Patience

Peace is a process which takes time, a great deal of time, and patience.

I believe it was Adam Curle who said that the process of reconciliation after a violent conflict takes at least as many years as the build up to the fighting. According to that reckoning, reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis will take well over 100 years. And the process of reconciliation cannot really begin properly until there is a just settlement of the conflict, i.e. an end to the occupation of Palestine.

Those of us who seek peace between Palestinians and Israelis – and that surely includes most Palestinians and Israelis themselves – need a great deal of patience. It is hardly surprising that young Palestinians are losing their patience as Israel continues to demolish Palestinian homes and takes the provocative step of closing the Al-Aqsa mosque for a day. Palestinian youths throwing stones and Molotov cocktails are met with rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas. More fatalities are likely.

There is an urgent need for new negotiations which will lead to a just and lasting solution to the conflict. The international community needs to insist on an immediate end to the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal under international law. And there should be an embargo on all arms sales to Israel. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much prospect of that at the moment.

However, more and more countries, now including Sweden, are recognising Palestine as a state. The British government should follow suit, especially after the recent vote in parliament calling for recognition of the state of Palestine. If you live in Britain, you could check out how your MP voted and, according to how they voted, thank them or politely point out the error of their ways.

Quakers here in Brussels are collecting money for kindergartens in Gaza which have been supported by Norwegian Friends for many years. In Britain and Ireland, Quaker Peace & Social Witness, based in London, administers the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) on behalf of the World Council of Churches.

There are things which we can do as individual Quakers and as Quaker meetings. But ultimately we have no control over events in the Middle East. We can only do what we can to sow the seeds of peace and justice and wait for them to grow and bear fruit.

Much patience is called for. Working nonviolently for peace and justice requires a great deal of patience. Indeed, in Latin America peace activists, instead of using the term “nonviolence” or “nonviolent action”, talk about “relentless persistence”.

Patience and relentless persistence are required in personal relationships as well. We need to persist in loving one another, both our nearest and dearest and those who seem to be working against us, until we discover, as Thomas Merton did, that “it is the reality of personal relationships which saves everything”.

This statement is the conclusion of Thomas Merton’s “Letter to a young activist”, which I quoted in my blogpost on “Joy”, published on 21 June. As a footnote to that blogpost I also gave the text of a letter from Isaac Penington to Friends (Quakers) in Amersham, written in 1667. In that letter he tells us: “Watch one over another, in that which is gentle and tender, and knows it can neither preserve itself, nor help another out of the snare; but the Lord must be waited upon, to do this in and for us all.

I’m reminded of a dream which I had quite a few years ago now, at a time when I was suffering from depression. In my dream, I was in a meadow at the bottom of the grounds of a large stately home or castle somewhere in Scotland. I found myself sinking into a bog. I was floundering and beginning to panic. A woman appeared and tried to pull me out, but that didn’t work and she was in danger of being pulled into the bog herself. I then heard someone telling me to stretch my legs down until I felt firm ground beneath my feet. So I stretched my legs down and, lo-and-behold, found firm ground. I was then able to walk out of the bog.

God provides the firm foundation, on which we can stand. No-one else can pull us out of the snare. “The Lord must be waited upon, to do this in and for us all.”

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Quakers: ego-driven or Spirit-led?

A couple of weeks ago I went along to the Sunday morning “parish eucharist” at the Anglican church where my brother is the church warden. The eucharist nourished me spiritually, as I hoped it might. The homily did not.

The main point that the visiting priest made, without any real theological justification, so far as I could tell, was that a church has to have a hierarchical structure to ensure unity and prevent corruption. Quite how a hierarchical structure would prevent corruption within the church was not clear to me. Indeed, I’m inclined to think that hierarchical structures are more prone to corruption than non-hierarchical ones.

Anyway, I’m thankful that I belong to a church which does not have a hierarchy of clergy. We (Quakers) find unity not in our beliefs, which are multifarious, but in our practice – of listening to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts and being led by the Spirit as individuals and as worshipping communities. At least, this is the ideal to which we aspire.

We don’t always get it right, of course. Too often we are ego-driven rather than Spirit-led. Quaker Meetings and Quaker organisations then become battlegrounds, instead of peaceable and peace-making communities. We each push our own priorities and insist on things being done as we think fit. We can end up tearing each other and the meeting or organisation apart.

