Sunday, February 14, 2021

Becoming Quaker

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you

Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,

The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed

With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,

And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama

And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—

Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations

And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence

And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen

Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;

Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.

(T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”)

I read these words sometime in early 1991, and eventually they helped to change my life.

I was brought up Catholic; but in 1986 at the age of 21 I had decided that for the time being I couldn’t carry on with it, and that I didn’t really know what I believed about God.  What followed was a great deal of perplexity, confusion, and mental strain.  Four years later, at the age of 25, I started seeing a Jesuit priest in Oxford to try to to make sense of it all.

His name was Ted Yarnold.  We talked, and he suggested books for me to read, and he arranged for me to spend a few days staying at a Jesuit retreat house in Birmingham.  Ted was kind and generous with his time, and I liked him - but our interactions were very wordy.  And while all of this was going on, I stumbled across the passage I’ve set out above, and it came to me that what I really wanted to do was to find God through silence.  My first thought was that I had heard of something called Julian Meetings (named after Mother Julian of Norwich), where people met for silent contemplative prayer.  But, I thought, don’t be silly, you can’t have an entire religious practice based on Julian Meetings. And then I thought, what about the Quakers - isn’t their worship based on silence?  At the time, that was pretty much the only thing I knew about Quakers, but it was enough to make me want to explore further.

When I said this to Ted he was baffled, and not a little exasperated - he had worked hard on my case.  But I persisted, and in early 1991 I went to my first Quaker meeting, at Westminster Meeting House in London.

I stayed with the Quakers for about a year, but I wasn’t ready to make a permanent commitment.  Nevertheless, I found my experience of Quaker worship very powerful;  I experienced quite a lot of insomnia at that time, not because of anxiety, but because of a sense of being churned up inwardly.  My experience in 1991 planted a seed; many years later, it sprouted again.

In 2014 a series of small, unspectacular prompts and nudges made me start looking at Quakerism once more.  A couple of years later, I started regularly attending Meeting for Worship at Lewes.

And yesterday I was accepted into membership.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Mary Oliver's Grasshopper

 Here is a very well-known poem by the American poet Mary Oliver, called “The Summer Day”.

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

The final two lines are very often quoted.  Taken out of context, they sound like a challenge, a sort of existential shock therapy.  But read in context, they are more like a defensive manoeuvre.  She is saying something like this:  here is how I have been spending my day, and if you think I have been wasting my time, then what are you doing that you think is more important?

At the heart of the poem is a grasshopper - the focus of Mary Oliver's delighted attention.  There is awe, gratitude, astonishment, a sense of having been blessed, and also something that is understood as being analogous to prayer:  kneeling down in the grass, while at the same time admitting to not quite knowing what prayer is.

What is all of this about?  It’s to do with paying attention to the world, and also to your own act of paying attention:  noticing yourself noticing the world, and experiencing a sense of surprise at finding yourself as an awake, alive, breathing being on a the surface of a planet.  The Jewish writer Abraham Heschel calls this “radical amazement”:

Radical amazement has a wider scope than any other act of man. While any act of perception or cognition has as its object a selected segment of reality, radical amazement refers to all of reality; not only to what we see, but also to the very act of seeing as well as to our own selves, to the selves that see and are amazed at their ability to see.

This mode of experience doesn’t prove anything, show you any new facts, or put you inside some special story in relation to which other people are outsiders.  But it re-enchants the world:  the shift is rather like what you might experience on hearing a familiar piece of music played by a really exceptional musician.  The kind of attention that Mary Oliver is describing is a form of love.  This love encompasses, but goes beyond, the particular aspects of the natural world that she is describing; ultimately, it is directed towards the unknown source and ground by virtue of which she is able to experience what she experiences and perceive what she perceives.  Put more simply, Mary Oliver is not explaining, but exemplifying, what it might mean to love God.  

(This is an extract from a longer piece that I posted in 2019.  I thought it might work better as a freestanding post. Ben Wood's discussion of the same poem is well worth reading.)

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Considered Happy

This is different from my earlier posts - a (very) short story.


It's a good job, all things considered.

Not that what I do is what I would call a job, exactly. I wouldn’t even say it’s my work. It’s a way of life, this thing that I do.  It’s who I am, what I’m known for.  If you’ve heard of me at all, it’s because of what I do.  Nobody remembers what it was I did before this.  Even I can’t remember, most of the time.

