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.

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.

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)

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]

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.

No Path Around

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Galatians 6:14

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:10-11

It is to the cross that the Christian is challenged to follow his/her master. No path to redemption can make a path around it.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Unless You Become Like This Child

 

To continue in prayer leads on to the cross. There really isn’t any way past that, nor an honest way to make it seem less painful. Perhaps truly to pray is to become a small incarnation, a tiny model of our Lord; then to pray might mean simply to take up the cross ourselves, since it is a refusal to turn away from the pain that runs inextricably through existence, like a red thread in the bright weave of what is. Easter is not a metaphor, and resurrection lies only on the far side of the cross that is no more than absolute surrender, helplessness entirely embraced at whatever the cost.

The cross means abandoning all that makes for our own safety, every last attempt at self-preservation; “For,” as Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians (3.3), “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” In slightly more practical terms, what seems to be happening in inward prayer is that the pain and grief that accrues in the soul like silt, so often both unsought and unrecognised, simply as a result of our living out our lives in the world as it is, is accepted, borne up into the presence of Christ in us and nailed, as it were, to the cross of our willing defencelessness. In prayer we no longer seek “a path around” our own suffering, and that of all that we love, but are willing that it be lived out in and through our own surrender. Only this way, it seems to me, can we allow the mercy of God to come to birth in our lives, and in the lives of those for whom we pray. Cynthia Bourgeault:

When we think of mercy, we should be thinking first and foremost of a bond, an infallible link of love that holds the created and uncreated realms together… Mercy is God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.

The greatest of these…

…we can say that while a theory such as deconstructionism cannot tell us that God does not exist, it does enable us to recognise three things about our God-talk:

  1. It is impossible to escape from language and objectively say whether what we believe is true or not. Faith cannot be bypassed.
  2. Human language is unable to describe the external realities of God with any precision. As we have seen, this does not make language useless; it simply means that we have to accept its limitations.
  3. Religious language or talk about God and the spiritual realm is therefore inherently provisional and approximate in nature.

Dave Tomlinson, The Post Evangelical (emphasis mine)

Faith is not about certainty, but about trust…

Any attempt to define or describe God is to distort, to impose our own limitations of time and space. Although we can ascribe to God such qualities as good, true and loving, we have to recognise that these are mere pointers, and we might want to learn to think of God without adjectives. The word “God” itself is a pointer to something beyond our description. 

Not knowing is not the same as doubt (though they may co-exist). We may not know what, how or why, but our not knowing may co-exist with a firm knowledge that! And where does that knowledge come from? It comes from a different kind of knowing. A knowing that comes from experience. 

Jennifer Kavanagh, A Little Book of Unknowing

For He can well be loved, but he cannot be thought. By love he can be grasped and held, but by thought, neither grasped nor held. And therefore, though it may be good at times to think specifically of the kindness and excellence of God, and though this may be a light and a part of contemplation, all the same, in the work of contemplation itself, it must be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And you must step above it stoutly but deftly, with a devout and delightful stirring of love, and struggle to pierce that darkness above you; and beat on that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love, and do not give up, whatever happens.

A Spearing (ed., tr.) The Cloud of Unknowing and other works

Contemplation is an odd way of life. In terms of prayer, it is precisely this unknowability, in linguistic terms, of God made real, touchable. There are times when it can feel like the most foolish endeavour, this sitting in the dark, holding by threads of faith, of love, to a God that only the heart truly knows. And yet – there is a third pillar, hope (1 Corinthians 13.13). But, as Paul the apostle put it, “hope that is seen is not hope at all.” (Romans 8.24) The writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11.1) “But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 1.13.13) Only by love, only by love.

This might seem a curious, inturned occupation, though. What is it for? If there is all this love, what good does it do? Martin Laird:

The practice of contemplation is good not only for us but also for the entire world. Many testimonies throughout the contemplative tradition bear witness to this. Not least among these is that of the author of The Cloud of Unknowing: “This is the work [the practice of contemplation] of the soul that pleases God most. All the saints and angels rejoice in this work and hasten to help it with all their might… All the people living on earth are marvellously helped by this work, in ways you do not know.”…

Typically the first great motivator on this pathless path is the sense that this appeals strongly to something within us. The other great motivator is despair. There are times in our lives, sometimes lasting rather a long while, when just being silent and still is the least painful thing we can manage right now, when all our effort is crushed into barely surviving, just keeping one nostril above water. After discovering that pain itself has a silent centre and that our own pain is not private to us, however deeply personal it is, something opens us from within, especially if we are too poor to desire any such opening should ever happen (but we cannot make ourselves poor in order to make this happen.)

What brings us to the practice of contemplation does not matter. What matters is that we give ourselves to this practice at least once a day…

Contemplation is part of an Easter faith. It cannot be any other way. The stillness of Easter Saturday follows the unimaginable grief of Good Friday, but then again… More often than not, I think, we who pray may not reach the full light of Sunday morning in this life. But it does not matter, really, if love is our meaning. There is no getting past Paul’s words to the Corinthians, once again, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”