Monday, 12 May 2014

My Prayer Story.

Recently, I invited a friend to share more of their inner experience publicly without knowing if they were able to do so. It's something of a revelation to discover I feel able to do so here. I'd like to thank Sheffield Friends and readers of this blog for creating a climate of respect, fellowship and trust without which, I suspect these words would not have been prompted*.

All of eighteen years ago, a bright, summer sun found me one afternoon in the fair city of Portsmouth sat within a chapel at a table, attempting to learn verses from the Bible in preparation for two years of missionary service on behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I often let myself in to the chapel on my way home from work to read and pray in the silence or to enjoy the use of a piano. Although alone, I kept being interrupted by unwanted thoughts popping into my head, making it difficult to achieve the task in hand. The verse I was trying to memorise was from the Book of James, chapter 1, verse 5, which reads "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally...". It occurred to me that I lacked wisdom in that very moment - "How could I learn these verses with these interrupting thoughts?". Reflecting on the verse, I realised I could ask God to explain to me how I could learn the verses. This sparked an inward debate - did I really believe that God could or would answer in such a direct fashion? Well, yes, I did - the Mormon faith is founded on many personal visitations in answer to such a prayer and the ability of every individual to get answers straight from God is very much the cornerstone of the religion. In fact, this very verse is purported to be the same verse which prompted Joseph Smith to ask God which church he should join. Being alone and with no pressing engagements, I decided to try the experiment for myself. I would ask in faith and see what happened. The verse continues "But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord." This describes something of the quality of the asking - one has to believe that one shall receive in order to receive.

I retired to another less-used room within the chapel so as not to be disturbed should anyone else come into the building and geared myself up for the task in hand. After some deep breathing and firming of my resolve, I knelt down and began to pray. Upon doing so, I was filled and surrounded by a feeling of love and light and had a picture of someone - a man, stood behind me. My analytical brain kicked in and explained that this was clearly a representation of my higher self and not actually God, but as I thought so, the quality of the experience faded, so I decided simply to believe, as a child, that I was talking to God and allowed myself to go with the experience. The feeling returned and increased in intensity as I asked my question - I can't remember whether I asked out loud or vocally inside my head, but I was used to praying vocally, so it may well have been out loud - "How can I can learn these verses of scripture?" An answer came immediately - into what? My mind? No, more than that. A voice which sounded like my own, but filled with infinitely more love and wisdom filled my being, saying - well, I won't tell you what was said. Suffice it to say that an answer came in plain English, describing my situation using a very everyday metaphor that I could readily comprehend. I asked for further clarification and was asked in return what I thought the answer could be. I was indeed having a conversation with the Almighty " one speaks to a friend." (Exodus 33:11)

For some time I was quite unable to leave, being filled with the spirit and the singularity of the experience, but eventually, I returned to a state of some normality and rose to my feet, enlightened, confirmed and astonished.

As you can imagine, I was very excited about the experience and wanted to rush off and share it with someone - who first?! Before doing so, I remembered the counsel of our church leaders "We'd have more spiritual experiences if we talked about them less." And that experiences like this "...are generally for our own edification, instruction, or correction." So I kept it under my hat for a long time and have told less than a handful of people in my lifetime. This is certainly the first time I have committed the experience to text and only do so here having been constrained and prompted* over several weeks and months to share that experience here.

Having done so, I realise how strange it is that knowing such experience is possible and freely available that I have not availed myself of it more in my life since that time. It is true that I used to pray a great deal, especially as a missionary and that answers to prayers sometimes came not as directly as this one but through situations or feelings - indeed, the incident of meeting my best friend, companion and wife, Stephanie coincided with a prayer and could certainly be seen as an answer to that prayer, but that is another story.

I can only explain the absence of prayer in my life by likening it to a period of my life when my earthly Father and I were estranged. I didn't want to talk to him because I knew what he would say and I didn't want to hear it. My take away from this is that I can and once more, want to pray.

Thank you for reading, friends.

Paul Newman.

*Promptings are how I describe gentle inward nudges, felt more than thought or heard but there are occasions (often in ministry) when it's like receiving dictation - words which come through me, perhaps from a deeper part of me I do not yet recognise as self, perhaps from God. 


Laura Kerr said...

Thanks so much for sharing this with us Paul. In some ways, rather alien to the Quaker style.. and in other ways, very much in line with the mysticism/personal experience which is at the heart of Quakerism.

Craig Barnett said...

This is a fascinating insight Paul, thanks for having the courage to share it. I certainly wouldn't describe this kind of experience as alien to Quakerism. Both George Fox and John Woolman describe vivid experiences of visions and voices in their Journals. Experiences such as this are surprisingly common among all sorts of people in fact, despite the modern taboo about anything that appears 'non-rational'.
It's certainly true that Liberal Quakerism has found it increasingly difficult to cope with the reality of spiritual experience without trying to intellectualise it away. I think it' safe to say that a religious tradition that can't deal with the reality of religious experience is in need of some re-examination...
In Friendship,