – they are pure grace – nor that practice will somehow bring them about. But practice will open our hearts to their possibility; it will dim the incessant clamour of thought and grasping, to the point where we can glimpse the initial glimmer of that inner light, and stand still and watch.

Another point occurs to me. If we look at what I have just written about inner poverty, and the lack of satisfaction and security, and about pain and straitened circumstances, one has almost a recipe for classical asceticism, for hair shirts, hunger and scourging, for enforced celibacy and for the enclosed life. This is, it seems to me, to misunderstand the mercy of God. It may very well be that God grants to those who have nothing else to look forward to but pain and lack, these radiant glimpses of glory, but to attempt to force God’s hand by artificially producing the external conditions of divorce, disability or the concentration camp seems to me to be foolishness, to put it as charitably as I am able. But practice, the “white martyrdom” of faithful and unremitting prayer, is another matter entirely, one where the Jesus Prayer, “hallowed by two millennia of Christian practice… consistently singled out… as the most powerful prayer a Christian can pray” (Bourgeault, op cit.), seems perfectly fitted to our path, not only as a means of hesychasm, of stilling the heart, but simply as a prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.

——

I wrote the above text at a time when I was beginning to be seriously ill with a heart problem, and it seemed to me to be as clear an answer to my own questions as I could find. I would still stand by it today. Hope lies in the emptying of self, the abandonment of “regular hope” in the “objectless awareness” (Bourgeault) of contemplation. Perhaps Pema Chödrön (see her passage quoted in Hopeless?) has a point after all.

Ground and Network; Life and Death

Nearly two years ago now, Rhiannon Grant published a post on her blog Brigid, Fox and Buddha considering the question of what, if anything, Liberal Quakers think about life after death. Now, Rhiannon is far better qualified than I to say what they may or may not think, and an interesting discussion ensued in her comments section. But the question, when I revisited her blog, set me thinking.

Merlin Sheldrake, in his fascinating book Entangled Life, discusses the all way life, on this planet at least, is underpinned by fungal networks, mycorrhizal webs connecting tree to tree, plant to animal, bacterium to lichen. He remarks, of his research on fungal networks, facilitated as it is by international academic and commercial scientific networks, “It is a recurring theme: look at the network, and it starts to look back at you.” (Sheldrake, Merlin. Entangled Life (p. 240). Random House. Kindle Edition.)

Much of our unthinking outlook on things, even in the twenty-first century, is conditioned by a Cartesian, atomistic outlook inherited from the seventeenth century. This has crept into our religious and spiritual thinking too, so that we tend to understand God as a “thing” over against other things, and we ourselves as separate individual selves who continue, or don’t continue, after death. Perhaps this is as wrong a way of looking at life as was the early Darwinian view of evolution as divergence, separation, of organisms (Sheldrake, op cit., pp. 80-82) rather than as interconnection, often cooperative interconnection, within ecosystems.

For a long time now, Paul Tillich’s understanding of God as “Ground of Being”, beyond being, not to be understood as object vis à vis any subject but preceding the subject-object disjunction (Theology of Culturep.15) has sense made perfect sense to me. Tillich somewhere in Systematic Theology refers to God as Ground of Being as “Being-itself” – a concept which has always appeared to me to be pretty much equivalent to Meister Eckhart’s Istigkeit, “isness“!

If God is indeed the Ground of Being, that which underlies as well as overarches all things, the ground in which, as Christ, “He is before all things, and in [whom] all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17 NIV) then his relation to “things” in creation, human and other beings included, is, at least metaphorically, much more like the relation of a network to its nodes than anything else I can think of. Our own lives, then, are “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3.3) – as Paul says, we have already died; how then can we die? (see Colossians 3.1-4!) But is this an atomistic, separate continuation, a life lived “in Heaven” rather than in Dorchester, merely? That neither seems likely nor accords with my own experience at all. Our true life is lived in God, in the Ground of Being, the isness of God. That goes on – death is consumed in life, darkness by light.

Christmas 2020

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
  and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor,
  Mighty God, Everlasting Father,
  Prince of Peace.

Of the greatness of his government and peace
  there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
  and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
  with justice and righteousness
  from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

(Isaiah 9:6-7 NIV)

A morning of glorious stillness and light, with hardly a leaf stirring, and a winter sun gilding the trees and making translucent the leaves of the quiet ivy.

Happy Christmas!

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.”

Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel…”

Isaiah 7:10-14 NIV

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God.  You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Luke 1:26-38 NIV

Prophecy in the Bible is a slightly difficult thing to come to terms with, however you view the historicity of the Biblical documents; the one thing, though, that comes through clearly in these passages are the attitudes of those receiving the word. Ahaz, and Zechariah too, earlier in this Gospel (Luke 1:5-25) found it hard to accept. Ahaz didn’t want to “put the Lord to the test”; Zechariah couldn’t believe the words of Gabriel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (Luke 1:18)

Mary had more to lose than anyone – her husband-to-be, her good name, perhaps her life – but she received the angel’s message for what it was. Intelligent girl that she obviously was, she asked the obvious question about the mechanics of this unexpected gift, but she accepted Gabriel’s explanation without cavil. She knew an archangel when she heard one, obviously, and she knew that God’s word would never fail. It didn’t.

At the centre of faith is listening, always. To be still enough in ourselves to hear, quiet enough to receive the gift within the silence; to wait in unknowing, as long as it takes, for the Lord’s mercy – to be open enough for grace – is to rest at the still point of the turning world.*

*TS Eliot, The Four Quartets: Burnt Norton (1935)

The Third Sunday of Advent

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, To give knowledge of salvation to His people By the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God, With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace.”

(Luke 1:76-79 NKJV)

The universe is filled with light, threads and vast floods of light, streaming through apparent emptiness, illuminating all that is made, bringing life to all that is alive. And the darkness has not overcome it.

Another Kind of Desert

I have written before about my growing sense not only of a increasing personal call to some kind of hiddenness, but also of the way in which the (at least in the UK) repeated lockdowns and “tiered” partial easings of lockdowns have contributed to the growth of what Steve Aisthorpe calls The Invisible Church:

There is a growing realisation that church is what occurs when people are touched by the living Christ and share the journey of faith with others. Whether that occurs in an historic building or online or . . . wherever, is unimportant.

The history of religion is littered with examples of the way that the luminous insights of prophets and poets and contemplatives (in my usage, Jesus would be all three) become clouded and encoded by institutions, and by their uneasy relationships with power and wealth. Obvious examples would be the Roman church in the years following the Emperor Constantine’s conversion, and the chaos of the English Reformation and the ensuing Civil Wars, but within other religions there are many parallels such as the  troubled history of the Islamic Caliphates and the role of Buddhism during the politically volatile late Heian to early Kamakura period in Japan.

Time and again contemplatives have broken away from the apparent corruption of state churches on the one hand and religion-inspired revolutionaries on the other, sometimes forming loose communities, and retreated from formal organisation almost altogether. Examples are as diverse as the Desert Fathers and Mothers in Egypt and Syria around the 4th century AD, the Pure Land (Shin) schools of Buddhism founded by Honen and Shinran in 12th and 13th century Japan, and the Quakers in 17th century England.

These contemplative movements, often based around simplicity of practice and openness to the Spirit, seem to arise when not only are the religious establishment in a compromised and sometimes corrupt condition, but the state is in flux, sometimes violent flux. Trump’s America and Brexit Britain, scoured by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, would seem to provide fertile ground for contemplative change in this way.

Needless to say I have no answers, but the question underlies, it seems to me, much of the interest in “Churchless Christianity” that has flared up even more strongly during the present crisis. There will be voices raised, of course, both on the side of secular humanism and on the side of organised religion, accusing “hermits” of retreating from their responsibilities to the world, just as parallel voices have been raised at the hinges of faith and practice throughout history. To them I would offer these words from Caryll Houselander (quoted in Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ)

Christ is everywhere; in Him every kind of life has a meaning and has an influence on every other kind of life. It is not the foolish sinner like myself, running about the world with reprobates and feeling magnanimous, who comes closest to them and brings them healing; it is the contemplative in her cell who has never set eyes on them, but in whom Christ fasts and prays for them—or it may be a charwoman in whom Christ makes Himself a servant again, or a king whose crown of gold hides a crown of thorns. Realization of our oneness in Christ is the only cure for human loneliness. For me, too, it is the only ultimate meaning of life, the only thing that gives meaning and purpose to every life.

The Second Sunday of Advent

It can be tempting to think of Advent as a cosy time, drawn close around the fire while we warm up the engines of Christmas. But for me at any rate this year it seems to be something far less romantic: a time of stripping back, clearing the tangled thorns around the heart – brambles of memory, the climbing briars of faithlessness. But we cannot reach, and the thorns tear the skin of our reaching hands.

Advent is a time of stillness, of waiting, they say. But for what? For what we cannot do for ourselves – Eustace the dragon, helpless within his scales.

Likewise the Spirit 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 NRSV)

Our waiting is for God’s grace alone. There is nothing we can do except wait, and pray that silence may itself bring us only to some kind of holy longing, to the psalmist’s words at the end of his hymn to the Word:

I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands.

