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]

Moving out…

The important emphasis that Underhill and Jones give is to the experiential nature of mysticism, rather than, as the OED definition has it, a theology. “We are concerned with the experience itself, not with secondhand formulations of it,” says [Rufus] Jones , and [Dorothee] Soelle concurs: “The crucial point here is that in the mystical understanding of God, experience is more important than doctrine, the inner light more important than church authority, the certainty of God and communication with him more important than believing in his existence or positing his existence rationally.” And the major contribution of these writers was to democratise it. The popular conception of mystics and mystical experience is that it is something exclusive, elite, soaring above the scope of the ordinary person. This is very far from the truth. As [Evelyn] Underhill puts it: “The world of Reality exists for all; and all may participate in it, unite with it, according to their measure and to the strength and purity of their desire”. According to her, Jones and others, mysticism is not just for the initiated or those with special gifts, but for everyone. After her major work, Mysticism, written some years before, Underhill’s book Practical Mysticism is addressed to “the ordinary man”.

Jennifer Kavanagh, Practical Mystics

Jesus himself said, “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.” (Matthew 11:25 NIV)

One of the things that always strikes me about Quaker worship and prayer, and about my own practice of the Jesus Prayer, not to mention the still growing contemplative movement that encompasses Centering Prayer, Christian Meditation, and other groups, is just this openness to the ordinary person’s contemplative experience. It is not something reserved for professional monastics. Just as Jesus himself taught, the encounter with God through the gift of the Holy Spirit is there for all (John 14:26) and the practice of the very earliest church makes this clear (Acts 2:38).

Quietly, the gift of contemplative encounter with the living God is moving out, not only from the monasteries and the lauras, but from the established church itself. Quakers have long practiced it in their Meetings for Worship (though among them the practice of solitary prayer has sometimes not been as clearly recognised as the corporate) but it is in our own day, it seems, that “[t]here 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.” (Steve Aisthorpe, The Invisible Church) and this democratisation, as Kavanagh puts it, of the essentially hidden contemplative encounter, is its vital “mystical” dimension.

Kept hidden in God

For much of my Christian life I have found myself caught between longings: a longing to identify myself by belonging, so that I might call myself “a Franciscan” or “a Quaker” or whatever it might be, and a longing to be kept hidden in God, obscure, unremarkable. Even before I had admitted my Christian faith to myself, I read Alan Watts’ Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown, and it was the title, more than the essays themselves, that called to me with a yearning I couldn’t name.

Perhaps my longing to be identified by something greater than myself, by the mantle or habit of someone or some way that I admired, was nothing more, really, than an unwise insecurity. It hadn’t occurred to me, I think, that God’s love for me, which is the only index of value anyone can have in the end, takes less than no account of such things.

All too often, I think, we fail to hear God’s voice in the yearnings of our hearts, probably because we were expecting to hear from someone, or something, outside of ourselves. But if there is, indeed, that of God within each life, where else would we hear God’s voice except in the interior silence? The wind across empty dunes, the movement of cloud-shadows on the wrinkled sea, the night-bird’s cry, awaken longings we cannot name, and yet our hearts know the imprint of the divine that our busy minds cannot frame – perhaps not in the sound heard or in that seen, but in the very movement of the heart that rises in response.

These unsought frequencies from some resonance out beyond our understanding simply cannot be followed in our busy, patterned lives of belonging and being needed, of roles and responsibilities. The more nearly unnamed we can become, it seems, the more likely it is that we shall be able to sit still by the edge of the sea, and wait for the God who is with us always, even to the end of the age.

Receiving Stations

Quietly, I seem to be beginning to understand something of why the penitential nature of the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) leads it on into acting as a prayer of intercession as well.

We are all sinners. Even those we remember as saints were themselves acutely conscious of their own sin (Francis of Assisi would be a good example) in the sense of separation from God, rather than as ones transgressing some list of “naughty things”. Our innate tendency to turn from the presence of God into our own private obsessions, addictions and insecurities, sometimes called original sin, is something we all hold in common, from the most obviously “religious” to the least, from those whom the world would regard as good, to those it would regard as beneath contempt.

We live, though, in the mercy that is Christ, all of us. “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1.16-17 NIV)

In our accepting this solidarity, as it were, with the least of our fellow creatures, as well as the greatest, we are accepting for ourselves also their suffering, their alienation, their grief. Craig Barnett writes:

The religious path is often presented as a way to achieve inner peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering. Much popular spirituality claims that life is meant to be filled with peace and contentment; that pain and anguish are problems that can be overcome by the right attitude or technique. The promise of perfect contentment is seductive, but it can never be fulfilled, because it is based on the illusion that suffering is a mistake.

Suffering, ageing, sickness and loss are not regrettable failures to realise our true nature. They are inherent in the nature of embodied human life and our often-incompatible needs and desires. Any spirituality, therapy or ideology that promises an escape from these limitations neglects the truth that suffering is an essential dimension of human life. Growth in spiritual maturity does not mean escaping or transcending these experiences, but becoming more able to accept and learn from them; to receive the painful gifts that they have to offer.

