Category Archives: Discernment

Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 15

Never having myself served on Meeting for Sufferings, I’ll simply refer readers to Rhiannon Grant’s excellent post on Chapter 7. I have served as a Quaker trustee, though, in my previous area meeting, and while I was astonished to be asked by our nominations committee to consider serving, I found my understanding of what the role involves, and of my own calling as a Quaker strangely enlarged.

Christine Davis writes, at the beginning of Chapter 15:

Over the last 40 years I have wrestled with what it is to be a person of faith, and what that does to my day-to-day life. I have found myself living in the public sphere as a known Quaker, and have had to come to terms with the expectations that this lays on me. I have developed a passion for good governance – in Quaker terms, Gospel Order – and see this as something of which we, you and I in the Religious Society of Friends in Britain, are stewards as surely as we are stewards of the Earth…

Stewardship involves prayer, and it involves thought, and it involves applying what emerges from the two. As individuals our particular talents may lead us to greater emphasis on one of those elements, but they can never be wholly divided within any of us, and as a community we need to be faithful to all three: prayer, thought and application.

15.01, Christine A M Davis, 2008

I mentioned to one of our number, a wise and experienced lifelong Friend, how surprised I had been, as a person of prayer with little financial or administrative experience, to find myself so serving, and her explanation opened my eyes to right ordering as nothing else. She said that it was precisely my spiritual calling that had come before nominations; that it was – it was an area meeting with several large local meetings – relatively easy to find Friends with extensive committee experience, professional backgrounds, and so forth, who would be willing to serve as trustees. What was more difficult was to find ones who were prepared seriously to engage with the spiritual dimensions of stewardship and good governance.

Yearly Meeting 2005 made this remarkable statement (15.03):

The law may assume that authority for determining action passes to the trustees and the meeting may choose to do this. However, under Gospel Order, the ultimate authority will still lie with the gathered meeting.

Our Quaker structures, from subcommittees of fabric committees to Yearly Meeting, and firmly including Quaker trustees, are pieces of apparatus for conducting the to love of God to the quotidian needs of those we love and are called to serve. The need for discernment, waiting, listening in openness to the Spirit is greater, not less, the more practical the outworkings.

To stand still, listening…

…the Quaker way is not about having the right principles. It is what Alex Wildwood calls ‘the surrendered life’ – allowing the divine Life to be lived through us, to be expressed in all our actions; including our willingness to go through discomfort and insecurity in faithfulness to God’s leadings.

Quaker practice is not necessarily what the world calls ‘activism’. For many Friends, faithfulness to God’s leadings requires a quiet, unrecognised life of prayer, listening to and being alongside others, rather than anything dramatic and obvious. It is as likely to look like failure or foolishness as conspicuous achievement. What is essential is not the visible results of our action, but the practice of faithful listening and responding to divine guidance, wherever it may lead us.

Craig Barnett, Transition Quaker – The Way of Practice

These are, to say the least, difficult and puzzling times. The merest glance at the headlines will suffice to demonstrate that, and to demonstrate the further fact that the media, almost without exception, have a perfectly understandable commercial interest in keeping our hearts in our mouths.

In the face of massively publicised and widespread cruelty and injustice, violence and deceit, it is increasingly hard to avoid the current zeitgeist of taking sides, adopting entrenched positions, and demonising the “opposition”. We Quakers easily fall into the prevailing patterns, however much we attempt to be gentler and more tentative in expressing them. (I recall a conversation with a Tory MP who had met with a group of Quakers, and who told me, “They didn’t look to me much like Conservative voters…”!) We all too often automatically assume certain political and social positions, and too readily take an adversarial stance over against the other side. In this we are no different to the members of any other pressure group, and we can tend to take and to project the attitude that the Society of Friends is little more than a kind of portal for any number of political, peace, environmental and other concerns that share a broadly pacifist, left-wing, climate-sensitive stance.

The problem, of course, is not that we are concerned, and active, with righting wrongs in the world around us. Quakers throughout our long history have done this, and an extreme quietist agenda would be no more helpful than a solely activist one. The problem, it seems to me, lies in the source of our actions. When we react from our emotions and from our convictions, rather than from the Spirit’s leading, we miss the point of being a Religious Society of Friends, and “outrun our guide”.

