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.