Writing on the blog Sheffield Quakers, Gordon Ferguson says,
We meet in silence in an unadorned room. On the surface it looks like you can bring bring your own spiritual tradition into the Meeting, since there is nothing nor no-one to indicate any different.
However, the lack of words and symbols is deceptive – for the purpose of Meeting for Worship is to take us to the place beyond words and symbols, the place where Quakers believe the truth will be found. And since it is truth beyond expression in words and symbols, no one can tell you what to look for or where to look for it.
But if you stay within your spiritual tradition, expressed in all manner of words and symbols, the truth that Quakers testify to will elude you. You will become an Anglican Quaker, or a Catholic Quaker, or a Pagan Quaker or a Buddhist Quaker or a non-theist Quaker or a Unitarian Quaker – whatever – unless you first let go of your spiritual tradition and wait expectantly in that place that Quakers say the truth will be found in. A place that we cannot talk about or describe, for to do that is to immediately constrain the truth in yet another tradition.
Reading this touched me deeply, since I have often struggled to make sense of my experience in Meeting for Worship (and indeed in my own practice day by day) without resorting to terminology I have inherited from my time in the Anglican, and Vineyard, churches, or from my study, beginning long before I became a Christian, of Buddhism.
Some Friends might say that these terms, these ways of explaining to myself the ineffable, are quite harmless. Why not use them if they help me assimilate what I have encountered? But words, especially the words we use to describe the things of the spirit, are not neutral, they come with strings attached – strings of associations, strings of emotion, strings perhaps above all of intellectual baggage, the whole tradition out of which they arose.
Gordon Ferguson goes on to say that
It is an accident of history that the Quaker testimony to truth emerged in a Puritan Western Christian tradition. George Fox could not say anything else but “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who spoke to my condition”. Until just a generation or two ago that historic witness was neither here nor there, since almost all people came to Quakers through Western Christianity. Now we embrace the diversity found in our society, and we can express ‘that which speaks to our condition’ in a myriad different ways, but the testimony remains – the truth is found beyond expression.
The truth we encounter in the silence comes to us directly – that is why we are Quakers, surely – and it is only when we try to find ways to think about our experience, to talk about it to each other, that words arrive, trailing clouds of… all sorts of things quite other than glory, often.
I wonder if this isn’t at the root of some of the angst of non-theist Quakers, who sometimes complain loudly when any Friend uses the word God, or Christ. Hurt themselves perhaps by the unhelpful application of dogma, or by teachings in their early life which have marred their own ability to get past such words, they lash out at those for whom these words are the nearest things they can find for the truth which has found them in silence. The danger is, of course, that non-theists can get so stuck in their own reactions to the words they dislike that they would risk simply replacing them with a new set, many of which will have just as much negative baggage for these other Friends as God language has for them.
Gordon Ferguson says,
All this means that the pursuit of truth that we testify to requires a unique discipline that we must learn, over and above any discipline that we may have from our own spiritual tradition. Our tradition may take us a long way, and maybe even all the way, but we don’t know – and cannot know – unless we first of all let go of all that we bring from our past life. And we learn this by experience, as George Fox did, and countless Quakers since, for there is no way to teach that which cannot be expressed in words – it can only be lived, in the Meeting for Worship, and even every waking – and dreaming – moment of our lives. For one of the first things that we discover is that all of life is sacred and has to be lived sacramentally if the the truth is to be constantly and fully open to us.
It is as hard and demanding, this Quakerly discipline Gordon speaks of, as any of the more traditional Christian disciplines inherited from monastic or reformed traditions. Letting go – that can be one of the hardest things. In the current issue of The Friend (29 November) Michael Nisbet has the Thought for the Week. He writes,
Whatever anyone may say, it is, of course, impossible for a human being to be without an ego, at least if they are to remain psychologically, or even linguistically, coherent. The subject-predicate structures of human language demand a sense of self, and we relate to one another as self-conscious individuals. What I get from Isaac Penington’s words [ ‘Give over thine own willing…’] is a sense of relief, of disburdening oneself of whatever rigidly purposeful behaviour one may happen to be locked into at any given time, and of ‘sinking down’ (rather as one might sink into a comfortable chair) ‘to the seed’: that is, towards a more relaxed, inchoate, child-like sense of being… a less rigid sense of self. The words ‘give over!’ as we use them today have the sense of ‘desist!’, which I take to be applicable here, at least in my interpretation.
Language moves, as it were, in two opposite directions. In one direction, it attempts to disambiguate: to be as clear and unambiguous as possible. This can, in certain circumstances, be a matter of life and death. In the other direction – the literary or poetic one – it tries to return language, as it were, to the ambiguity or complexity of the reality that underlies or surrounds it. Most speech and writing hovers uneasily between the two, unable to make up its mind in which direction it wishes to move…
Ministry is suspended in the void of silence that surrounds it. It is not meant to assert personal opinions or to initiate a discussion. It is offered, ultimately, to a notional or non-manifest presence, who is both spoken word and omniscient listener… that in which we ‘live and move and have our being’. It is the sense of self that, as human beings, we share in common. In fact, I might go as far as to say that, in ministry, one seeks to speak on behalf of our shared condition of selfhood, but without presumption. If ‘sinking down to the seed’ is sinking down to a less rigid sense of self, it is also opening oneself to a less individualised, more universal selfhood: the love of one’s neighbour as oneself, if you like, however precarious this may be.
It’s only as we can let go of our preconceptions, our bundles of long-learned linguistic structures, and ‘sink down’ as Michael Nisbet says, that we can encounter the Light which the early Quakers encountered, for ourselves. Precarious indeed; but then so was the entirely ‘experimental’ worship of the Quakers of the 17th and 18th centuries like Isaac Penington: “But some may desire to know what I have at last met with. I answer, ‘I have met with the Seed’. Understand that word, and thou wilt be satisfied and inquire no further.”