How did it start?  To be honest I can’t really remember that either.  I suppose there must have been an induction process at some point, setting out the ground rules. This is when you start each day, this is how long it’s supposed to take you, this is what you do when you’ve finished.  Annual leave, sick leave, salary, benefits, management.  But I’m vague about all that.  I always assume that there’s an overall plan somewhere, and that I’m part of it; perhaps a row on someone’s spreadsheet, setting out how I fit into the overall scheme of things.  I don’t really think about all that. It’s above my pay grade.

Each day starts the same way.  There it is, waiting for me, at the bottom of the hill.  It’s always the same boulder, too - I would be really upset if they ever changed it.  There’s a particular angle I’ve learned to appreciate, the way that it fits into my shoulder, almost nestles into it, as if the two were designed for one another.  It’s like wrestling with a brother, when you’ve grown up having play fights.  

Why does it need to be moved up the hill?  I suppose because it’s in the way, where it’s lying. You can’t just leave a great boulder lying around like that. It might stop the traffic.  Imagine that there was an ambulance that wanted to get through, or a fire engine.  Even if they could get round it, it would slow them down.  No, to be honest, I’ve never actually seen that happen; but then again, I’ve always been there to make sure that it doesn’t happen.  And it’s the sort of thing that could happen, no question. All sorts of bad stuff could happen if you just leave boulders lying around at the bottom of a hill all day.  It’s not done, is it?

Always the same route, that long winding path upwards.  There are a few places where I’ve learned that you can stop for a break:  odd corners, where you couldn’t leave it for good (it would roll down hill pretty quickly), but where you can balance against it safely for a few minutes, take a break, even enjoy the view if it’s a clear day.  Smoke a cigarette (though I’m trying to give it up).  There are two or three of these regular stopping points, and they break up the day nicely.  There’s the sense at the first one that you’re well under way, that you’re getting on top of the day.  By the time I get to the second, I feel I’ve broken the back of the task.  The third one is a bit of a luxury.  If I feel I’m running late then I skip it; so you could say that it’s my reward for a day where I’ve made solid progress.  You have to do that, when you don’t really have a visible boss, as such:  give yourself these little rewards, little encouragements, to keep yourself up to the mark.  Nobody ever called me a slacker:  but my secret is in these little moments of rest and recovery.

I sometimes get a bit sentimental, when I get to the very end.  There’s a little ledge that I have to get over, before I get to the very top.  It takes an extra push to get past it.  Sometimes I imagine that I’m newly married, lifting my bride over the threshold of our new home.  You could say I’m quite imaginative, really. You get like that when you’re on your own as much as I am.  My life is really very full, very much inhabited.  

The other side of that ledge there’s a sort of shelf that marks the top of the hill.  It’s almost flat, and there’s just about enough room for me and the boulder.  I say almost flat, because - of course - you can’t quite balance there.  Anything between a few minutes and an hour or so (my personal best), and then you lose balance and it rolls back down the hill again.  I used to spend a long time looking for that sweet spot - as I thought of it - where it would just balance for good.  There were times when I thought, just another couple of attempts, and then I will master it.  After all, there didn’t seem to be any shortage of time for that:  no urgency. But now I’m past all that.  If I managed to find that point of balance, that what would be the point?  The balance of my life would have gone. I would wake up the next morning: and then?  They might make me do something else, something far less congenial, something that wasn’t mine in the same way.  Nobody would know who I was.  Even I wouldn’t know.

All that’s behind me now, and I’ve settled into regular rhythm.  Why would I want to do anything different?  

You asked me if I was happy.  I hadn’t really thought about it before you asked, but now I come to think of it, I’ve got no doubt on the matter.

Yes, you could definitely think of me as a happy man.  No question.  

Friday, July 17, 2020

Some inconclusive thoughts about Simone Weil

What has set me reading Simone Weil?

I’ve been aware of Weil for some time.  I’ve seen references to her in Iris Murdoch, and in writing about Iris Murdoch, and it’s been clear that Weil was very important for Murdoch.  I’ve seen quite a lot of references to her in writing by Quaker friends (Ben Wood, Jennifer Kavanagh). Early in lockdown I read a blog post by Anna Rowlands that referred to Weil at some length.  In particular, I’ve come across references to the importance of attention for Weil - and there is a connection for me with a question I’ve sometimes asked myself about Quaker worship, which is to what extent it’s about trying to decide what to do next, and to what extent it’s simply a matter of learning to pay attention.  A similar question arises in relation to therapy.

The result of all of this groundwork was that before I had read any Weil at all, there was a sort of charisma about her.  The baptismal service talks about the glamour of evil.  But there’s also a glamour attached to the good, or to the places where we think the good might be found.  For me, Weil had acquired some of that glamour.

