Tag Archives: NFN Woodbrooke Gathering 2019

Spirituality without Supernaturalism

A guest post from John Senior (mid-Wales Area Meeting):

Finding Inner Stillness – Spirituality without Supernaturalism

John Senior                                                                                                                 June 2019

On a sunny Thursday in late May, nine Friends gathered at remote and tranquil Dolobran Meeting House in mid-Wales for a day of ‘Finding Inner Stillness – an Experiential Exploration following leads given in Advices & Queries 1 & 3’.

This was the culmination of thoughts I first expressed in a short article ‘Words killeth’ published in the Friend, 8th June 2018, and subsequently developed into a 20 minute talk ‘Quaker spiritual practice – Advice and Queries 1 and 3 shorn of supernaturalism’ given at the NFN Conference in March this year. I had become frustrated that all the discussion about the meaning of words used in Quaker Faith and Practice had become a distraction from our mystical experiential roots. There are however, in Advices and Queries at the very beginning of Quaker Faith and Practice, four clear pointers:

‘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’. (A&Q3)

‘Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts.  Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life’. (A&Q 1)

‘Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God’. (A&Q 3)

Sadly, nowhere in Faith and Practice is there guidance on putting these four instructions into practice.

The response to my article was not encouraging – just a pedantic observation that ‘Words killeth’ is bad English: it should be ‘Words kill’ or ‘The word killeth’.

Undaunted, I set about the task of uncovering practices behind these four instructions, starting by rewriting them shorn of their unhelpful veil of supernaturalism:

All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness…

…even amid the activities of daily life.

Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.

Hold yourself and others in the Light.

Putting these directions into practice formed the structure of the day at Dolobran.

Geoffrey Hubbard (QF&P 26.12, 1974) states that ‘…one approaches…by efforts which call for the deepest resources of one’s being…to the condition of true silence…not just of sitting still…but of a wide awake, fully aware non-thinking. The thinking me has vanished, and with it vanishes the sense of separation, of unique identity…one is conscious of being a participant in the whole of existence, not limited to the body or the moment… It is in this condition that one understands the nature of divine power, its essential identity with love, in the widest sense of that much misused word’.

We spent most of the morning trying out a range of methods for bringing the mind to stillness – methods widely used in the East, but less familiar to non-monastics in the West – to find one that worked best for each of us. First finding a good posture and relaxing any tension in the body, scanning from scalp to toe (or toe to scalp). Then observing the breath, or looking at a pebble, or chanting a mantra – a short repeated word or phrase such as Maranatha (Aramaic: Our Lord comes) – under the breath with or without meditation beads, or practising slow walking meditation taking a step forward on each breath. All are methods for focusing the mind so as to prevent wondering thoughts. Finally, once the mind had settled, watching thoughts as they arise and just letting them be: ‘Let through (into awareness), let be (without elaborating), let go’, or, perhaps more memorable, ‘Let unexpected visitors in through the open front door, let them out by the open back door, but don’t give them any biscuits!

Of course, this is of little value unless we can maintain a degree of inner stillness ‘even amid the activities of daily life’. Although the discipline of a regular practice helps us respond to daily events in a non-judgemental manner rather than reacting on impulse, we need to be on the alert for loss of equanimity. Reflecting on this was helped by reading two ancient stories (see http://www.katinkahesselink.net/tibet/zen.html ). One, Taoist, compares the calm way in which an old farmer, unlike his neighbours, reacts when his horse escapes; returns with three wild horses; one of which throws the farmer’s son, breaking his leg; saving him from conscription. The other, Buddhist, compares the reactions of two monks when one helps a young woman by carrying her across a river: the other monk worries about the unseemly action of the first monk, who replies ‘I set her down on the other side, but you are still carrying her’.

Following a quiet lunch, the only distraction being a pair of redstarts feeding their young in their nest under the gable end, we took heed of the statement in A&Q 1 that ‘Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life’. For this we are fortunate in having the guided meditation ‘Experiment with Light’: theologian Rex Ambler’s carefully researched reconstruction, based on detailed study of early Quaker texts, of a practice referred to, for example, by James Nayler (QF&P 21.65), and in more detail in George Fox’s letter of 1658 to Lady Elizabeth Claypole, and 24 years later in William Penn’s ‘No Cross, No Crown’. The meditation is presented by Rex in the format ‘Mind the Light, Open to the Truth, Wait in the Light, Submit to the Truth’ – giving the acronym MOWS. After the 40 minute guided meditation we took advantage of the sunshine to spend half an hour alone in the garden absorbing what had arisen, and expressing it in words or drawing if inspired to do so, before gathering for a sharing session based on the guidance given in QF&P 12.21.

