“I Surrender All”

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In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.

Thomas R Kelly, Quaker faith & practice 2.10

The spiritual hunger of the contemplative can be satisfied only by a full surrender of the soul to God. The longing of a contemplative soul finds its completion precisely in this deeper offering and surrender to God. The manner in which God draws this surrender in prayer is a mysterious aspect of each contemplative life. It has its unique variations in each life, but one essential fact is that a complete surrender of the soul is demanded by the nature of love. The need to offer all to God becomes a dominant urge within the contemplative soul and, indeed, within prayer itself. God seems to find circumstances in which the contemplative soul is faced with this need as the only manner in which it can live out its hunger for God. The surrender that takes place in prayer is often simply a response to what God has shown as an exclusive option for a soul if it is to plunge ahead in its relationship of absolute love for God.

Donald Haggerty, The Contemplative Hunger

I have found that, as Fr. Haggerty in fact goes on to say, there is no roadmap for this interior process, no way to predict when one might be brought up against an instance of this kind of surrender. It is not something that could be taught in some imagined course on the contemplative life, or foreseen by a perceptive spiritual director, except in the most general sense. As Haggerty says,

We [come to] release our natural grip on possessiveness, our clinging to passing things that are bound to disappear eventually from our lives. We have to learn at times not to defend ourselves against those losses when they come…

We cannot bargain with God over this kind of surrender, I find. There may be unlooked-for compensations further along this line, strange blessings in place of what we have relinquished. Or quite unexpectedly, what we have given up may be restored to us, maybe in another form. But we can never see these things ahead of time, and we can never ever say to God, “I’ll give up this if you’ll give me that.” That isn’t how it works.

But God is gentle, beyond our understanding or expectation. He does not demand these surrenders, nor force them on us. We come to realise that “God wants nothing but complete surrender, although he will never make an absolute demand for it (Haggerty).” Circumstances, it is true, may take things from us – an illness, an accident, a betrayal may take away things we have held dear – but there is always the opportunity not to surrender them to God, but to fight to recover them, to demand compensation, to find someone or something to blame… Sometimes, though, I have discovered, there is a real inward hint ahead of time: “If you accept this course of action, there will be consequences,” almost as clear as a heard voice. The stronger the call to whatever it is, the more radical the choice, the clearer the inward hint. It is never explicit – one does not know what the consequences may be, in my experience – but it is there, along with the absolute sense of rightness of the possible action.

The realness of these things is inescapable. The call to surrender, to trust against trust in God, is not remotely imaginary. René Voillaume wrote:

All the great Christian contemplatives are unanimous in their testimony: whatever the spiritual path, the union with God is perceived by them as real, a more existential reality, more solid, more full of being and certainty than any other experience of the physical world. In this sense, it is true to say that contemplatives are the most realistic of men.

There are many times in one’s life, though, that these instances of surrender are simply absent, and when they do appear they can be so unexpected as to seem momentarily unreal. They come not usually as answers to prayer, but in the context of prayer – sometimes fervent prayer, maybe not of petition or intercession, but of longing contemplation. I have found them in the smallest occasions of life, as well as at the great crossroads of change and pilgrimage. The one thing that does seem to be common to them all is that they are done in the shadow of the Cross. They are ways to lay down one’s life, with all that that phrase entails. They are ways to pain; and, like the Lord we follow, we cannot see beyond that to whatever unimaginable Resurrection may lie on the other side.

There is something, too, of the forgiveness of the Cross about these strange occasions God brings to us. These losses may come through the action, or inaction, of someone else. Our acceptance of the surrender may open the door to harm, intentional or unintentional, at the hands of someone else. Then they become opportunities not only of renouncement, relinquishment, of some known good, but of love and forgiveness; in the utter mystery of God, love and forgiveness not only of our oppugner, but of ourselves. They can thus be strange acts of cleansing, healing even – a glimpse of purgatory on earth, if that is not a presumptuous suggestion.

