Difficult witness from the ground of silence

By Jill Segger
February 28, 2019

We are experiencing a time of confusion and rage. Noisy conjecture paces in vain circles, displaying its caged fury wherever we turn. Belittling with venom seems to have become the acceptable norm.

The young people who came out of their schools a couple of weeks ago in protest at the failure of politicians to address the growing climate crisis, challenged us to tell them what we plan to do with our one, wild, precious planet. Too many of my generation – who will be compost when these children and their children pay the price of our failure – poured bilious condemnation upon them, Andrea Leadsom, a senior politician with leadership ambitions, tweeted prissily “It’s called truancy. Not a strike.”

Four days later, a good deal of confused (and still ongoing) noise was generated by discontented MPs from both the Labour and Conservative benches as they left their parties to form The Independent Group. At this stage they appear to have little in common but dislike of their leaders. As increasing  chaos and recklessness winds us on towards 29 March, what they may become is not yet clear.

However, conclusions are drawn on small evidence while the whirling circles of aggression and falsehood become ever more difficult and exhausting to navigate. If ever there was a time to step back and take the upward glance, it is now. We will need to return – the responsibilities of citizenship require it – but I want to take the opportunity of reflecting on a spiritual space.

Quakers do not subscribe to the doctrine of ‘sola scriptura’. We see the Bible as one source of inspiration among many. That is not to say that we hold it be be a lesser source, but rather that we do not believe that revelation of the Divine or the evolution of maps for our journeys of approach came to an end two millennia ago.

For me, poetry figures prominently in non-scriptural forms of revelation. UA Fanthorpe’s poem Friends’ Meeting House, Frenchay, Bristol is a particular and telling guide to this. She takes the rich scriptural metaphor of the Vine and uses it to portray the growth of the life of the Spirit in a particular place:

..with massing insistent shoots,

That leaf through windows and doors, that rocket through chimneys

Till flesh melts into walking forms of green

But hear the poet’s knowledge of the part required of us:

Three centuries of reticent, meticulous lives

Have naturalised it on this ground

Scripture and experience need and feed each other. We are most certainly at our best when we know and practise in this manner. It is in doing this that dignity is conferred upon us in the ground of silence. We sit with the Beloved, not just knowing the Divine but letting Godself know us. Such is the humility of love and of the Spirit.

But how will this help us in these turbulent times? Listen again to that quiet woman from Kent who “became a middle-aged drop-out in order to write”. The Vine, she reminds us, lest we should be tempted to a reclusive and condescending piety,

… exacts

Such difficult witness, whose work is done

In hopeless places, prisons, workhouses,

In countinghouses of respectable merchants,

In barracks, collieries, sweatshops, in hovels

Of driven and desperate men.

                                                  It begins here

In the ground of silence.


© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.