This is a long way away from discerning ways forward which are in harmony with the loving purposes of God. We each need to recognise that we may be mistaken in our perceptions or in our analysis. And we each need to submit ourselves to the discernment process of the Meeting as a whole.

This applies especially to the clerk of a Meeting or a committee. The clerk serves as a facilitator, not as a leader or a decision-maker. Decisions need to be arrived at by the Meeting or committee as a whole, through a discernment process involving all those concerned. Our egos need to be set aside. If a clerk cannot set his or her ego aside when a particular issue is under discussion, he/she needs to step aside from the role of clerk during that particular discussion. Serving as the clerk of a Meeting or a committee requires a considerable degree of spiritual maturity.

Local, area, regional, and yearly Quaker Meetings are, ideally, non-hierarchical churches. Quaker organisations, on the other hand, and this may include the administration of a yearly meeting, are necessarily hierarchical, when it comes to day-to-day operations. It just doesn’t work to have day-to-day decisions about the operation of an organisation made either by individuals according to their own whims or by a committee meeting for worship. Whilst overall strategy needs to be discerned by governing bodies according to Quaker practice, the day-to-day management and administrative decision-making needs to be left to an individual who has both an overview and detailed knowledge of the workings of the organisation.

The role of a governing body is not only to discern a broad strategy for the organisation but also to ensure that the head of the organisation has the support that he or she needs to perform the complex task of leading (giving administrative direction to) the organisation. The role of members of a governing body is one of facilitation rather than leadership.

I have found it especially helpful to read Roger C. Wilson’s 1949 Swarthmore Lecture, Authority, Leadership and Concern, in which he draws on his experience in the Friends Relief Service. One paragraph is particularly instructive:

A distinction must be made between moral and administrative responsibility. To determine what shall be done and the quality of spirit in which ends shall be pursued, is a moral responsibility; to determine how that shall be done and to see that it is done, is an administrative responsibility within the moral framework. Moral responsibility is found by Friends through “the sense of the Meeting”. Administrative responsibility in complex matters is taken by individuals given the task of translating the “sense of the Meeting” into action, being guided all along by the moral obligation to remain true to the “sense of the Meeting”.

Within a Quaker organisation we all share moral responsibility. A few individual Friends take on administrative responsibility. They deserve our respect and need our support.

Peace

“I told (the Commonwealth Commissioners) I lived

in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.”

George Fox

 

Peace is about people living in right relationship with each other and with the planet. Peace is about justice and wellbeing for everyone. No individual can live in peace, unless the whole community is at peace.

“Shalom”, the Hebrew word for peace in the Bible, encompasses the wellbeing of the whole community. Shalom is characterised by just and peaceful relationships.

“Pax”, peace imposed by force, is not peace at all. It may be better than open warfare, but it serves to perpetuate systems of injustice.

During the Pax Romana of the Roman Empire Jesus challenged unjust laws which allowed a soldier to compel a peasant to carry his pack, a landowner to take the cloak of someone who was unable to pay a debt, or the master of a house to humiliate a servant by hitting him across the face with the back of his hand. Walter Wink has described how Jesus advocated imaginative forms of nonviolent action as a way of overcoming the violence of unjust laws and customs: carrying a soldier’s pack beyond the one-mile limit, giving the landowner one’s shirt as well as one’s cloak, turning the other cheek to the master of the house.

Jesus wasn’t advocating meek submission. He was encouraging poor folk to harness the power of active nonviolence, to stand up for themselves whilst at the same time demonstrating goodwill towards their oppressors. He told his followers: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you and spitefully use you.”

Martin Arnold, a retired German protestant pastor, has coined the term Guetekraft for the power of active nonviolence, the power of goodness. In four volumes Martin explains how Guetekraft, “goodness-power”, works – even against a ruthless dictator. Martin’s books are the fruit of research into the life and works of three practitioners of nonviolence who have successfully employed Guetekraft: Hildegard Goss-Mayr, Mohandas K. Gandhi, and Bart de Ligt.

It is because Guetekraft is powerful, that we do not need to resort to armed violence, which is invariably counterproductive, as Holly Near points out in the chorus of her song, “Foolish Notion”: “Why do we kill people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong? What a foolish notion that war is called devotion, when the greatest warriors are the ones who stand for peace.”

