Thou shouldst not be thinking – a review of ‘A Quaker Prayer Life’ by David Johnson,
As Sarah Jones was writing in 1650 (p60),
So cease thy mourning, thou weeping babe, that mourns in secret for manifestations from thy beloved, as thou hast had in dayes past; for I can testifie unto thee by experience, whosoever thou art in that state, that he is bringing thee nearer to him, for that was but milk which he fed thee when thou was weak, but he will feed thee with the Word from whence that milk proceedeth, if thou be willing and obedient to live at home with Jacob, which is to daily retire thy mind; though the gadding, hunting Esau persecutes thee for it, thou shalt receive the blessing in which all happiness and felicity doth consist for evermore.
…then so now. I’m coming to appreciate there is more to prayer than I thought. It feels like an exciting prospect, opening up for me in the future. As for now? Of course, yes, but it seems I’m not yet ready for prayer…at least not as early friends experienced it…though it may be possible, if I practice. In his book, David Johnson lifts out of the writings of early friends what prayer meant for them and how they practised it. They didn’t ‘leave a manual’, as he says, yet they did leave many references in their writings.
First, he deals with the ‘God’ language question. Early friends used very biblical language. Their prayers reflected this and were all connected directly with ‘God’. Quickly, in answer to a question, he writes that God is beyond words, mostly. We speak of our experience of God, of being touched by a presence. He refers to the book, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, as a way this has been expressed. This could be a diversion but, in my experience, it isn’t; and another curious example of how one work may lead you to want to read another…in time.
Prayer then is how we make ourselves open to God. It isn’t anything to do with the prayers we said or say out loud. And it’s not about our thoughts or words. It is a process of centring down and waiting for the still, small voice of God to find us. I really like the point the author makes that early friends carried out practices such as ‘centring down’ and ‘watchfulness’ in the mid-17 century, believing that they were rediscovering how early Christians prayed. This isn’t something new age at all. It is a discipline which people have practised for centuries. They created processes which we still use today, like meetings for clearness, to test our leadings.
Johnson writes that early Quakers had three stages in prayer. Firstly, remove the words which so often come from your ‘self’ or ego and take time to centre down. Next, wait patiently. Stand still, yet work tirelessly to put all thoughts out of mind and give yourself up to God. This is as true today as it ever was. Richard Rohr credits Thomas Keating with the phrase, ‘put it in a boat, and let it float down the river’, for letting go of our judgemental thoughts, and so enabling us to return to the centre. Then, when we are ready, we let the inward light in.
Commitment to silent waiting on the spirit is the prime Quaker testimony,” Johnson writes (p.52). How many of us would agree with him? What even does it mean? Prayer is a discipline. It is something we have to work at every day, maybe for just ten minutes on the train, as I was today, or up to 30 minutes in a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. It is only by regular practice that the transformation we want (and fear?) can begin.
I could go on but I think I’ll stop here. I hope I’ve said enough to make you seek the book out. There seems to be a lot about prayer around. A copy of Henry Nouwen’s ‘With Open Hands’ fell into my lap recently. And there’s also an article by Ginny Wall on Prayer in the Friends’ Quarterly¹, well worth a look.
I know this is a difficult subject for many of us…This book was one of two left on the table at Quaker Life Rep Council for reviewers to take. Yet, I also know that this is an important book. Holding it on my lap the following day, the friend I was sitting next burst out, ‘Oh, you’ve got it! I was waiting to see if anyone was going to pick it up and I saw it was gone.’ So, I know now it’s important to at least one other friend. So, I have to hurry, read it again quickly and pass it on.
Who better to end with than Sandra Cronk, God and us, she writes…
‘By leaving the darkness, we confront that empty place inside each of us…In that empty place…We come to God alone…A profound re-patterning begins in us…The dark night journey has re-shaped our activity patterns, our value system and our whole being so that God is the functional centre of our living.’ (p39)
So, that’s prayer…umm, not at all what I thought it was going to be. In 1658, Isaac Penington wrote, ‘When God begets life in the heart, there is the savour of it in thy vessel, and a secret, living warmth and virtue, which the heart in some measure feels, where by it is known. Lie low in the fear of the Most High, that this heaven may grow and increase in thee.’
‘And God is simply a three letter word…to that extraordinary inner mystery of Divine Presence in all its manifestations…mystical feelings and understandings…most cannot be put into words.’ (DJ, Pp. 3-4)
I decided to give the steps a try and wrote down some notes in my journal about practising…
Sunday morning 22 June – aware of 12 or so breaths in 45 minutes or so of restless thoughts; how difficult can it be to listen to your breath? I felt no gain; grumpy.
Monday morning 23 June – hugely calming, joyful, moving experience
Saturday morning 27 June – prayer…noisome, 30 mins, barely aware
Sunday morning 28 June – prayer practice, breathing better, more aware of my breathing; still many thoughts but came back, more aware of breathing…feeling more still, experience “warmth” sensation in head and behind eyes.
Thursday morning 3 July – aiming for 30mins, actually 50, sitting up in bed; sparrows, birdsong…breathing easier, calm; aware of slight nauseous feeling in stomach; more time on breathing coming back…how lovely it is. Started off in my head…reached out to include my heart, feeling good; a shallow sense of peace
Like TM (Transcendental Meditation)? A warm, bathing feeling in the skull; release of tension…freedom?
