Monthly Archives: June 2018

An adequate life 2

Thomas R. Kelly was born in June 1893 on a farm in Ohio, USA to Quaker parents. His father died when he was four and his mother worked the farm and later moved to a town so her children could get to school and later to a Quaker college. Kelly studied physical sciences primarily studying chemistry, but at Haverford College he was taught by Rufus Jones and was inspired by philosophy and a search for truth. Rufus Jones recalled Kelly’s arrival describing how Kelly came: ‘to my house deeply moved by his first-day stirring events. He sat down in front of me, his face lighted up with radiance and he said suddenly, “I am just going to make my life a miracle!”’

What Douglas V. Steere calls hunger for life, for an adequate life made Kelly open to religious commitment but he also volunteered as a Quaker during World War I working with German prisoners. After the war he married Lael Macy and then moved on to study philosophy before returning to Germany between the wars to work in a Quaker Centre in Berlin. On their return to the US he more or less pursued an academic career becoming interested in the Far East:

‘I have had a desire to be acquainted with the philosophical thought of the whole world, not merely with the thought of the Western world. To live solely within one’s own cultural traditions…impresses me as a provincialism not warranted by the spirit of philosophy itself.’

In another letter back to Rufus Jones he writes: ‘the horizons I have wanted to have broken, have been breaking and showing new and wonderful vistas.’ There was a health price to pay for all this searching and hunger for new horizons and Kelly suffered a long period of nervous exhaustion with various other physical health problems. Once recovered, he began to give a number of public speeches, and the response was much appreciation of what was felt as his authenticity. He wrote and spoke with what has been described as experimental authority, not so much as one possessed of ‘knowledge about’ and more as one who had had unmistakable ‘acquaintance with’. This is an example:

‘To you in this room who are seekers, to you, young and old who have toiled all night and caught nothing, but who want to launch out into the deeps and let down your nets for a draught, I want to speak as simply, as tenderly, as clearly as I can. For God can be found. There is a last rock for your souls, a resting place of absolute peace and joy and power and radiance and security. There is a Divine Centre into which your life can slip, a new and absolute orientation in God, a Centre where you live with Him and out of which you see all of life, through new and radiant vision, tinged with new sorrows and pangs, new joys unspeakable and full of glory.’


The quest for adequacy

One definition of ‘an adequate life’ has been given as ‘grasping intuitively the whole nature of things’, a life that has seen and felt and refocused itself to this whole. Therefore ‘an inadequate life’ is one that lacks this adjustment to the whole nature of things leading to a twisted perspective, partiality and confusion. In the introduction to ‘A Testament of Devotion’ by the Quaker Thomas R. Kelly, Douglas V. Steere writes that Thomas Kelly’s life is the story of a passionate and determined quest for adequacy.

It’s a strange word to use about someone because the meaning of adequacy is about a state of being sufficient for the purpose. In other words it doesn’t suggest abundance or excellence or even more than what is absolutely necessary. Adequacy is simply the state of sufficiency. Yet as the dictionary advises there is a current of equality running through the noun adequacy. The Latin word from which it is derived is adaequāre, ‘to make something equal to something else.’ The English word made its appearance in the early 1800s as a derivative of the adjective adequateAdequacy means being equal to the requirements of the situation — no more, no less.

The words and the usage of the word in this context remind me of Donald Winnicott’s use of the term ‘good-enough’, especially in the context of the ‘good-enough mother’. Often people think that ‘good-enough’ sounds a bit half-hearted but in fact it’s a very realistic term that Winnicott uses about whoever is fulfilling the mothering role. There is enough good in what happens – and in everything there is always the good and the bad – so the good-enough mother meets what Winnicott calls the omnipotence of the infant and to some extent make sense of it. She also does this repeatedly and if this happens enough the true self begins to have life because the mother’s good-enough responses gives strength to the infant’s weak ego. Conversely the mother who is not good enough (note Winnicott stops using a hyphen at this point) is not able to do this and repeatedly fails to meet the infant’s experience – what Winnicott calls ‘the infant gesture’ and instead substitutes her own gesture which then leads to compliance and to the early stages of the false self which belongs to and emerges from the mother’s inability to sense her infant’s needs.

If we are on a quest for adequacy in life, and to be a good-enough mother/parent to ourselves (no matter what our age) and indeed be able to respond appropriately to others, then this seems to me to be a spiritual path for our age. A path removed from hyperbole and exaggeration perhaps something more unassuming and simple than is often expected and aimed for.

