Tag Archives: spirituality

Reading theology as a spiritual adventure

People sometimes talk about theological research as if it is, of necessity, dry, boring, narrowly intellectual, and completely devoid of feelings. In my experience, it isn’t like that at all – okay, it can be boring, like any other work, but actually that’s a feeling! – so in this blog post, written while I’m in the middle of a period of study leave and doing theological research very intensively, I thought I’d try and give some examples of the ways in which my whole self gets involved in the work. When I was a undergraduate studying philosophy, I used to say that it was a dull week if I hadn’t changed my mind about some core aspect of existence, and this process is a bit like that – a spiritual adventure.

Challenge to the imagination – reading about the dark night

One of the books I read recently was Sandra Cronk’s Dark Night Journey. This provided me with a challenge to my imagination, because the kind of experience she describes, the sense of the absence of God, isn’t really one I’ve had – certainly not to the extent that is being discussed here. I’ve had very difficult times but often had the opposite experience: when everything is against me and I’ve had a run of bad luck and my usual comforts don’t cheer up, a sense of the Presence (sometimes a very strong sense, sometimes so strong that the language of vision and visitation seems appropriate) can appear in Meeting for Worship, or silent prayer at home – or more likely, in a park or garden. (Here I feel like I might hear a voice, the cynic remarking that obviously my religion is just a crutch, a form of psychological illusion to deal with things I can’t cope with properly. Okay, cynic, so what? At least it seems to work.)

Reading about other people’s experiences of ‘dark nights’ challenges me to reflect on my own experience, identify the differences, be grateful for the ways in which my experience seems easier, and find things which do connect. It also feels like this might be a way to pick up tools for the journey – just because something hasn’t happened to me yet, doesn’t mean that it won’t, and the approaches she recommends might be applicable to other forms of spiritual dryness, too, like the drought of doubt and the boredom which comes from habit. Cronk talks about the apophatic tradition as one tool, a way of thinking not about the positive things we might think we know about God but the mystery and lack of knowledge we have, perhaps expressed in negatives. She says (p55), “The apophatic traditions does not try to rescue a person from the darkness, but rather looks for a way to live in the darkness with trust.”

If I were to try and summarise this part of the spiritual adventure in a verbal prayer, it might go something like this: “Goddess, I don’t always feel it or remember it but I’m grateful for your Presence, for your small still voice within me and in the world around me. In your connectedness, our interbeing, you help me to extend my empathy as far as it will go – and recognise it and not doubt people when they have experiences I can’t empathise with.”

a book cover - the top part has a picture of a stylised landscape in four colours, blue sky, white clouds, pink sun, and red and black mountains; underneath the title reads "Dark Night Journey: Inward Re-patterning Toward a Life Centered in God" and the author's name at the bottom is Sandra Cronk.

 

Challenge to the sense of connection – reading which makes me feel excluded

Another book I read was Becoming fully human: Writings on Quakers and Christian thought by Michael Langford. I knew this book would be challenging when I chose to read it, but it wasn’t difficult in the way I thought it would be. I have my own doubts about the Christian tradition (most of them are basically just a dislike of having a man tell me what to do), but I’m accustomed to reading Christian books and comfortable with that language. This book also includes pieces which are more universalist and more open to nontheist ideas than I might have guessed – Langford quotes Cupitt approving in several places alongside his deep engagement with Biblical and early Quaker material. What it did do was really annoy me, press a button, about something almost completely irrelevant to the book’s main themes.

Over educated. That’s the phrase. Langford’s hardly the only Quaker to use this term in describing British Quakers today. Perhaps it’s especially noticeable because he links it to what he calls a ‘literal-mindedness’ among Quakers as well as the rest of modern society which leads to a difficulty in understanding the rich layers of psychological and metaphorical meaning which can be present in religious language and especially Biblical texts. On the one hand, it’s probably ironic that this annoys me, because to be educated – even ‘over’ educated – in theology and related disciplines is more likely to cure than cause the problem he’s worried about. On the other hand, I spent almost all my time at school being bullied and socially excluded, probably for many reasons but often allegedly for being too clever and doing too well in class, so I have a major sore spot around claims that education or being intellectual is a bad thing and should be opposed – and a bit of a sore spot about anything which sounds like I might be excluded from a community which is important to me.