Saturday 5 July (9.25-10.19am) – thoughts, too many. Down to coffee?! Posture, even if in bed, straight…thoughts too many – work, projects, people; centre down, breathing; centre head – down heart. Space…deep space…beautiful.
Is God here? Words? How will I know? Trusting, waiting, where are the words? Perhaps, I didn’t need words…feeling well, kind.
Tuesday evening 8 July – first evening prayer, 8-9pm, between cycling in France and World Cup semi-final between Brazil and Germany on the tele; set mobile alarm for 50 mins…remember very little, time flies over; surfacing for random thoughts, then deeper, like sleep. Tiredness?
Thursday 10 July, 7.10 till – 30 mins, too busy, not settled; returned to the breathing discipline but barely centred. Too much stirring. Need prayer more so!
Monday morning 14 July – …a sense of peace and warmth; thoughts pop up, stories play out…I come back to the place and breathe…remember to breathe…how difficult it is to do…and how easy. In my head…then…in my whole body to diaphragm…gently lifting and falling…spiritoso…spirit…breath or wind…words? God’s words…the light, let the light in…and breathe, no more…no less and the light comes in. It’s practice.
Tuesday morning 15 July – how busy my mind is…problems, situations, conversations…bring it back. How hard it is just to breathe; last time, I wrote up notes straight after, have become aware that part of me was standing as if to the side, commenting on what to write here, preventing me from being fully present. So, I’ve left the notes…so many noises and distractions. The little things derail us. That’s ok. Bring it back. Breathing, so peaceful, calming. I want more of this. Where is God in all this? Early days but feels like I’m letting the light in.
Thursday morning 17 July, 6.30-7.29am – still waking up but can fit an hour in if I start now. DJ says 10-30 minutes, most of mine have been an hour. Main observation how hard it is just to breathe, I mean, to be aware of only my breathing. Aware that I’m not going to write notes of this straight away…breathing to be more present, without expectation (new) of anything happening; simply breathing. Alarm goes. To my surprise, been almost an hour. Would dearly like an hour more; feels like 20 mins. See now why morning prayer is better; sets you up for day. Still, any, prayer time good, I would have thought.
Late Thursday eve…I think a sense of ‘bonhomie’, of gladness, goodness; I often have feeling of worries about something and nothing…but not here, not now.
Saturday 19 July – definitely not recommended straight after breakfast.
Monday morning 28 July – without daily practice (?), how hard it is to focus on breathing. So many conversations…problems, in my head. Let them…move into your heart area as well as your head. Breathing deeper…still have a conversation, realise it and let it go…come back to breathing…the clamour goes.
Thursday morning 31 July…have practised regularly all this week up to 1 hour. Luxury, I know, on holiday. Still, waking early…feel a sense of peace (internal); feels good, before the start of all the ‘trials and tribulations’ of the day, so let’s see. Breathing deeper…full chamber. A bit less effort to focus and come back to the breathing, the flow of breathing…
August, without dates…I have grown to prioritise prayer over other activities I do such as Qi Gong in the morning. I have come to look forward to it. I need it…sometimes it is a struggle. So many voices going round my head. It is difficult to remember to come back to the breathing. And then I feel a sense of warmth, of love, of breaking through a lining or sinking down into a deeper state, opening, waiting. At times, I tell myself this is easy. I can do this. Meet my Self (or ego). It is a discipline and doesn’t come easy. I have to practise. And although it has only been for a few weeks, I feel I have started to benefit from the practice.
Here’s one example. Arriving at Yearly Meeting Gathering in Bath, only to be told ‘come back in an hour and we’ll have your room key’. Only they hadn’t. I had to go to the Accommodation centre for that. Then, finding a room without a door handle, making it difficult to get in or out. When the door slammed shut, I was locked in. Eventually, I was saved by the Aussies, a bad crew, till I was able to get away, only to fall in with an even worse lot, the Wilmslow mob…and yet, while I joke about the lovely people with whom I shared flats with, I noticed how calm I was feeling. I felt like I’d changed somehow. I ended up with a bigger room (with a door handle), a bigger bed and the lovely friends from Stockport I’d first shared a flat with in York at YMG in 2009.
And when told recently by a nurse at the NHS Walk-In centre that the red spots on my chest could mean blood clotting or meningitis, I took the news on board quietly. ‘Not shingles, then?’ Thankfully, they turned out to be a random rash. They left me on my own in the doctor’s room for almost an hour. I thought they’d forgotten me. Guess how I spent the time?
And so, I wonder how is my life changing as a result of practising this Quaker prayer more regularly. Almost three years ago, my tutor on Equipping for Ministry (EfM) asked me ‘where is prayer in your life?’ ‘Nowhere,’ I said. ‘I simply don’t pray…at all…and God language feels so…difficult to use…’
As was then…so is now.
Hardshaw and Mann Area Meeting
1 Prayer, article by Ginny Wall in The Friends’ Quarterly, February 2012, Volume 40, No. 1