Experiment with Light is a deep practice, best practised in a group that meets on a regular basis: for texts and guidance, and your nearest group, see www.experiment-with-light.org.uk

To complete the final admonition to ‘Hold yourself and others in the Light’ we first wrote the names of those, including ourselves, whom we wished to hold in the Light on a small piece of paper which we folded and placed in a container – in our case a Tibetan ‘singing’ bowl. We lit a candle, and after declaring ‘We dedicate this time and space to the healing of all those who are named so that they may benefit from the Light’ we sat for half an hour in the manner of Meeting. During the sit any other names that came to mind could be mentioned. The session and the day was brought to a close by declaring ‘We wish all merits deriving now or in the future from these our practices to be distributed everywhere for the good of all’, shaking hands, and extinguishing the candle.

Thus we each found a PRACTICE for finding ‘an inner stillness’, considered our EQUANIMITY ‘even amid the activities of daily life’, engaged in EXPERIMENT WITH LIGHT to experience the ‘Light (that) shows us our darkness and brings us to new life’, and held ourselves and others in the LIGHT – giving the acronym PEEL. I hope that this will be of some assistance to all of us who are seeking to peel away outer delusions to find, and give life and expression to, the inward source of our strength – the Light within.

 

John Senior                                                                                                                 June 2019

Report on 2019 NFN Conference

A little late in arriving but here a slightly more formal report on our 2019 Conference at Woodbrooke than the more personal reflections published so far.

The Conference was attended by just over 30 people, a few of whom only attended on the Saturday.

In addition to our NFN feedback form, there were at least two other feedback forms from Woodbrooke itself and that may have accounted for the relatively small number of our own feedback forms returned – just 10.

These were for the most part very positive and the Saturday afternoon trip to the Bourneville Carillon was greatly enjoyed by those who decided to go. (Details from the feedback forms can be found here.)

The conference began on the Friday evening with a ‘getting to know you session’, first of the Steering Group members explaining who they were and then small groups of about 4 ’neighbours’ asking various prompted questions of each other. These groups were ‘fluid’ in that first one and then another member of each group was asked to move to the neighbouring group, first to the left and then to the right.(Thus about half the meeting moved from one group to another at some point). This seemed to work quite well and was followed by an introduction to the history of the NFN and its present situation by David Boulton. Questions about the future of NFN were then left to be followed up ahead of the AGM on Saturday evening.

On Saturday morning our first speaker was Hugh Rock of NFN (and who did all the work of managing the Conference bookings) who spoke on what he thought was a defining characteristic of Quaker practice: ‘The authority of no authority: the paradox of Quaker unity through diversity’ as the ‘actual, unifying, but rather difficult to summarise, practice of Quaker Faith.’ which referred to the absence of a priesthood or hierarchy (‘The refusal of priesthood tells of the reliance and validation of individual experience.’); the discernment of ‘God’s will’ or ‘the sense of the meeting’ as part of the ‘Quaker business method’ in Meeting for worship for business. (For non-Quakers, ‘business’ here means the business of running Quaker Meetings and making the many decisions about activities which have to be made to keep things moving forward). (‘The refusal of vote taking within the Society is a powerfully equalising principle. It recognises, unusually, that democracy may be a form of dictatorship.’). He went on to illustrate this with a practical example drawn from John MacMurray’s statement that ‘the central conviction which distinguishes the Society of Friends is that Christianity cannot be defined in terms of doctrinal beliefs’ (Swarthmore Lecture 1965, p50). Hugh saw this ‘authority’ deriving from an absence of ‘authority’ as a key aspect of Quaker unity enabling the acceptance of great variety in belief (perhaps from nontheism to evangelical christianity) under one roof and great fluidity in our boundaries. Unity, diversity and boundaries being the theme of the conference. (Hugh’s post-conference text of his talk can be found here.)