Oddly, these occasions of loss – and that is what they are, make no mistake – are also occasions of grace. They lie under the great overarching promise of Romans 8.28, “[a]nd we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” and they can be, like all losses rightly accepted, windows into the purposes of God himself. Weak though our vision is in this life (1 Corinthians 13.12), we can glimpse through them something of the vast economy of Heaven, the fields of blessing and redemption that lie beyond the final door, the last living surrender to God in the arms of Sister Death.

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.

Quiet and Inconspicuous?

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At this point in modernity, a deeply ingrained antagonism to an authority of truth beyond self has become a serious obstacle to religious faith. Determining truth for oneself has replaced a need to receive truth from the unquestioned authority of religious tradition. For many people, questions of ultimate religious import, if they are a concern at all, must be decided without interference, exclusively for themselves. And that often means an idiosyncratic formulation, an amalgam of vague religious notions culled and constructed from disparate sources. It is the truth for oneself that alone matters, if truth is sought at all… Pride and a self-sufficient intelligence make… humble submission unappealing, if not impossible…

It is an opposite orientation by which contemplative life prospers. The contemplative soul thrives only by a reception of truth from a source in the Church, which requires, not just the soul’s faith, but an act of love. Submission in faith to the doctrinal truth of Christianity is a loving act, which deepens precisely in prayer. Truth for a contemplative is never a discovery simply from searching and effort: it comes always as a gift. More intensely, perhaps, than an ordinary believer, the contemplative is aware that faith is a great gift and the reception of truth depends necessarily on a source for truth. The contemplative’s love for truth cannot be separated from a love for the Church and for the vast witness to truth embodied in the Church’s teaching. The common disposition of a true contemplative to prostrate the soul in awe and gratitude before Catholic teaching reflects this attitude of dependency. Truth is embraced only in love and must be received in humility.

Donald Haggerty, The Contemplative Hunger

British Liberal Quakerism appears to be in a state of radical transition between a complex past and an uncertain future. Yet, it is at least arguable, that the future is so uncertain precisely because Liberal Friends exist in a state of increasing unease about their past. ‘God’, ‘Christianity’ and ‘Christ’ seem to act as uncomfortable presences within the Society at large, like a cluster of disturbing ghosts stalking some old corridor rattling their chains. As a consequence, our Society no longer assumes a straightforward identification with the life and teachings of Jesus.  This is of course a completely understandable development. The matrix in which British Friends operate is a pluralistic and secular one. And since our faith is not isolated from our lives of work, family and leisure, this is having a great impact on our Meetings. People now come to us from diverse backgrounds and cultures seeking succour from us as a spiritual community. Many have fled from authoritarian or hierarchical expressions of Christian church and theology. Others have come from different faith-traditions; Jewish, Buddhist, Pagan, seeking shelter and sustenance. For such folk, Jesus is probably the last person they want to talk about. He is a symbol of all they have run away from; suffocating dogma, unflinching moralising, and institutional naval-gazing. Such seekers may come to meeting with the impression that the reason why Liberal Quakerism is ‘liberal’ is because it has deviated from historic Christianity. Yet, I would argue that the ‘liberal’ character of modern British Quakerism; its diversity, its inclusivity, is not a deviation, but an echo of George Fox’s provocative Christian revelation that Jesus ‘had come to teach the people Himself’.

How so? British Quakers are a gathering place for many paths because we are fundamentally nourished by a story and a heritage, which calls for the unity of the world, and the unity of creation. Yet, this call is not grounded in some generic ‘John Lennon-like humanism’ but has a particular shape. It subsists, not in grand utopian plans, much less the dismissal of heaven, but in peace, humility, and the renunciation of power. It is a faith with a face, the face of Christ.

