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.

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.”

Maundy Thursday

No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:  

“What no eye has seen,
   what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”
    – the things God has prepared for those who love him –  
these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. 

1 Corinthians 2:7-9

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

John 1:1-5

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 

John 17:20-23

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 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 14:26-27 

Christ is a mystery, far more than the Jesus of the Gospel stories, far more than the Jesus who is so often preached today as friend, companion, saviour. And yet that was the Jesus the disciples knew; and the contemporary preaching of him is quite true, if occasionally limited. Perhaps it is that word “saviour” on which our awareness of the mystery begins to turn. John’s Gospel could maybe be thought of as the explication of that mystery, the unpacking of what lies beneath much of the first three (the synoptic) Gospels.

Only in prayer, as I draw close to the presence of Christ within, do I feel I begin to understand. The presence of Christ in anything we know – his earthly form, the Eucharist he left us, our own selves in prayer – is a mystery known only by faith, as the Spirit reveals him to us. As Jesus himself said, (John 14:1) “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” Only be still, and know that Christ is Immanuel, God with us…

Gerard Manley Hopkins came very close, when he wrote:

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

The Grace of Trust

Looking down 1900ft from the Cabo Girão skywalk, Madeira

There are times when we can do all that a fellow creature needs if only he will trust us. In getting a dog out of a trap, in extracting a thorn from a child’s finger, in teaching a boy to swim or rescuing one who can’t, in getting a frightened beginner over a nasty place on a mountain, the one fatal obstacle may be their distrust. We are asking them to trust us in the teeth of their sense, their imagination, and their intelligence. We ask them to believe that what is painful will relieve their pain and that what looks dangerous is their only safety. We ask them to accept apparent impossibilities: that moving the paw farther back into the trap is the way to get it out – that hurting the finger very much more will stop the finger hurting – that water which is obviously permeable will resist and support the body – that holding onto the only support within reach is not the way to avoid sinking – that to go higher and onto a more exposed ledge is the way not to fall. To support all these incredibilia we can rely only on the other party’s confidence in us – a confidence certainly not based on demonstration, admittedly shot through with emotion, and perhaps, if we are strangers, resting on nothing but such assurance as the look of our face and the tone of our voice can supply, or even, for the dog, on our smell. Sometimes, because of their unbelief, we can do no mighty works. But if we succeed, we do so because they have maintained their faith in us against apparently contrary evidence. No one blames us for demanding such faith. No one blames them for giving it. 

CS Lewis The World’s Last Night

I have been struck recently by the truth of this passage for my own relationship with God. The times in my life when I have come through the most difficult circumstances have been those times when I have been most conscious of the infinite trustworthiness of God. Quite literally, if I had not trusted God’s grace and mercy, especially as Paul explains it in chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans, I couldn’t have come through to be sitting here writing this. And yet, of myself, I am not capable of that kind of trust, when all the evidence of sense and intellect points to the radical untrustworthiness of the whole situation. To trust God enough to walk out on what appears to be thin air is only possible through prayer; to trust God enough to pray rather than run is sheer grace, an act simply inaccessible to the unaided human will.

The priest, abolitionist and ex-sea captain and slave trader John Newton, who knew a thing or two about desperate situations, wrote sometime before 1779:

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
   That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
   Was blind, but now I see. 

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
   And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear
   The hour I first believ’d! 

Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,
   I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
   And grace will lead me home…

All that is is gift. There is nothing else. The air we breathe, the slender band of temperatures in which we can survive, the earth beneath our feet, the steady beating of our hearts – we brought about none of this by our own will or intention, and we cannot sustain any of it by our own will or intention either. Whatever happens, we cannot fall out of God, who holds all time, all things, within the love that is his istigkeit, his own being:

I saw that [our Lord] is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good, as I understand. 

And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… 

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the creator and protector and the lover. For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have perfect rest or true happiness, until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me.

Julian of Norwich, Showings, Ch. 5

[Originally published on The Mercy Blog, 5/1/2019]

O Radix Iesse

O Radix Iesse, qui stas in signum populorum,
super quem continebunt reges os suum,
quem Gentes deprecabuntur:
veni ad liberandum nos, jam noli tardare.

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples;
before whom kings will shut their mouths,
whom the nations will implore:
Come to deliver us, and do not now delay.

In Praying the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann writes,

…in the Psalms the use of language does not describe what is. It evokes into being what does not exist until it has been spoken. This kind of speech resists discipline, shuns precision, delights in ambiguity, is profoundly creative, and is itself an exercise in freedom. In using speech in this way, we are in fact doing in a derivative way what God has done in the creation narratives of Genesis. We are calling into being that which does not yet exist (compare Romans 4.17).