After the morning tea and coffee break, we were addressed by Tony Philpott, Clerk to the Quaker Universalist Group, who gave a carefully thought out presentation of the history of ‘universalism’, in various senses, throughout Christian history, referring to inclusivity and exclusivity, and then the history of Quaker universalism from George Fox, Margaret Fell, William Penn and others through to the 1990’s and the forming of the Quaker Universalist Group (QUG). He gave, by way of example, a personal account of his own journey ‘From Christian to Quaker’, the subject of his book of that name, which also deals with a broad range of religious viewpoints (varieties of Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist and Quaker). Tony examined unity, diversity and boundaries within Quakerism in Britain Yearly Meeting, based on Ninian Smart’s ‘Dimensions of the Sacred’. He then looked at issues to do with definitions, membership, etc., and suggested that Quaker universalism may have much to offer as a solution to the problems raised by diversity.

On Sunday morning our third keynote speaker Marisa Johnson from Friends’ World Committee for Consultation – Europe and Middle East Section (FWCC-EMES) spoke on “The gift of difference in the World Family of Friends”, addressing the vast diversity of culture, theology and practice within the Quaker World Community. Her account was illustrated with slides and a moving video from the meeting of FWCC representatives in Peru in 2016. The video illustrated that ‘vast diversity of culture, theology and practice’ in a way which no text would have done. Marisa’s talk was also deeply personal, relating her own spiritual journey from her native Italian Catholicism to a London Church of England (‘because it was there’), then Methodists, and then to the ‘Sea of Faith’ and Quakers in Cambridge, as well as the personal journey from being a child and young person in Italy to a married woman in England (with an English husband Mick, also present for the Conference). Marisa spoke about how, through her international work, she has come to value the “uncommon ground” and how she moved from celebrating the freedom from dogma to trusting her leadings to keep her safe during very dark times in family life. Many present were I think moved near to tears by Marisa’s account and the illustration of the great diversity across the world family of Friends. Marisa finished with a word game she has devised to illustrate how certain (for example, biblical) words can be re-phrased in ways which are associated with quite different emotions. (The example given to me was ‘Evil’ versus ‘Cause of Harm’). The text of Marisa’s talk (minus a few personal anecdotes) can be found here.: The gift of difference in the World Family of Friends – holding on to the Uncommon Ground.

Our Saturday afternoon programme had continued with 3 short presentations volunteered by course participants:

Roger Warren Evans, South Wales, on his own version of ‘Advices and Queries without using the word God’: “‘Take Heed, Dear Friends’, a nontheist re-statement of the values and perceptions of Advices and Queries”;

Kitty Rush from Massachusetts on “‘New Bottle Quakerism’. Finding words to describe the Quakerism of today which would be useful to theists and non-theists alike”;

John Senior, Mid-Wales, on “Quaker spiritual practice – Advices and Queries 1 and 3 shorn of supernaturalism, a toolkit”. (John has a further session on this topic on 30th May – see here.)

These were followed by the option of further discussion of these presentations or a walk through the park to Bournville for a Carillon performance.
After Tea and before Supper, the Saturday programme continued with open discussion around reflections prompted by ‘To be or not to be’ (paper, David Boulton 2019, as included in participant packs, on the future of NFN) preparatory to the Nontheist Friends Network AGM itself.
Saturday evening had our usual ‘Quaking with Laughter’ followed by Woodbrooke’s Epilogue.

The Conference closed on Sunday after Marisa’s talk, a plenary session and finally lunch.

It is also worth noting that participants included those from the following (Area) Meetings: Bath, Cambridgeshire (3), Chilterns, Cumberland, Gloucestershire (3), Ipswich, Kendal & Sedbergh, Leeds, London West (2), Massachusetts (2), Mid-Thames (2), Mid-Wales, North-East Thames, South London (2), South Wales (2), Southern Marches, Sussex, Taunton, Torquay, Warwickshire, West of Scotland (4), Wirral (E&OE!).

A Conference Reflection

A personal view from one of our Steering Group members.
ALL Conference participants are invited to share THEIR reflections here.
(Scroll down to the very bottom to complete ‘Leave a reply’ there. You may leave the ‘website’ field blank and only need enter your name and a valid email address which will not be shared or visible on the site).

It will soon be 3 weeks since our NFN annual conference at Woodbrooke for 2019. Time enough to reflect a little on the experience.

There were about 32 present for all or part of the conference (I don’t have the exact number) and I was somewhat surprised, looking round the Cadbury Room during our final plenary session on the Sunday, that I could name everyone there (but for one surname which I had to look up). That has never happened before.

Of course, there were many ‘old friends’ (as distinct from ‘Old Friends’) who had been to many NFN conferences before but, amongst the 28 there for that final session, there were 10 who had not attended previously.