Ben Wood, from Reflections on Liberal Quakerism and the Need for Roots

Do we have a problem here? On the face of it, Fr. Donald Haggerty, a (Roman Catholic) priest of the Archdiocese of New York, currently serving at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, is writing here as spokesman for precisely the “authoritarian or hierarchical expressions of Christian church and theology” that many contemporary Quakers have fled. But British liberal Quakers are in many ways facing just the crisis of faith that Fr. Haggerty describes. Five years ago, on his blog Transition Quaker, Craig Barnett wrote:

…over recent decades Liberal Quakerism has unmistakably declined in numbers, and in spiritual coherence and vitality. Although many Friends are very active in a huge range of social action, we no longer have a shared language with which to communicate our spiritual experience, or a shared understanding of core Quaker practices such as Meeting for Worship, testimony or discernment. We have retreated from sharing our spiritual experience with each other or with the wider society. Consequently we have shrunk to a group of predominantly White, middle class retired people, while complacently assuring ourselves that ‘people will find us when they are ready’, without the need for any action on our part.

We have cultivated a marked hostility to spiritual teaching, insisting that ‘Quakerism is caught not taught’, and as a result many Friends who have been members for decades remain ignorant about traditional Quaker practices and spirituality. We have developed a hostility towards any suggestion of leadership or authority, and by failing to encourage and support each others’ gifts and leadings we have deprived ourselves of direction. We have become collections of like-minded (because socially similar) individuals, rather than true communities of people who are both accountable to and responsible for each other.

We have rejected the Quaker tradition, with its embarrassingly fervent early Friends and old-fashioned religious language, and ended up with a Quakerism that is almost evacuated of religious content, in which our spiritual experience is something ‘private’ that we cannot share with each other. Consequently we have little to offer to people who are seeking a deeper spiritual reality beyond an accepting ‘space’ for their own solitary spiritual searchings.

In many Quaker meetings today there is a deep uncertainty about spirituality, and about the possibility of spiritual leadership of any shape or form. This at times seems to show itself in an insecurity and an anxiety about the role of elders, and about the exercise of eldership. Quaker faith and practice 12.12 states:

It is laid upon elders… to meet regularly to uphold the meeting and its members in prayer; to guide those who share in our meetings towards a deeper experience of worship; to encourage preparation of mind and spirit, and study of the Bible and other writings that are spiritually helpful; to encourage individual and united prayer in the meeting…

How is this possible in an atmosphere of “marked hostility to spiritual teaching,” amongst “a Quakerism that is almost evacuated of religious content”?

Earlier in his book quoted above, Donald Haggerty writes:

There are paradigm shifts in the history of spirituality as there are in the history of science or law or technology. There are major innovations at certain periods in the radical pursuit of God. Options in spirituality that earlier did not exist suddenly become possible, attracting a contagious, expansive response. These transitions occur precisely when a hunger for God intensifies without a corresponding opportunity present in the current structures of spirituality for satiating it. Assuaging that deeper yearning for God demands something more radical. The innovation then arrives as a supernatural response to the desire for a more radical offering to God.

Haggerty goes on to give some examples: the flight to the Syrian and Egyptian deserts after the institutionalisation of Christianity in the Roman empire in the early 4th century; the innovation of the mendicant life in the medieval period under Francis of Assisi and others; the Jesuit revolution in the Catholic Church after the start of the Protestant Reformation, and so forth. Perhaps we might be permitted to suggest adding to the list the beginnings of Quakerism in the mid-17th century?

Fr. Haggerty goes on:

The question now is whether another paradigm shift in spirituality is taking place–in this case a quiet and inconspicuous one, yet quite real nonetheless. A yearning for more prayer and for deeper prayer seems to be spreading… A contemplative movement of spiritually linked souls, joined invisibly in many cases by a love for the silent prayer of Eucharistic adoration, may be somewhat hidden by its nature and go unnoticed and yet be a leaven of much grace and conversion throughout the Church in this new century…

Contemplative life cannot prosper in detachment from the contemporary crisis in belief. It would betray itself by disappearing behind walls, retreating into the breezes and shades of a garden enclosure… Day-to-day perseverance in what may be an obscure and dark faith is always a triumph over the dismissal of faith that seems to gain increasing ground in the current time… And this divine action of grace may be effective in a unique way today especially because of contemplative souls who remain living and working in the world.

