Sitting in the Quaker Meeting House in Dorking yesterday morning, I looked through a high sash window at the way the fleeting autumn sun lit up a fine old tree in the garden outside. It put me in mind of Philip Larkin's poem, High Windows, in which he looks at a wild and free young couple and wonders if anyone thought of him like that when he was young:
...I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That'll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
It is this expansive, generous nothingness that catches me every time with this poem and makes me think of another poet who wrote of the 'nothing, nothing, and even on the Mountain nothing'. The 'nada' of John of the Cross is the summit of his spiritual vision - God is not a 'thing' to be observed but a powerful kind of 'absence'. In that sense, when we look at God, there is nothing to see. The experience of contemplation is that we find an exactly similar kind of 'nothing' at the core of our own being and that is the place where we encounter the divine - cor ad cor loquitur.
For Quakers, the absence of words or symbols in worship is the means by which we avoid mistaking any 'thing' for God, whether that be a symbol, a doctrine or a sacrament. God is in the silence. But for those of us who do use the rich variety of sound and symbol to express our worship, the use of these things should also be the way in which we learn that they have limits. We sing until there is no note adequate to describe the Silence we encounter, we surround ourselves with beautiful objects in order to see past them to the Nothing. Symbols are there to be broken open to reveal the grand Absence beyond them. But I am glad that Quakers remind those of us who love such things that they must never be mistaken for God.