I started with “The Need for Roots” (TNFR). This is the only book-length publication that we have in the form in which Weil wrote it:  otherwise, we’ve got collections of essays, and selections from Weil’s notebooks.  It was written in London in 1943, during the last year of her life, when Weil was working for the Free French.  It's - ostensibly - a report setting out proposals for the reconstruction of France after the war.  It’s much more than that.

The first section of TNFR is about a fundamental theory of politics.  Obligations are prior to rights - there is a basic obligation owed to every human being, arising from our universal dignity as God-seeking and God-capable creatures - the practical effect of that obligation, is a duty to meet both the physical and spiritual needs of everyone - and an important and much-neglected spiritual need, is the need for roots.  And what it means to have “roots” is to be part of a community with both a shared memory of the past and a shared hope for the future.  This experience of rootedness is one that has been severely disrupted, and it needs to be restored.  

Reading that opening section I found myself responding on two levels.  There was a surface level, at which I tried to understand what I was reading, and thought:  I agree with that, I don’t think that’s right, I don’t understand that.  But there was also a sense of something being communicated at a different level - a sense of someone who had seen a great light, was half-blinded by it, and was trying to convey what she had seen.

I read on, and I finished the book, and I found a lot of it was a struggle.  Some very long chapters that made few concessions to the reader in terms of structure or signposting.  A lot about French history and culture, which made me realise my own ignorance, but which I couldn’t readily assess or assimilate.  

While I was part way through TNFR, I looked at the Penguin anthology of Weil's writing, and read her draft of a statement of human obligations.  This was a distillation of the political theory behind TNFR, in about ten pages, and using slightly less overtly theistic language.  I found it a powerful and inspiring manifesto.

And now I am reading “Gravity and Grace” - a collection of Weil's remarks on religious and spiritual themes, organised in short thematic chapters.  What a strange book this is!  It was put together after Weil’s death, from her notebooks.  There were editorial choices not just about which passages to include, but also about which passages to group together into chapters, and about the order in which the individual passages appeared.  We’ve no way of tracing how her thought developed (it would have been very interesting if each passage had been accompanied by the date when it was written).  It’s like a Gospel of Sayings - say, the Gospel of Thomas - except that you are at least confident that she did say (or write) all of these things.  I read with a pencil, underlining the passages that particularly strike me.

There's a lot here about the dismantling or "decreating" of the self, and some of this is very hard to read - particularly given that it's controversial whether Weil's own death was a form of suicide.  Yet - paradoxically - one thing that comes across is the sense of an overwhelmingly strong personality, fierce and intolerant and sometimes almost intolerable.    

I'm still trying to work out what to make of all this.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Keeping a Journal

A lot changed for me in 2014.  It was the year I turned 50.  It was also the year when I started to explore Quakerism.  More accurately, I started to explore it for a second time: there had been a year or so in the early 1990s when I used to attend a Quaker meeting in London, but it didn’t last.  Also in 2014, I started to keep a sort of journal - a collection of short pieces of writing.  Journal writing is a traditional Quaker practice, going right back to the 17th century, though I didn’t know this at the time.

By way of an example, here (slightly modified) is something I wrote on two successive September days in 2017.  I was thinking about a Quaker text called the “Advices and Queries” (A&Q for short).  A&Q is a series of brief passages for reflection - 42 passages in all - it’s perhaps the closest thing to a Quaker creed.  In particular, I was thinking about the first passage (or A&Q1).

11th September

A&Q1 says this:

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts.  Trust them as the leadings of God, whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

The first question for me this morning is, can I think about these words while sitting in a crowded commuter train to London? There is a lot of conversation going on around me - including between the two men opposite me.  I am finding this a distraction and irritating - so I am feeling resentful, and hostile to the people around me.  Quaker worship needs special conditions, because it needs silence.  Or at least that’s how I tend to think of it.  But if the Quaker way - taken as a whole - requires special conditions and can’t be brought into ordinary life, then what use is it?

The first sentence of A&Q1 tells us to to focus our attention in a particular direction.
Is it a call to introspection?  Look inwards - look into your own heart - don’t look outwards.
In which case, are other people a distraction?  The people on this train are talking, and I overhear their conversations, and they catch my attention, and then I resent them for catching my attention.  So is this the message?  Ignore other people, and look inwards?

If this is the Quaker way then it would best be lived by being a hermit - leaving other people and living alone.