If we live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars, as George Fox did, we will not be persuaded to join an army, however just their cause may seem to be.

Violence cannot be overcome with violence. Violence breeds hatred and further violence.

On the other hand, peace grows from the seeds of peace. Small gestures of goodwill begin the creation of a climate of trust in which antagonists can eventually cooperate to dismantle systems of injustice. It may be a long and painful process, but it is far more likely than military action to bear the fruits of peace.

Key to the way in which Guetekraft works is the willingness to accept the costs of engaging in nonviolent action rather than do violence to one’s opponent. Peace warriors may sometimes be called upon to make the greatest sacrifice as Jesus did. Franz Jaegerstaetter, the Austrian farmer who was executed because he refused to serve in Hitler’s army, comes to my mind.

Millions of soldiers died in the First World War. What a fruitless undertaking!

When he was dying, Jesus prayed for those who tortured him. He is the Christ within us, the life and power in whom we live and move and have our being.

Jesus told his disciples: “My peace I leave you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives peace do I give you my peace.”

This war-torn world of ours is very much in need of peace – in Syria, in Palestine and Israel, in Ukraine, and in northern Iraq.

Britain is in need of peace too. A society in which significant numbers of people have to go to food banks to get enough to eat is not a peaceful one. And Britain’s possession of weapons of mass destruction makes the world more dangerous and less peaceful.

The world is in need of the peace that Jesus gives. We are called as individuals to be peacemakers. And we are called as communities of faith to be a force for peace in the world.

It is hardly surprising that we have got into the habit of thinking that life is a right to be defended. But we need to think of life, like peace, as a gift to be shared.

There are Quakers serving with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). I know of a Friend serving with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Ukraine. And there are Quakers serving in Afghanistan and in northern Iraq.

By no means all of us are called to this kind of service. There is much that we can do to foster peaceful community relations wherever we happen to live. And we can play our part in the peace campaigning and advocacy work of our faith community. When we join together with other faith communities and harness the power of goodness, we will become a force to be reckoned with.

Yearly Meeting Gathering of Quakers in Britain, 2-9 August 2014

It was a busy and enjoyable week, spent amongst 2,000 Quakers, mostly British, in Bath in the southwest of England. It was an all-age gathering with babies present and at least two Friends over 90 years old. And there were more than 80 Quakers from other Yearly Meetings, including half-a-dozen from Germany.

I sneaked into the overseas visitors’ tea on Sunday. Although I am still a member of Banbury & Evesham Area Meeting and hadn’t received an official invitation, I justified this on the grounds that: 1. my wife had been invited; 2. I am living overseas; 3. until I moved to Brussels, I was serving as a representative of Britain Yearly Meeting to the Friends World Committee for Consultation. Fortunately few of the other 2,000 Quakers had the same idea and the Friend at the entrance to the tent did not ask me whether I had an invitation. So I was able to enjoy conversations with a number of guests from other yearly meetings. Since I was travelling to and from Bath on Eurostar, I described myself as an “underseas” visitor.

Now, on my way back to Brussels, travelling at high speed towards Lille, I shall take a little time to reflect on my experience of Yearly Meeting Gathering in Bath. The positives far outweigh the negatives:

Meeting up with friends. It was great to meet up with so many old friends. On Sunday morning I joined in some circle dancing after breakfast. It was a large circle, but opposite me I recognised B, a fellow Sidcot old scholar. We last met some time in the eighties, so I wasn’t entirely certain that she was who I thought she was, until I was able to peek at her name-label. When I told her of my marriage, she congratulated me warmly and was keen to be introduced to Sasha. It was good also to meet friends whom I originally got to know when I lived at Woodbrooke in 1978/79, through my involvement in workcamps, through my peace campaigning work, through my active membership of Hampshire & the Islands Area Meeting (2001-2005) and Banbury & Evesham Area Meeting (from 2005), and through serving on various Yearly Meeting committees (Peace Campaigning and Networking group, Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations, and Quaker World Relations Committee).

