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.

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.