Living from the Centre

In the Gospel of Luke (Luke 9:55) there is an account of how James and John offered to call down fire from heaven to destroy a village which had refused to welcome Jesus when he was on his way to Jerusalem. Jesus rebuked his two disciples, telling them that they did not know what spirit they were of. Jesus did not come to destroy people’s lives, but to save them.

James Naylor, one of the early Quakers, knew a spirit which “delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong” (Quaker Faith & Practice 19.12).

In a declaration to Charles II the early Quakers expressed their conviction that the “Spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to move unto it.” They claimed: “we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ which leads us into all Truth will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.” (Quaker Faith & Practice 24.04)

When I was here in Quaker House, Brussels, 28 years ago, I read Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion. It made a deep and lasting impression on me. Here are some passages which I come back to (or they come back to me) from time to time:

“Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Centre, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return.”

“There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once. On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.”

“How, then, shall we lay hold of that Life and Power, and live the life of prayer without ceasing? By quiet, persistent practice in turning of all our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, toward Him who calls in the deeps of our souls. Mental habits of inward orientation must be established. An inner, secret turning to God can be made fairly steady, after weeks and months and years of practice and lapses and failures and returns. It is as simple an art as Brother Lawrence found it, but it may be long before we achieve any steadiness in the process. Begin now, as you read these words, as you sit in your chair, to offer your whole selves, utterly and in joyful abandon, in quiet, glad surrender to Him who is within. In secret ejaculations of praise, turn in humble wonder to the Light, faint though it may be. Keep contact with the outer world of sense and meanings. Here is no discipline in absent-mindedness. Walk and talk and work and laugh with your friends. But behind the scenes, keep up the life of simple prayer and inward worship. Keep it up throughout the day. Let inward prayer be your last act before you fall asleep and the first act when you awake.”

I’m still a long way from consciously keeping up an inward life of prayer and worship throughout the day. But from time to time a song will come to mind which I seem to have been singing to myself unconsciously. I often go for an hour’s cycle ride before breakfast, sometimes together with my wife and sometimes on my own. When I’ve been cycling on my own recently a particular song has tended to come to mind:

Herr, deine Liebe ist wie Gras und Ufer,
Wie Wind und Weite und wie ein Zuhaus.
Frei sind wir, da zu wohnen und zu gehen.
Frei sind wir, ja zu sagen oder nein.

Refrain: Herr, deine Liebe ist wie Gras und Ufer,
Wie Wind und Weite und wie ein Zuhaus.

Wir wollen Freiheit, um uns selbst zu finden,
Freiheit, aus der man etwas machen kann.
Freiheit, die auch noch offen ist für Träume,
Wo Baum und Blume Wurzeln schlagen kann.

Und dennoch sind da Mauern zwischen Menschen,
Und nur durch Gitter sehen wir uns an.
Unser versklavtes Ich ist ein Gefängnis
Und ist gebaut aus Steinen unsrer Angst.

Herr, du bist Richter. Du nur kannst befreien.
Wenn du uns freisprichst, dann ist Freiheit da.

Freiheit, sie gilt für Menschen, Völker, Rassen,
Soweit wie deine Liebe uns ergreift.
Herr, deine Liebe ist wie Gras und Ufer,
Wie Wind und Weite und wie ein Zuhaus.

Your love, O God, is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and our eternal home.
You leave us free to seek you or reject you,
you give us room to answer „yes“ or „no“.

Chorus: Your love, O God, is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and our eternal home.

We long for freedom where our truest being
is given hope and courage to unfold.
We seek in freedom space and scope for dreaming,
and look for ground where trees and plants can grow.

But there are walls that keep us all divided;
we fence each other in with hate and war.
Fear is the bricks and mortar of our prison,
our pride of self, the prison coat we wear.

O judge us, Lord, and in your judgement free us,
and set our feet in freedom’s open space;
take us as far as your compassion wanders
among the children of the human race.

Your love, O God, is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and our eternal home.

(Translation by Fred Kaan.)

The prayer which is most often on my heart is: “Help me to love … better.”

Richard Foster elaborates several forms of spiritual discipline in his book “Celebration of Discipline”. I guess I should remind myself of his suggestions. If I remember rightly, I think fasting may be one of them. I did fast from chocolate during lent this year!

One spiritual discipline which I’ve kept up for about forty years is to set aside time before or during breakfast for spiritual reading. Until a couple of years ago, I always used to read the Losungen, daily Bible verses and short quotations published by the Moravian church. Now I usually read a poem by the 14th century Sufi mystic Hafiz, and some reflections from “Bread for the Journey”, a book of daily readings by Henri Nouwen.

When we manage to follow spiritual disciplines which enable us to live from the Centre, our internal lives become simplified. Thomas Kelly writes: “there is a deeper, an internal simplification of the whole of one’s personality, stilled, tranquil, in childlike trust listening ever to Eternity’s whisper, walking with a smile into the dark. This amazing simplification comes when we ‘centre down’, when life is lived with singleness of eye, from a holy Centre.”

And: “Life from the Centre is a life of unhurried peace and power. It is simple. It is serene. … It is radiant.”

I should stress that this is an ideal, to which I aspire. I’m still, quite frequently, beset by anxiety and frustration and annoyance. And yet I hear a “voice” from the Centre telling me, in the words of a Taizé chant (after Teresa of Avila): “Nada te turbe, nada te espante; quien a dios tiene nada le falta. Nada te turbe, nada te espante: solo Dios basta.” (Let nothing trouble you, let nothing distress you. Nothing troubles the one who depends on God. God alone suffices.)

As we learn to live from the Centre, we become transformed. Our lives become “moving images of the Eternal Life” (Thomas Kelly).

In Testament of Devotion Thomas Kelly writes about transformation: “Guidance of life by the Light within is not exhausted as is too frequently supposed, in special leadings toward specific tasks. It begins first of all in a mass revision of our total reaction to the world. Worshipping in the light we become new creatures, making wholly new and astonishing responses to the entire outer setting of life. These responses are not reasoned out. They are, in large measure, spontaneous reactions of felt incompatibility between “the world’s” judgments of value and the Supreme Value we adore deep in the Centre. There is a total Instruction as well as specific instructions from the Light within.”

As we practice spiritual disciplines and live more and more from the divine Centre within, we become transformed, no longer ego-driven, but Spirit-led, as were the early Christians at Pentecost, as were the early Quakers, as women, men and children of various faiths have been throughout the ages. If, through spiritual discipline, we nurture our spiritual roots, we will inevitably be transformed.

This isn’t a path which I feel able to follow on my own. I need to be part of a worshipping community, ideally a local Quaker Meeting which is able to centre down during meetings for worship and become a truly gathered Meeting. Then the Meeting – as well as the individual members – is able to live from the Centre.

When conflict arises, as it inevitably does, instead of one or more members imposing their own “solution”, the Meeting – listening to the inner voice of love – is able to come up with creative responses to situations in which it is difficult to reconcile everyone’s needs. This requires humility and an ability to listen to each other. Maybe this is the most important spiritual discipline: listening with love.

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