 Two addresses to the whole Gathering have stayed in my mind: Ben Pink Dandelion’s Swarthmore Lecture, “Open for Transformation: Being Quaker”; and Jan Arriens’ introduction to the theme to be considered during Yearly Meetings over the next three years, Quaker witness in the world. Ben warned of the dangers of individualism and secularism. We are called to live out our Quaker witness not only as individuals, but as a faith community. Indeed, our witness may only be effective, if we act together as a community. We must also beware of losing the spirituality which is the foundation of our lives and witness. Ben said that Quakerism is a Do-It-Together religion. Jan Arriens reaffirmed the mysticism which is at the heart of our Quaker faith. There is a divine spark within each of us and we can each have direct contact with the divine, the promptings of love and truth in our hearts. When we rely on the Spirit for guidance and strength, we are likely to find ourselves engaging in effective witness to truth, equality, peace, simplicity, and community.

 I attended two “journey” sessions on Palestine/Israel. One of these took the form of interviews with four former Ecumenical Accompaniers, who had each spent three months in Palestine as part of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). There was a strong feeling that the Yearly Meeting should put out a statement in response to the Israeli attack on Gaza. A small group of Friends drafted a carefully crafted statement, which not only called on the UK government to recognise Palestine as a nation state and condemned the use of violence by both sides in the conflict, but also reiterated our firm opposition to anti-semitism as well as islamophobia. Whilst opposing the aggression of the Israeli armed forces and the occupation of the Palestinian territories, we stand together in solidarity with Jews who are increasingly being subjected to attacks just because they are Jewish. The statement was published before the end of the Gathering and can be found on the website of Britain Yearly Meeting (Quakers in Britain).

 I was pleased to be able to support Sasha (Representative of the Quaker Council for European Affairs – QCEA), Andrew Lane (Deputy Representative), and Sally Sadler (a member of the Bureau of QCEA) at special interest group sessions and in two “journey” sessions. A significant number of Friends attended at least one of these sessions and we look forward to enjoying their support.

 I found programmed worship organised by the Friends World Committee for Consultation most inspiring. There was spoken prayer and a sermon with a message of hope in a time of crisis. Without the hope which derives from our faith in God, we cannot be patterns and examples bringing love and peace into a fearful and war-torn world.

 I twice joined some other “owls” for some late-night singing of simple songs, mostly rounds. That was great fun and perhaps a foretaste of the community choir which I hope to join in September.

There were very few negative aspects of the Yearly Meeting Gathering, so far as I’m concerned, the chief one being that my wife had to return to Brussels half way through the week! The accommodation at the university was lacking in some respects (no cutlery, crockery, or kitchen utensils in the kitchen, so lunch preparation was a little difficult), but the cost of the accommodation for a whole week was very reasonable.

I wished I could take all my friends back with me to Brussels. I shall have to be content with the prospect of meeting up with them again at Yearly Meeting at the beginning of May next year – God willing.

British Quakers gather in Bath – and some thoughts about marriage

This afternoon, Sasha – now my wife – and I travelled together with Gretchen Castle, General Secretary of the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC), to Bath, in the southwest of England, to attend the Yearly Meeting Gathering of British Quakers.

The city of Bath is familiar to me from visits during my days at a nearby Quaker boarding school (Sidcot) and occasionally since then. I last visited Bath three or four years ago, accompanying service users from Evesham & Pershore Mind (a local mental health charity) on a trip to the Christmas market. I remember it being a wet day a few weeks before Christmas.

Today was relatively warm. A local bus took us past Bath Abbey, across the River Avon, with a good, but fleeting, view of Pulteney Bridge, and up a steep hill to the university. Bath is a fine city, famous for its Roman baths and Georgian terraces. But most of us will spend the entire week on the university campus, except when we go on various excursions on Wednesday.

About 2,000 Quakers have come to take part in the Yearly Meeting Gathering, which will combine the formal sessions of Britain Yearly Meeting and a whole lot of less formal events and activities. Most of us are British Friends, but there will be a significant number of overseas visitors amongst us. I have already bumped into Hadewijch Touwen, an old (i.e. long-standing) Quaker friend from the Netherlands. Sasha and I have been greeted by Kerstin and Ludger Mangels from southwest Germany. Kerstin is the editor of “Quaeker”, the monthly newsletter/journal of German-speaking Quakers. And Sasha has introduced me to the mother-in-law of a close friend of hers from Portland, Oregon.