Our prayer for mercy is answered always by love (Luke 18.9ff), and it is in this love that we, somehow, become as it were aerials for the Spirit, receiving stations for a grace that we may not even ourselves understand.

[An earlier version of this post was first published on The Mercy Blog]

The deep-water swell…

Over the years I’ve quite often found myself speaking about the Jesus Prayer, usually in the wider context of contemplative prayer, and sometimes in church contexts someone will come up with the objection, “If all you’re doing is saying Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner over and over again, surely that’s the ‘vain repetition’ Jesus warned us against!” (Matthew 6.7 KJV).

Of course, it’s an easy objection to answer: if you ask them, most of the objectors don’t use the King James Version in their regular Bible reading. It’s much more likely to be the NIV or the NRSV, where the phrase Jesus used is translated “do not keep on babbling like pagans” or “do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do” – and patently the Jesus Prayer isn’t anything like that.

But for all the ease with which one can refute such proof-texting, our objectors do have a point. Occasionally you will find Christian writers, whether in approval or disapproval, referring to the Jesus Prayer (as well as prayers like the Hail Mary, and perhaps even the Kyrie) as a “mantra”, by which they seem to mean a phrase that is repeated over and over again, more or less regardless of meaning, in order to bring about some psychological effect, such as reducing stress or “emptying the mind.” And of course the Jesus Prayer is not that either. Unlike many of the mantras sometimes used by practitioners of transcendental mediation and similar paths, that are also often given in languages unfamiliar to the user, the Jesus Prayer is a prayer. Almost all the teachers of the Jesus Prayer whom I have encountered make the point somewhere, though they may have different ways of putting it, that the key to this way of praying is intentionality. We mean what we say, and our using it repetitively is much more like the prayer of Bartimaeus the blind man, who “was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!'” (Mark 10.46 NIV)

In its simplicity and its self-abandonment, the Prayer comes to resemble, too, the prayer of the  tax collector at the temple, who “stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'” (Luke 18.13 NIV) (The prayers of Isaiah 6, and of Revelation 4.2 and 5.11-14 are prayers of repetition also, but of praise rather than of supplication or intercession.)

It is best to approach saying the Jesus Prayer with as few preconceptions as possible. Although I have read widely, and I hope deeply, on the Prayer over the years, when I began saying it I knew very little of the tradition, or the traditional methods, of praying the Prayer. It took hold, as God had obviously intended it should, and became simply part of who I am before God. In fact, although when I was first introduced to the Prayer by Fr. Francis Horner SSM at Willen Priory back in 1978, he gave me Per-Olof Sjögren’s wonderful book to read, a good deal of what happened in the years following were things for which I had no frame of reference. I only discovered much later that they were commonplace in the experience of those who pray the Prayer.

So we don’t need to be afraid, if God calls us on this way of knowing him, to strike out into the deep. After all, even the best maps can do no more than hint at destinations, and maybe warn of shoals; they can convey nothing of the sea-wind, the endless cry of the gulls, the wonderful scent of the waves as they break, or the peace there is in the lift and rock of the deep-water swell…

[An earlier version of this post was first published on The Mercy Blog]

Church is what?

The period of “doing church” during lockdown was an interesting time. The Dorchester churches were closed of course, as was the Quaker meeting – and while there were various efforts at worship via Zoom, livestreamed sermons and meditations, and other initiatives – for me at least the peace of silence, and the practice of the Jesus Prayer, filled the space left with a closeness to God that I hadn’t experienced for a long time.

Our experience of church during this current period of uncertain easing of regulations, and imposition of others such as the wearing of face coverings in public gatherings, has been very mixed. As with some shops, there is constant tension and uncertainty around the often ambiguous – if necessary – rules, and continual vigilance about following one-way routes, to and from communion stations for instance. It has been good to see those we’ve missed again, and to hear their voices without the interposition of electronics, but in many ways it seems to me that our local Quaker meeting has made the better choice in remaining closed until we are sure that the pandemic is more nearly under control.

What can we learn from these experiences, which come for me as a kind of culmination of a quite long and often unconscious process, an increasing sense of being drawn to a hiddenness of life and worship, to silence and to stillness? Back in June this year, I wrote on The Mercy Blog:

This seems to be for me more than ever before a time between times. I haven’t written much here the last few weeks, not because there’s been nothing to say, really, but more because it has come to me without words, this stillness; the waiting so deep that I haven’t even been able to find even a cognitive toehold, so to speak, to explain it to myself… this liminal place is for me about more than the result of the current suspension of normal life while we wait for the pandemic to pass.  It is a place God has brought me to, in that hidden way he has. 

These anything but ordinary weeks of near-isolation, bereft of so many of the distractions of ordinary life, have brought me here, against all expectations.