The lower numbers than previous conferences (when we have had between 50 and almost 100 attending) presented some disadvantages but also created a cosier atmosphere and the feeling by the end (at least for me) that everyone knew everyone else.

I’m sure some of those who had not attended before may feel quite differently and one participant who was rather unhappy with what he saw as ‘unquakerly’ behaviour by some there, wrote and told me about that.

I would be very interested to hear from other participants, and especially those who had not attended before, how they felt about the conference. We only received 10 feedback forms, which were generally very positive with mostly ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ ratings, and this might have been partly because there were also at least two feedback forms from Woodbrooke to complete. I know it can be difficult to find time to complete forms in the hurry to pack and leave on Sunday, but I also wonder whether only those who felt most enthusiastic, bothered to complete the forms!

You can still let us know ‘how was it for you’, either by commenting below (‘Leave a reply’), or by emailing one of the Steering Group, including myself at trevor(at)humber.co.uk (replace the (at) with the usual @ symbol (and no spaces) in your email ‘To:’ field).

Different individuals will have responded differently to different aspects of the conference but I found, as I often do, that the overall effect was very inspiring for me. Any one part on its own might have been less so, but taken together, for me, there was a good balance between our 3 main speakers and other aspects of the conference.

One slightly unsatisfactory aspect was that we did have problems with the microphones, mainly because many, myself included, find them difficult to hold close to the mouth the whole time you are speaking and find them off-putting. Microphone problems affected the short presentations where one speaker could be heard very well and the others only with difficulty. I thought that this might partly have been because the mikes handled some voices better than others.

But apart from those difficulties, I felt the conference overall was excellent. I hope we can add some specific information and reflections on each of our 3 key speakers shortly.

Please do let us know about your experience of the conference and any thoughts about future conferences, local gatherings and indeed the future of NFN as discussed at the AGM.

Trevor Bending

Website and 2019 Conference

I have left the 2019 Conference page (29-31 March – last weekend) as the home page for the time being but enabled comments on it so, if you were there, please use the comment box (‘Leave a reply’) to give us further feedback on the conference.  I will use my discretion as to whether to publish, edit or remove these!

Otherwise I have tried to update the website to reflect recent changes but some areas might still be a bit out of date. Much of the ‘old content’ is still relevant and of interest, so please have a look around (a good browse) and let me know through comments on relevant pages if you feel anything needs updating or refreshing.

Trevor

Last weekend’s gathering at Woodbrooke

It was very agreeable meeting everyone last weekend, even if, in the end, we only had just over 30 participants. Being smaller loses something but I think we also gained from the smaller numbers.

One enthusiastic first-time participant suggested we should have conferences on themes of general Quaker interest rather than just related to non-theism, theological positions and so on – but last year’s conference was on the future of Quakerism – will it survive?

What do other Ffriends think about this?

Feedback from the conference was generally very positive and further details will follow in due course.

Trevor Bending

PS. If NFN is to continue, we really do need some of you to come forward to join the Steering Group. (We can co-opt new members between AGM’s). So, if you feel you could give even just a little time, please email us or use the Contact Form to send me a message.

NFN November 2018 Newsletter

The November newsletter with our latest news, book reviews, details of the 2019 conference, short articles as well as news from nontheist Friends in America has now been added to the website.

NFN members and others who have signed up to receive this will have had it in their email a week or so ago.

As with all the other newsletters, please see under ‘Articles –  Newsletters’ above.

2019 NFN Conference Gathering and AGM at Woodbrooke

The 2019 Gathering and Conference page has been made our homepage from today until the conference takes place in March. Now is the time to book!

The general ‘About’ the NFN page can still be found under ‘About’ (where else?) and ‘news’ in the form of these not so regular posts is as ever under ‘News’.

Please support our Network by joining but also by commenting (‘Leave a reply’) wherever this is indicated or by sending your comments on the ‘Contact‘ page. Comments and enquiries on the Contact page are dealt with as appropriate, forwarded to the relevant member of our Steering Group or can be used to create a post if requested.

NFN 2019 Gathering, conference and AGM

All members of NFN are invited to attend the AGM which will take place on the Saturday of our annual gathering at Woodbrooke. (30th March 2019).

Application forms for the conference have now been posted on the 2019 Conference page.

We hope as many of you as are able will attend the conference which is our best opportunity each year to gather together with like-minded Friends but if you are not able to do so please consider coming for the day on Saturday or just for the AGM.