Sasha has come here to work: to inform British Quakers about the role and work of the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA), and to learn about the concerns of British Quakers. I shall do what I can to support her and Andrew Lane, the Deputy Representative of QCEA, when he comes on Wednesday and Sasha returns to Brussels. I am also here as a member of Banbury & Evesham Area Meeting, one of the constituent area meetings of Britain Yearly Meeting. I’m keen to take part in the discernment of the Yearly Meeting. And I’ve been looking forward very much to meeting up with a great many old and not-so-old friends.

It was good to find Sarah here from Evesham Local Meeting. During my seven years as warden of the meeting house in Evesham, no other member of the local meeting attended Yearly Meeting. There are other friends here from Banbury & Evesham Area Meeting. I joined Maria and her daughter, Faith, at supper time. Faith is attending Junior Yearly Meeting. I asked Maria how long she had been married: 20 years! Sasha and I have been married for three weeks.

We have bumped into a few Friends who were at our wedding in Lancaster, a few who weren’t able to come, and several who would have been invited, if we hadn’t had to draw the line somewhere. John played an invaluable role in the clearness meeting in Lancaster which paved the way for our marriage. The clearness meeting was far from being a formality. So Sasha and I are prepared for married life to be challenging at times, not just a bed of roses.

Nevertheless, our experience of the past three weeks has been very positive. Although we have been living together since the end of last year, our life together somehow has a new flavour. Our love for one another is growing.

Around the time of our wedding I was reminded from time to time of a short song which I learnt many years ago:

May the love we’re sharing spread its wings
Fly across the Earth
And bring new joy to every soul that is alive.
May the blessings of the Universe
Shine on everyone
And may we all see the Light within, within, within.

 

Joy

“We need to find the deep and abiding joy
which comes with doing what love requires of us.”

I’m repeating myself – from a recent blogpost entitled “Love”. It isn’t possible to write about joy without writing about love, because love is the source of joy.

There’s God’s love for each and every one of us. And there’s our love for each other.

Most of us are blessed with loving personal relationships. We find joy in each other’s company. But this is rarely, if ever, pure joy. There are inevitably times of separation which can be painful. And we hurt each other, when we fail to do what love requires of us, and when we respond to being hurt with a cry of anguish which in its turn can be hurtful. We are all human! Then, given time, we are hopefully able to forgive each other, thanks to the love which we have for each other. With this love and this forgiveness comes joy.

We discover that “our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand…” (You can go to the footnote below for the full text of Isaac Penington’s letter to Friends in Amersham.)

Ever since I was a teenager in a Quaker boarding school I have wanted to work for justice, peace and environmental sustainability. I joined the Conservation Society when I was still at school. And, when I left school, I was given a travel bursary to attend a conference in Stockholm on “Environment, Development, Peace”. I naturally became an enthusiast for the World Council of Churches’ “conciliar process” for justice, peace and the integrity of creation.

I still seek to do what I can to further justice, peace and the integrity of creation. And yet I remember more and more often what Thomas Merton wrote in his “Letter to a young activist”:

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”

It is in personal relationships that love manifests itself. And this love brings us joy.

Read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison”, if you haven’t already done so. He was imprisoned by the Nazis and separated from his young fiancée. And yet joy shines through his poem, written towards the end of 1944, which eventually became a well-known hymn with one verse sung as a chorus:

Von guten Mächten wunderbar geborgen
erwarten wir getrost was kommen mag.
Gott ist bei uns am Abend und am Morgen
und ganz gewiß an jedem neuen Tag.

(By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning,
And never fails to greet us each new day. Translation: F. Pratt Green)

There is a story about Francis of Assisi, in which he explains to Brother Leo what perfect joy is. Francis tells Brother Leo that if the Brothers were to perform all sorts of miracles of healing or turn many people to Christ, this would not be perfect joy. After a while Brother Leo gets fed up with being told numerous examples of what is not perfect joy and asks Francis, “Tell me: What is perfect joy?” Francis explains that, if they were to arrive tired and exhausted at their destination and knock at the door, but be abused as imposters and chased away by a Brother who failed to recognise them, and endure this with patience and love for the Brother in their hearts, this would be perfect joy.

Joy is not dependent on our current circumstances, but rather on our sense of God’s love for us in every present moment. So we find joy not only in a colourful butterfly settling near at hand, or a dragonfly darting around us as we cycle alongside a stream, or in embracing a friend or a lover, but also in times of suffering when we can sense that God is with us in our suffering and gives us the patience and faith to endure.