Craig Barnett again:

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

Perhaps we are at a crossroads in the life of faith that extends far beyond the apparently opposite communities of the Society of Friends and the Catholic Church. Perhaps we might consider that we may both – and the many denominations and movements in between – be experiencing a call that has as much to do with the environmental, political and cultural struggles in the world at present as it does to do with any loss of faith. As a society we are facing unprecedented change, and there is more to a prophetic response to change than making speeches. Change hurts. Things die, and things are born in pain and uncertainty. The world so needs those who will sit down beside it, and listen to it, and weep with it.

Let us be still for a while, and remember Isaac Penington’s advice to:

…Give over thine own willing, give over thy own running, give over thine own desiring to know or be anything and sink down to the seed which God sows in the heart, and let that grow in thee and be in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee; and thou shalt find by sweet experience that the Lord knows that and loves and owns that, and will lead it to the inheritance of Life, which is its portion.

Strange Grace

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When you stop to think about it, grace is actually a strange idea. We learn, from our earliest childhood, that things operate by the laws of cause and effect: if you drop something, it hits the ground; if you disobey someone in authority, there will be consequences. We learn, too, that events have causes. If the cause of a given event is not immediately obvious – it starts raining, for instance – then look harder. There’s a cloud up there somewhere.

It is tempting, for some of us at any rate, to try this with grace. We are blessed: we must have done something right somewhere. Conversely, we still make the category mistake over which Jesus corrected his disciples in John 9.1-5.

The healing of our own hearts is all grace. We so easily live, all of us, clenched in a spiritual version of the cause and effect paradigm: we feel bad, so we must have done something wrong; if we wish to feel better, we need to find the thing that will please God – or at least press the right psychological button – so that we are somehow put right again.

In his book Dying Well: Dying Faithfully, John Wyatt, Professor of Ethics and Perinatology at University College London, points out that the medieval Ars moriendi, Latin texts on the art of dying of presumed Dominican origin,  contain the idea of despair over our past as a temptation we must face. Demons are sometimes shown tormenting the dying with lists of their misdeeds

…in a terrible parody of the words ‘Ecce homo’ (‘Behold the man!’) said about Jesus – ‘Ecce peccata tua’, (‘Behold your sins!’). Part of the subtlety of the accusations is that the demons quote scripture to demonstrate the righteousness of God, the seriousness of the individual sins and failures, and the impending judgement…

If loss of faith is loss of belief and trust, despair is the loss of hope…

In one of the Ars moriendi images, an angel visits a dying man and encourages him by pointing to figures from the Scriptures who repented and received forgiveness…

The medieval writers frequently emphasized the importance of meditating on the figure of Christ on the cross… But there seems to be a deeper mystery than merely being an external observer of Christ’s sufferings… The apostle Paul summed up his own personal hope in these words: ‘…that I may how him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death’ (Philippians 3.10, emphasis added). In some indescribable way we can have the privilege of entering into and identifying with the sufferings of Christ on the cross…

Scott J. Hafemann writes:

In our day of self-help and age of technology and technique, it is important to keep in mind that God is both the initiator and object of this [inner] reconciliation. Our propensity is to view the gospel as our opportunity to reconcile God to us by showing him how much we love him, rather than seeing it as God’s act in Christ by which he reconciles us to himself by demonstrating his own love for us. The gospel is not our chance to get right with God, but God’s declaration that he has already made us right with him. The gospel does not call us to do something for God that he might save us; it announces what God has done to save us that we might trust him.

(The NIV Application Commentary: 2 Corinthians)

God’s love for us, temporary and powerless as we are, somehow reaches us through this spiritual hyperlink that is the cross, and it is the crucified Jesus to whom we turn for mercy.

Mercy is to me the heart of prayer – and not only because it is the Jesus Prayer that is the centre of my own prayer. Cynthia Bourgeault writes:

…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. The mercy of God does not come and go, granted to some and refused to others. Why? Because it is unconditional – always there, underlying everything. It is literally the force that holds everything in existence, the gravitational field in which we live and move and have our being. Just like [the] little fish swimming desperately in search of water, we, too – in the words of Psalm 103 – “swim in mercy as in an endless sea.” Mercy is God’s innermost being turned outward to sustain the visible and created world in unbreakable love.