But if I lived in isolation, what scope would there be for any or these “promptings”?  And how would I take heed of them?  Because taking heed can’t just mean, becoming aware.  It must also mean, acting in some way.  Pay attention to what I say, but don’t act on it.  How would that make sense?

So is this it?  The advice is to pay attention to something within me, that is directing me towards something outside me?

12th September

How do I tell the difference between “promptings of love and truth” and the other things that fill my mind?

I’m aware of a crowd of thoughts, feelings, desires, memories, sense impressions: and many of them are clamouring for my attention.

Look at this!  (The scene outside the window - early autumn, sun, blue sky)
Do this!  (Go to the fridge and find a snack - now).
Think about this!  (Think, right now, about how someone offended you many years ago - think about how badly they behaved).

How should you deal with this noisy crowd of thoughts and feelings?  Should you approach them with discrimination, judging which ones are based on reality and which ones are not?  Should you treat them all with friendly curiosity, as objects of enquiry in their own right?  Should you simply watch them rise and fall, come and go?  Or are these options best seen as different items in a tool-kit: sometimes you want a hammer, sometimes you want a spanner …

But perhaps A&Q1 takes me in a different direction from all of this.

Reading A&Q1 this morning I was struck first of all by how warm these words seem.  The first sentence, especially, feels warm - feels warming.

Then I was struck by a challenge.  What are the promptings of love and truth that are operating for you now, right now?  And at that point I fell silent.  A&Q1 tells me that these things are here, in my heart.  It assumes there are “promptings” - and it tells me to pay attention to them.  But where are they?  What if I can’t find any?  

But then, gradually, various fragments started to emerge.  

For instance, a prompting to reflect on my own birth - to picture myself as a new-born, wholly dependent on others - to think of all of the different needs that I had, all of the different ways they were met, all of the different people who were involved in this. Religion often tells us to meditate on our own death, but never - or almost never - to meditate on our own birth.  Why is this?

We cannot pay attention to the promptings that A&Q1 refers to, unless we first become aware of them.  

The mental picture I have, at this point, is of someone panning for gold in a stream.

Of course, there is also a lot in our mental life that is dark, unpleasant, unwelcome:  evil, the shadow.

A&Q1 recognises that these things are there too (“shows us our darkness”) - but the darkness isn’t where we start (“promptings”), and isn’t where we end (“new life”).

Monday, December 30, 2019


Prayer is problematic.  Some people find it absurd, or delusional. Many Quakers would say it’s not really something they do, or that it’s not even on their radar.

We are told that prayer involves raising the mind and heart to God.

And this can seem entirely impossible.  If you make the attempt you are immediately assailed with questions. Do I actually believe in God? Do I have any sense of God?  What sort of God do I believe in and why?  Is God a person?  Is God a being, or beyond all categories of being and nonbeing?  Am I talking to myself? Am I deceiving myself? Am I wasting my time?  Should I stop now?

Trying to pray can seem like trying to climb a sheer cliff with no footholds.

A Buddhist teacher once said:  there is no God, and he is always with you.  

I think this is more than an empty paradox.  It’s a pretty safe bet that your concept of God (your “God”) won’t accord with reality:  but the denial of “God” does not necessarily equate to the denial of God.  

So perhaps one approach is to turn your back on God, or on whatever you think of as being God.

You can sit quietly for a bit, watching your thoughts and feelings and memories come and go, without judgment, without either pushing them away or keeping hold of them.

When you are with a crowd of strangers - perhaps in a church service, perhaps in a dentist’s waiting room or a bus queue - you can choose to be consciously aware of being with these people.  You can ask yourself, what is it like for you, being among these people?  And what is it like for them, being here?  

Or you can picture yourself as travelling on a journey towards your own death, and then picture everyone else around you - and everyone else in the world - as making the same journey.  
What happens if you try this sort of exercise?  Perhaps nothing at all:  perhaps boredom, or a wandering mind. But possibly, something you might call prayer.

And does this sort of prayer make any difference to you, or to the world?  

That’s a tricky question.  You would be surprised how many people pray without having a clear answer to it.

Prayer doesn’t have to be seen as a way of trying to order or manipulate the world.  Instead, it can be a way of being in the world.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Facing Death

Some people want nothing to do with religion for themselves, but are content to let it be.  They might take the same view of it as Miss Jean Brodie did of scouting:    

“For those who like that sort of thing," said Miss Brodie in her best Edinburgh voice, "That is the sort of thing they like.”