This is, as I said, a minor issue in the book. The comments could have been deleted without significantly affecting the author’s points. But because of my personal history and consequent emotional reactions – perhaps over-reactions, since they’re out of all proportion to the content – to them, there’s a spiritual challenge in both honouring my feelings and setting them aside. My prayer for this spiritual adventure is something like: “Dear God, I know this isn’t badly meant – I know this isn’t a personal attack – help me tend my own wounds, which are reopened but not really caused by this text – and take the author’s words as a whole and on their own merits.”

a book cover, with a picture of a field of ripe wheat and trees in the distance. At the top, on the blue sky, black text reads: "Becoming fully human Writings on Quakers and Christian thought Michael Langford Friends of the Light"

 

Tradition and memory – reading something almost-but-not-quite familiar

Both the books above brought out ways in which my personal experiences and memories were interconnected with the work I am doing now. My last example is a bit different in that it concerns not just my memories but the collective memory (I might say the tradition) of Quakers as a community. The book is The Book of Discipline of Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative) from 1992. (This an old one, but you can find their 2018 edition on their website.) There’s something tactile about this particular printing and binding, with its soft plain grey cover. Inside, there are also lots of phrases and ideas which I recognise from my own book of discipline – not just a book I’ve studied, although I have, but a book which shapes my religious life, cites the sources for much of my spiritual language, is discussed and disagreed with and depended upon and departed from in the religious community where I both pray and work. A book we’ve agreed to revise, which probably means it’s even more on my mind.

Here’s a line from Ohio’s book which I read several times and had to write down.

“Use vigilant care, dear Friends, not to overlook those prompting of love and truth which you may feel in your hearts…”

This is striking because it’s so close, and the sense has hardly changed, but the words of ‘my’ version are so familiar:

“Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts…”

Later in my research, I might track down earlier versions of both and see if I can see how and where these traditions have differed and yet kept something which is clearly the same. Or I might not – my main project is theological and not historical. For now what matters is my reaction, which is a bit like revisiting a place I once knew well but haven’t been to for years. It’s recognisable but changed. I can see that it’s the same, perhaps there’s a sense of comfort, but also some dislocation because it’s not the place I really know. Sometimes other sections made me want to take them away because they might enrich my own tradition – improvements on the place I knew! I wrote down this one, for example: “The right conduct of our business meetings, even in matters of routine, is important to our spiritual life; for, in so far as Friends are concerned in promoting the Kingdom of God, we should rightly feel that its business is a service for Him.”

For this part of my spiritual adventure, I pray: “Inner Light, I can see you shining in lots of places, even where there are also things which challenge me or don’t reflect my experience of Light. Help us all to be as clear as we can be and let our measure of the Light come into the world unobstructed.”

a plain grey book cover with black text which reads "The book of discipline of Ohio Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Conservative), 1992 Barnesville Ohio".

These kinds of spiritual adventures are hardly restricted to theological research, of course. First-person videos games might lead to explorations of empathy like my first book prompted and passing remarks on Twitter often create reactions like the ones I had to the second book. Where do you take your spiritual adventures? Do you have a spiritual equivalent of a theme park?

With special thanks to the library at Woodbrooke for all these books and more!

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Understanding Upholding

A while ago, a course participant asked about ‘upholding’ – in the dictionary, it means to confirm, support, or maintain, but among Quakers is often used in a spiritual sense. Sometimes upholding in this sense is very informal, private, invisible; sometimes it’s made visible by focus, as someone holds themself out of discussion or activities in order to give their full attention to upholding the group; sometimes almost everyone present is involved, as when those participating in a meeting for worship for business uphold their clerk.

At the time when the question was asked, I wrote this journal entry as an attempt at an answer.

What does it mean to uphold people? To pray for them – but what is that? To hold them in the Light – perhaps by visualising, or feeling warmth, or connectedness. To love them. To be patient and trust their their connection with the Spirit will work, so I need do nothing, just be there. To have faith in them. To have faith in God. To have faith in them and God together so that they will find their own way to the Source from which I drink.

What is theology?

(In Welsh, it’s diwinyddiaeth.)

Theologising is one of the processes through which I try and bring my whole self to God.

Theology is an everyday activity. It has an academic branch, of highly trained specialists: but the existence of professional footballers is not taken to prevent me and you having a kickabout in the park, and the existence of academic theology does not prevent us doing our own theology whenever we like. You can also choose not to. (I choose not to play football.)

Sometimes it feels like theologising creates more barriers than it removes. I don’t find thinking about things creates a barrier between myself and Goddess – if anything, the opposite; by thinking about things prayerfully, I can bring them into the Light and work in partnership with the Spirit to act on what’s mine and hand over what’s God’s. I recognise that for others, thinking itself is a problem and they wish to reduce it as far as possible. And I do see the temptation to leave our spirituality unarticulated so as not to have to face the multiplicity of our experiences and our potential theological disagreements. If we could just leave our experience to be experience, not trying to work out what it implies for our beliefs or our lives, wouldn’t that be better?