The cross of course is “God’s innermost being turned outward… in love” – and it is at the cross that, in the words of the Vineyard song, we find mercy and grace.

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

The Grace of Journey

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What we usually call the real world is not Real at all. It is a flaky as they come. Laugh at it; weep over it; pray for it; take every opportunity to expose it; seek to redeem it. But never make the fatal mistake of thinking it is Real.

N. Gordon Cosby, Seized by the Power of a Great Affection (now out of print)

We live in a strange, in-between world, we humans, and mostly it is not at all what it seems. We learn, at school and by contact with most of the adults around us, that what we read of in the newspapers, and are taught in our classrooms, is The Real World, and that we had better pay proper attention to its demands and its particulars. But William Blake saw that

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

The Matrix series of movies touches this concept, in more ways perhaps than one, but for me the crucial expression is in CS Lewis’ luminous fable:

“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”

Susan looked at him very hard and was quite sure from the expression on his face that he was not making fun of them.

“But how could it be true, Sir?” said Peter.

“Why do you say that?” asked the Professor.

“Well, for one thing,” said Peter, “if it was real why doesn’t everyone find this country every time they go to the wardrobe? I mean, there was nothing there when we looked; even Lucy didn’t pretend there was.”

“What has that to do with it?” said the Professor.

“Well, Sir, if things are real, they’re there all the time.”

“Are they?” said the Professor; and Peter did not know quite what to say.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

All true pilgrimage follows a path that runs along the fault-line between the real and the illusion, between the world of the senses and what underlies it, between space and time, and the eternal. Dee Dyas, director of the Centre for Pilgrimage Studies at the University of York, in examining the nature of  Christian pilgrimage today, and its origins in Scripture and elsewhere, distinguishes three strands that constitute the practical outworking of life’s journey itself as pilgrimage: moral pilgrimage – our journey of obedience to God; physical, or place, pilgrimage – our journey mapped onto the paths of the geographical world and its holy places; interior pilgrimage – our journey towards communion with God through prayer, solitude and contemplation. In a sense, all three of these question reality as social consensus. Our journey to God takes us along the thin places of the mind, as well as of geography, and pilgrimage is really no more than a way of understanding that, of making it tangible, somehow.

Pilgrimage, too, is a way to understand the grace by which God reveals to us the truth by experience and Scripture. Life is gift, and its journey. Pilgrimage is itself all grace: the gift of landscape and distance, the mercy that prayer is even possible. Kathleen Dowling Singh writes:

Grace is the end of illusion, the realisation of a far more expansive and complete sense of being, the peace that quite literally passeth understanding. The word “grace” itself finds its derivation in the Old French for “kindness”… The word… has the connotation of a blessing, a quality of the sacred, and implies beauty, ease, and fluidity. Grace seems endlessly responsive to our longing for it… grace and gratitude have their origin in the same source. That source is Spirit, the Ground of Being. Grace is the experience of finally, gratefully, relaxing the contraction of fearful separation and opening to Spirit as our own radiant splendour: knowing it, feeling it, entering it, as it enters us.

The Grace in Dying

Of Hiddenness and Pilgrimage

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I wrote some years ago, “I feel an intense hunger for hiddenness; I long to be like a wren, living out its life deep in an ivied hedgebank, hardly seen among the dense leaves and underscrub. Somehow all this has to do with the heart, too: mine is too full to accomplish anything outwardly, still less to write more for the time being…”

Hiddenness is alien to our culture, and yet I often think that nothing lasting can really be achieved in the spiritual life without its being hidden from the illumination of being public. At times, it needs to be hidden even from ourselves – as Jesus said, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6.3-4 NIV)

This is one of the things that gives me such a longing for the contemplative life itself. To pray, to study, with no possibility of reward, no reputation, no recognition. But I think there may be more to it than that.