It seems that to remain hidden (Colossians 3.3) with Christ in God, unknowing, is at least for me the narrow path to, and the gift of, God’s own presence, where even our own steps are unknown to us: our God who is entirely beyond our own comprehension, whose name can only be a pointer, as Jennifer Kavanagh says, to something beyond our description. In silence itself is our hiddenness, our unknowing, where God waits within our own waiting (Isaiah 30.18).

Where does this leave us? What is to be learned – or to put it another way, what might the Spirit be showing me – of the path ahead? The final sentences of Steve Aisthorpe’s The Invisible Church read:

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.

Looking back over my own earlier writing I have the uncomfortable sense of being crept up on, in the way that God so often has. In the past, those who sought to follow Christ sometimes came to a time in their lives when they felt drawn, like St Aidan or St Cuthbert, to climb into a coracle and paddle away to some offshore island; or like the Desert Fathers and Mothers, to move out into the all but trackless desert. Perhaps I am at some analogous stage in my life. I don’t know. The kind of qualified solitude that I found during the period of complete lockdown was a healing thing, an unsought wholeness and peace with God, a sense of being in the right place, against all expectations.

I seem to find myself quoting the author of Proverbs here, again and again, when he writes:

All our steps are ordered by the LORD; how then can we understand our own ways?

(Proverbs 20.24 NRSV)

But it’s true; and in accepting that, and in waiting quietly for whatever God may yet reveal, there is a peace and a contentment that I had not anticipated.

The Peace of God

In the silence of Ascension Day, what is peace? The quietness of sunlight holds something that does not depend on an absence of noise, a resolution of antinomy.

Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27) and “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

As we live, change and death are always with us. This is the way things are made, and connect; depend, one upon another and give rise to new life. We are vulnerable in the very way we are made. The wounds that we acquire will not bleed always, but the marks will remain, like the marks on the risen Jesus’ hands and feet. Jacob limped, for the rest of his life presumably (Genesis 32:31) after his encounter with God at Peniel.

Things don’t have to be mended to be healed, and as long as we are part of this earth from which we are made, there will be an ache, a hollow place, where we long for – we long for peace, we long for “sweet permanence” as Kerouac said somewhere. What we are longing for is God, who in Jesus is with us always (Matthew 28:20) Paul learned contentment through Jesus “who strengthen[ed him]” in all circumstances, “whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:12) All we really need is trust: as Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” (John 14:1)

Faithful prayer and listening silence…

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

For quite a time now I have had an uneasy sense about much religious (in the broadest sense of the word) activism – also in the broadest sense of the word! Whether Quakers or Catholics, many of us do allow ourselves to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, surrender to too many demands… Friend Job Scott (1751–1793) wrote,

Our strength or help is only in God; but then it is near us, it is in us – a force superior to all possible opposition – a force that never was, nor can be foiled. We are free to stand in this unconquerable ability, and defeat the powers of darkness; or to turn from it, and be foiled and overcome. When we stand, we know it is God alone upholds us; and when we fall, we feel that our fall or destruction is of ourselves.

It is this upon which all our works rest; indeed it is in this sense that we can say that all our strength, and any good we may do, comes by faith in God and not by the works themselves (Ephesians 2:8-9; James 2:18) that faith may call us into.

The problem, I think, is that all too often we act not from the Spirit: not, as early Quakers, and many since, would have said, according to leadings. We have an idea that such and such may be the right thing to do; we feel a political conviction to speak or act or vote in a certain way; we see what someone else is doing and we feel guilty unless we are doing likewise. These things are not leadings, but notions, and to act in accordance with them is turning from God into our own strength, from God’s wisdom into our own ideas. In Merton’s terms, it is an act of violence – against ourselves as much as against anyone else – and in the end it brings only fruitlessness and grieving.

In 1992 Meeting for Sufferings, the standing representative body entrusted with the care of the business of Britain Yearly Meeting through the year, minuted:

The ground of our work lies in our waiting on and listening for the Spirit. Let the loving spirit of a loving God call us and lead us. These leadings are both personal and corporate. If they are truly tested in a gathered meeting we shall find that the strength and the courage for obedience are given to us. We need the humility to put obedience before our own wishes.

We are aware of the need to care for ourselves and each other in our meetings, bearing each other’s burdens and lovingly challenging each other.

We also hear the cry of those in despair which draws out our compassion. We know the need to speak for those who have no voice. We have a tradition of service and work which has opened up opportunities for us. But we are reminded that we are not the only ones to do this work. Not only can we encourage a flow of work between our central and our local meetings; but we must recognise the Spirit at work in many bodies and in many places, in other churches and faiths, and in secular organisations.

In this minute Friends speak for all of us; we all need the humility to put obedience to the Holy Spirit’s leadings before our own convictions, before our own guilt. Coming before our loving God in faithful prayer and listening silence our actions will be true, and just, whether they be exterior actions in the world, inward actions of prayer and discipline, or both. It is Christ we follow, and it is his work we do, or we work in vain.