Advice and Query 3: Pray without ceasing

This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.

Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. Do you encourage in yourself and in others a habit of dependence on God’s guidance for each day? Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God.

The previous two A&Qs spoke of God and the spirit of Christ. This third passage adds another word for the Divine mystery to our Quaker vocabulary – the Holy Spirit. It is to this Spirit that we are exhorted to be open to, to be guided by. How are we to do this? In this third A&Q we receive instruction on spiritual practice. We can be open to the Holy Spirit by setting aside times of quiet.

Silence is a central Quaker tool for opening ourselves to the Spirit’s guidance. Note how silence is not valued for its own sake. We do not worship the silence. This is not ‘Silence’ with a capital ‘S’. The purpose of silence is to deepen our awareness of the divine, and to find in that awareness strength that is not our own.

There is no prescribed way to use times of quiet. There’s no set time or posture, and no suggested frequency. There’s no prohibition against using song or movement or birdwatching to reach a place of stillness. All of us need to find a way into inward silence and openness, and we are free to find the way that works best for us. Remember that the aim is to deepen out awareness of the divine. This is the end of all our spiritual practice.

The path of spiritual discipline is one of progress and growth. Can we cultivate through our spiritual practice a continuing and continuous sense of inward stillness? Can we, with Paul of Tarsus, rejoice always and pray without ceasing (1 Thes. 5:16-17)? The Quaker experience tells us that ‘in time you will find, as did Brother Lawrence, that “those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep”‘ (Qf&p 2.22). What begins as a simple suggestion to set aside times of quiet, becomes an exciting and terrifying challenge to live a life of ever-flowing prayer, of continuous connection to God. It suggests that the life of the cloistered contemplative is available to us even in the hubbub of our daily lives.

Such a prayer-filled life is counter-cultural, and can only come through practise and perseverance. Such a life is so challenging, that we can’t do it by ourselves. We need encouragement from our fellow Friends, and they in turn need our encouragement. We must support each other in this Quaker-style monasticism. Our spiritual lives are not private – we have a responsibility to each other for our collective spiritual health.

Again we hear the message that we are not self-sufficient, we are not independent. We need each other, and we are dependent on God. The guidance and strength we receive from God doesn’t just come once a week. One hour on Sunday listening to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts isn’t enough. Like the Israelites in the desert, gathering manner from heaven daily (Exo. 16), and following the pillar of cloud and fire daily (Exo. 13:17-22), the Holy Spirit is present to feed us and lead us every day.

Not only are we to encourage each other outwardly in our spiritual discipleship, we are to hold ourselves and one another before God, in God’s Light, inwardly in prayer. To hold another in the Light strengthens both the one who prays, and the one who is prayed for. I firmly believe in the power of prayer. I also believe it is a great mystery. I don’t understand it, but I don’t think that’s a good enough excuse for not doing it! If we live in a God-centred cosmos, as I believe we do, attending to God and lifting up our fellow creatures before God does not seem a ridiculous way to behave.

With all this talk of spiritual discipline, we could fall into the trap of thinking that our worthiness as Quakers depends on how spiritually disciplined we are. The final line protects against this. We don’t undertake spiritual practices in order to earn the favour of God or our fellow Quakers. We do them because the Holy Spirit cherishes us, and wants to bring us to new life. All are cherished by God, whether we set aside times of quiet or not.

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