I think music subsists as much in its silences as in its sounds: beyond the attack and decay of a note is the time before it was sounded, and the time after. Beyond its pitch is an infinity of vibrations that are not sound: beyond its scale degree are uncountable microtones, many of them well outside the range of human hearing.

We are this kind of thing ourselves – there was a time when each of us was not, and there will be a time after us, and yet our limited lives are shot through with eternity. A bit of the Spirit – who, being spirit, cannot be divided – is in each who lives, human or otherwise (Psalm 104.30), and so the perishable will somehow put on imperishability (1 Corinthians 15.42ff), and we shall “become word in an awareness of hidden things” (John the Solitary) – not in these glimpses, reflections in broken water, but in steady truth and certain rest.

Most of us do not yet know our own essential nature. Maybe we can feel the pain of limitation and the unease of contraction and the longing for liberation beyond self, but we cling to what’s familiar…

It is wise to know our own depths, to plumb and explore them, to allow our hearts to break open, to allow our minds to investigate that which they would rather deny, to allow ourselves to contemplate impermanence, to take death in – our own and the deaths of those we love…

Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Aging

We cannot find God by thinking about God, for God cannot be thought. Of course, we can, rightly, think about the consequences of God for human beings, and we can even think about what God is for us, but we cannot find our way to God by taking thought. Strictly speaking, we cannot travel to God either, though we can travel to places where we might be more likely to encounter God than some others – this is the point of pilgrimage. The journey itself becomes our way of finding God, rather than our destination.

God is the Ground of Being itself – as Paul said, quoting Epimenides, “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.28 NIV). There is, as George Fox famously remarked, “that of God” in each of us. And yet we are so often no more aware of God than of the air that, while sustaining our every breath and heartbeat, presses down on each of us with its tons of unfelt weight. Which is why we need practice, discipline, or even circumstance: contemplation, pilgrimage, or great joy or grief, to get our thinking, discriminating, judging selves out of the way of God.

Perhaps that is where the connection which I feel so deeply, almost instinctively, between pilgrimage and hiddenness comes in: that the thinking self tends to retreat in face of solitude and obscurity. I think this instinct may very well lie behind many of the classical forms of the monastic life – the habit, the taking of a monastic name (so that Darren Smith, for instance, becomes, say, Brother Bartholomew, on profession), even still in some cases the tonsure. The religious gives up their outer, secular identity in order more truly to become their own, inner identity in Christ. But these matters do not trouble – nor do they protect – those of us who are ordinary, secular laity. We have to find other ways – pilgrimage; such contemplative disciplines as the Jesus Prayer, centering prayer, Christian mediation, that can safely and reasonably be practiced among the duties of our everyday lives; or solitude, the simple choice to live alone.

Brother Ramon SSF, the Franciscan hermit and contemplative. wrote, in a small book now sadly out of print, Praying the Jesus Prayer (Marshall Pickering 1988), these words which so well connect today’s and yesterday’s posts on this blog:

It is difficult to speak of the aim or goal of [contemplative] prayer, for there is a sense in which it is a process of union which is as infinite as it is intimate… The meaning and design of the Jesus Prayer is an ever deepening union with God, within the communion of saints. It is personal, corporate and eternal, and the great mystics, in the Biblical tradition, come to an end of words. They say that “eye has not seen nor ear heard”, they speak of “joy unspeakable” and “groanings unutterable” and “peace that passes understanding”.

But there are some things which we can say, which are derivative of that central core of ineffable experience. We can say that such prayer contains within itself a new theology of intercession. It is not that we are continually naming names before God, and repeating stories of pain, suffering and bereavement on an individual and corporate level, but rather that we are able to carry the sorrows and pains of the world with us into such contemplative prayer as opens before us in the use of the Jesus Prayer. God knows, loves and understands more than we do, and he carries us into the dimension of contemplative prayer and love, and effects salvation, reconciliation and healing in his own way, using us as the instruments of his peace, pity and compassion.