But some people think that religion is harmful and should be actively opposed. An argument you often hear in this context is that religion is cowardly. We all have to die, and most of us don’t want to:  it’s said that religion takes the sting out of the most unwelcome feature of human life by providing us with a consoling fantasy about a life after death, and that it would be more courageous to turn our backs on the fantasy.

I want to challenge this story, because I’m not convinced that the idea of life after death is much of a consolation for human mortality - even for someone who is convinced that there is a future life, and that it will be benign rather than unpleasant.  The difficulty is that any life after death, however envisaged, would be radically discontinuous with the life that we already know.  And so the promise of a future life cannot possibly make up for the loss of everything we love and care about in the life that we have here and now.  The two things simply can’t be weighed on the same scale.  Imagine a refugee child who has just endured the destruction of their home, exile from their own country, and permanent separation from their parents and family and everyone else they have ever known.  Imagine telling that child that they will now live in a different country, where their life will ultimately be better than anything they have ever known.  Would you expect them to be consoled?

Death is an unwelcome prospect for everyone; and turning our eyes away from the reality of death is universal, whatever beliefs we hold, or profess.  Some people are forced to confront that reality through being diagnosed with a life-threatening or terminal illness:  much of the wisest writing about death results from this.  But even for those of us who don’t have such a diagnosis, there’s a great deal to be said for trying to face up to our own mortality.

Although death is inevitable, its timing is (for most of us) highly uncertain.  I will be 55 in November.  I could die within the next 24 hours; or I could live for another 40 years or more.  We can and should plan for a normal lifespan (which in today’s society means a life that may extend well into its 80s, or beyond); but we cannot assume that this is what we will get.  This is one of our primary difficulties, as soon as we try to think about death in any serious way:  the certainty of the event, combined with the uncertainty of its timing.

It helps, I think, to try to combine two things:  to maximise our sense of astonishment at the fact that we get to live a human life at all; and to minimise our sense of entitlement to any particular lifespan.  

In relation to the first, we can focus on the extraordinary set of contingencies that led to the existence of our species, let alone to the existence of any of us as individuals.  There’s a Buddhist parable about our sheer improbability.  Imagine a blind turtle on the ocean floor, that surfaces once every hundred years.  Now imagine a ring floating on the surface of the ocean.  How likely is it that the turtle will surface just at the right time to put its head right through the middle of the ring?  That’s how unlikely it is to be born human.  In its original context, it’s a parable about rebirth, and how rare and precious it is to have an opportunity to hear the Buddha’s teaching.  Read outside that context, you could understand it as encouraging a sense of privilege at living a human life, and as calling for ontological gratitude - gratitude for being, and specifically for our own being.  

As to our sense of entitlement, a friend who was diagnosed with terminal cancer when she was a little younger than I am now said that it was tempting to ask the question: why me?  But (she went on), given that there are vast numbers of people who die in or before their 50s, it makes just as much sense to ask: why not me?

There’s also a particular gift that the prospect of death, and the fear of death, can bring us - a sharper sense of compassion.  I can’t think of any more powerful spur to compassion than the reflection that every single person faces exactly the same fate that you face yourself, and fear for yourself.  When life is seen against that background, it becomes a great deal harder to see other people as enemies.  Opponents, yes; antagonists, yes; people who make you angry or drive you to distraction or who need to be thwarted for the sake of their own wellbeing or that of other people.  But enemies?

None of the above depends on any kind of religious faith or affiliation.  In terms of how religion might help us, I’m especially interested in religious practices that involve a setting-aside or bracketing of the everyday self, and going into silence - as for instance meditation, contemplative prayer, or Quaker worship.  What such practices can bring with them is an increased sense of yourself as permeable, a softening of the boundaries between self and world.  There’s an element of self-surrender about this, and at times this can feel like a kind of rehearsal for death.  This doesn’t at all depend on whether the explicit content of the practice involves some sort of reflection on death.  I think this is the most important thing that religion can offer in the face of death:  not promises for the future, but forms of practice that we can adopt here and now, practices that prepare us for life by helping us to live alongside death.

In present conditions, all of this has a particular urgency.  Since 1945, we’ve faced the possibility of destruction for our civilisation or even for our species, because of the weapons now available to us.  More recently we’ve come to realise that the climate emergency, and the wider ecological crisis of which it is a part, give rise to comparable risks.  And my strong sense is that, unless we can engage in some realistic way with our own individual mortality, we will be gravely hindered in how we engage with these wider threats.  If the prospect of our own individual death is effectively unthinkable and unspeakable, how can we possibly address issues about extinction at a global level?