Maybe it would give us quieter lives! I don’t think it would give us better spiritual lives, though. To me, one of the aims of religious practice is to bring my whole self together to the experience. Unlike other parts of life, where it’s often appropriate to compartmentalise a little or a lot, between me and God nothing needs to be hidden or ignored. That includes uncomfortable things – mistakes I’ve made, fears I hold – and my body and emotions and mind.

Theology is what I do when I bring my intellectual attention to God. It might mean trying to understand God directly – an exercise which, like listening to a singing bowl’s note fade into silence, doesn’t have a definite end but can usefully be begun, and begun, and begun. It might mean looking for something to say, or the right way to say nothing, in the face of pain, suffering, disaster, or death. It might mean asking searching questions about how I, or you, or we as a community understand the world, ourselves, and the Spirit.

Above all, doing theology is not an end or a finalisation of anything. It is an open space, in which I begin with the Mystery I know, work through difficult terrain in company with others who have walked this way, and end with the certainty of questioning.

A view of a small sandy beach, with flowering grass in the foreground, sand and some seaweed at the shore line, a calm sea, a headland and some distant islands just visible on the horizon, and a complex pattern of clouds above.

Beach near Scapa, Orkney.

Cartref: home

(Sometimes ‘adre’ is the Welsh word for ‘home’ but when I looked it up I learned that you go adre, you live gartref, and you own a cartref – so cartref is the one I mean here.)

With the snow on the ground, I’ve been spending more time than usual at home. I’m pleased to report that it is starting to feel more like home, too. I’m getting used to the paint colours – rather than noticing them every time and revelling in their non-magonlia-ness! – I’ve put some pictures up, and although there’s still more to do, everything is okay as it is for day-to-day use.

What is it that makes a home? Something I’ve often puzzled over, in the world of ‘trying to understand other people’, is the report – not universal, but made by a lot of people who become Quakers as adults – that finding Quakers felt like “coming home”. What is it that makes it feel that way? To me, Quakerism is home, of course. Some of it’s like my new flat, where the things I have inherited or found over the years mix with things I’ve chosen just for here. But some of it’s more like my parents’ home, where most things are deeply familiar, changes can be disorienting, and it’s not mine to change, however much the design of the sofa annoys me!

People who have just arrived, and feel they have come home to Quakerism, probably don’t feel like that. The familiarity which creates affection exasperation of that particular kind – the kind I feel for my parents’ sofa, and that passage by Beatrice Saxon Snell – takes time to build up. It requires repeated encounters, looking at it from different angles, sitting with it and discovering all the ways in which it’s uncomfortable.

(To be fair, it’s a terrible sofa but it does make an excellent metaphor.)

Maybe it’s more like the new home owner’s glee which is, for me, fading gradually but still present: yes, this is mine, my space, I can be here and do as I please. Of course, I live alone in my flat, where a Quaker meeting is more like a hall of residence – you can be independent in many ways, but you also have to share the bathroom and the dining room. When I moved into my room in hall, I did enjoy having my own private space and putting up posters and not having to tell anyone I was going out. I didn’t enjoy it so much when someone decided to play cricket along the corridor at 4am! We also have those people among Friends: people whose choices, or ways of expressing themselves, or mannerisms will always rub us up the wrong way. That doesn’t stop it being a home, but perhaps it makes the image a little less cosy.

Perhaps what it’s most like it coming back to whatever space at the end of a long day. Coming to Quakers could, I can see, be like that moment when I shut the door, and sigh, and think: time to relax. I usually start by taking my shoes off. Sometimes I take all my clothes off – one of the virtues of a comfortable home is that it is a space where I don’t have to pretend to be someone else, or conform to other expectations. Quakerism, made up as it is of people, doesn’t always achieve that. Meeting for Worship, where we aim to put God in charge, comes close.

A place for nerds in the Society of Friends?

One of the questions asked in this year’s Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting is:

  • Do you consider yourself to be ‘spiritual’, or an activist? Do you find the distinction helpful in considering your own journey and experiences?

My answer to this is: neither, and therefore, no.

When I picture an activist, I think of people who do things for which I don’t have the time, energy, or social skills. I do little bits of activism – the kind of things which get mocked in internet articles – like signing petitions, discussing politics with friends, and donating a bit of money now and again. I very rarely go to demonstrations, I almost never hand out leaflets, I’ve never been arrested, and the ways in which I’ve changed my life to bring it into accordance with my principles are mainly invisible. I’m often practical, but I’m by no means an activist.

When I picture someone who is spiritual, I think of people whose spiritual life works in a way which mine doesn’t. I’ve been going to meeting for worship my whole life and I’ve never really been able to ‘centre down’. I don’t have a prayer life to speak of, I’m immune to whatever people get out of sacred music, I like to look at religious art but rarely get beyond looking, and when I read scripture I come away with more questions than answers. I do sometimes have experiences which I can only describe as ‘spiritual’, and I value being in an organised religion because some of our structures help me feel spiritually connected, but whatever ‘being spiritual’ involves, I feel outside the category.