In the next few posts I’m going to look at the writing of Thomas R. Kelly (1893-1941) to see if he can help spiritually and psychologically.


Namaste: le point vierge 3


Thomas Merton used the idea of le point vierge in a different though related context to his epiphany in the busy streets of Louisville when he details the process of dawn in the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani. It was June 1960; the feast of Pentecost and Merton was sometimes allowed to stay in an abandoned tool shed he names St Ann’s which preceded the hermitage he later moved to a few years later. Merton writes:

‘The first chirps of the waking birds – le point vierge of the dawn, a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence, when the Father in silence opens their eyes and they speak to Him, wondering if it is time to ‘be’? And He tells them. ‘Yes.’ Then they one by one wake and begin to sing. First the catbirds and cardinals and some others I do not recognise. Later, song sparrows, wrens, etc. Last of all doves, crows…

With my hair almost on end and the eyes of the soul wide open I am present, without knowing it at all, in this unspeakable Paradise…’

This is the first signs of the morning and the light piercing the darkness. Monica Weis writes about this as the true experience of contemplation. ‘The external, awesome awakening of morning echoes the equally awesome, internal awakening of his spirit.’ This is then about the mystery of transformation, the magic of each day’s creation.

 ‘Dawn, le point vierge, and its accompanying gift of mercy, signal not just another genesis moment at twenty-four hour intervals, but the continuous revelation of the Divine, in the unfolding of the universe…. The magnificence of sunrise, yet its dailyness – its inevitability, its cyclic rhythm – is stunning. The birds never tire of coming to be. They wake up and become birds – not a miracle of transforming themselves into another species, nor a mutation into some master flock – just ordinary birds waking to an ordinary day. Indeed the message in ordinariness is how truly extraordinary it is….It is ordinary moments like these when, if we, too are keenly aware, God reveals God’s Self.’

And, if we are absorbed in this appreciation we have transcended our normal self-preoccupations, we are then present, authentic and alive. For many of us, perhaps especially as we grow older, the power of nature seems to increasingly inform our spiritual lives.


Namaste: le point vierge 2

In the end ‘le point vierge’ is another way of speaking about an experience of God that affects us in the deepest part of our self. Getting to this experience is a gift but one that can be aided by introspection and looking beyond surface behaviour for inner grace. This is then about the mysticism of the heart and the question of how the heart can be purified. After all what does it mean to be pure in heart? It has to connect to the gradual stripping away of the outer layers of the false self and so on; tearing off the outer coverings until the hidden or true self is reached. Louis Massignon who found the expression in the work of the Sufi mystic al-Hallaj describes the psychology of le point vierge in this way:

‘…the heart is the organ prepared by God for contemplation. The function cannot be exercised without the organ.’ As each successive layer is taken away it is not that with each successive layer the heart disappears but rather what is happening is mystical union and this is the ‘sanctifying resurrection’ of the heart. ‘The final covering of the heart …is the latent personality, the implicit consciousness, the deep subconscious, the secret cell walled up [and hidden] to every creature, the “inviolate virgin”. The latent personality…remains unformed until God visits…’

The purified heart is ‘le point vierge’ the last, irreducible, secret centre of the heart; and it is essentially the point of resurrection. Massignon in a letter to his fellow contemplative and spiritual friend Mary Kahil wrote:

‘The return to our origin, to the beginning of our adoption – by re-entering our Mother’s womb, as our Lord told Nicodemus, to be born again – by finding again at the bottom of our heart, the virgin point (le point vierge) of our election to Christianity and the action of God’s will in us.’

He called this mysticism ‘the science of hearts’ and sees the gradual stripping of the layers as ridding of errors of judgment and hypocrisies and mental pretences. ‘The “heart” designates the incessant oscillation of the human will which beats like the pulse under the impulse of various passions, an impulse which must be stabilised by the Essential Desire, one single God. Introspection must guide us to tear through the concentric “veils” which ensheathe the heart, and hide from us the virginal point (le point vierge)… wherein God manifests Himself’.

This purification occurs sometimes through the hearts of other people; we are influenced and opened by our experiences of others either directly or through books – from others who have met God and can describe what has happened to them. The purification of the heart is also, of course, led through the heart of the incarnate Son of God.