In the current issue of The Friend, Patricia Gosling writes:
In her 2013 James Backhouse lecture – A Quaker Astronomer Reflects – Jocelyn Bell Burnell commented that, in another age, she would probably have been regarded as a mystic.
I think the same could be said of many who find their spiritual home within the Religious Society of Friends. Indeed, within the community of the Christian Church, I see Quakers as the group who, nowadays, most embody the mystical tradition. That is not to say that one cannot find mystics in other denominations – I have personally known a few such – but the significance of the Quaker Meeting for Worship is that it is, essentially, a group experience.
Mystics have always had an equivocal role within the church. They are not comfortable people. The Roman Catholic Church, historically, has often found them tiresome and difficult, and tends to wait until they are safely dead before honouring them. Meanwhile, the individual mystic, reared within a certain tradition and valuing it, often struggles with both the church hierarchy and the conventional language and forms of the day. Oliver Davies wrote about this in God Within: The Mystical Tradition of Northern Europe, which was recently republished…
Contrary to the common view, mystical experience does not lead to a life of pietistic quietude. Indeed, what it seems to bring with it is a sharp, clear perception of things as they actually are. With that comes a powerful urge to either actively confront and change manifest wrongs or to stay with what is and strive to create a better mode of functioning. Either path requires courage, and an unsentimental stoicism of purpose.
What of the future for Friends, this unlikely band of nonconformists whose numbers are always threatening to be terminal but, in practice, are surprisingly constant? More to the point, where will the Spirit lead us?
Not for the first time, I was struck by the age-old dichotomy of action and contemplation, even as the writer refutes the “common view, [that] mystical experience… lead[s] to a life of pietistic quietude.” Even while we are affirming the ability of mystical experience to empower confrontation with “manifest wrongs”, or to encourage the transformation from within of existing systems, we are setting the contemplative life over against the active life. It is one thing to say that contemplation empowers, or supports, action, even within the one person; it is quite another to realise that contemplation may in itself be action.
Let me explain what I’m trying to get at.
The psychologist CG Jung, in a paper published in 1952, outlined what he described as Synchronicity – An Acausal Connecting Principle. The concept has been much misunderstood – and often misused – in popular psychology and pseudoscience, but it would be a useful corrective just to read the Wikipedia article. I shan’t attempt to paraphrase Jung too much here; suffice it to say that “synchronicity is the experience of two or more events as meaningfully related, whereas they are unlikely to be causally related. The subject sees it as a meaningful coincidence, although the events need not be exactly simultaneous in time… The concept does not question, or compete with, the notion of causality. Instead, it maintains that just as events may be connected by a causal line, they may also be connected by meaning. A grouping of events by meaning need not have an explanation in terms of cause and effect.” (Wikipedia)
Jung was fond of quoting the White Queen, from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backward…” It seems to me a poor sort of prayer that only works by inspiring the pray-er to good works.
I’m aware that some Friends’ backs may be bristling here at the thought of a magical Santa Claus God who trots out miracles in response to the “right words”, but I’m honestly not thinking of any such myth, which is why I dragged Jung into the discussion. In my experience there is a connection between the spiritual life and the exterior, material life that is far more than mere inspiration, and yet far grittier and more practical (for want of a better word) than mere superstitious praying for God to do things for us.
Buddhism has another much maligned and widely misunderstood concept, that of karma.
Sogyal Rinpoche states:
In simple terms, what does karma mean? It means that whatever we do, with our body, speech, or mind, will have a corresponding result. Each action, even the smallest, is pregnant with its consequences. It is said by the masters that even a little poison can cause death and even a tiny seed can become a huge tree. And as Buddha said: “Do not overlook negative actions merely because they are small; however small a spark may be, it can burn down a haystack as big as a mountain.” Similarly he said: “Do not overlook tiny good actions, thinking they are of no benefit; even tiny drops of water in the end will fill a huge vessel.” Karma does not decay like external things, or ever become inoperative. It cannot be destroyed “by time, fire, or water.” Its power will never disappear, until it is ripened. Although the results of our actions may not have matured yet, they will inevitably ripen, given the right conditions.
Of course, “whatever we do, with our body, speech, or mind,” includes spirit. Without even considering, for the moment, the Light in which we Quakers wait, and in which we hold those for whom we care, our silence has its inevitable result. But it is in the Light we sit, and it is that light we seek, and recognise, in all our fellow beings, human and otherwise; and it is the presence of that Light we bring with us from meeting as our gift to the world.
Ultimately, as Patricia Gosling points out, “all our various Quaker concerns are… attempts to bring healing.”
Elsewhere in her article, Patricia Gosling includes some quotations from Hilary Painter, also writing in The Friend. Hilary goes on to write:
The Friends Fellowship of Healing works with the inner world. This can have visible and obvious results in the outer world, but this is not our specific intent; our intent is simply to make that connection between the Divine and our familiar daily world and, by consciously holding others in that Light, to enable that connection for those others. We know that the inner world is as real as the outer world and that change starts in people’s hearts; and that change comes by grace. We try to be a part of facilitating that grace.
Grace. We exist in and by grace, all of us. The air we breathe, and the perfectly designed lungs we breathe it with, are gifts. We own nothing. Each thing, each event, that comes to us is passed on to us. We live, curled in our karma like snails in their only shells, formed by and forming fine and endless layers of dependent origination. All we do, dream, ache for and hold touches all else, all of it. How can the love that lives in our silence not touch those to whom it is given?
Alfred Lord Tennyson touched the edge of this, if I read him right:
More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of…
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God…