(Psalm 119:176 NIV)

The First Sunday of Advent

 Digitalnun writes,
Advent begins quietly, almost stealthily, with a call to stay awake and alert and prepare for the coming of the Lord. We are simply clay, to be fashioned anew by the Potter into the shape most pleasing to him. The emphasis is not on our doing but on his. That gives to the Advent season a wonderful freedom and joy. So, out with those prideful programmes of self-improvement, those ambitious schemes of prayer and fasting! Instead, welcome the silence, the mystery, the quiet pondering of scripture. Become, in the best sense, a child again, filled with wonder and awe at what is unfolding before your eyes. With the humility of Mary, the fidelity of Joseph and the joy of John the Baptist, let us prepare in our hearts a place for the Lord.
There is such comfort and hope in the simplicity of this. For me, it brings the same sense of compassionate, merciful grace that the Jesus Prayer carries, or the Pureland Buddhist Nembutsu. Simple prayers for imperfect people. Just practice.

The Nub of Hope

“What if the nub of hope is that we cannot know where it is leading?” (Dana Littlepage Smith, writing in The Friend 21 May 2020) This morning the rain is grey and unceasing. Drops trickle down the windows, beyond the reflections of the room lights, on since we woke up, late. A chill seeps in, despite the good tight glazing, and the room’s warmth. Out along the hazels, damp little blue tits flit from shelter to shelter, looking for spiders under the leaves. “Silence is paradoxically a listening, and solitude is truly finding the whole world in God.” George Maloney, Prayer of the Heart: The Contemplative Tradition of the Christian East. “All our steps are ordered by the LORD; how then can we understand our own ways?… The human spirit is the lamp of the LORD, searching every inmost part.” (Proverbs 20:24,27 NRSV) It is only in the darkness of unknowing that the structures of our understanding fall away from our naked awareness, and we find that nothing separates us from the wholly unknowable ground of all that is, Eckhart’s Istigkeit, love alone in which all things come to be, and are held. But it is only when we are at the very end of ourselves that this gift can be received, into open hands that can hold onto nothing anyway, that have lost all they ever had. “…for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3 NRSV) “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Romans 8:24 NRSV)

What Is Worship?

Our local Quaker meeting house had just moved to what is termed “blended worship” – part Zoom, part distanced worship, in our case limited to eight Friends due to the size of the room – when the announcement came of a second lockdown throughout November at least.

I personally have found the Zoom technology intrusive, and in itself somehow attention-seeking, and so I have become part of the small group of Friends who have joined the silence, alone in our respective homes. For me, as perhaps for some of the others, this has felt far closer and more like “real” worship than a screenful of animated postage stamps. But this raises the question, what is worship?

For millennia men and women have met together to worship, and though what we know of their practices and liturgies have widely differed from religion to religion, and nation to nation, they have met together, whether it has been to dance, sing, chant the Nembutsu or walk sacred paths. Many, perhaps most, faiths have solitary practices of prayer, in many cases silent practices. Quakers are unusual, in that their meetings for worship are silent, but they are corporate, and their members not only call them “worship” but understand them that way too, on the whole.

I have, as I have described elsewhere, a discipline of private, silent prayer. It is a vital part of who I am, of my own understanding of what I am here for, but it does not feel like what Friends do together on a Sunday morning. Yet, when I am sitting alone in silence on a First Day morning, conscious of other Friends across our town, across our Area and our Yearly Meeting, across the world, sitting likewise, I know that I am joining with them in an act of worship. It is not at all the same as my own regular times of contemplative prayer. On one or two occasions I have even found myself visited by what I can only term “ministry”, that I have shared by email afterwards.

What is going on here? And, more to the point perhaps, what might it suggest for the future of worship during, and even after, a pandemic? Maybe worship isn’t only meeting together in rows, a breath and a handshake apart. Maybe worship, which is after all a joining in spirit more than anything else, perhaps, is less dependent on physical togetherness than we had thought. Always there have been Friends who, for reasons of great age, illness, remoteness, even occasionally imprisonment, could not come to the meeting house on Sunday morning. We have remembered them, and we have hoped that they could remember us, sitting together in worship, but we have, most of us I imagine, tended to feel sorry for them, that they had to “miss out” on “our” meeting. Perhaps we knew less than we thought. Perhaps indeed there were some of us who did understand, who knew that despite outer appearances and the presumptions of our own attempted compassion, these Friends were as much part of our worship as the warm and breathing presence next to us.

Perhaps the future of worship is stranger and more luminous than we had thought. Perhaps we are moving into new territory, making our own maps as we tread forward on virgin ground, into a place odder and more beautiful than we have known. I hope so.

[First published on my other blog, Silent Assemblies]