Here’s a verse from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poem:

Und reichst du uns den schweren Kelch, den bitter’n
des Leids, gefüllt bis an den höchsten Rand,
so nehmen wir ihn dankbar ohne Zittern
von deiner guten und geliebten Hand.

(And when this cup you give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
We take it thankfully and without trembling
Out of so good and so beloved a hand. Translation: F. Pratt Green)

If this is what perfect joy is about, I don’t think I’m quite ready for it just yet. But I hope that I may find joy in being able to endure whatever trials and tribulations come my way with patience and love in my heart.

For “Joy is the echo of God’s life in us.” (Columba Marmion)

Footnote: I discovered the full text of Isaac Penington’s letter to Friends in Amersham on the website of Quaker Heritage Press at http://www.qhpress.org/texts/penington/letter20.html

TO FRIENDS IN AMERSHAM

FRIENDS,

Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand, if there has been any slip or fall; and waiting till the Lord gives sense and repentance, if sense and repentance in any be wanting. Oh! wait to feel this spirit, and to be guided to walk in this spirit, that ye may enjoy the Lord in sweetness, and walk sweetly, meekly, tenderly, peaceably, and lovingly one with another. And then, ye will be a praise to the Lord; and any thing that is, or hath been, or may be, amiss, ye will come over in the true dominion, even in the Lamb’s dominion; and that which is contrary shall be trampled upon, as life rises and rules in you. So watch your hearts and ways; and watch one over another, in that which is gentle and tender, and knows it can neither preserve itself, nor help another out of the snare; but the Lord must be waited upon, to do this in and for us all. So mind Truth, the service, enjoyment, and possession of it in your hearts; and so to walk, as ye may bring no disgrace upon it, but may be a good savor in the places where ye live, the meek, innocent, tender, righteous life reigning in you, governing over you, and shining through you, in the eyes of all with whom ye converse.

Your Friend in the Truth, and a desirer of your welfare and prosperity therein.

I. P.

Aylesbury, 4th of Third Month, 1667

Love

“Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but, for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it.”

This quotation from William Penn appears at the beginning of a chapter of “Quaker Faith and Practice: The book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain.”

Learning to love is most definitely a question of learning by doing. I have found reading helpful, e.g. “The Road Less Travelled” by Scott Peck, but it is no substitute for actually loving another person.

Love is not just having a nice warm feeling towards someone or wanting to be with them. Love is about being sensitive to another person’s needs and desires and going out of our way to help them to be happy. And we can only begin to do that by paying attention to our own spiritual growth. We are not going to help anyone else become any happier, if we ourselves are miserable for much of the time.

But it’s not much good pretending to be cheerful. We need to find the deep and abiding joy which comes with doing what love requires of us, whatever the circumstances and however much it might cost us.

One of my all-time favourite quotes is, of course, by Thomas Merton. If I’ve quoted it before, it’s worth quoting again:

“As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering, by our very contact with each other, because this love is a resetting of a body of broken bones.”

If you want to love without suffering, don’t even bother to try. I have often heard these lines by William Blake quoted in Quaker meetings for worship:

It is right it should be so;

Man was made for Joy & Woe;

And when this we rightly know

Thro’ the World we safely go.

Joy & Woe are woven fine,

A Clothing for the Soul divine;

Under every grief & pine

Runs a joy with silken twine.

Suffering is a fact of life. Love, joy and peace are not to be found through avoiding suffering. They are the gifts of a loving God to anyone who chooses to live life to the full and drink the cup that is flowing over.

When we learn to love, we become the agents of God who becomes human when humans become godlike. Jesus is the supreme example. When Christ dwells within us and we “live in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all war” (George Fox), then we too will become patterns and examples and will “come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one” (George Fox).

It may seem that God causes suffering. Maybe He/She does. I don’t know. What I do know, is that God loves each and every one of us. A good few years ago, when I was taking part in a group therapy session, the message that was coming through to me was: “I love you. I love you. I love you.” In the knowledge that we are loved, we become capable of loving others, so that we can tell them “I love you, because I love you, because I love you.” And now and then we catch a glimpse of the God within them, even though they may not yet see this themselves.