So, what I am? I’m a nerd, a swot, a geek, an over-educated over-thinker. This is, as that link suggests, common among Quakers – but it also, often, unwelcome. In a time when rationality has been staked out as the realm of atheism, there seems to be a trend among the religious towards rejecting thought and rigour. I’ve considered it carefully, and concluded that this could be a terrible mistake. However, because I’ve ‘considered’ and ‘concluded’, I suspect my ideas are liable to be thrown out without being heard, on methodological grounds.

When I call myself a geek or a nerd, people sometimes tell me off for putting myself down. This tells me that these words still have a power which can be reclaimed. After years of bullying and social exclusion for being ‘weird’ and ‘clever’, for being articulate enough to give right answers in class and bothering to do so, for enjoying learning and working hard at it, I’m not going to start pretending not to think. I admit it: I think about things at home, I think at work, I even think in Meeting for Worship.

I’m not suggesting that you should do this too (unless you want to). For me, though, prayer and philosophy are closely connected. To think something through, to consider it from all angles, to ask questions like “what do I really know about this?” or “what assumptions underlie the way I am approaching this?” is a way of holding an issue in the Light. Sometimes this leads to activity: “if I hold this view, and this view, then I ought to…” Sometimes this lead to spiritual perspectives: if God loves me as I am, then She’ll love me even if I ask the hard questions.

I am neither spiritual, nor an activist, but approach the world through questioning, thought, and wondering. My Quaker journey is strongly shaped by that even – especially? – when it seems unpopular.

Personal spiritual practices

There’s been some discussion recently on the Quaker Renewal Facebook group about spiritual practices beyond Meeting for Worship. It’s focussed a bit on spiritual direction, of which I have no experience, but knowing that I find such accounts from other people interesting I thought I would share with you some of my spiritual practices – as they are at the moment; my experience is that these things can, do, and need to shift and change through time.

My core communal spiritual practice is Meeting for Worship, followed by Meeting for Worship for Business (which includes committee meetings, Meetings for Clearness, and other related Quaker processes). I’m also happy to participate in a variety of Neo-Pagan rituals, Buddhist and other meditation or chanting groups, Bible study, church services, other Quaker practices like Appleseed or Experiment with Light, and so forth, but these tend to come and go as the opportunity arises rather than being core to my practices – I enjoy them but I don’t particularly miss them if I don’t go.

Over the past year or so, my core solitary spiritual practice has been a short period of meditation in the morning – typically ten or fifteen minutes, using a handy timer on my phone. I use this for all sorts of things. Often, it will be a recognisably Pagan, often Druid, visualisation meditation – visiting my Sacred Grove in the inner world, for example, or exploring a landscape or symbolic image. At other times, I might use a set of words, such as a Pagan chant, song from Taize, or Buddhist mantra. Sometimes I hold a focus object which is significant to me at the time – a leaf, a stone, an ornament. Sometimes I do Experiment with Light, sometimes I focus on the breath or on listening, and sometimes I just lie there. This practice is core in the sense that I miss it if I don’t do it – it’s not always practical, but it does seem to be beneficial when I can manage it. It’s my practice, since it’s warm and comfortable, to do my meditation in the morning before I get out of bed. This doesn’t work if I’ve been woken by an alarm, as I’ll just go back to sleep, but if I’ve woken naturally because I’ve slept enough it’s in fact the time when my mind is most alert and I am least likely to drift off. This is clearly a quirk of biology and YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

I have, at other times, tried other practices. Sometimes I have found the need to have more tactile stuff going on in order to keep my mind on the practice – at the moment, a meditation bell set to ring every three minutes or so during the time is enough, but I have used music, poetry, incense, candles, lectio divina, various divination systems (such as runes, ogham, and oracle cards), and movement, at different times. I find Scott Cunningham’s book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, John Pritchard’s book How to Pray: A Practical Handbook and Ginny Wall’s book Deepening the Life of the Spirit: Resources for Spiritual Practice to be useful, and go back to them when I feel stuck, although as you may have gathered from the rest of this post I also find inspiration in a lot of other places.

My other core practice, although it’s not as regular as morning meditation and weekly Meeting for Worship, is being outdoors. This can be walks in the countryside, strolls in the park, gardening, feeding the birds, tree-hugging, etc. It’s much more free-form, except when something arises from my meditation or my OBOD course which prompts me to something specific, but no less important for that.

Branches, mostly of oak, criss-cross the image, against a grey sky.

Tree image from a recent walk.