Unlike the language of fact and description we use in everyday talk, in the speech of politics and commerce, law and engineering, the Psalms are not seeking documentation and control, information processing. They are in the highest sense poetry – in which case perhaps Brueggemann misses the point when he says they “resist discipline, shun precision” – for then their discipline and precision are of another order entirely. They are a use of language parallel to (at least in a derivative way) God’s speaking of the Word that brings all things to existence – the Word, in fact, who was with God in the beginning, “the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.” When we use language like this we are drawing, and drawn, closer and closer to Christ in the the Word, the mercy, that he is. As a poet of more discipline and precision than I dare to attempt once wrote,

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

TS Eliot, Four Quartets, 1, Burnt Norton, section II

And the dance that Christ is Lord of is life, and light, and becoming. “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1.4,5) If we remain in Christ (John 15.7) ultimately the dark will not overcome us, either, for all that that light lies, like the light of eternity, on the far side of dying. He comes, indeed, to deliver us, and will not delay – already, his word accomplishes his purpose; it will not return to him empty… (Isaiah 55.11)

An Experimental Faith

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The rebuttal to every antagonism to religious truth cannot be mainly by way of intellectual argument. If there is an essential rebuttal, it is in the experiential certainty of God that is given in faith. The contemplative life by its nature displays an enhanced intensity of this certitude of God. For contemplatives, it would seem laughable, absurd, preposterous to suggest that God does not exist. The years of mysterious and sacred contact with him are too significant and strong. The yearning for God in the soul has become the irrefutable realisation of his presence near their soul. Long before the contemplative becomes deeply aware of this truth, however, there are always intimations of his personal presence. These are gifts that must  be recognised if a soul is to be seized by a deeper hunger for prayer. And in many cases, the secret expressed to a life by the hints of divine presence is a quiet one. Nonetheless, it is never completely undetectable, and any soul that crosses a threshold to a passion for prayer can look back at many encounters that reveal the presence of God in other lives and naturally in one’s own life.

Donald Haggerty, The Contemplative Hunger

A Friends’ meeting, however silent, is at the very lowest a witness that worship is something other and deeper than words, and that it is to the unseen and eternal things that we desire to give the first place in our lives. And when the meeting, whether silent or not, is awake, and looking upwards, there is much more in it than this. In the united stillness of a truly ‘gathered’ meeting there is a power known only by experience, and mysterious even when most familiar. There are perhaps few things which more readily flow ‘from vessel to vessel’ than quietness. The presence of fellow-worshippers in some gently penetrating manner reveals to the spirit something of the nearness of the Divine Presence. ‘Where two or three are gathered together in His name’ have we not again and again felt that the promise was fulfilled and that the Master Himself was indeed ‘in the midst of us’? And it is out of the depths of this stillness that there do arise at times spoken words which, springing from the very source of prayer, have something of the power of prayer – something of its quickening and melting and purifying effect. Such words as these have at least as much power as silence to gather into stillness.

Caroline E Stephen, Quaker faith & practice 2.39

Quakerism has been called an experimental faith, drawing on George Fox’s recorded encounter with a voice which said, “‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [i.e. hinder] it? And this I knew experimentally.”

Hebrews 11 opens, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” The encounter with God Fr. Donald Haggerty describes is not one of intellectual assent, nor of empirical demonstration. The inner encounter with God in contemplative experience, whether in Quaker worship, or in any of the classical disciplines of Christian contemplation, is not something which can be demonstrated to a third party: it is an entirely inward experience. It is real nonetheless; in some ways, and in certain circumstances, it is more real than the evidence of the senses, silent and hidden though it is. For anyone who has genuinely encountered God in the silence of the heart, any suggestion that he does not exist, or that the transcendent is illusory, is indeed absurd. (A powerful and remarkably sensitive allegory of this is found in Puddleglum’s speech in CS Lewis’ The Silver Chair, towards the end of Ch. 12.)

Perhaps we need, among Friends, to recover our confidence in our own experience. In the traditional churches, and indeed in many of the more recent offshoots of the Protestant church, contemplative experience is not often discussed, and is all too frequently misunderstood. But Quakers have lived a contemplative faith from the very beginning, a faith rooted in the direct encounter of the worshipper with God. It has become vitally urgent that we, of all people, come back to our roots, and once again offer our shared experience to the wider community of faith. We are few in number, but we have never been numerous – in our work for peace, for social justice, we are still known for a strength far beyond the numerical. But in his speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 1947 – it was awarded jointly to Friends Service Council in London and American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia – Gunnar Jahr said,

The Quakers have shown us that it is possible to translate into action what lies deep in the hearts of many: compassion for others and the desire to help them – that rich expression of the sympathy between all men, regardless of nationality or race, which, transformed into deeds, must form the basis for lasting peace. For this reason alone the Quakers deserve to receive the Nobel Peace Prize today.

But they have given us something more: they have shown us the strength to be derived from faith in the victory of the spirit over force.

The strength derived from faith is a spiritual strength, and it comes from our experience of the nearness of the divine presence, as Caroline Stephen pointed out in the passage above. If we are to continue to have anything to offer, to ourselves, to the world, or to God, we must be prepared, with Isaac Penington, to “sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart,” and return to our home in the silence of our faithful listening, where we become as it were aerials for the Spirit, receiving stations for grace that we may not even ourselves understand.