Thus we can say that the “prayer of the heart” unites us with the whole order of creation, and imparts to us a cosmic awareness of the glory of God in both the beauty and the sadness of the world. The process of transfiguration for the whole world has begun in the Gospel, but it will not be completed until the coming of Christ in glory. And until that time we are invited, through prayer, to participate in the healing of the world’s ills by the love of God. And if we participate at such a level, then we shall know both pain and glory. The life and ministry of Jesus in the gospels reveal this dimension, for Jesus was at one and the same time the “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”, and the transfigured healer, manifesting the glory of the Father upon the holy mountain.

Cliffs of Fall

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Among some people, many of them perhaps surprisingly Quakers, there can arise the sense – when we are enmeshed in times of uncertainty and nightmare, with the rise of far right political attitudes, widespread and all too often accepted racism and misogyny, the economic worries attending Britain’s leaving the European Union, global warming, a housing crisis – that it is an almost criminal waste of time to attend to things like contemplative prayer, silence, and pilgrimage, rather than political agitation, campaigning and protest.

In the months immediately before the outbreak of war in 1914, Evelyn Underhill was at work on her little book Practical Mysticism. The commencement of hostilities prompted her to write a quite lengthy preface addressing this very question, which seems to me as fresh and as pertinent today as it was over a century ago. She wrote:

…the title deliberately chosen for this book–that of “Practical” Mysticism–means nothing if the attitude and the discipline which it recommends be adapted to fair weather alone: if the principles on which it stands break down when subjected to the pressure of events, and cannot be reconciled with the sterner duties of the national life. To accept this position is to reduce mysticism to the status of a spiritual plaything… It is significant that many of these [spiritual] experiences are reported to us from periods of war and distress: the stronger the forces of destruction appeared, the more intense grew the spiritual vision which opposed them. We learn from these records that the mystical consciousness has the power of lifting those who possess it to a plane of reality which no struggle, no cruelty, can disturb: of conferring a certitude which no catastrophe can wreck. Yet it does not wrap its initiates in a selfish and otherworldly calm, isolate them from the pain and effort of the common life. Rather, it gives them renewed vitality; administering to the human spirit not–as some suppose–a soothing draught, but the most powerful of stimulants. Stayed upon eternal realities, that spirit will be far better able to endure and profit by the stern discipline which the race is now called to undergo, than those who are wholly at the mercy of events; better able to discern the real from the illusory issues, and to pronounce judgement on the new problems, new difficulties, new fields of activity now disclosed.

Leaving aside the somewhat rhetorical prose that was common to writers of her time, Underhill seems to me to have put her finger on something of immense value for us who find ourselves living among such difficult and puzzling times.

In a book first published in 1977, the Russian contemplative, intercessor and writer on prayer Sophrony Sakharov wrote:

It has fallen to our lot to be born into the world in an appallingly disturbed period. We are not only passive spectators but to a certain extent participants in the mighty conflict between belief and unbelief, between hope and despair, between the dream of developing mankind into a single universal whole and the blind tendency towards dissolution into thousands of irreconcilable national, racial, class or political ideologies. Christ manifested to us the divine majesty of man, son of God, and we withal are stifled by the spectacle of the dignity of man being sadistically mocked and trampled underfoot. Our most effective contribution to the victory of good is to pray for our enemies, for the whole world. We do not only believe in – we know the power of true prayer…

We should take comfort, I think, from words like these. The Quaker writer and blogger, Craig Barnett, recently published an essay on his Transition Quaker blog, in which he says:

…the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ – allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings.

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

There words of Craig’s carry their weight far beyond purely Quaker life: the “quiet, unrecognised life of prayer”, whether lived in an enclosed monastic community in the depths of the country, on the remote Dorset coast where I farmed for years, or in a flat above a back street corner shop in Leicester or Sunderland, will always look from some points of view more “like failure or foolishness” than anything else. But we need, I think, to recover a right sense of the seriousness of our calling. As Walter Wink once wrote, “history belongs to the intercessors.” And in their silent identification with the pain and loss, the cruelty and the hopelessness, of our world, contemplatives may in fact be among the most effective intercessors God has.