The sense of presence

Noël Staples, Peterborough Meeting, Cambridgeshire Area Meeting, UK

Some time ago I remember ministering about how my sense of the presence seemed that morning to delight in itself, and how I shared in that delight.  It isn’t always thus —sometimes I seem to sense pain, sometimes joy or the utter, utter peace of which Thomas Kelly speaks.  Sometimes the sense of presence is so overwhelming I just weep helplessly.  The sense of presence is subjective, of course, but so many people down the ages record similar experiences I must give some credence to mine.  This sense of presence grew imperceptibly over the years to occupy a central position in my life — not so unusual of course.

I’ve come to think over the years — and this sounds rather like Neale Donald Walsh’s Conversations with God* — that the spirit created the material universe in order somehow to recognise itself.  Thus we and the rest of the material universe are part of that spirit, or God.  That might account for the sense of delight in itself. The pain I sometimes sense might result from the gradual degradation or dispersal of energy implied by the law of entropy (second law of thermodynamics) which is a painful thought for humans at any rate!

 

What is worth pondering, however, is the difference between the way this experience influences one’s life and the way belief does.  For many, perhaps most, religious people, their lives revolve around and are influenced by their belief in God, or Allah, the divine or the eternal spirit.  It may be that what is meant by belief is really experience, but belief, or to believe, means accepting something on the authority of another source, perhaps a minister of religion or a holy book.  To experience something is much more like knowing it, though I often say that one can only really be said to know something if one can tell it or explain to others.  Try telling someone what “knowing” God, or the sense of the presence is like!

With beliefs as one’s guide there is almost always something written down by others, perhaps inspired by a sense of the presence of God. Once written down it is fixed, unchanged by subsequent times and circumstances.  We Quakers, who try to live our lives guided by our unwritten sense of presence experienced in silence, often in unprogrammed meetings for worship in Britain, depend on trying to share our mystical experience with each other, testing our guidance in this way as it were in “real time”.  Our Quaker Faith & Practice is regularly revised to record more recent divine inspiration but, as the Elders of Balby reminded us about our Advices and Queries:

‘these things we do not lay upon you as a rule or form to walk by, but that all, with the measure of light which is pure and holy, may be guided; and so in the light walking and abiding, these may be fulfilled in the Spirit, not from the letter, for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.’

This may seem a rather uncertain and woolly way of guiding our lives, but it has worked for over three centuries and allows us to adapt and change with the realities of the world around us as we in turn change and adapt that world.

It is obvious there are problems —perhaps dangers— inherent in trying to interpret written down statements of belief that may have been inspired by God, or the spirit, in relation to days and events long gone by, so as to make them relevant to today.  Certainly there is a security to be had from codified beliefs, but whether the value of such security outweighs the problems of constant reinterpretation is open to question.  As I quoted in a review of the late chief Rabbi Jonathon Sacks’ 2015 book Not in God’s Name

‘Every text needs interpretation.  Every interpretation needs wisdom.  Every wisdom needs careful negotiation between the timeless and time.  Fundamentalism reads texts as if God were as simple as we are.  That is unlikely to be true.’

Perhaps what Quakers have, uncertain or woolly as may be, is a precious gift which the world could do with much more.

 

*The Complete Conversations with God, 2005, Hampton Roads Publishing, p27ff

 

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