Alex Thomson, writing in the Facebook Quaker Renewal group:

Quakers could have a lot to offer the world, but I worry that we get caught up in taking sides. That doesn’t solve anything, human nature will still be the same, only different people will benefit and work the system to maximise their benefit. No one wins in an atmosphere of conflict. We need to help people to see a different way, a way that comes from an awareness of stillness, and the wisdom that can be found within that stillness.

What are Quakers really doing to promote this change in human nature that is required? I read things from a hundred years ago and it appears to me Quakers were more in touch with the spiritual aspect of Life than we are today. They knew Presence, we seem to a large degree to have lost our awareness of Presence? We create us and other, there is no other. We are all That of God, how do we help our brothers and sisters to see That of God within all of us. How do we create the Kingdom on earth?

Where do we go from here?

Richard Rohr writes:

The following of Jesus is not a “salvation scheme” or a means of creating social order (which appears to be what most folks want religion for), as much as it is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world. Some people are overly invested in religious ceremonies, rituals, and rules that are all about who’s in and who’s out. Jesus did not come to create a spiritual elite or an exclusionary system. He invited people to “follow” him by personally bearing the mystery of human death and resurrection. Of itself, this task does not feel “religious,” which is why it demands such faith to trust it.

This is difficult. It is far easier to imagine ourselves on the winning side of some win/lose dichotomy, as Rohr points out in the same essay. To “personally [bear] the mystery of human death and resurrection” is a far less attractive option, as the zealots who tried to co-opt Jesus himself as a military Messiah (John 6.15) realised!

Rohr goes on to say,

Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves—these are the followers of Jesus. They are the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world. The cross is the dramatic image of what it takes to be such a usable one for God.

James Nayler once wrote, “Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee.”

To stand still, listening, is our particular gift as Quakers, it seems to me. It is not for us to decide in advance where we will accept being led – what we hear in the silence, if only we can stand still enough, will lead us into truth.

“In an awful frame of mind…”

I went to meetings in an awful frame of mind, and endeavoured to be inwardly acquainted with the language of the true Shepherd. And one day, being under a strong exercise of spirit, I stood up, and said some words in a meeting, but not keeping close to the divine opening, I said more than was required of me and being soon sensible to my error, I was afflicted in mind some weeks, without any light or comfort, even to that degree that I could take satisfaction in nothing. I remembered God and was troubled, and in the depth of my distress he had pity upon me, and sent the Comforter. I then felt forgiveness for my offence, and my mind became calm and quiet, being truly thankful to my gracious Redeemer for his mercies. And after this, feeling the spring of divine love opened, and a concern to speak, I said a few words in a meeting in which I found peace. This I believe was about six weeks from the first time, and as I was thus humbled and disciplined under the cross, my understanding became more strengthened to distinguish the language of the pure spirit which inwardly moves upon the heart, and taught me to wait in silence sometimes many weeks together, until I felt that rise which prepares the creature to stand like a trumpet, through which the Lord speaks to his flock.

John Woolman, 1741 – Quaker Faith & Practice 2.57

Among Quakers today little thought seems to be given to the Quietist period during the 18th century. The schisms of the 19th century (Gurneyites and Hicksites being remembered, generally, rather more than Beaconites or Wilburites!) have perhaps overshadowed this period when, it is easy to forget, John Woolman was working patiently towards the ending of slavery, and for peace during the Seven Years’ War.

Admittedly the Quietists were sometimes an odd bunch of people – it was they who carried plain dress and plain speech to extremes, and who were most committed, it seems, to endogamy and to other practices aimed at setting Quakers apart from the rest of society and the church. But there was more to them than that, I suspect. The dogma that history is written by the victors (whoever said it first) may be suspect – Constantinople, anyone? – but it perhaps contains some truth in this situation. It is the present-day Liberal Quakers, descendants of Hicksites, and Evangelical Quakers, descendants, largely, of Gurneyites, through whose eyes we look back at the Quietists.

As we look at what Quakers may become in the 21st century, perhaps we may find time to consider whether the stillness of Quaker worship, and perhaps of our personal spiritual practice, may be, as it was for Woolman, far more the motor of Friends’ transforming presence in the world than either our political convictions or our anger at injustice, good though those things may be in themselves. There are plenty of politicians and campaigners out there, without them all having to be Quakers; it is Friends acting, and praying, under the conviction of the Spirit, who have another voice, one that has so often wrought more peace and justice for those who suffer than our numbers would give us any right to expect. But that conviction, that leading, can only arise in silence, and in submission to the Spirit, as Woolman himself found out the hard way.

