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Reflections on the Chain of Prayer, 2024

Letter

As Norwich Quaker Meeting House was hosting this year’s international Chain

of Prayer in Norwich, and as I am the Quaker representative on the district

group of Churches Together, I had the pleasure of being there from start to

finish. Representatives from different denominations came to participate for

their 15-minute slot. There was much coming and going and each contribution

was unique, so I felt grateful to be able to witness so many different kinds of

worship.

The greatest surprise for me, however, was that the very first contribution and

the very last were remarkably similar in their approach to an idea of how we

see God (or not).

The first speaker was Julian Pursehouse, the Leader of the Methodists in East

Anglia. Part of his presentation which has stayed with me ever since, was a

reading of The Absence, by R.S.Thomas:


It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter
from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism
of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews
at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

Concentrating on this poem, I remembered one of the guests at the B&B which

my husband and I ran in Old Hunstanton. She was a regular guest, a delightfully

cheerful and kind woman, who was very devout. During her last visit, when she

had started to suffer from dementia, she told me that she had lost the love of

God “which passeth all understanding”, so she was waiting patiently for it to

come back.

Myself, I have always loved the medieval expression “the cloud of unknowing”.

We can never be certain about anything, as people, places and conditions are

constantly changing around us. But if we live confidently in the knowledge that

nothing remains static (particularly in the realms of science, where new

knowledge replaces old knowledge nearly every year), we can attain the

stability of knowing that even an absence can feel like a presence.

This was confirmed when, during the Quaker Meeting for Worship, which

finished the Chain of Prayer, Danene Rogers, one of the Quaker Friends, read

out a passage from “Quaker Faith and Practice”, our book of Quaker discipline:

True faith is not assurance, but the readiness to go forward
experimentally, without assurance. It is a sensitivity to things unknown.
Quakerism should not claim to be a religion of certainty, but a religion of
uncertainty; it is this which gives us our special affinity to the world of
science. For what we apprehend of truth is limited and partial, and
experience may set it all in a new light; if we too easily satisfy our urge
for security by claiming that we have found certainty, we shall no longer
be sensitive to new experiences of truth. For who seeks that which he
believes that he has found? Who explores a territory which he claims
already to know? Charles F. Carter, 1971

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