Do we need, among Friends, to look again at the Quietists, and to ask ourselves what we might learn – not imitate – from John Woolman’s contemporaries? I am no historian, but I feel it might be worth it to ask the question…

Under a Leaden Sky

Today has been bleak. The constant rain in curtains has driven past our windows, and the last of the leaves are falling very fast. Objectively it hasn’t been all that cold, but just looking at the leaden sky has brought a chill creeping up the shins.

The little birds have been keeping under cover; only the occasional hardy jackdaw has skimmed the tattered trees to take shelter under the red roof of the old water tower. Wherever the squirrels are, they are obviously taking care to keep their fur dry, for we haven’t seen as much as the flicker of a tail.

I have been touched by an odd restlessness. The news has been troubling, as it seems always to be at the moment, and there have been flurries of emails about things to do, or to consider doing. But it’s not the need for discernment, nor the news’ continual tugging at one’s helpless compassion, that have been unsettling me, I think.

In an excellent post at the end of September on his Transition Quaker blog, Craig Barnett quoted Thomas Merton’s Letter to a Young Activist :

Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually as you struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything…

The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth; and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration, and confusion.

The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand.

I think it is a longing for this sense of hiddenness, living a life not dependent on results, or achievements, or on the opinions of others, but “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3.3), that makes me restless when I begin to get too involved with things outside the silence. I have always had a yearning on the edge of all I have done for the eremitic, quietist path; and while I know that I will always “do what my hand finds to do” as I am led, I will always also, like Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, long for the empty places and the shorelines of the spirit. It’s only here that the rain makes sense, and the turning of the land towards winter.

Free to stand: A Reblog

I have been seeking a way to, gracefully if possible, bring to a close this consideration of activism and contemplation that has been so occupying me recently. Almost by chance, I stumbled across Quaker Faith & Practice 20.14, which led me to a blog post I wrote, and first posted here a couple of years ago. Here it is in its entirety:

Those of us known as ‘activists’ have sometimes been hurt by the written or spoken implication that we must be spending too little time on our spiritual contemplative lives. I do know many atheists who are active to improve the lot of humankind; but, for those of us who are Friends, our attendance at meeting for worship and our silent prayerful times are what make our outer activity viable and effective – if it is effective.

I have similarly seen quieter Friends hurt by the implication that they do not care enough, because they are not seen to be ‘politically active’. Some worry unnecessarily that they may be doing things of a ‘less important’ nature, as if to be seen doing things by the eyes of the world is the same thing as to be seen doing things by the eyes of God… I suggest that we refrain from judging each other, or belittling what each is doing; and that we should not feel belittled. We cannot know the prayers that others make or do not make in their own times of silent aloneness. We cannot know the letters others may be writing to governments, similarly… We were all made differently, in order to perform different tasks. Let us rejoice in our differences.

Margaret Glover, 1989, QFP 20.14

I find this a great comfort. I’m all too prone to judging myself for “doing things of a ‘less important’ nature, as if to be seen doing things by the eyes of the world is the same thing as to be seen doing things by the eyes of God…” and so imagining other people doing the same thing, even when they’re not.

Back in the very early years of the church, the apostle Paul wrote, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Corinthians 12.29-30) Evidently it was a problem even back then.

Really, it is not for us to choose or determine whether we are activists or contemplatives. Any choice we make ourselves is going to be partial and imperfect, and in any case I think we all of us are called at some time in our lives to be both of these things. All we can do is to bring what is truly on our hearts into the Light, and, in the waiting silence, to be true to our leading. But of one thing we can be sure:

Our strength or help is only in God; but then it is near us, it is in us – a force superior to all possible opposition – a force that never was, nor can be foiled. We are free to stand in this unconquerable ability, and defeat the powers of darkness; or to turn from it, and be foiled and overcome. When we stand, we know it is God alone upholds us; and when we fall, we feel that our fall or destruction is of ourselves.

Journal of Job Scott, 1751-1793, QFP 20.03